Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What Actually Happens

When you think about it, it’s really rather odd that so many people nowadays should be so hostile to the suggestion that history moves in circles. Central to the rhetoric that celebrates industrial civilization’s supposed triumph over the ignorant and superstitious past is the notion that our beliefs about the world are founded on experience and tested against hard facts. Since the cyclic theory of history gave Oswald Spengler the basis for accurate predictions about the future—predictions, mind you, that contradicted  the conventional wisdom of his time and ours, and proved to be correct anyway—wouldn’t it be more reasonable to consider the suggestion that his theory applies to our civilization too?

Reasonable or not, of course, that’s not what generally happens. Suggest that industrial civilization is following the same arc of rise and fall as all previous civilizations have done, and shows every sign of completing the rest of that trajectory in due time, and outside of a few circles of intellectual heretics on the fringes of contemporary culture, what you’ll get in the way of response is an angry insistence that it just ain’t so.  The overfamiliar claim that this time it really is different, that modern industrial civilization will either keep soaring ever higher on the way to some glorious destiny or plunge overnight into some unparalleled catastrophe, is wedged so tightly into the collective imagination of our age that not even repeated failure seems to be able to break it loose.

That last comment is anything but hyperbole; the repeated failures have happened, and are happening, without having the least effect on the claims just mentioned. Glance back over the last half century or so, to start with, and notice just how many prophecies of progress and apocalypse have ended up in history’s wastebasket.  From cities in orbit and regular flights to the Moon, through fusion power and household robots who can cook your dinner and do your laundry for you, to the conquest of poverty, disease, and death itself, how many supposedly inevitable advances have been proclaimed as imminent by scientists and the media, only to end up in history’s wastebasket when it turned out that they couldn’t be done after all? Of all the dozens of great leaps forward that were being announced so confidently in my youth, only a few—notably the computer revolution—actually happened, and even there the gap between what was predicted and what we got remains vast.

It’s indicative that the humor magazine The Onion, which makes its money by saying the things nobody else in American life is willing to say, ran an edgy piece a few months back announcing that Americans had begun to grasp that the shiny new era of progress and innovation promised so many times was never actually going to happen.  No doubt sometime soon they’ll run a similar story about the claims of imminent cataclysm that fill the same role on the other side of the spectrum of industrial society’s folk beliefs about the future. Year after weary year, the same grandiose visions of destiny and disaster get dusted off for one more showing,; they resemble nothing so much as a rerun of a television show that originally aired when your grandparents were on their first date, and yet audiences across the industrial world sit there and do their best to forget that they’ve watched the same show so often they could close their eyes and plug their ears and still recall every tawdry detail.

Meanwhile, over the same half century or so, a very different story has been unfolding here in America and, to a significant extent, elsewhere in the industrial world. Cheap, easily accessible deposits of the resources on which industrial civilization depends have been exhausted, and replaced with increasing difficulty by more expensive substitutes, at steadily rising costs in money, labor, energy, and other resources; the national infrastructure and the natural environment have both been drawn into an accelerating spiral of malign neglect; standards of living for most of the population have been sliding steadily, along with most measures of public health and meaningful education; constitutional rights and the rule of law have taken a beating, administered with equal enthusiasm by both major parties, who seem incapable of agreeing on anything else even when the welfare of the nation is obviously at stake.

In other words, while one set of true believers has been waiting hopefully for the arrival of a bright new golden age of scientific and technological progress, and another set of true believers has been waiting just as hopefully for the arrival of the vast catastrophe that will prove to their satisfaction just how wrong everyone else was, history ignored them both and brought what it usually brings at this season of a civilization’s life: that is to say, decline.

Even so, our collective fixation on those two failed narratives shows few signs of slipping. It’s uncomfortably easy to imagine an America a century from now,  in fact, in which half the sharply reduced population lives in squalid shantytowns without electricity or running water, tuberculosis and bacterial infections are the leading causes of death, cars and computers are luxury goods assembled from old parts and reserved for the obscenely rich, and space travel is a distant memory—and in which one set of true believers still insists that the great leap upward into a golden age of progress will get going any day now, another set insists just as passionately that some immense cataclysm is about to kill us all, and only a few intellectual heretics on the fringes of society are willing to talk about the hard facts of ongoing decline or the destination toward which that decline is pretty obviously headed.

There’s no shortage of irony here, because modern industrial culture’s fixation on fantasies of progress and apocalypse and its irritable rejection of any other possibilities have contributed mightily to the process of decline that both sets of fantasies reject out of hand. Since the early 1980s, when the industrial world turned its back on the hopes of the previous decade and slammed the door on its best chance of a smooth transition to sustainability, every attempt to bring up the limits to growth or propose a useful response to the impending mess has been assailed by partisans of both fantasies; the rhetoric of progress—"I’m sure they’ll come up with something," "There are no limits to the power of technology," and so on—has been precisely balanced by the rhetoric of apocalypse—"Jesus will come soon so we don’t have to worry about that," "It’s too late to save humanity from inevitable extinction," and so on.  Thirty years on, the breakthroughs have proven just as elusive as the catastrophes, but the rhetoric still plods onward.

Behind both sides of that rhetoric, I’ve come to believe, is a habit of thought that’s deeply ingrained in contemporary consciousness—the habit, mentioned toward the end of last week’s post, of postulating an imaginary "real world" that contains some set of desirable features the actual world lacks, and then condemning the actual world for its failure to measure up to the imaginary one.  Few corners of modern have escaped that habit of thinking, and fewer still have avoided being harmed by it.

Take politics, which used to be the process of finding acceptable compromises among the competing needs and wants of members of a community.  These days that process has been all but swamped by supporters of an assortment of fictive worlds—consider the heavily fictionalized pre-1960s America that features so heavily in Christian fundamentalist rhetoric, in which Christian faith was universal, happy families all prayed together on Sunday mornings, and gays, atheists, and other deviant types were safely quarantined in New York City, for example, or for that matter the assorted utopias of political correctness to be found on the other end of the political spectrum. People who are struggling to make the actual world conform to some imaginary one are rarely prepared to accept the compromises, the negotiations, and the quest for common ground that make for functional politics, and the result is the stalemate between entrenched factions that pervades politics on nearly all levels today.

From public health to personal ethics, from dietary choices to the management of the economy, the words are different but they’re all sung to the same old tune.  Abstract theories about how the world ought to work are treated as descriptions of how the world actually works, and heaven help you if you suggest that the theories might be judged by comparing them to the facts on the ground. All the usual contortions of cognitive dissonance then come into play when, as so often happens, measures that are supposed to improve public health make it worse, moral stances intended to improve the world cause more harm than good, diets that are supposed to make people healthy actually make them sick, economic programs proclaimed as the key to lasting prosperity run one economy after another straight into the ground, and so on.

What’s the alternative? Simply put, it involves setting aside our own desires, preferences, and sense of entitlement, and paying attention to the way things actually happen in the world.

It’s important not to overthink what’s being said here. Philosophers since ancient times have pointed out, and quite rightly, that human beings have no access to absolute truth; the world as we experience it comes into being out of the interaction between the "buzzing, blooming confusion" of raw sensory data and the structures of the individual consciousness. Whatever its relevance to the deeper questions of philosophy, a subject I don’t propose to address here, the world as we experience it is as close as we need to get to reality to apply the proposal I’ve just made. In the world as we experience it, some things happen reliably, other things happen unpredictably, and still other things never seem to get around to happening at all—and it’s not hard, even across cultural and linguistic barriers, to find common ground concerning which things belong in which of these categories.

That quest for common ground among the vagaries of individual experience is among other things the basis of modern science. The theory of gravitation is an elegant mathematical way of summing up the fact  that billions of individual human beings have had the experience of watching something fall, and each one of those experiences had important features in common with all the others, as well as with such apparently unconnected things as the apparent movements of the Sun in the sky. The kind of knowledge found in the theory of gravitation, and the whole range of other scientific theories, is not absolute truth; it’s always at least a little tentative, subject to constant testing and reformulation as more data comes in, but it was good enough to put human bootprints on the Moon, and it was gained by setting aside narratives that played on the preferences of the individual and collective ego, in order to listen to what Nature herself was saying.

Suggest that this attentiveness to what actually happens is a good idea when dealing with falling rocks, and you’ll get little debate. It’s when you suggest that the same approach might be usefully applied to falling civilizations that the arguments spring up, but the principle is the same in both cases. Over the last five thousand years or so, scores of societies have risen and fallen, and their trajectories through time, like those of falling rocks, have had important features in common. It’s easy to insist that because contemporary industrial society differs from these other societies in various ways, those common features have nothing to say to our future, but what follows this claim? Inevitably, it’s yet another weary rehash of the familiar, failed narratives of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse. If the present case really is unprecedented, wouldn’t it make more sense either to suggest some equally unprecedented model for the future, or simply to shrug and admit that nobody knows what will happen? Both these responses would make more sense than trotting out what amounts to scraps of medieval theology that have been dolled up repeatedly in pseudosecular drag since the market for religious prophecy turned south in the eighteenth century.

I’d like to suggest that it’s high time for both narratives to be put out to pasture. No, I’ll go further than that. I’d like to suggest that it’s high time for all our stories about the world and ourselves to be tested against the yardstick of what actually happens, and chucked if they can’t meet that test.

What I’m suggesting here needs to be understood with a certain amount of care. Knowledge about the world takes two broad forms, and the connection between them is rather like the connection between a pile of bricks and lumber, on the one hand, and the house that will be built out of the bricks and lumber, on the other.  The first form of knowledge is history in the broadest sense of the world—a sense that includes what used to be called "natural history," the careful collection of observed facts about the world of nature. Before Isaac Newton could sit down in his Cambridge study and work out the theory of gravitation, hundreds of other investigators had to note down their own observations about how things fall, and tens of thousands of astronomers down the centuries had to look up into the sky and notice where the little moving lights they called "wanderers"—planetoi in Greek—had turned up that night. That was the gathering of the bricks and the milling of the lumber that would eventually be used to build the elegant structure of Newton’s gravitational theory.

Long before Newton got to work, though, his brick-hauling and lumber-gathering predecessors had picked up quite a bit of relevant knowledge about how rocks fall, how planets move, and a range of similar things, and could explain in quite some detail what these things did and didn’t do. The theoretical models they used to explain these regularities of behavior weren’t always that useful—I’m thinking here especially of those medieval mystics who were convinced that rocks were head over heels in love with the Earth, and would fling themselves in the direction of their beloved whenever other forces didn’t prevent them from doing so—but the regularities themselves were well understood. That’s the kind of knowledge that comes from a close study of history. Once enough historical data has been gathered, that empirical knowledge can often be summarized and replaced by a coherent theory, but that’s not always possible; if the subject is complex enough, the number of examples is small enough, or both, a meaningful theory may remain out of reach. In that case, though, the empirical knowledge is well worth having, since it’s the only real knowledge you have to go on.

The trajectory of human civilizations over time is an immensely complex subject, and the scores of societies that have risen and fallen during recorded history still forms a small enough data set that strict theoretical models may be premature. That leaves the empirical knowledge gathered from history.  It’s impossible to prove from that knowledge that the same patterns will continue to happen, just as it was impossible for one of the medieval mystics I mentioned to disprove the claim that now and then a rock might have a lover’s quarrel with the Earth and fall straight up into the sky to get away from her. Still, when known patterns are already at work in a given society, it’s reasonable to accept that they’re likely to continue to their normal end, and when a given theory about the future has failed every time it’s been proposed, it’s just as reasonable to dismiss it from consideration and look for alternatives that work better in practice.

This is what I’d like to ask my readers to do. Each of us carries around an assortment of narratives about what the future might be like, most of them derived from one or another corner of popular culture or from various older traditions and writings. Each of us uses those narratives, consciously or otherwise, as templates into which scraps of information about the future are fitted, and very often this is done without paying attention to what history has to say about the narratives themselves.  Instead, I’d like to suggest that it’s worth taking a hard look at those narratives whenever they surface, and checking them against the evidence of history. Has anything like this happened before, and if so, what results followed? Has anyone ever believed something like this before, and if so, how did that belief work out in practice? These are the kinds of questions I encourage my readers to ask.

I’m aware that this is a heavy burden—much heavier than it may seem at first glance, because it involves discarding some of our most cherished cultural narratives, including those that have become central to a great many modern religious traditions. Those of my Christian readers who believe that their scriptures predict a total overturning of the order of history in the near future may feel that burden more sharply than most. To them, I would point out that the belief in an imminent and literal apocalypse is only one of several ways that devout Christians have interpreted the scriptures. A great many believers in Christ have seen his words on the Mount of Olives as a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, and the Book of Revelations as a prophecy—put in symbolic terms to get past Roman censors—of the impending decline and fall of the Roman Empire: both events, it bears noting, having far more immediate importance to their audiences than, say, a cataclysm in the distant twenty-first century. My Jewish readers will have to fill me in about the range of accepted  interpretations of the prophecies concerning the Messianic kingdom—it’s not a subject I know much about—but I’d be very surprised, given the ebullient nature of rabbinic debate, if there weren’t plenty of options as well, including some that don’t require history to be stood on its head.

My atheist readers will have an easier time of it in one sense but, in at least some cases, as hard a time in others. To believe that the universe is mere matter and energy without purpose or consciousness, that humanity is simply one more biological species to which evolution has granted a few unusual gifts, and that nobody is peering anxiously down from the sky to observe our species’ foibles and bail it out from its mistakes, might seem to offer few obstacles to the sort of realism I’m proposing. Still, I’ve met an embarrassingly large number of atheists who accord humanity the same privileged status and glorious destiny that prophetic religions claim for their believers. It might seem odd to portray humanity as the Chosen Species while denying that there’s anybody to do the choosing, but such is the nature of the return of the repressed.  To those of my atheist readers who indulge in such imaginings, I would encourage attention to the presuppositions of their own beliefs, and a particularly close study of past claims of progress and apocalypse that didn’t happen to include a god as one of the stage properties.

To those of my readers who share my Druid faith, or any of the other movements in today’s inchoate but lively field of nature-centered spirituality, I hope I may speak even more frankly. For those who recognize the ways of Nature as a revelation of the powers that create and sustain the cosmos, as Druidry does, the notion that the world will abandon her normal ways and jump through hoops like a trained seal to satisfy our sense of entitlement or our craving for revenge is really pretty absurd. To study nature from a Druid perspective is to learn that that limitation is the first law of existence, that what looks like a straight line to us is merely part of a circle too large to see at a single glance, that every movement generates and is balanced by a corresponding countermovement, that what systems theory calls negative feedback and an older way of thought calls the Royal Secret of equilibrium governs all things and all beings, with or without their conscious cooperation. In such a cosmos—and all things considered, a strong case can be made that this is the kind of cosmos we live in—there’s no room for the paired fantasies of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse, except as exhibits in a display of the odd things human beings talk themselves into believing from time to time.

Other faiths face their own challenges in dealing with the task I’ve proposed. I hope that at least some of my readers will be willing to attempt that task, though, because it’s far less abstract than it might seem at first; it has practical applications that bear directly on the hard work of preparing for the difficult future ahead. We’ll discuss that next week.


I'm really enjoying your recent ruminations on the ways we understand (or fail to) ourselves in history, and the implications thereof. If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading through Tom Patterson's _Change and Development in the Twentieth Century_. It deals with many of the same currents you identify, and posits an interesting foundation for our willful blindness.

6/19/13, 11:25 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Patrick, many thanks for the tip -- no, I haven't read it yet, but my local library system has greatly improved its interlibrary loan program, so I can remedy that.

6/19/13, 11:58 PM

Jo said...
I first read Nevil Shute's novel The Far Country many years ago, and the opening scenes have always stayed with me. A formerly wealthy, middle-class Indian Army colonel's widow dies alone in her flat, essentially from starvation, as the sun sets on the former British Empire, post-WWII. Her nephew, an exhausted doctor enslaved to the new NHS scheme, contemplates the drab existence his daughter will endure as the 'new normal' compared to the glorious sunshine of Edwardian glamour he experienced as a young man.
I remember the jolt of anxious recognition I felt when I realised one day that maybe my grandchildren, certainly my great-grandchildren, would be likely to experience that same contraction of their horizons, that again due to our national debts far exceeding our capacity to produce actual goods, that we will be telling them tales of flying around the world, of whole cities lit up at night, of central heating and tumble driers.. and they will sound like fairy tales.. and we will all be making do and mending again as we become the nouveau pauvre..
I noted this week that France's government has decreed that all commercial buildings will be required to turn out their lights at night to save power. Hardly the action of a government which believes in eternal progress. When will the citizens catch on?

6/20/13, 12:01 AM

Shakya Indrajala said...
I found this really thought provoking.

As a Buddhist monk and scholar of history, it is a good challenge, especially when I look at my own beliefs.

Naturally the first notion that comes to mind about discerning the future is impermanence, which is as much mental events as it is an ecological principle. The vicissitudes of life and history would mean being overly attached to anything is unwise as it just leads to suffering.

And that leads to the logical outcome of such a perspective. If you don't want to suffer (the whole point of Buddhism is to discern the causes of suffering and eliminate them), don't be attached to impermanent things. In some cases this leads people to abandon the world altogether and live as a yogi in the caves, seeking liberation (I see the appeal personally).

That's fine, but it doesn't help the rest of the world if they fail to return and teach others. It amounts to spiritual hedonism.

Perhaps a more desirable outcome of such perspective in history is illustrated by Chan monks who in the face of a failing dynasty and oppression in the Tang period set about becoming self-sufficient agriculturalists despite the rulebook explicitly condemning this. Still, the end result speaks for itself: they flourished in turmoil when a lot of other schools bit the dust, all the while getting a lot of their members through very tough times.

So, I think our civilization is impermanent and failing, and that encourages me to think long-term about setting up a self-sufficient temple somewhere when I have the resources to do so.

6/20/13, 12:11 AM

odamaki said...
Another Patrick here. Thanks as always for your thought-provoking weekly essay. By the way, in addition to satires of Joachimite tendencies such as the one you mentioned in this week, the Onion has already begun producing satires of Augustinian apocalyptic fantasies: Another Patrick here. Thanks as always for your thought-provoking weekly essay. By the way, in addition to satires of Joachimite tendencies such as the one you mentioned in this week, the Onion has already begun producing satires of Augustinian apocalyptic fantasies:,27406/

6/20/13, 12:30 AM

Leo said...
You could make the case that as history is contingent, we didn't have to invent logic for example, the cycles will change over time into different forms as enough of the dynamics change to shift them into different cycles. Like tipping points I guess.

Mind you that's over such a large time scale that it's purely theoretical.

Of course changes have happened, guns and feudal systems were mentioned last week. Radios and telegraphs change command structures, its easier for a central power to know what's going on for example. Sailing has been improved dramatically to allow global travel. The metric system has completely rewritten the rules for measurement and how it effects society. The water turbine was perfected in the 20th century and vertical windmills have seen dramatic improvements (see low-tech magazine).

And so on, there are many more examples. Some have large effects, some small and a fair few counteract each over.

Then there's how history affects these changes. Our societies still have roots from a sword wielding feudal age, the roots from a gun wielding feudal age will be different. At the moment we have a global civilization, but later on their will be multiple civilizations that aren't isolated (due to sailings improvements). And then theirs the fact that our current status is largely shaped by Europe's temporary military, technological and economic superiority, later on that sort of global imbalance won't exist.

A lot of these things only matter in the details, some don't. But change the details enough and eventually you have something else.

6/20/13, 12:31 AM

MilesL said...
"Abstract theories about how the world ought to work are treated as descriptions of how the world actually works, and heaven help you if you suggest that the theories might be judged by comparing them to the facts on the ground."

Thank you for putting in to words what I have been seeing for quite some time. When the world around you looks crazy, you have to wonder if it is you, the world or other people. Being on the Fringes, the answer is Other People. Though not being sure keeps me on my toes.

As these things happen, the idea that the limitations of this world are contained in the minds of people has hit me from several different directions recently. It is our mindset, how we think and our beliefs that determine much of how we "see" the world. So I am understanding why this line of thinking is so important.

I am impatient for you to get to what I want. Which of course I can't put in to words. I will know it when I see it. :)

6/20/13, 1:37 AM

beetleswamp said...
I don't know if you've had a chance to check this out but it's pretty cute. Not the Onion, but still pretty good.

6/20/13, 2:07 AM

notsomethingelse said...
I for one need no convincing, dear John Michael, of the cyclic nature of things. Although I would add a further dimension to that and say that natural cycles never start and end at the same point but rather more resemble the turns of a spiral as we manoeuvre (or at least appear to do) our way through time. I'm not sure if you have mentioned that before but you may have done. So we could say that our doings and beings, rather than being cyclic, are more spirallic. Is that a word?

One further point if I may, at the risk of being misunderstood as someone who doesn't get what you are saying, when I am actually quite in agreement with you on these things. The point concerns the difference between the terms decline, collapse and catastrophe, some or all of which are dear to, I suspect, a great many of your readers including myself.

Say we define the cycle of civilisations as having three phases forming a continuum of growth-peak-decline. If that is a valid assessment then there are a range of possible viewpoints that members of the society could take at certain points in the process.

At the start of a civilisation for example, the sky is the limit. There is no telling, at least in the minds of those participating, as to how far they can go in terms of growth. However, the further along the curve you go towards the peak point, at which stage the society is directionally flatlining and nothing is very clear to the members as to which way things are going to go next, the less likely it is that that paradigm still holds. It may still appear valid of course to some, through grim determination even after the peak, in the face of ample evidence to the contrary.

Throughout this rising part of the process, only those members who hold beliefs in the seemingly impossible would adhere to an apocalyptic point of view.

The roles are reversed during the downward (decline) phase.

My point is that decline, collapse, catastrophe (note that I do not include apocalypse) are all downward trends, the only real difference (possibly) being the length of time between the start (peak) and end points and also the rate of downward trend which is functionally linked to the height of the peak.

Can we not agree, for my sake and I am sure for numerous other of your readers, that when we talk of cyclic progressions that the actual shape of the rise and fall curve for civilisations could be anything other than a half circle but more resembling a bell curve whether unskewed or skewed to either left or right? In which case there could be cases where the terms decline, collapse, catastrophe might legitimately appear interchangeable, could there not?

I know that this is some way removed from your valid concerns around the two prevalent extreme belief systems that you are discussing but it might serve to placate or align our views even further.

Incidentally, I have read your The Long Descent but it was a while ago. I may have to revisit to see if you have discussed such thoughts there already.

6/20/13, 2:09 AM

Yupped said...
Conceptualizing about reality (versus experiencing it directly in each moment) seems to be a big part the problem, especially with our brains hard-wired, under stress, for binary thinking. So, for example, when I'm out in the garden dealing with pests and problems I tend to be more practical and respond to reality as it is, versus reading about various theories of garden pest control on the Internet. So a bias for working with physical reality is key, and this has obviously taken a bit of a beating in the Internet age.

I think I'm through with the progress vs apocalypse habit now. My belief in progress went first, institution by institution. After that I did spend a year or so in the church of doom. But I've been back in a more measured equilibrium for a while now, accepting that we're all going to be walking a hard road down, with many bumps along the way. I tend to want to do practical, productive things in difficult times as a coping mechanism, so that can help some.

One thing I continue to hold on to, though, are perhaps sentimental ideas that might make the hard road a little easier to bear. For example, the possibility that people, once they have "woken up" could actually be easier to deal with/more practical/more realistic/even more loving (rather than panicking and going off the rails). One side of me knows that a lot of acting up and craziness is going to flow from all this, and I will have to take situations and people one at a time. But I still find myself wanting to focus more on the potential positive behaviors of people once they have become more conscious of our reality.

Would be interested in your thoughts on the proper relationship between discernment of reality, moment by moment, versus a bias for positive thinking as an overall mental framework?

6/20/13, 3:52 AM

Ursachi Alexandru said...
I'd just like to say that in the last few months, after going through Tom Murphy's "Do The Math" blog posts, I've become a regular reader of The Archdruid Report and I've been going through many of your blog posts all the way to its beginnings, and it's having a great impact on the way I view and try to understand the world.

Being that I am from Romania, a country which I'm not sure appears too often on your comments list, I wish to have meaningful and constructive conversations with you about subjects like peak oil, energy, culture, politics and so on, by sharing the way things look as viewed from the part of the world in which I live.

Wishing you all the best,


6/20/13, 4:08 AM

SALDirtDigger said...
I don't comment much on blogs I read but I must say I really enjoyed this one. Something you didn't mention, but have eluded to in other blogs is the predisposition of those who involve in these two sets of beliefs tend these days to explain the failure of actual events supporting their beliefs as conspiracies by imagined or unknown "others" who have the power to accomplish extraordinary things but only put it to evil purposes. Sometimes I bet with myself on how long the conversation will go before the "they" so loved by conspiracy theorists rises up to explain the discord in their own beliefs.

6/20/13, 4:09 AM

Andy Brown said...
I think I must have been subconsciously anticipating this latest post of yours. A few days ago, contemplating how the bugs in my garden interact with such elaborate mercilessnous, Death among the Parsnip Flowers, I had to laugh out loud at the idea that our universe is in the hands of a benevolent god.

6/20/13, 4:13 AM

. josé . said...
Thank you for your continuing lecture series. I haven't posted a comment lately, mostly because I tend to be slow about framing my thoughts and questions, and by the time I'm ready to start writing a week or more have gone by and the next post is available to read.
I will say that I regularly read a dozen blogs or more, mostly on related topics, and I often evaluate other writers by thinking, "How would the Archdruid reply to this?"
Thank you for your regular weekly effort.

