Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Asking the Hard Questions

There are nights, now and then, when I sit up late with a glass of bourbon and look back over the long strange trip that’s unfolded over the last thirty years or so.  When a substantial majority of Americans straight across the political landscape convinced themselves in the early 1980s that mouthing feel-good slogans and clinging to extravagant lifestyles over the short term made more sense than facing up to the hard choices that might have given our grandchildren a livable future, that choice kickstarted a flight into fantasy that continues to this day.

Over the seven years that I’ve been writing and posting essays here on The Archdruid Report, in turn, a tolerably good sample of the resulting fantasies have been dumped on my electronic doorstep by readers who were incensed by my lack of interest in playing along. There’s a certain amusement value in reviewing that sample, but a retrospective glance that way has another advantage: the common threads that unite the fantasies in question form a pattern of central importance to the theme that this sequence of posts is trying to explore.

Back in 2006, when I made my first posts suggesting that the future waiting for us on the far side of Hubbert’s peak was a long, ragged descent punctuated by crises, there were three common ways of dismissing that prediction. The first insisted that once the price of petroleum got near $100 a barrel, the sheer cost of fueling the industrial economy would trigger the economic crisis to end all economic crises and bring civilization crashing down at once. The second insisted that once that same price threshold was met, any number of exciting new renewable energy technologies would finally become profitable, resulting in a green-energy boom and a shiny future.  The third insisted that once that price threshold was met, the law of supply and demand would flood the market with petroleum, force prices back down, and allow the march of economic growth to continue merrily on its way.

A case could be made that those were reasonable hypotheses at the time. Still, the price of oil went soaring past $100 a barrel over the next few years, and none of those predictions panned out. We did have a whopping economic crisis in 2008, but emergency actions on the part of central banks kept the global economy from unraveling; a variety of renewable energy technologies got launched onto the market, but it took massive government subsidies to make any of them profitable, and all of them together provide only a very small fraction of our total energy use; and, of course, as prices rose, a certain amount previously uneconomical oil did find its way to market, but production remains locked into a plateau and the price remains stubbornly high.

That is to say, the perfect storms weren’t, the game-changing events didn’t, and a great many prophets ended up taking a total loss on their predictive investments.  It’s the aftermath, though, that matters. By and large, the people who were making these claims didn’t stop, look around, and say, “Hmm, clearly I got something wrong.  Is there another way of thinking about the implications of peak oil that makes more sense of the data?” Instead, they found other arguments to back the same claims, or simply kept repeating them at higher volume. For a while there, you could go visit certain peak oil bloggers every January and read the same predictions of imminent economic doom that appeared there the year before, and then go to another set of peak oil bloggers and read equally recycled predictions that this would be the breakthrough year for some green energy source or other, and in neither case was there any sign that any of them had learned a thing from all the times those same predictions had failed before.

Nor were they alone—far from it.  When I think about the number of arguments that have been posted here over the last seven years, in an effort to defend the claim that the Long Descent can’t possibly happen, it’s enough to make my head spin, even without benefit of bourbon. I’ve fielded patronizing lectures from believers in UFOs, New Age channelers, and the fake-Mayan 2012 prophecy, airily insisting that once the space brothers land, the New Age dawns, or what have you, we’ll all discover that ecological limits and the laws of thermodynamics are illusions created by lower states of consciousness. Likewise, I’ve received any number of feverish pronouncements that asteroids, solar flares, methane burps from the sea floor or, really, just about anything you can imagine short of titanic space walruses with photon flippers, are going to wipe out humanity in the next few years or decades and make the whole issue moot.

It’s been a wild ride, really.  I’ve been labeled dogmatic and intolerant for pointing out to proponents of zero point energy, abiotic oil, and similar exercises in wishful thinking that insisting that a completely unproven theory will inevitably save us may not be the most sensible strategy in a time of crisis. I’ve been dismissed as closed-minded by believers in artificial intelligence, fusion power, and an assortment of other technological will-o’-the-wisps for asking why promises of imminent sucess that have been repeated word for word every few years since the 1950s still ought to be considered credible today  I’ve been accused of being a stooge for the powers of evil for questioning claims that Bush—er, make that Clinton—uh, well, let’s try Dubya—um, okay, then, Obama, is going to suspend the constitution, impose a totalitarian police state and start herding us all into camps, and let’s not even talk about the number of people who’ve gotten irate with me when I failed to be impressed by their insistence that the Rapture will happen before we run out of oil.

