Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Peculiar Absence of Bellybones

The fixation on imaginary “perfect storms” critiqued in last week’s post is only one expression of a habit of thinking that pervades contemporary American culture and, to a lesser extent, most other industrial societies.  I’ve referred to this habit in a couple of posts in this series already, but it deserves closer attention, if only to help make sense of the way that individuals, institutions, and whole societies so often get blindsided these days by utterly predictable events.

Like several of the other themes already explored in this sequence, the habit of thinking I have in mind was explored by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West. His way of discussing it, though, relies on turns of phrase that don’t translate well into English, and philosophical concepts that were familiar to every reader in 1918 Germany and completely opaque to most readers in 2013 America. To make sense of it, I’ll need to reframe the discussion by way of an excursion into deep time, so we can talk about the difference between what can happen and what does happen.

Unlike the Marcellus shale, the Barnett shale, and some of its other distant geological cousins, the Burgess shale doesn’t contain any appreciable amounts of oil or natural gas. What it does contain is a vast number of delicate fossils from the Cambrian period. It’s been argued that your ancestors and mine are there in the Burgess shale, in the form of a tiny, wriggling whatsit called Pikaia with a little strip of cartilage running down its back, the first very rough draft of what eventually turned into your backbone. There are plenty of other critters there that are unlike anything else since that time, and it’s perfectly plausible to imagine that they, rather than Pikaia, might have left descendants who evolved into the readers of this blog, but that’s not what happened.  Intelligent beings descended from five-eyed, single-tentacled Opabinia were possible; they could have happened, but they didn’t, and once that was settled, a whole world of possibilities went away forever. There was no rational reason for that exclusion; it just happened that way.

Let’s take a closer look at Pikaia, though.  Study it closely, and you can just about see the fish that its distant descendants will become. The strip of cartilage runs along the upper edge of its body, where fish and all other vertebrates have their backbones. It didn’t have to be there; if Pikaia happened to have cartilage along its lower edge, then fish and all the other vertebrates to come would have done just as well with a bellybone in place of a backbone, and you and I would have the knobbly bumps of vertebrae running up our abdomens and chests. Once Pikaia came out ahead in the struggle for survival, that possibility went wherever might-have-beens spend their time. There’s no logical reason why we don’t have bellybones; it simply turned out that way, and the consequences of that event still constrain us today.

Fast forward 200 million years or so, and a few of Pikaia’s putative descendants were learning to deal with the challenges and possibilities of muddy Devonian swamps by wriggling up out of the water, and gulping air into their swim bladders to give them a bit of extra oxygen.  It so happens that these fish had four large fins toward the underside of their bodies. Many other fish at the time had other fin patterns instead, and if the successful proto-lungfish had happened to come from a lineage with six fins underneath, then amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals would have six limbs today instead of four.  A six-limbed body plan is perfectly viable—ask any insect—but the vertebrates that ventured onto land had four, and once that happened, the question was settled.  Nothing makes six-legged mammals impossible, but there aren’t any and never will be.  In an abstract sense, they can happen, but in the real world, they don’t, and it’s only history that explains why.

Today, another 400 million years later, most of the possible variables shaping life in this planet’s biosphere are very tightly constrained by an intricate network of ecological pressures rooted in the long history of the planet. Those constraints, among other things, drive convergent evolution—the process by which living things from completely different evolutionary lineages end up looking and behaving like each other.  100 million years ago, when the Earth had its normal hothouse climate and reptiles were the dominant vertebrates, the icthyosaurs, a large and successful family of seagoing reptiles, evolved what we now think of as the basic dolphin look; when they went extinct and a cooling planet gave mammals the edge, seagoing mammals competing for the same ecological niche gave us today’s dolphins and porpoises. Their ancestors, by the way, looked like furry crocodiles, and for good reason; if you’re going to fill a crocodile’s niche, as the protocetaceans did, the pressures that the rest of the biosphere brings to bear on that niche pretty much require you to look and act like a crocodile.

The lesson to be drawn from these examples, and countless others, is that evolution isn’t free to do everything that, in some abstract sense, it could possibly do. Between the limits imposed by the genetics of the organism struggling to adapt, and the even stronger limits imposed by the pressures of the environment within which that struggle is taking place, there are only so many options available, and on a planet that’s had living things evolving on it for two billion years or so, most of those options will have already been tried out at least once. Even when something new emerges, as happens from time to time, that doesn’t mean that all bets are off; it simply means that familiar genetic and environmental constraints are going to apply in slightly different ways. That means that there are plenty of things that theoretically could happen that never will happen, because the constraints pressing on living things don’t have room for them.

That much is uncontroversial, at least among students of evolutionary ecology. Apply the same point of view to human history, though, and you can count on a firestorm of protest.  Nonetheless, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do in this blog over the last seven years—to point out that historical change is subject to limits imposed by the historical trajectories of societies struggling to adapt, and the even stronger limits imposed by the pressures of the environment within which that struggle is taking place; worse still, to point out that societies have an equivalent of convergent evolution, which can be studied by putting different societies side by side and comparing their historical trajectories, and that this reveals otherwise untraceable constraints and thus allows meaningful predictions to be made about the future of our own civilization. Each of those proposals offends several of the most basic assumptions with which most people nowadays approach the future; put them all together—well, let’s just say that it’s no surprise that each weekly post here can count on fielding its quota of spit-slinging denunciations.

As regular readers of this blog know, a great many of these quarrels arrange themselves around the distinction I’ve just drawn. Whether we’re talking about 2012 or near-term human extinction or the latest claim that some piece of other of energy-related vaporware will solve the world’s increasingly intractable energy and resource shortages, my critics say, “It could happen!” and I reply, “But it won’t.”  They proceed to come up with elaborate scenarios and arguments showing that, in fact, whatever it is could possibly happen, and get the imperturbable answer, “Yes, I know all that, but it still won’t happen.” Then it doesn’t happen, and the normal human irritation at being wrong gets thrown in the blender with a powerful sense of the unfairness of things—after all, that arrogant so-and-so of an archdruid didn’t offer a single solitary reason why whatever it was couldn’t possibly happen!—to make a cocktail that’s uncommonly hard to swallow.

There’s a reason, though, why these days the purveyors of repeatedly disproved predictions, from economists through fusion-power proponents to believers in the current end of the world du jour, so constantly use arguments about what can happen and so consistently ignore what does happen. It’s a historical reason, and it brings us a big step closer to the heart of this sequence of posts.

When Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God to a mostly uninterested 19th century, as I mentioned in an earlier post in this sequence, he was convinced that he was doing something utterly unprecedented—and he was wrong. If he’d been a little more careful about checking his claims against what he’d learned as a classical philologist, he would have remembered that the gods also died in ancient Greece in the fourth century BCE, and that the rationalist revolt against established religion in the Greek world followed the same general course as its equivalent in western Europe and the European diaspora two millennia or so later.  Put the materialist philosophers of the Greek Enlightenment side by side with the corresponding figures in its European equivalent, or line up the skeptical barbs aimed at Homer’s portrayal of the gods and goddesses of Greece with those shot at the Bible’s portrayal of the god of Christianity—by Nietzsche among others!—and the similarities are hard to miss.

What’s more, the same thing has happened elsewhere.  India went through its rationalist period beginning in the sixth century BCE, giving rise to full-blown atomist and materialist philosophies as well as an important school of logic, the Nyaya; it’s indicative of the tone of that period that the two great religious movements founded then, Buddhism and Jainism, in their earliest documented forms were wholly uninterested in gods. The equivalent period in ancient China began about a century later, with its own achievements in logic and natural science and its own dismissal of formal religion—sacrifices and rites are important for social reasons, Confucius argues, but to busy oneself excessively with them shows that one is ignorant and unreasonable.

It’s a standard element of the trajectory of literate civilizations through time. Every human society comes out of the shadows of its origins well equipped with a set of beliefs about what does happen. Since most human societies in their early phases are either wholly innocent of writing, or have lost most of a former tradition of literacy in the collapse of some previous civilization, those beliefs are normally passed down by way of the oldest and most thoroughly proven system of information storage and transfer our species has invented—that is to say, mythology:  a collection of vivid, colorful stories, usually in verse, that can be learned starting in early childhood and remembered letter-perfect into advanced old age.  Since the information storage capacity of myths is large but not limitless, each myth in a mature mythology is meant to be understood and interpreted on several levels, and learning how to unpack the stories is an essential part of education as an adult in these societies.

For human societies that rely on hunter-gatherer, nomadic pastoral, or village horticultural economies, mythology is amply suited to their information storage and transfer needs, and it’s rare for these to go looking for other options. Those societies that take to field agriculture and build urban centers, though, need detailed records, and that usually means writing or some close equivalent, such as the knotted cords of the old Incas.  Widespread public literacy seems to be the trigger that sets off the collapse of mythic thinking.  Where literacy remains the specialty of a priesthood jealous of its privileges, among the ancient Maya or in Egypt before the New Kingdom, writing is simply a tool for recordkeeping and ceremonial proclamations, but once it gets into general circulation, rationalism of one kind or another follows in short order; an age of faith gives way to an age of reason.

That transformation has many dimensions, but one of the more important is a refocusing from what does happen to what can happen. At the time, that refocusing is a very good thing. Literacy in an age of faith tends to drive what might be called the rationalization of religion; myths get written down, scribes quarrel over which versions are authentic and what interpretations are valid, until what had been a fluid and flexible oral tradition stiffens into scripture, while folk religion—for the time being, we can define that messy category “religion” in purely functional terms as the collection of customary rites and beliefs that go with a particular set of mythic narratives—goes through a similar hardening into an organized religion with its own creed and commandments.  That process of rigidification robs oral tradition of the flexibility and openness to reinterpretation that gives it much of its strength, and helps feed the building pressures that will eventually tear the traditional religion to shreds.

It’s the rise of rational philosophy that allows people in a literate civilization to get out from under the weight of a mummified version of what does happen and start exploring alternative ideas about what can happen.  That’s liberating, and it’s also a source of major practical advantages, as life in a maturing urban civilization rarely fits a set of mythic narratives assembled in an older and, usually, much simpler time.  It becomes possible to ask new questions and speculate about the answers, and to explore a giddy range of previously unexamined options.

That much of the story is hardwired into the historical vision of contemporary Western culture. It’s the next part of the story, though, that leads to our present predicament. The wild freedom of the early days of the rationalist rebellion never lasts for long.  Some of the new ideas that unfold from that rebellion turn out to be more popular and more enduring than others, and become the foundations on which later rationalists build their own ideas.  With the collapse of traditional religions, in turn, people commonly turn to civil religions as a source of values and meaning, and popular civil religions that embrace some form of rationalist thought, as most do, end up imbuing it with their own aura of secondhand holiness.  The end result of the rationalist rebellion is thus a society as heavily committed to the supposed truth of some set of secular dogmas as the religion it replaced was to its theological dogmas.

You know that this point has arrived when the rebellion starts running in reverse, and people who want to think ideas outside the box start phrasing them, not in terms of rational philosophy, but in terms of some new or revived religion.  The rebellion of rationalism thus eventually gives rise to a rebellion against rationalism, and this latter rebellion packs a great deal more punch than its predecessor, because the rationalist pursuit of what can happen has a potent downside: it can’t make accurate predictions of the phenomena that matter most to human beings, because it fixates on what can happen rather than paying attention to what does happen.

It’s only in the fantasies of extreme rationalists, after all, that the human capacity for reason has no hard limits. The human brain did not evolve for the purpose of understanding the universe and everything in it; it evolved to handle the considerably less demanding tasks of finding food, finding mates, managing relations with fellow hominids, and driving off the occasional leopard. We’ve done some remarkable things with a brain adapted for those very simple purposes, to be sure, but the limits imposed by our ancestry are still very much in place.

Those limits show most clearly when we attempt to understand processes at work in the world. There are some processes in the world that are simple enough, and sufficiently insulated from confounding variables, that a mathematical model that can be understood by the human mind is a close enough fit to allow the outcome of the process to be predicted.  That’s what physics is about, and chemistry, and the other “hard” sciences: the construction of models that copy, more or less, the behavior of parts of the world that are simple enough for us to understand.  The fact that some processes in the world lend themselves to that kind of modeling is what gives rationalism its appeal.