I do have one small comment to make on today's post. You wrote "...a television show that originally aired when your grandparents were on their first date..." So I started thinking, when were my grandparents on their first date? I'd say it would be around 1905 in one case, 1915 in the other. In my parents' case, it would have been around 1950, so maybe I'm about one generation older than the average age of you audience. :)

6/20/13, 4:28 AM

Phil Harris said...
JMG & all
I have still not caught up with last week, having spun off into Bernard Silvestris and pantheistic and neo-platonic Christianity and the power of allegory – with a brief stopover in Amalrician heresy. (I am very unsure of my personal faith inheritance and legacy. I still enjoy the Haldane joke when challenged to say what his natural science told him about God: “Very fond of beetles”.)

Going back to empires and civilisations (and efforts to rehabilitate inheritances of thought) I found this recent interesting paper describing a numerical project modelling connectivity within the historical expansion and decline of the Roman Empire. Spengler might have enjoyed joining in!
The paper can be downloaded as a pdf file from here

Among many nuggets and avenues for further thought on the generic structures of social meta-structures (my phrase - morphology observed as ‘phenotypes’) there is:

“The speed of military power projection is a critical variable in structuring political/military networks. In the Republican period, time distance from Rome and later Italy to subject territories mattered most. Under the monarchy, the direction of connectivity was reversed as the time it took for frontier armies to reach the center assumed greater political significance, given their vital role in power politics.

“The impact of cost constraints becomes apparent only in the most fundamental processes of state formation: expansion and disintegration.”


(Perhaps I still have one stubborn faith running like a thread through my life; an undeserved faith in understanding things; nourished though by occasional involuntary personal insights that proved of some worth - 'getting lucky' after I had put in some hard ground work. I realise I am an ‘impossibilist’, and am painfully aware of the severe limits and highly provisional and often wrong-headed nature of such a project. However, as well as being grateful for experiencing those insights I have met some interesting folk along the way and they still travel with me in their thought and poetry and were very worth knowing.)

6/20/13, 4:57 AM

Nestorian said...
HHello JMG,

You have not been coy in maintaining that the worldview you are advocating is fundamentally relativistic in character. This applies not merely to questions of value, but even to questions of truth, as the following quote shows:

"Philosophers since ancient times have pointed out, and quite rightly, that human beings have no access to absolute truth."

That is certainly the case with regard to SOME ancient philosophers - the Sophist Protagoras, for example - but it is most definitely not true of all. Just for starters, none of the three most famous philosophers of antiquity - Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle - were relativists. On the contrary, the first two of these three figures are best-known for their staunch anti-relativism, both concerning value and truth.

The fundamental problem with all forms of relativism is their self-refuting character. When it is asserted, for example, that "Human beings have no access to absolute truth," that assertion is itself meaningful only if advanced as an absolute truth claim. The meaningfulness of the claim thus presupposes the very state of affairs it denies. To deny the existence of any and all absolute truth is to advance a claim that is itself an absolute truth, if true in any meaningful sense.

If, on the contrary, one wishes to assert this claim in a manner that lays no claim to the status of an absolute truth, then why assert it in the first place? In thus advancing the claim in a relativistic rather than an absolute sense, one is granting that none of one’s interlocutors is objectively obliged to assent to it. (I.e. “It is true FOR ME that human beings have no access to absolute truth, but that does not necessarily make it true FOR YOU.”)

But then why advance the claim in the first place, except as a debating trick to catch one’s interlocutor’s unawares in their naïve adherence to objectivism in matters of truth? That is, in fact, the very purpose of propositional language: To advance absolute truth claims, in the underlying conviction that the private beliefs thus express objectively warrant assent by others as well.

6/20/13, 5:07 AM

Edde said...
Good morning John Michael,

Anticipating the summer solstice and a full moon. We will celebrate.

Take a look at Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. If I understand him (I haven't finished the book), Mr Haidt posits that people generally make decisions or hold positions arrived at intuitively and based on emotion. Rational thinking comes later to justify any positions held.

My guess is this is what you are trying to overcome by suggesting folks hold their religious or world views in abeyance in order to get a grip on what is actually happening around them.

Good luck!

Best regards. And THANKS for this enjoyable series of posts.


6/20/13, 5:29 AM

Russ said...
John - good post! Right on the mark. Of course some of the categories are not mutually exclusive. Depending on definitions one can be an atheist and adhere to the Druid position. I do think that the cyclic description of history is quite valid; after all the only one that remains standing is ours and there is no evidence whatsoever that ours is special. We are doing, or not doing, the same things countless others have done or failed to do. Which, of course, is the point of your posts. I agree with your conclusions in "The Long Descent"; i. e.. it, the descent, will take a long time and we have no way to predict how or when this will happen. But the soundings are already in the air. The only prediction I would ever make is that this will shock an awful lot of people. Russ

6/20/13, 6:18 AM

tideshift said...
Your feminist readers also may have an easier time than others in accepting your exhortations to look beyond traditional dualisms. Today's essay reminds me very much of the first few months and years after I took a class in feminist theology at Boston College in 1997, taught by the late Mary Daly.

Once I'd begun cognitively stripping away the layers of patriarchally-imposed meanings, the world - particularly as reflected in language - became a very different place and a permanent skepticism about commonly-accepted explanations for "the world as it is" took very deep root. Women already have direct, lived experience being perpetually outside the normal frame of reference: Daly's foreground, Background and false reality.

Thanks as always for your excellent work.

6/20/13, 6:43 AM

Sunyata said...
Amazing article, especially regarding going into thought-mechanics of the human. I've never heard you go into it, but do you have any familiarity/experience with non-duality or the idea of "enlightenment" (I say idea because everyone knows there is no such thing as enlightenment). It really seems like you are talking about the same thing, but I can't tell. It also reminds me of Rudolf Steiner and books like Philosophy of Freedom/Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path.

6/20/13, 6:58 AM

trippticket said...
How much more fun it is to be special than to just belong! At least until you embrace, study, and participate with the belonging. Then the real magic of Nature and natural process can begin to reveal itself, making most human corollaries seem pretty silly. Thank you for laying these arguments out so plainly, sir.

6/20/13, 7:14 AM

Avery said...
As I understand it, your goal in this post is to move us towards a humanity without a historical teleology (pernicious atheist teleologies included), and your method to accomplish that is through relinquishing our personal biases and seeking a common reliance on objective consideration of history, and more generally physical laws. I have an objection!

The success of material science, indeed, comes from "setting aside narratives that played on the preferences of the individual and collective ego". And sure, anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism gave us shoddy or even foolish conceptions of how Nature works. But why did we have anthropocentrism in the first place? Why do human beings generally attribute personality and motive to natural forces, until they are informed otherwise?

The philosophical reasons for this run deep, but I propose that basically, it is good to live in a world that it is itself living. The ancient pagans saw life absolutely everywhere; life in every corner of Nature, regardless of whether they could see it or not. Here's a memorable passage from "The Ancient City":

[The Roman] leaves his house, and can hardly take a step without meeting some sacred object — either a chapel, or a place formerly struck by lightning, or a tomb; sometimes he must step back and pronounce a prayer; sometimes he must turn his eyes and cover his face, to avoid the sight of some ill-boding object. ... He never leaves his own house without looking to see if any bird of bad augury appears. There are words which he dares not pronounce for his life.

The early Christians and Epicureans were right to label this behavior as "superstition". They understood that Nature is not literally full of human-like beings that feel scorned and slighted if you fail to pay them respect. But the Christians won out over the Epicureans, because they still saw some life in this old world. Not everything necessarily adhered to mechanical laws; there was still room for miracles, and believing this, they performed a great number of miracles which visitors to Europe still marvel at today.

Observing Nature "objectively", we see gravity, chemistry, and other mechanical laws that are neither good nor bad. They are plain dead. Yet the world contains both good and bad; it contains life. Therefore, this "egoless", "objective" attempt to view the world without any personal interests at all, like a ghost staring from an Archimedean point, must end somewhere. The world must have principles that have nothing to do with mechanics. The only alternative, a clockwork world, is a world that is entirely dead, through which the dead wander meaninglessly, that is to say, Hell.

Religion, including the "Royal Secret", cannot be built on physical or historical laws. The "Divine Law" is of a completely different character from physical laws, and if systems theory tries to draw an analogy between the two, it is to nobody's benefit.

We must start by leaving the Archimedean point behind. This is the paradox at the heart of your historical project: what you are trying to outline, by asking people to work from objective historical parallels rather than personal principles, is a rough attempt at science, but nowhere does science actually give us impetus to do things. That impetus comes from our own, personal principles, which must stand above and beyond historical and scientific developments. Science, history, and other technics are only tools towards reaching our goals.

In fact, if what we are trying to work towards here is a long-term sustainable worldview that will survive centuries of decline while maintaining the courage to cast off the burdensome delusions of both progress and apocalypse, I think we must leave Spengler behind, despite his unquestionable brilliance. Where he buried historical teleology and all other Faustian technics, at the foot of his Second Religiousness, is where we begin, standing at the shores of an unknown ocean.

6/20/13, 7:26 AM

Amy La Gato said...
"a television show that originally aired when your grandparents were on their first date,"

I must be getting older than I thought, my grand parents first date occurred sometime during WWI.

6/20/13, 7:36 AM

hewhocutsdown said...
Thank you for your aside on atheist self-delusions. As a deconvert myself, much of my work has been spent disentangling myself from sloppy thinking from my religion of origin (evangelical Christianity) and the equally wrong-headed secular equivalents (be it socialist utopianism, techno-capitalist futurism or just good-old liberal humanism).

We'll actually be doing a reading group around John Gray's new book, The Silence of Animals, and I'm less concerned about the correctness of Gray as looking forward to the discomfort of being forced to reckon with disconcerting breaks with long-held presumptions.

Stopping, taking stock, exposing yourself to an actual view of the world can be horrifying and liberatory. Translating that into a life lived meaningfully is a life's work.

6/20/13, 7:44 AM

C Young said...
Your writings reminded me of a mission trip my son made to Haiti. Rather than asking that wells be dug, homes wired, solar ovens installed they were asked to go to the orphanages to play with the children. Seems that a past water project disabled a communities coming of age rite in which adolescents were tasked to carry water to the village while visiting romance and responsibility.

Equally as interesting was the installation of solar panels which happened to coincide with drought and crop failure. Community leadership determined that the solar panels should be removed. They were and wouldn't you know, it rained. Problem solved.

His experience during the trip seemed to tell me that spiritual leadership in the US is beginning to understand that "progress"may bring more harm than good. It appears that negative unintended consequence are carrying the day.

6/20/13, 7:55 AM

Ben said...
I'm glad you're talking about learning from history (among other things) this week. I recently picked up an abridged (sigh) copy of Toynbee's "Study of History." I'm most of the way though it, and am reading the section about the disintegration of civilizations now. While Toynbee seems to be a pretty perceptive historian, he largely discounts the notion that Western Civilization is disintegrating. I understand that he published "Study" in the late 1940s, so he 'missed out on' the last 60 years or so of history, but it seems to me that a lost of the symptoms of disintegration he describes are happening here and now. What are you thoughts on Toynbee's theory? Do you find it interesting in an academic way, or do you think his study has useful things to say about our current predicament?
Alas, the local library did not have a copy of Spengler, abridged or otherwise...

6/20/13, 8:09 AM

Jose Coces said...
Dear Mr. Greer,
First of all, I am sorry to submit this e-mail through a comment in your blog. I did so because I failed to find your e-mail address.

What I would like to say is that I found your blog two weeks ago. I could not stop reading your entries from the first to the most recent, usually up to until late at night. At first, I focused on the entries about more technical subjects, such as your theory on catabolic collapse. Afterwards, I moved to the more politically related ones, such as those concerning the imminent demise of the American Empire. Later, I turned to the fictions, such as 2050-2100-2150. Finally, I read your posts concerning the nature of magic.

Your thoughts changed my way of looking at the world. Although I have to admit I was already suffering a kind of unease, feeling that something was wrong with my worldview, the specifics of it were unknown to me and for years I failed to clarify them, having studied many different analysis of the current state of our civilization and society. I am not saying that all my doubts and questions have been answered, far from it, but something new entered my mind, thanks to you: I am aware of the fact that our civilization will soon suffer the effects of Peak Oil, and, to make sense of many social illnesses and phenomenons, I will have to take that into account.

There is also more to it than that. On a even more personal level, being aware of Peak Oil has changed a few things. I am not aware of how many things, and neither of how much did changed. I will tell you this: suddenly, I no longer like cars. Mind you, I learn to read by making efforts to read by myself a car magazine when I was five, because my father was too tired already of reading it all to me. The first thing I did when I turned eighteen was to go get my drivers license. I once told one of the few non-drivers I know, a professor of mine, that one of the reasons I loved to drive was that I really enjoyed the feeling of having a few hundred horsepower under my control. I used to drive fourteen hours a week without feeling tired, just for the thrill of it. And now I no longer enjoy cars. I might just sell mine. 

Secondly, I have started thinking about changing careers while I still can, from a corporate job to something else healthcare related (I believe healthcare is vey resilient to crysis. I would like to hear your thoughts on this, though).

My apologies for the long e-mail. And further apologies for any grammatical or syntax errors I might have committed - English is not my native language (I am Brazilian).

Kind regards,
Jose Coces

6/20/13, 8:31 AM

lahevend said...
Excerpt from the Wikipedia article on the "Decline of the Roman Empire":

"In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), Edward Gibbon famously placed the blame on a loss of civic virtue among the Roman citizens. They gradually entrusted the role of defending the Empire to barbarian mercenaries who eventually turned on them. Gibbon held that Christianity contributed to this shift by making the populace less interested in the worldly here-and-now because it was willing to wait for the rewards of heaven."

* Trading of civic virtue for personal comfort
* National defense entrusted to third parties with dubious motives, no effective supervision over such parties
* Populace unable to recognize societal decline due to wishful thinking

Philip K. Dick posited in "VALIS" that the Roman Empire had never ended, but that instead the two times, 2nd century Rome and 20th century USA, existed simultaneously as different representations of a single essentially violent archetypal matrix which he called the Black Iron Prison. A program is defined as a sequence of instructions, written to perform a specified task. The task to be completed by the world program is to ceaselessly order the events and phenomena which comprise a civilization into a sequence of birth, maturity and ultimate destruction. To break out of the destructive program or at least cause it to relax its grip on us, the Gnostics implored people to "recognize what is in front of their faces", i.e. deal with reality. For that, the Gnostics were killed off and their legacy almost destroyed. So must we assume, based on historical precedent, that the same is in store for those who now openly call for a way of life less invested in imaginary realities? And more importantly, is there no way to truly break the cycle of violence?

6/20/13, 8:51 AM

sekenre said...
Found a useful article that helps to explain the obstinate denial of how things are:

The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science

Unfortunately it means that preaching to the choir automatically alienates the people who remain skeptical.

6/20/13, 9:54 AM

William Church said...
Putting aside the preferences, prejudices, etc will absolutely help with one's internal decision making capability. Freeing it from biases would have to do that.

But then you come to another problem: How to find accurate information to actually feed into this improved decision making paradigm. Especially on subjects where you have to trust experts to provide you with the truth.

For instance it takes some real work to actually get data and numbers on energy resources. And I am sure you would agree with me that having as accurate of info as possible is crucial to understanding how the present ties into the future.

The digital age has done nothing if not made it easy to bombard oneself with inaccurate and even harmful information. I have had to take real, concrete steps to see what info sources provide something useful and which ones don't.


6/20/13, 9:58 AM

Michael L said...
I agree with your suggestion of, "taking a hard look at those narratives whenever they surface, and checking them against the evidence of history." However, I think it also important to be aware that people who wrote that history believed in narratives of their own, coloring the accounts of the events they were recording. Perhaps one way to compensate for that bias is to separate the statement of fairly basic facts from interpretation. There will always be a signal from the past to listen but the noise present in each will vary according to the transmitter and the receiver. Good luck to everyone actively trying to tune in.

6/20/13, 9:58 AM

Pat said...
These last few weeks' blogs have been interesting to read. As I went about my day, I pondered the aspects you have covered and realized that I see life neither as perpetual material progress nor as apocalyptic, life unfolds like an onion or a peony bloom as part of a subjective cycle. I do believe that we see what we believe as quantum mechanics indicates.

Therefore, what I think does impact my life and others. Sounds like a passive existence, doesn't it?
But, as mankind has adapted and modified their experience over the millennia so will future generations. It is only by losing rigidity of thought that adaption is possible, I believe.

6/20/13, 10:10 AM

PhysicsDoc said...
Sorry JMG I should have spell checked it the first time. Here is a corrected version.

Some thoughts on the use of the term cycles, in physics and engineering a cyclical signal is a periodic signal with a duration time longer than one signal period. That is the minimum time duration is one signal period say going from a minimum to a maximum back to a minimum. It seems that population dynamics can be periodic but are often also modeled or approximated by a function with a single global maximum. Our modern industrial civilization has grown by about 6 billion people in the last 200 years (~600% growth). Assuming we are near the peak one assumption is that the decline will occur over a similar time scale that is 6 billion people over the next 200 years or an average decline rate of 30 million per year. That seems staggering to me even if it is not NTE. Global climate change may break the symmetry in that curve and increase the decline rate. It may not be NTE as some people describe but it is sobering. Of course some other factors could cause the decline to be much slower, nobody really can predict the future. Another thought is that we are using up fossil fuels which is irreversible. This suggests that out population dynamics cannot be periodic in the strict sense although future variations in human population are inevitable.

6/20/13, 10:25 AM

Steve in Colorado said...
Thanks as always for a thought-provoking Thursday morning!

My thoughts:

The cover of one of my undergrad anthropology textbooks depicted a Massai tribesman in full regalia, overseeing a herd of cattle, talking on a cell phone. I've often thought that of that as the perfect image of the future: Sure, most people will be "impoverished" materially, as the Massai herdsman is. But they'll have access to fragments of industrial technology, and they'll be able to create or re-create traditional social structures. So it won't be so bad, after all.

I think there's something to that, but considering your challenge in this post, two things occur to me:

1. That picture was not an image of the future, but of the present. I mean this literally of course-- the picture was taken at some point during the first decade of the twenty-first century. But more than that, it may be that this decade represents the high watermark of the global technological system which connected the African tribesman to the American college student. The following decades may look very different.

2. I had thought of this image as my version of a hard-nosed, realistic version of the future. Yes, we'll all be materially "poor," but we'll have access to two things that will allow us to live in relative comfort-- modern technology (the cellphone) and traditional communities (the tribe). It occurs to me that there's nothing hard nosed or realistic about this vision-- It's actually my personal version of utopia! Certain periods of my life have resembled that vision rather closely (or as close as a white North American can get); now I've strayed from the course quite a bit, and I'm not happy about it. So I have to ask myself-- To what extent what I latching onto the idea of the technologically connected tribesman as something the Future was obligated to give me as a way to keep from doing the hard work myself?

6/20/13, 10:26 AM

Paulo said...
Our task:

What does our subjective experience tell us about how the future will unfold? + Nevermind what we are told to believe, what do our daily experience clues tell us about the future? What does it indicate?

I am 57. I live in British Columbia, Canada. When I was in high school I had a friend whose Dad was an appliance dept. manager of a local department store. The mom stayed home to run the house...and yes, they had a bought and paid for home. Flash forward to today and that same Dad would be making minumum wage (or close to it) and would be paid for 32 hours per week to remain part-time, but would probably work more uncompensated hours than what officially was recorded. They would rent rather than own, etc.

I could go on about the salmon decline, the loss of old-growth temperate forests, the shutting down of all sawmills and most pulp mills, the growing population and crowded recreation sites, but everyone knows this story. I do know people have more stuff, more electronics, and it is poorly made with temporary applications. All things are way too complicated, lifestyles are hectic, and satisfaction has declined. Real opportunities have been replaced with consumer goods and in most ways families are poorer than they were just 40 years ago. But they do have more 'stuff', and debt, and this disguises the real decline.

If I were to gaze into the future based on what I have experienced I would say a few will be wealthier, but most will be poorer. Food and clothing quality will continue to decline. Fewer people will actually own their homes outright and many will not be able to afford heat or cooling as the seasons change. People will be dumber as they read less and watch screens more, (video games and sports), schools will be for credentials and teachers will continue to be bashed/scapegoated when educational expectations and opportunities aren't fulfilled or line up with opportunity. There will be lots of blame.

Spiritual hunger will increase as people search for meaning and community. Politicians will continue to lie/mislead and ask for trust. Wars will be fought to promote the agendas of those who influence the Empire. The financial system will increase its corruption and influence in all things until one day it finally collapses and there is no more blood to be squeezed out of the middle and working class.

As to how people will react to these circumstances, I have no idea. Apparently, people don't mind being under surveillance and accept their loss of liberty is for their own good. No corrupt bankster has yet to be jailed or left unsupported by the politicians they own. It is almost like people don't care anymore.

6/20/13, 10:41 AM

Maria said...
Interestingly enough, JMG, I am waiting for a goodish translation of Don Quixote de La Mancha to arrive via interlibrary loan.

Using logic that probably only makes sense to my non-linear brain, I thought it would be a good exercise to read about a guy who is famous for getting into trouble due to his demonstrably false narratives -- particularly since the place and time in which the book was written is not just a society in transition, but a society telling itself certain narratives about that transition.

6/20/13, 10:53 AM

escapefromwisconsin said...
The Onion actually reported that the apocalypse occurred on or around April 3rd, 2008:,21143/?ref=auto

As always, a good remedy to much of the hysteria bandied about these days from many quarters. As Wittgenstein pithily put it, "The world is all that is the case." I would also recommend unplugging from the media and picking up a history book.

This was popular on Buzzfeed a while ago: 26 shockingly bad predictions. Note that about half were too optimistic, and the other half were too pessimistic.

6/20/13, 11:14 AM

Lucretia Heart said...
At this point in your narrative instruction, I'm already well along the path to acceptance of a slower decline as opposed to a sudden and global catastrophic collapse--which was my previous pessimistic viewpoint, since no one could convince me there was a wondrous future coming. Like, EVER...

All the shiny new toys in the world couldn't make up for the normal day to day struggle for the basics, which get ever more difficult-- let alone watching the spread of the suburban blight of bland strip-towns and "little boxes." A lifetime of watching natural areas destroyed in the name of "development" killed any enthusiasm I could have had for a 'bright and shiny new day' long ago. What is a young person to think when they watch all those ugly homes being built over what was once beautiful forest they roamed in-- and yet know that he or she could never afford to live in any of them?

I've definitely noticed an income and class difference between those who view things dismally and those who think everything will inevitably just keep getting better and better. Its difficult to hold an unreasonable hope when blind hope has never done you any good. But as inelegant as it is to admit, embracing the idea that all those smug, happy, oblivious people may one day be "punished" spectacularly holds massive appeal, even if one believes he or she will go down with that global ship!

Recognizing the insanity of "blind hope" was understood long ago, but accepting that unyielding envy (for luckier people) and despair (for despoiled nature) was just as insane took a little more effort. Still, I'm well along for the ride now and have changed my lifestyle as a result.

I'm frankly amazed anyone (who has read your blog completely) is still attempting to argue with you!

6/20/13, 11:31 AM

Jeffrey said...
I would venture to say that 100 years ago when the majority of the worlds population was still gaining their livelihoods directly from farming, forests, and fisheries, that understanding the simple and yet profound truth of accepting your life and aspirations within the limits of nature came easier than today, with all our science and knowledge. For we have become a species in the 21st century where only the minority still have such livelihoods and a growing majority have their heads up their digital behinds.

How does a culture with an increasingly abstract digital relationship with the world manage to view reality through the clear lens of nature's limits?

I have answered for myself this question awhile back. Through the consequences of overshoot.

6/20/13, 12:07 PM

Unknown said...
JMG said: "Philosophers since ancient times have pointed out, and quite rightly, that human beings have no access to absolute truth; the world as we experience it comes into being out of the interaction between the "buzzing, blooming confusion" of raw sensory data and the structures of the individual consciousness. Whatever its relevance to the deeper questions of philosophy, a subject I don’t propose to address here, the world as we experience it is as close as we need to get to reality to apply the proposal I’ve just made. In the world as we experience it, some things happen reliably, other things happen unpredictably, and still other things never seem to get around to happening at all—and it’s not hard, even across cultural and linguistic barriers, to find common ground concerning which things belong in which of these categories."

I am chastised!

Anyway, I have a question for anyone who will answer. In European history, we see a civilization reduced to extinction by its decline & fall. The Classical world was completely replaced by Western Christendom (in the west & north) and by Islam (in the east & south). While both have inherited a great deal from the Classical world, it seems absurd to call any part of either a continuation of it.

On the other hand, in ancient Egypt, in China, and in Persia, it looks (to my amateur eyes) like the cyclical nature of history works on a less culturally devastating scale. Ancient Egypt saw countless cycles of rise and fall through its multi-millenial history, as has China, and it looks (again, to my amateur eyes) like even Islamic culture in Iran didn't completely replace the older traditions, the way that Christianity did in, say, Italy.

Why is this the case? And which model seems likelier for modern Western/Industrial civilization? Some hypotheses:

• China and Egypt featured less of the tremendous völkewanderung that coincided with the fall of Rome. This allowed for a stability of populations and ethnic groups that work(ed/s) in favor of cultural continuity. Is the same true of Persia/Iran? I don't know. It certainly has a long history of conquering invaders from the steppes, deserts, and mountains to the north, from the Parthians to Tamurlane. Hm...

