Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Song Remains the Same

If you always do what you’ve always done, a popular saying nowadays has it, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. Most people accept that readily enough in the abstract. It’s when they attempt to apply this logic to their own lives and thinking that they get tripped up, because self-defeating patterns very often arise from a mismatch between basic presuppositions about the world and the world as it’s actually experienced, and confronting that mismatch is not an easy thing. It’s usually much simpler to insist that it’s different this time, and repeat the same failed strategy yet again.

The logic of speculative bubbles is a case in point. The next time you read some online pundit insisting that a new era has dawned, that the old rules of economics have been stood on their head, and that some asset class or other that’s been rising steadily for a while now is certain to keep on zooming upwards for the foreseeable future, he’s wrong. It really is that simple.  Any of my readers who haven’t been hiding under a rock for the last fifteen years or so saw that same rhetoric deployed to promote the tech stock bubble, the housing bubble, and an assortment of commodity bubbles, not least the recent and now rapidly deflating bubble in gold; those who know their way around economic history can find the same rhetoric being waved around every bubble since the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century.

If human beings were in fact rational actors, as one of the more popular schools of economics these days likes to insist, investors would react to the next appearance of that well-worn rhetoric by pulling out every dollar they can’t afford to lose.  In the real world, of course, things don’t work that way.  When the Federal Reserve’s current orgy of quantitative easing finally does what it’s supposed to do and kicks off a gargantuan speculative bubble—yes, that’s what it’s supposed to do; Greenspan’s easy-money policy a decade ago succeeded in blowing a bubble big enough to cushion the downside of the tech-stock crash, and Bernanke’s pretty clearly working off the same playbook—it’s a safe bet that investors will stampede into the bubble, “it’s different this time” will once again become the mantra du jour, and the same cycle of boom and bust will repeat itself with mathematical precision.

Grasp the hidden logic behind bubble economics and you can see the mistaken presuppositions that drive that cycle. It’s an article of faith in today’s industrial economies, buoyed by three centuries of  economic growth driven by fossil fuels, that money ought to make money, and that having a certain amount of money invested ought therefore to guarantee a stable income. It so happens that this isn’t always true. In 1929, for example, overinvestment and overproduction during the boom years of the 1920s left very few sectors in the US economy able to pay accustomed rates of return on investment, but investors weren’t willing to come to terms with this unwelcome reality. The result was a huge pool of funds seeking any investment that would promise a return heftier than the economy would support; modest increases in stock values started pulling that pool into the stock market, kicking off a feedback loop that ended with Black Friday and the Great Depression.

That same pattern on a vaster scale is what’s driving the latest round of bubbles.  In the United States and most of the other established industrial nations, the returns on investing in the production of goods and services are too small to support investors in the style to which past decades accustomed them; the result is a pool of funds almost immeasurably larger than the one that created the 1929 boom and bust, sloshing through the global economy in search of any investment that will yield a bigger than average return. Because the real economy of goods and services is dependent on such awkward necessities as energy and raw materials, which are in turn subject to accelerating depletion curves, the problem’s only going to get worse, but those who hope to make a living or a fortune from their investments aren’t exactly eager to learn this. Thus the increasingly frantic efforts to inflate the global economy by means of speculative excess; the alternative is to accept the fact that an entire way of life based on money making money has passed its pull date.

That’s the kind of awkwardness that tends to pop up when the world shifts, and a pattern of behavior that used to be adaptive stops working. To get past the misguided but seductive insistence that “it’s different this time,” in turn, the habit of morphological thinking discussed in an earlier post is essential. 1920s-era investment trusts are not the same thing as tech-stock mutual funds, mortgage-backed securities, or whatever boondoggle will be at the center of the next big speculative bubble, any more than a porpoise is the same thing as a bat; put them side by side, though, and the common features will teach you things that you can’t learn any other way.

All this is by way of introduction to another bit of comparative morphology, one that many of my readers may find even more upsetting than the ones I’ve covered already. I’m sorry to say that can’t be helped. Last week we talked about the shape of time, the various abstract notions of history’s direction that every human culture uses to make sense of the world its members experience; such notions are  exactly the sort of basic presupposition about the world that I discussed earlier in this post, and when the course of events begins to move in directions that a culture’s notion of the shape of time can’t explain, the result is quite commonly the sort of self-defeating cycle discussed earlier. That’s the situation we’re in here and now, and what makes it worse is that the shapes of time that define history for most people nowadays have very different origins and functions than most of us think.

To unravel the resulting tangle, in turn, it’s necessary to glance back to two thinkers whose relevance to modern thought is rarely recognized.  To meet the first of them, we’ll need to go back exactly sixteen centuries to the year 413 CE.  The place is the city of Hippo, in what was then the province of Numidia and is now the nation of Algeria; more precisely, it’s the residence of the Bishop of Hippo, a man named Augustine, who was just then in the process of giving the Western world what would be, for the next millennium or so, its definitive shape of time.

Here as elsewhere, historical context matters. By Augustine’s time, the Roman Empire’s control of the Mediterranean world had been established for so long that most of its citizens assumed that it would be around forever. Troubles at the periphery were common enough, but the thought that something could disrupt the whole imperial system was all but unthinkable.  The distinctive shape of time accepted by nearly everyone in the late Roman world contributed mightily to that habit of thought.  To most of the people of the Empire in that age, history was the process by which an original state of chaos was reduced to stable order under the rule of a benevolent despot. What Jupiter had done to the Titans or, in terms of the new Christian faith, God had done to Satan and his minions, Rome had done to the nations, and peripheral troubles were no more a threat to Rome than to her divine equivalents.

The problem with this confident civil faith was that history stopped cooperating. In 410, after a long series of increasingly desperate struggles against Germanic invaders, the legions crumpled, and the Visigoth king Alaric and his army swept into Italy and sacked Rome.  Only Alaric’s willingness to be bought off kept the city from remaining in his hands for the long haul. The psychological and cultural impact of the defeat was immense, but of equal if not greater concern to the Bishop of Hippo was the uncomfortable fact that the empire’s remaining Pagans were pointing out that the beginning of Rome’s troubles coincided, with an awkward degree of exactness, with the prohibition of the old Pagan cults.  Since Rome had abandoned the gods, they suggested, the gods were returning the favor.

Augustine’s response is contained in The City of God, one of the masterpieces of late Latin prose and the book that more than any other defined the shape of medieval European thought. The notion that divine power guarantees the success or survival of earthly kingdoms, Augustine argued, is a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between humanity and God. The inscrutable providence of God brings disasters down on the good as well as the wicked, and neither cities nor empires are exempt from the same incomprehensible law.  Ordinary history thus has no moral order or meaning.

The place of moral order and meaning in time is found instead in sacred history, which has a distinctive linear shape of its own. That shape begins in perfection, in the Garden of Eden; disaster intervenes, in the form of original sin, and humanity tumbles down into the fallen world. From that point on, there are two histories of the world, one sacred and one secular. The secular history is the long and pointless tale of stupidity, violence and suffering that fills the history books; the sacred history is the story of God’s dealings with a small minority of human beings—the patriarchs, the Jewish people, the apostles, the Christian church—who are assigned certain roles in a preexisting narrative. Eventually the fallen world will be obliterated, most of its inhabitants will be condemned to a divine boot in the face forever, and those few who happen to be on the right side will be restored to Eden’s perfection, at which point the story ends.

Those of my readers who are familiar with the main currents of European and American Christianity already know that story, of course. 1600 years after Augustine’s time, his vision of time remains  official in most Christian churches. What’s more, it can be found in a great many places that would angrily reject any claim of intellectual influence from Christianity. Goodness at the beginning; a catastrophic fall brought about by a misguided human choice; a plunge into the history we know, which has no redeeming features whatsoever; a righteous remnant set apart from history who serve as an example of the blessed alternative; a redeeming doctrine that brings the promise of future joy to those few who embrace it; and sometime soon, the final cataclysm that will sweep away the fallen world and all its evils, so that the redeemed few can be restored to the goodness of the beginning: where else have we heard this story?

Pick up any neoprimitivist book by Daniel Quinn, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, or their peers, to cite one example out of many, and you’ll find that the names have been changed but the story hasn’t.  Eden is called the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the Fall is the invention of agriculture, the righteous remnant consists of surviving hunter-gatherer peoples, the redeeming doctrine is set forth in the book you’re reading, and Armageddon is the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, after which humanity will be restored to the hunter-gatherer paradise forever: it’s the same narrative, point for point. Look elsewhere in contemporary popular culture and you’ll find scores if not hundreds of ideologies that follow the same pattern; from radical feminists whose Eden consists of Goddess-worshipping Neolithic matriarchies straight through to Tea Party supporters whose Eden consists of pre-1960s America seen through intensely rose-colored glasses, the song remains the same.

This is where morphological thinking becomes as necessary as it is difficult. Most people can quickly learn to spot the standard elements of Augustine’s narrative in any belief system they themselves don’t accept; add a six-pack or two of good beer and it can turn into a lively party game, in which characters, situations, and events out of The City of God can be spotted hiding in a dizzying assortment of contemporary ideologies.  The fun stops abruptly, though, when one or more of the players realize that his or her own beliefs follow the same script.  One of the things that sets the Augustinian shape of time apart from most other shapes of time is that it assumes its own uniqueness; while it might be possible to imagine a version in which there are several different Edens, Falls, righteous remnants, sacred histories, redeeming revelations, final cataclysms, and New Jerusalems descending from the skies, in practice this never seems to happen. Each such narrative presents itself, and is accepted by its believers, as uniquely true and unrelated to any other version of the same narrative.

Still, this is only half the story.  Those of my readers who know their way around the history of ideas, or have tried the aforementioned party game themselves, will have noticed that a significant number of popular ideas about history don’t fit the narrative of fall and redemption Augustine set out. This is where the second of our two thinkers comes into the tale. His name was Joachim of Flores, and he was an Italian mystic of the twelfth century CE.  Like Augustine of Hippo, he was a writer, though his prose was as murky as Augustine’s was brilliant, and nobody other than historians of medieval thought reads his books nowadays. Even so, he had an impact on the future as significant as Augustine’s: he’s the person who kicked down the barrier between sacred and secular history that Augustine put so much effort into building, and created the shape of time that the cultural mainstream occupies to this day.

To Joachim, sacred history was not limited to a paradise before time, a paradise after it, and the thread of the righteous remnant and the redeeming doctrine linking the two. He saw sacred history unfolding all around him in the events of his own time. His vision divided all of history into three great ages, governed by the three persons of the Christian trinity: the Age of Law governed by the Father, which ran from the Fall to the crucifixion of Jesus; the Age of Love governed by the Son, which ran from the crucifixion to the year 1260; and the Age of Liberty governed by the Holy Spirit, which would run from 1260 to the end of the world.

What made Joachim’s vision different from any of the visionary histories that came before it—and there were plenty of those in the Middle Ages—was that it was a story of progress. The Age of Love, as Joachim envisioned it, was a great improvement on the Age of Law, and the approaching Age of Liberty would be an improvement on the Age of Love; in the third age, he taught, the Church would wither away, and people would live together in perfect peace and harmony, with no need for political or religious institutions. To the church authorities of Joachim’s time, steeped in the Augustinian vision, all this was heresy; to the radicals of the age, it was manna from heaven, and nearly every revolutionary ideology in Europe from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries drew heavily on Joachimist ideas.

That guaranteed that Joachim’s narrative would percolate out just as enthusiastically as Augustine’s did, influencing at least as many apparently secular ideologies. Pick up a copy of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, for example, a hugely influential work in 19th-century European thought; if you can get past the man’s famously unreadable prose, you’ll find a version of history that copies Joachim’s plot exactly but changes the names of all the characters.  Hegel’s version of history begins in Asia and ends in Germany; there are three ages, Oriental, Classical, and German, and the improvement that plops a One Way sign on history is the increase of freedom, which is the way that the absolute Spirit reveals its essential Idea in history. "The East knew and to the present day knows only that one is free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German world knows that all are free," Hegel wrote.  "The first political form therefore which we observe in history, is despotism; the second democracy and aristocracy, the third monarchy." (If this last point seems a bit odd to my readers, this may be because they aren’t ambitious professors angling for patronage from the royal house of Prussia.)

More generally, look at all the sets of three more or less ascending ages to be found in modern thinking about time. The division of prehistory into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age is as much a reflection of this habit as the division of history into Ancient, Medieval, and Modern periods. No matter how many scholars point out the complete irrelevance of these schemes, they remain stuck in place in popular culture and education, because they bolster the contemporary belief that our own time is the culmination of all previous history, the point from which the future will leap forward along its predestined track toward the future we like to think we deserve.

Put two compelling visions of the shape of time in a culture, and you can count on any number of fusions and confusions between them. Marxism, interestingly enough, is among the best examples of this. Karl Marx himself was a thoughtful student of Hegel’s philosophy, and the theory he presents in his own writings is correspondingly Joachimist:  history is a progressive series of ages—feudal, mercantile, capitalist, socialist, communist—in which each age represents an improvement on the ones before it, while falling painfully short of the ones still to come. Friedrich Engels, who finished the second and third volumes of Capital after Marx’s death, was heavily influenced by his Lutheran childhood and brought in the standard hardware of the Augustinian vision, with primitive Communism as Eden and so forth. The result is a rich ambiguity that allows committed Marxists to find adaptive responses to most of the curveballs history might throw their way.

For the great difference between the Augustinian and Joachimist visions is precisely the kind of historical events to which they tend to be adaptive. Augustine’s vision was crafted in a civilization in decline, and it turned out to be extremely well suited to that context: from within Augustine’s shape of time, the messy disintegration of the Roman world was just another meaningless blip on the screen of secular history, of no real importance to those who knew that the history that mattered was the struggle between Christ and Satan for each human soul. That way of thinking about time made it possible for believers to keep going through times of unrelenting bleakness and horror.

Joachim of Flores, by contrast, lived during the zenith of the Middle Ages, before the onset of the 14th-century subsistence crisis that reached its culmination with the arrival of the Black Death. His was an age that could look back on several centuries of successful expansion, and thought it could expect more of the same in the years immediately ahead. His way of thinking about time was thus as well suited to ages of relative improvement as Augustine’s was to ages of relative decline.

Improvement and decline, though, are value judgments, and what counts as improvement to one observer may look like decline to another. That’s the key to understanding the roles that Augustinian and Joachimist visions of time play in contemporary industrial society—with implications that we’ll explore in detail next week.


Leo said...
Wasn't Joachim in the end of the world week?

The cry of this time its different is the main rhetorical argument against the idea of a decline.

It's pretty easy to see that the idea of returning to an only hunter-gatherer lifestyle isn't rooted in the actual world. The energy to make metals (for example) hasn't come from fossil fuels for most of history. And most of the metals available have already been extracted and are above ground (cars, skyscrapers etc), lowering the energy cost for using them.