The difficulty creeps in, though, when those same approaches are used to try to predict the behavior of phenomena that are too complex to conform to any such model. You can make such predictions with fairly good results if you pay attention to history, because history is the product of the full range of causes at work in comparable situations, and if A leads to B over and over again in a sufficiently broad range of contexts, it’s usually safe to assume that if A shows up again, B won’t be far behind. Ignore history, though, and you throw away your one useful source of relevant data; ignore history, come up with a mental model that says that A will be followed by Z, and insist that since this can happen it will happen, and you’re doomed.

Human behavior, individual as well as collective, is sufficiently complex that it falls into the category of things that rational models divorced from historical testing regularly fail to predict.  So do many other things that are part of everyday life, but it’s usually the failure of rational philosophies to provide a useful understanding of human behavior that drives the revolt against rationalism. Over and over again, rational philosophies have proclaimed the arrival of a better world defined by some abstract model of how human beings ought to behave, some notion or other of what can happen, and the actions people have taken to achieve that better world have resulted in misery and disaster; the appeal of rationalism is potent enough that it normally takes a few centuries of repeated failures for the point to be made, but once it sinks in, the age of reason is effectively over.

That doesn’t mean that the intellectual tools of rationalism go away—quite the contrary; the rise of what Spengler called the Second Religiosity involves sweeping transformations of religion and rational philosophy alike. More precisely, it demands the abandonment of extreme claims on both sides, and the recognition of what it is that each does better than the other. What comes after the age of reason isn’t a new age of faith—not right away, at least; that’s further down the road—but an age in which the claims of both contenders are illuminated by the lessons of history: an age of memory.

That’s why, a few centuries after the rationalists of Greece, India, and China had denounced or dismissed the gods, their heirs quietly accepted a truce with the new religious movements of their time, and a few centuries further on, the heirs of those heirs wove the values taught by the accepted religion into their own philosophical systems. That’s also why, over that same time, the major religions of those cultures quietly discarded claimsthat couldn’t stand up to reasonable criticism.  Where the Greeks of the Archaic period believed in the literal truth of the Greek myths, and their descendants of the time of Socrates and Plato were caught up in savage debates over whether the old myths had any value at all, the Greeks of a later age accepted Symmachus’ neat summary—“Myths are things that never happened, but always are”—and saw no conflict at all between pouring a libation to Zeus the Thunderer and taking in a lecture on physics in which thunderbolts were explained by wholly physical causes.

That state of mind is very far from the way that most people in the contemporary industrial world, whether or not they consider themselves to be religious, approach religious beliefs, narratives, and practices.  The absurd lengths to which today’s Christian fundamentalists take their insistence on the historical reality of the Noah’s ark story, for example, in the face of conclusive geological evidence that nothing of the sort happened in the time frame the Biblical narrative provides for it, is equalled if not exceeded by the lengths to which their equal and opposite numbers in the atheist camp take their insistence that all religions everywhere can be reduced to these terms.

Still, I’d like to suggest that this rapprochement is the most likely shape for the religious future of a declining industrial world, and that it also offers the best hope we’ve got for getting at least some of the  achievements of the last three centuries or so through the difficult years ahead. How that process might play out is a complex matter; we’ll begin discussing it next week.


cyloke said...


Just wondering if you've read any Thomas Berry? Just wondering cause a lot of his work was dedicated to exploring the the emerging religious aspects of what he called the Ecozoic Era, seems like you might be heading in the same direction.

PS great post.


John Michael Greer said...

Cyloke, not for a very long time, and I should remedy that. Thanks for the reminder!

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

John, gotta stop right there at the headline, and laugh and congratulate you on your choice of titles. When (not if) you go down in history as one of USAmerica's most remarkable essayists, the titles of the essays are going to be one of the keys which gets you into that pantheon; the other, of course, being the content.

Thanks as ever for your truly remarkable work. Hwyl fawr i ti, brawd, fel arfer! RhG

Tom Bannister said...

Thank you as always. Wonderful post!

I'm just wondering about your opinion (this might appear in another post of course) about what happens after the age of memory? My knowledge of the history of the time is admittedly flimsy, but after the roman empire collapsed, there was a dark age where dogmatic mythic fundamentalism re-appeared? (aka literal word of the bible etc) I'm just curious as to how this plays out alongside the development of the 'second religiosity? Cheers

Avery said...

cyloke, I also thank you for the recommendation. This looks like a great read.

JMG, some parts of this essay seem unclear. Notably, I don't think non-European civilizations ever demonstrated widespread literacy. There was never a culture of broadsides, newspapers, and tracts among the Aztecs, as far as I know. (Also compare Islamic civilization, where literacy has never equated to discarding the tradition.)

Your analogy of Plato to the European Enlightenment, and of Neoplatonists to modern seekers of synthesis, is nice and thought-provoking. The main thing Plato had that the Enlightenment didn't was an insistence that the universe itself makes sense, and that things are created for a reason; this allowed Neoplatonism to have some sort of harmony between traditional myths and rationally pleasing geometry, as opposed to today's postmodern mixture of traditions and fictions.

Nestor Rocca Flores said...

Now I finally understand why I don't have five eyes. Thanks.

KL Cooke said...

"Like several of the other themes already explored in this sequence, the habit of thinking I have in mind was explored by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West. His way of discussing it, though, relies on turns of phrase that don’t translate well into English, and philosophical concepts that were familiar to every reader in 1918 Germany and completely opaque to most readers in 2013 America."

I've been noticing that. It's some of the densest text I've ever tried to read, and I can only manage it in ten page segments. At that rate it's going to take forever.

By comparison, the Tao Te Ching is a breeze. If disciple Chuang-Tze dreamed he was a butterfly, Spengler must have dreamed he was a termite.

PhysicsDoc said...

It seems that you are starting with inductive reasoning. Specific examples of past civilizations patterns of growth and decline are used to formulate a general principle. What happened becomes what happens. You then use deductive reasoning and apply this general principle to the specific example of our current civilization to predict the pattern that it will follow, what is going to happen is what happens.

Garde said...

Hi JMG and thanks for this essay and last weeks. Things are really starting to come together in this series, especially your talk of negative feedbacks and now the limits of science, really do provide a useful mental framework for interpreting the peak oil blogosphere and much more.

I was starting to wonder why McPhersons presentations never did mention anything about negative climate feedbacks! I'm starting to feel that including such biased talks at "age of limits" conferences without seriously contesting them, borders on a non-serious and dogmatic treatment of the subject matter.

In relation to your "age of memory", I've seen this happen. The union of science and religion is certainly dawning. Many people working with permaculture take the mysterious behaviour of plants for granted, and actually negotiate with them and appreciate their efforts. Using "strange" assumptions they arrive at remarkable results. It can also be seen in Rupert Shelldrake's (and many others) pragmatic approach to the dogmatic materialist assumptions and of science.

As a trained physicist I've long been frustrated by the increased irrelevance of much contemporary scientific activity. This is in fact why I abandoned it. Costs and complexity rise, while results diminish, as you say also. Most of what one can get grants for today, is hopelessly irrelevant for any practical scalable application in real life. And the tiny results are many years off in the future.

The abandoning of dogmas on the other hand, opens up a space in which cheap, effective discoveries can be made, such as "the sense of being looked at" as an example. These require a shift of faith, however, and a move closer into religion. The assumption of universal consciousness, the notion that consciousness is inhereent in matter, that matter and consciousness are not seperable. This is the position of Charles Eisenstein, and he explains how that from this realisation or starting point, a whole new field of activity springs. Mainly regenerative, in my opinion. When we strip away some of his sensationalism in "Ascent of Humanity", the "Age of Reunion" is just this thing, a move closer to religion, your age of memory. A new practical way of doing science, that doesnt discount notions such as water being alive, mushrooms being the conscious brains of the forest, intentional evolution in biology, and so on.

And that kind of activity is so much more fun and relevant:) thanks again for your writings and sorry for the long first post, had to draw some parallels.

Phil Harris said...

As coincidence would have it I was at the Global Energy Systems Conference in Edinburgh last week, and taking coffee on a terrace across from the rock formations where James Hutton made his early discoveries in Deep Time. "The result, therefore, of this physical enquiry,” Hutton concluded, “is that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end."

This was an interesting platform for both contemplation and discourse as we argued the history of nuclear power or conjectured the energetic requirements for spinning a network of wind turbines across the face of our Scottish northern seas. The old men argued over memories – as we do – and young people brought almost unimaginable new tools to aid imagination and answer questions as to the hard limits of our physical world, and good naturedly explained the intellectual limitations of rational enquiry when it comes to history and the nature of our economies: right beside the Scottish Enlightenment.

By a roundabout route this brings me back to your stimulating post and my own cogitations about both the latter-day Scottish Presbyterian Church and the Church of England, thoughts in part energised this last year by your ongoing discourse. Standing up and making an intelligible case with due humour in front of one’s peers, with social pugnacity where necessary, has been a feature of the Church of Scotland. The C of E makes many gestures to ritual (err … for example, Coronations) and defers to the responsibilities of history and the limits of rationality, while trying to be precise where possible about memory and factual records, including the precision of rocks and the perspectives of James Hutton.

So, it is better to be here rather than on the observation deck of a wholly imaginary space ship imagining new stars. Our deck tilts gently with the waves of the ecliptic while we preserve the memories of habits of thought and prepare for long voyages.


Odin's Raven said...

It might more briefly be said that the Norns weave the fates of gods and men.

latheChuck said...

I must admit that I get tired of responses which are nothing but praise for the essay of the week, but now it's my turn. Wow. Just wow!

By the way, we had the biggest geomagnetic storm of the last five years, last weekend. The impact was managed. HF radio was iffy at the time.

Ron McCafferty said...

Thank you for your time and dedication to these writings. Trying to rationalize all of these human concepts can be dizzying. Especially for someone like me who barely made it out of high school. The one common thing that I see, in religion, technology, government, etc. Is that these systems all either lack or loose something that I feel should be ingrained. That is responsibility to our world and to each other. I know it sounds utopian. I am constantly told that my ideas are weird, people are inherently evil, yada-yada. Well, if a die-off occurs maybe those who are left will look at each other and thus this world in a different light. Thanks, Ron

JC said...

Once again, a lovely and thought-provoking piece, thank you.


das monde said...

An interesting cycle, especially the part of rebellion against rationalism. Isn't this the most obscure part of the cycle, least recorded and analyzed? If the current development is a typical part of that cycle, I do not quite see that failures of rationalism (as such) is a direct instrumental driver. Whatever problems we have since 2008 (or somewhat earlier), they are not direct consequences of failures of rational prediction and recomendations. Rational approaches are being politically marginalized for some time already. What would that rebellion be (on the global scale) without the increasingly paranoid and manipulative US political life?

I see two other factors possibly more instrumental in this rather psychotic and well financially oiled rebellion. The two factors easily enforce each other. One factor is the attitude of elites - at some time a connected part of them might decide that apparences of general welfare and social mobility are great, but the facilitating factors (like education) should be better controlled. The other factor is anticipation of hitting growth limits. Add these two factors together, and there is a big potential for simulated rationality, deceptive show of preferences, even smart anti-rational propaganda and smearing. It is just a way to resolve an overshot within a Darwinian interest. Collective rationality just did not evolve (yet?) to deal with this episode.

Rita Narayanan said...

Religious mythology does not spout from some metaphysical emptiness even though it might be universal and timeless.

Mythology often involve social issues, the role of gender in ideas of morality.One of the reasons it is difficult for the industrial world to have a real relationship with myth is that social roles and morality has moved very far from that world.

But on the other hand contrary to popular notions of living faith, I find the opposite problem in a country like India.Where the vernacular and old world still exist but people due to need and ambition change wherever it suits....the result is like a long fence whose spikes(that hold onto the ground)are regularly yanked.It now sits badly both physically and morally.Sadly only the tinpot veneer exists and this illusion is very much like the snake oil everybody is talking about.

JMG, thanks again for your insight!

William Yeates said...

wondering what would look like if two bellybonded hominids did it doggie style.

Mr Greer,at what point in the long descent do you think they will stop manufacturing guitar strings? For me guitar stings are the one item that I am hoping will prevent my own personal collapse, as long as I can strum some chords.

Hal said...