• Stability of resources. Egypt was dependent on the clockwork-regular flooding of the Nile for its survival; the core of China has a moist-temperate climate like the eastern U.S. where the rains never completely fail. Rome was centered on the Mediterranean, with a more arid climate, and with many steep hills and mountains where erosion is inevitable. Persia/Iran seems to be an outlier again. The Iranian plateau is even more arid than the Mediterranean, and equally mountainous. Are all my theories junk, or does Persian history feature less stability than my layman's view would indicate?

• Yeah, that's all I got off the top of my head. Any ideas, gentle internauts?


6/20/13, 12:36 PM

fromorctohuman said...
Praxis should follow belief - I get.

A person should prepare for the future - I'm having a harder time with.

I'm not saying that one shouldn't prepare for the future but something that has puzzled me since I started reading
your blog several years ago is why are you on this path of instruction? Why do yo take the time (which, even for you, must be substantial) to teach these things?

Is it simply utilitarian? If people are convinced, then they will experience less material suffering than if they don't?

If so, that is puzzling to me. Shouldn't praxis follow belief for it's own sake and not for the sake of material benefit?

That is, live according to what is true (what you believe to be true) and damn the consequences seems a worthwhile endeavor.

If that results in less suffering, seems irrelevant, but is something you come back to again and again.

Or, is it that limiting personal suffering *is* a core druid belief?

Thanks so much.

6/20/13, 12:39 PM

Harry J. Lerwill said...
I think I like the label of “intellectual heretic”, it has a nice ring to it. We choose to think outside the box.

There is a serious amount of cognitive dissonance between the real world and the realms in which people think they live, how can we expect otherwise? Milk comes from plastic cartons, not cows. Fruit and vegetables are in season 365 days a year, rather than a reflection of the cycles of nature. To travel halfway around the planet means being mildly inconvenienced for a day, not a month or more. We pay landscapers to cart away our lawn clippings, and then purchase fertilizers for the plants that suffer in the nutrient-deprived soils. We pump so much smog into our air that being able to see the mountains a few tens of miles away is a pleasant experience; one that causes an intake of breath –not from the majesty of nature –but because we know that if we can see the mountains, a lungful of air hurts a lot less.

Add to that the difficulty the world faces in living up to the Hollywood dreams we are fed on, day after day, where “progress” is represented by the lives of the rich and famous. What incentive is there to look away from the TV and see the world for what it is, a place we’re not getting out of alive and probably with some suffering between here and there.

Where we work we have the myth of infinite progress, even though the evidence points to slow, grinding decline. Of course, there’s a digital product on the horizon that will rescue us from reducing revenues, save our customers going out of business, and allow our communities to return to the model of infinite growth that fuels many people’s dreams – and nightmares of a few intellectual heretics. Meanwhile, all the important numbers drop consistently and we figure ways of re-tasking things to be more efficient – a catabolic collapse playing out one day, one contract cancellation, one pink slip at a time.

6/20/13, 1:01 PM

DeAnander said...
Regarding Messianic prophecy generally: I dunno how many readers may be aware that there's a school of Orthodox Jewish theological thought which holds (strongly!) that the establishment and expansion of the State of Israel as a political entity are heretical, that the Promised Land is a spiritual and not a material state. Similarly there is a school of Christian theology which reads the "Kingdom of God is at hand" as meaning that the state of blessedness is right here, right now, within our grasp, in our own hearts -- not that it is some radical historical rift which is about to happen, transforming the outward world.

So even within the traditions we associate with the Messianic and Apocalyptic narratives, there is a dissenting interpretation which rejects violent change-of-state predictions and interprets the mythos instead as a guide to inner transformation.

There are rabbis who will tell you that we are waiting for the Messiah to come, not as some dramatic historical figure, but into our own hearts, transforming each of us into the Messiah.

Anyway, just a couple more illustrations that decouple the mythos of linear history ending in a Great Transformation from any particular creed; as JMG and others have pointed out, the apocalyptic narrative (whether it be doomy or heavenly) transcends particular faiths. Devoutly atheistical Communists can believe in linear Progress to a state of bliss just as fiercely as dogmatic Dominionists; but devout Christians and Jews can also reject the linear-Progress-to-happy/dismal-ending story.

Octavia Butler, iirc, in one or more of her novels posited a future post-lapsarian culture in which a new religion had emerged which worshipped the principle of Change. Not change for the better, not change for the worse, just the inevitability and power of perpetual Change. I found it a bit dull as the foundation of a religion, but it makes more sense than many of the ones we already have, and I have to confess that some of my more religious/spiritual moments have occurred when simply observing the power of change, often cyclical change, in the world -- storms, tides, waves, erosion, volcanic action, the migration of birds...

6/20/13, 1:10 PM

Ursachi Alexandru said...
What do you think about this?,10486.html?WT.mc_id=NewsEmail_Long_10486&wtSrc=Email&wtType=Long&wtArticleID=10486

6/20/13, 2:16 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
It amuses me that people still pull out the old standard of "We can put a man on the Moon, surely we can accomplish !" is the speaker's pet societal, medical, or technological challenge. I heard this as recently as a couple of days ago on the radio. It is amazing that neither the speaker nor the listener ever seem to remember that in fact we have not put a man on the Moon in nearly 40 years, we can hardly put a man or woman in low-earth orbit anymore!

As for the members of the broad and diverse neopagan/"nature spirituality" etc. community... I have not noticed that they are especially immune to feelings of either apocalypse or utopia. I have not in fact noticed that actual contemplation and study of real nature is a terribly popular activity in the community. You're often more likely to hear about Game of Thrones than the goings-on in their back yards.

I've been noticing that for all of 2013 the sun seems to have been marching steadily northward in the sky. In the last few weeks, this movement appears to have been slowing down, and just in the last two days it seems to have come to a stand-still. What does this mean? Is it the end of the world? I can't imagine anything so spectacular has ever happened before! Now with the sun stalled so much farther north, aren't we in the Northern Hemisphere going to roast, while the Southern Hemisphere is plunged into an ice age? I guess the Mayans were right after all! Or maybe this is the beginning of a glorious era of prosperity, with luxuriant fruit hanging from every tree and the banishment of winter forever!

6/20/13, 2:51 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jo, thanks for the tip -- I haven't read that Shute novel yet, and clearly need to! Here in America, a lot of us will be facing the same experience as our empire goes the way of Britain's.

Shakya, the Chan tradition is particularly well suited to harsh times, in that it embraced the practice of utter poverty more cheerfully and pragmatically than other Buddhist monastic orders. I'd definitely encourage you to get yourself the necessary qualifications to found and run a temple, and get 'er built!

Odamaki, not sure why your comment appeared in duplicate form! Still, thanks for the Onion story -- I'd missed that, and yes, they're just as good at making fun of the other end of the binary.

Leo, of course that can happen. In fact, it already has -- the emergence of field agriculture and urban centers transformed an older and rather different set of cycles, one that can still be seen at work in tribal village cultures, into the historical arc of rise and fall we know from history. I'll talk later on about some of the conclusions that can be drawn from this.

Miles, good. I promise you I'll get there at some point, though neither you nor I will know when. ;-)

Beetleswamp, most funny. Thanks for the link!

Notsomethingelse, of course the rate of decline can vary due to specific circumstances. It can also vary from place to place during the course of a given decline -- those parts of the Roman Empire that were directly in the way of the Huns, for example, experienced a far more sudden collapse than those that weren't. Those variations in space and time are among the things that differentiate the way civilizations fall in the real world from the abstract fantasy of apocalypse.

Yupped, that's where fact gives way to faith, to use the distinction I drew in last week's post. You can decide, as an act of faith motivated by your values, to focus on the potential for positive change, and maybe even get some to happen; just don't confuse that act of faith with a prediction of fact.

Alex, welcome to the blog! I have a number of readers from the Balkan Peninsula, but I think you're the first commenter from Romania. I'll be interested in your perspective, as your corner of the world has seen quite a few empires collapse over the years.

Digger, I've talked about conspiracy theories in previous posts, and of course you're right -- blaming the failure of your belief system on some nefarious "Them" is always a popular dodge.

Andy, if you mean "benevolent" in the sense of "sentimentally kind," no doubt. The word has other possible meanings, though.

Jose, yes, you're older than my average reader! So am I, for that matter -- my grandparents dated in the 1920s, and so would have listened to radio (or a live band) on their first date.

6/20/13, 3:35 PM

S P said...
Let me give you my perspective as an internal medicine physician.

When I was doing residency we would see interesting pictures on the walls of the critical care unit of Swan-Ganz, or pulmonary artery catheters. However, we were never trained on how to use them, and the skill is slowly being lost. If you read the literature the claim is that there is no evidence for them (which may be true). But the real fact is that we cannot afford them anymore. I also watched as the cardiac care unit of my training hospital was shut down, and basically in my 3 years of residency things went from bad to worse.

I sometimes peruse textbooks from the 80s. All of the medical knowledge is basically there, and in fact, the books were clearly written by physicians who were better than the current crop, many of whom rely on the internet just like everyone else. All but the most basic generic meds are getting unaffordable and downright unavailable. It takes weeks and months for consultant reports rather than days to weeks.

Not to mention my patients...who, no matter what I do for them, are universally in terrible shape, mentally and physically. Yet we pretend that they are one more drug or procedure away from being a 22 year old healthy and happy adonis.

In sum, medicine has been through a peak and is also in decline. I wouldn't be surprised to see mechanical ventilation and dialysis to disappear entirely, but nobody seems to believe me yet.

6/20/13, 3:54 PM

David Owens said...
Thank you very much for the writing that you freely give. I have been reading your work for the last year, and your posts on the shapes of time resonates with my own personal experiences.

Have you considered the shape of a spiral?

If one looks from the top down, a spiral looks like a circle. If one is travelling along a spiral, it could be seen as a straight line with or without a slope.

Upon each rotation, one is at the same point and a different point at the same time.

Thank you again for the work you do.

6/20/13, 4:02 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Phil H., I've always thought Haldane's god had very good taste. Beetles are such exquisite creatures! Many thanks for the link -- much food for thought there.

Nestorian, I'd wondered who would fall into that trap first. Your claim that my "relativist" stance is self-refuting rests on two fairly simple fallacies. First, relativism in the simplistic sense is not what I'm proposing here. Rather, it's what Nietzsche called perspectivism, the recognition that every statement about truth is inevitably a statement by some speaker, from that speaker's own irreducibly personal viewpoint. I'm quite sure that there is such a thing as absolute truth, but neither you, nor I, nor anyone else has any certain means of determining the correspondence between our personal views and the absolute truth; the best we can do is to give it our best shot from within the limits of our own perspective, recognizing that any resulting statement is always at least a little bit tentative, and subject to later review.

Second, from a perspectivist standpoint, my statement "human beings have no access to absolute truth" is perfectly consistent, since it presupposes that this is my personal perspective, based on the information available to me, and suggests that others might want to consider how my statement relates to their own experience. That leaves you free to claim to have privileged access to absolute truth, should you want to -- but it also leaves everyone else free to roll their eyes and suggest that you'd better be prepared to present some mighty convincing reasons why your claim to know the absolute truth is more correct than the thousands of competing claims that contradict yours in every particular.

Edde, thanks for the tip!

Russ, no question, a lot of people are going to be shocked.

Tideshift, fascinating. That's a field in which I've done very little reading, so the heads up is welcome.

Sunyata, well, I was reading Shankaracharya and a range of Zen Buddhist writings in my teen years, and have gone on from there, so yes, I have some exposure to nondual philosophies! As for Steiner, A Philosophy of Freedom is to my mind far and away the most useful of his books, and his thought has had some influence on mine, partly directly and partly via Owen Barfield's work.

Trippticket, nicely summarized!

Avery, nah, you've stumbled across the division I drew last week between faith and fact. No Christian or Epicurean ever pointed a numenometer at a Roman doorpost to prove that Janus wasn't to be found there, and it would have been a waste of time to do so, because -- if I may risk a multilingual pun -- the numina are also noumena: things known by the mind rather than being experienced by the senses. To reverence one's surroundings as full of gods, as the Romans did, is an act of faith and thus an expression of values, not a statement subject to factual verification or disproof.

Sooner or later in the life of a civilization, its rationalist philosophies run headlong into the limits of what can be known by the reason, and after a certain amount of struggle, those limits are accepted. It's precisely then that the Second Religiosity begins, because once the boundary between fact and faith is clearly delimited, reason and religion can coexist with perfect grace, each on its own side of the line, and individuals can come to their own varied relationships with both. I'll be discussing this in much more detail as we proceed.

6/20/13, 4:23 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Amy, like me, you're a bit older than my average reader!

C Young, most fascinating. It's very promising that the Haitians were willing and able to ask for the help they wanted, rather than having an outside notion of "help" imposed on them.

Ben, the abridged version of Toynbee has all his more edgy discussions of the future of the Western world neatly edited out. That's one of the reasons why I have the complete version on my bookshelves.

Jose, thank you! Health care, well, a lot depends on local conditions -- I don't happen to know how health care is funded in Brazil. Here in the US, it's the last place you want to be, because it's become a hugely overfunded, unwieldy, corporate monstrosity of an industry that is probably headed for massive bankruptcies in the very near future. If that's not the case where you are, and you can get into a field where there's a steady demand and people who will be willing and able to pay, it may be a good approach.

Lahevend, er, Dick was writing science fiction, you know, not serious historical analysis. I wouldn't recommend VALIS (or any other of Dick's novels) as a basis for a study of history!

Sekenre, thanks for the link. There are ways around those barriers, but the habit of preaching to the choir has to be abandoned -- and that means you have to speak to people in their own mental language, which can be very difficult for those who think their own opinions are absolute truth.

Will, there's no guaranteed way to do that -- though a willingness to read and think about books you disagree with, and books that disagree with one another, is a good place to start.

Michael, see my response to Will immediately above.

Pat, not passive at all. I'll be addressing that next week, in fact.

PhysicsDoc, granted. Every phenomenon in history and in nature combines features that are unique with features that copy past phenomena; no two stars, summers, crickets, or cosmic ray bursts are exactly the same -- but there are regularities that can be extracted from the data, and used to get some kind of a handle on what can be expected in the future. That's all I'm saying.

Steve, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for taking the logic I've been trying to communicate in these posts, and applying it to your own thoughts and ideas.

6/20/13, 4:38 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Paulo, that's what I'd expect over the short term. Over the longer term -- well, that's a subject for the future series of posts on Dark Age America. Stay tuned!

Maria, excellent! A good satirical novel is always a sensible starting place for thought in an absurd time.

Escape, too funny! The Buzzfeed list I'd recommend, though, is this one.

Lucretia, glad to hear it. It can be hard to realize that "despairoin" is just as addictive, and just as pointless, as "hopium."

Jeffrey, I'm not arguing.

Unknown Mark, good. I've discussed the differences between those societies that collapsed and recovered, and those that just plain collapsed, in a couple of my books, especially The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future; the very short form is that it depends on whether the basic means of food production and other subsistence activities are stable over the long term, or not. China got overrun with as many barbarian tribes as Rome did, but Chinese agriculture had settled down into an immensely stable and resilient pattern, while Rome let its agricultural system turn into something very similar to today's absentee-owned agribusiness farms, and that went belly up when the Roman economy did.

Orc, faced with something as vast as the end of a civilization, we all have a variety of choices. My choice is to do what I can to preserve certain things that I consider profoundly valuable, that will likely be lost forever if nobody takes action. It's not a matter of limiting human suffering -- one way or another, a lot of people are going to live wretched lives and suffer miserable deaths; it's simply that, speaking solely for myself, there are things that I want people in the future to be able to have, and I couldn't live with myself if I let them be lost without raising a finger to do something about that. That's my choice. What do you choose to do?

Harry, that's exactly what catabolic collapse looks like, complete with the delusion that it can't really be happening.

DeAnander, Butler didn't make that up, or if she did she was following an ancient path without knowing it. One of the most popular deities in Hellenistic times across the Greek-speaking end of the Mediterranean was Tyche, "pure dumb luck."

Alex, it's a typical sales pitch by the wind turbine industry, backed by international banks that will make billions off turbine sales.

Bill, too funny! You may have noticed, though, that I didn't use the term "Neopagan," and that was in large part because my experience has been much the same as yours; a huge number of people who claim to worship Nature haven't taken the time to learn the first thing about her. Some of the old-fashioned Druid orders, the one I head among them, are taking steps to remedy that, or (in our case) to return to an orientation toward nature study that existed a while ago in our traditions, and got partly misplaced more recently.

6/20/13, 4:58 PM

John Michael Greer said...
SP, thanks for the report from the trenches! I'd heard rumors that it was getting that bad, but it's helpful to have those confirmed. May I suggest that you might consider studying how to treat illnesses and injuries with things you can make yourself, from commonly available sources? I'm coming to think that the entire US health care system may be only a decade or so away from financial implosion, and afterwards, it would be useful to have people who know how to provide essential health care without benefit of vat inputs of resources and money.

David, I think you mean a helix rather than a spiral. Most of the people who want to turn cyclic time into a helix want to convince themselves that it's going somewhere -- since, after all, forward movement in a third dimension is the difference between circular and helical motion. If this is the case for you, ask yourself: why is it important for you that history should have a direction?

6/20/13, 5:08 PM

Southern Limits said...
The psychology of denial in the face of the seemingly obvious has never been more apparent for me than today.

We had the worst storm in decades blow in last night with 200kmh winds, roofs blown off, trees blown over, windows smashed, and coastal roads and railways destroyed.

And yet people have been commenting on news stories that the whole thing is being over hyped and it hasn't been bad at all.

The cerebral disconnect is staggering. Given a slightly more abstract notion such as the decline of industrial civilisation and it's no wonder most people can't put 2 and 2 together.

6/20/13, 6:45 PM

Richard Larson said...
This weblog is in perfect tune with what I would believe An ArchDruid would be sharing. A deeply caring insightful message to touch multiple beliefs.

I am trying to figure out if your ideas are actually in center. I am also trying to figure out if humans can again rely on their instincts, instincts developed over a very long period of time (just as the bricks in the gravity building idea), but preempted by industrialism.

My instincts are screaming to learn more about nature and how I can fit in close and closer.

6/20/13, 7:03 PM

Leo said...
And those tribal cycles were transformed from the even older hunter-gatherer cycles.

With technic civilizations you have the emergence of different production methods and man-made transport routes, canals and trains or aerial rope-ways.

Since the industrial revolution was started with water and wind power (which has been improved on), not fossil fuels, the technic form will likely survive.

Through they'll be more geographically limited, so a greater variety of civilizations will exist at the same time. The interactions will be interesting.

Wrote a post on that:

My main efforts to allow that will be trying to preserve textbooks on basic engineering sciences (mechanics, thermodynamics, electrics, fluids etc) and maths as first priority (other stuff comes later).

6/20/13, 7:22 PM

wiseman said...
Good article. I am going to store your articles in dead tree format along with your books. Someday when the internet breaks down, I'd like to show them to my kids or grand kids.

Anyways about history being cyclical, you'd be surprised to know that Hinduism has a cyclical view of history, time is divided into epochs called Yugas, it starts with Satya Yuga followed by Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga and ends with Kali Yuga. After which it starts all over again.

However as opposed to the western narrative of progress, things progressively get worse here (which might explain our fatalism), Kali Yuga is the worst of all and life is supposed to be miserable in Kali Yuga. Every Yuga is marked by an epochal event where god appears and vanquishes evil.

Life and Birth are cyclical too, you are supposed to go through this never ending cycle of life and death unless you achieve 'Moksha' (with which you must be familiar). The general meme being that life is miserable and avoiding the life-birth cycle is a reward.

I am guessing it's a defence mechanism among humans to cope with the uncertainties of life. Trying to imagine that life sucks right now but was better earlier (in our case) or that it will get better later (western materialism).

6/20/13, 9:52 PM

mkroberts said...
What concerns me is not the narrative but the science. History is no guide to our future when humans have never lived in a world with atmospheric carbon levels as high as they are now, or when temperatures and CO2 have risen as steeply or when a mass extinction was underway or with dying oceans. Sure, other civilisations and societies have suffered resource depletion and other damage which is happening now but not environmental degradation on this scale or rapidity. It really is true that no-one can see the future but it is also really true that these times are unprecedented in human life on this planet, let alone civilised history. Do you really not think so?

6/20/13, 10:25 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Limits, where are you located? That's a whopper of a storm.

Richard, that's a useful intuition!

Leo, excellent. Make sure you add a good book on slide rules to your collection -- having an efficient, sustainable tool for mathematical calculations will help no end.

Wiseman, I'm not surprised at all -- the four yugas are tolerably well known in Western esoteric schools, which drew a lot of inspiration from India back in the day. Do I recall correctly that the Kali Yuga began at the battle of Kurukshetra in 3102 BCE, and is expected to last for 432,000 years?

Mkroberts, no, you're reacting to the narrative. Other civilizations have suffered environmental degradation that was as rapid as ours, and covered as much of their known world as ours does of ours, and we can study the way their environmental disasters affected them in order to understand how ours will affect us. The climate shifts now under way have close analogues in the prehistoric past -- huge CO2 releases from volcanic action in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods are among the examples -- and those examples don't justify the apocalyptic rhetoric being flung around by believers in near-term extinction. In insisting that history has nothing to teach you, you're simply parroting one of the common thoughtstoppers of the mass media and popular culture; I'd encourage you to consider stepping outside the box, setting aside the rigid progress-or-apocalypse narrative, and discovering that nature and history are both ready to teach you much more than you imagine!

6/20/13, 10:58 PM

KL Cooke said...
"Sometimes I bet with myself on how long the conversation will go before the "they" so loved by conspiracy theorists rises up to explain the discord in their own beliefs."

Back in college (a long time ago), I had a professor who used to say "When you know who 'they' are, you don't need the psychiatrist anymore.

6/20/13, 11:01 PM

Renaissance Man said...
As I read this, I cannot help but think that, personally, as much as I love Science Fiction, I've never had any problem keeping a firm sense of the difference between what I secretly wish could happen and what is realistically possible in my life. But I'm also thinking on the Science-Fiction sub-genres Cyberpunk and how its sentibilities have been bleeding into the popular culture for the past 30+ years. I think the cultural narrative may be slipping away from the perfection/apocalypse dichotomy. Not quickly, to be sure, and notwithstanding your enumeration of the host of increasingly shrill proponents for either scenario, but I think it is slipping.
Cyberpunk reviewed the antiseptically clean world of Star Trek and other future world TV and movies applied the punk awareness that much of life (in the 1970s) was not living up to its billing per the 1950s; we had stagflation, unemployment, social unrest and the happy, groovy world of the Age of Aquarius was nowhere to be seen. Doug Copeland (Generation X) described coming of age in the late 1970s as like being on a beach after a huge party the night before that you weren't invited to, where you cut your foot on a broken bottle in the piles of trash and get yelled at by a cop for making a mess. Cyberpunk rescued science fiction by having a future of advanced technology in a grimy world still full of poverty and disparity, which is pertty much what we have now. Even as every month or so, the frontiers of what is technically possible with electronics and engineering produces some astounding new development, yet we are grinding down and decaying and the possibility of space travel becomes more remote.
As you trace out our inevitable future in these essays, Hollywood and LA has been producing entertainment that, while they still take place out there, amongst the stars, or in some technologically advanced version of our world, have lost that shiny, clean perfection of Hugo Gernsback's pulp novels, and replaced it with a more gritty image of carrying poverty and disparity and crime along with us even if we eventually leave the planet. Some of the best writing in the past two decades had only a tiny fraction of our population getting off this (or their) planet at all, leaving a polluted mess behind and stepping forward into poverty, albeit with the requisite hope for a better future... eventually. (e.g. Babylon 5, Firefly, and the 2005 Battlestar Gallactica remake).
I can see the popular narrative changing from the perfect future worlds as seen in the original Star Trek and Forbidden Planet to something closer to what we experience in reality. Maybe this is the first step to popular cultue facing the fact that, as Yogi Berra said, the future isn't what is used to be.

6/20/13, 11:27 PM

Juhana said...
Hello, JMG, and happy Midsummer Day festivities for you and other readers of this blog. Midsummer festivities are huge thing here in my country, as cities are practically abandoned because people gather with their families to their ancestral birthplaces, burning solstice bonfires at countryside... Here one video describing this...hmmm...thoroughly Christian tradition in our country ;).

So I have other pressing things to do, like building one big, nasty bonfire, but wanted to ask couple of questions:

You have earlier stated that religiosity in USA follows pattern between more fundamentalist and liberal denominations. Is it not possible that this familiar pattern shall be disturbed now that industrial society has started to decay, and American expectations are going to be recasted?

At least here in my country, and in large parts of Europe also, there is this prevailing mood of skepticism winning ground day after day. Awareness that grandiose EU project has all but failed and that economic depression is on the way are accepted by many. After reading this Onion article, I got feeling that Americans have woke up to that reality also. So are there any reactions in the air yet over there? Are people tearing themselves apart from familiar influence groups yet? Here in Europe I have got impression that this Tea Party movement has been thus far only truly new and radical reaction model to changing environment over there. As populist movements are practically tearing established political infrastructure into bloody mess in large parts of Europe, this perceived stability of your country seems astonishing. Is it so, or am I missing some vital information here, lost during huge distances between us?

6/21/13, 12:11 AM

wiseman said...
The dates are not reliable when you translate to the Gregorian calendar. No one really knows when the battle occurred but yes it began shortly after the battle.

The duration is also debatable but it's in the same ballpark range.

6/21/13, 12:38 AM

mkroberts said...
Oh, JMG, I can accept that I may be reading too much into the facts as they emerge about environmental degradation but degrading the environment of their "known world" is not quite the same as the degradation of the environment of the whole world. CO2 levels are unprecedented in human history (written or actual) and that applies to the whole world. Temperature rises are much more rapid that at any time in human history. Anoxic areas in seas are more extensive. And on and on. I don't think you can compare what is going on on a global scale with what a single society might have experienced on a local scale.