Not one of these claims is new, any more than the claims of imminent economic collapse, green-energy breakthroughs, or oceans of petroleum just waiting to be drilled. Most of them have been recycled over and over again, some for over a century—the New Age, for example, was originally slated to arrive in 1879, and in fact the most popular alternative spirituality magazine in 1890s Britain was titled The New Age—and the few that have only been through a few seasons’ worth of reruns follow familiar patterns and thus fail in equally familiar ways. If the point of making predictions in the first place has anything to do with anticipating the future we’re actually likely to get, these claims have flopped resoundingly, and yet they remain wildly popular.

Now of course there are good reasons why they should be popular. All the claims about the future I’ve listed are, in practical terms, incentives to inaction and evasions of responsibility.  If rising oil prices are guaranteed to bring on a rush of new green energy options, then we don’t have to change our lifestyles, because pretty soon we’ll be able to power them on sun or wind or what have you; if rising oil prices are guaranteed to bring on a rush of new petroleum sources, well, then we don’t need to change our lifestyles, either, and we can make an extra donation to the Sierra Club or something to assuage any lingering ecological guilt we might have. The same goes for any of the other new technologies that are supposedly going to provide us with, ahem, limitless energy sometime very soon—and you’ll notice that in every case, supplying us with all that energy is someone else’s job.

On the other hand, if the global economy is sure to go down in flames in the next few years, or runaway climate change is going to kill us all, or some future president is finally going to man up, impose a police state and march us off to death camps, it’s not our fault, and there’s nothing we can do that matters anyway, so we might as well just keep on living our comfortable lifestyles while they’re still here, right? It may be impolite to say this, but it needs to be said: any belief about the future that encourages people to sit on their backsides and do nothing but consume scarce resources, when there’s a huge amount that could be done to make the future a better place and a grave shortage of people doing it, is a luxury this age of the world can’t afford.

Still, I’d like to cycle back to the way that failed predictions are recycled, because it leads straight to the heart of an unrecognized dimension of the predicament of our time. Since the future can’t be known in advance, attempts to predict it have to rely on secondhand evidence.  One proven way to collect useful evidence concerning the validity of a prediction is to ask what happened in the past when somebody else made that same prediction.  Another way is to look for situations in the past that are comparable to the one the prediction discusses, in order to see what happened then. A prediction that fails either one of these tests usually needs to be put out to pasture; one that fails both—that has been made repeatedly in the past and failed every time, and that doesn’t account for the way that comparable situations have turned out—ought to be sent to the glue factory instead.

It’s in this light that the arguments used to defend repeatedly failed predictions can be understood. I’ve discussed these arguments at some length in recent posts:  the endlessly repeated claim that it’s different this time, the refusal to think about the implications of well-documented sources of negative feedback, the insistence that a prediction must be true if no one’s proved that it’s impossible, and so on. All of them are rhetorical gimmicks meant to stonewall the kind of assessment I’ve just outlined. Put another way, they’re attempts to shield repeatedly failed predictions from the normal and healthy consequences of failure.

Think about that for a bit.  From the time that our distant ancestors ventured out onto the East African savannas and started to push the boundaries of their nervous systems in ways for which millions of years of treetop living did little to prepare them, their survival and success have been a function of their ability to come up with mental models of the world that more or less correspond to reality where it counts. If there were ever australopithecines that couldn’t do the sort of basic reality testing that allows food to be distinguished from inedible objects, and predators from harmless animals, they didn’t leave any descendants. Since then, as hominids and then humans developed more and more elaborate mental models of the world, the hard-won ability to test those models against the plain facts of experience with more and more precision has been central to our achievement.

In the modern West, we’ve inherited two of the great intellectual revolutions our species has managed—the creation of logic and formal mathematics in ancient Greece, and the creation of experimental science in early modern Europe—and both of those revolutions are all about reality testing. Logic is a system for making sure that mental models make sense on their own terms, and don’t stray into fallacy or contradiction; experimental science is a system for checking some mental models, those that deal with the quantifiable behavior of matter and energy, against the facts on the ground. Neither system is foolproof, but then neither is anything else human, and if both of them survive the decline and fall of our present civilization, there’s every reason to hope that future civilizations will come up with ways to fill in some of their blind spots, and add those to the slowly accumulating body of effective technique that provides one of the very few long-term dynamics to history.