"You know that this point has arrived when the rebellion starts running in reverse, and people who want to think ideas outside the box start phrasing them, not in terms of rational philosophy, but in terms of some new or revived religion."

Such as Druidry?

Andrew said...

Mr. Greer,
It seems that (among other things) you are advocating the application of Occam's razor to the study of history/social sciences.

Thank you,

Mister Roboto said...

Well, I think that humanity going extinct in the next hundred years is a distinct possibility (though not a foregone conclusion) because of everything we're doing to undermine the planet's life-support system. As just one example, the phytoplankton in the ocean are starting to die off. This is something that hasn't happened in the past. Yes, some negative feedback system could prevent that from happening. But in order to be successful, it really seems to me that this negative feedback system would have to essentially crash industrial civilization and facillitate a fairly large die-off of the human population (let's say massive killer storms set off by global warming, as just one possibility). Perhaps such a morbid catastrophe might assure the survival of humanity in the future by ending our ability to wreck the planet, but you would still be talking about something historically unprecedented, wouldn't you?

richard said...

After a long hard slog, great campsite, the water is good here.


Harry J. Lerwill said...

"...and saw no conflict at all between pouring a libation to Zeus the Thunderer and taking in a lecture on physics in which thunderbolts were explained by wholly physical causes."

That's a conflict that has never made sense to me. What's wrong with taking in a lecture on how Zeus creates thunderbolts? It's not like the Gods are stage magicians, who will get upset with you if you figure out a particular piece of prestidigitation and not let you come to the shows any more.

Although the libation might be a good idea if you are going sneak a peak into his sleeves and like Prometheus, steal a secret.

For me, "who" is a matter of faith, while "how" is a matter of careful observation and attention to the world around us.

Christophe said...

Wow, That is a ridiculously dense post! How many re-readings will it take before the undergirding patterns informing your thinking and writing begin to sink in? No worries though -- each new read will be a distinct pleasure. Thank you for the depth of thought you put into all your posts, and the clarity with which you express it.

Villager said...

You mean you're NOT the incarnation of Hari Seldon! Asimov would be so disappointed.

shrama said...

Dear JMG,

That was one great article, thank you. Your model certainly goes a long way to explain India's historical trajectory till about 1100 CE. I can see Nagarjuna, Shankara and Ramanujam as some of the prime actors of the rebellion against rationalism in India.

But after that things get significantly muddied and the obvious reason for that is the successful series of invasions by external powers and cultures. Once Islam became a powerful player in the sub-continent's politics it led to a great deal of cultural convulsions that might have ended with the establishment of a syncretic Hindu-Islamic civilization but that was not to be (despite what the secularists of this country like to claim). Because the evolving equation between Hindus and Muslims of the sub-continent was completely upset by the entry of a new player in the country's cultural scene - the religion of progress that came along with the British.

Today this country is a difficult to imagine hybrid with three main cultural forces vying for people's attention - Hinduism, Islam (their vestiges and offshoots) and Progress (the most powerful of the three). In a sense we are like the furry crocodile but also with a pair of proto-wings all of which which is trying to ape the giant whale aka America. How this quaint hybrid will evolve in a time when the animal it is trying to imitate starts shrinking is something that fascinates me but I don't know if I am equipped to give useful answers to this question.

I haven't read Spengler fully yet but I doubt he would have been able to imagine India of the 21st century or make useful predictions about where a society such as ours is headed. But do you have some general ideas of how extremely diverse and schizophrenic societies such as mine might evolve. I know that you may not be conversant with all the details of Indian society but my question is whether the theory of civilizations that you propose is able to address the trajectory of hybrid societies.

I guess I must clarify what I mean by a hybrid society. It is one where the dominant myths are so incompatible that they don't even attempt to ask the same underlying questions, leave alone provide different answers. For example, you could argue that both Christianity and Atheism in the west ask the same underlying question about the existence of God but provide completely different answers. However, Hinduism and Progress address (for the most part) completely different realms of human experience and thus do not even ask the same questions.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Ben Simon and JMG had a discussion last week on the conservation of knowledge, with Ben mentioning laser-cut stencils and JMG mentioning the durability of parchment.

It is also potentially useful to image book pages in microfiche or similar microform. Such an artefact can be read in the remote future by any society still possessing microscopes. Since such an artefact is compact, it can be kept safe even in conditions of social upheaval.

We know from history what upheaval is like. In 1944, Estonians took to the harbours with compact baggage, carrying individual books - but not whole libraries - out to the safety of Sweden. It was this hand-luggage evacuation that made possible the rapid late-1940s reprinting, at exile Sweden-and-Canada publishing house "Orto", of epic Kalevipoeg, and key novelist Tammsaare, and the like, meeting among other things the needs of Estonian diaspora education.

A viable microform solution will be one robust enough to forego temperature- and humidity-controlled repositories.

A high-tech robust solution, involving writing onto metal plates with an ion beam, is described in the Wikipedia "High-Density Rosetta" article.

But how can we proceed if we restrict ourselves to lower-tech solutions affordable to the private experimenter?

I speculate that something could be done cheaply, at an (adequate) density of, say, 9 or 16 or 25 book pages per square centimetre, by proceeding as follows: (1) deposit a film of some metal, perhaps silver or copper, onto a glass slip, such as a microscope slide (perhaps using some such process as the traditional Victorian chemistry for silvering a telescope mirror); (2) cover this metal film with a photoresist, perhaps of the same kind as used for making printed circuits in an ambitious home electronics lab; (3) project minified book-page images onto the photoresist; (4) use the usual printed-circuit chemistry to (a) selectively etch the metal film and (b) wash away the photoresist; (5) add a removable glass cover to the image slip, to protect the image-etched metal film.

In the remote future, after some replay of the European 1940s terrors, some people may find it helpful not only to read such a slip with a microscope, but even to take the removable glass cover off and to make contact prints, or to keep the removable glass cover on and make enlarger-easel prints onto paper-backed emulsions, or even onto litho plates.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
near Toronto, Canada
www punkt metascientia punkt com
Toomas punkt Karmo at gmail punkt com

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Having just posted on the topic of conserving books, I would like to continue by amplifying a line of thought I started a couple of weeks ago, in response to science-and-engineering book conservationist Leo.

In previously responding to Leo, I remarked that the Mathematical Association of America has a guide for acquisitions librarians, at, and that on the strength of this MAA guide I discovered the key Apostol two-volume calculus intro. (Or, rather, two-volume analysis intro: analysis is to calculus as astrophysics is to astrology, ahem.)

It is perhaps worth adding that a conservationist library in physics will have the French-and-Taylor M.I.T. Intro Physics series.

These M.I.T. works, like Apostol, help clarify methods of research. Our remote descendants will need to know less the results than the spirit of the methods (a point which JMG has indeed himself stressed).

French-and-Taylor make this vivid, sketching experiments.

For example, they discuss a low-budget experiment at Cambridge U, early in the 20th century, which showed how the dual-slit experiment generates an interference pattern on a photo emulsion even when the light source is so weak as to emit not a barrage of simultaneous quanta, but only sporadic, temporally separated, quanta. One would think that here we have mere particles, and yet we even here find wave behaviour once we put the emulsion into the darkroom developer tray.

How, for a budget of a few tens of USD, could one better study the subtlety of the wave-particle duality?

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
near Toronto, Canada
www punkt metascientia punkt com
Toomas punkt Karmo at gmail punkt com

PS: As a 1990s student, I ofen found the UofToronto discouraging. Nevertheless, two happy 'Varsity episodes do come to mind.

(a) In 3rd-year optics, we had a TA who, said our prof, was working on a variant of General Relativity. The prof remarked that if his TA's GR variant was correct, there could be no black holes! Suddenly, one had a sense of the vulnerability of orthodoxy. (That TA disappeared into Cambridge U a little later. I gathered from a hasty chance encounter with the prof, in a Physics-Tower elevator, that the unorthodox variant on GR was probably now kaputnik. But that former TA may do something else later on.)

(b) For 3rd-year not-very-rigorous partial differential equations, we had a young prof who really at one point thought aloud at the chalkboard - yes, we will try this and that, he said, and now let's see what happens if we (as it were) multiply by an integrating factor. I think he knew no more than we did what the outcome would be, and so he made math emerge for what it really is, namely a fine indoor sport. This was the same prof who, at another stage in the course, asked the class, "Now, we need to write a polynomial: WHAT KIND of polynomial? starts with the letter ell....", to which some irreverent student replied, "Labatt polynomial?" (Our prof was probably seeking the answer "Legendre" - not that I now remember what a Legendre polynomial is, ahem. Labatt is for its part a well known Canadian brewery.)

On math as a sport, it is additionally worth remarking that Green's theorem, from 2nd-year multivariate calculus, was the discovery of a pre-Victorian autodidact: cf

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Finally (as my third posting this afternoon), I'd like to make a remark on conservation-of-engineering, with reference to ham radio.

(A) I noticed something scary last month.

We have in the Toronto inner suburb of Etobicoke a good electronics graveyard, A1 Electronics. A1 offered since last winter a duly assembled-and-modded Heathkit Commanche and Cheyenne 1959-to-1962 receiver-transmitter pair, with power supply and mike, at the low asking price of 250 CAD, with schematics and manuals. The rigs were fine for CW on most of the main ham bands. (Irritatingly, 30 metres was absent, and yet is rather strongly wanted.)

An Etobicoke vacuum-tube authority tells me the tubes in at least one half of this combo are quite standard, i.e., are rather easily replaced even today.

The authority himself has an inventory of 10,000 tubes, and of course various tubes are still being commercially manufactured outside now-deskilled North America. French ham Claude Paillard (callsign F2FO) has even shown that the lone worker can make tubes, given skill, patience, and a workshop with a diffusion pump.

The scary part is that nobody bought the rigs! They stayed at A1 Electronics for months, until I finally snapped them up on 2013-06-25. I will have to work on them over the coming years, understanding the previous owner's mods (I suspect he was good), then eventually getting onto the air. I would therein be applying the 15+ words-per-minute CW skills I have been maintaining with my humble Realistic DX-300 receiver (okay for monitoring CW at W1AW, from Connecticut) and my MFJ-418 "Pocket Morse Code Tutor".

One problem with the Cheyenne transmitter is that although it is already equipped with a key jack, it puts a potential of 90 volts across the key terminals. That is unpleasantly high, with (I have been warned) possibility of sparking. I presume this would deliver a poor, unprofessional, Morse note on the air, with something like a click or rasp. A solution, as Heathkit themselves point out in the assembly manual, would be to have the key talk to the jack via a relay.

I think we have to be vigilant these days, ensuring that good rigs do not get scrapped.

(B) It might be worth asking: what is the best-ever vacuum-tube rig for Morse code; what is the ultimate quality benchmark? Possible answer: the approx-28-tube R-390A (cf A few years ago, someone saw piles of R-390A sets exposed to the weather, in a USA government sale.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www punkt metascientia punkt com
Toomas punkt Karmo at gmail punkt com
ham callsign VA3KMZ

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I think the rapprochement of which you write is underway.

In the Sixties it seemed to me that the field of religious studies was a backwater. Now it's lively.

I have friends active in the interfaith movement at the national and international levels. The picture I have from talking to them is that the representatives of various religions who do interfaith tend to be well educated, appreciate science, have sorted out the claims of rationality and feeling, and don't have much trouble communicating with their counterparts. A Wiccan priest can have a serious conversation with a Muslim cleric, a Catholic with a Buddhist, an agnostic biologist with a rabbi, and find many points of agreement. Of course they are there in the first place seeking points of agreement, but finding commonality isn't a huge struggle for people who have a broad understanding of what they are talking about.

Doctor Westchester said...

Two things of note in the peak oil world: 1) The Oil Drum has announced that they will stop being an actively updated website, 2) Randy Udall, brother of Senator Mark Udall and a founder of the U.S. branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas, died on a hiking trip and the body has just been found.

I claim to not be superstitious, but I wonder if these events are a sign of something. The Oil Drum closure - almost certainly, the death of Mr. Udall - probably less so.

John Michael Greer said...

Rhisiart, diolch yn fawr!

Tom, the age of memory eventually gives way to a new age of faith, but don't confuse that with fundamentalism -- the latter is what happens to religions that unthinkingly adopt the standards of rationalism, and treat their scriptures, etc., as statements of fact rather than manifestations of the sacred.