Most of the rhetoric I see of that ilk assumes we won't have any energy supplies once fossil fuels are gone, which is a fairly stupid concept. Charcoal is made from wood after all and both plants and animals remain domesticated.

Also its generally built out of a misunderstanding of tribal life. Yes, they can harvest their food in a few hours, but that's only a fraction of their tasks. Saw a work analyses for the !Kung and it was a 40 hour week (assuming quite a few things didn't count, like raising children). And then they ignore the downsides, like near perpetual war.

It's not a utopia (and neither are our current societies). They aren't even technically anarchies, they just have a really weak hierarchy.

And the idea of perpetual progress is built on equally shoddy grounds.

5/9/13, 12:38 AM

Jason Heppenstall said...
Hello JMG - I haven't been commenting for a while as I've been busy planting trees and learning some new (useful) skills now I have landed in Cornwall.

Anyway, this week's post complements your direction of time essay nicely. It's of particular relevance to me because this week I've been somewhat alarmed by the growing noise of people in the peak oil and environmental scenes insisting that our planet will be uninhabitable for all except basic lifeforms within the next few decades.

Normally I would take such drastic prognostications with a pinch of salt - the cussedness of whole systems and all that - but these are intelligent people and they seem to be genuine.

So, where does this kind of thinking fit into the paradigm you have outlined above? Is it what happens when progressive thinking collides with the brick wall of human obstinacy ("They won't cut their carbon emissions like I've spent the past 30 years saying they should do so I'm going to have a hissy fit!") ? Or are they onto something?

I have noticed that if you raise the slightest query as to their dire predictions you are met with a barrage of quacking. Perhaps I have just answered my own question there ...

5/9/13, 12:57 AM

Richard Larson said...
I would like you to consider the effect of zero interest rates (what the FED charges banks to loan from the dollar/currency) are having on the economy. This rate is translated to what the savers are making on stored currency. Close enough to nothing to type nothing!

Now think what impact on the economy - of the savers not having this income to consume with.

It could well be the high return collected by savers in past FED Chairman Volker's time, was in no small part the currency that settled through the markets and into the hands of the many savers to spend into the economy which created a boom. Huge amounts of tradable currency settled into the consumer style.

Of course, 15% could never be carried forward any more than 2% can, but 15% did last much longer than at any time in history thanks to the productivity gains of using oil. Then of using an increasing amount of oil.

Zero percent interest is a reflection of the current economy based on very little surplus because of the end of the productivity gains (from using oil), and soon enough will become what our natural ecology can support. And there ain't much of that left!

Anyway, we might not have an inflationary blow-off because the savers have nothing extra to spend. Any expansion of currency into the marketplace is quickly absorbed by paying off past debts. Public and private.

And the potential deflation of which I type may be in the currency along with everything else. There won't be enough trading to pay the cost of maintaining a fiat currency and it will end. It will be back to trading for awhile. Gold will be needed to facilitate the larger purchases, as Gold is the purest Noble Metal. This and the rarity is its value as a trade intermediary.

Think that Gold won't have a dollar price attached to it, or, Gold will be priced as having no dollar value. Nor anything else for that matter, at a point when this world civilization/economy implodes. There won't be a dollar, as there won't be expansion, as there won't be huge purchases being made. Everything will come down to its usefulness to sustain life, instead of to create a thrill of some type. Iron will be used to create horse shoes, wood to construct a chicken coop, ect.., Gold will be money. Instead of trading a sheep for a goat, you will be trading a bit of Gold. It will be money because it can be universally exchanged. Since there won't be a surplus, there won't be a Goldsmith issuing receipts for the Gold either. One can trade a small enough piece of Gold for a meal of pea porridge, but it is hard to trade a small enough goat for one. Of course, nobody really knows how or when this will shake out, the idea is just in my thoughts.

Because of its rarity, one day an ounce of Gold could be traded for a piece of the best farmland in your county. One will have to know what to do with that land!

On one of your other points, Archdruid, The Trinity God today of those people I am familiar with is The Dow, The Dollar, and Oil. They think about their God all the time. The wish on it, they meditate on it, they tithe to it, they pray to it, and it sustains them. This God is constantly on their minds. When it fails these people will wail on how their God has forsaken them. Another familiar ring!

Which leads me to Niezchke, could he have meant that the God of ancient Is-real, the one of which Jesus spoke about, is dead, is dead in the human mind? Did he ever mention that past God has been replaced?

5/9/13, 2:44 AM

Tom Bannister said...
Thank you for provided another wonderful piece of insight to a budding 21 year old New Zealander. I find it interesting how easy it is to get really uncomfortable and defensive when reading about the 'water' that surrounds us 'fish'. Like you said its no wonder difficult issues are not always talked about very often.

5/9/13, 3:13 AM

John D. Wheeler said...
Wave theory is definitely applicable to several parts of this week's post. Most importantly, it tells you when you need to change strategies. "Doing what you've always done" only works when the fundamental conditions remain the same. (A prediction: this drop in gold was just a correction. It will continue to do well over the years relative to stocks until the Dow equals the price of an ounce of gold. Note, that could mean gold drops by 50% and stocks by 95%.) You need to see where you are on the wave and what strategy worked last time.

Your analogy of today's conditions with those around the time of the Great Depression fit perfectly with Kondratiev's wave theory. His waves basically have a period of a human lifetime and appear to be a consequence of people forgetting the lessons previous generations learned. More spefically they have to do with the accumulation and destruction of debt, with inflation and deflation.

I'm also amused to read about Joachim. Alvin Toffler's wave theory is very similar. His "first wave" is the development of agriculture, second the industrial revolution, and third computers and automation.

I'm very interested to read next week's post. Wave theory definitely depends on keeping improvement and declined defined the same.

5/9/13, 3:37 AM

odamaki said...
Thank you as always for your weekly essay. They are very comforting to me as I try to live in the United States without faith in progress, while putting the coming nuclear meltdowns, climate disasters, and ocean acidification out of my mind. There seems to be fewer comments than usual after this posting. I at least am still reading!

5/9/13, 4:59 AM

Yupped said...
I've been helping my home-schooled daughter with history the last couple of years. We started with the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and then moved on to the middle ages. When you try to break history down for a student into bite-sized chunks, you start right away to embed this habit of thinking in terms of episodes and ages, and their sequence. But as my daughter studied the end of the western empire and the rise of the germanic invasions, it was pretty clear to her that there was no neat dividing line between ages. Maybe 476 was some sort of pivot, from a political/administrative or military historical perspective. But for most people in the Roman world, the transition from the heights to lows of the Empire was a long bumpy road and a lot of people didn't know they were on it. So we've been levening our study of political/military history with lots of social history, where it's harder to weave a neat narrative.

When I was studying history in college it was interesting to contrast the interpretation of certain events, say the English Civil War, by the more ideological (generally Marxist) historians of the time versus the more narrative-oriented ones. Intellectuals do like to wrap things up in neat concepts and theories, and then write books about them. That's what they do. But I like to read those books too, so I'm part of the problem. And generally, to my mind, a book that described the English Civil war as an episode in a great and inevitable class struggle, playing out over centuries, was a bit more exciting than one that was just grinding out the messy facts and stories of human power struggles. But this sort of conceptualization is an intellectual sugar high - nice but it doesn't last long. Reality is much more complicated. Although I must say it was easier as a student of history to "wing it" with an essay discussing various general theories of class struggle, peppered with a few facts, than to really grasp the deep dynamics and complexities of a particular period.

5/9/13, 5:06 AM

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks again. It seems strange to contrast our culture’s apocalyptic fantasies and conspiracy theories with Augustus’ more philosophical and broader view – do you think they represent different stages of collapse?

Are there any particular religious or political thinkers today whose work you would particularly recommend to mainstream Westerners, people whose sense of the shape of time could make the coming decades psychologically easier for their readers? (Besides yourself? :-)

5/9/13, 5:07 AM

Juhana said...
This writing of yours rises one question: what are you suggesting people do to these great stories shaping world for them?

Human consciousness is nothing more than ability to narrate primordial chaos of world into coherent stories; if this is taken away from human being, all that is left are animal instincts in us.

Nature has no story; no hidden narrative to be found. It just is what it is. It could be called extremely cruel and capricious, if innocence brought by lack of consciousness or any abstract meanings beyond survival and reproducing didn't prevent all labeling. I love nature, but if wild nature teaches anything to man, it teaches ways of the beast. Those who admire nature programs from flat screen TV in big city have no idea at all how indifferent living nature is to suffering of one brave living being. In TV screen hunting scene of great beast is heart-breaking spectacle; in real nature any animal bystander outside danger zone is totally unconcerned if there is no personal loss or gain to be achieved. Nobody gives... Sorry, I almost forgot no cursing policy.

Bonding with fellow male primates in your pack; to sleep; to harvest food to be eaten; to have offspring, nurtured to adulthood by females and protected by males, bought to do so by sexual pleasure offered by females of the pack; to use violence against those trying to take sources of food/pleasure away from the pack; to die.

That is natural living cycle for dominant (=male) primates among homo sapiens... I admit, it does not sound too bad. And if some reader is shaken by this "dominant male" thing, well... you do not understand at all how much Western civilization protects rights of weaker ones. Fortunately for these desperately naive persons, most of us want something more also. Because we have these stories inside our heads. Because we dream. Because we actually have civilizations and cultures.

My point being, it is impossible to be human without story to live in. There is nothing outside storytelling but animal pleasures and instincts, which are "pure" nature. Even all these fancy scientists and atheists, they have no clue about reality any more than most fundamental Christians have; narrative of their world explanations just brings with it couple of more engineering skills, that's all... But religiously fundamentalist organizations have produced amazing engineering feats also. So who cares what exactly happened right after Big Bang?

Consciousness or abstract thinking is nothing else than ability to narrate story which arranges chaotic multitude of happenings around us into coherent stories. And none of them explains all of reality. People living in same culture share same small stock of basic narratives, just as you explained. That is reason why it is so hard to really "click" with people from totally alien cultures; basic subconscious presumptions are so different. Believe me, that is something I have experienced.

But what are you offering to replace this current stock of cultural narratives? It is possible to have dim awareness about your thought processes, but you need those stories to have any thought processes at all. So what stories are you offering to baffled and stray crowds out there in mighty USA?

5/9/13, 5:46 AM

Phil Harris said...
Very salutary!
Again already I look forward to next week!

It is curious how we absorb these founding narratives that are ‘implicate’ both over centuries and within the times we live in. We 'recapitulate' and ‘personalise’ the past, presumably from infancy.

You have said before that current day consciousness has a trancelike quality - this would be specifically American or 'Yankee' consciousness, but now much more widespread? Perhaps we have absorbed habits of mind that actually give our brains a distinctive regulation of personality?

This last couple of weeks I have been reading parallel texts - in particular essays by American historian Vann Woodward (hat tip to Morris Berman). Woodward wrote an essay The Irony of Southern History in 1952 published again in a 1960s book The Burden of Southern History He makes the point that Southern USA had a very different historical experience from the dominant and expansive success story in the North.

Vann Woodward wrote in 1952 of “... illusions of innocence and legends of immunity from frustration and defeat" and that "the tragic and the ironic implications of [American] history have been obscured by the national legend of success and victory and by the perpetuation of infant illusions of innocence and virtue." He went on to suggest what this could inflict on the rest of the world, and in his 1960s follow-up essay refers to the experience of Vietnam – at that time still in contention – and the complete failure of righteous successful America to deal with the explosion in its own cities. He quotes Gunnar Myrdal talking at the time of the debt to the poor: “American affluence is heavily mortgaged.”

Why do I in Britain bother so much about America? Well, apart from watching all my adult life the Americanisation of my country and it has to be said, me - my childhood experience could not have been more different - it gets very personal. That bit from Woodward about infant illusions of innocence and virtue hits home. And we do not live in the forest or bide by the beneficence of the Australian Bush. Being human was always ‘hard work’ even for HG ancestors the other side of Eden, and civilisation has provided no adequate substitutes. Needing to be grown-up in the coming age where big cities fail and the ‘TV model’ for our lives is no longer relevant, is going to change our minds.

I still hope for something better than “mind-forged manacles” (Blake) so will keep reading!

Phil H

5/9/13, 5:46 AM

M said...
It's one thing to read about these patterns of cultural thought in a scholarly and abstract way--it's another to experience them in action in your day to day life. I'm sure I am not alone in that I am in a relationship with someone who is deeply committed to keeping these ways of seeing the world firmly in place. I have been slowly learning how to deal with this, sometimes with a small success here and there. In an effort both to educate myself with practical skills and to share emotional support with people who have a similar understanding of the consequences of peak oil, etc., I signed up for the Age of Limits conference as well as the Sustainable Life Skills to be held at the end of this month.

Unfortunately, this has created a such a level of disharmony with my spouse, who has demonized both the messengers and the messages, that I fear my attendance will currently do more harm than good for our situation, and I have sadly had to cancel my reservation. I will continue to read this deeply insightful blog, finding inspiration and succor in the both posts themselves and the many thoughtful comments. Perhaps next year I will be able to attend the conference.

5/9/13, 6:06 AM

Mark Stavish said...
Dear John,
This is partially related to your post. I recently had a conversation with the director of finance of a major private university, wherein the topic focussed around several issues, that can be summed up in one word: sustainability.

Or as I put it, "Are there enough Chinese kids with rich parents to keep this ship afloat?" Now, I bring this up because I make a habit of asking major officers, "Has your organization done a projection?" Not so oddly, many have, and the information - information that has not really changed regarding demographics - tells them that the current rate of building and campus expansion is in excess of the number of available potential students. Now this same demographic information was available five, ten, and fifteen years ago, yet, the "If you build it they will come" mentality won out against common sense.

There is a great deal more to it than that, some have event mentioned to me the financial structure and shifting that is going on in higher education points towards even more pressure on shrinking public funds which will inevitably crash the public university systems. As a result, in 20 years, or five graduating classes to put in perspective, there will be few private colleges as many will be forced to close, fewer slots in the swamped public university systems (with increased tuition), and increasingly only the wealthy will send their children to college.

Here we have smart people looking at the facts and making stupid decisions because they view themselves as an exception to natural law or are desperate to maintain the status quo, unable to picture anything different. All the while, the public message continues to be, "everything is ok".

Here, the message of progress, expansion/growth, and moral goodness are confused as being an indivisible holy trinity. The God of Progress is an interesting overlord! - Mark Stavish

5/9/13, 6:28 AM

Odin's Raven said...
Before schemes of progress there may have been something like Robert Graves' White Goddess sense of time as an annual cycle emphasising the changing experience of the seasons.

It seems unlikely that this would be restored. After the cessation of belief in progress, what sense of time do you expect to replace it?