I'm not referring to near term extinction here; I don't think the evidence is there for that but we really have no historical guide for what to expect for the environmental destruction we have wrought, all powered by a one-off abundance of energy that is also unprecedented.

I really don't think I'm reacting to the narrative here. I look at the scientific information that comes out. Remember that the IPCC said, a couple of decades ago, that a temperature rise above 1 degree C could elicit rapid and abrupt changes to the climate (and since then the science has moved on, with risks becoming higher and increasing numbers of scientists trying to drive the message home). We're at 0.8, right now, with well over 1 degree already built in, given the level of CO2 already in the atmosphere. This is not narrative, it's science. How can we have a guide for an unprecedented situation?

6/21/13, 2:59 AM

Andy Brown said...
" if you mean "benevolent" in the sense of "sentimentally kind," no doubt. The word has other possible meanings, though. "

Well, I appreciate a kind of "benevolence" in the fact that we exist nestled in this cup of biosphere, which is a beautiful and miraculous thing. But I have to scoff at careless anthropomorphizing of the world into something that feels compassion or will treat us with kindness. The parasitic wasps I was photographing in my parsnip flowers are beautiful, but neither benevolent nor malevolent. They are what they are. (Though being human, of course, I cannot leave well enough along and I turn them into something meaningful - and I laugh at that as well.)

6/21/13, 5:17 AM

Edward said...

I appreciate that the themes you address apply to the day-to-day issues as well as the historic issues. Seeing things exactly how they are is a powerful tool for dealing with difficult people. I catch myself thinking about how I want them to be, rather than how they are. Then it's easy to hate them because they don't conform to my expectations. That usually does not lead to a productive encounter.

Thanks. I hope you had a magical Solstice!

6/21/13, 6:21 AM

Ian said...
Good stuff! Responding to some things you said upstream to Avery in the comments:

No Christian or Epicurean ever pointed a numenometer at a Roman doorpost to prove that Janus wasn't to be found there, and it would have been a waste of time to do so, because -- if I may risk a multilingual pun -- the numina are also noumena: things known by the mind rather than being experienced by the senses. To reverence one's surroundings as full of gods, as the Romans did, is an act of faith and thus an expression of values, not a statement subject to factual verification or disproof.

This rings false as historical description. Even Neoplatonists debated each other over precisely how to understand theurgy and spiritual presence which suggests that the fact/value, noumena/phenomena distinction couldn't be taken for granted. Your everyday Roman probably had a fairly literal notion of spirit being in things.

As for pointing to the numenometer and declaring Janus absent...well, that really was a common technique of Christianity; they adopted that strategy from rabbinic Judaism's anti-idolatry toolkit.

I say this, too, because religiously I've been close to the contemporary African diaspora traditions and they don't tend to make the sort of phenomena/noumena distinctions you describe. They point to this or that object and it's the spirit, they go to this or that place because it is where x spirit lives there, and so on. Consecration (and its contrasts, desecration and profanation) are incredibly important because the spiritual and material are seen as fused in sacred things and places. I suspect the theological subtleties (and they are subtle) of the Afro-diasporic faiths are comparable to the Roman ones.

(I know, I am theologically and philosophically really kooky. Adorno one week, Afro-diaspora another. Interesting times, I guess. I will face my chaos, I will permit it to pass over and through me, and when it has gone I will turn my inner eye to see its path ;-)

6/21/13, 7:31 AM

DaShui said...
Lest we forget,
Happy Solstice!

6/21/13, 7:48 AM

JP said...

"Orc, faced with something as vast as the end of a civilization, we all have a variety of choices. My choice is to do what I can to preserve certain things that I consider profoundly valuable, that will likely be lost forever if nobody takes action. It's not a matter of limiting human suffering -- one way or another, a lot of people are going to live wretched lives and suffer miserable deaths; it's simply that, speaking solely for myself, there are things that I want people in the future to be able to have, and I couldn't live with myself if I let them be lost without raising a finger to do something about that. That's my choice. What do you choose to do?"

What else can you really do during civilizational winter?

And there is a lot that should be carried through the narrow pathway to the future.

So I suppose that we should all carry as much as we can, after we sort through it, of course.

To me, this is the most useful part of your blog, once you realize that you are faced with constants and binding constraints. It's the only real answer to "what do we do"?

Human nature limits the number of answers, and you seem to have the best answer to the question.

6/21/13, 7:53 AM

Adrian Skilling said...
"the habit, mentioned toward the end of last week’s post, of postulating an imaginary "real world" that contains some set of desirable features the actual world lacks"

I'm very much reminded here of the current GM controversy in the UK. Government minister, Owen Patterson doesn't just postulate an imaginary World where GM technology is wonderful. He thinks we actually inhabiting it right now.

I also note a recent Economist debate on "Is Technological Progress Accelerating". 71% if participants voted Yes! I find this incredible when we see decline all around. I think the main problem is that people fail to distinguish between progress in the virtual World (e.g. faster computers) between progress in manipulating the Physical World. i.e. the belief that Moore's law might automatically result in very efficient electric cars and robots that will do everything for us and are likely to rule the World.

Personally I work in Speech recognition where I am painfully aware that faster computers do not automatically means that computers can recognize our speech better, since we hit human limitations in programming and understanding complex systems.

I will take some time to read and act on your suggestions, the above is more to emphasize your points.

6/21/13, 8:41 AM

Wullow said...
John, I find myself questioning some of your logic. First, to assert something will never happen because it never has happened is similar to the proverbial claim that there are no black swans. As an observer, I look at what CAN happen and try to guess the odds of it happening; this is not a "practice," it's just my personal way of coping with uncertainties.

I would agree that the odds of the two extreme scenarios you mention (utopia and apocalypse) are quite low. However, odds must be considered in relation to some time scale.

For example, what is the probability of another Carrington event happening in the next five years? I expect it would be quite low. But in the next 50 to 100 years? I expect it would be considerably higher. And, depending on the severity of the CME, it could easily be a world-changing catastrophe, considering our dependence on the electrical grid.

This leads me to another point: I have to grant the possibility that this time really IS different, or that some time in the future really WILL be different.

Here's a gloomy example, and I really hope someone can prove me wrong on the facts: Mankind has already built a fail-safe doomsday machine. It's called the nuclear power infrastructure. It is believed that one massive CME hitting North America would take down most, or all, of the grid. That means no diesel fuel would be delivered to hundreds of nuclear plants after the 2-week emergency reserves are depleted and the coolers quit working. I need not explain the consequences to every living thing downwind. Not incidentally, this is a 100,000-year problem. We have to keep the grid alive that long, unless someone figures out how to safely dispose of the stuff. And I consider the odds of the latter happening extremely low. We had our chance, and now the resources are gone.

Further, we have been told there were actually times during the nuclear age when madmen with their launch codes came close to incinerating the northern hemisphere. No one can know what the odds were during those tense moments, but they weren't miniscule.

Admittedly, I am imagining a future scenario that no one would be able to prevent and that few could survive, even the most well prepared. So why do I trouble myself with such things? Perhaps this helps me appreciate the sweetness of life in this very moment.

6/21/13, 8:46 AM

Emmanuel Goldstein said...
Great post as usual, JMG. I am currently trying to hack my way through the unabridged 'Decline of the West/Spengler' as a first step to understand the big picture.
Question: Has any civilization, at any time in the past, achieved the sustainability (that we 'slammed the door on in 1980?'). No one comes to mind for me, unless it would be the Aborigines...
Question 2: If we assume the cycle continues into decline, what sort of people had the best conditions in past declines? As an example, who fared best in the Dark Ages? Possibly the inhabitants of villages on the edges of the Roman Empire, such as Londinium?
Question 3: What can I do with my life now to decrease the damage I do on earth and maximize the benefit for the humans that come after me?

6/21/13, 8:59 AM

John Roth said...
Edde - I'd been wondering whether to recommend "The Righteous Mind - Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion." At risk of spoiling it for you, I try to reduce science popularizations like that to a single page (a sentence is usually too condensed to be meaningful).

He classifies six value pairs: care-harm, liberty-oppression, fairness-cheating, loyalty-betrayal, authority-subversion and sanctity-degradation, and then analyzes several current political stances on which ones they consider important vs which ones they consider less important or unimportant. According to his analysis (done in a university laboratory setting, so it's got the usual caveats) Libertarians, for example, raise the liberty-oppression axis well above any other characteristics.

6/21/13, 9:06 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG, mkroberts, re: environmental calamities in human experience... Some of the climate swings of the late pleistocene were more rapid and larger than what is happening now, and humans that were biologically almost identical to us survived them just fine. As for mass extinctions, the arrival of humans in the Americas happened shortly before the mass extinction of the megafauna here; whether or not this was causal or coincidental, humans here certainly did weather that mass extinction event just fine, too. Our species has seen plenty of drastic environmental changes in its history and prehistory. The current round is hardly our first.

6/21/13, 9:37 AM

John Michael Greer said...
KL, on the contrary, it's when you're convinced you know who "they" are that you really, really need help.

Renaissance, interesting. Personally, I found cyberpunk unremittingly dreary, not because of its lack of glossiness, but because of its lack of imagination -- how many rehashes of Eighties hacker culture can you read before yawning? -- but you're right that it was a step toward something a little less rigidly entombed in the myth of progress.

Juhana, that's a huge question, and will probably need a post of its own to answer. In the meantime, a happy midsummer to you and yours, and may it be a grand bonfire!

Wiseman, thanks for the details.

Mkroberts, of course you can make the comparison. From an ancient Mayan perspective, the anthropogenic climate change that played a central role in wrecking their civilization did affect the whole world -- the whole world that they knew about. A difference of scale is not a difference in kind. If you want more exact equivalents, there's ample paleoecological information about previous greenhouse events, abrupt climate changes, etc., that have happened in the past -- some of them when human beings were already on this planet. Thus the situation isn't in any way unprecedented; it's the narrative that convinces you that it is.

Andy, no argument there. It's the confusion of benevolence -- literally, having a will toward the good -- with sentimentality that tends to get a protest from me!

Edward, excellent! You get today's gold star for catching an implication that usually gets missed.

Ian, it's important to remember that religions go through the same life cycle as their societies. The perspective I've suggested was that of mature, post-rationalist Roman religion, when the rationalist critiques had been absorbed and what Spengler called the Second Religiosity was well under way. Earlier? Romans had the same sort of faith in Janus, Robigus, et al. that fundamentalists today have in, say, the historicity of Noah's flood.

DaShui, and a happy Alban Hefin to you too!

JP, I have no idea whether it's the best answer; it's just the one that makes sense to me.

6/21/13, 9:58 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Adrian, it's usually those who actually work in technical fields who understand how slowly real progress comes -- and it's those who are most detached from that reality, such as politicians and executives, who spend their lives in a bubble of fantasy instead.

Wullow, your last question is the one I'd toss back to you. Why do you focus your attention on might-have-beens? Because it feeds the narrative you've been fed by the media and popular culture all your life. As for nuclear waste, I'm probably going to have to do a post on that one of these days; the short form is that yes, a lot of people are going to die from that over the next quarter of a million years, but -- ahem -- it's not the end of the world.

Emmanuel, nah, some East Asian cultures managed it in fairly good shape; the key is to have a stable agricultural base, so that the inevitable declines never run all the way down. Your second question is more complicated, and will take a post of its own down the road. The third? Only you can answer that.

Bill, bingo. I'm also thinking of what geologists call the super-greenhouse events of the Toarcian, Aptian, and Cenomanian-Turonian epochs, which were shut down hard by oceanic anoxic events which laid down much of the petroleum we're now burning, and which did remarkably little to inconvenience the largest land vertebrates in the history of the planet.

6/21/13, 10:06 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Mansoor (offlist), please read the bit above the comment box about hammering on a point already made. You've made your point; further attempts to proselytize for your (or any other) religion are off topic and will not be put through.

6/21/13, 10:35 AM

Marcello said...
"Not incidentally, this is a 100,000-year problem. We have to keep the grid alive that long, unless someone figures out how to safely dispose of the stuff."

Not really, fuel that has just been extracted from a reactor needs active cooling for a while but eventually after few years natural air convection is quite sufficient.
If things got to the point that we could not prevent the the reactors and the SFP from melting down en masse people would die anyway and in far greater numbers from the breakdown of food distribution, aqueducts, anarchy, epidemies etc.
That said I would suspect that there would be a number of other industrial activities that could lead to rather nasty results if electricity was cut off forever.

6/21/13, 10:53 AM

JP said...
"As for nuclear waste, I'm probably going to have to do a post on that one of these days; the short form is that yes, a lot of people are going to die from that over the next quarter of a million years, but -- ahem -- it's not the end of the world."

I always wondered whether nuclear waste could be reprocessed and launched into space toward Alpha Centauri.

I wonder if dumping it into an active lava flow would help matters any.

I hate nuclear waste. Creating it in the first place was a really stupid idea.

Yay, modernity.

6/21/13, 11:25 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...

I lived through the entire Cold War; my father worked as an engineer in the aerospace defense industry; one of my sons carpooled for a few years with a very frank and open former CIA operative. I am as certain as anyone outside the halls of high government power can ever be that (as you write):

"there were actually times during the nuclear age when madmen with their launch codes came close to incinerating the northern hemisphere."

There seem in fact to have been *several dozen* such times, and the well-known stand-down between Khrushchev and Kennedy around Cuba was very far from the closest the world came to all-out nuclear war.

Only . . . we actually did not have that war. The most dangerous of all the people whose fingers were on the button were not madmen (as you call them), but very rational men who thought that they had an excellent grasp of history and nuclear science, that a nuclear war would ultimately lead to a better world for the relatively few who survived. They were prevented from acting on their conclusions by other men whose intellectual prowess may have been less, but whose humanity and humility were greater.

The most dangerous of all people, IMHO, are not madmen, but very intelligent, rational people who think they have it all figured out, and have grown content and comfortable with the vast power that they wield.

6/21/13, 11:33 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
Emmanuel Goldstein asked,

"who fared best in the Dark Ages?"

Medievalists (of whom I am one) have pretty clear ideas about the answer to this question. Of course, no one fared well in today's terms; that's obvious.

But in Medieval terms, the ones who fared best were those relatively few individuals who by their own efforts had managed to amass great power and wealth, and at the same time were smart and strong and unselfish and ruthless enough to win the loyalty of those over whom they ruled by actually furthering the security and prosperity of the weaker and poorer folk under their rule.

[Note, please, the deliberate careful choice of terms here: the ruler's power and wealth, but their subjects' security and prosperity. Likewise, unselfishness and ruthlessness are not opposite virtue and vice, but two distinct and complementary virtues.]

Second best were probably the people who lived under such rulers.

A distant third may perhaps have been wealthy city-dwellers such as prosperous merchants and master craftsmen. A city lacks a sufficient agricultural basis for its own independent survival, but can only live off the surplus of the surrounding country's production. And communities within a city are somewhat more fleeting than those that span dozens of generations in the country.

6/21/13, 11:52 AM

Phil Knight said...
Whenever I read about an amazing new technology in the mainstream media nowadays, I always look for the inevitable phrase "it could be only ten years away".

I interpret "only ten years away" (OTYA) as meaning "really, this isn't going to happen."

6/21/13, 12:03 PM

PhysicsDoc said...
Check this out. The land surface area of Easter Island is about 150 square km. The Earth land surface area is about 150 million square km, a factor of about one million more. A recent paper (I know there is debate about these numbers) suggests that a reasonable estimate for the max population on Easter Island was about 7000. The current population on the earth is about 1 million times larger so the current population density of the earth is about equal to the max population density of Easter Island. Easter Island took about 200 years to reach that population and then declined back down to near initial numbers in the same amount of time. As I mentioned in an earlier comment the 200 year time scale is similar to the time required for the earth to increase by roughly the same factor (7X) due to the industrial revolution. The coincidences are breathtaking and as you have mentioned there are no coincidences in nature (I am not sure I believe that but anyway). I have not rigorously fact checked or double checked these numbers so please do that if you are interested.

6/21/13, 1:09 PM

Marcello said...
"Glance back over the last half century or so, to start with, and notice just how many prophecies of progress and apocalypse have ended up in history’s wastebasket. From cities in orbit and regular flights to the Moon, through fusion power and household robots who can cook your dinner and do your laundry for you, to the conquest of poverty, disease, and death itself"

To be fair predicting the future is a dicey businness, more often than not you end up with extrapolation from existing trends that lead you into false directions. There is also the issue of selling predictions to a public that is unavoidably going to skew things.
To the best of my knowledge nobody was predicting Internet in the 1950's, for example in the scifi of that era you might find nuclear powered washing machines but computers are still large/special assets somewhat removed from daily life.
Nuclear power ruled the day and the nature of predictions. In reality some people involved in the sector were alredy aknowledging its limitations, the problems posed by radiations, waste, complexity etc.. Many of the schemes to apply nuclear power to tanks, trains etc were paper exercises detached from reality and anybody with a cool head could point the problems with those. Even where some serious R&D was done out of pressure, such as nuclear powered bombers, the obvious drawbacks could not be ignored.

6/21/13, 2:03 PM

Sky McCain said...
I am happy to be an “intellectual heretics on the fringes of contemporary culture.”

I like your examples of the signs of cultural decay and disintegration. May I suggest that in the US, the cost of global warming in disaster relief alone will easily cripple the economy in tandem with massive political disruption as the poor continue to get poorer and the 1% spend their money on protection from the wrath of the other, say 80%. Dismay with just how bad it can get will turn into wrath. I wrote the above before reading the next paragraph.

I would like to learn more about the Royal secret of equilibrium. The only way I can see ahead is to study Nature and figure out how to cooperate with what we can understand around us. Perhaps I can relate to balance. Perhaps life is one great cooperative venture.

6/21/13, 2:46 PM

Ozark Chinquapin said...
I can see some times where it's appropriate to bring worst case scenarios into the discussion, not as an inevitability but as a possibility. Nuclear war is one example, having the worst case scenario in the collective consciousness probably makes it a lot less likely to happen. If a society with nuclear capabilities started forgetting about those risks, then I'd worry more about a nuclear war actually happening.

As far as the nuclear waste issue, I still see that along with all the other environmental pollutants as one with no close parallels historically. We can see plenty of examples of climate change, land degradation, wars, famines, pandemics, etc to compare to, but none of us really know the long term effect of all the persistent chemicals we have put into the environment and will put during the remaining time industrial society has left. Older societies had access to things like lead, arsenic, mercury, and asbestos, but I don't see that as comparing to the thousands of never before seen chemicals that contaminate the industrial world, not to mention the potential for radioactive contamination.

You make a good point with this quote, " If the present case really is unprecedented, wouldn’t it make more sense either to suggest some equally unprecedented model for the future, or simply to shrug and admit that nobody knows what will happen?"

I guess that's the point I'm at with regards to the toxicity coming from industrial society. It doesn't fit into an apocalyptic model at all, as much of the damage from radioactive waste and chemical pollution happens with delayed effects, even sometimes playing out over generations as exposure in the womb or as a small child can be much worse than as an adult. The impacts on human vitality from these contaminants already is probably much worse than most people think, it's just that the replacement of human power with fossil fuels has masked the growing weakness of humanity itself. I can't rule out a worst case scenario that results in the eventual extinction of humanity (and who knows haw many other species) through simply more deaths than births over a number of generations due to illness from these toxic substances.

I think that worst case scenario is very unlikely, and it's also possible that the effects will end up being relatively minimal compared to everything else going on during the long descent except in localized areas. However, there are many possibilities in between, and I wonder just how much environmental contamination will make things different this time. For instance, your reasoning in favoring areas of the US east of the Mississippi compared to the west makes a lot of sense, east of the Mississippi does have a lot of geographical and climatic advantages. However, overall it also has a much greater density of nuclear plants, as well as other contaminants that go along with more densely populated areas. Montana and Idaho might end up being a better spot than Ohio and Tennessee. I'm not saying that for sure, just that it's a possibility considering all the unknowns about the long term effects of our pollution.

continued in another post

6/21/13, 3:58 PM

Ozark Chinquapin said...
continued from previous post

I could see a possible scenario where 1n the year 2250, a third of the US is close to completely depopulated by contaminatiion, including the majority of areas east of the Mississippi. Only a small fraction of those areas would be so contaminated that someone would die from a short stay, but they would be bad enough that populations dwindled over a number of generations. Population would later rebound in some of those areas as the mid range isotopes dwindled, others slowly leached away and ended up in deeper sediments and less accessible places, evolution favored those more resistant to radiation and cultural patterns that adapted to its presence. Not the end of the world in any way, but still a major factor in the descent.

I don't propose this scenario as a prediction, as I think there's a whole range or scenarios that could come out of this, but just as something within the range of possibility.

6/21/13, 3:59 PM

Grebulocities said...
Regarding rapid climate change, Homo sapiens has survived several events of abrupt global climate change, most recently the transition from the last glacial period between ~15,000 and ~10,000 years ago. This transition was marked by many abrupt temperature rises of several degrees followed by large partial reversals (e.g. the Younger Dryas cold spell, which lasted 1300 years but both started and ended in only a few decades).

What isn't known is how well human civilization can take climate change of that rapidity - agriculture didn't develop until we entered the current, relatively stable climate regime that began about 10,000 years ago and is likely coming to an abrupt end. There have been a number of civilization declines and collapses brought on at least partially by local climate change, but those local changes will pale in comparison to the changes that will be brought on by a global ~4 C temperature rise. Furthermore, this will be by far the hottest period ever experienced by Homo sapiens.

I suspect humans will survive even the more severe climate change scenarios (at least among the ones that don't feature limitless fossil fuel reserves leading to CO2 concentrations >800 ppm). There is quite a bit about this situation that is truly unprecedented, although environmentally-driven collapses like that of the Classic Maya do still bear important lessons.

6/21/13, 4:02 PM

mkroberts said...
JMG, I'm not sure you got my point about the whole world being different from the world imagined by previous localised civilisations. However, leaving that aside, I'd say to you and Bill that I doubt humans survived past environmental catastrophe "just fine" (as Bill wrote), though they certainly survived it, but I think we're talking about humans societies and civilisations. There is no historical precedent for what is happening, environmentally, coincident with human civilisations, on a global scale. None. If there is, please point to the research which shows this. If that still doesn't impress, consider tipping points. These are hypothesised and even theorised. If the scientists are right about tipping points and right about what is currently happening to our planet at an unprecedented level in human history, is it likely or even possible that such tipping points will be reached in the near future? Again, I'm not talking about near term human extinction but I'm talking about rapid deterioration of what supports all life, all societies, all economies on this planet. A centuries long deterioration of our global civilisation may need to get through an environment that is shrivelling before our eyes. I don't say it's impossible but I think unlikely.

Of course, as collapse plays out, over any time period, there will be some for who collapse plays out very quickly. We shouldn't forget that a stepped decline is an actual collapse for those who miss out a step.

I may well be caught up in a narrative but I gently suggest that you may also be caught in a different narrative - that there are always precedents for everything that happens and that will happen.

6/21/13, 4:15 PM

latheChuck said...
I'd like to weigh in on the risks to the power grid, due to a major (but not unprecedented) geomagnetic storm. Google found the FEMA and NASA briefings on "a modern day Carrington Event" for me, and the worst-case scenarios are indeed dire. A world without electricity for several years! Without electricity, we can't pump water, which we need to drink, to flush away our waste, and to cool our nuclear facilities. We can't run our refrigerators!

But to get to the worst-case scenario, we require the grid operators to NOT respond to the evolving event, and just sit back while their transformers burn out. At this time, we have satellites staring at the sun, watching for just such an event. (Of course, these satellites have finite operating lives, and to replace them will require scarce government funding, so it's crucial that we all know just how important they are. [Nice grid ya' got there; too bad if somethin' were to happen to it...]) If the satellites see the CME coming, they provide about a day's warning. A third satellite, positioned between the Earth and the Sun, senses the CME as it sweeps by, providing more detailed information as the impact nears. (You can monitor conditions yourself through the Space Weather Prediction Center.) The grid itself is equipped to sense ground-induced currents, and includes circuit-breakers to automatically disconnect the grid before damage occurs.

But yet, there is a certain element of human judgement involved: if I were a grid operator, would I voluntarily shut it down for a few days, guaranteeing the inconvenience of my customers, but the safety of my equipment? Or would I wait to see if it's really going to get "that bad", and put equipment at risk? Where do I set the threshold? In the long run, will we maintain the vigilance needed to issue the warnings? Will grid operators be punished for responding conservatively to false alarms? (When a storm knocks out residential power, we lose a few days of refrigerated food. I don't know what happens to an oil refinery, or aluminum smelter.) If their prudence in shutting down on a warning is punished (legally or financially), they may take greater risks on successive events.

By the way, CME-induced currents would have no effect on household electronics, even in the worst case scenario, unless the grid thrashed around a bit on the way down. The risk is to high-voltage transmission transformers connected to miles and miles of wire.

There are technical ways to isolate the transformers from ground-induced currents, but implementing them would cut into utility corporate profits with no certainty of pay-off. Will they be implemented?

My conclusion is that this will be a manageable danger for many years to come, if we maintain the ability to manage it. If managed properly, we may still go off-grid for a few days. Whether that turns out to be a catastrophe or a novelty depends on our personal preparations.

6/21/13, 6:41 PM

KL Cooke said...

"As to how people will react to these circumstances, I have no idea."

I have been watching with interest the events currently unfolding in Brazil, sparked by something as minor as a ten cent public transportation fare increase. It was enough, the proverbial straw, to send massive numbers into the streets to protest the status quo of income inequality and corruption.