Avery, er, China? India? Neither one is Western, and both were (and are) extremely literate. Islam went through its rationalist phase a long time ago; its current tendencies toward fundamentalism are a reaction to the industrial West.

Nestor, you're welcome! ;-)

KL, funny. German's a difficult language to turn into readable English -- my understanding is that Spengler is a lot more readable in the original.

PhysicsDoc, of course. That's the basis for all meaningful study of the world of our experience. "This rock, and that rock, and the other rock, all fall to the ground when picked up and released," says Throg the caveman; "I therefore hypothesize that this other rock over here will do the same thing under the same conditions." If the experiment succeeds, he announces the discovery of Throg's First Law of Rocks, which is that they fall when their support goes away. Much like civilizations...

Garde, a great many fields of science seem to be approaching, or past, their point of diminishing returns. Much of what's left is in areas that are basically taboo -- for example, I'd like to see Sheldrake's experiments replicated under a range of varying conditions! Still, the interface between matter and consciousness is one of the last really big puzzles left, and it would be good to see the pressure to find new fields for research open that one up to more work.

Phil H., a definite case of serendipity! I'd like to think that some of the older and more mature denominations might be able to rise to the challenge, shed some of their less productive habits, and speak to the needs of a society in decline; still, we'll see.

Raven, yes, but it's also worth trying to get a glimpse of the pattern on their loom...

Chuck, I hear six meters was pretty good, though!

Ron, if that's the core value for you, good; the challenge now is to find a way to present that value to others, and encourage them to embrace it as well. I encourage you to reflect on that, and then take action.

Trajork said...

I'd also like to ask what you think of the closing of The Oil Drum along with the decline in peak oil sites generally. Have people simply gotten used to the shaky plateau we've been on for the past few years and lost interest in peak oil, have they fallen under the spell of the propaganda about shale oil and gas, or there something else going on?

John Michael Greer said...

JC, thank you.

Das Monde, not at all -- the rebellion against rationalism typically happens when societies are at their peak of literacy, and so there are ample historical records. It's not obscure at all. Look into the rise of Gnosticism and mystery traditions in the mature Greco-Roman world, for example.

Rita, a good point. The challenge is to find ways to reinterpret and revise old myths to fit new realities; oral traditions do that easily, but once a set of myths is in writing, it's a lot harder. Still, the thing's been done often enough in the past.

William, your mission, if you should choose to accept it, is to find out how guitar strings were made before there were factories making them -- the guitar's a fairly old instrument, you know -- and learn how to make them yourself. That's how these things will be recovered and preserved: individuals who are passionate about making it happen will do so.

Hal, good. Among many others, yes.

Andrew, there are a lot of scratchy chins in the social sciences that badly need a shave with Occam's razor.

Mister R., you need to do your own research, and not simply believe the claims of the apocalypse lobby. Dieoff of phytoplankton happens routinely whenever there's a CO2 spike in the atmosphere, and the oceans go acidic. What happens then? Photosynthetic bacteria and blue-green algae, which don't have calcium skeletons and so aren't vulnerable to oceanic acidification, replace them. Once the pH of the oceans returns to normal, in half a million years or so, relict populations of phytoplankton in refugia expand their ranges again. In the meantime, there's still ample photosynthesis going on in the oceans. All this is business as usual for an unstable planet!

Richard, thank you!

Harry, you and Plutarch would have gotten along very well.

Christophe, thank you. One of the challenges I face in writing these is that I've been mulling over most of these points for many years, and have to figure out how to communicate them to people who aren't familiar with the decidedly eccentric contents of my brain!

Villager, I don't think I've ever heard any discussion, in the mystical literature, of pre-incarnation...

Shrama, Spengler got there ahead of you. What you've got in India right now is what he called a pseudomorphosis -- a situation in which one high culture ends up, for historical reasons, borrowing political, technical, and economic forms from another, even though there are huge mismatches. The Western forms imported by the British, and reinforced since independence by the pressures of international economics and war, don't fit Indian culture at all; they'll stumble along anyway until the pressures that hold them in place fall away, and then they'll collapse and be replaced with some "revival" (that is, brand new invention loosely based on older traditions) of something more relevant to Indian culture. That's the usual trajectory of a pseudomorphosis.

James Yamano said...

Hello Mr. Greer,

I have found the post of this week to be especially fascinating as I recently purchased your book, "A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism." After reading this week's post on the succession of religions over the course of history, I have come to the conclusion that our society can take a variety of religious paths to be practiced in the future. I am especially curious of the path that Polytheism may take in the future of North America.

Don Plummer said...

I enjoyed this essay tremendously because it really points out the pitfalls in people's thinking.

By the way, here's the latest proposed techno-fix to our predicament. I don't know if you heard or saw this one, but I had to chuckle when I heard the report.

Richard Larson said...

For a long time I was focusing on what can happen. Your ideas ArchDruid, have had an impact. This weblog does twist the focus just enough to become more aware of my thought process, from what can happen, to what does happen, to what is happening.

Your post is using keywords I have recently read in the book, "PermaCulture A Designers Manual" by Bill Mollison. That is all about what ought to happen. :-)

Here is a video of what happened last week at my house: I'm covered, the garden is bouncing right back, and I am making one giant Berkeley Compost Heap out of the debris!

PhysicsDoc said...

Re my previous comment about inductive reasoning, if you close the loop with experiment and observation as your cavemen Throg does you have the essence of the scientific method. The interesting thing is that you are applying the method over time scales of centuries or millennia, and for cultural phenomena.

bookwench said...

The bit about the limits of our brains is a very depressing thought, but thank you for saying it. I like the reminder.

John Michael Greer said...

Toomas, thanks for the data on books -- and good for you for snagging those Heathkit rigs! Solid, sturdy gear like that deserves a good home. To the rest of my readers, if you're scratching your heads wondering what you can do to preserve some useful technology into the future, and aren't afraid of hands-on electronics, may I recommend getting a ham radio license, making contact with your local club, and learning how to use, repair, and build radio gear? There's a huge need, and a lot of good things you can do here and now -- whenever a natural disaster hits, it's usually the hams who are first to get communications open again.

Unknown Deborah, I've seen some stirrings of the same thing, thus my comments.

Doctor W., I hadn't heard that they'd found Udall's body. That's really sad to hear.

Trajork, there were apparently problems at the Oil Drum -- a lot of their most popular commenters left in the last year or so, there were rumors about censorship and so on; I have no idea what was behind it all, but if anyone else can suggest a good news aggregator site for peak oil and energy news, I'd be grateful. I appreciat what is trying to do, but these days they don't carry as much energy news as they did when they were Energy Bulletin, and a lot of what they do carry is of very little interest to me.

James, glad to hear it -- to my mind, that's one of my two best books, and thus inevitably one of my two least popular.

Richard, ouch! What a mess. Glad you've bounced back.

PhysicsDoc, exactly -- the only difference between me and Throg is that it takes a long time to get experimental results when it comes to falling civilizations.

Bookwench, it's only depressing if you're still stuck in the delusion that things ought to be different. As I see it, it's marvelous to contemplate what a bunch of social primates with really very limited brains have been able to accomplish!

Phil Knight said...

The infrastructure for the second religiousness is being built already, with the successful creation of London's first atheist church:

As this institution starts to bed itself in, and becomes more comfortable with its rites and services, I have no doubt that disbelief in God will become less and less of a prerequisite for membership....

Twilight said...

I don't like to clutter the comments with cheerleading, but I will this time. This is one of your very best posts. It's a very strong logical foundation on which to stand when countering the absurd modern concept that the only limitations we face are our ingenuity and optimism. Especially when we our options are more limited every day - this is why.

BrightSpark said...

Avery, very thought-provoking actually, when you say that

"The main thing Plato had that the Enlightenment didn't was an insistence that the universe itself makes sense, and that things are created for a reason; this allowed Neoplatonism to have some sort of harmony between traditional myths and rationally pleasing geometry, as opposed to today's postmodern mixture of traditions and fictions."

I'd put Einstein in a similar role actually. He was convinced, until the day he died, that the universe was more than some random buzzing confusion, explainable only by the laws of statistics. He also got his insights from something else too.

So I suspect that process just continues, regardless of the age.

JP said...

Extremely well-written post and quite useful in terms of explanation.


Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- wonderful post. Again.

If the human brain were simple enough for us to understand, we would -- perforce -- be too unintelligent to understand it.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- I have taken to considering science to be the subfield of Theology that focuses on the Mundane.

I'm hardly the first. Phillip Pullman's young adult fiction, for instance, refers to "applied theology," which looks an awful lot like "science."

I find this categorization useful for two reasons.

First, I don't have boundless confidence in theology, precisely because it is all about our smallish primate brains trying to comprehend the Infinite, which sounds like (and often turns out to be) a bad joke. By categorizing science as a subset of that enterprise, it keeps the inherent limitations of science in perspective.

Second, it's a reminder that not everything is Mundane. One earmark of the Age of Rationality is intellectual overreach, aka hubris: not restricted to rationality, of course, but it's hard for me to imagine a proper Age of Rationality without it.

One of the mysteries in science is the scientist himself. We have to wonder whether, if science can reduce him to a mess of chemicals acting mechanistically, how is it that we can trust the science he produces? I used to quip that the problem with Behaviorists was that they were merely conditioned to believe they were doing science.

To those who wave the magic wand of "evolution" -- we've evolved to know the difference between reality and fiction -- I can only smile and offer two words: "virgin birth." Or "Noah's Ark" would do just as well. Apparently, all people are evolved, but some are more evolved than others (apologies to Orwell). Obviously, scientists are the more evolved.

Given the breeding habits of most scientists and engineers that I know, I have to wonder what undiscovered evolutionary mechanism is at work....

I can see I would have been much more (philosophically) comfortable in the Age of New Religiosity you describe.

Leo said...

The acknowledgement that science and religion are separate things spreading should be interesting.

After all, Occam's razor was invented by a theologian to say you had to accept god on faith not reason. And science is of reason, not faith.

Cynndara Morgan said...

Thank you, JMG, for another fine post. Your blog is the only source I have now for the kind of mature, well-read thinking that I used to enjoy so much in Alexandria.

Justin Wade said...

My 2 cents is that all matter and interactions of matter is the universe experiencing itself. Our physical bodies, made up of rather common molecules and atoms, is the same as this.

Life is the experience of the universe experiencing itself.

Consciousness is the media of that subjective experience.

Religion/spiritual/philosophical/scientific thought are the attempts to expand the subjective frame of reference of conciousness.

SophieGale said...

I've also started Spengler (rev. ed, 1928, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson), and the difficulty is not so much the translation from German but parsing the rococo thicket of commas typical of that era of writing. Modern readers may feel like their brains have been white water rafting.

Luckily I have been reading The City in History: its origins, its transformations, and its prospects by Lewis Mumford. Even in 1961 Mumford drew parallels between the fall of Rome and America at mid-century. I'd recommend getting the overview from Mumford and then plunging into Spengler.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, first only for those who have short memories. Have you ever heard of the Ethical Culture movement? It had several nontheist "churches" in London between the wars. Still, it'll be interesting to see how things turn out this time around.

Twilight, thank you for getting it.

JP, thank you.

Joseph, nicely phrased. As for the relationship between theology and science, though, I have a different take, but we'll be getting to that in a later post.

Leo, William of Occam made some very good points, and one of them was the distinction between what's provable by reason and what isn't. The distinction between fact and value I explored in an earlier post riffs off that distinction. More on this as we proceed!

Cynndara, thank you! I'd be happy to write for such a periodical again if someone would tackle the job of editing and publishing it...

Sophie, Mumford's very much worth reading as well; I simply find Spengler's philosophical standpoint and ruthless disregard for the western world's collective egotism very comfortable.

wiseman said...

Although it's not incorrect to say that there is an Indian culture, the differences amplify in the absence of fossil fuels, it can take upto a lifetime to travel from the Himalayas to the South in the absence of motorized transport.

My guess is that all the regions of India would go their separate ways and learn to deal with the issues separately. So you will not have an Indian culture per se but a deccan culture, an eastern culture and a tribal culture centered around the jungles of central India, among many other cultures (just as it was for thousands of years) with a very loose set of superstructure which we refer to as the Indian culture.