It remains true, though, that all the many methods of reality testing we’ve evolved down through the millennia, from the most basic integration of sense inputs hardwired into the human brain right on up to the subtleties of propositional logic and the experimental method, share one central flaw. None of them will work if their messages are ignored—and that’s what’s going on right now, as a vast majority of people across the modern industrial world scramble to find reasons to cling to a range of popular but failed predictions about the future, and do their level best to ignore the evidence that a rather more unpopular set of predictions about the future is coming true around them. 

Look around, dear reader, and you’ll see a civilization in decline, struggling ineffectually with the ecological overshoot, the social disintegration, the institutional paralysis, and the accelerating decay of infrastructure that are part and parcel of the normal process by which civilizations die. This is what the decline and fall of a civilization looks like in its early-to-middle stages—and it’s also what I’ve been talking about, very often in so many words, since not long after this blog got under way seven years ago.  Back then, as I’ve already mentioned, it was reasonable to propose that something else might happen, that we’d get the fast crash or the green-energy breakthrough or all the new petroleum that the law of supply and demand was supposed to provide us, but none of those things happened. (Of course, neither did the mass landing of UFOs or any of the other more colorful fantasies, but then that was never really in question.)  It’s time to recognize that the repetition of emotionally appealing but failed predictions is not a helpful response to the crisis of our time, and in fact has done a great deal to back us into the corner we’re now in. What was Ronald Reagan’s airy twaddle about “morning in America,” after all, but another emotionally appealing failed prophecy of the kind I’ve just been discussing?

Thus I’d like to suggest that from now on, any claim about the future needs to be confronted up front by the two hard questions proposed above.  What happened at other times when people made the same prediction, or one that’s closely akin to it? What happened in other situations that are comparable to the one the prediction attempts to address?  Any prediction that claims to be about a future we might actually encounter should be able to face these two questions without resorting to the kind of rhetorical evasions noted above. Any prediction that has to hide behind those evasions, in turn, needs to be recognized as being irrelevant to any future we might actually encounter. My own predictions, by the way, stand or fall by the same rule, and I encourage my readers to ask those questions of each prediction I make, and answer them through their own research.

Yes, I’m aware that those two questions pack an explosive punch that makes dynamite look weak. It’s embarrassingly common in contemporary life for theories to be embraced because of their emotional appeal, and then defended with every rhetorical trick in the book against any inconvenient contact with unsympathetic facts. As suggested in last week’s post, that’s a common feature of civilizations toward the end of their rationalist period, when abstract reason gets pushed to the point of absurdity and then well beyond it.  Fantasies about the shape of the future aren’t uncommon at such times, but I don’t know of another civilization in all of recorded history that has put as much energy as ours into creating and defending abstract theories about the shape of the future. With any luck, the civilizations that come after ours will learn from our mistakes, and direct their last and most overblown abstractions in directions that will do less harm.

In the meantime, those of us who are interested in talking about the kinds of future we might actually encounter might find it useful to give up the standard modern habit of choosing a vision of the future because it’s emotionally appealing, demanding that the world fulfill whatever dream we happen to have, and filling our minds with defensive gimmicks to keep from hearing when the world says “no.” That requires a willingness to ask the questions I mentioned above, and to accept the answers, even when they aren’t what we’d like them to be.  More generally, it requires a willingness to approach the universe of our experience from a standpoint that’s as stunningly unfashionable these days as it is necessary—a standpoint of humility.

What would it mean if, instead of trying to impose an emotionally appealing narrative on the future, and shouting down any data that conflicts with it, we were to approach the universe of our experience with enough humility to listen to the narratives the universe itself offers us?  That’s basically what I’ve been trying to suggest here all along, after all. That’s the point to my repeated references to history, because history is our species’ accumulated body of knowledge of the way human affairs unfold over time, and approaching that body of knowledge with humility and a willingness to listen to the stories it tells is a proven way to catch hints about the shape of the future as it unfolds.

That’s also the point to my equally frequent references to ecology, because history is simply one subset of the behavior of living things over time—the subset that deals with human organisms—and also because ecological factors have played a huge and all too often unrecognized role in the rise and fall of human societies. Whether humans are smarter than yeast is less important than the fact, and of course it is a fact, that humans, yeast, and all other living things are subject to the same ecological laws and thus inevitably experience similar processes over time. Attentive listening to the stories that history tells, and the even richer body of stories that nature tells, is the one reliable way we’ve got to figure out what those processes are before they clobber us over the head.