It would be more interesting to see how the U.S. government and powers that be would react to something of a similar scale (the Occupy movement was anemic by comparison). However, I suspect that will not occur until brownouts begin interfering with television.

6/21/13, 7:38 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Grebulocities -- no particular reason to think that agriculture is going to fail because of climate change. In fact, a warmer world with higher CO2 is an environment crop plants will love, overall. The water will still be evaporating from the oceans, and it will still come down as rain. Agriculture is not synonymous with "large-scale industrial farming using genetically standardized crops that are entirely dependent on petroleum-based chemicals." It will persist in old and new forms.

6/21/13, 8:12 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Marcello, oh, granted. There are a lot of current industrial processes that are going to leave dead zones of longer or shorter duration.

JP, no question, it was a stupid idea. A lot of people are going to suffer and die for a lot of centuries to come because we were greedy and stupid.

Phil K., excellent! That's a useful habit.

PhysicsDoc, fascinating.

Marcello, science fiction in the 1950s routinely had space travelers centuries from now calculating their routes using slide rules!

Sky, there was a report from one of the big reinsurance firms a while back predicting that the annual cost of weather-related disasters would equal the total annual output of the global economy by 2060, so you may well be right. As for the Royal Secret, that would be telling -- but you can find quite a bit about it in older books on occult philosophy.

Ozark, your scenario's well within the range of the possible, though I don't think it's highly likely. One way or another, as I mentioned to Marcello, there are going to be a lot of dead zones in the future.

Grebulocities, as with most ecological questions, the effect depends on local variables. My guess is that a really bad temperature spike would cause a decade or two of serious dieoff, and shatter industrial civilization in those areas most heavily affected -- but those areas don't include the whole world by any means. Still, the collapse of industrial civilization is pretty much a done deal anyway; the only question is how and exactly when.

Mkroberts, you're saying "but this time it's different," and when Bill, or I, or anyone else points out that there are good equivalents for every current trend in history or prehistory, you ignore everything that's been said and just come back with "but this time it's different!" Not in a meaningful sense; your life differs in detail from that of every other human being who has ever lived, but it's still possible to compare you to other people and come up with a very good guess of how long you'll live, when your hair will turn gray, and so on.

In the same sense, the differences between the current situation and past examples of overshoot, past greenhouse effects, etc. are differences of detail, not of kind, and so it's possible to learn from the past to anticipate the future. The fact that humanity hasn't been in exactly this situation before doesn't change the fact that we've been through other climate shifts, that civilizations have been through similar ecological crises, that the planet has been through similar CO2 spikes, etc., etc., etc. -- and all of these provide us with useful information. If, that is, we don't simply plug our ears and close our eyes and shout "But it's different this time!"

6/21/13, 8:29 PM

DeAnander said...
@Renaissance Man: "The Gernsback Continuum" -- one of my favourite Wm Gibson short stories. Thanks for unintentionally reminding me of it!

As to catabolic collapse, I am hearing fairly substantial rumours that the major Observatory I once worked for is in grave danger of being shut down. It was founded in the 1880s, and by the time I arrived in the 1980s it seemed an institution almost as august and solid as the British Museum; its extensive archives featured heavily in the UC Library Special Collections, and it was a "flagship" feature of the UC chain and vastly popular with the general public. I've been retired just a few years, and now I hear that the institution in whose service I spent much of my adult life is, basically, on the chopping block.

This doesn't surprise me, in times such as ours. Libraries are being closed and reducing their hours, roads are going unmended, public transportation is being cut back just as poverty is increasing and affordable transport is more needed. But it's my very own "flaming arrow with a note wrapped around it" from the liquidators managing the catabolysis. It tells me on a gut level that the world I knew is over. This I knew intellectually, and I've known it for years with increasing emotional clarity; but this brings it home in a new and saddening way. I am not consoled, somehow, by my startlingly affordable Android tablet.

6/21/13, 8:29 PM

KL Cooke said...


"Are people tearing themselves apart from familiar influence groups yet? Here in Europe I have got impression that this Tea Party movement has been thus far only truly new and radical reaction model to changing environment over there. As populist movements are practically tearing established political infrastructure into bloody mess in large parts of Europe, this perceived stability of your country seems astonishing. Is it so, or am I missing some vital information here, lost during huge distances between us?"

Several nights ago I watched some televised footage of a large Tea Party rally held in Washington DC in response to recent "scandals" involving the Internal Revenue Service. A succession of elected congressional representatives stepped forward to address the crowd, all of whom spoke out against "the politicians" and the "the government," while the assembled placard waving crowd flapped their flippers together like trained seals.

I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but even I could see why that didn't add up.

6/21/13, 8:36 PM

DeAnander said...
Whenever I read or hear that global industrial civ is too big (or too darned kewl) to fail, the phrase "Invincible Titanic!" runs through my mind.

6/21/13, 9:15 PM

Dwig said...
Thanks for the nice overview of Spengler's and Toynbee's work. Question: how do their model(s) relate to Polybius' anacyclosis? (Actually, I'm being lazy here -- I should investigate this myself.)

I'd like to expand the perspective of these models; from a quick look at the Wikipedia articles on Spengler and Toynbee, it seems that they consider only the "major civilations", and in particular only those that have existed in the most recent few thousand years (it's only recently that we've learned something of cultures that left no written record). What would we see if we could examine, say, 100 thousand years of the history of human cultures? Is it possible that Spengler & Toynbee's models are based on an unusual time period in human evolution? (Although of course that time period includes our lifetimes, and likely the lifetimes of several generations beyond us.)

This brings up the nature of human evolution. By this I mean, in part, the process that has turned a primate into "modern man", and is presumably still at work on our organisms. I haven't read enough in this area to say anything definite about it here. I will speculate, however, that evolutionary change of human cognitive processes, and corresponding changes in cultural behavior, might result in a change in the nature of the cycles that human populations go through. (John Michael's work in culture conservation might be a component of this kind of evolution at work.) Another speculation: might the presence of severe climate change, coupled with the technics and cultural knowledge that survive, create a situation that will cause cycles of significantly different characteristics?

Further expanding the perspective: I referenced C.S. Holling's and H.T. Odum's models for cyclic behavior in complex systems, in a comment on the March 21, 2012 post ("America: Crossing the Line").

So, maybe Holling's Panarchy and Odum's Pulsing Paradigm could be viewed as extensions of Spengler, anacyclosis, etc. into the natural world. (Or maybe, the latter could be viewed as specializations of Holling's and Odum's models.)

Both Odum and Holling treat cycles occurring on multiple scales, and the interactions between scales. Also, Odum derives pulsing from his energy principles, thus providing a model that says why cycling occurs, rather than just that it does. This model also includes the possibility of the preservation of information across pulses, thus enabling growth on a longer scale.

An especially interesting study using Odum's work is Tom Abel's look at the Cultural Evolution of China. Here, he shows a longer scale change (in the form of growing population) across multiple cycles.

6/21/13, 11:00 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Chuck, thanks for the details! I more or less assumed that this is what would be involved -- not the imaginary "perfect storm," but an imperfect mess, with some parts of the grid badly damaged, others less so, others mostly intact, and the end result being one more massive economic burden on a society that can't afford too many more of those.

DeAnander, there's a reason why the Onion parody of the Titanic sinking was headlined "World's Biggest Metaphor Hits Iceberg, Sinks."

Dwig, good! Yes, Toynbee and Spengler are trying to explain things only on the largest scale, the scale of whole civilizations. I use them partly because they were working long enough ago that there's been time for their predictions to be tested, partly because I enjoy their writing for its own sake, and partly -- well, you know my recommendation that people read books older than they are? I do a lot of that myself.

One of these days I'd like to have the spare time to integrate Spengler and Toynbee with some of the sources you've suggested, particularly Odum, whose work I generally find very congenial. I've long thought that human social systems are best understood as a subset of the science of ecology -- but that's going to take a lot of work to turn from an intuition to a well-developed theory.

6/21/13, 11:53 PM

wiseman said...
Thanks for the info on slide rules, we used log tables in school, same principle, much more accurate but very complicated. The slide rule is faster and easier to carry.

I looked it up on the web and found one which you can print on an A4 sheet. The image is high res and has instructions for assembly in-built. Overall it takes around 3 minutes to build.
Whoever built this deserves an A+ for engineering.

I don't know if this is outside the scope of comments on the blog, but it will be useful to many people here.

6/22/13, 12:22 AM

ganv said...
Another stimulating essay as always. Thanks.

One can puzzle over why the choice to pay attention to what actually happens is so difficult for so many. I think a deep current in this confusion is the fact that humans have a deeply ingrained moral imagination. We don't conceive of the world as a sequence of events, but as a sequence of good and bad events. People are too complex to understand, so as a shorthand we quickly label them as good or bad. We are very likely to do the same thing with animals (think puppy or mosquito) or future possibilities (think flying cars or economic decline). It is the response you compactly called 'warm fuzzy' and 'cold prickly'. The 'world as it is' is really complicated. It is much simpler to conceive of an imaginary world where things are ordered by moral criteria. Over evolutionary time, this trait seems to have been useful. When you face the 'buzzing blooming confusion', you need a simpler imagined world to think in. It seems to me that much of human intelligence can be understood as an evolutionary response to a world that is too complex to fully comprehend. (Of course that understanding itself is only partial since it is circular.) Religious systems are attempts to formalize and build coherence out of the moral worlds that we naturally inhabit in our minds.

A great question that will determine much about the human future is whether large groups of people find ways to synthesize a focus on the world as it is with an embracing of the human moral imagination as it is. Modern science easily embraces the world as it is. A strong grasp of inter-disciplinary science does a lot to reduce the 'buzzing blooming confusion'. But it leaves us without a moral framework. The best it offers is an uninspiring pragmatism: you ought to do what achieves your goals (or your groups goals or your species goals or your ecosystems goals, etc) but no one knows what the goals ought to be. A divine goal giver is a very nice solution to this problem. If only the goal giver were evidenced in the world as it is and not only in the human moral imagination.

6/22/13, 2:56 AM

sgage said...
@Robert Mathiesen wrote:

"The most dangerous of all people, IMHO, are not madmen, but very intelligent, rational people who think they have it all figured out, and have grown content and comfortable with the vast power that they wield."

In other words, madmen ;-:

The madman is not the fellow who has lost his reason, but the fellow who has lost everything but his reason. (G.K. Chesterton)

6/22/13, 3:18 AM

ganv said...
Your essay last week still has me thinking about the 'this time it is different' arguments. I agree that we have much to learn from the instabilities of earlier civilizations. But in addition to the cycles that can be seen in the rise and fall of civilizations, there are other parts of human history that don't fit at all well in Spangler's story. The invention of agriculture and domestication of animals changed human society such that the majority of humans have never returned to a hunter-gather lifestyle. Evolutionary history is full of other such changes--multicellularity, photosynthesis, mobility on land, flight--all changed the future in ways that had no clear precedent. Many of us suspect that at least some parts of the scientific-industrial-communications revolution of the past 500 years have no precedent and make the future much harder to predict than Spengler believes. I suppose he might argue that he is modeling large scale social organization patterns and sees repeating patterns and so examples before the advent of large scale civilizations are irrelevant. But that is unfortunately close to the argument that this time is different...that large scale civilization patterns repeat while biological evolution and evolution of hunter gatherer groups do not. One could equally (falsely) claim that one is modeling the future of industrial civilization and examples from before the industrial revolution are irrelevant.

I think you have to be careful with that kind of interpreting of history. The rise and fall of systems of political organization may well be inevitable. And standards of living will certainly decrease at some point in the future rather than always rise. But the prediction of a return to the technology and way of life from before the revolution of modernity seems to me to be a failure to grasp some ways in which this time is indeed different.

6/22/13, 3:52 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Walk the talk seems to be an apt summary? Hope you are well and enjoying a nice Spring and solstice celebration.

I haven't had a chance to read the comments yet, but enjoyed the essay.

I posted a farm update recently if you're interested?

Late Autumn update with text

On to the comments!



6/22/13, 3:56 AM

Leo said...
It's in after the core of textbooks, since their designed to teach people, alongside more general theory/practice and double language dictionaries. No idea what language the future will speak, but here it's most likely to be a derivative of English (nothing else is spoken in enough numbers).

Thinking about it, the fact that this time it's a global down-cycle, theirs two factors at play. One is that their are a greater absolute number (probably the same in terms of percentages) of areas that knowledge could survive. But theirs a lot more, that's badly stored, ephemeral, useless or in a format non-conductive to post-peak use.

Chances are this problem won't be nearly as bad later one. With the improved sailing from the 16th century (it's far better now) and potentially other improvement (Airships and trains) coupled with telegraphs and radios, knowledge will be widely spread.

And thinking about it, their will be quite a few civilizations around in the future. South America will have its own (maybe the Amazon will revert to city states), Central America will have at least one and North America could easily hold 2-3. Asia traditionally has China and India and so on. Lot's of diversity there.

Worst bottleneck is ahead, after that it may not be so bad.

6/22/13, 4:17 AM

Brian said...
@notsomethingelse, the word you're looking for is "involute".

6/22/13, 5:10 AM

John Roth said...
Dwig -

Interesting point about human evolution and the kind of cycles people go through. How people evolved to be different from chimps has been a topic I've looked at for quite a few years. As far as I can tell, those changes took several million years, step by step. The last hundred thousand or so probably didn't see a huge change in our cognative toolkit, contrary to the "big leap forward" people.

The big difference is the invention of private property to enable ownership of land for farming. Agriculture, in the sense of putting seeds where they would do well, precedes that by a long time.

Going back to forager times, there are major indications that there were wide-spread trade routes and resources traded over distances exceeding a hundred kilometers, which indicates some kind of cultural homogeneity over fairly significant territories, so I would suspect that the origin, growth and eventual decay of societies would be similar.

6/22/13, 5:53 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG: "I've long thought that human social systems are best understood as a subset of the science of ecology -- but that's going to take a lot of work to turn from an intuition to a well-developed theory."

Actually there already exist schools of thought within both ecology and sociology that lean this way. Sorry, no I can't name any names, I've been out of academia for well over a decade. But since ecology can be described as the study of the interactions between living organisms and between living systems and their environment, it is clearly as appropriate avenue to pursue. The close etymological connection between "economics" and "ecology" is not insignificant.

6/22/13, 7:50 AM

Roger said...
You want people to pay attention to the way things actually happen in the world? Good luck with that.

A lot of the time, maybe most of the time, the way things happen isn't at all obvious. Sometimes what's required is patient observation and reflection. And people are social animals. Do I believe what I believe because I'm honestly convinced by objective facts? Or do I believe what I believe because everyone else believes it?

Perceptions and beliefs get bent and shaped by social pressure. Lebensraum they said. And so citizens of the most educated country in Europe parked their moral and intellectual faculties. I've seen films of Adolf giving a guts-out speech to a group of middle aged German businessmen. And within five minutes these paunchy, grey-haired men (who should have known better) were up on their feet, giving the straight-armed fascist salute and screaming "Seig Heil". How do you explain things like this? OK, well, how many times have you heard people say "we were all caught up in it".

Sometimes the price of admission to the club is a profession of belief in more benign things than Nazi-ism. But things that you secretly know can't be true and can't say so for fear of exclusion. You can't lose in tech stocks, right? No brainer, right? Well, no, as events showed, not right. But, if you didn't subscribe to certain investing fashions, you weren't on-side. And you were foolish and you didn't "get it". Everyone was doing it after all. It takes some bravery to risk derision by saying there's nothing to "get".

Sometimes admission to the club requires that you suffer in public by mouthing obvious nonsense. The more evident your discomfort the more enthusiastic the applause. You suffered in front of everyone and so you earned your membership. You get admiration, warm congratulations, handshakes, hugs and a slap on the back. The warm glow of acceptance is your reward.

John McCain looked into the camera and said that the 9/11 terrorists came through Canada. Which was baloney. Janet Napolitano said the same thing. They must have known it was baloney, yet they said it nonetheless. Maybe saying something like this marked them as rock-ribbed Americans. They proclaimed their membership in the tribe of rock-ribbed Americans and they waved the tribal flag.

I'll bet that a substantial percentage of rock-ribbed Americans who profess belief actually harbour doubts (like about WMDs in Iraq) but don't dare say so for fear of ostracism. Ostracism hurts. It hurts when people that you once associated with, whose friendship you value, no longer invite you to dinner parties and who now only give you a curt nod and a hello, if that.

Some people, in the face of overwhelming evidence, publicly deny the fact of evolution. Acknowledging this obvious thing is impermissible in their own social and political circles.

So, people on the "right" are knuckle dragging science-deniers? Well, just a minute, some people on the left decline to have their children vaccinated. How long before polio makes a come-back as a consequence? I'll bet that many of the science-deniers in these opposing camps know their positions to be based in nonsense. No matter, people value their tribal membership.

For the longest time I thought of Americans as empiricists led by hard-headed, practical types. Maybe it was a figment of my imagination but I seem to remember an America of small towns with clear eyed Jimmy Stewart types who got up and said what was what and did what had to be done.

America, after all, got to where it's at by doing what works. You don't set foot on the moon otherwise. But what I've been seeing is straining my belief. Maybe I'm an old man that's guilty of the same accusations that I'm making, that is, that I believe what I WANT to believe and what's convenient and comforting to believe. You know, when you point the finger, three point back at you.

6/22/13, 8:49 AM

Phil Harris said...
Dwig & JMG
Just a thought on human genetic lineage: this is a reminder to me as much as anybody else. My understanding is that the evolution from the hominid background was complete by about 150 to 100 thousand years ago. This is borne out by the close genetic identity across the dispersed populations, each having very small changes in genotype / phenotype. The biggest change might have been an interpolation from Neanderthal genome in the human population that gave rise to European lineages, but it does not show. This link with another hominid would have occurred after the main global dispersal of our species.

In effect, we grow our brains during development, varying a bit under environmental and social influences. There are also epigenetic effects over two or three generations. Selection pressure has resulted in different skin colour and other relatively minor adaptations for example, but had little effect it seems on the species genome.

I read in Thomas C. Patterson that Darwin seems to have been also a 'Social Darwinist'. That 19thC discussion, however, seems to have had very little basis in biology over the 100 thousand year human time-scale. Bill Pulliam is correct to sketch some of the extraordinary environmental changes that humans have survived so far, apparently with the genome hardly changed!



6/22/13, 9:01 AM

Jose Coces said...
JMG, thanks for the advise. Would you know anything about healthcare in Canada?

6/22/13, 9:19 AM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
@DeAnander: What a wrenching post from you, with your news that one of the major observatories (Lick Observatory?) is threatened with closure. We are going through something similar here in Ontario, with the closure of the less major, but still internationally significant, David Dunlap Observatory (DDO).

Some details on our case as it stood at the start of the crisis, in 2007, are in my long DDO heritage-conservation essay at www dot metascientia dot com.

It is also instructive to look at the YouTube video at, entitled "Moving Day at David Dunlap Observatory". This shows how things went on 2008-07-24, the day UofT removed our oil paintings and other art.

Our current position is as follows:
(a) 72 hectares now in ownership of real-estate developer Metrus/Corsica, 5 hectares now in ownership of Town of Richmond Hill; (b) 1.88 metre telescope (still largest in Canada, but now perhaps only in the largest 200 or so worldwide) as of 2008-07-02 not used for spectroscopy research, but merely for public outreach; (c) legal fight continuing at Ontario Municipal Board, with Metrus/Corsica and its allies seeking eventually to build a lane, 14 streets, a runoff-water sump, and approx 530 homes (with some of these proposed homes to have lots reaching within 150 metres of the telescope dome).

The future arrives sporadically, in different ways, in different places. In one sense, the future arrived in Britain ("Britain LEADS THE WAY") in the summer of 1914; in another, it arrived in Detroit, from 1967 or so onward; and our own little 77 hectares hints at yet another way in which the future arrives.

Do please encourage your colleagues to contact me, as Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com, if I can somehow help in your conservation fight. Our own fight is liable to go on to 2020 or 2025, with outcome presently uncertain.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
in Richmond Hill, near Toronto,
about 2.5 kilometres' walk from the DDO gates

www dot metascientia dot com

6/22/13, 9:33 AM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
GRRRRRRR----having screwed up a week or two ago with an attempt at an embedded link, I have screwed up once more (my post, earlier today). Let me try again:

YouTube "Moving Day at DDO vid" reachable by clicking here, and www dot metascientia dot com reachable by clicking here.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

6/22/13, 10:44 AM

DeAnander said...
As to the decline and fall of the James Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, my feelings are conflicted. One reason I retired early and retreated to a hands-on life in the provinces was that I began to feel very uneasy about the real value of what I was doing. Was the expensive pursuit of abstract knowledge about distant galaxies really a high/valid calling, in a world so full of impending disasters and remediable suffering? Was I expending my life-years and brain-hours in a way that satisfied my conscience? Was I really doing anything more meaningful than building a new-fangled pyramid for a pseudo-democratic Pharaocracy? So that's one side of my heart talking: who cares if such vanity projects get shut down?

But the other side of my heart says that the pursuit of non-profitable knowledge is not *only* a form of conspicuous consumption that signifies the wealth of nations or individuals (remember that the Obs was founded by the private legacy of a minor megalomaniac, whose body is interred beneath the 36 inch refractor). It's not just a monument to national or individual ego. It's also a valuation of something for its own sake -- knowledge of the universe -- that if it doesn't produce food or shelter, is also not useful for killing people or extorting profit out of them. It's a reflection, in its own geeky way, of non-market values, and as such I have a deep affection and respect for it that conflicts with my sense of its relative uselessness in alleviating any of the suffering ramping up all around us.

And then of course there's the emotional attachment of decades of collegial teamwork, common struggles and victories that would mean nothing to anyone outside "the shop". And the warm fuzzies of volunteering on Visitors Nights in high summer, and seeing "the public" appear in numbers, excited and cheerful and thrilled to look through a Real Big Telescope and attend a basic lecture on astronomy.

There's a mean-mindedness to the great empire in its collapse. You can hear it in the vindictiveness expressed by the rightwingnuts towards the poor, you can hear it in the timidity of the so-called left as it fails to condemn the erosion of civil liberty and the pursuit of endless war. For a while, the Obs stood for something more generous, more public-spirited, more concerned with a long civilisational legacy and the accumulation of information rather than filthy lucre. It doesn't really cost that much to run, as compared to the endless subsidies for sports arenas and highway construction etc ad nauseam.

The erosion of all these generosities of a relatively wealthy empire -- the defunding of health care, public transport, education, the arts, parks, you name it -- leaves us with a still-wealthy empire that is viciously stingy, the rich hugging their wealth to them like Smaug's hoard and giving not a snap of their fingers for the proles (other than a persistent desire to punish and humiliate them even further). As the empire gets less wealthy, I shudder to think how this meanness of spirit and praxis may escalate. All this is the warp of my sadness over the closure of the institution that shaped so much of my own little life -- across it runs the fluffier woof of my own personal sentiment and the melancholy of middle age.

6/22/13, 10:51 AM

irishwildeye said...
I think what might be going on here is the power of stories in the human mind. Best summed up by the old saying "never let the facts get in the way of a good story". Humans like stories, they are simple, straight forward and clean, while reality is messy, complex, often difficult to comprehend, and even more so to understand. The beauty of the two competing narratives is they are both wonderful, dramatic, easily understood stories. We have been telling ourselves stories since we learned to speak, their power is deeply rooted in out collective minds and unlikely to go away any time soon. Catabolic collapse is just not as good a story as the singularity or the apocalypse.

6/22/13, 10:53 AM

DeAnander said...
BTW, if you want to see some more catabolysis -- catabolism? -- in action, check out the news reports from Calgary, latest victim of extreme weather.

And check out the complete failure to connect the obvious dots: Calgary, boom town of the oil industry in Alberta, flooded by freak storms, disrupted, damaged, about to suck up millions or billions in repairs and recovery... and the comment of one political leader: "This was a hundred-year flood, so nothing like this should happen again for at least a hundred years." (or wtte)

How many such events does it take to wipe out the alleged profitability of the tar sands project?

Or... to what extent have the profits of the tar sands project now become denationalised, so that the costs can be externalised onto Canada, or onto Alberta, while the operation still continues to benefit delocalised stakeholders even as it sucks the host nation dry? Wealth pump, much? Does it *matter* to anyone in charge, near the top, if Calgary is wrecked, if Alberta is wrecked, if Canada is wrecked? After all, an Exxon-Mobil High Panjandrum just this week asked what was the point of "saving the planet" if it interfered with business! Trying to "save the planet," he pontificated, would cause "human suffering."

My brain starts to melt when I try to digest the cognitive dissonance in that utterance.

6/22/13, 11:01 AM

Kevin said...
JMG, I assume you're probably aware of Jorgen Randers' book "2052: a Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years." I've recently found materials relating to it online. Although he states we're far into overshoot and expects a global collapse, Randers' forecast for the first half of this century seems somewhat less dire than the mid-term prognostications put forward by yourself, Dmitry Orlov, and other like-minded thinkers. For instance, Randers foresees that a lame semblance of growth will limp along for quite some time in the "developed" world, albeit increasingly offset by environmental costs. This seems to contrast with your predictions of an extremely severe depression. Also, Randers does not anticipate severe widespread resource shortages before 2052 - except for those who can't afford to pay for them, mainly in what are already the currently poor parts of the world. He claims that the really rough stuff is likely come in the second half of the 21st century, as a result of CO2 emmissions and consequent climate change.

Since Jorgen Randers is one of the authors of the 1972 Limits To Growth, which you have often cited in this blog, I'm curious to know what you think of the forecast made in his more recent book. Sorry if this is somewhat off-topic for the week, but it certainly seems to relate to the general subject matter at hand.