I am guessing the same will be true everywhere else. This artificial homogeneity will go the way of the dodo.

void_genesis said...

I think I have finally had an epiphany thanks to reading these posts. The question I was asking to myself was why were previous difficult energy transitions (wood to coal, coal to oil etc) different from what industrial society is currently facing in attempting to transition away from oil.

Am I right in coming to believe that the issues we face are not purely technological? Rather the evolution and ossification of our culture is likely to be the deciding factor in leading our civilisation into a long period of decline, simplification and contraction. The globalisation and homogenisation of this culture should also have negative effects in this regard.

I still have some reservations about whether or not morphological thinking is powerful enough to tell us more of less when a civilisation has peaked and is facing imminent decline. While I am happy to accept that fingers are connected to palms are connected to arms, that doesn't necessarily allow you to predict the exact length of each part in a particular organism (though features like wrists can mark transitions).

Bugmethx said...

I find all religions similar: they're circular reasonings.
You are asked to accept a few things unconditionally: the mysteries of the faith, the communist manifesto, whatever. Economists, for instance, are asked to believe that money expresses the value of goods and services.

Not accepting these "truths" at face value means losing your status in the group. A catholic who expresses doubt in Mary being a virgin mother is likely to be given the same treatment as an economist who expresses doubt that private sector beats government intervention.

Once the basics accepted, every teaching can then be reduced to one of these basic beliefs. Take, for instance, a coal mine.The belief that money sets the value of goods and services, means a manager compares the cost of the mine's security measures to the cost of paying compensation to miners' widows. A sane person would, of course, say the comparison is meaningless; and that people's lives cannot be measured in money. We've been making decisions based upon economics all the time. The result you can see all around you, and in Fukushima in particular.

The fundamental beliefs of mathematics are called axioms. From these are derived theorems, which make up the belief system. But the story doesn't end there. In 1931, Kurt Gödel proved - using hard mathematical reasoning - that you can't prove everything which is true; no matter how hard you try. So at least maths knows it can't explain everything. The other religions still think they can.

vermontriverhouse said...

I always enjoy your posts and generally agree with what you say. I'm puzzled, though, about your focus on human history when discussing what 'does' happen and how that relates to what will happen. What about all the pre-human extinctions of most mammals, on multiple occasions in earth's history, due to rapid climate changes such as increased methane in the atmosphere? Isn't this what happens when climate changes relatively abruptly, and why does that not inform us of what is likely to happen as our climate changes?

DaShui said...

Didn't the father of mechanism, Isaac Newton retire to study alchemy?

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

If what we're living through has all been repeated before, does that mean that previous civilisations also had their John Michael Greers? If so, do you know who they were?

Rita Narayanan said...


if you have the time please share your thoughts about the middle class and the end of the industrial democracy.

The west has an evolved notion of democracy and it owes this to the gifts of the industrial age not just imperialism but a mass availability/opportunity to growt in areas of education and such.

in a country like India contrary to all idealistic notions democracy at the mass level has destroyed the culture while gifting a whole lot of goodies.But this sort of parasitic activity cannot continue forever.

How does the decline of industry then affect the middle class and modern democracy?


William Yeates said...

Learning how to make guitar strings would be an interesting undertaking for sure,a little research reveals they where made with guts before steel.

Not trying to dodge a mission from the Grand Archdruid, but I have already set myself to the task of mastering the art of Flamenco guitar. Not much excessive time left over when trying to emulate such greats as Paco de Lucia.

RPC said...

A bit of floobydust here: the term "bellybone" (From the French "belle et bonne") was early American slang for a pretty girl.

CJ said...

I have just started the book The Fourth Turning and I find many similarities in the book to what you have been posting here over the years.

Paula Jones said...

I'm reading Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Societies" and, based on your writings, was surprised that he eliminates Spengler (and Toynbee) as 'mystical' explanations (though I think he just finds them unduly metaphorical and/or poorly specified). Your interpretation of Spengler is inconsistent. What are your thoughts?

Repent said...

I once had a near death experience that revealed to me that things are not as they appear to be. I've struggled to find the words and I have largely failed. I took up reasearing others who have written about their near death experiences. In particular, I found a book writted for the educated reader by a woman who has several university degrees, including a degree in religion; who wrote about her own near death experience.

She was an experienced and successful lawyer named Nanci L Danison, and has written a current and readable book called 'Backward beliefs'. Its an excellent read, that I'm sure would give you new perspectives on religion.

I'll send you a tip shortly so you can buy a copy on your kindle or similar device. ($9.99) (If you don't have something like this you can still get a paper copy at mailed to you for twice the price)

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

This week's post, in light of past posts regarding the myth of progress, brings to mind Herbert Butterfield's 1931 essay The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield's view is that the myth of progress is closely related to the myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority, and that both require an abridgement of history in order to support the idea that history was an inevitable march toward the current state of affairs and that it couldn't have turned out any other way.

Joseph Nemeth said...


You're right to understand that you've been thinking this way for a long time, and it takes a long time for others to catch up. Impatience with others is one of my longstanding personal flaws, and I've typically failed the challenge you mention. So I appreciate the nature of the challenge, and have to say you're doing admirably, certainly much better than I would.

Thomas Daulton said...

The big irony is that the principle of environmental morphology JMG describes here, for dolphins & ichthyosaurs for example, is a commonly accepted trope in TV and cinema science fiction... Cited, for example, about Star Trek aliens, as well as Superman.  On-screen, characters say that the reason Kryptonians or Vulcans resemble humans so closely is because they come from similar but separate environmental niches. (The real reason, of course, is so that humanoid actors can play these roles without spending too much money on make-up etc.)  So the _principle_ is in common circulation.  Yet sci-fi fans are probably the one group most committed to the idea that entire cultures can change their shape to something novel with just a little bit of commitment and technical innovation.  JMG, ever the gadfly, proposes something pretty much the exact converse in his sci-fi, "Star's Reach".

Thomas Daulton said...

I hasten to add that there were at least 3 examples in the classic Star Trek (TOS) where the ship encounters planets whose cultures almost exactly parallel historical Earth cultures. The characters-on screen started to refer to this as Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development. After the original series in the 1960's, the idea of encountering parallel Earths around distant stars seems to have been dropped from most fiction, I think because the audiences found it farfetched. So the idea of enviro-biological morphism seems to have gained more staying power than cultural morphism.

Roger said...

Re Utterly predictable events.

You heard it a thousand times (wishful thinking being a mover of human affairs): We're different here. (Yes, we are). This place is different. (Yes, it is). And the grand-daddy of them all, it's different this time. (No doubt).

Things are always SO different in SO many ways in terms of place and historical circumstance. Anyone can see that can't they?

What you say applies on a civilizational level and over the broad sweep of history I think can also apply in tighter geographic and temporal frames of reference. I used to work in the real estate industry and saw, up close, more or less the same disasters repeating themselves in different places and at different times.

The laws of financial gravity may not have the precision of Newtonian mechanics and the trajectory of events may not have unfolded as predictably as planetary movements. But unfold they did.

The language was always similar. "It's a great time to buy, a house is your best investment, you can't lose in real estate, prices have nowhere to go but up." You guys in the USA would have heard all this pretty recently, no?

People were unshakeably convinced of these "truths". And you dared not utter dissent. No time for naysayers, no room for impure thoughts. Facts? Data? Common sense? Pah! Sober second thought was for sissies.

The problem, of course, was that these "truths" were un-true. And there were dogmas that weren't just specific to the real estate industry. People said that times have changed and now it's different.

Well, yeah, but it wasn't THAT different. There are constraints that channel events in human affairs just as they do in the natural world. Human nature is human nature, the laws of financial gravity still apply. There's no such thing as a free lunch and money doesn't grow on trees and never has.

I bring this up because what we have right here and right now in this city (and in other places in this country) is a real estate bubble. No, seriously.

We had a bad real estate crack-up 20 years ago that everyone seems to have forgotten. Now, you'd think that after the calamities of the recent past that people in this city would have learned. You'd think that financial authorities would've smelled the coffee and headed it off. But no.

And so what do you think people here are saying? You guessed it: it's different this time, lending practices are different, economic fundamentals are different. Yes, yes it's all different. What's the same are the glistening financial aneurisms on bank and household balance sheets.

Not that anybody listens (not house buyers, not mortgage lenders and especially not developers) but national financial authorities repeatedly sounded the alarm. Way too late, mind you. Again too late, they repeatedly tightened lending rules. Do you know why? To engineer a "soft-landing".

Have you ever seen a "soft landing"? No? Neither have I. It's like you say JMG, it COULD happen. We COULD have a soft landing, we COULD avoid a wave of foreclosures, we COULD avoid a banking crisis. But will we? We could also have avoided a housing bubble in the first place. And we didn't.

New lending rules be damned, doubters slapped aside, the bleatings of our central bank notwithstanding, house prices march remorselessly and relentlessly upward driven by smiling, striding "optimists". And, if history is any guide and it usually is, the march downward will be just as remorseless and relentless. And people will say they never saw it coming.

It's always "different" this time. And it always is different in some particulars or circumstances. But people haven't changed and it's the END that's the same. History may not repeat exactly but it does repeat.

John Michael Greer said...

Void, there's another factor: each of the previous energy transitions was between a less concentrated energy source and a more concentrated one -- wood has less potential energy per kilo than coal, and coal less than oil. The problem we face now is that there's no abundant, naturally occurring substance in this corner of the universe that has more potential energy per kilo than crude oil -- and making a transition to much more diffuse and intermittent renewable resources imposes hard costs very few people want to meet.

Bugmethx, you might be surprised; quite a few religions are very clear on the fact that they can't explain everything. It's unwise to generalize about religion on the basis of the most popular Western churches!

Riverhouse, good -- you're almost asking the right questions. The ecology of extinction is tolerably well understood these days; if you research the characteristics of species that are vulnerable to near-term extinctions, and then compare that list of characteristics to Homo sapiens, you'll find that the evidence of past extinctions has something very specific to say about the NTE hypothesis -- and it's not something that believers in NTE want to hear.

DaShui, nah, he was an alchemist all along -- and a very good one, too; according to his lab notes, which have been published, he got to the stage called the Peacock's Tail, when the matter in the flask starts turning iridescent colors. Most of the great figures of the scientific revolution were up to their eyeballs in what we'd now label occultism; Johannes Kepler, while he was working out the laws of planetary motion, paid the rent by casting horoscopes, and his astrological work is valued just as highly by astrologers as his astronomical work is by astronomers.

SMJ, funny! I'd say John of Patmos was a pretty good example in the Roman world, though his really very accurate prediction of the fall of the Roman Empire has been misunderstood for centuries now as a prediction of the end of the world, due to the symbolic language he had to use to dodge Roman censorship.

Rita, that's a huge question, and would require at least a post of its own, since "middle class" and "democracy" mean very different things in different countries! I'll consider it for a future post.

William, fair enough -- but I hope someone gets busy figuring out how to make gut strings again, or there's going to be a shortage of music down the road.

RPC, I didn't know that! I can easily imagine Ben Franklin using that phrase, with the double entendre very much in mind...

CJ, thanks for the tip.

Paula, standard practice in the social sciences when Tainter wrote, and today as well, is to require any theory to propose a causative mechanism -- N happens because X, Y, and Z make it happen. Spengler and Toynbee weren't writing from within that same set of expectations; Toynbee offers some intriguing but not really quantifiable suggestions about causative mechanisms, and Spengler dismisses the question entirely. What Tainter failed to grasp, I think, is that you can describe what happens, and predict what will happen, without knowing why it happens. People bred plants and animals for millennia before the discovery of genetics, and forged steel for centuries before anybody figured out why iron treated in just this way is much harder and stronger; in the same way, Spengler had a very clear understanding of what happens as civilizations go through their life cycle, and the fact that he doesn't propose a causative model doesn't make his insights less useful.

John Michael Greer said...

Repent, duly noted and thank you! I did a lot of reading about near death experiences back in the 1980s, when they first became a subject of scientific study; it'll be interesting to see if the study has proceeded any further since then.

Eremon, excellent! You get today's gold star. "Whig history" is a term that was much used when I was taking courses in the history of science in the early 1990s -- there were a bunch of young radicals at that time who were trying to talk about the historically contingent nature of science, and who were being yelled down by the majority, for whom science proceeded the way it did because it was true, and that's that. You can probably guess the side I favored.