5/9/13, 6:36 AM

rylan said...
If the wisdom within this post could somehow become common knowledge, if this somehow were to happen, think what a different word/society we would then exist within.

The post did inspire a what do think of this question;

Went you talk about self-defeating patterns, I'm thinking more dis-harmonic patterns. A pattern seeking harmony. A mindset we produce and give power to. This sets into motion aspects of the spiritual ream, where like joins with like and the power grows. It tends to discharge back into the physical in an unaware person and sometimes the power builds to a point that really bad things happen, say Boston.

Is this a pathway, the pattern seems to have merit, thoughts?


5/9/13, 6:51 AM

Picador said...

Your writing in the last few months has been nothing short of spectacular. I don't have anything interesting to say -- I just wanted to thank you for this wonderful stuff, and to note that the current series is a particularly rich and rewarding read.

Many thanks,

5/9/13, 7:46 AM

GHung said...
All of the remarkable concepts of time you highlight describe what I see as attempts to provide meaning to what is essentially a physical process that human cultures and populations have repeatedly found themselves immersed in; the simple (or not) process of what we refer to as progress.

A group, be it a family, tribe, etc., gradually, collectively, begins to invent and adopt ways of overcoming the hardships and limitations of the hunter-gatherer system. They slowly begin to exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat ("The Garden"). The fall from Grace has begun.

"Original Sin" is the rejection of physical limits imposed by Nature (God). What follows - agriculture, technology, evermore complex social and infrastructural systems, population increases, wars for resources, etc., and our remarkable attempts to describe this process, have all grown from the seed of hubris; our ability to delude ourselves; our insistence that physical limitations don't apply.

Same story, different age, different interpretations, differing time-frames and scale. The process, not beholden to our concepts of time, proceeds pretty much the same.

I still think scale matters. We have become so adept at exceeding limits that our unprecedented level of overshoot will beget a fall of truly epic (biblical) scale. One wonders who will be left to explain, rationalize, mythologize, this one; this time of peak hubris.

5/9/13, 8:37 AM

Bugmethx said...
Dotsenko is a Russian professor of physics and maths. He wonders ("Science en Life" 12-2004):

"How is it possible that the wise and educated Egyptians so quickly forgot how to build pyramids in just a few generations (at the turn of the IV and V dynasties, about XXVI century BC)? It was an amazing historical catastrophe: during centuries they studied and perfected their skills bit by bit, passed it all down from generation to generation, accumulated knowledge and experience, and then built their three Great Pyramids (Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus). And then suddenly all skill and ability was forgotten, and they ceased to understand basic things. What is particularly surprising - this happened by itself, without any wars or invasions of barbarians. Yet all that was built afterwards looked like a poor excuse for the Great Pyramids and now is nothing more than a pile of rubble."

Worse, Dotsenko sees similarities with his students' inability to think for themselves. A colleague explains him there's nothing to worry about.

"Everything is progressing as it should. The fact is that modern developed society needs only good performers. Creative, thoughtful people are, of course, also required, but just one. Therefore, the entire education system should be set up for the selection, breeding and training of good performers, and young people do not need learn to think: in modern society, this will only hurt their future careers, whatever these careers may be. As for creative people, one should not be particularly concerned about them: those who are really talented, somehow will succeed. In this sense, by and large, it does not matter what subjects we teach them at university. Instead of physics and mathematics they might well just as well have been forced to cram Latin. In their future careers no understanding of physics and mathematics will be needed anyhow."

5/9/13, 8:49 AM

Unknown said...
Sometimes it seems that we invent concepts like time and stories about time because without them we would find the world terrifying, without cause or meaning. Unless you're Einstein.
Einstein, for one, found solace in his revolutionary sense of time. In March 1955, when his lifelong friend Michele Besso died, he wrote a letter consoling Besso’s family: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

5/9/13, 9:30 AM

Michael L said...
I think your phrase, "the shape of time," is good shorthand for the shape of our expectations about the future as we move toward it. That's making the assumption that we are actually moving. Things happening now are happening as the result of things that happened before. It seems logical that those interlinked groups of cause and effect all point back to an original cause. I have to wonder if what we call time really is not that much different than the other 3 dimensions of space and the universe is really just one amazingly vast and complex object. I wonder if instead of creating the universe, God (for lack of a better word- I'm not a Christian or using the word in that strict sense) IS the universe. Since we are a part of that universe we are also a part of God. I feel like when I stare through a microscope at a tiny plant cell or up at the Milky Way, my consciousness is one of many mirrors through which the universe/God can see itself.

I've been rolling this one around in my brain for quite a few revolutions around the Sun, so there is definitely more to it than that. The summary I just made is pretty concise though. Sometimes I find it comforting, sometimes it really crushes my ego. After reading your article I will also wonder as one event leads into the next whether it will be adaptive.

5/9/13, 9:45 AM

McDave's Handyman said...
Maybe an interesting distinction between Augustine's and Joachin's Utopias is who gets to participate. In the one case it is the persistent remnant and in the other case, the masses.

I'm wondering where this would leave the Near Term Extinction folks, where nobody lives to see the outcome.

5/9/13, 10:53 AM

derekthered said...
if you think about it, the only thing of true value, in the physical sense that is, consists of stored energy. grain storage is just a way to store sunlight in a digestible form. everything in the solar sytem comes from the formation of the sun, from the accretion disc.

the money system has nothing at it's base really, except the threat of force. yes, timber, stone, all these are of value, but insofar as they meet basic human needs for food, shelter, heat, clothing, etc.

money is an abstraction to serve whoever rules whatever class.

your thoughts on the city of god have occurred to yours truly, but i've nevr heard of this Joachim fellow.

now, never having been a party type i have remained uninfected by the marxist millenarian thinking but you are def right on.

and you are so right on about the business as usual attitude, are we quite sure that homo sapiens are not a herd animal?

5/9/13, 11:12 AM

Ouromboros said...
I'm beginning to get a visual sense of the shape of time as might be left after shooting down the impossible models. I imagine a circular path of a year or some more arbitrary measure of time (like a decade) where elements of the paths overlap where they repeat. Where resources are abundant, complexity increases and the path of time "rises." Where resources are scarce and complexity declines, the path "falls." Projected as a whole, there might be some mathematical equilibrium, but nothing to rely on.

I guess all we can do is try to figure out what kind of path we're on and try to live our, lives in a way that allows us to continue on that path. Some of us might forge catchy metaphors that allow more people to understand this shape of history. Some of us might cobble together moralities that help societies stick together in unpromised times. And some of us will be bewildered and ill-equipped to help ourselves or others.

The thing that makes it so painful is that there is no fast armageddon or great windfall to crush us all or lift us all to paradise. These daydreams sap our initiatives and keep us wallowing along in our accustomed patterns. Changes will be slow and life will generally get tougher, and we may well wonder if all of our insights were delusions. Sorry if I ramble, but I'm trying to make this make sense in my head, and I'm often concerned that I might be going down a rabbit hole of delusions rather than accurate interpretations of the world around us and the times in which we live.

5/9/13, 12:37 PM

beneaththesurface said...

Sorry you had to cancel your reservation for the Age of Limits conference. I am aware that Carolyn Baker is planning to do a workshop there called "Love in the Long Emergency" that will specifically focus on relationships. Too bad you can't be there for that, but hopefully a future time! I also know several others who are in a similar situation as you, and it certainly can be hard to navigate.

5/9/13, 12:41 PM

Ray Wharton said...
Very interesting, I notice how much these shapes of time influenced my thinking so far, and how they continue to do so, though not as throughly unconsciously as before. When I was still in College the idea of progress was very central to my thinking, and I regularly fancied the idea of some great solar technology unlocking a vast power supply for the future of humanity. Any technology recently released was the preamble of this coming break through.

After sitting down and figuring for a while I realized that this was not a possible or sufficient salvation. Diffuse energy must always spend much of itself to be concentrated, and as an added catch generally the more efficient a system is, the more exact its operational conditions tend to need be, forcing the expenditure of energy to maintain those conditions. Though solar technology in carefully selected applications can be quite useful, as a primary energy source it gets whooped by fossil fuels. Further more, even supposing a miracle solar panel were produced, it would only solve the problem of energy shortage, and various educational, population, and material resource problems would continue to fester unsolved. In sum, I found that my faith in Progress depended not on a miracle, but on a whole series of miracles.

The counter-reaction of belief in a fairly rapid and harsh collapse was soon to follow, it persisted for about two years. The general idea was that society would implode and that the only safe place was on a farm on the far side of the middle of no where. I even prepared to start such a farm, but it was about $100,000 dollars away from practicality, and even if the place could be bought and set up, the skills I would need to make it work would likely require a miracle of gaining about a year's practical experience every month for a couple years.

Where things stand today, neither narrative is so compelling. Sometimes I crave to invent for myself a 'new' shape of time from whole cloth just to avoid the problems that came before, but even when a particular way of thinking stops working it doesn't give any particularly good chance that a replacement will work better.

But of course time does have a shape for all of us, I suspect that it is influenced by both views, and maybe by some other perspectives. The three things I notice are repetition, learning, and aging. Its beyond this venue to detail how they tie together for me, but suffice to say it makes me want to protect what has been learned from any oblivion too premature.

5/9/13, 12:55 PM

cynndara said...
Thank-you for once again reminding me that I'm not the only person who can see beyond the accepted paradigms. It gets lonely and scary sometimes, when even my kid brother and best apprentice retreat into a wall of denial at the idea that Progress is not almighty or certain or secure, and Technology cannot eventually solve all the world's ills. It's as though having studied ancient and medieval cosmology set down an invisible barrier between me and others, a gulf across which no words can convey realization. It's a relief to know I'm not alone in this world of unacceptable possibilities.

5/9/13, 2:18 PM

Joy said...
And here I thought that John Nelson Darby was behind the development of Dispensationalist teaching in the Christian church, but it looks like it had its beginnings in Joachim.

Joachim's three ages: Law (the Father), Love (the Son), and Liberty (the Holy Spirit) lines up with the minimalist dispensation scheme of Law, Grace, and Kingdom.

5/9/13, 2:18 PM

Justin G said...
I wouldn't say that Quinn changed the names in his Eden story. He was very explicit, in fact, in calling primitive life Eden, he just assumed that the Hebrews had appropriated this tale of fall from grace from the hunter-gatherer societies they elbowed out.

5/9/13, 3:44 PM

S P said...
Gold shows no evidence of being in a bubble, at least not yet.

If anything, gold is a giant short on industrial progress. No matter what happens to currencies, gold should hold up rather well.

5/9/13, 5:09 PM

Andy Brown said...
If it were only the run of the mill bubbles that were filling the air with that familiar gabble of desperate optimism, I'd be fine with that. But unfortunately, the familiar reek of bubble seems to inhabit our entire world civilization. I could stand aside from the other speculations with wry complacency -- not so much when it takes down the food system.

5/9/13, 5:19 PM

pansceptic said...
My notion of the source of the ubiquitous Golden Age meme is our time spent in the womb: generally warm, safe, and free of physical want. During my Rebirthing experiences I learned (to my surprise) that a pre-verbal part of my memory recalls very well indeed that idyllic period, and the traumatic and inexplicable expulsion from it. The concept of Original Sin is an attempt to explain this nagging, subconscious feeling of having been cast out of Eden.

Speaking of Golden Age, I believe that The Archdruid is mistaken about metallic gold being in a bubble. I have worked in the same huge public high school for 19 years, and so have seen some bubbles come and go. I have sat and listened in the Teachers' Lounge while teachers have crowed that they were going to quit teaching and earn a better living as tech stock daytraders. I later listened while teachers told me that they were going to stop teaching and get rich on the proceeds of house flipping. I have NOT heard any crowing about getting rich from precious metals; to the contrary, most have given up almost all of their gold to We Buy Gold shops and home Gold Parties. When central bankers decide to remonetize gold (why else are they adding to their hoards?), the teachers will be destitute.

But I can tell you the current bubble: DEBT. Many of the teachers are wasting their money (and evenings) pursuing advanced degrees. Al they will get out of this is non-dischargeable debt. Others, while chastened regarding real estate, take other loans - the Band Director has TWO porches. One custodian has a new pickup truck, another a Lexus, another a Cadillac CTS. And these are NOT oil-burning beaters; they are late model cars that look like new. I am beginning to to understand the Keeping Up With The Joneses thing: even though I earn more than any of them, I am starting to feel I don't fit in driving my 16 years-old Tercel.

5/9/13, 5:21 PM

latheChuck said...
Just saw an interesting discussion of the "gold economy" on Zero Hedge which says that, if you actually want to take possession of physical gold, you need to pay as much as %30 over the official "spot" price. Which means that the true spot price (including the "premium" for actual delivery of the commodity purchased!) has not fallen nearly as much as advertised. Curious times, these are.

--*** ***--

5/9/13, 7:08 PM

Harry J. Lerwill said...
If Augustine's approach is adaptive for an age of decline, and the neoprimitive narrative follows his model, does that not mean that neoprimitivist approaches should be encouraged as part of the dissensus?

5/9/13, 7:41 PM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
I would like to speak up for Augustine, as a broadly reliable guide.

(a) Most people admit an immutable moral order, in at any rate its broad outlines accurately described by the rabbi whose teaching Augustine passed on. The rabbi said that the poor in spirit are blessed. The rabbi said that the kind of status that matters comes through serving others, not in being served. To assent to these two propositions is already to accept the primary, broad outlines of Augustine's Eternal City. It is a secondary, subordinate, matter what views we may proceed to take on the various Nicene credal details ("rose again on the third day"; "will come again to come the living and the dead"; and so on).

(b) For Augustine, the Temporal City is a Spielberg film whose time-wasting character is already moderately apparent when we sit in the darkened cinema. The feeble character of this entertainment becomes overwhelmingly apparent once the credits roll and we head for the exit (as when we go to hospital, or as it would have been had JFK's sirens gone off for us in October of 1962).

It is tempting, especially for the pathologically ambitious young and the pathologically want-to-be-young old, to use the Worldly City as an escape from reality. When trouble, pain, illness, and death approach, however, we see that city's meaninglessness.

The sudden collapse of our commerce and government, if it happens (the West was very close in October 1962, and again under the "Able Archer" exercise of 1983), will be spiritually as eye-opening for us as the 410 A.D. pillage of Rome was for Augustine.

We may, admittedly, disagree with Augustine over details. We may complain that he distorts the rabbi's thinking at one or another point. We may complain that the rabbi's thinking is itself inadequate.

Or (this is my own position) we may complain that the rabbi's thought has to be spelled out in each particular historical epoch in terms only partially invariant, being of necessity also conditioned by the specific peculiarities of whatever epoch we may find ourselves in.