That act of humility, finally, may be the best ticket out of the confusion that the collective imagination of our time has created around itself, the proliferation of abstractions divorced from reality that makes it so hard to see the future looming up ahead of us.  By turning our attention to what actually happens in the world around us, and asking the hard but necessary questions about our preferred notions concerning that world and its future, we might just be able to extract ourselves far enough from that confusion to begin to grapple with the challenges of our time. In the process, we’ll have to confront once again the issues with which this series of posts started out—the religious dimension of peak oil and the end of the industrial age. We’ll proceed with that discussion next week.


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Tom Bannister said...

JMG you are my hero!

Facing the torrent of abuse I am likely to get should I make any serious attempt/s to address these difficult issues is exactly what stops me (any many others I am guessing) from doing so. I am glad to have an example to follow by.

Also, would you have any general recommendations about ways to discuss or attempt to discuss these difficult issues with people? cheers

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, thank you. I wish I had a surefire way to talk about the end of progress with people who haven't yet grasped it, but I don't -- and there may not be one; remember that telling most people these days that progress is over and industrial society is falling is pretty much on the same level as trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn't there any more.

Ares Olympus said...

I love the idea of hard questions, but then rather stuck, since there seem to be no answers.

I contrast to a blog I saw this week, proudly claiming there's 5 categories of beliefs on GW, and 95% are in the middle, with 2% deniers on one extreme and 2% activists on the other extreme. I realized I'm most comfortable in both contradictory extreme. The reality for me is probably we'll find enough fossil fuels to cause global havoc of some sort, and there's no "activism" except to adapt, and no "denial" except to ignore facts (and speculation) you can't change.

But once I get past the grim reality that I can't really affect the direction of human civilization, it does make me curious, what sort of "other consciousness" exists in the world besides humans, and what's it thinking about, and that pulls me back to adaptation.

So if you're looking at religion next week, my thought is that religion is about "awareness of subtle things", and finding ritual structures that remind us of what we can't see, and then just sort of paying attention.

And I guess I feel some reassurance at the "catabolic collapse" idea, that change happens fast, and then slow, so you don't have to "predict the fast", just know it will come and be preared enough to survive it, and then you have the slow time to adapt.

And lastly thinking, its easy to judge Americans for listening to Reagan 40 years ago, but I still wonder if an authoritarian Jimmy Carter, with religious cult, perhaps "warriors for energy austerity" would have defunded the computer revolution as too expensive, and we'd be going back to morse-code telegraphs, and who knows what else?

So I accept that politicians are required to look forward and tell people what they want to hear. It's fantasy to be sure, but I don't know if fear is enough to win a future. Fundamentalism falls for that, and we always know why they're wrong, or do we?

Alex SL said...

It is sad if you are really subject to such a stream of silliness, but well, it is fairly easy to congratulate oneself for one's wisdom if the competition is a bunch of cornucopian or New Age wackos. It may be that you overestimate their numbers and influence.

Our perception is always coloured by the people we are surrounded with, and obviously the same then applies to me, but I simply don't see anywhere a significant number of the people you make a habit of criticizing. Most of my colleagues, friends and relations are fairly aware what we are heading for, only they cannot be blamed for remaining hopeful that things won't turn out quite as bad as it seems while they try to live their lives and make sure that they have food on the table.

Apart from that, I wonder about your characterization of rationality as "fantasies about the shape of the future". Commonly it is defined as exactly the type of thinking that you are promoting: check your beliefs for consistency and against the evidence. It is odd to see you extolling a concept while trashing the name we have for it.

Kevin said...

I have to admit to considerable depression over the decline of our civilization, obnoxious and stupid as I often find it. A few weeks ago you invoked the vision of airships sailing majestically over towering arcologies, the sort of notion that once held a powerful appeal for me. But now I find it all but impossible to believe in anything like what I would consider even a moderately desirable future, far less an inspiring one. It's hard to find a reason to push on. All paths seem to lead only to hardship and loss.

KL Cooke said...

"Look around, dear reader, and you’ll see a civilization in decline, struggling ineffectually with the ecological overshoot, the social disintegration, the institutional paralysis, and the accelerating decay of infrastructure that are part and parcel of the normal process by which civilizations die."

Here in the SF Bay Area we've spent billions putting up a new transbay bridge to replace the one built in the 30s, with massive cost overruns and delays. Now it turns out, even before the gala grand opening, that it's already falling down, because the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing, and didn't, in fact, even know what the right hand was doing. Every day there is new proposal for some sort of Rube Goldberg fix to build it up with pins and needles. The whole thing is pitiful.

Rita Narayanan said...