Somewhat irritatingly, Randers predicts that the technologies of virtual reality will be with us for quite some time, and will even become more prevalent: whereas I was hoping it would go away fairly soon.

6/22/13, 11:02 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...

Not the usual sense of the term "madmen," but yes! Very much so.

And I really like the Chesterton quote.

6/22/13, 11:09 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@Roger about Hitler's effect on crowds:

Once, some thirty years ago, I listened to a recording of one of Hitler's speeches, in the office of our University's Department of Linguistics. (An elderly colleague had brought it in that day as a historical curiosity.)

I understood standard High German then (still do, though I'm quite rusty by now), as well as a bit of Low German. Hitler's dialect, however, was quite another thing: I could get the gist of less than a third of what he was saying.

And of course, I knew a good deal about what Hitler had done. And I have always despised totalitarianism of any kind, leftward or rightward. And Hitler's racial so-called "science" was unscientific nonsense.

None of these things mattered at all while that recording was playing. They wouldn't have mattered even if I had understood less than I did of his speech. By the time it ended I was, for a very short while, wholly under the spell of that man's voice.

The power of Hitler's speech had almost everything to do with the rhythms of the speaker's voice, the cadences and patterns of sound and the things that are subtly conveyed thereby. His actual message had nothing to do with that power, for me; neither did social pressure.

They did, of course, have something to do with his rise to power in Germany -- some thing, not most things.

Having heard that man in full flood of his speechifying, I am certain that neither social pressure nor ideas and ideology can fully account for Hitler's rise to power. He was a superb master of his own voice, far better than any other political speaker I have ever heard (even the late Everett Dirksen). He knew how to use that mastery to get what he wanted, which (IMHO) was raw power. In short, a formidable predator.

We have to take such things into account as we try to figure out the shape of the future. And there is no way to take the appearance of such things wholly into account before the fact. The fate of an organism (or a civilization, if you will) depends not only on its internal biology and changes to its environment.

A single predator can overturn everything in unforeseeable ways.

6/22/13, 12:30 PM

DeAnander said...
"A single predator can overturn everything in unforeseeable ways."

Genghis? Attila? Alexander? and yet, they don't overturn everything w/o capturing the loyalty and allegiance of tens of thousands. the dynamics of crowds, mobs, and armies is a mystery to me. how does it work? why do the legions follow the charismatic predator?

I should listen to that speech of Hitler's, if it's available online anywhere, to see what effect it has on me. I suspect that it will trigger, rather than rapt attention, a reflex I commonly feel when listening to overheated rhetoric, even stuff I agree with, even coming from presenters with a lot of charisma: "Oh dear, an angry man is shouting a lot -- I think it's time to put some distance between me and him."

6/22/13, 2:21 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Wiseman, thank you for this -- I hadn't seen it! In the US it's not too hard to get old slide rules in excellent condition, and there's an organization, the Oughtred Society, dedicated to preserving the technology and the knowledge of how to use it -- I'd encourage all of my mathematically inclined readers to check 'em out. Still, a paper slide rule is a very nice addition to the kit.

Ganv, excellent! You've grasped the immensity of the challenge that Nietzsche was trying to address: how do you make sense of the cosmos in an age when traditional myths and taboos can no longer be accepted by most people in a boneheadedly literal sense? More on this as we proceed.

As for the impact of changes such as agriculture, I'd point out that changes in technology and subsistence don't necessarily equate to changes in historical process. The military technologies used by Babylonian imperialism were very different from those used by the British Empire, but the same patterns of rise and fall appear in both cases. How much of the revolution of modernity will survive the exhaustion of the fossil fuels that made it possible in the first place is another question very much open to discussion, and one I'll be addressing as we proceed.

Cherokee, thank you, and of course I'll check out the latest news!

Leo, here in the US I expect the future language to be either a descendant of Spanish or an English-Spanish hybrid, due to demographics and the most likely course of mass migrations. Other than that, no argument.

Bill, glad to hear it. I'd much rather have someone else slog through that mass of work!

Roger, if the thing's worth trying, it's worth trying, even if the chances seem small.

Phil H., biological evolution takes time, no question; the advantage we have as a species is that cultural evolution is somewhat faster. Now to get people to make use of that...

Jose, not a thing. You'll have to ask somebody Canadian.

DeAnander, this is one of the reasons I've been encouraging people with an interest in astronomy to support amateur astronomy with as much time and energy as they can spare -- as the officially funded institutions have their funds cut off, it's among those who do without the funding that these things will survive, if they're to survive at all.

Irishwildeye, I'm not sure I agree with that last point -- why is it, if that's the case, that utopian and dystopian novels alike have modest popularity, while the great epics of ours and every other time are very often set in an age of decline, with the protagonists struggling to save something from the long slow wreck? My take is that catabolic collapse is a much better story -- it's just that accepting it means you can't keep on driving your SUV three blocks to the grocery.

DeAnander, it's usually about the third hundred-year storm in a decade that starts to knock people out of their complacency. As for the panjandrum, that's just classic -- thank you!

Kevin, a detailed response would require a post all to itself. My take is that Rander's wrong in important ways; in a society that rations resources by price, of course the only people who will be impacted by resource shortages will be those who can't afford to pay for the resources, but that group of people is already expanding rapidly here in the US, and the only "economic expansion" that's happening at all these days is an expansion of hallucinatory paper wealth. Climate change is going to be a mess, no question, but it's not the only source of real trouble. More on this down the road.

6/22/13, 2:50 PM

hapibeli said...

6/22/13, 2:50 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@ DeAnander about Hitler's speech.

I don't remember any anger in the speech or overheated rhetoric, and certainly nothing close to rage or loss of control. He was loud in the way that an actor who projects well can be heard throughout a large theater. Mostly, though, I remember that his voice was utterly compelling and magnetic, implying enormous power inherent in the man himself -- a thing quite apart from the content of his speech or his program. I expect Hitler, once he had become known, could have recited tables of logarithms and thereby gotten much of Germany to follow him anywhere.

In all my seventy years I have never heard another speaker who projected so much inherent power over the world at large. I have no idea just how a person can do such a thing using his voice alone, but it is clear to me that Hitler could do it. By implication others can do it as well.

I don't remember which speech it was, only that it was on a set of [American-made, I think] 78-rpm commercial records with labels in German. Perhaps any of Hitler's speeches could serve as an example. I don't know; I only ever listened to that one. Find some on the web and let me know how they strike you. As a long-time student of magic, I'm curious about the power of voice, and I've always been puzzled by this. [To avoid needless controversy over old persistent rumors, I know of no even half-way solid evidence that Hitler himself had anything but utter contempt for the study of magic and occultism in general.]

6/22/13, 3:40 PM

latheChuck said...
Robert Matheisen- I read aloud, to my wife (who once taught English in Austria), your story about hearing Hitler's voice to my wife. Her response was: "That's the kind of comment we HOPE to find in a blog, instead of that trash we usually get." Thanks, from both of us.

6/22/13, 4:23 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG, DeAnander, about 100 year floods etc... you can't really make any meaningful judgments about the frequency of extreme weather from media reporting etc. The term "100 year flood" is pretty poorly understood by most people. This means an event that is "expected" to happen on average once in 100 years at a single point. Not once in 100 years somewhere, anywhere on Earth. To put it really simplistically... if you have 1000 watersheds (North America has a lot more than this) in any given year on average you expect to see 10 "100 year floods," two "500 year floods," and one "1000 year flood." This is every year, a 1000 year flood, somewhere. And this is assuming that the models that extrapolate the 1000 year flood from 50 years of records is accurate. Even at any given point, two 100 year floods in a decade actually has a 10% chance of happening, and 3 in a decade has a 1% chance. So among these 1000 watersheds, in any given decade 10 of them on average will have experienced three 100 year floods -- three in the same watershed within one decade, with no increase in the actual frequency of extreme events.

Now even just a few decades ago, you would have only heard about these events if they happened close to you. But now you hear about them when they happen anywhere in the world. So of course the media have 1000-year extreme events to report on just about every week somewhere. This does not per se mean they are becoming more frequent.

The actual statistics on the frequency of extreme weather are much less dramatic, suggesting barely significant modest increases, no massive upheaval of all we know from the patterns of the past. Not yet, at least.

6/22/13, 4:26 PM

Dwig said...
Re "social systems are best understood as a subset of the science of ecology"
Bill and JMG, I typed "ecological sociology" into my search engine, and got some interesting hits. Looks like Bill's right, the meme is out there. Meanwhile, the "ecological POV" has been infiltrating psychology and economics as well.

Then of course, there's Forrester's system dynamics, which had its first applications in the 1960s in industry, followed by the study of urban problems. (John Michael, his early books may have been written before you were born, and therefore worth reading. ;^)

6/22/13, 4:27 PM

latheChuck said...
Re: big old telescopes... It may be sad to see them go, but when we have new telescopes, like Hubble, Webb, Kepler, and so on, isn't there a time just to let them go? It's especially painful to see such a facility converted to "housing designed for the last fifty years" instead of for the next fifty. We won't feel so sentimental about knocking those houses down to make way for local agriculture, will we?

6/22/13, 4:28 PM

latheChuck said...
PS: on telescopes... I realize that Hubble is not so new any more, and Kepler is finished with collecting new data (due to equipment failure), but the point remains: new research requires new instrumentation. Only an instrument like Kepler could detect the hundreds of planets that it has detected.

6/22/13, 4:30 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thank you. I thought you may be interested in this one.

Blemished fruit dumped despite perfect eating quality

Ahh, the problems of a well fed populace and free trade agreements. I shop for fruit and vegetables (when necessary) at the fruit and vegetable markets (Queen Victoria market which has operated on the same spot since the mid 1800's) because they sell this stuff.



6/22/13, 4:39 PM

JP said...
"Leo, here in the US I expect the future language to be either a descendant of Spanish or an English-Spanish hybrid, due to demographics and the most likely course of mass migrations. Other than that, no argument."

Except that the total fertility rate of Mexiccans and hispanics in the U.S. are also dropping, now.

Mexico is below replacement rate now, just like the U.S.

It was 3.4 in 1990. It's 2.0 now.

Hispanics in the U.S. now have a total fertility rate of 2.23 down from 2.96 in 1990.

And the trend for both is down.

The total fertility of non-hispanic whites is fluctuating around about 1.85.

Your prediction for Spanish or Spanish-English would have held 20 years ago, but hispanic fertility appears to be converging on non-hispanic white fertility.

To me, this is why the entire current immigration conflict is kind of pointless. There is no longer a massive supply of Mexicans south of the border.

Maybe this will change in 5-10 years, but I'm honestly surprised by the drop in Hispanic fertility.

Asians are having less children than whites.

I enjoy looking at demographics; although I'm more fascinated by the collapse in Muslim fertility than anything else, just because it's a true collapse from a really high peak.

Why wouldn't English and Spanish develop various offshoots like Latin did after the Western Roman Empire stopped empiring?

Instead of Spanish-English fusion, or Spanish dominance, I would think that fracture would be more consistent with historical parallels, particularly if travel and communication decline.

6/22/13, 5:58 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Hapibeli, most interesting! Thanks for the link.

Bill, I was speaking more about public awareness than meteorology; in that sense, the recent ballyhoo about storms is probably a good thing, as it's encouraging people to wonder about the impact of their actions on climate.

Dwig, good to hear. I do also read books written during my lifetime, you know -- just not so many of them. ;-)

Chuck, my concern there is that it's a lot easier to keep a ground-based telescope up and running in a time of economic and technological contraction than it is to keep lofting orbital telescopes.

Cherokee, there's a lot of that here, though very often what happens is that the blemished produce gets sold in stores in poor parts of the country, while the unblemished stuff goes to stores that cater to the middle class.

JP, I expect to see all ethnic groups way below replacement value in the not too distant future -- that's how population decline works -- but there's still a fair amount of demographic growth in the pipeline, and there's also what's likely to happen once Mexico's petroleum runs out and existing social programs south of our border collapse completely. Of course things will end up splaying out into a whole series of successor languages; my point is that many of them in what's now US territory are likely to be largely or partly descended from Spanish.

6/22/13, 7:50 PM

DeAnander said...
Sorry about the geeky digression into telescopes and related issues, but I just have to defend the Mt Ham site from charges of obsolescence -- briefly, I promise. 'Tis true that optical astronomy using the Shane (and even the Nickel) telescopes is now hampered by light pollution etc (though some other interesting work has been done with those scopes in the last decade or two, like artificial guide stars for advanced pointing algorithms and AO). But the APF (automated planet finder) is a new telescope, and here I will just quote a colleague of mine who is still working on it...

"[we are trying] to bring APF to the
finish line. We now have the telescope and spectrometer on sky nearly
every clear night, operating under quasi-robotic control, and producing
excellent quality spectra, with better radial velocity precision than
HIRES [Note: HIRES is a remarkably successful spectrograph used at Keck Obs on Mauna Kea]. This week we had our first team of UCB observers take APF out
for a test drive and they were quite pleased with how things performed.
But we currently have no funds to keep the telescope operating and
further operation may cease on July 1.

It is a bit ironic to finally have APF nearly finished just in time
for UCOP to start shutting down MH."

It's not that the site is a has-been for interesting science. New projects are still ramping up. That's part of the frustration. And I suspect that there will be many more such catabolic orphans -- like half-finished hotels in chronic war zones, or, heck, Pripyat. OK, I should stop talking about this now. It only depresses me, and really, it's rather small potatoes in the big bumpy descent we're all riding through.

6/22/13, 11:00 PM

mkroberts said...
JMG (and Bill), I realise that I'm now on shaky ground by posting again on this subject but I would like to point out that (as far as I can tell) neither you nor Bill pointed to equivalent events in past civilisations for what is happening to the climate now. You pointed to a period when there were no humans and Bill pointed to a period when there were no civilizations. Bill thinks humans survived severe climate changes "just fine", but didn't define "just fine". As I've said, I'm not a believer in near term human extinction but I do note climate science data which show a huge spike (almost vertical) in CO2 concentrations over the last 30-40 years and a similar spike in underlying planet warming (not just surface warming and with corrections built in). I've coupled that to almost every other aspect of our global environment getting worse and conclude that there just is no precedent for our current period.

I think we'll have to agree to disagree here as neither seems prepared to give ground but I wanted to make sure that I wasn't missing on something either you or Bill said. If either of you have pointed out equivalent periods of global environmental degradation during civilisations, I'd be keen to take those on board and alter my view.

There are other aspects of our current state that I don't think have analogs in the past but I'll keep that for another burst of discussion!

6/23/13, 12:59 AM

mkroberts said...

Regarding extreme weather, you might find these two links interesting:

Sientific American: Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Nature: A Decade of Weather Extremes

6/23/13, 1:27 AM

Mansoor H. Khan said...
Wiseman said:

"However as opposed to the western narrative of progress, things progressively get worse here" in reference to the four Yugas in Hinduism.

But Hinduism too is basically ultimately progressive. Here is my understanding of it:

We never really die. Our soul Just keeps learning.

According to Hinduism this world is a gymnasium for souls to try out things and learn and grow spiritually.

According to Hinduism souls do not die but are reborn to keep learning until they merge back into Brahma (the creator god) from whom they emerged.

The cycle may take eons. Each eon can be very long as described by the following parable:

If a bird with a scarf in its beak touches/softly brushes the scarf to the mountains of Himalayas once very 1000 years then when by this process the Himalayas have turned into plains one eon of the universe will have passed!

And each soul will eventually become god or get very close to him (depending on what do you want “to be sugar” or “just taste the sugar” , sugar = god = brahma). This according to Hinduism.

Mansoor H. Khan

6/23/13, 2:39 AM

Mansoor H. Khan said...
Nestorian said:

"You (JMG) have not been coy in maintaining that the worldview you are advocating is fundamentally relativistic in character. This applies not merely to questions of value, but even to questions of truth, as the following quote shows:

"Philosophers since ancient times have pointed out, and quite rightly, that human beings have no access to absolute truth."

The above does not hold for most eastern philosophers. The "relativistic" worldview is very modern.

However, to be fair, most eastern philosophers do say that truth is hard do get at and in case of Hinduism may require experience gained in innumerable lifetimes.

Mansoor H. Khan

6/23/13, 2:59 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
" a society that rations resources by price, of course the only people who will be impacted by resource shortages will be those who can't afford to pay for the resources..."

In the immediate wake of a sharp price-hike, perhaps, but supply is coupled to demand in a tight feedback loop, and the loss of demand will affect the supply.

Here's a graphic example. Assume that Donald Trump has a heart attack. He goes to the hospital, they do some quick imaging, find the blockages, shove stents into his blocked arteries, and in a week he'll be able to go back to browbeating Apprentices for another twenty years.

The reason they can do all this is that the mass market for flat-screen televisions and digital cameras has created mass-production facilities for all the components that go into the scanners; the mass market for precision-molded plastic parts has created the ability to produce stents at all; most importantly, the mass market for cardiologists created by insurance and Medicare has put a reasonably competent cardiologist on every street corner.

Fast-forward to a future where there are no mass markets for flat-screen televisions, plastic thingamajigs, or cardiologists, and guess what? Even if The Donald were ten times as wealthy as he is, or a hundred times as wealthy, that heart attack is going to kill him.

It's funny to me, the way that demand is apparently a complete blind spot in economic thinking. The futurists you complain about are all tied up in the supply side of the equation: oh, we'll figure out how to mine asteroids, and use cold fusion for energy, etc. Fine. Let's just give them that.

Who's buying all the stuff we can now produce? There's a theoretical limit on demand, based on 100% of the world population shopping 24 x 7 on the Internet, and "outsourcing" (and paying for) every possible human activity, from child-rearing to wiping your own bottom. There's a practical limit on demand, based on the distribution of discretionary wealth and the free time to spend it. If only the 400 richest people in the world can afford Chinese take-out, there will be no Chinese take-out: 400 people can't eat enough Chinese take-out to support the industry.

Even people who are paid to project demand simply refuse to be honest. I can't tell you how many times I've seen or heard of quarterly sales projections that will only come true if phytoplankton grows legs and develops capitalism. It's just too scary to go to the executive team with the news that there are no new markets for the Flanged Widget, so the good news is that we'll have a zero percent growth this year -- unless (hopefully) one of our competitors goes under, and then maybe we can pick up their business.

6/23/13, 8:02 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
DeAnander: "After all, an Exxon-Mobil High Panjandrum just this week asked what was the point of 'saving the planet' if it interfered with business!"

I laughed out loud at this! Thank you!

"What does it profit a man to save his own soul, if he can't have the world?"

6/23/13, 8:13 AM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
What fine writing on Lick Obs, DeAnander!

JMG's point about amateurs is well taken.

We should, however, add to JMG that the contributions of the lone amateur - Evans on supernovae, Levy on comets - are of necessity constrained. It is hard for the lone individual to build and maintain a telescope with an aperture of more than 0.4 metres or so, because a permanent pier and a permanent observatory building become increasingly desirable as apertures increase.

With increasing aperture, there is also an increasing requirement for daytime engineering. A point is eventually reached (perhaps at 1 metre or 1.5 metres?) at which there have to be at least two such specialists, separately educated to B.Sc.-equivalent or beyond - one, a mechanical-optical engineer, the other an electronics-and-cyber engineer. The latter engineer is needed because to get good astrophysics, one nowadays prefers a semiconductor CCD camera, and that camera needs to feed into some such cyber data-reduction system as the USA-developed, free-for-anyone, but intricate, IRAF.

Astrophysics in an age of decline should be pursued in part through groupings of part-time amateurs, under some part-time professional guidance, at duly conserved observatories with telescopes in the 2-metre class or better. This makes it possible for limited resources to be pooled.

Leaving aside lone heroes such as Evans and Levy, what can we hope to achieve? One possibility is the photometric study of exoplanets - difficult for the lone worker, but feasible for a team equipped with a scope in the 2-metre class or better, with electronics good enough to get measurements to a precision of (say) plusminus 5 millimags. Such work could be undertaken even at a light-polluted suburban site.

It has been pointed out in Sky&Tel that a programme of exoplanet transit timing-perturbation searches could potentially identify rocky, Earth-sized, moons of gas-giant exoplanets, including exoplanets whose orbits are confined to the liquid-water zones of their host stars.

For a good exoplanet project, one would ideally have for 20 hours/month a Principal Investigator trained to M.Sc.-equivalent or Ph.D.-equivalent, and for a total of 20+20 hours/month two B.Sc.-equivalent persons to check data reductions, and those two specialist engineers (again, say, 20+20 hours/month), and a group of people with no formal science training, willing to take occasional seminars from the B.Sc.-equivalents, each willing to commit to 10 or so hours a month.

Some inspiration can be had from the Debian Linux project - one of the oldest Linux projects, and the basis for several prominent Linux distributions (most notably Ubuntu), and yet operated by volunteers under an explicitly noncommercial charter.

Inspiration can similarly be had from the history of amateur radio. It was the amateurs who spearheaded the development of the HF bands in the 1920s, funding themselves.

The importance of volunteer work, albeit outside science and technology, is additionally illustrated by the volunteer-driven, perhaps only precariously funded, organizations Greenpeace and Amnesty International.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
near Toronto, Canada

(2.5 km walk
from David Dunlap Observatory gates)

www dot metascientia dot com

PS: I write here, a little carefully, "Ph.D.-equivalent" (etc) rather than merely "Ph.D." (etc) because we have to keep in view the possible eventual decline of universities. We may eventually be back to the situation in the 1890s, in which I suspect significant numbers of people, at least in Britain, were self-trained to a Ph.D. capability while holding only minor degrees.

PPS: Some decades from now, as our decline progresses, electronics will prove out of reach for all but military and the government. Then what? Well, we go back to measuring spectral lines on those tiny chemical-photography plates, duly hypered in gas-tight ovens. Yuck.

6/23/13, 10:45 AM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
@Leo on preserving textbooks: It proves helpful for maths to consult the Mathematical Assoc of America "Mathematical Sciences Digital Library" database of recommendations-for-librarians, with reviews, reachable through

My own experience is the following: Being curious on what the very best books on calculus or analysis are, and knowing really only of the one everyone knows (the Michael Spivak intro), I looked in the MAA database for max-number-of-stars calculus recommendations. Here I found only two authors, Spivak (as one would predict) and one other, Tom Apostol. Apostol, available in several copies at in UofT libraries, proved first rate. Last night I managed to order both volumes of the main Apostol book, in hard covers, through, for a total of around 70 USD. (Caution: It is easy to fall at Abe into the trap of getting a paperback. This is probably not what you as a conservationist will want.)

In general, it perhaps makes sense, for each branch foo of maths, to consult the MAA database, looking for just those foo books that get the MAA max-number-of-stars, and also consulting whatever book reviews MAA may make available for its maximum-stars books.

Thanks, JMG, for reminding us of slide rules. Around 2011 December, you posted your own recommendations for the best slide-rule guidebooks. Are you possibly able to post that info again? At least one of your suggestions was Clyde Clason, "Delights of the Slide Rule".


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
(near Toronto, Canada)

www dot metascientia dot com

6/23/13, 11:07 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
This entire conversation is relevant, not to human existence, but to our particular epoch, the Age of Empires.

It is possible for humans to live in long-term stability with their environment, and there are examples, such as the inhabitants of Tikopia Island cited in Diamond's book. It's entirely possible that humans lived in relative stability with their environment for the first 100,000 years of their existence.

The key point to notice is that it doesn't require a different kind of human being to live sustainably. It does require a very different way of living.

What makes Spengler and Toynbee relevant is not that they speak for the human species, but that they speak for the way of living that we currently practice: the way of civilization and empire. If we're going to live in civilized empires, then we are going to see rises and falls; growth, overextension and collapse.

It seems to me that the relevant question is when (or whether) we will get off this civilizational merry-go-round. We won't see another Age of Oil in the history of the species, but I don't think there's any reason we can't see empires rise and fall for the next hundred thousand years or three. The US emulated Rome. Rome emulated the Babylonians. The Babylonians emulated the Akkadians. Or draw your own connection between the dots.

The point is that we still call these "peaks" of civilization, not "troughs" of ecological insanity. As peaks, they are to be admired and emulated. And so we shall continue to do, with whatever resources are available.

We don't have to do it this way. We could adopt a more sustainable system, where the peaks and troughs are much smaller, and much shorter in duration -- bad seasons rather than bad millennia. However, any such system is going to be radically different from what we call civilization.

So until people make such a shift of worldview, the cycles of Spengler are going to continue to be relevant.

6/23/13, 11:18 AM

Phil Harris said...
JMG wrote
"biological evolution takes time, no question; the advantage we have as a species is that cultural evolution is somewhat faster. Now to get people to make use of that..."

Amen bro' ... Amen, and if I dare hope,the sooner the better.
Phil H

6/23/13, 1:47 PM

fromorctohuman said...
"My choice is to do what I can to preserve certain things that I consider profoundly valuable..."

Got it. I do think you go further than that even, but it's cool. I get what you're saying.

"What do you choose to do?"

A pittance. I've still a lot to sort out, which is mildly depressing, given I'm 43 (you'd think I'd have SOMETHING figured out by now...).

Be that as it may, there are some things.

I'm not sure how this fits in, but the number one thing is contemplation. I think it is very difficult to know the right thing to do and so I spend a lot of time contemplating, so that the times to act end up properly motivated. What I contemplate about (using thought experiments, internal dialogue, simply being open to whatever insight might come):

- I am not the center of the universe.

- Limiting desire is essential to peace and right judgement

- Value all things for what they are, and not for what I wish them to be (relates to limiting desire)

- Appreciate what is (could be a sense of awe inspired by the rings of Saturn, the organization of an ant colony, or the twinkle in my wife's eye ;-).