For instance, I would suggest that since Hiroshima, a specially salient component of the rabbi's thought is pacifism, and that here joyous theologians such as Gandhi are more reliable guides than stern, ever-so-Roman Augustine, embedded as he was in a dying culture of legion and praetorium. I would similarly suggest that the Holocaust and the CP-USSR raise questions to which the rabbi's work is strongly relevant, and yet on which Augustine cannot be expected to shed strong direct light.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
(Catholic hermit or hermit-wannabe,
near Toronto; www dot metascientia dot ca)

(PS: On "will come again to judge the living and the dead", I stick with the Catholic mainstream, admitting that there is some kind of deep assertion here about history, but with the Catholic mainstream politely declining to affirm or deny such speculative, theatrical things as "Rapture".)

5/9/13, 7:57 PM

Chris Travers said...
I like this piece.

I often tell people, "Those who do not learn from history are destined to relive it badly." The last word is intended to speak volumes but whether it is understood or not is an open question.

The last word is unexpectedly enough copied from Henry Spencer's observation regarding computer operating systems, that "Those who do not understand UNIX are condemned to reinvent it poorly."

Spencer's observation speaks volumes, that there are common problems with common, well developed solutions and that we must understand and master those solutions individually before we are capable of understanding the tradeoffs in those solutions and seeing where they may not be optimal. It's a very conservative (in the non-political meaning of the word) approach to innovation, and that it occurred in the context of an industry that popular thinking believes embodies innovation no longer moored (pun intended) to the constraints of history make it particularly notable.

We all relive history. The question is, do we do it well or poorly.

5/9/13, 8:13 PM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
Sorry, meant to say "www dot metascientia dot com", not "www dot metascientia dot ca", and to write consistently "Temporal City", not "Worldly City".

Ai veh,


5/9/13, 8:31 PM

Lynford1933 said...
JMG: I notice that you have responded to the many comments as you usually do. I was anxious to hear what you had to say about so many different points of view about reality (whatever that is).

5/9/13, 9:34 PM

Chris Travers said...
Oh and one minor historical note about the Goths. The general view I have gotten from reading historians who specialize on the Goths is that they weren't really invaders. The general theory today (found in books by diverse authors like Herwig Wolfram and Peter Heather) is that the Goths emerged as a distinct ethnic group *inside* the Roman Empire where they were for an extended time period before the Sacking of Rome by Alaric (Visigothic) and later the conquest of Italy by Theodoric (Ostrogothic).

It is true they spoke a Germanic language suggesting that they either migrated into the Empire or consisted of immigrants, but that existed in Rome for centuries before the major troubles is something that needs to be understood.

In this view the Goths were less invaders than they were unhappy immigrant insurrectionists, and this differentiates the Goths from the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Vandals. In fact both Heather and Wolfram go into quite a bit of depth into the long-running political arguments between the Goths and the Empire. In essence the view of many historians is moving away from Jordanes' invasion narrative and towards an insurrection narrative based on Roman textual sources and archaeology. Anyway I figured it would be interesting to note.

5/9/13, 9:38 PM

GuRan said...
Juhana, had I the power to award gold stars, I would give you one this week :-)


5/9/13, 9:38 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Thanks to everyone for their comments and patience -- it's been a busier day than usual, which is saying something for me these days.

Leo, indeed he did -- you'll notice that the Age of the Holy Spirit did not show up in 1260 as promised. Joachim also apparently told Richard the Lionhearted that he was destined to beat Saladin and reconquer Jerusalem, which he didn't. Later versions of Joachim's scheme, right up through Francis Fukuyama, produced equally inaccurate predictions.

Jason, yes, you answered your own question. Do you remember my comments a while back, about how people would embrace literally any excuse under the sun that allowed them to justify clinging to their comfortable, privileged, resource- and energy-wasting lifestyles? This is the latest example. It's easy to keep on living as though there's no tomorrow if you insist that, in fact, there won't be one.

Richard, I've already considered the effect of zero interest rates, and the effect of negative interest rates, when banks charge you money for the service of keeping your money safe, honoring checks, etc. Gold, for all the fetishization that surrounds it, is simply another form of money, which means it's not wealth but a token that can be traded for wealth. Since one of the core problems we face is a collapse in the capacity to produce real wealth -- actual goods and services -- gold may be better than paper money, but the capacity to produce real wealth is far better; rarity is meaningless if there's no market for it. More on this in a future sequence.

Tom, glad to hear that these posts are useful to you!

John, where do you think Toffler got his three ages? Not directly from Joachim, no, but that's where the archetype comes from. As for Kondratieff, you do know that his theory is also considered a theory of economic cycles?

Odamaki, thank you for the encouragement!

Yupped, excellent. You're quite correct, of course; people in ancient Rome didn't wake up one morning to find a bunch of Huns hanging posters announcing "The Dark Ages Have Arrived." History is much sloppier than any system of fixed periods makes it look.

Brian, two good questions; thank you. I think the difference between Augustine's relative clarity and the lack of insight so common nowadays comes from the sharp differences between the education he got and the ones that most people get these days -- that is to say, between an actual education and the ersatz not-really-equivalent we inflict on children these days. I'll be discussing that in detail later, when we get to the sequence on education. As for recent writers on politics and religion, I don't read a lot of books on those subjects written during my own lifetime; on those occasions when I make the attempt, the book more often than not gets flung against the nearest wall, which is bad for the paint.

5/9/13, 10:37 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Juhana, exactly; you get tonight's gold star for catching the central point of this sequence of posts. As I've commented before, human beings think with stories as inevitably as they eat with mouths and walk with feet, so you're quite correct that there will have to be stories to replace the failed stories of progress and apocalypse. Still, all in good time; I'll be getting to that point in due course.

Phil H., now that's a name I haven't seen cited in a very long time. Thanks for the reminder; I'll have to reread Vann Woodward as soon as time permits.

M, I'm sorry to hear that. Every month or so, as it happens, I hear from someone whose marriage has been troubled or ended over peak oil, in exactly the same way that marriages end when one partner converts to a religion the other can't accept -- and it almost always seems to be the spouse who believes in progress who gets angry, bitter and denunciatory. This is one of the many reasons I've come to see belief in progress as a religion, and indeed as a fundamentalist faith that brooks no dissent.

Mark, thanks for the data point! Based on what I've heard and read, a lot of US institutions of many kinds are doing exactly the same thing -- chugging ahead straight for a disaster they can see, but can't bring themselves to take action to avoid. The next decade or so will be interesting.

Raven, oh, for heaven's sake, you can do better than that. What was the shape of time to the old Norse? (Hint: read the Voluspa.) There wasn't just one shape of time before schemes of progress got invented; there was a wild diversity -- and there will be a wild diversity again in the deindustrial future, for the same reasons of variable context and historical experience.

Rylan, you ought to know the rule of dissensus by now! Does your idea have merit? Good question; give it a try, put it into practice, and see what results you get.

Picador, thank you.

GHung, I disagree. You've simply repeated one standard version of the modern mythology of progress; it's central to that mythology to insist that the story's always the same -- but the central theme of this blog is that the story our culture forces on the diversity of historical experience is past its pull date.

Bugmethx, the collapse of the Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt was a standard case of catabolic collapse; Egyptian society had built up far more capital than it could afford to maintain, and came unglued as a result, converting much of that capital (including such things as the highly specialized knowledge needed to build pyramids) into waste in the process. The process Dotsenko's colleague was talking about is one of the things that makes catabolic collapse happen: the fewer people have access to any given set of skills, the more likely those skills are to be lost if social order breaks down and pyramid builders no longer have a salary. My post on the inverse relationship between resilience and efficiency is relevant here.

Unknown, Einstein had his own stories about time; he just told them with mathematical equations.

5/9/13, 10:59 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Michael, that's one of the standard versions of pantheism, and it's certainly a workable faith -- it's one that a certain fraction of Druids hold, for example. Will it be adaptive in the deindustrial future? Impossible to say in advance; if it speaks to you, give it a try and see.

Handyman, we'll get to that next week. The "everyone dies" version of the apocalyptic myth has its own emotional payoffs, of course.

Derek, good! Like all social primates, human beings behave in ways tightly constrained by social processes, and our thinking is no exception. Yes, you could probably use the term "herd animal" to summarize that point.

Ouromboros, exactly! The decline that's already taking place around us doesn't have any big explosions or fireworks; that's why so many people are so terrified of it, and invent a flurry of imaginary catastrophes and utopias to distract themselves from the fact that we're already in the Long Descent -- that this is what collapse looks like.

Ray, excellent. It's very often those who have been through belief in progress and apocalypse who can stand aside from both, and start making reasoned responses to the situation we're in -- and preserving knowledge is a very sensible place to start, yes.

Cynndara, you're welcome, and I know the feeling. That's the thing with the basic presuppositions of a culture; until you make them conscious, they define your thinking in ways you never notice. A background in the history of cosmology is a good way to pop yourself out of that trance!

Joy, good. Darby wasn't really an original thinker -- Dispensationalism is a pastiche of earlier apocalyptic versions of Christianity, Joachim's very much among them.

Justin, correction duly noted.

S P, go look at a chart of gold prices from 2000 to the present, and compare it to a chart of housing prices from 1990 to 2010. It's a classic bubble. Mind you, I expect gold to recover once it bottoms out -- this is more like the petroleum bubble of 2008, a burst of speculation on top of a real increase in demand relative to supply -- but the standard sky's-the-limit rhetoric has been deployed all over the place among gold speculators.

Andy, all the more reason to start a backyard garden and begin supporting local farmers and growers!

5/9/13, 11:10 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Panskeptic, debt is a bubble of sorts, but it's not a classic speculative bubble of the kind I've discussed here. As for gold, see my response to S P above.

Chuck, I'd want to see that verified by a less tendentious source.

Harry, no, for reasons I'll get to next week. Augustine's own version might, but the neoprimitivist revision of it strips it of its most important defensive strategy. More on this soon.

Toomas, I'm not a great fan of Augustine's scheme, but it certainly beats the stuffing out of Joachim's, not to mention the recent crop of Rapture bunnies.

Chris, excellent! I'm fond of Marx's comment: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

Lynford, sorry for the delay -- it was a very busy day.

Chris, as for the Goths, well, we'll see. One of the drawbacks to the insistence among academics that everyone has to say something original is that sooner or later you run out of things that are both original and true; once that point's passed, you get the churning of dubious hypotheses that's the main activity of a moribund branch of scholarship. Whether that's what's going on here is a good question, but Jordanes was a good deal closer to the facts than you or I...

5/9/13, 11:22 PM

Damien Perrotin said...
Chris, it is true that Wisigoths weren't invaders but refugees from the Huns and it is true that they integrated a significant number of roman insurrectionists.

Yet they had a distinct language from a distinct branch of Germanic. All their leaders have names in that language and followed a distinct brand of Christianity.

Moreover, if the 378 revolt arose because Romans badly mismanaged what would be called today a refugee camp, its leaders were all Gothic and so were most of the troopers.

So there is little doubt that there was an ethnic core to Alaric's army and that this ethnic core came from the Danubian Gothic kingdom destroyed by the Huns.

For Ostrogoths, the question is pointless since they did not enter the Empire before its final dissolution.

Alaric jockeyed for position within the roman institutional framework, but so did all Germanic leaders at the time, using a tribal power base to bully / negotiate with the Empire.

5/10/13, 1:01 AM

Robert said...
In SM Stirling's Emberverse series the hero has a vision of Odin in which the Wanderer tells him "know this. Fact becomes history, history becomes legend, legend becomes myth. Myth turns again to the beginning and creates itself. The figure for time isn't an arrow; that's an illusion, just as the straight line is. Time is a serpent"

5/10/13, 6:19 AM

das monde said...
This week I saw a convenience to refer to your blog twice. It is indeed useful to disect the Western time perception.

Like most natural phenomena, mismatches between assumptions and changing reality are applied somewhere. In particular, diving into an asset bubble could be a very rational strategy - if you estimate the timing, eventual scale, and pundits' talking skills right. That's how the consequential fortunes (and misfortunes) of the last x-teen years were made.

5/10/13, 7:06 AM

txprt6 said...
Fascinating observations. Daniel Quinn, however, Quinn cannot be lumped in with Zerzan, Jensen, or other Neoprimitivists because he has never advocated any sort of return to a foraging lifestyle. That’s impossible. Instead, he specifically states that social change is notoriously impossible to predict. No paradigm is ever able to imagine the next one. Quinn wants people to change their minds about humanity’s purpose, from owning the world to being owned by it. What people think determines how they behave, and when significant numbers of folks begin thinking and living a different way, society will radically change.

The only prediction Quinn is comfortable in making is that if there are people living here in 200 years, it’ll be because they think and behave much differently than we do now.

5/10/13, 8:34 AM

Greg Knepp said...
The misconception that many in the collapse school of thought seem to share is that 'the grass was always greener in the paleolithic'. Looking longingly back at our primal past, many assume that the Nobel Savage was somehow essentially happy, simply because he lived a life more in-tune with evolution's intent.
The problem with this premise is that evolution has no stake in our happiness - only in our survival. Happiness plays a part, but so does stress. I see no reason to believe that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were any less cantankerous and discontented than we are today - though perhaps for different reasons.
Forgive the personification of 'evolution'.

5/10/13, 9:41 AM

Yupped said...
Wrt Juhana's comment on the need for stories. Maybe. Personally, I find I'm happiest, most relaxed and generally pleased to be alive when my mind is emptiest from stories and concepts. So to say that "human consciousness is nothing more than ability to narrate primordial chaos of world into coherent stories; if this is taken away from human being, all that is left are animal instincts in us" doesn't ring true to me. My experience has been somewhat the opposite: the more I can free myself from my fixed opinions and beliefs, the less likely I am to get angry or generally frustrated, and the more cooperative I can be with others. That doesn't free me from the harsher realities of life and nature, of course, although I might be more aware of approaching danger if I'm not spending all my mental energy on keeping my opinions intact...

5/10/13, 9:44 AM

Justin G said...
What does history have to say regarding the value of gold during times of collapse? Was gold honestly not valued in Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for instance (I'm not asking as a rhetorical question).

Also, gold isn't simply a symbol of wealth, it actually has a very wide variety of industrial uses, as I'm sure you know. It wouldn't be hard to argue that the value is vastly inflated relative to utitility, but it does have intrinsic value.

I think the greater issue is that any sort of store of wealth that can physically be taken from you is not secure in uncertain times, and can in fact serve to make you a target. You are far better off putting your efforts into learning means of creating wealth, and of using existing wealth to build skills and relationships that are much harder to take away than any physical item.

It is like the Piraha saying, "I store my meat in the belly of my brother."

5/10/13, 10:38 AM

Isis said...