Joseph, thank you.

Thomas, yes, I remember the Hodgkins' Law episodes; I don't recall what I thought of them when I first saw them -- I was four when the original series premiered, and six when it went off the air -- but the reruns were a fixture of my childhood, and I recall finding the faux-Romans et al. even more implausible than the series as a whole, which is saying something.

Roger, you're quite correct, of course -- you're going to have a spectacular real estate crash in the next few years. If you have a chance, pick up a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Great Crash 1929" and see how many of the slogans used to justify the 1929 stock market bubble get recycled in your housing bubble; it makes a great party game. While you're at it, get every cent you have out of real estate, now; if you own a house, sell it and stash the proceeds, then buy it back or upgrade to a nicer place once the market bottoms out two years or so after the plunge begins. You'll be glad you did.

That is to say, the laws of economics may not be as exact as those of physics, but speculative bubbles and busts are an exception to that rule -- once a bubble gets under way, it's going to end in a crash, and if you stay out of the market during the period of its lunacy and step back in when everyone else has bailed out, you will do very, very well. That's how Joseph Kennedy made his fortune, and it's why my wife and I now live in a very pleasant house we bought for not much more than pocket change!

Grebulocities said...

JMG, I remember you said a couple of months ago that you recently visited Detroit and were rather encouraged by what you saw. Did you ever write more about that anywhere, and are you going to do so here? I'm curious as to your impressions of Detroit and what lessons can be taken away from it and other Rust Belt cities that make up the cutting edge of catabolic collapse in the US.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Jewish civilization is unusual in having gone through these processes twice.

The first rationalizing period in Judaism came from Greek influence. Its early stage is seen in late books of the Bible such as Job and Ecclesiastes; the end products were rabbis and the Talmud. Neoplatonist Jewish philosophers were transitional to the counter-rational movements of Kabbalah and early Hasidism.

Judaism had a second rationalist period in response to the Enlightenment. Its products included the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations (one of which was founded by a rabbi who was an atheist) and political Zionism. The rationalizing movement has run its course. The nascent counter movement has to deal with the theological and political challenges of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

KL Cooke said...

"wondering what would look like if two bellybonded hominids did it doggie style."

The Beast with Two Fronts?

Justin Wade said...

You might be interested in Dr. Eben Alexander.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Garde, have you seen Tom Campbell's work yet? As a physicist, you should be quite intrigued -- putting it mildly.

Google 'My Big TOE'. I can recommend the video sequence of his University of Calgary week-end intensive presentation, though it takes about fifteen hours to view it all; and probably a couple of months to digest and ruminate the basic ideas, if they're new to you. The video sequence 'Tom Campbell in Spain' is good too. About the same length.

I'm guessing that in future history, Tom's name is going to be up there with Galileo, Descartes, Newton, the quantum mechanics, and Einstein. Big claim, I know. But take a long thoughtful look at his Big TOE and see what you think.

Cherokee Organics said...


I concur with you as I've always considered that the economic models used to explain real world behaviours were a load of poodle doo! Honestly, the concept of a rational person is just a simplification of reality. Should anyone meet one, please point them out to me. Blind Freddy could see that it is unsupported by real life and yet the economists still insist that it is the case! Still, it is unspoken that the models are flawed and the economic models continue to wield power for a while yet in the real world. I no longer use the share market as what chance has an individual got against high frequency traders…

Haha! Economics as a field of study tends to avoid history as to do so would be their undoing. Much better for them to propose that “this time it will be different” as the professionals retain their grants and/or positions. It reminds me of the two philosophers in the Hitchers guide to the galaxy that were advised to argue with each other endlessly about the meaning of life to enjoy a lucrative feed-trough!

Did you see that we now have a new (old) Prime Minister only a couple of months out from the September election? What an awesome strategy, bring him back for the election as he was one of the most popular leaders in recent decades, yet employ a different Prime Minister to do the hard yards during the rest of the time. Just guessing, but it smells of good cop / bad cop to me, could be wrong...

My gut feel - and I could be wrong - was that he burnt out after a couple of years in the job, but is being wheeled out for the election as he is reasonably fresh after a stint on the back bench. No judgement here from me as I couldn't do that job as the demands of it would do my head in.

The things that I like now are of the everyday sort of variety. Today, I scored several large chunks of a rhubarb crown that had been part of a local ladies grandfathers plant. I was truly touched by this gift and it has now been planted out in good soil and will be well tended. How good is stewed rhubarb? Yum.

Also, another batch of stewed quinces are happily bubbling away in the wood oven right now. Biscuits were cooked earlier and then Pizza later. Hmm, wood oven!

In another 6 days, I'll be 3 weeks out from the winter solstice and - please don't take this as gloating - I haven't had to use the generator this year to top up the batteries. All being well, it truly has been a 100% solar powered year. It has taken four years of tinkering, hard graft, alterations and mucking around to get to this stage too. All it says to me is that there is no time like the present to get cracking. What did they say "carpe diem!"? Anyway, all this stuff just takes such a long time that there really is no time like the present. How Cuba got through its special period is beyond me.



Cherokee Organics said...


PS: A mate of mine let me know recently - on my birthday of all days - that Jack Vance had recently passed away.

Vale, Jack Vance.

You, like he, are highly influential writers regarding the human condition. It is complex.



Joseph Nemeth said...


One reason economics is "the dismal science" is that it has some outright bogus axioms.

Imagine what a mess physics would be if we axiomatically insisted that energy can be created out of nothing. We'd quickly get into mentally partitioning observations to hide the energy losses that compensate for energy gains elsewhere, so that we could adequately demonstrate "creation of energy." You see precisely this kind of behavior in some of the "alternate energy" fields, e.g. "zero-point" energy or the many classes of perpetual motion machines.

Economics posits that wealth can be created, which is patent nonsense. Wealth can only be moved around, just like energy. But since it is axiomatic for most economists that wealth can be created, they get into mentally partitioning observations to hide the wealth losses that compensate for wealth gains elsewhere.

That seems to be how we've justified this whole non-sustainable, global scale extractive resource mess we're in. Cutting a forest for paper, or topping a mountain for coal "creates wealth." All of the compensating wealth losses are partitioned off into economic "externalities" that are waved away with the trash.

It's also at least part of the reason economists never see the bubbles coming. You'd think that if you or I or Roger can see it coming, all those Nobel-prize-winning economists would see it, too -- they'd just see it a lot more clearly that we laypeople do. Yes, the crash dynamics are complex, and I don't expect them to predict the crash to the dollar and the minute. But its seems that every crash -- every single crash -- is a total, jaw-dropping, head-scratching surprise for economists.


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and all:

So I came in from weeding and spreading mulch to relax over lunch with this most interesting post. I am pleased to be reading this discussion about the “age of memory” rapprochement of rationalism and religion. For one thing, like Twilight, I see it happening around me--not in interfaith discussions, as Twilight mentions, but because I hang out with some biologists and ecologists who live in this mental space where science, ethics and theology converge.

In addition it mirrors how I tend to think about these things, but also provides a wonderful intellectual edifice and rationale, which I appreciate. I’m not sure I’m up to reading Spengler, but I like the explanation of his thought and the way that is combined with evolutionary biology to back up the thesis.

Recently I read a very interesting book, “The Moral Nature of the Universe,” by a cosmologist and a theologian that comes at this same topic from a very different perspective. It is very much a discussion of ethical philosophy of the sort posited by JMG some posts ago, but also makes an argument that bridges the claims of hard science and doctrinaire religion to posit that one is not complete without the other.

Too bad about The Oil Drum. I have always found it very useful and educational, articles, comments and news roundups included. Where will one learn about these things now? Resilience could pick up some of the slack. I have hopes for the site, myself, as it matures in its new format.

OK, now back outside to collect and plant some native seeds that require warm and cold stratification before they’ll come up next spring. :)

John said...

Your closing comments regarding how the Greeks could accomodate both
myth and science suggest the idea of bi-cognitivism which anthropologist Jeremy Narby discusses in this excellent lecture on 'Intelligence In Nature'......

SLClaire said...

I remember asking you about the Second Religiosity when you first mentioned it some weeks ago. Thank you for explaining it in more detail. I think I've been engaged in a personal Second Religiosity for many years. My chemical training didn't succeed in wiping out my interest in the non-rational aspects of life. Your comment regarding the Ethical Culture movement reminded me that almost 30 years ago, when I first moved to St. Louis, I occasionally attended the services of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, the Ethical Culture movement's local organization. The society has a beautiful sanctuary and offered various classes and seminars as well as the weekly services. I was the guest speaker one Sunday in 2001, speaking on My Journey to Simplicity. Though I did not formally take up Ethical Culture, I am glad that the Ethical Society of St. Louis offered a place for me to explore what it means to live ethically without needing to postulate the Christian God I had grown up with but had lost faith in. Ethical Culture was a good bridge to Zen practice and to Druidry, the two practices of the Second Religiosity that I am engaged in now.

Quos Ego said...


a quick question, even though it's only remotely related to this week's post.

I've noticed that many proponents of the fast crash scenarios are obsessed with two things: one, a brutal and horrible end to everything, and two... Edward Snowden's revelations.

As I'm not an American, and as most fast crashers/NTE gurus are white Americans (which matters tremendously, IMHO), I might be missing something.
Still, I don't get it. What's so big about such a meaningless story? Yes, governments spy on their citizens. And no, it's nothing new, and no, it's not a big deal.
So why that queer intermingling between apocalypse and childish "I want my Internet to be spyware-free"-like rants ?

Observing such behavior, I must say I'm really saddened by the state of the environmentalist movement today.

marxmarv said...

Quos Ego, if you ignore the spying itself, Snowden revealed plenty more: Policy enforcement left to people instead of technology. Mission creep. Plenty of examples of the Administration believing itself above the law. In short, a hot mess of control fraud and poor-quality governance, and perhaps even the slow death of rule of law.

That, I offer, is important.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Richard,

Sorry to hear about the hail at your place. Not good and there is very little you can do about it except have greater fruit tree canopy. The fruit trees and vegetables may bounce back from this, but the blossoms on the fruit trees generally don't.

Hail tends to impact lower altitudes during the spring and summer conditions. I worry about it here because of the glass on the solar panels.

Glad to hear that you are reading Bill Mollison's book as he is a pretty switched on dude and the book is full of common sense strategies. His farm (as is David Holmgren's) is in a similar climate to my own, so if you can grow stuff there...

Hopefully, the annual plants will regrow from the established root systems? It should be interesting to see what bounces back?



Kevin May said...

Thank you JMG for another excellent post.

On Thursday, while driving overnight from Ann Arbor to New York with two of my good friends, I read this weeks post aloud as entertainment/education and as a stimulus for conversation. The irony wasn't lost on me that we were using the Archdruid Report as an aid to keep us awake so that we could burn our way across the states.

Incidentally reading to another person is a lovely thing to do yet something I hadn't done in quite a while. I had forgotten its charms. The Archdruid Report stretched my reading-aloud skills to their limit - inflection, diction, pronunciation of words I was not familiar with, delivery... it was both a challenge and a lot of fun. I highly recommend it to your other readers should they find themselves with a willing audience.

On another note... in the comment section @Willian Yeates brought up the question of keeping musical instrument string manufacturing alive during the long descent. I did a little googling... in the past strings have been made with horse hair, silk, plant fibers, wire made from different types of metal and of course gut (mostly sheep and cow).

Here's a very interesting article about how to make gut strings by a man who is alive and well and currently making gut strings using historical techniques:

But here's the predicament; it seems to me from this article that making gut strings is a really big undertaking. It's not a case of making your own beer in your basement. It's not something you can do in your spare time. It's a full time job. Specialization like this is only possible when there's a certain degree of order or stability within a community.

So the question is how do we ensure the survival of skills such as gut string manufacturing if there isn't enough stability within a society to practice such a trade?

Perhaps the best we can do is to write such knowledge down and hope that someday circumstances will allow for these skills to be rediscovered and practiced again.

Alas it seems to me that a certain amount of reinventing the wheel will be unavoidable. And some stuff's gonna get lost for ever.

Kinda bummed by that realisation.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Thomas,

Star Trek Voyager also had those sorts of story lines. I really enjoyed Voyager, but then it wasn't a series for the purists was it?