All of the above have interactions with other people as the primary focus, with broader existence also important but secondary.

Also, 9 tenths of all those interactions are within our own family (I have a wife and three kids). Huge is, just because we want something, doesn't mean we should have it (we're not wealthy but are fairly well off so this is a constant battle on all levels). Huge also is mutual respect, you'd think it'd be easy but my goodness!

Another thing I'm in search of and ponder often is a bridge between druidry and Christianity. I've read "Mystery teachings of the living earth" but need to re-read it. (The perspective is so "other" than what I'm familiar with, I really need to spend more time trying to understand it).

Some practical/concrete things:

- No debt (not even a mortgage)

- No cable (we do have netflix though)

- No facebook or any of that stuff (though we do use the internet, obviously)

- A small garden (though I really do suck at gardening)

- An extremely small green wizarding library (5 books!). The reading of which I suppose could go under the contemplation heading somehow.

- Playing/singing! (This has an exclamation mark as I've always had some musical talent but only recently has it become a source of strength and peace for our whole family! That since I started to learn how to play the guitar).

Things I need to do:

- Expand the garden (or probably more appropriate would be to treat what I have so far right!)

- Expand the library

- Weatherize the house (I'm ashamed to say this isn't done, but our house has such gargantuan problems it's hard to give it attention).

- Grow/improve musically.

- Get the kids through their teenage years somehow ;- )

- Cook more

- Can stuff from the garden :- )

- Do more with my hands (like weatherize the house!)

That's it! (Actually it's not but I gotta get off my bum and do something!).


6/23/13, 1:52 PM

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...
Re: cycle vs. helix:

Maybe a better fit would be an epitrochoid or hypotrochoid (better known as the patterns that Spirographs make)? Complicated cyclical patterns generated by cycles of cycles.

I can't find a name for extending this pattern to higher orders (cycles of cycles of cycles of cycles of...) but such a "fractal trochoid" might be a useful visual.

6/23/13, 1:53 PM

DeAnander said...
@Nemeth "quarterly sales projections that will only come true if phytoplankton grows legs and develops capitalism"

Thanks for returning the LOL favour! quotable! I refer you with pleasure to two satirical dystopian novels -- much underrated -- Fermin's Devils and Bodekker's Demons by Joe Faust (almost certainly a pseudonym!) which treat this very problem of saturated markets with astonishing verve (and vitriol).

6/23/13, 4:24 PM

DeAnander said...
Also @Nemeth: I find your comment on the civilisational merrygoround very resonant... it makes me think about scale or radius. To wit:

Civilisation "conquers" the perennial problem of variations in resource supply -- dearths and plenitudes, fair weather and foul -- by developing incredibly clever systems of irrigation, grain storage, administration and power structures to enforce and maintain the above, legal and accounting systems to keep track of all the enforcement and maintenance, etc etc. This provides a measure of stability and security to people living during the growth phase of a civilisation: in lean years, the authorities distribute grain from the centrally-controlled granaries; professional soldier maintained at state expense protect the boundaries of the polity, and so on. It seems to flatten out the wiggles of fate.

BUT. What has really happened is that civilisation has extended the time scale, and possibly raised the amplitude, of the variation in resource supply. Instead of having random periods of plenitude and dearth, the civ gobbles up resources at an increasing rate, growing all the while, more or less guaranteeing some kind of fairly steep and sudden collapse of resources which will also be *deeper* (wrt the population, which has grown to exceed its resource base) than previous famines, droughts, etc. So the period of relative calm and stability and security is bought by extending the time scale... which hauntingly echoes all kinds of basic physics about energy, time, and work :-) Many little wiggles become one darned big wiggle.

I'm then cross-indexing this way of thinking about civ collapse with other scale/radius problems such as the mistaken notion that exporting wastes beyond a certain radius makes them "go away". One more echo is found in Buber's concept of morality as a function of the radius at which Us becomes Them, or the I-Thou relation becomes the I-It relation -- if you have a very tight radius, then your behaviour towars anyone who isn't blood kin is liable to be predatory; if you have a very large radius, then every human you meet is to be treated like kin; and if you're a devout Jain, you respect insects as your brothers and sisters in life, and sweep them gently from your path rather than step on them.

Last example in this set that somehow gloms together in my mind: earlier interchanges here about slavery, and the illusion that slavery is abolished in the modern world; what has happened is that slavery takes place *further away* from the people who think it's been abolished, someplace foreign and exotic where they don't actually see it happening. Radius again.

Scale (in distance and time) seems to be everything when it comes to our perceptions (and our ethics). Scale in time, distance, and amplitude feels like a central concept: systems which scale up beyond a certain point don't escape entropy, they just delay it and possibly deepen the pit into which they fall? I scribble in haste here, so pls forgive, all, if this is a bit incoherent.

6/23/13, 4:37 PM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Happy solstice two days late--would have wished it on the day, but was in retreat and away from computers. Re your post: I believe we Quaker ecologists could have fruitful and productive discussions with you old-order Druids.

Your call for evaluation and testing of assumptions recalls a conversation I had at said retreat. We discussed how once one accepts the idea that it is wise to live in a way that is less burdensome to the earth (aka LESS!) it requires one to completely re-evaluate almost every facet of the way one is living, which in turn pretty much requires one to conduct the sort of analysis you are suggesting.

6/23/13, 5:45 PM

John Michael Greer said...
DeAnander, I expect to see a lot of promising ventures run out of funding and resources in the fairly near future. It's unfortunate, but that's what happens when empires fall.

Mkroberts, yes, I figured you'd come back with "but there aren't any exactly, precisely, in every detail equivalents for the present situation!" So? There have been plenty of civilizations that have overshot their ecological bases and crashed, including some that did themselves in via anthropogenic climate change; there have been plenty of periods of rapid climate change, some of them faster and more drastic than anything currently predicted by reputable science; there have been plenty of greenhouse events in the past, etc., etc., etc. The fact that none of them is exactly like the present is irrelevant to whether or not they can be used to make sense of the present. You might as well insist that no previous civilization had Khloe Kardashian, and therefore the current situation is unprecedented -- and if I could prove to you that she had an exact clone in ancient Sumeria, doubtless you'd find something else to back up the "it's different this time!" meme that your narrative requires.

Joseph, of course, but there's a fair amount of demand destruction that can take place before a given technology can no longer be supported by the demand that remains. It's in the lag time between when demand starts dropping and when it can no longer support the infrastructure of supply that rationing by price is a major issue.

Toomas, I'm not trying to see to it that new discoveries get made. I'm trying to see to it that the telescope and the art of making and using it don't become lost. New discoveries come second.

As for slide rules, yes, Clason's book is great. Isaac Asimov's "An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule" is also very good. I'm delighted to say that a lot of good slide rule books, including Asimov's, are now available for free download from the online Slide Rule Museum -- I'd encourage everyone interested in slide rules to download whatever strikes your fancy, and learn how it's done.

Joseph, I've come to think that the cycles Spengler discusses may even out somewhat over time -- as in, over the next hundred thousand years or so -- just as agriculture became much less vulnerable to crashes after its first half dozen millennia or so. Still, that's not something any of us have to worry about right now.

Phil H., here's hoping.

Orc, exactly. Now get to it!

James, so that's what it's called. Thank you. Yes, that's a much more useful model.

Adrian, thank you! Yes, there are probably some conversations to be had there...

6/24/13, 12:05 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Yeah, I've been thinking over the past few years that the fruit and vegetables that I see at the markets are actually the seconds. The firsts end up at the supermarkets so hadn't noticed.

How farmers manage to produce homogeneous looking produce is something just don't wish to consider.

PS: I scored an "old school" honey extractor. It is a very clever design and home built by someone who knew what they were doing.

PPS: To fully understand your essay, in the past I had to cut myself off from services - which people take for granted - and see where my weak spots are. Granted it was an extreme experiment, but I figured getting in early was actually an easier path in the long run.

Hi mkroberts,

Dude, you're obsessing about one variable. Stop it. It is already between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius greater than the long term average here right now. It has been hard, but the sky isn't falling in either.

Hi Andy Brown (and all of the other people that mentioned garden pests),

I'm enjoying the descriptions of your garden. As a general observation, a build up of a particular insect population is usually indicative of an ecosystem that is a bit unbalanced or missing predators or habitat for those predators. Dunno, without further information.

It may be worthwhile planting some shrubs to provide housing for small birds so that they can eat those insects - and then turn them into useful fertiliser for your plants. Cool, huh?

Last year, we were threatened with a locust plague which devastated the crops to the north of me. It was pretty serious business. They turned up here and you know what? The birds just got fat and happy for a few weeks and I didn't see any damage.

Worthwhile thinking about.



6/24/13, 3:56 AM

Zachary Braverman said...
You make a good point about athiests. Rejecting God doesn't necessarily obviate the need for an overarching narrative to grant meaning to life. Progress serves this purpose very well

To really get to those who are willing to acknowledge the utter futility and meaningless of it all, you have to really dredge the bottom of the barrel and get to us nihilists. ;)

6/24/13, 4:06 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Oh my! What would Winston Churchill say?

Minority of young Australians prefer democracy

After hearing this, I had a disturbing thought that perhaps outsiders looking in at western democracies, probably see through the smoke and mirrors. I get a mental image of them going, "looks the same to me, but gee wiz, that stuff they've got is good. How do we get some of that?".

I have heard that the kids on the street never miss a beat?



6/24/13, 4:11 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
mkroberts -- of course "It's different this time." It is always different, every time. This is true of anything and everything in the world, they are all different. The sciences (social and natural) look at patterns that occur within this omnipresent difference. Without that we just have a world of incomprehensible chaos. And of course, even chaotic systems (using the scientific definition) are predictable in a statistical sense, if not in a strict deterministic sense.

Extreme weather -- as I said, the data show modest increases. What I am talking about is the general perception of wholesale upheaval, and the attribution of any and every extreme event (no matter how UN-unprecedented) to drastic climate change.

We had a 1000-year rain and flash flood event here in middle Tennessee in 2010, which directly affected our homestead; some of our friends and neighbors lost their houses, one died. It was of course unprecedented in the 140 years of weather records for the region, smashing previous extreme rainfall totals by a factor of two or more. But here is the thing: The area that experienced the 1000-year-rain comprised about 10% of the total area of the state of Tennessee, and about 0.1% of the area of the 48 contiguous states. So, in fact, it is just about what you would expect to have seen in the state once in a Century, and about once a year in the Lower 48. The sorts of changes that have been observed (so far) suggest that this 1000 year rain might be becoming more like a 500 year rain; not a 10 year rain or even annual event, which is the end-of-the-world scenario that the media and mass psychology seem to be promoting.

But of course, we are early in the process, and we may well see total shifts in the climate patterns in the coming centuries. There seem to be some odd things happening with the general northern hemisphere circulation, where patterns that were once uncommon are showing up regularly, and patterns that were once the norm fail to appear for months on end. BUT hyperbolic declarations of weather patterns having been already turned completely on their heads are no help at all in understanding what is really going on, which is what I am addressing.

6/24/13, 5:54 AM

laughingbirdfarm said...

I can't help but wonder how much of the popularity of the narratives of progress and apocalypse is a result of otherwise intelligent people being in denial over the future because they are worried about their families, particularly their children, in the future we are really facing.

If the utopia comes instead, everything is great, and if the apocalypse comes, most people die quickly, and there's not a lot of suffering. In the real world, things are different.

I've always been very level-headed and have looked at the world with the clear eyes of a skeptic and a pragmatist. My father died when I was a teenager and my mother had a complete nervous breakdown, so I stepped up to the plate, made the arrangements, called the family, etc, and did so dry-eyed because I had a passel of younger siblings suddenly depending on me. I've always looked clearly at what's coming and realized it would suck, but that I'd better get on with preparing for it. I'm not exactly a sentimentalist.

Then I became a parent a month ago, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, when the newborn baby of a relative came to live with us permanently. My life got turned upside down, and I'm running on even less sleep than most new parents get (even though I'm married, dealing with a colicky, drug-exposed infant is no fun for anyone and I don't know what I'd do if I were single) and I'm suddenly having a hard time looking the future in the eye. I know what the future for this child holds, and I'm more scared than I ever could be for myself.

I know that this will pass -I'll make it pass, for I have to do what is necessary to give this child the best life possible when "what actually happens" comes, but I'm starting to understand the cognitive dissonance so many parents face.

On another note, do you know when the publishing industry made the switch from low-acid paper to high-acid? My next task is to start collecting books that will last longer than their modern versions. When I finally have the time again, I'm going to find a source of low-acid paper and being printing and binding my own versions of modern works. It may be a couple of decades before I can set up my own printing press, but I intend to not let the intervening time go to waste.

6/24/13, 7:02 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- I'm going to beg to differ on the demand destruction.

What I'm seeing is preliminary and mostly invisible catabolism in the supply chain. As demand ceases to increase at the desired rate, companies try to compensate by "cutting costs," usually through sacrificing redundancies, then capital. The redundancies are their safety margins. The first capital to get the boot is accumulated knowledge and institutional memory, through layoffs -- who needs that stuff, anyhow? Capital equipment upgrades are first delayed, then the delays become indefinite. Capital equipment maintenance goes next, followed by capital replacement. Engineering works out "more efficient" (less redundant) ways of producing the product, again to save costs.

All of this is largely invisible to the customer -- what they see is stable or even decreasing prices, trying to woo what demand there is, and maybe a slight (or even substantial) degradation in product quality. What used to be a solid steel bracket is now a flimsy plastic bracket, that sort of thing. But what is happening behind the scenes is a full-scale ravaging of the entire supply-chain, bringing it down to an emaciated skeleton that is riding at the edge of maximum "efficiency," meaning there are no margins for change or error.

Hard goods are commonly manufactured on a JIT (Just In Time) basis, meaning that the parts aren't ordered until the finished-good order is in-hand. The company has no extra cash to pay for the parts -- that's done through a line-of-credit with a bank. The parts suppliers are doing the same thing. Every point in the supply chain becomes vulnerable to disruptions.

I managed engineering for a short time in a small manufacturing company. Senior management -- my boss -- came from the sales and marketing side, meaning her core beliefs saw technology as magic: any engineer who said, "You can't do that," was just being lazy and needed to be fired. We were constantly pushing the JIT boundaries at the whim of sales, demanding "expedited delivery" on virtually every raw material we needed to meet some customer order. The cost multiplier was horrendous, which indicated to me the magnitude of the burden these "rush jobs" placed on our suppliers. Sometimes, they just turned us down, flat.

Demand destruction in a free market causes industrial osteoporosis: internal catabolism. Price rationing doesn't happen. Instead, businesses stretch until they suddenly break, or get bought out by their competitors. This frees up some demand, which provides temporary relief to the companies that remain. But the decreasing demand pressure remains, so company after company folds.

Eventually, they stop making Twinkies altogether. Overnight, the industry is gone.

6/24/13, 9:11 AM

Hal said...
JMG, can I ask you to clarify something for me? I am about halfway into the introduction to the first volume of Spengler, and should really probably wait until I have a little bit more understanding of his model, but at the rate I'm going, that might be a while! Really shouldn't take up something like this during the growing season.

I think you touched on this in an earlier post, but I still don't have a grasp on it. Spengler talks about "The West," and your term for the current civilization that is in decline is "industrial." I'm having a hard time understanding how those terms relate to the types of civilizations that seem to be the subject of his research. He states somewhere that these cultures start out in a geographical locality and remain in some way connected to it throughout their existence. He seems to be describing groups bounded or at least describable in geographic, belief, cultural, or perhaps ethnic terms, though I suppose that latter one might have problems. Thus far his examples (alluded in the intro) seem to fit that description. Egyptian, Chinese, "Classical," etc. Somehow, "industrial" civilization doesn't seem to fit.

I know you're getting some flack because some can't seem to get that something as global as the level of technology we now have could ever be lost. I don't really doubt that it could with the loss of the energy resources needed to animate the technology, but does that technology really describe a culture?

I wonder if what you are talking about could be described as the Anglo-American Empire, beginning maybe with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or, if you don't want to ignore the French, maybe Waterloo.

6/24/13, 10:29 AM

Andy Brown said...
@ mkroberts

I'll chime in here, because I'm sympathetic to your idea that runaway climate change will be a disaster. But keep in mind, this blog discussion is not about climate change (the Archdruid, despite his many virtues is not, and doesn't claim to be a climate scientist). It's about the way our perceptions can be distorted by the narratives and models we reason with. There's an old saying that, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." For the purposes of this discussion, however, we might say that ordinary (or at least overly familiar) claims require extraordinary evidence. Of course it's possible that climate change will be an extinction-event - the worst case scenarios allow it - and so doomsayers'll turn out (in retrospect) to be right. However, that is beside the point. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but if I understand JMG, he is arguing that that our focus on that particular scenario is a result of our apocalypse narrative rather than our prescience and genius with the data.

And the fact that we get wiped out later doesn't make him wrong in the least.

6/24/13, 10:50 AM

Roger said...
That was an interesting story from Rober Mathiesen about the power of Hitler's voice. I agree that Hitler did what he did by and large through the power of persuasion. But the larger point of my original post was that people are easily swayed by other people.

I brought up that most emotionally charged topic - evolution - as an example because I want to flog this point: that fields that are supposed to be based in rationalism, logic, facts, observation are often clouded by all manner of human factors.

It looks to me that the actual science of evolution takes a back seat to tribalism. Do you identify with people that think of themselves as well educated, sophisticated, rational, intellectual, tolerant towards racial and cultural minorities etc etc? Well, then I'll bet that you're fully on board with the idea of impersonal natural forces that guide the physical development of life on Earth. Including humans.

I'm not a scientist by profession so I need actual scientists to cut me a bit of slack. But it appears to me that there's some really big taboos in this field of study. Maybe I'm wrong about this but it is it not so that the people that support the theory and who deny any role for a Creator and who scorn people on the opposite side of the issue never seem to publicly discuss the actual scientific worthiness of the THEORY that purports to EXPLAIN evolution. So, do they go to the barricades in defence of a theory with minimal explanatory power and that hasn't even got the benefit of logic behind it?

Boo, hiss, lies! These are forbidden thoughts and forbidden words. Am I wrong? Ask yourself: what is the biochemical mechanism, whether it's part of the actual DNA molecule or embedded in the cellular machinery containing DNA, that creates new proteins and new bodily structures, that drives innovation in populations of organisms? Have you ever heard it described? No? I haven't either. Is it because that none of the defenders of the theory have got the foggiest idea of what it might be? What creates new species? Random mutation is too slow. Natural selection doesn't innovate but rather does the opposite, it's the mechanism that culls.

The theory has got gigantic holes? Be quiet, discussion of these shortcomings is not welcome. That would be conceding ground to the enemy.

This is an issue of "us" against "them". The theory of evolution isn't even the point any more. The point is that you belong to a group. Do you want to be a member? Well, there are certain requirements as the price of membership. There is an "orthodoxy" and the recitation of certain talking points based on that orthodoxy regardless of fact or logic is one of those requirements.

So, how do you want to characterize things? Left vs right? Godless, dope smoking degenerates vs righteous, God-fearing Americans? Rational, educated heirs of the Enlightenment vs Forces of Darkness and Superstition? Maybe even North vs South?

Political affiliation, as I heard someone else say, is the new ethnicity.

6/24/13, 10:56 AM

Tyler August said...
re: agriculture and climate change.
While I'm not in the camp that expects the art of agriculture to vanish from the face of the globe, I do expect it to get harder.There's an implicit gamble whenever you plant anything -- in a square foot garden bed you watch like a hawk, or a million-acre field trundled over in two-ton tractors -- that this growing season will be much like the last, and the crop will succeed.
As I understand it, one consequence of climate change over much of the world is a much greater variation from year-to-year, which makes this gamble even more risky than it already is. That means more local crop failures when farmers guess wrong because the almanac no longer applies.

The problem isn't unique to annuals, either. Orchardists can foist some of the stress on their trees, but trees can guess wrong, too. Ontario lost something like 80% of its apple crop last year, for example. I wouldn't bet on that becoming a less common occurrence.

I suspect that this is what the "unstable climate" folks are getting at, and the natural tendency in our culture to catastrophise turns it into "no more agriculture," but I could be wrong. I'm only a dabbler with container veggies right now; some of the real farmers can correct me if necessary. (please do)

6/24/13, 1:34 PM

DeAnander said...
@Nemeth, again you demonstrate a nice turn of phrase -- "industrial osteoporosis" is a keeper :-)

6/24/13, 1:42 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
It's an interesting sequence that has happened several times on the comments section of this blog... comments are made about impending climate upheaval, a rash of extreme weather events, etc. I reply with my usual schtick - there have always been extreme weather events, what we are mostly seeing now is a drastic increase in media reporting and also a lot more people and property in the way of them, that the actual increase in extreme events per se is only recently even statistically detectable and a matter of modest degree, not massive changes (yet). Note that this includes an agreement that there has in fact been a detectable increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

I then inevitably get a response pointing me to studies showing that extreme weather is getting more common. These are of course the very studies on which I based my own statement about it. But the presentation of the studies in the linked webpages, and often the implications from the commentor who linked to them, is usually "we're doomed, the climate has gone haywire!"

And I just now realized that this exactly an example of one of the ongoing themes here -- the power of the apocalyptic narrative and its influence on the interpretation of pretty much everything, even among writers and editors for mainstream popular science journals and websites.

6/24/13, 2:45 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Joseph,

re Demand destruction.

You are missing the big picture. Have you noticed that locally produced goods and services are expensive, whereas the imported stuff is quite cheap.

You are correct when you say that the labour costs and conditions in those importing countries are not the same as in your country.

The simple reason is that without these cheap imports, inflation in your country would have gone through the roof years ago and/or there would have been a serious downwards correction in wages.

Who wants to take a wage drop? Are you putting your hand up for that? I've done it and it is not the end of the world, but for most it is probably pretty scary.

My gut feel is that decline is driven in part by the simple decisions of individuals to hang on to their perquisites whilst they can. It doesn’t help that there is a meme touted about that the world is a dog eat dog kind of place. If people were really seriously worried about their kids, then they’d act differently.

Did you know that manufacturers are moving operations around the world to ever cheaper sources of wages? It is a race to the bottom and meanwhile without too many noticing it, your local capital is disappearing.


6/24/13, 4:10 PM

Liquid Paradigm said...

"[W]e're doomed, the climate has gone haywire!"

Yeah, well, that happens now and again. Just my luck to show up on the last day(s).

6/24/13, 6:22 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...

I take your point, and I quite agree with it. Here are a few choice passages from A. E. Houseman that shed some light on the predicament:

"This planet is largely inhabited by parrots, and it is easy to disguise folly by giving it a fine name. Those who live and move and have their being in the world of words and not of things, and employ language less as a vehicle than as a substitute for thought, are readily duped ..."

"Error, if allowed to run its course, secures its own downfall, and is sooner or later overthrown, not by truth, but by error of an opposite kind."

"Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain; and it is hardly possible to step aside from the pursuit of truth withnout falling a victim either to your stupidity or else to your vanity. Stupidity will then attach you to received opinions, and you will stick in the mud; or vanity will set you hunting for novelty, and you will find mare’s nests."

6/24/13, 7:00 PM

John Roth said...
Roger. You said:

Boo, hiss, lies! These are forbidden thoughts and forbidden words. Am I wrong? Ask yourself: what is the biochemical mechanism, whether it's part of the actual DNA molecule or embedded in the cellular machinery containing DNA, that creates new proteins and new bodily structures, that drives innovation in populations of organisms? Have you ever heard it described? No? I haven't either. Is it because that none of the defenders of the theory have got the foggiest idea of what it might be? What creates new species? Random mutation is too slow. Natural selection doesn't innovate but rather does the opposite, it's the mechanism that culls.

The mechanisms you claim don't exist are well known and are commonly discussed. Apparently you aren't reading the right sources. I don't think this is the place, though, for an in-depth discussion of basic genetics as it's known today.

6/24/13, 8:24 PM

PhysicsDoc said...
Bill Pullium, JMG, re Some of the climate swings of the late Pleistocene were more rapid and larger than what is happening now. That may be so but I was looking up late Pleistocene CO2 levels from 650,000 years ago. The highest levels were about 300ppm, and fluctuated between 200ppm and 300ppm through Glacial cycles. Our current CO2 atmospheric concentration is sitting at about 400ppm and rising.

6/24/13, 8:59 PM

Anonymous said...
On my farm I have crop failures every year on a few species. But because I plant around 40 species of food crops it doesn't matter. I grow about 10,000 genetically diverse genotypes of corn, so even if some family groups don't like the weather in a particular year, many of them thrive under the changing conditions.

6/24/13, 9:32 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, congrats on the honey extractor! You might, if you have the chance, take detailed pictures of it so that other people might be able to identify them, or for that matter build them.

Zachary, er, belief in the futility and meaninglessnes of it all is still a belief system. What if you were to let go of that judgment, and simply accept life as it is, on its own terms?

Cherokee, given what passes for democracy these days, I'm sorry to say I can sympathize with them.

Laughing, that child may yet have a decent, humane, meaningful life. It'll take some work, but the testimony of past eras of decline and fall is that the thing can be done, and a good upbringing is a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately high-acid paper came in in the last quarter of the 19th century, and nearly anything printed since then is already turning itself back into sawdust. Learning how to make your own rag paper from low-acid cellulose sources would be a very useful step!

Joseph, perhaps you might consider why it is that rationing by price and consequent demand destruction is a major factor right now with petroleum products, foodstuffs, and a range of other commodities.