I asked a question in my comment to your last week's post, but since it was only a day or so before the new post was due, I did not receive an answer. So let me try again! My question was: do you know what motivates people who have radically different visions of time to procreate? In particular, how do those who have a linear vision of time in which every year is worse than the previous one (Hesiod's vision) justify bringing children into this world? Has Hesiod (or some contemporary of his) written anything that might give an answer to this? This vision suggests that your children will have a harsher life than you did, your grandchildren even harsher, your great-grandchildren harsher still, and so on until humanity dies. So how do they justify bringing children into the world?

On a semi-related note, it seems to me that people who have children generally have a harder time letting go of the myth of Progress than childless people do. Obviously, I have no hard data, this is all completely anecdotal. But people seem to find it very painful to imagine that their children will never be able to lead a solidly middle class life. It seems to be more difficult for people to accept this fate for their children than for themselves. I'm not sure to what extent this is "natural" parental behavior, and to what extent it's the adherence to the religion of Progress that makes them think that it is somehow "unnatural" for children to be poorer than their parents.

Sometimes, this leads to pressuring children to do things that are effectively against their interest. I have, for example, known a young couple who rent an apartment that is larger than they need or even particularly want, and that is keeping them from paying off their student loans as fast as they might like to, only because if they didn't, the man's mother would throw a fit of the "we didn't work so hard for all these years so that you would live like this" sort. Of course, if I were in this couple's shoes, I'd tell the mother to take her behind you-know-where, but then, I've been known to be less than diplomatic! A more polite person might tell the mother that she is welcome to pick a larger apartment at a similar location, as long as she is willing to cover the difference in rent. But obviously, other people have other ideas...

A much more common version of the above is for parents to pressure an adolescent or young adult to go to college (or to the most prestigious college that s/he can get into, regardless of cost and the student loan burden), even when it doesn't make good sense (financially or otherwise) for their child. It seems to be the religion of Progress at play: the parents expect their child to do better than they did, and they'll push the child in that direction, even if it lands him/her deep into debt that is difficult or sometimes impossible to pay off. It's as if they are willing to sacrifice their own child so that they could keep believing just a little bit longer. Rather selfish if you ask me!

5/10/13, 11:33 AM

Kathleen K said...
Re both M and cynndara--sometimes I think we need a green wizard dating site, and I'm only half kidding.

I wish I could meet like-minded people in person, but I don't have the extra thousand dollars it would take to get me to the Age of Limits conference, my lack of car makes it hard to go anywhere my family members aren't interested in, and I haven't found any havens within biking distance. It gets lonely sometimes.

5/10/13, 1:33 PM

ed231ff4-b9b0-11e2-92c7-000bcdcb471e said...
You're in good company, Yupped. The Pyrrhonists held similar views and attempted to cultivate a state of tranquility through suspended judgement and lack of belief. I don't know that I'd want to emulate them completely but there's a lot to be learned from the Hellenistic philosophers and their attempts to develop a perspective and personal character that allow one to be at peace with the world irrespective of chance and uncertainty.

5/10/13, 1:33 PM

John Roth said...

Synchronicity strikes again. There's a new theory about why they quit building the large pyramids: they found that darn things wouldn't stay up.

5/10/13, 1:40 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
Looking forward to moving to the stories. :-)

Cogent thought, excellent presentation, as always.

5/10/13, 3:01 PM

onething said...
I am really sorry that I won't be able to come to the Age of Limits Conference. I had heard about it and then only found out for sure by some commenter that it was on. I wish there had been some notice...are they trying to limit the size?

I will come next year if there is one, but I need at least two months notice to make sure that I can get off work.

5/10/13, 5:11 PM

beneaththesurface said...
In response to a recent comment: Yes, the Age of Limits Conference is still on, and you can still register:

5/10/13, 8:45 PM

Breanna said...
In reply to Isis:

I don't have a general answer for your question, but I do have a personal one. I am currently 9 weeks along with a much-wanted firstborn. My husband and I are in our late 20s and have plenty of struggles, mostly financial. Our lives are never going to reach the (modest) level of prosperity our parents currently enjoy. I expect life will be somewhat more challenging still for this child, when it is grown. My vision of time is cyclic, but I expect that for the rest of my life and that of my child, it will be in a decline phase of the cycle, hopefully punctuated by moderately stable plateaus.

But it is still worth it. Psychological crisis several years ago threw me out of the workforce and nearly cost my life. My recovery from that event has largely involved a determination to remain alive, and plenty of horizons open up when you really consider the implications of that (also, when you are a bit outside the "system"). I have concluded that there is nothing to do with life but live it as fully as possible. If this is true for me, then it must also be true for my child. If I believed that it was truly not worth living in the future I expect, I would not have lived myself. I suppose, as things get harder, some people will make the opposite choice I did.

In a world of decline, life is still life and love is still love and material loss doesn't have to mean you don't still try to make your little corner of the world better. I have lots of ideas about what JMG has termed "moral progress" and am committed to not losing that dimension, starting in my own family and household.

I expect most people aren't thinking in precisely that way. Plenty of babies are born without too much intention, and many people will just go about their lives as best they can and adapt to their circumstances. Which I guess is more or less what I said, in a lot fewer words.

5/10/13, 9:56 PM

Michael said...
40 years ago this week I began practicing Nichiren Buddhism as expounded by the SGI organization. I had a typical white, upper middle class, American upbringing. Reading this article, I was struck at how, over these years, I have become detached from the historical narratives of the west. Nichiren Buddhism has a very different narrative of history. It posits the development of mankind’s ability to be happy from early stages dependent on relationships to a capable teacher towards a more sustainable ability to be happy based upon the ability of people to directly tap an inner core of absolute happiness regardless of any past relationship with a capable teacher. It is instructive that the time period when people widely achieve this ability to be absolutely happy (defined as the Age of “Mappo” – starting 2000 years after Sakyamuni’s death – corresponding with modern times) is also a time period rife with degradation, decline, and numerous existential societal problems. Whether this rising tide of capable individuals is able to overcome these problems is not in itself the most important issue. While of course such a victory would be sweet, the important point is that such a struggle allows the highest expression of joyful compassion for each individual involved. From the stand point of eternally re-incarnate life in an eternal universe teaming with habitable planets, defeat (and the subsequent terminal decline of human society on this planet) would not inhibit the enjoyment of engaging in similar struggles again on another planet. Therefore the goal is to enjoy the struggle itself based upon an unshakable inner happiness imperious to the corrupting influence of either prosperity or decline. Is this not quite a different view from either Augustine or Joachim?

5/10/13, 10:27 PM

Breanna said...
I should add that going into it expecting certain challenges is probably quite a lot easier than being surprised by them.

For example, it seems probable that intergenerational housing will be much more dominant in the future. So I am going to prioritize harmonious family bonds and good boundaries as my children grow up, so that if they do need to remain with us into adulthood, it will be a positive experience for everyone.

Another example is that I am going to prioritize taking care of my own parents in their old age as an example to my children, so that they will be more likely to do the same for us one day (I mean, I would care for my parents anyway, if they needed it, but that element of intentionality is still there).

These are very different values and priorities than would be seen in the types of progress-oriented parents you described. Most parents are trying to prepare their children to thrive in the world they expect them to live in. I suppose this is one concrete example of why JMG describes the shape of time as a tool which can be more or less useful.

5/10/13, 10:45 PM

Kevin May said...
I'm with Juhana. I believe we need stories to think like we need air to breathe. Very rarely do we take a conscious breath and so too do we rarely 'take' or tell ourselves a conscious story. So thank you JMG for your current series as it is certainly helping me be more aware of some of the unexamined narratives that I spin out in my mind. However also like Juhana I wonder what narratives will replace the stories that we let go of. In fact how to go about replacing them is a real problem for me.

The faith narrative that I have walked away from (long story) was inherited as a child. It was taken on unquestionably as the Truth which gave it great power and it truly touched my heart and soul. It gave me meaning and purpose.

But I walked away and now I see story and symbol as tools. Such a rational understanding seems to be keeping me at arms length from having a real spiritual experience of story because all the best ones and the ones I'm drawn to still require a leap of faith to really make 'em work. Experience tells me it's harder to jump if you think about it too much but regardless I'm hoping in time I'll be able to think myself into jumping.

Here's a story... The master is sitting with his students and tells them that God is unknowable and that anything we say about god is a distortion of the truth. "Well then why do we even bother talking about god?" asks a student. And the master being a difficult so and so answers "why does the bird sing?".

Anthony de mello says the bird sings not because he has a statement but because he has a song. Story telling is our song and it ought to be experienced like a song. I haven't heard a good song in ages. At least not one I feel like singing.

5/10/13, 11:31 PM

Totara said...
John, I really admired your book The Wealth of Nature, and so look forward to a future sequence from you on gold. It is a far more complex subject than the goldbugs realise.

Will the price of gold plummet? Absolutely. But I suspect that the price plummet and subsequent events will turn out very differently from the textbook popping of other speculative financial bubbles.

Are you familiar with the Shoeshine Boy as part of the Freegold hypothesis?

5/11/13, 2:00 AM

Justin Wade said...
Pick up any neoprimitivist book by Daniel Quinn... the redeeming doctrine is set forth in the book you’re reading, and Armageddon is the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, after which humanity will be restored to the hunter-gatherer paradise forever

Actual Daniel Quinn:
One thing I know people will say to me is ‘Are you suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers?’ "

"That of course is an inane idea," Ishmael said.

JMG, I understand you have to paint broad brush strokes to get your point across, but time and again you end up painting straw men. Its a persistent weakness in your righting, for whatever that criticism is worth.

5/11/13, 4:25 AM

Chris Travers said...

I don't know that childless people are better able to get rid of the myth of progress. Most of the people I know who have most successfully gotten over it have children and most of those I know who cling to it so heavily don't.

One of the very basic problems that you run into is that through most of history, children were not optional. People had children in part because people were supported by their children in their old age. The childless are actually more deeply invested in the "we can and should do things differently" embodied by independent retirement and the like.

5/11/13, 6:46 AM

Phil Harris said...
JMG & All
I like the case for ancient Egyptian catabolism illustrated by your example. The knowledge of how to build a pyramid disappeared soon after the salaries for the Master Builders were no longer being paid.

Plenty of examples of this I guess. [Q] Who knows how to get this darn thing to work? [A] John. [Q] Where is he then? [A] Driving his camper van (RV) round Europe after we retired him early.

It is going to be a game-changer when we can no longer make, just for example, LED lighting or computer chips. Only a relatively few people make them but they need to be turned out in trillions. Like pyramids, they are pretty Hi-Tec and highly organised. Candles are very high cost (and energy inefficient) partial substitutes, and I imagine re-fabricating electronics a few at a time so highly laborious I guess the latter just won't happen.

I can't guess most of the dependencies we have developed these short years.

Congrats by the way to the young lady and her husband with their new baby. New babies always did need a lot of adaptation in place. No change there then. :)

Phil H

5/11/13, 7:06 AM

Juhana said...
@Yupped: You kind of totally missed my point. Because English language is blunt instrument in my hands, I have to use blatant example to clarify my point. My skills in English language are so poor, that no fine tuning is possible. If you want to communicate with Finnish/Swedish/Russian languages instead, I am happy to offer more pleasant figures of speech. My sincere apologies if crude example below offends you or someone else.

It is perfectly acceptable in some parts of the world to actually kidnap wife for yourself. If your extended family is strong enough to discourage any re-kidnapping attempts before loss of virginity, and you give sufficient reparation sum fixed by tradition to patriarch of happy bride's family, everything is okay.

I mean, it actually IS okay for everyone involved. No police interference to be expected... Original kidnapper may even be police officer himself, appointed by mostly ceremonial central government somewhere nearer global trade routes.

Is this kind of action okay for you, Yupped? If not, you actually have moral narrative, story, inside your head even after all your zen-meditations... Even if you perceive your mind to be empty vessel after some meditating, it is far form that.

Humans have no inborn, instinctive morality in them. You just have to live aboard and actually witness how other culture's good is other culture's bad and vice versa to learn this simple fact. Morality is learned virtue. It is learned through world explanation stories told by culture to which you belong. Behind all moral narratives are value judgments. Cold, indifferent universe around us does not make value judgments. Animals do no value judgments, they decide by instincts alone. We humans do value judgments, and all those judgments are build on sand. There is no reference point in physical universe for morality. That reference point is ALWAYS offered by religion or ideology, and ideology is only pseudonym for secular religion. These relativist intellectual liberals, they have indeed liberated young Western generation from old cultural constraints, but actual question is: into what that generation has been liberated?

Shared dreams and hidden stories of cultural sphere are strongest when person believing into them is not even aware of them. Have you, Yupped, ever considered that you are just ignorant about forces that rock you back and worth inside your very soul..? You know what, there is very high probability that I have circumnavigated horribly deeper cultural and world view differences than you shall ever face during your entire lifetime, from weak position of outsider.

It is astonishing how eagerly world-weariness and, I admit, somewhat cynical attitude towards nature of human being is seen as sign of confined world view. For me, nothing yells as much about "confined opinions" as gullible naivety.

World is much more complex place than it seems to be when looked from protective lap of imperial power. Your country has imported it's kind of moral story into world for decades now. Lately USA has lost every war it has started, including current ones. I greatly admire bravery and general good-will of American soldiers. Whining American liberals will never understand how gentle occupier your army is, when compared to other potential occupying forces. But it is impossible to imprint your own cultural narratives into other cultures by ignorance. It is like giving wrong type of blood to patient; nothing good comes out of it. You cannot make liberal democracy bloom where there are no cultural receptors to identify whole concept. To change other person/culture, you have to become partly what that person/culture represents. Look at the Cold War; your neoconservatives are like traditional Marxists in their blind faith to ideological doctrine. Change is two-way street, always.

We all live inside stories, inside dreams, and when moving between different cultural narratives, you have to learn how dream alien dreams also.

5/11/13, 7:26 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Isis -- I suspect JMG will be getting to this, but it has come up several times, and was even in the postamble to this post: progress and regress are value-judgements, and values change. People find happiness in circumstances that outsiders would call grim.

Trite as it seems, it's the half-full, half-empty metaphor.

I'm hoping this will come up in force when we get to the stories and religions of the coming age, because I think you touch on an essential point: people truly cannot live with despair, and despair (in this context) is a kind of terminal maladaptation to reality as-it-is.

Despair comes from saying, "My great-great-grandchildren will never own a television set, and they will never see re-runs of Lost, and this is such a horrible, horrible fate that I can't bear to bring them into the world." I'm exaggerating for effect, of course. But when you break down most narratives of "decline," they aren't all that different from this exaggeration.

We call them the Dark Ages, a shadowed valley of mud-wallowing misery between the peak of Rome at its height, and the foothills of the Renaissance that led to our current climb to the stars. That's our Progress Myth speaking.

The Dark Agers didn't see it that way. It was a time of terrible magic tamed for all time by the Church, of chivalry, of just wars and good kings. People had a place in society, and the fact that it wasn't an ephemeral "job" gave people and their work a kind of eternal value, however base the job. They valued different things, regretted different things.