Star Trek Voyager - Year of Hell

Have you seen the recent Star Trek film (reboot)? It rocked! Really enjoyed it.

Both the Next Generation and Voyager have fond memories for me because they both were shown on TV at about 11pm on a Tuesday night. As it was a recession here at the time, my neighbours did not have a television so they used to drop around and watch it too. Lots of fun and good memories. Back in those days down under used to be about a year behind the US in episodes too and there was no way you could get up to date, even if you wanted to. The television network dropped Voyager before the final series was aired too, which was a real nuisance...

By the way has anyone noticed that Hollywood has released a reboot version of Superman? What's going on? The recent Star Trek film borrowed heavily from the story line from Star Trek 2...



Chris G said...

As I first began to think about Peak Oil, and peak everything, it seemed as though there must be a way out of the limit. For instance, perhaps energy from a solar thermal factory could power the construction of solar panels. In that case, the process could go on forever, as long as you get more energy than it takes to make another unit of renewable intake... Does that make sense? If it's renewable, and it can grow exponentially, resource limits are just time limits. I don't think it's possible physically though: the initial energy and resource inputs are too large to be met over solar's life (or wind's). So the "renewables" aren't really renewable, although they can be a bridge to a de-industrial future. that was a little realization.

But the analysis that this post and many others in this series deals with are not really about resource limits; that is the particular form that our current civilization's growth bubble has centered around; but the understanding of cycles of history that you are describing doesn't have specifically to do with the energy source: the limit on civilization is really in the psychological and social organization that puts that energy to use. This particular post shows the pattern: our civilization has grown from the foundation of a limited energy source. But the problem has really turned out to be, our civilization's ability to adjust to those limits. And as you've fruitfully described, that ability is mitigated by social organizational structures that are not all that fluid and adaptable.

It turns out that the Peak Oil limit is really a limit on our culture's ability to adjust to that diminishing foundation. It makes me sad, to see people so frozen in this present moment. It will be a painful learning process, even for the next 100 or 150 years, and even less. Tiresome tredipdation, as lessons usually are.

Thomas Daulton said...

Hi Chris (Cherokee Oganics),
Yeah, I agree with most of your Trek assessments there! But I was trying to bring up a point relevant to JMG's argument, which is that biological morphism is broadly understood by sci-fi fans, whereas cultural morphism is not. The TOS episodes involving cultural morphism (e.g. The Roman episode JMG cites, or "The Omega Glory") were fairly cheesy, and as an aspiring fiction writer, I wonder about such topics: if the cultural morphism episodes in Star Trek, and other sci-fi, had been more thoughtfully done, maybe the American population today would have a better grasp of the concept!
@ Marx Marvelous (love the pseudonym), total agreement. I started a one-issue blog discussing what I think are important implications of the Snowden stuff at Who Should Be Wiretapped?. Please check it out and pass it around!

LunarApprentice said...


You replied to James regarding his mention of your book- A world full of Gods...: "that's one of my two best books, and thus inevitably one of my two least popular. "

Ok, I'll bite, what's the other one?

(BTW, I love A world full of Gods and recommend it highly)

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee Organics

Hi Chris,

Congrats on your solar achievement! And your permaculture efforts, generally.

Dissensus rules: My town is in the process of completing a comprehensive plan for the next ten years with a heavy emphasis on re-localization, solar and wind (lots of that here in Illinois), urban food gardening, green infrastructure and so on.

Not part of the transition movement, just citizens and our municipal government trying do do on a small urban scale what you are doing on your homestead.

We've legalized chickens and beekeeping in the last two years. Are goats next?

No time like the present, indeed!

Jeffrey said...

I read all of Stephen J Gould's books on evolution and paleontology years ago and it was a pleasure to read this essay and how JMG weaved the narrative about ancient precambrian phylum and how this has its analogies to the same building blocks that limit and define our own species arch going forward.

I was reading through all the comments and the last two on the thread was Cherokee Organics reminiscing nostalgically on Star Trek and Chris G coming to terms about the limits of technological solutions and accepting the painful learning process ahead.

The essay and the comments flow together in a stream that oddly represents a real time process of exactly what this series of posts and essays describe.

John Michael Greer said...

Grebulocities, I'll consider a post on the subject.

Unknown Deborah, I've long wondered if the "idolatry" and "backsliding" that the Jewish prophets denounced so heatedly in the pre-Babylonian Captivity period is a reflection of a third, even earlier pass through rationalism.

KL, funny. Nah, doggy style would be pretty much the norm, as otherwise you'd have bellybones grinding against each other -- ouch.

Cherokee, excellent! Congrats on hitting that sustainability milestone. By the way, who's Blind Freddy, and should I have the Australian reporter who's become a character in the novel version of "How It Could Happen" use that phrase? As for Jack Vance, blessings on the man -- one of the very few first-rate prose stylists among SF writers.

Joseph, bah indeed. We could have a long conversation about the giddy irrationalities of conventional economics someday.

Adrian, certainly a good use of your time! Thanks for the book tip -- I'd be interested to see someone make a good argument along those lines.

John, thanks for the link.

SLClaire, are they still up and running? If so, that's good to hear; I always thought that the Ethical Culture idea was a tolerably good one.

Quos Ego, heck of a good question, but it's pretty standard for apocalyptic beliefs to go hand in hand with some degree of paranoia.

Kevin, now I'm scratching my head wondering what an Archdruid Report post read aloud by somebody other than me would sound like! As for gut strings, though, keep in mind that iron age tribes all over northwestern Europe seem to have had no trouble keeping themselves supplied with harpers, so there may be either (a) enough of a demand to justify the occasional craftsperson, or (b) some less demanding way of making the things. Still, your broader point stands; a lot of things are going to get lost, and some of them will have to be slowly and painfully recovered later on.

Chris, good. Very good. You're getting it -- and the fact that some people are getting it is one of the things that keeps me hopeful.

Lunar, that'd be "Inside a Magical Lodge." Thanks for asking!

Jeffrey, any good philosophical discourse or discussion should model the kind of thinking it's intending to teach. That is to say, thank you for the implied compliment!

Robert Mathiesen said...

As a retired academic, I'd like to echo the recommendations for JMG's _A World Full of Gods_. It is a solid work of scholarship that meets academic standards, but is also engaging for a general reader.

One small caveat: a fair number of the works cited in the footnotes by author and date only (for example, Simmons 1986) do not appear in the bibliography. It takes some labor to track each of them down as the academic reader tries to work back through all the author's footnotes to his sources. If there ever is a second printing, this glitch might well be worth fixing.

For whatever it may be worth, my choice for the other book that JMG calls his best would be his _Inside a Magical Lodge_. It is a true masterpiece, but (so far as I can tell) very little read and cited.

Thomas Daulton said...

Re: Archdruid Report post read by somebody other than JMG... I can't stop myself from mentioning that for about 3 years, I just assumed JMG had a deep, slow, Stentorian voice, based on the content of his articles. The necessary patience for a historical perspective, of course, implies a slow deep voice. For about 3 years I mentally read the Archdruid Report articles with the voice of Treebeard from the Lord of the Rings movies (performance by John Rhys-Davies making an extra effort to be slow and powerful). I mean, Druid, voice of a tree, y'know, how could I not??

No offense meant to JMG whatsoever, but... then I heard him on a podcast for the first time. His voice simply isn't like that. Nothing wrong with JMG's voice, mind you, he actually sounds like the real-life voice of my favorite uncle. But JMG does not sound like I expected a talking tree would sound! :)

Stephen Heyer said...

Chris G: “As I first began to think about Peak Oil, and peak everything, it seemed as though there must be a way out of the limit. … I don't think it's possible physically though: the initial energy and resource inputs are too large to be met over solar's life (or wind's).”

From what I read now that is supposedly no longer true with the latest solar cells and manufacturing techniques. Mind you, there is nothing like the huge energy surplus there used to be from, say, a nice new oilfield with sweet, shallow oil.

Also, if you were trying to do everything using solar you would not, say, try to manufacture solar cells for Germany in Germany. You would instead set up the manufacturing plant somewhere with lots of sun and little cloud, say, North Africa or Australia.

As a final comment, there would be occasions where solar cells would be very worthwhile even if they never returned an energy surplus. In short, in some circumstances they could be used as incredibly powerful batteries in effect transferring energy from places with lots of sun or wind where they were manufactured to places where there is not so much.

Chris G: “But the analysis that this post and many others in this series deals with are not really about resource limits; that is the particular form that our current civilization's growth bubble has centered around; but the understanding of cycles of history that you are describing doesn't have specifically to do with the energy source: the limit on civilization is really in the psychological and social organization that puts that energy to use.”

Exactly! This is something that puzzled me for years as I found that in civilization after civilization at crucial points in their long, stepwise collapse (A Greerian collapse?) glaringly obvious opportunities to salvage things arose, but were never, never effectively acted on.

It was almost as if the collapse was deliberate and actively worked for by all levels in society. For example, there were lots of areas in Europe (i.e. England) that should have been able to survive the collapse of Rome and organize themselves into prosperous, powerful nations – they didn’t.

It was only when I realized that collapse is always primarily a social phenomenon that it all made sense. Mind you, that then scared me silly as I had been expecting lots of nations on the periphery (Australia) to come through the coming collapse of the West (USA & Western Europe) with ease.

Now, not so much, though, if China comes through ok and continues to extend its influence in the Southern Hemisphere the nations there (South America, Australia, New Zealand) may have the easy option of just switching to the up and coming civilization.

Stephen Heyer

Francis Goodwin said...

John, Do you really view the process of natural selection as not being logical?

I'm no expert on logic, but natural selection seems completely practical and understandable in the context of a living, evolving universe, not some mysterious thing that just happens.

Natural selection determines what happens vs. what could happen but doesn't. This process explains the purpose of our existence.

Yet, if you think otherwise, I'll be glad to examine my assumptions. --Francis Goodwin

Bob Smith said...

As always, well said JMG. My apologies for not commenting more often. However, I look forward to your columns each week tremendously. This "series" provides a thought provoking look at how all of us are prisoners of our culture as well as an honest look at the roles of faith and science in it.

As an engineer who functions as a go between between the PhDs and field technicians (speak both languages), I never understood the faith in progress or the mythical "its different this time!". Neither makes sense in the real world. However, you're explaining the origins of these thoughts quite well. I wish I had your knowledge of history, it would have been my chosen profession if not for the fact that I like fixing things and seem to be reasonably good at it.
Your blog here was mentioned at one another of my favorites(woodpile report) a few months back. Its a credit to your writing and and analytical skills that you can bring all of us under one tent for true civil discourse, unlike the sound bite drivel that passes for debate these days.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write these posts.

streamfortyseven said...

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Samuel Delany's "A Canticle for Leibowitz" on the subject of technological and scientific preservation - of course it may have been mentioned before...

As to the connection between consciousness and matter, I suggest this:

Note that Pitkanen is outside of scientific orthodoxy and is regarded as a "quack", the scientistic equivalent of a heretic. His other writings on consciousness are here: and he maintains a regular weblog:

Karim said...

Greetings all!

This week's post was really thought provoking. However I have one disagreement concerning what Chris G said: "the initial energy and resource inputs are too large to be met over solar's life (or wind's). So the renewables aren't really renewable, although they can be a bridge to a de-industrial future."

The above statement is a generalisation that is not correct. One way to sort out this question is the use of the energy profit ratio, also known as the Energy return on energy invested (EREOI).

Much studies have been carried out over the years for numerous sources of energy. See the oildrum for references.

As expected the highest ratios are to be found for fossil fuel energy, 80 for coal, 50 or so for natural gas and 30 for oil, although for deep sea oil the ratio drops to 10. For renewable energy the ratios vary, wind 50, solar PV 10, solar thermal 20, hydro-elecric 70. I am quoting from memory so be lenient.