Hal, good. You're paying attention. There are two intertwined things falling right now. One of them is what Spengler called Faustian civilization -- the civilization of western Europe and the European diaspora in the Americas and Australasia. The other is the particular form that civilization took, industrial civilization, which as I've argued elsewhere is the first and most wasteful form of what might be called technic civilization -- a mode of human social life in which energy sources other than human and animal muscle power provide a significant fraction of the energy used in day to day existence. Those two are intertwined, and they're ending together, but the forces driving their respective falls are somewhat different. Does that clarify things a bit?

Roger, hmm. Yes, evolution has become the focus of a lot of tribal identity issues of late; at the same time, the science behind it is a great deal more solid than you seem to think. You might start by reading Darwin's The Origin of Species -- if you're going to critique a theory, it's helpful to understand it, and Darwin was a very capable writer, much easier to read than most scientists these days.

Tyler, of course agriculture is going to get harder -- I expect industrial monoculture, in particular, to become a losing proposition within a few decades at most, as variable temperatures and rainfall make it impossible to find any one crop to which you can devote 1500 acres at once! Small-scale intensive polyculture is much more flexible, thus will take up some of the slack, but there are going to be some very hungry times ahead. The gap between that and "we're all going to die!" is precisely the gap between what actually happens and what feeds the apocalypse myth.

6/24/13, 11:18 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, exactly. Does this remind you of the "la, la, la, I can't hear you" I used to get every time I pointed out that the internet would have to pay for itself, and compete with less resource-intensive technologies, to stay in existence in a deindustrializing world? It certainly makes me think of that...

PhysicsDoc, of course -- CO2 levels are normally very low during glacial ages. In the Jurassic and Cretaceous they got as high as 1500 ppm, without any noticeable inconvenience to the largest land vertebrates in the history of the planet. The earth is usually a jungle planet -- we happen to have evolved in an unusual cold interval. Now of course there are good reasons not to mess with that, but fantasies about runaway greenhouse effects are not among them. I'll be addressing that briefly in this week's post.

Anonymous, I have about as many species in my backyard garden, and yes, a few fail every year; on the other hand, those that thrive make up the difference.

6/24/13, 11:23 PM

wiseman said...
Extreme weather can be detected outside of media as well.

If the climate has changed for folks in my village who don't have access to a TV or radio (for whom the sole source of weather knowledge has been their own lives and grandfather's tales) then it has changed for sure.

6/25/13, 12:50 AM

PhysicsDoc said...
JMG, I have looked into the climate science a bit and yes run away warming is luckily not likely in the cards. Modern humans did, as you say, enter in the late Pleistocene when things were cooler. Maybe more importantly modern civilization developed during the Holocene interglacial period (within the last 10,000 years or so) when the climate was relatively mild and stable. This may have played a significant role in allowing a large scale agricultural civilization to develop which in turn set the stage for the industrial revolution and our current situation. Now we seem to be simultaneously eliminating our easily accessible fossil fuels while at the same time messing with the climate that helped us get to this point. All with a planet loaded with 7 billion people and counting. I am not in anyway saying that total doom is imminent but things are interesting. By the way you have probably said all of these things in many of your previous blog posts. It just seems as though (and I have noticed that some of your other readers have mentioned this as well) that you are consciously or unconsciously down playing the climate change element of our current situation over resource depletion and economic factors. I find this a little curious given that you are a Druid practicing a nature-oriented religion.

6/25/13, 1:04 AM

laughingbirdfarm said...
JMG, thanks for the response. I was hoping the answer was sometime in the 1950s, but I see I was wrong. Oh well; at least my first edition gilt-edged leatherbound copy of Longfellow's collected prose and the first edition of Scott's Lady of the Lake have a good chance of surviving a while longer, and I guess I need to pick up the circa-1850s collection of Shakespeare at the local bookstore. (I can't understand why that's only $15 -no one appreciates old books anymore.)

6/25/13, 5:37 AM

Hal said...
Thank you, JMG, it does help, thought I can't claim I understand it yet. It tells me I need to have the brain set a little wider as I go forward, to be ready for things coming in on more than one channel. Of course, why should we expect the dissection of history to reveal something linear?

6/25/13, 6:18 AM

Hal said...
Wow. I have three species of corn on my place, and keeping them separated in time and space to avoid cross-pollination is about more than I can manage.

On agriculture in general, I am forced to acknowledge that Stuart Staniford makes a good case that industrial ag is just about the last industrial-scale activity that industrial civilization will abandon. My operation would be a lot easier if I wasn't surrounded by GMO corn and soybeans, but I think for most of us, it is probably not an entirely bad thing that we will be able to get staple grains and legumes for the foreseeable future.

And speaking of industrialism, and back to your previous reply to me, would you say industrialism is a characteristic of Faustian civilization in the same sense that, say, lyric mythicism and disinterest in history apparently were of Classical civilization? ( I may only be part way through the intro, but I'm milkin' it...)

Or, if you want to just tell me to read the dang book, I'm totally cool with that.

6/25/13, 8:14 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
About climate catastrophe... these scenarios assume that at some point positive feedbacks will be triggered that will shift the climate to a drastic new condition. The past many hundreds of millions of years of the Earth's history, though, indicate that stabilizing negative feedbacks are very strong in the climate system. There has been much variation, but in the biggest pictures and longest time scales it has actually remained amazingly stable, even in the face of large changes in the energy output of the sun and big shifts in atmospheric chemistry.

A hallmark of positive feedbacks is that when you make a perturbation, the deviation increases at an accelerating rate. If you look at the time course of atmospheric methane, CO2, and temperature, you don't at the present see an acceleration. CO2 and methane trends are remarkably linear in the last decade plus; before that, methane actually showed a slowing in its rate of increase for a decade (before resuming its linear increase). Global land-based air temperature has increased steadily, linearly, by about 1C in the last 3-4 decades. Global sea surface temperature has actually been increasing more slowly in the last 10-15 years than it was before then, and the total increase is about half as much.

So, there is not the barest hint of even a suggestion of an undercurrent of any positive feedbacks happening in our ongoing warming trend. Sure, arctic methane releases may be ramping up, but they aren't steepening the slope of the global trend. What all this looks like to most scientists is that we will see gradual (not runaway) increases in gases until we stop generating so much of them, and in response the climate will gradually shift to a new, warmer system. There may well be some big blips on the way -- sudden ice melting events, realignment of ocean currents, etc., with corresponding sudden changes in regional climates. But global catastrophe? Again, not a hint. Lots and lots of economic and ecosystem stress for many decades to come? You betcha. But we have been living in a warming world and a declining empire for 4 decades already; we just need to look out the window to see what that looks like. Global warming and economic decline ain't the future, they are the present that nearly all of us have spent most or all of our lives in.

Agriculture... anyone who has gardened knows that monoculture means hunger. Every year is different (always has been), some things will flourish, some will fail, and it won't be the same things every year. Monoculture societies collapse. A society with diversified crops and practices is resilient.

6/25/13, 8:49 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
Okay, never press post when you're being rushed out the door.

I see some nonsense posted by some guy named Joseph Nemeth up above that "there is no price rationing." :-)

I haven't the time to explore this in any detail, but my point was that the system is designed and managed to keep prices low and prevent price-rationing, and it's quite effective at doing that in a growing economy. In a flat or shrinking economy, the system causes the production industries to catabolize themselves, maintaining artificially low prices and the continued appearance that everything is just fine. It's a specific form of overshoot, and it ends in sudden collapse. To date, most of those sudden collapses have been buffered by mergers and buyouts.

We're about out of merger potential, so my prediction is that we're going to start seeing true collapses: like the 2008 auto industry collapse, but individually smaller and too numerous for government bailouts.

Though it seems funny, the near-demise of the Twinkie was a Sign of the End.

I really shouldn't call it that: that's part of the Apocalypse narrative, and I'm not positing apocalypse, just observing an overshoot mechanism. One of the many overshoot mechanisms by which we bump down the long road of descent, one Twinkie at a time.

6/25/13, 9:18 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Roger -- I'm not sure who you have been talking to who claimed to know anything about the science underlying evolution, but they evidently know absolutely nothing:

"what is the biochemical mechanism, whether it's part of the actual DNA molecule or embedded in the cellular machinery containing DNA, that creates new proteins and new bodily structures, that drives innovation in populations of organisms?"

The extremely widely know and massively studied processes of DNA replication, gene regulation and expression, and mutation. And there is no teleological drive to generate "innovation;" there are processes that create genetic variability (mutation, diploid genomes, sexual reproduction, etc.).

"Have you ever heard it described?" Umm, yes.. starting when I was about 12 years old, and in every basic biology class taught anywhere in the world unless they get their science from holy scripture. And in exceedingly great detail at every conference on genetics, molecular biology, and evolutionary biology, of which there are hundreds every year around the world attended by tens of thousands of scientists. With more complex and detailed understanding of it every year.

"I haven't either. Is it because that none of the defenders of the theory have got the foggiest idea of what it might be?"

No, it's because you have not been listening in remotely the right places.

"What creates new species? Random mutation is too slow. Natural selection doesn't innovate but rather does the opposite, it's the mechanism that culls."

This demonstrates a total lack of understanding of any of the foundational concepts of biological evolution. Really, if you are going to build a straw man, can you at least try to make one that even vaguely resembles the thing you are attacking?

I'm sorry to get so annoyed, but your comments are exactly like someone attacking Christianity who apparently is not even aware of the existence of the Bible, much less ever read a word of it, in any language or any translation.

6/25/13, 12:24 PM

sgage said...
@Bill Pulliam,

I just want to thank you for, once again, relieving me from the duty of having to write a post in response to some strange business on this site.

We are very much on the same wavelength as ecologists. But my broken old eyes can barely navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of the ol' captcha, and so I am grateful that you most often beat me to it!

Let's see if I can make it through one more time...

6/25/13, 4:15 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Great suggestion. I never would have thought about that as most people these days tend to have the smaller flashier stainless steel units (with plastic gear sets).

It is an impressively sturdy unit and looks repairable too.



6/25/13, 4:44 PM

mikeroberts2013 said...
Andy Brown,

I hear you. I've been trying to look within myself to see if my views of what is happening in the world are influenced by the apocalypse narrative. I've said several times that I'm not currently a near term extinction believer, and I discount every apocalypse event that comes to the fore from time to time, recently with assistance from JMG. So I don't think it's the narrative influencing me here. What influences me are the plethora of environmental degradation scientific studies, with climate change being just one aspect (though a vital one). It's hard to imagine these things not influencing the future path of our interlinked global societies (as the environment underpins everything), with the potiential for that influence to be collapse inducing (indeed, that is quite possibly already underway, though I'm thinking about the speed of that process). If I'm not being influenced by the apocalypse narrative (though I accept that I may be doing that subconciously), is it possible that those who think I am, may themselves be under the influence of the counter narrative, that there is nothing new under the sun and therefore we can pretty much tell how the collapses will play out from looking at past collapses?

There could be a bit of both here but I guess we may never tell until it's all over (in one case, I may still be around, in the other, I won't be).

6/25/13, 7:35 PM

KL Cooke said...

"Global warming and economic decline ain't the future, they are the present that nearly all of us have spent most or all of our lives in."

On JMG's suggestion to someone else, I bought a cop of Paul Blumberg's 'Inequality in an Age of Decline,' and was surprised to find that economic decline in the United States began in the early Seventies. I had previously thought of it as a phenomenon of the last decade, or so. As it happens, I spent my working life in the Silicon Valley hi-tech world, which for a time, at least, was somewhat of a insulated economy, and so I never really saw the big picture.

6/26/13, 12:35 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Joseph,

You're cool! It's an old game.

When Australia was first settled by the Europeans, after the initial hiccups and near famines, those canny Europeans started exporting wool and salted meat back to the UK.

The sheep which have hard hooves, not only compacted the local soils, but they also reduced the overall vegetative cover because they pulled the roots out from all of the native grasslands. Most of the nutrients were also shipped off to the UK as wool and salted meat.

Is this any different to setting up a factory in Bangladesh (this is just an example) paying the workers stuff all to produce clothing in long work shifts in unsafe conditions and then shipping those garments to western countries. Plus, think about pollution standards in those countries.

Is it any different? Not really.


6/26/13, 1:34 AM

Roger Bigod said...

The cheat-sheet for Spengler is the set of tables at the end of Vol 1. You can line up the Faustian stages with the Classic to get a feel of where we are. There's a
version on Wikipedia.

Another approach is to download the pdf version and do a search on a term of interest. "Petroleum" comes up blank, which suggests something. There's no entry for "resource" in the sense we worry about. "Money" is interesting in light of recent central bank kabuki.

In general, his scheme holds up better for the cultural and political areas than the scientific and economic. But theories of stages and development for these long antedate Spengler.

6/26/13, 4:05 AM

Andrew Brown said...

We ALL use narratives and conceptual models to make sense of our world, including JMG. But these narratives serve (at least) two masters. One is to give us a tool to better understand how the world actually works - which is what the blog has been talking about with its comparative morphology of the life cycles of civilizations. All well and good. I'm convinced it does help us see. But these narratives also serve a second master - which is to give our world meaning, value, and psychological resonance in all sorts of ways. For example, I think people who deal in these historical morphologies often find a deep personal satisfaction in the patterns they identify - and they have to be suspicious of that satisfaction, because it may be leading them astray from the first project of better understanding the real world. They may impose that pattern in places where it doesn't really belong. Just as you and I have to be especially suspicious of our motivations for gravitating to a catastrophe scenario.

Catastrophes happen, so maybe one will in this case. But as JMG has pointed out, they are much, much more often predicted than realized - and that has everything to do with people's attachment to the narrative.

6/26/13, 7:09 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
wiseman-- I don't believe I ever claimed climate was not changing. I do know, though, that "living memory" is actually not a very good gauge of long-term trends, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, living memory is really too short to have a good sense of the nature of the "normal" extremes in an area. And, of course, memories are tricky things. Folks will tell you that it has "never" done such and such before or it "always" used to be like this or that... and when you look at actual climate records, you frequently can't find any real evidence that confirms those statements.

This is why I ignore the media, take the personal recollections of the old-timers with a shaker-full of salt, and look at the data. This is exactly why we collect data!

6/26/13, 8:17 AM

Roger said...
Hello John Roth, Just to make clear, I'm not disputing that evolution happens. Not being a scientist, least of all one versed in evolutionay science, I'm not trying to insist that I understand more than I do. What I'm trying to say is that my strong impression is that scientists understand less than people think about how populations evolve and maybe even less than they themselves like to think.

Hello JMG. I have read some stuff. I feel a bit sheepish. I exaggerated a wee bit. Realistically the field of evolution can't be ALL tribalism and rigidly enforced Stalinist conformity. And yes there must be SOME foggy notion of what biomolecular mechanisms are behind evolution. You say solid science. Yes, no doubt, there is much solid science. To me "science" is as much about the investigative process as it is about the end result. Can there ever be an end result? I think it's dangerous to close the book on any topic.

I know that there is active research. I remember an interesting article in New Scientist in the Jan 19/13 issue about some new advances in DNA research. It was about so-called "orphan genes" and how various processes in the DNA/RNA mechanism may generate these beasties. One idea being that they may come out of sequences of so-called "junk" DNA. I don't remember the word "evolution" in the article though. So the question in my mind is whether this is one of the mechanisms of evolutionary change.

If I recall correctly I think it was this same New Scientist article that made the proposition that DNA in the testis is probably a more effective generator of innovation because it is loosely wound and therefore relatively exposed to molecular machinery that can get at it to pick up sequences of base pairs so as to generate new types of genes.

But my impression from reading is that these are initial steps. It seems to me that what we have here is a topic of immense complexity and decades of work to be done. Again, I'm not a scientist, just an interested layman.

6/26/13, 8:56 AM

Roger said...
Hello Bill, I also went to science class and I also learned about replication errors, genetic drift etc. You say " The extremely widely know(n) and massively studied processes of DNA replication, gene regulation and expression, and mutation. And there is no teleological drive to generate "innovation;" there are processes that create genetic variability (mutation, diploid genomes, sexual reproduction, etc.)." OK, well, my own impression from my own reading is that they are just scratching the surface as far as understanding these processes ie how DNA functions to give rise to a functioning organism, how DNA interacts with surrounding cellular machinery, epigenetic mechanisms, etc. Again, maybe inadequate exposure on my part to a field that requires years of intense study to acquire some kind of mastery.

But having said, that it's my further impression that people that say they understand the evolutionary process really don't. Mountains of work yet to be done, a lot in this theory of evolution as yet to be filled in. 3 billion base pairs?! And nobody really even knows how many genes we have at least according to what I've read. 20 thousand? 30 thousand? You tell me.

"Massively studied" you say. Well, it seems to me that there is a fair bit of study going on but "massive"? This isn't book-keeping we're talking about. This is multi-disciplinary subject matter that not every Tom, Dick and Harry can possibly have the intellectual heft to conquer nor the personal interest. Not that there's anything wrong with book-keeping. But nature's ways, especially at the molecular level, are not easy to tease out.

I'm not arguing in favour of teleological mechanisms. What I'm saying is that it appears to me that that this theory as it is cannot explain the things it purports to explain and that it looks to me that there are biomolecular mechanisms as yet undiscovered that account for what actually happens. I am arguing in favour of active inquiry and in favour of humility on the part of the scientific community ie not overstating what is actually known. The expression that bugs me the worst is "settled science".

And I am AGAINST entrenched orthodoxies that oppose new ways of thinking and looking at problems. I'll give an example: the Clovis First theory. For how many years was it risky to explore the idea that maybe it wasn't Clovis First? I've read that, in the past, archeological digs would stop when certain geological strata were reached to avoid the possible career stopping finds that might be contained below.

Lynn Margulis died not too long ago (R.I.P.). She was a prof at UMass. I read that she was laughed at in scientific circles in the US but that her ideas were/are much more respected in Russia and Europe. She came up with that idea of symbiosis being a driving force in evolution ie genes of one species being incorporated in the genome of another. If I remember right she gave the example of how maybe the genes that determine the spiral structure of the inner ear may have been imports of genes of spirochete microbes that were incorporated into our own and probably that of other species. Some outside the box thinking. More people with her spine sorely needed.

6/26/13, 9:01 AM

Leo said...
@ Roger

Your right that tribalism does happen in science. The use of viruses to combat bacterial infections was black balled until recently because it was something the Soviets looked into for example.

But sometimes that isn't the reason. For example, science (not the people) is inherently agnostic. In Occam's Razor, a proper wording is 'the simplest workable, accurate theory wins', using god/s/ess/es fails at the workable stage.

It's an unknown, can't be quantified and how do we know which of the various contenders is correct, after all Hinduism could be accurate or a long dead religion. As far as science is concerned say a creator did it is equivalent to saying magic fairy dust or flying invisible hippos are the cause. The have equal chance of being correct and the same amount of explanatory value, which is none as far as science is concerned. (this is the simplistic form, but we have limited space here).

The divide here is not tribal, but an acknowledgement (which should be more known) that religion and science are entirely separate. Religion can't be used in science (outside sociology and neuroscience) but the scientific method can't be used to test the existence of god/s/ess/es. Unless the believers make claims about the physical world that can be tested and predict something,in which case that's now part of science's domain.

Besides for evolution you can make predictions if intelligent design was correct. Since we're the only intelligent beings we know (can't prove or disprove god exists remember), then we would guess that intelligent design would look similar to how we design things and exhibit similar traits. It doesn't, evolution follows patterns that are different to how humans design things. Now you could go and say that the creator/s's intelligence is different to ours, but this is similar to saying God is inscrutable (we can't say anything about that different intelligence) and put's him in the same category as the magic fairy dust above.

Your also exhibiting a bad behaviour that is part of the reason it's got to the point that creationists are simply dismissed. it's also a logical fallacy but I can't remember the proper name. Your asking for unnecessary detail and if the detail was provided, you'd (going by the standard behaviour) simply ask for more.

Fossils are a good example, an optimistic guess is that 1 out of 22 species leaves a fossil. It is slanted towards hard-bodied, river plain dwellers and some other characteristics, so are view is even more limited. So when someone says there's not enough linking fossils to prove evolution happened (say human evolution), they can be asking the impossible and if a linking fossil is found, simply refute it by asking for more detail.

You are simply asking for more detail than is necessary and exhibiting a behaviour that in the past leads to impossible demands.

You are also flat out wrong. Given the standard idea (not entirely correct, but close) that separate species appear over geological time frames (read hundreds of thousands to millions of years), random mutation is a perfectly satisfactory explanation. Natural selection is the sorting process, since any innovation has costs. There's a bit more, but again limited space.

The field is not 'settled' but it is fairly solid.

6/26/13, 6:11 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Roger -- another quick comment, this about Lynn Margulis. Her career actually is a good example of how scientific thought really evolves. She proposed a lot of radical ideas. One of her hypotheses is now generally accepted as correct and has made its way into those basic biology texts -- the endosymbiont origin of organelles. The others have not been widely accepted. Is this because the ruling dogmatists all met in a smoke-filled room and decided this? No. It is because that one hypothesis was supported by additional information, including things that were not known at the time it was first proposed. The others have fallen by the wayside because this has not happened with them.

We even now see a growing acceptance of a sort of revived Lamarckism, with the discoveries that epigenetic genome modifications that are acquired during an organism's life can be passed on to offspring. The supposed "taboo" against Lamarckian thinking (inheritance of acquired traits) has been evaporating steadily once there was actual evidence that it really occurred and a demonstrated mechanism by which it happens.

It can be slow and sloppy, but in the end empiricism does eventually win and paradigms do shift, sometimes radically.

6/26/13, 7:32 PM

G Wang said...
Perhaps one's attempt to persuade others not to cling onto a fancied worldview that they cherish -- and that often doesn't square with the facts -- is itself symptomatic of a mind that clings onto a fancied worldview that oneself cherishes, in this case a worldview according to which human beings can listen to reason (and change their ways accordingly). It may turn out that they actually can't, that the cornucopians and apocalyptarians alike will continue to endorse their beliefs and act on them as surely as the yeast in a petri dish follows a predictable trajectory of growth and change.

Maybe it's precisely part of the very engine driving a social milieu's cycle of growth and decay that some if not many of its members will endorse crazy worldviews that don't square with the facts and stick to them. If so, it's probably pointless to persuade them not to do so. Unless, of course, one chose likewise to view one's own attempts to persuade them as in some way an inevitable part of the whole milieu's development.

My point is that sometimes it might be a good idea not to condemn a worldview just because it doesn't square with 'reality'. If it doesn't, should we dump it or should we seek to CHANGE 'reality'? The reality of the human world is that lots of people are greedy, spiteful, selfish, ignorant etc. Do we say, "This is the reality of the human world," and accordingly dismiss as sheer folly any worldview that believes it can be otherwise -- that humans can be caring, cooperative, wise etc?

6/29/13, 8:10 AM

G Wang said...

I really do not think evolution has finally explained everything about life and that the theory of intelligent design is dead. What Roger said is quite true: evolution hasn't been able to explain everything (about life). No scientific theory, after all, has ever been able to explain everything. Many scientists and intellectuals of reputable standing have continued to be dismissive of evolution. (Check out the volume of essays, 'Uncommon Dissent'.) And let's face it: no scientist or team of scientists has been able to cause a pond of water with some amino acids in it to give rise to all sorts of animal and plant species. Not even in a computer simulated model.

Neither do I see Roger as exhibiting any form of 'bad behavior'. Going through his post I never found him insulting anyone on this blog. And he was prepared to give the benefit of doubt to others.

It's fascinating how those who subscribe to evolution seem to have this kneejerk reaction towards any who dare to express any doubts about it. A few years back I expressed such doubts on my part at a certain message board (in perfectly civil language) and I received responses like 'you are a moron'. So much for detached, rational thought.

Finally, as to science and religion being strange bedfellows, it depends on how you define the two, which is by no means a settled issue. Certainly there have been respectable people like Alfred North Whitehead and David Ray Griffin who have very seriously tried to wed the two.

I anticipate this diversion on evolution vs intelligent design is probably going to devolve into another flame war again. John Michael, you might like to keep an eye on this!

6/29/13, 8:49 AM

fromorctohuman said...
My own thoughts on the whole Intelligent Design and Evolution thing...

Universal Truth: There is no shortage of people will "go to the wall" debating reality they barely grasp (or less profoundly, defending facts they have no support of).

Regarding Intelligent Design:
What exactly did God design, and how did he do it?

I'm sure somebody somewhere has laid claim to having this figured out, but I can say for me personally, I have no clue.

God is important to me, but to say that he IS x and he DID (or DOES) y is beyond me. For one, I only have a sense of the x, and I am completely ignorant of the y. Not to say that he isn't x nor that he does y, but just that I don't know enough about either to argue with somebody else about it, lol.

Regarding Evolution:
We know a lot, but sum it all up and it's barely anything. I was firmly in the evolution camp until one day I did a thought experiment, basically constructing the mechanisms and environments that would have to exist for abiogenesis to occur. Everything was going swimmingly, and followed very logically, until I suddenly realized none of it was possible! (at least given what we know now). In short, there are some gargantuan gaps, the bridging of which could result in a revolutionary change of thinking about the whole subject. That together with my knowledge of the gargantuan gaps which still exist in say quantum physics, are more than enough to give me pause.

To summarize, when it comes to scientific debate, I'm amazed at what people are willing to go to the wall with. We really understand so little it is comical.

Completely my own opinion, but my own intuition is that God and science are not so separate. What we ascribe to science, in reality is so far beyond us, if we even had a glimpse of it, we'd have no problem calling "it" God. But that's not something I'm interested in battling others about! I know so little : -)


7/3/13, 3:16 PM