They adapted. So will our great-great-grandchildren.

5/11/13, 9:55 AM

JP said...
"Humans have no inborn, instinctive morality in them. You just have to live aboard and actually witness how other culture's good is other culture's bad and vice versa to learn this simple fact. Morality is learned virtue. It is learned through world explanation stories told by culture to which you belong. Behind all moral narratives are value judgments. Cold, indifferent universe around us does not make value judgments. Animals do no value judgments, they decide by instincts alone. We humans do value judgments, and all those judgments are build on sand. There is no reference point in physical universe for morality."

It's certainly true that there's no reference point in the physical universe for morality.

It's just as true to say that a rock cannot see the color green.

In any event, animals are prisoners of their own neurology. The problem, of course, is that we aren't.

While we are on the subject of Egypt and pyramids, I note that the Egyptians ended up believing in something along the lines of "the soul had to avoid a variety of supernatural dangers in the Duat, before undergoing a final judgment known as the "Weighing of the Heart". In this judgment, the gods compared the actions of the deceased while alive (symbolized by the heart) to Ma'at, to determine whether he or she had behaved in accordance with Ma'at."

Fascinating, I said to myself.
They figured that one out.

Meaning the judgment.

Against Ma'at.

Of course, you think that there isn't Ma'at.

"Maat or ma'at (thought to have been pronounced *[muʔ.ʕat]),[1] also spelled māt or mayet, was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice."

Cultural relativism is a funny thing.

Any in any event, you are going to find good and bad within even aspects of the culture.

Is catabolism bad? Well, when you are eating away at muscle and bond it sure is.

It's not so bad if you are catabolising cancer cells, now is it?

5/11/13, 10:42 AM

Robert said...
@ Juhana. I agree almost entirely except that I do think humans have instinctive morality in them although it is always manifested in their culture. The Golden Rule is that you should treat others as you would wish them to treat you. All humans understand that and even barbarian cultures have a strong sense of justice and honour. Atrocities against women and children are despised in every culture. This is both biological and social.

5/11/13, 11:19 AM

Juhana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

5/11/13, 12:19 PM

Renaissance Man said...
Your observations on the morphological similarities amongst various narratives makes me think of -- I cannot recall who said it -- the observation that "All stores (i.e. novels) have already been written. What is new is the way and how someone re-tells it.' Shakespeare, for example, was not really original in most of his writings, but he was original in the way he told them.
I also recall the gist of what Morris Bermann wrote in the late 1980s wherein he explores the recurring pattern of religious movements, from iconoclastic gnosis to Revelation of Truth to movement to dogma to corruption and another iconoclastic gnosis appears, sometimes hearalding a new religion, sometimes renewing an existing one. The pattern repeats and people cling to these patterns as Truth without recognizing it is a recurring pattern.
His suggestion however, was that the way to break from the pattern is to remain in the uncomfortable gap between the comforting narrative that presents a Truth and cold truth that is is just a narrative and nothing more. I don't know if his writings influenced pagan circles where we refer to UVP (Unverifiable Personal Gnosis) which appear as profound Truths but yet still accept that they are really just personal and however True for the person who experience them, they are also not necessarily true or relevant for anyone else. And so we keep these revelations from becoming Truth and remaining useful truths.
Perhaps, then, the key to real change is to recognize, as Juhana pointed out so cogently, that we are going to tell ourselves stories, indeed we need to, but to also be firmly aware at the same time that these are merely stories: lenses through which we can make sense of the world. Narratives which, if they don't exactly repeat, they certainly rhyme. They are true and they are also not-true; and in that awareness we may break the recurring cycle of 'this time... it's different' when it is most certainly not.

5/11/13, 1:42 PM

Greg Knepp said...
Juhana, your point is well put but, I believe, not entirely accurate. In fact, all social species have some instinctual framework for the purpose of facilitating cooperation within the group - such cooperation being necessary for the propagation of the gene pool. At the level of culture, such instincts manifest as shared standards of behavior called 'morals', 'laws', 'ethical standards', 'codes of conduct', 'manners' and the like. These standards differ somewhat from culture to culture, and obviously, wealthier societies can afford standards that are (at least ostensibly) more elevated that the standards of poorer ones. But, by in large, moral codes from diverse cultures share unmistakable similarities. The fact that morality is enshrined in religion as well as law in virtually every society speaks volumes about the importance of cooperative instincts to the survival of our species.

In his book "The Human Animal" Hans Hass told us that behaviors - both individual and group - that are common to the great majority of societies must be seen as having at least some grounding in human instinct.

A year or two latter, Desmond Morris in "The Naked Ape" warned against seeking human nature in backwater societies or failed cultures. Morris pointed out that, if you want to understand basic human behavior, look first at the mainstream...This revelation coming on the heels of Margaret Meade's infamous misread of the Samoan culture!

5/11/13, 2:01 PM

jeffinwa said...
Gold a deflating bubble? Surely not yet! Just a correction on it's way to bubbledom; too much interest still by too many with big pockets (read central banks for one) for it to be over yet.

Sure, it's not wealth but I'm hoping it can be traded for real wealth as things settle out.

Your mind and thoughts would likely be much appreciated at

The only other blog I read with regularity. I've tried to interest them in the Archdruid Report but except for a few I'm afraid there is too big a step. There is a lot of talk about preparing for changes and things to come. Just something to consider to fill all your free time with ;-)

Been noticing lately all the things that come in threes in this dualistic universe.

Sorry for the ramble; the garden calls; yum

5/11/13, 2:05 PM

Heraclitus the Obscure said...
Two Things:

1. Regarding the iterating speculative bubble that has been growing for the past several decades, I think it's worth pointing out that it has been very effective for one thing: It is a spectacularly effective mechanism for wealth re-distribution.

More and more of the smaller fish have been incentivised or compelled to risk their money in the financial markets, only to lose it all in the iterative pop at the end of each mini-bubble. However, the big players who can afford to weather those shocks remain within the bigger bubble that enfolds the smaller iterations, and pick up on the gains that are left over (even the CEOS of the most magnificent 2008 implosions had their golden parachutes).

The argument is made more completely by the Marxist geographer David Harvey. I don't share many of his presuppositions, but I think he's spot on about Neoliberalism since 1973 as an effective way for the Western aristocracy to secure the maximum relative slice of a pie that is declining in absolute terms. The drumbeat of de-regulation and the erosion of workers' rights represents another manifestation of this tendency, as we roll back the compromises born of an age when the larger pie was growing fast.

In the long term, it's a strategy just as maladaptive as that adopted by French aristocrats in the 1750s, but in the short term, I think we can argue that it seems eminently adaptive to the class that has its hands on the levers. I tried using some historical examples to contextualise the behaviour of contemporary American aristocracy in this essay:

"Big-Boned, Poetical, and Bearing a Harvard Degree: The Aristocrat, Ancient and Modern"

5/11/13, 3:35 PM

Heraclitus the Obscure said...
2. There seem to be a lot of people who are terribly anxious at the prospect of seeing all our conceptions of virtue and orienting narratives vanish into a skeptical vacuum. I do think it's worth bringing up Socrates again in this context, (pace JMG in a previous comment). Socrates was radically skeptical of securing absolute certainty about the texture of virtue and (one would presume), the shape of time. Yet he also insisted that the unexamined life was not worth living.

Abandoning childish certainties for prudent doubt does not mean losing your commitment to virtue or giving up on the orienting and vivifying power of narrative. It simply means giving up on the idea that your intelligence is so imperial that it can dictate the texture of virtue and the shape of time for all people in all places. The key is not wringing your hands over whether you personally have fondled the tits of Absolute Truth. The key thing is to abandon yourself totally to the pursuit of virtue and the creation of a narrative tapestry in concert with the people you love.

True, the essence (abandonment) requires a form (a historically contingent model of the texture of virtue and the shape of time), and it is worth having debates over the relative effectiveness of those forms. But that does not mean you can or should affirm any one of them without restriction or humility, or abandon the essence when you discover that such an idolatrous relationship with the form is a dead end. It is perfectly possible to pursue a localised simulacrum of the infinite or the perfect, what is by definition beyond human grasp, and to acknowledge it as such, without rotting the fruit of a life that is lived for something beyond yourself.

That's why shows like "The Wire" are so great. You can certainly see the social form represented by the cops as ultimately the superior one. But that in no way needs to obliterate your respect for people operating on the other side of the fence according to different rules. Omar knows better than most of the police that "a man must have his code." It's the appreciation of this essence that allows our sympathies to extend to people and cultures with virtues and narratives very different from our own, and to appreciate a kernel of meaning in all of human experience.

Our own little corner of the postmodern crisis of epistemology, like every other corner, does not need to be so scary as we think it does.

5/11/13, 3:35 PM

Yupped said...
@ Juhana, thanks for your response. Your English is great, and I always enjoy reading your comments. You said in your original comment that "human consciousness is nothing more than ability to narrate primordial chaos of world into coherent stories; if this is taken away from human being, all that is left are animal instincts in us". I disagreed with that, because it sounds too black and white. Our ability to think and conceptualize and rationalize and design codes of conduct is a big part of human consciousness, obviously. But in my experience it isn’t the only thing that characterizes being conscious. Similarly, you said “consciousness or abstract thinking is nothing else than ability to narrate story which arranges chaotic multitude of happenings around us into coherent stories”. Really, consciousness is nothing else than that? Nothing at all?

This isn’t a binary argument. I’m not saying there is some groovy land of love and happiness waiting for those who meditate away their opinions and stories. One would have to a bit of a ping pong head to believe that. Of course we all live by and within stories, and of course we are all subject to the many strands of these stories that bind our lives, consciously and unconsciously. And of course life can be harsh and dark and ugly, even (or especially) if you spend your life meditating in a cave. I am just saying that there is, in my experience, a level of consciousness beyond thinking, beyond concepts, that is deeper and very pleasant to be in, and in which I attempt to spend some of my time (when I’m not indulging in Internet commentary). And, believe me, I don’t turn into an animal when I’m there. Well, maybe a sleepy cat or an alert hamster. Ironically, I was only able to begin to experience this after quite a lot of darkness in my life caused in part by my various stories and concepts falling apart in various ways. But you might disagree, or see things differently, or think I’m kidding myself.

As regards the personal comments and condescension, that’s fine - I know you’ve got your hard man thing going on, which I actually quite enjoy and appreciate. But, since we’ve never met and you can really have no idea whether I actually am a gullibly naïve Zen meditator, I’m guessing you are just arguing with your own biases.

5/11/13, 4:04 PM

KL Cooke said...


"Plenty of babies are born without too much intention..."

Just as they were in the days before our early ancestors made the connection between sex and babies. I understand a few primitive societies maintained this disconnect until the arrival of the missionaries.

5/11/13, 9:22 PM

KL Cooke said...

Actually, your English skills are pretty good.

"Humans have no inborn, instinctive morality in them."

That's an interesting proposition that has been argued back and forth quite a bit. It seems to me, however, that it is not falsifiable, because the requisite experiment is unconscionable for moral reasons. So far, at least.

5/11/13, 10:20 PM

Juhana said...
@Yupped: Thanks for your answer. It clarified things a lot. I have no intention to disrespect serene calm of your meditation - it is echo of feeling shared by all humans experiencing religious ecstasy/meditation from dawn of time to this very day. I am just happy for you that you have found your solace there, and wish you good luck.

All I am saying that as humans, we have no ability to tear us away from earthly bonds. All we got is glimpse to that other place, then we are retracted back to this messy, but wonderful chaos of world. Heretic movement called bogomils or cathars nailed it in one respect; world is prison of distorting mirrors, and divine things hide behind them, forever out of reach.

Culture of your country is strong, and you have your own inner debates going on over there; I want no part in them. But just to mentally play with the idea how differently world can be seen, please look the map behind link below. Then think just one minute how different you would see world around you, if that area would be place called home for you. How differently you would perceive shape of geography; what would be your way to express universal concern about degradation of nature living there? It might be fun.

5/12/13, 1:15 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks for another excellent essay. Had you caught the news that the Euro Central Bank is considering negative interest rates to penalise large depositor’s from placing funds there? The intention is to get them to put those funds back into the market instead and hopefully fuel some sort of growth.

Meanwhile the troubles in Europe are slowly spreading north. Also, I noted that Golden Dawn in Greece has come into troubles with the authorities as their food handouts (good strategy by the way) required Greek ID cards and this is a definite no-no. The whole thing is a mares nest and youth unemployment is rising in Spain too on a weekly basis.

Iceland seems to be the only European country that has bought themselves some time by telling the rest of the world to get stuffed.

I strongly suspect that there are some entities that are borrowing money in the US at zero interest rates and depositing it here where they can get a low risk return? The downside is that it is killing the local manufacturing here due to high exchange rates. It is that mares nest again...

It has started to rain here and should continue for the next five days (they're predicting about 55mm or a bit over 2 inches). This has come on the back of some of the hottest May weather since 1866.

Wintry weather to replace Melbourne's warmth

There are still tomatoes on the vines happily ripening. The green tomatoes I'll bring inside over the next week or so to sit in front of the wood heater to ripen off, so I should have ripe tomatoes until well into June which is just weird (the rest get made into green tomato chutney, Yummo). Plus the garlic is now popping its' head above the soil, despite the lack of rain. A rhododendron, agapanthus and crab apple have even popped out quite a few flowers, completely at the wrong time of year of course. Plants don't lie, climate change is upon us.

I've read that spring is finally kicking in in the Northern hemisphere?

This week I'm fabricating the steel mast for the wind turbine. D-day for the solar generation here is 31st May (3 weeks before the winter solstice), so I hope to get the turbine up and running within the next two weeks. Time waits for no man - as they say...

I picked up some downgrade steel last week for the mast which was about 1/5th the price of new steel. All because it had a bit of rust on it. Go figure that out? I think we'll have to deal with a bit more than rust before decline has run its' course.

Hi Leo,

I've observed here that nature can be a difficult boss. Everything takes time. Imagine the effort involved in grinding acacia seeds into flour. We have it pretty easy.

PS: I travelled to Ballarat yesterday to visit an old mate of mine who is doing the whole permaculture thing on an urban block and I was gobsmacked at how dry it was out there:

Urban Permaculture Creating Abundance on an Urban block



5/12/13, 2:06 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Juhana,

Thank you for your excellent response last week.

All of what you said sounded reasonable.

However, the only thing I would add is that you have a very masculine tone to your response in that you focus on grains and bush meat. These are not the only game in town and I would strongly suggest that it would be worthwhile spending some of your time understanding and learning foraging skills for fungi, herbs and greens. So much has been lost, that I think the future belongs to the generalists.

The reason I mention this is because a diet of grain and protein is not particularly inductive to good health.