So in effect the ratios for fossil fuel are very high (but dropping) whilst the ratios for renewable are high for some low for others. Now because these ratios are difficult to compute accurately and whose values may change with time, one must be careful in using them. Nevertheless they are useful as rules of thumb and what they are saying to us is that whilst the ratios of renewable energies are NOT as high as those of fossil fuels they most probably are high enough to sustain a cultured, sophisticated and human civilisation over time. This is what counts. Now let us all get going and set up this civilisation.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thank you, it has been a lot of hard graft to get to this point. My gut feel is that no one really knows how this stuff operates in a particular site until it is placed there. It is pretty scary for anyone who is basing their hopes and dreams on the various bits and pieces. Dreams of the current industrial society powered by renewables is completely laughable to me. On the other hand, it is however really lovely to look at the solar power statistics between this year and compare them to previous years (small really is beautiful). I will write an article on it and publish the graphs as they tell a fascinating tale of adaption to a particular location. Every day here, I keep learning new things about the land. Those learning’s, can be occasionally quite challenging and some may find it to be slightly confronting as I've recently discovered (which is the cause of the delay with the article).

Glad to hear that you appreciated the local vernacular. A local here would say to get a point strongly across about the bleeding obvious: "Look. Even Blind Freddy could see that...". It usually isn't written and most often spoken, but the dialogue format here at this blog encourages a more conversational style which is why it was written in the first place.

Incidentally, I find people starting conversations with "Look" to be quite a confrontational way of communicating, but it happens often enough in spoken word down under, so it is the real deal. It's all yours by the way, that reporter in your story will sound Aussie As!

Blind Freddy

Quite amusing. Freddy was either a rogue (Cugel-esk) or a complete incompetent. Either way it isn’t complimentary! Hehe!

Thanks. You are always extending my language skills as I wasn’t exactly sure at first what you meant by the word “prose” in that context as I do not use that word. Just wanted to say that it was nicely phrased and very thoughtful. When I’m an old man, hopefully I’ll still be able to take the Jack Vance collection out for a spin every year and travel to far distant realms filled with colourful characters and interesting stories.

Hi Thomas,

Point taken and it is food for thought.

Hi Adrian,

Hope your forest is growing well in the summer? Glad to hear that your local community is getting together and realistically discussing/contemplating the future as there is so much we can all do. Most of it is pretty easy and fun too. Ha! Liked the bit about the wind, very amusing! I’m offloading the turbine soon.



thrig said...

While specific music forms will doubtless suffer (how much effort and Carbon to create and consume a Mahler symphony?) and specific instruments may be difficult to maintain, a shortage of music is doubtful: Japanese court musicians readily adapted to Western instruments during the fairly abrupt changes of the Meiji Reformation, and all manner of musical instruments are readily salvageable from the middens of this civilization, or otherwise simple to construct.

James Fauxnom said...


I view natural selection as impartial. Chance events that favour one organism (organization, society) over another are often small and arbitrary. But they set off chains in motion. We attribute a logic to it because we can look back and see causation. There is a logic to the mechanism but the effects of its application are often anything but.

Adrian Skilling said...


If JMG does mind me answering, his point evolution not being logical is that it depends on chance mutations and combinations of genomes and what happens to survive.

Backbones happened to be what we've got rather than bellybones is because neither is inherently better than the other and by chance backbones won.

You might also think that logical might also mean we should eventually end up a globally optimum lifeform. This is untree also.There is no guarantee of a global optimum since so to reach it you also have to traverse all the steps in between. Successfully changing the body plan from backbones back to bellybones is likely a highly improbable step. This is what constrains evolution.

Of course I agree that evolution is fantastically beautiful and powerful!

Joseph Nemeth said...

@streamfortyseven: Walter M. Miller, not Samuel Delaney. :-)

donalfagan said...

"The human brain did not evolve for the purpose of understanding the universe and everything in it ..."

I find this claim at odds with your parallel argument that we may just as well have had a belly spine or six arms-and-legs. By that argument, it may just have happened that instead of some adequately-brained critter evolving into man's niche, a brainier-than-necessary model got there first. We may very well have a brain that is much more powerful than necessary for pure survival - though there is scant evidence for that at the moment.

On the other hand, if we have evolved only as much brain as we need for, "finding food, finding mates, managing relations with fellow hominids, and driving off the occasional leopard," and no more, then why wouldn't having a back spine and four arms-and-legs also be attributable to strict evolution?

Roger said...

To Joe Nemeth: Bah, you say. Boy, you're not kidding "bah".

JMG, you say we could have a long conversation about the giddy irrationalities of conventional economics. "Giddy irrationalities". Good way to put it. I would agree. This theory may not get a lot of traction in scholarly circles but I think that garden variety silly arsedness explains a lot of human behaviour and human history.

However, there may be another problem. And I hate to say this. But it's been observed that you can maybe guess at who an economist works for by what he or she says.

So, according to this view, they talk the employer's "book". Some examples: If the economist works for a real estate industry association then it's all happy talk about housing prices. If the economist is a "labour" economist on the payroll of an auto union then they talk a lot about the need for legislation and public policies that line up with labour union agendas. If the economist is on the payroll of a "right wing" think tank then, you know, the economist's talk is all about tax cuts and de-regulation. Or maybe the opposite if the economist works for a "progressive" think tank. Of course it's all justified by this economic theory or that economic theory.

I can see why this would be the case outside the cloistered world of universities and colleges. The employer pays the economist's salary and so calls the tune. And the economist sings it.

But here's an unworthy thought: what about the academic world? Are academic economists objective and dispassionate researchers? Are they unsullied by the grubby worries of the outside world?

Or do business and political and ideological interests cloud economics as a field of study? Do factional loyalties colour economists' views? What about ethnic or religious affiliation? Are allegedly objective studies seen through the lens of these various concerns? It's been said that different economists can look at the same data and come to widely varying conclusions. Why is this? Is it because of bona fide differences in opinion as to how economies work? Or are there other factors?

People are emotional and self-interested and clannish by nature and so am I. So far be it from me to point an accusing finger as to other people's character. I'm just asking the question because economists seem to have a lot of say in public policy. Like whether to regulate derivative products or not. Don't get me wrong, there are such things as legitimately competing interests and they should have their say. But maybe public officials ought to keep economists' biases in mind.

Alrenous said...

Theories of consciousness, does everyone have one?

Mine's shorter, at least.


In quadrupeds, the spine ends up on top because hanging is more stable than trying to underwire.

This fact probably allowed bipeds, because you want the eyes and spine on opposite sides, given that the spine is vulnerable and important and wants to be tucked away. If the spine were on the bottom, our necks would have had to evolve to bend backwards compared to quadrupeds, instead of generalizing the bending-down motion.

Nevertheless, your point is taken. Presumably some difference was possible or even likely; just not this one.

Fingers, for example. Five is just odd. Fish don't even have fingers. My ring finger doesn't really move independently, so I effectively have four anyway.

It would also be nice to separate the insemination canal and the birth canal, and not run the birth canal through the pelvis - that seems like a mistake, in hindsight.


Were there really only one phylum of lungfish? Isn't more likely that several tried but it turns out four legs is enough but not too much? Insects don't care much about the square-cube law, but imagine how much a six-legged elephant's legs would tangle with each other.

What can six legs do that four can't? You can have centaurs, but first you have to have hands available, and to get hands from fish you apparently have to go through quadrupeds. Err, at least, go through all-feet designs.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, yes, the problems with the bibliography were supposed to have been fixed, and weren't. :-(

Thomas, funny.

Francis, a great deal depends on what you mean by "logical." The theory of evolution by natural selection is perfectly logical, but that doesn't make the outcome of that project predictable -- it's impossible to know in advance, for example, when and where beneficial mutations will take place, and competition between different species boils down to an immense number of separate encounters between individuals, in which chance plays its usual immense role. Thus there's a lot of evolutionary change that could have gone in other directions -- consider what would have happened, for example, if an asteroid hadn't taken out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous.

Bob, thank you!

Stream, that'd be Walter Miller, not Chip Delaney. Yes, he's been mentioned, and I'm considering a post on postcollapse fiction one of these days, in which he'll be mentioned a great deal more.

Cherokee, excellent! Many thanks -- this'll be very helpful indeed.

Thrig, I'm quite sure that a range of instruments will be available in the postindustrial dark ages, as was true in every other dark age. Still, I'd encourage those who want to be able to play the guitar to get working on a source for strings!

Donal, we have a fairly good idea of the selective pressures that drove the evolution of human intelligence, since that happened quite recently. Those selective pressures were the ones I named, pretty much. That doesn't mean that those things are the only things a human brain is capable of doing -- obviously! -- but the notion that the human brain is somehow adapted for perfect objective knowledge of the cosmos is hard to justify on any basis but pure faith.

Roger, now there's a king-sized can of worms. I don't know if you've taken a look at my book The Wealth of Nature; it explores some of the biases that distort the thinking of economists, in and out of academe.

fromorctohuman said...


Here I thought I was having (somewhat) original thoughts (that science and religion are different ends of the same thing) and come to find out that thinking is simply a manifestation of current social context!

Durnit. lol.

(Not that I thought they were truly original, clearly others have explored and are exploring the same).

Ah well, they are still thoughts that appeal to me, if for no other reason than they seem to support another equally unoriginal thought: that killing/demonizing/demeaning each other over "whatever" is simply not groovy.


Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Roger: As a retired academic, I can assure you that there is precious little objectivity anyplace in academia that depends on outside funding, and it's only slightly better where outside funding isn't a concern. Mostly conflicts of interest is rationalized away. Humankind has a genuine aptitude for rationalization.

Robert Mathiesen said...

On making guitar strings: there are folktales about guitars strung with strings of silver. I'm no musician, so I have no idea whether silver strings would really work on a guitar.

But if they would work, they might be much easier to make using a drawplate than some other kinds of strings, as silver is rather soft and has a fairly low melting point.

Drawplates for making wires are relatively easy to use, especially when the metal being drawn out is relatively soft. Drawplates are not all that hard to make, either, even if all you have are handtools; once made, they last a long time.

GuRan said...


Steve Keen, probably the only economist I have any respect for, has a really interesting three-part insider's perspective on economics education in universities here, here, and here.
There is a paywall but you can see a limited number of articles for free (I'm pretty sure it's more than three).


Joseph Nemeth said...

I have no idea how strings used to be made, but modern strings are typically wound with metal.

The violin E-string, for instance, is made of plain steel, because you have to stretch it pretty tight to get it up to an E, and if you wrap it, the pitch drops and you have to stretch it even tighter.

The lower strings (A, D, and G) don't require as much tension, and all the strings I've ever used were made of nylon with very fine wire wrapped around it in a tight spiral sheathe. I'm not sure what the wire is: I think the less expensive strings are wound with aluminum, and it has the advantage that it doesn't corrode quickly. Silver is (I think) the "old-school" way of doing it, but it will corrode. Copper could probably be used, but it wouldn't last long -- it would corrode too quickly. You might be able to use gold, but it would be stupidly expensive, and being as heavy as it is (thus lowering the pitch), you'd probably have to tighten the strings until they snapped to get the pitch. Or draw the gold so finely that it wouldn't work.

You can look inside a piano to see how the winding works. In the upper register, you'll see plain steel wire. In the lower register, you'll see great, fat spiral-wound strings, and the windings get thicker the lower the pitch drops. Piano strings all have a steel core, rather than nylon or gut.

Joseph Nemeth said...

Roger: economics and astrology are both junk science, and for exactly the same reason.

What does astrology purport to do? Among other things, it tells the future. Let's grant that it actually does exactly that. So if it works, it will bring good news, and bad news. But no one wants to hear bad news. In particular, if you are the emperor, and you ask your astrologers whether you will live long and have a prosperous reign, and the actual prediction is, "No, you're going to go mad, your empire will fall apart, and you will end on a gibbet," you stand to lose more than just your fee.

So you fudge the answer. You obfuscate and ramble. You figure out some way to say, "Oh, emperor, it shall be just as you have said." Of course, you have to convince the other astrologers that you aren't just blowing smoke, so you come up with a whole new set of axioms and observations and theories and whatnot to hold up your prediction.

Two direct consequences: your science of astrology has now made a bad prediction, and it has enshrined this badness in a bad (and obscure) methodology. It isn't long before all the astrologers have adjusted their practices to those of the Imperial Astrologer, and the whole science goes down the toilet. Even though we started with the assumption that it works just as it claimed.

Personally, I think there's a lesson in this for all the sciences. Since funding has become such an issue, no science is free of graft and the need to please those who fund it. As things stand, I think they are all headed for the toilet.

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

John of Patmos was the Roman John Michael Greer? Maybe in a few hundred years' time you'll be known as John of Aoda.