5/12/13, 2:20 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Phil,

No worries, that explanation from last week makes perfect sense.

There is an Aussie expression which is applicable: "Like a stunned mullet".



5/12/13, 2:22 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi everyone,

I know this is slightly off topic, but I came across a truly delightful tale about beer and home brew:

All things in liquidation

It is not only an excellent example of short story telling, but it is also worth noting that they used pilfered beer as a medium of exchange with a plumber. Surely, that brings some sort of relevance to this blog? I admit that it is slightly tenuous.

As an explanation of some of the terms:

A share house is a rented house in which unrelated people live. Lots of fun!

Sovereign Hill is a reproduction gold mining town in Ballarat (the second reference to this Victorian central highlands town this week).

A red rattler is a very old and now long since retired, red painted timber train. I remember travelling through the City Loop underground railway here on an electric one when I was quite young (a lethal fire risk!). You could even open the doors and windows anytime you liked, which was nice on a hot day.

Canberra is the nations capital city, which is surprisingly built in the middle of nowhere and is notable for its uninspiring homogenous culture.

Hope you enjoy the story and I strongly recommend home brew, for much the same reasons in that it is cheap. Few things are taxed as heavily as alcohol. A litre of home brew mead which is about 12% to 18% costs about AU$1 and it will be virtually free once the bees start producing more honey. That's not getting tricked by business. Plus it is an enduring medium of exchange.



5/12/13, 3:33 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Juhana,

One last thought which I forgot to mention.

How much of the harvest do those horses guiding the plough eat?

It is a serious question.



5/12/13, 3:45 AM

Bret said...
JMG, in what way(s) would it be overly reductive (or plain wrong) to encapsulate Augustine, for purposes of your narrative, as "escapist" and Joachim as "triumphalist"? Would that sum it up reasonably well? Could an elevator synopsis of this entry be that it's "adaptive" (or maybe "in line with human nature") to create escapist stories when decline tries to shake one's faith in an empire, or a religion, say? To, for instance, conjure up a utopia, out of ordinary time and place, where one's narrative (now meta-narrative, I guess) can be preserved? And that it's similarly "adaptive" (in the "only human" sense of going with the flow) to create stories of exponential progress where one has experienced only accelerating progress?

If so, is it far off base to think you might like your reader to use these examples to help her gain perspective on her (or her culture's) own current storytelling modes about the "shape of time", critique it and look to perhaps improve on it? A practical end for the exercise being to sort of pay better attention to the jagged edges of incipient catabolic collapse, within the larger process of a long descent from Hubbert's peak, using an awareness of meta-storytelling as a study aid?

Or have I missed important parts of the point?

On a separate note, I'd like to respectfully add my voice to those defending Daniel Quinn. It's been 20-plus years but my recollection is that the thrust of his effort was to shake people awake from a maladaptive meta-narrative, much as you seem to be about. I seem to recall him specifically rejecting "neo-primitivism"; I think he was less about prescription of any kind, and much more about diagnosing a reigning worldwide cultural metanarrative that combines escapism and triumphalism, among other tools, to sort of enslave us all, or paint us all as passengers on a train headed straight for the canyon, where the bridge has washed out. Could be I'm completely mistaken!

Anyway, thanks. It's good to have you and your other readers to come visit each week. Feels like a safe harbor.

5/12/13, 3:53 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Just got to your comment:

"Panskeptic, debt is a bubble of sorts, but it's not a classic speculative bubble of the kind I've discussed here."

This is something that I have often wondered about, because when I was a child, debt was something to be avoided at all costs.

I've been wondering whether in fact debt has played such a large part of peoples lives and culture in recent times because it allows a semblance of progress to continue. Individuals just put the day of acceptance off to some time in the future and take up the toys that debt buys now. Dunno?

Me, I'd rather cut, season and haul my own firewood than pay for LPG (liquified petroleum gas).



5/12/13, 4:15 AM

Justin G said...
I'm surprised you don't mention healthcare when talking about ridiculous bubbles. Fracking may be a bubble, but it represents such a small fraction of the overall economy that when it does pop I doubt it will have the impact of the real estate bubble, tech bubble or their like.

Healthcare, on the other hand, consumes 20% of our economy, yet we get worse health treatment than countries that spend half of that. As always, "it's different this time" is a common refrain, and in the case of medicine, it is different enough that we have allowed the bubble to inflate beyond even the mighty real estate bubble of the mid-aughts. Of course, this will make is all the messier when it comes unglued, which it inevitably will.

As the recent article "The Bitter Pill" pointed out, lobbyists have successfully framed the issue as "Who should pay?" while nobody was willing to ask "Why is it so expensive?"

Eventually a point will be reached where the 20% of our GDP that was going to pad the pockets of medical equipment companies, hospital executive and pharmaceutical companies will be needed for more important purposes, and the results will be at least as messy as the financial havoc we so recently witnessed.

5/12/13, 8:57 AM

JP said...
""Humans have no inborn, instinctive morality in them."

That's an interesting proposition that has been argued back and forth quite a bit. It seems to me, however, that it is not falsifiable, because the requisite experiment is unconscionable for moral reasons. So far, at least."

Human babies are profoundly neurologically incomplete.

This is what makes humans more than animals.

More in the sense of not being prisoners of their own neurology.

Some people are psychopaths, too.

5/12/13, 10:40 AM

JP said...

"That's why shows like "The Wire" are so great. You can certainly see the social form represented by the cops as ultimately the superior one. But that in no way needs to obliterate your respect for people operating on the other side of the fence according to different rules. Omar knows better than most of the police that "a man must have his code." It's the appreciation of this essence that allows our sympathies to extend to people and cultures with virtues and narratives very different from our own, and to appreciate a kernel of meaning in all of human experience. "

Omar basically self-issued himself Letters of Marquis.

If you want to be a criminal, issuing yourself Letters of Marquis is probably the best way to go.

5/12/13, 10:46 AM

Isis said...
Thanks everyone for your responses to my question about procreation!

I don't think it's all that difficult to understand why it might make perfectly good sense to someone with (say) a cyclic vision of time to bring children into the world. Even if those children will spend the rest of their lives on the downward slope of the cycle, they are still a necessary link in the cycle of death and rebirth (cultural and otherwise). What I still don't see is why someone with Hesiod's vision of time in which life only gets worse and worse and worse and worse, until the end of time, would procreate (except possibly by accident). Those of you who answered my question don't really share Hesiod's vision, even though you may have given up on Progress. It makes me wonder whether his vision may simply be the vision of disillusioned old men, and not of his typical contemporary of childbearing age(?). I'm hoping JMG may shed some light on this.

On Daniel Quinn: as others have pointed out, Quinn is not a proponent of neoprimitivism. What is true is that certain neoprimitivists (Jason Godesky comes to mind) have explicitly cited Quinn as a source of inspiration. JMG, I'd recommend reading Quinn's Ishmael trilogy to see what the man himself says. You may or may not find his ideas useful, but I dare say you would find them to be different from what you think they are!

5/12/13, 11:15 AM

Juhana said...
@Cherokee Organics: Yes, foraging berries, mushrooms etc. is very important. And diet limited to meat and grains would be hard for bowels and sense of smell at the same time...

When I was about knee-high little rascal, grandma used to ferry our asses into forest and then we started harvesting crops of forest god Tapio... Meaning berries and mushrooms. We do it as family every summer and autumn even nowadays. Family traditions, you suffer willingly couple of skeeter bites to uphold them... When I was moaning to grandma back then, she used to say "laiskan ei pidä syömän" (lazy one needs not to eat)... So value of foraging is vaguely familiar for me, I can say :).

I have to seriously check this masculine undercurrent in my postings, if it starts to define what I write down and what I don't... I am no fundamentalist of any color, but splashes from ongoing European grassroots revolution of nationalism/manhood rights/traditional values has come to my country also, and I found those topics awfully tempting... Being deeply disgusted and disillusioned about Swedish-style "progressiveness" as I am.

Moderation is always golden, I have to remember that better from this point onwards here in the internet also.

About horse nutrition: I have no exact numbers to give for you, and my off-duty stops tomorrow, so later. I am not going to be harassing internet conversations for some time now. But horses help to produce more than they eat. Plus horses are very, very heart-stealing creatures. Old workhorse gently taking carrot from your hand, while staring you into the eyes with cunning look... No car can do that. Man, you got to love those creatures.

And about human morality conversation: I originally wrote that human beings have ability to narrate stories about world around them... So they have latent ability to embrace ethical constructs from early age on. Sages of the tribe did just that old days and still do in more "impoverished" areas: teached little children what is good and what is bad... How to be proud and decent human beings.

Of course in current West there is no tribe, no sages, no families to speak of. But thankfully we have immense, corrupt and unconcerned bureaucratic teaching apparatus to mold children into good human beings... This apparatchik and troubled single-parent households typical for decaying West nowadays are doing SUCH a fine job in raising whole generation of children without fathers... You can witness wonderful results of their work in, let's say, any British downtown at Saturday evenings...

What a well-behaving flower of youth they are. It is actually surprising they can even read and write in their own home language anymore.

5/12/13, 1:13 PM

DeAnander said...
Some moral precepts may predate our humanity entirely, linking us with our closest cousins the chimps.

I wouldn't disregard *all* of morality as nurture, zero as nature. But then, with epigenetics getting more and more press, that neat little line between nature and nurture looks broader, fuzzier, and more fractal every day.

5/12/13, 2:01 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
Juhana, please be sure to come back with your comments once your off-duty has ended. Your comments make good sense to my dour 70-year old mind far more often than those of most other commenters. We see the world, and particularly the modern world, in very similar ways.

5/12/13, 4:44 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Robert, nicely phrased; thanks for the quote.

Das Monde, thank you! As for buying into a bubble, granted, so long as you have the self-control to get out soon enough. Most people who try to time a bubble end up convincing themselves that it's going to go up when it's actually crashing, and lose everything they gained and more.

Txprt6, interesting. Admittedly it's been a while since I read the Ishmael trilogy, and I found them unpleasant enough that I haven't been tempted to reread.

Greg, even granting the personification, evolution doesn't care about our survival, either. If we happen to adapt the right way, we leave progeny; if we don't, we go extinct. Either way, Gaia shrugs and goes on.

Yupped, I'll be discussing this in detail as we proceed. The very short form is that the stories of which we're conscious are only a small part of the stories we tell.

Justin, metal currency dropped almost completely out of use in post-Roman Western Europe; you were as likely to see a coin turned into a piece of jewelry for some barbarian chieftain's favorite concubine as you were to see it used in trade. Real estate and human labor became the foundation of the feudal economy, bound together by personal relationships of loyalty and service. As late as the 13th century people in rural areas rarely saw a coin from one year to the next. Was gold still valued? You bet, but most of it sat in locked rooms in the basements of castles or, again, got turned into jewelry or other luxury items; it had next to no role in the economy.

Isis, it's simple enough. Let's take Hesiod's scheme for starters. If the quality of life is certain to decline over time, sooner or later it will reach a point at which life is no longer worth living -- but that point may not have arrived yet, and it may not arrive for a long time to come. Even if your children are going to grow up in a more difficult world than you did, if there's still a reasonable hope that they can have a life that's better than not living at all, that would make it morally justifiable to procreate. Your great-grandchildren may grow up in a time when life is no longer worth living, but it would be reasonable to leave that choice to their parents, who would be closer to the situation and better able to judge.

As for people with children being more likely to believe in progress, I've seen that also. I've watched people argue themselves into believing in progress, in fact, because they wanted to have children.

Kathleen, that's a good idea. Have you considered starting one? Someone's got to take the initiative, after all.

Joseph, thank you.

5/12/13, 8:34 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Onething, they're keeping the publicity fairly quiet at this point, so the event doesn't get overwhelmed by too many people too soon. It'll be on next year, too; Memorial Day weekend is the planned date, from now until there's no longer enough transport available to get people to the site.

Michael, yes, that's a very different shape of time -- and an interesting riff on the original idea of Mappo, the Latter Age of the Dharma, which in most other Buddhist denominations is understood in a much more negative sense -- rather like Hesiod's view, except that eventually the future Buddha, Miroku, will appear and wind up the clock again.

Kevin, good. We'll be talking about the art of choosing a song as we get further along this sequence of posts.

Totara, I don't claim to know anything like enough about gold to offer a general theory; my take is simply that over the last couple of years, a huge number of people have piled into gold for no other reason than they thought it was going to keep on gaining in price forever, and have set off the standard bubble dynamics, complete with enthusiastic advice from shoeshine boys (or the close equivalent). Once the crash bottoms out, other factors will govern the variation in gold prices -- and I'll leave those to the experts.

Justin, let's look at what you've done here. You've found a quote from Quinn with which I wasn't familiar, and which suggests that Quinn's version of the Augustinian myth lacks the standard last act, and used that one data point to level a sweeping accusation at me. As rhetorical gimmicks go, that's certainly a clever one, but does it contribute to the conversation? Not that I can see. That said, thank you for the data point; I'll be showing next week how most versions of the Augustinian myth these days are fragmentary, and Quinn's version makes a good example of that.

Phil H., certain classes of electronics can be made one component at a time, fairly cheaply, with basement technology; radio equipment is a good example. Certain others will go away in a hurry once nobody can afford the huge investments in resources, energy, labor, and information necessary to maintain the facilities that make them; computer technology is a good example. The difference is important -- well, at least if you think having long distance communication in the far future is a good idea!

JP, all human societies have some concept of morality; the point that Juhana was making, which seems to have been missed by many of the commenters, is that those concepts differ drastically from one society to another. The ancient Egyptian concept of ma'at involves moral concepts many Americans would have difficulty accepting -- for example, disrespect to the government is a serious moral fault in Egyptian terms, and so is using more words than necessary when speaking. There are plenty of cultures where murder is a moral duty, where rape is considered normal behavior -- I could go on for quite some time. It's only when the conversation stays on the level of abstractions ("all cultures have morality") that it's possible to ignore the diversity of moral codes.

Renaissance, exactly. That was one of Nietzsche's points as well.

Jeffinwa, nothing is more common than for people in the last stages of a bubble to insist that the bubble has much longer to run. I'd encourage you to find a copy of Dow 36,000 and read it...

Heraclitus, true enough. Have you read Paul Blumberg's Inequality in an Age of Decline? He discusses the scramble for wealth in a declining economy in useful detail.

5/12/13, 9:08 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, no, I hadn't heard that, but I'm not a bit surprised. Over the next decade or two, I suspect, the most important and least understood source of economic crisis will be the need to stop allowing money to earn money, because economic growth -- which is what made that habit viable -- has gone the way of the brontosaurs.

Bret, that's a workable summary, though Augustine's shape of time seems to be adaptive in a much wider range of contexts than you've suggested. As for Quinn, once you envision history as a process that began in a much better world and, after a Fall, is chugging toward disaster -- in your metaphor, "headed straight for the canyon, where the bridge has washed out" -- you're basically in Augustine's camp. As I commented to Justin Wade above, Quinn merely leaves out the very last act.

Cherokee, that's certainly my take on it -- taking on debt allows individuals to pretend that everything's normal when it isn't, and it also allows the system as a whole to engage in the same pretense, since the mass production of debt can cover, for a time, declines in the mass production of real wealth.

Justin G, it's a different kind of bubble. I may need to do a post one of these days on -- let's call them Parkinson Bubbles, after Parkinson's Law, since they emerge when an industry manages to expand metastatically to take up available money and resources -- as distinct from the speculative kind, which we might as well call Ponzi Bubbles. An interesting point deserving attention!

JP, I'd suggest an amendment: "Human beings are not entirely prisoners of their own neurology."

Isis, as I mentioned above, I read the Ishmael trilogy some years ago. I'll take note of the fact that he's not, strictly speaking, a neoprimitivist -- he simply shares with them a vision in which the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is Eden, the invention of agriculture the Fall, and so on. Which was, please note, my point.

DeAnander, it wouldn't surprise me at all if some of the themes of human moral codes are common to the other social primates. That simply makes genetic evolution, rather than cultural evolution, the process that selected them as more adaptive than the alternatives. Chimps also engage in war and murder, by the way, and an argument could be made that those habits are just as much the product of genetic evolution as a sense of fairness...

5/12/13, 9:25 PM

das monde said...
Should morality depend on the slope (growth or decline) of civilization? In a prolonged extreme decline, with clear shortages of resources, will the ethical questions of equality, homosexuality, abortion, etc have the same priority?

5/13/13, 12:03 AM

Juhana said...
Last post for a while. JMG, that was my point exactly! Thanks for clarification in English language.

When crisis of physical limits hits complex system of exchange, it is always weakest link that falls first. During Bronze Age Collapse, it was reign of Mittani. During Migration Period, it was western part of the Empire that vanished.

End of age of abundance and security always hits down weakest of the herd first. Western society with it's vanished moral base, excessive consumption habits and zillions of unsolved social problems is the weakest link right now. If reader's of this blog have been to China or Asia lately, they know that even as recession has hit those areas, they are not been hit to canvas like Western Europe and largely USA.

It is hard to find writings with English language that truly show how shockingly deep is West European crisis right now. Russians are much more inclined to write about apparent weaknesses of their old ideological enemy. If you are restricted to English language alone, here are couple of good links to shed some light to issue. I believe that JMG and Chris from Cherokee Organics might enjoy them at least. Now, your humble commenter cheks out and thanks all participants for interesting conversation!

5/13/13, 12:13 AM

shrama said...
I use the prison metaphor quite often in describing the relationship between human beings and their nervous systems. The way I put it is like this: Yes, we are prisoners of our nervous systems but the prison walls are far apart and have big enough windows that you can, if you choose, build a mcmansion or grow an organic garden inside.

5/13/13, 1:01 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks. It was interesting that you also mentioned that debt itself was a bubble in that there is so much money sloshing around the system due to quantitative easing that it is difficult to find projects with a positive return.

Anyway, in these circumstances, high risk lending becomes the norm and I read an interesting article in the paper about Covenant-light lending practices in the US. This practice refers to lending from banks to businesses which does not require the usual sort of messy and problematic (I'm being ironic) covenants such as asset to liability ratios etc.

Covenant-light lending making its presence felt again

Scary stuff and it is certainly indicative of decline when good banking and corporate governance standards are thrown out the window.



5/13/13, 2:02 AM

Phil Harris said...
Thanks for the reply
JMG WROTE: "... certain classes of electronics can be made one component at a time, fairly cheaply, with basement technology; radio equipment is a good example. ..."

It occurs to me to ask what the future is for electronic money - perhaps in the next decades?

Relevant just now to a significant point you made in this week's essay? That 'money' sloshing round the world is determined to get in where it can. Quote from a recent report: "There is much skepticism about [recent China increased] export number which does not square with other indicators of economic activity and import data from China’s major trading partners. The suspicion is that Chinese exporters are “over-invoicing” as a means to import capital in violation of government regulations.

Phil H

5/13/13, 3:59 AM

JP said...
"JP, I'd suggest an amendment: "Human beings are not entirely prisoners of their own neurology."

In any event, neurology and instinct aren't what's causing the problem.

It's human's problematic patterns of thoughts, free from the bonds of instinct, that have a life of their own, and that are causing the problem.

See the "religion of progress" or the entire "end of the world" examples for details.

The bars of the neurological prison have been twisted and torn, however, we now face monsters of the id, monsters that we created.

See "Forbidden Planet" for an amusing take on this.

5/13/13, 6:35 AM

Kathleen K said...
Re: Green wizard dating
Heh. I don't have the technical skills to create a website, and even just starting a forum on the green wizards site itself would require more time at the computer than I should be spending right now--I'm not even active on the site.

As for the shape of occurs to me that it's only our modern shape of time (...there I go again) that makes us obsessed with "firsts". The first person to do something, the first time someone had an idea, the first invention of some machine...would, say, the Ancient Egyptians really have even noticed? Or, at least, would they have framed it like we do? Was Hesiod just as focused on "lasts"? Do steady-state or cyclical cultures even have a concept of ultimate firsts and lasts?

5/13/13, 9:32 AM

DeAnander said...
It figures that there is "too much money" sloshing around chasing investments... money is only valuable because it can be exchanged for resources. The resources have been drawn down severely in the process of creating all this notional money-wealth, so now there is less real stuff for that money to be worth, so... it's a big game of musical chairs and the chairs keep disappearing faster and faster, because we're shredding those chairs and using them to make paper money :-)

5/13/13, 10:13 AM

DeAnander said...
Is it just me, or is the Captcha getting wicked hard to read? sometimes I have to refresh it 6 times before I get text my eyes can untangle.

5/13/13, 10:14 AM

Bret said...
Just as a quick follow-up to an earlier question and response, I'd be curious to get a more explicit fix on how you define "adaptive" when you say someone's shape of time is or isn't.

If I'm correctly understanding Augustine's shape to be functionally "escapist", in that it postulates an imaginary world, a utopia, that is held to be above and beyond the problems of this world, then I suppose it's adaptive in preserving an ideology/religion beyond its otherwise pull date, but I'm not seeing how it's especially adaptive in the sense of bettering the lot of those who adopt it compared with that of those who don't. I'd think the goal of any "shape of time" (or most any other mental construct) should be to accurately reflect reality on the ground (thereby serving the fitness of the organism, not the ideology), and correctly gauging the extent to which it does that would be how one defines it as adaptive or not.

Maybe you can speak to my confusion on that at some point, unless I've missed it in a prior post. Thanks again.

5/13/13, 8:06 PM

KL Cooke said...
."...a vision in which the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is Eden."

For those with such a vision, it's worth noting that based on paleolithic evidence, human life expectancy was about 35 years, 40 at the maximum.

5/13/13, 9:01 PM

KL Cooke said...
"If reader's of this blog have been to China or Asia lately, they know that even as recession has hit those areas, they are not been hit to canvas like Western Europe and largely USA."

Presumably because they've always been on the canvas, but as life styles go, that's a tough sell.

5/13/13, 9:12 PM

RPC said...
A note on K L Cooke's life expectancy of 35 to 40 years for hunter-gatherers...half of all children born alive could be expected to die by age 5 or so. That plus another burst of mortality in the late teens (warfare for men, childbearing for women) largely accounts for the "short" lifespan. If you could dodge the reaper until you reached 25 or so, you could reasonably expect to make it to your late 60s. And it wasn't just hunter-gatherers - this pattern generally held in the West until the revolutions in public sanitation and vaccination in the 20th century.

5/14/13, 1:26 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Das Monde, I tend to think of any question beginning with "should" as a waste of breath. Does morality depend on the slope of civilization? Indeed it does -- which is a helpful caution against treating our own moral ideas as self-evident, or our own moral achievements as permanent.

Juhana, it's going to be interesting to see whether western Europe or the US falls hardest as this latest round of crisis builds.

Shrama, that'll work.

Cherokee, yes, I saw that. I think of it as one of the ways that excess money seeks its own elimination.

Phil H., I don't propose to predict what's going to happen to the various e-money schemes in the immediate future. In the slightly longer run, any form of wealth other than actual goods and services is going to turn into twinkle dust, because the mass production of claims on wealth that have no wealth backing them has become very nearly the only growth industry we have left.

JP, that's one way of thinking about it, though a case could be made that the instinct to breed isn't exactly helping matters.

Kathleen, that's a useful point! Firsts are especially important in our current religion of progress for reasons I'll be discussing in the upcoming posts; in some other shapes of time they're considered important also, but for other reasons.

DeAnander, nicely put. If it's a matter of unquestioned faith that the number of claims on wealth (i.e., money of various kinds) ought to increase over time, and the amount of wealth available to answer that claim starts to decrease over time, you're pretty much guaranteed a world of hurt.

Bret, no, "adaptive" doesn't mean "true;" it's easy to think of many situations in which the belief system most likely to benefit the species and the community is not the belief system that copies our current notions of "reality on the ground" most accurately. Augustine's was one of them. Facing half a dozen centuries of chaos, violence, impoverishment, population decline, and the loss of most of Roman technology, culture and the arts, most of what we would consider realistic belief systems would mostly encourage people to drink themselves to death. A belief system that taught people to do the right thing anyway, under the conviction that this would be rewarded in Heaven, was vastly more adaptive -- that is, more beneficial for the species, the community, and in most cases, the individual as well.

KL, I was about to make RPC's point about lifespans, but s/he beat me to it. As for who's on the canvas or not, quite a few corners of the world are finding conditions sharply improving as the global hegemony of the US and its western European client states implodes. The Third World as we've known it -- starving, impoverished, beaten -- was almost entirely a product of the imperial wealth pumps of the 19th and 20th centuries, and our prosperity was purchased at their expense. Now comes the payback...

5/14/13, 3:58 PM

DeAnander said...
About lifespan statistics (lies and damned lies, as the man said), there is another aspect to which we might pay passing attention. Our First World longevity stats are skewed in the other direction by the large number of people kept alive well into their late 80s and 90s, not necessarily according to their own wishes, by a lot of intrusive intervention and constant medical support. The actual *healthy*, *active*, *functional* lifespan you can expect in the industrialised world is probably quite a bit shorter, somewhere around the traditional threescore and ten of a well-nourished, healthy Mediterranean yeoman farmer.

So our stats (using deceptive averages) make the gatherer-hunters look worse, and ourselves look better -- which I guess is what statistics are for.

5/14/13, 5:33 PM

Mark Angelini said...
Thanks for the chuckle with the Jensen reference!

5/14/13, 6:34 PM

Fabrice said...
Hi John,

I am ovate. I didn't read this article and come to you about warfare and politic fiction in Africa. You know that we have the lead with the identification of the real nature of the crisis in 2005. My great question today is how we can contribute to peace. For your information, the relationship between Westerner and Chinese have broke down in Hong Kong with recent news in Syria and Korea. BUT REMEMBER we got the lead with the understanding of 2005 crisis.

5/14/13, 10:37 PM

Justin Wade said...
That Quinn quote is taken directly from the book that you specifically suggest follows the back to primitives living restoration. Your point is that the book follows a particular narrative, when it explicitly does not. How is quoting the book a rhetorical trick? Quinn wrote a follow up book, which goes on at length about the same thing. Should I gather more data points? I am operating in a comment thread.

As for the others, I am not familiar enough with them to determine if your Augustine narrative holds beyond caricature.

In general, I've noticed that when you cite subjects where I am familiar with the source material, your characterizations and generalizations are often misleading and fitted to the points you are trying to make. I don't usually say anything because its kind of pointless when you get so defensive. It does make me wonder about the sources I am unfamiliar with.

Is it really that hard to say you were wrong to include Quinn in that list of examples? Maybe you should try finding data points in support of your statement, evidence is more than a rhetorical trick.

5/14/13, 11:55 PM

KL Cooke said...
"If you could dodge the reaper until you reached 25 or so, you could reasonably expect to make it to your late 60s."

According to this, the odds against making it past 40 back in the "good old days" were three to one.

This site contains a table of life expectancy from the paleolithic to the present. I don't know how accurate it is, but it's interesting.

"Now comes the payback..."

Indeed, but do they get the wealth pump now?

5/15/13, 12:44 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Yes of course. On reflection it seems obvious, although previously it wasn't to me. Those alchemy dispels of yours again! You are doing quite a thorough job, I wonder how many realise this?

Truly it had never occurred to me that the excess funds could be simply "disappeared" that way. Fascinating stuff. I'm too much of a consequentialist... Still, there is something tickling the back of my brain (an as yet unformed idea) about the whole process being self-defeating and yet the process still continues.

PS: I have now received over 35mm of rain in the past few days and the main tanks are now full and the reserve tanks have all started to refill (albeit very slowly). For the first time in months, I breathed a huge sigh of relief today as I saw water pouring into the reserves. I'm very frugal with water anyway, but I've been using it almost as fast as nature has been providing it since early last spring and that is not a sustainable situation. Had it come to the end of this August and I was still in this situation, then drastic measures would have been called for.

Tomorrow is all about comfrey!

I look forward to your next essay. Thanks for the alchemy!



5/15/13, 3:16 AM

Steve Morgan said...
On the whole "Daniel Quinn isn't a neoprimitivist" issue, I think it's worth pointing out two things. First, here's his own blurb of Ishmael from his own website:

"Ishmael's paradigm of history is startlingly different from the one wired into our cultural consciousness. For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren't born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world."


That sounds a whole lot like Augustine's narrative, minus the last act where Eden is restored. It fits JMG's statement in the relevant paragraph of this post, in my opinion.

Second, if we apply "neoprimitivist" as a category rather than a definition that one can personally "reject"(see the earlier post on morphological thinking, as well), then Quinn fits like a glove. Of course his novel doesn't suggest dying in a hail of gunfire in some Armageddon-like battle (a la Jensen's comic book), but it wouldn't have sold nearly as many copies if it made any concrete suggestions, and would have made for a pretty lousy novel. Still, the similarities in narrative between Quinn and Jensen are much greater than the differences, as though one was Catholic and the other Lutheran.

For all the people jumping in to clear Quinn's name, though, I have yet to see someone suggesting another narrative category that better fits his writing than the one JMG used.

5/15/13, 2:31 PM

SpanktorTheGreat said...
My worry is that now for the first time in history the power to make ones own apocalyptic fantasies come true is in the hands of a small group of people making decisions for the rest of us. Please tell my why this worry is silly so I can get on with my life!

5/16/13, 6:22 PM

SpanktorTheGreat said...
Anyone?........Is the question to simple for an answer?

6/26/13, 8:10 PM