JMG said:

remember that telling most people these days that progress is over and industrial society is falling is pretty much on the same level as trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn't there any more.

It is a sad and somewhat weird mystery, because modern man has the kind of information that even kings did not have.The old adage, "too much of anything is good for nothing".

It also proves how lacking our education is despite all the knowledge that humankind has gathered.

Thanks and can't wait for the next post.Have been doing a bit of reading on Saudi society and oil wealth, quite a miracle indeed!

Avery said...

I see this post as actually fitting in well to your cycle on religion. If I'm a Taoist, does a long decline force me to rethink my overarching narrative of yin and yang? No. If I'm a Confucian, does it lessen the importance of filial piety? No. If I'm a Hindu, does a long decline mean I have to rewrite my books? No (because the books talk about a long decline anyway).

So, why do Westerners find the idea so absolutely repulsive to whatever overarching narrative they believe in, whether it is secular progress, religious armageddon, or some UFO thing? If the idea seems dangerous to us on a deep spiritual or religious level, it shouldn't be.

kristofv said...

Dear JMG,

recently I was rereading your post about reforming the tax code which I found really interesting. Something that would tackle some issues but wouldn't be a magic trick to solve all.

So I was wondering if you heard about Modern Money Theory which claims that with fiat money systems we are having nowadays (the government has a monopoly in issuing the currency) government deficits don't matter (a.k.a. are not inflationary) as long as we are not near full employment. An important if. The interesting idea that they attach to it is that we could easily have a Job Guarantee program, usually proposed in a form where the government works as an Employer of Last Resort and offers a meaningful job to anyone willing to work. It would solve the unemployment issue in a direct way instead of indirect (with the central bank targeting some interest rate and inflation). It would be countercyclical as in good economic times people would move in to higher paid jobs in the private sector (the salary of the jobs in the JG program should remain the same), while offering jobs when economic times are rough as they are now.

Now this theory is not based on some wishful future, they just describe how our present monetary system works. Fiat money is accepted (nowadays) as the government requires taxes paid in its currency. The government however, as it issues it doesn't need to collect taxes first, to be able to spend it.

Yes, they do work in the framework of stimulating economic growth, but as I see it, it doesn't have to be. They accept real limits, but claim that our present monetary limits are completely self-imposed, not to say used as a means to get to a certain policy: dismantling the welfare state.
. If less energy and resources are available, and economic progress is no longer there, then all the money in the world won't save us. I see it as a better version of well-fare, at best dampening the long descent. At worst giving more chances to prepare for it (although you always claim this chance was lost in the 70's.

Bruin Silverbear said...

JMG, very informative as always. I struggle having such discussions with my friends to the point that I have all but given up. Most of them believe that the economy will fail before the oil runs out and listen intently to any news that insinuates that we have a glut of oil so they can cheerfully dismiss any claims to the contrary. I no longer bother to argue, I instead go and weed my vegetable garden.

Leo said...

Be interesting if people would actually take those lessons into account.

I expect quite a few people to ignore inconvenient details while cherry-picking data to suite their ideology/position.

I remember reading an article in New Scientist about how the overall societies ideology used and directed evolutionary research and thought.

First the Victorians focused on the tooth and claw aspect (competition) to the exclusion of all else. Then you had the likes of Kropotkin who did the opposite and focused one the cooperative side of things, to the exclusion of all else.

The list my textbook gives for biotic relation ships is; predator/prey, parasite/host, commensalism, mutualism and competition. It never mentions if any are more important than the others.

Jo said...

I hear you that cognitive dissonance drives the self-justification of anyone who has a financial, political or ideological reason to preserve the status-quo, or who has devoted their life to a particular 'religious' position, but I look at the actions of the not-so-well-off Joe and Josephine Average in my own not-so-well-off state, and they are looking reality squarely in the face. They are trading in their cars for smaller, more efficient models. They are ditching their expensive electric heating and dusting off the old wood-fired heaters. Backyard chickens and vegetable gardens are enjoying a renaissance. This is not because of any 'belief' they have about a post-industrial economy, but because it is their economic reality.
So in our state at least, the long descent is already quietly beginning, and eventually, the middle class and the politicians may catch on, hopefully before they send our state spiralling into bankruptcy..

mkroberts said...

"there’s a huge amount that could be done to make the future a better place and a grave shortage of people doing it"

I'd probably modify that to add "that it would otherwise be" just after "a better place". The trajectory of economies and the environment (multiple factors), pretty much guarantee an increasingly impoverished environment. But we can certainly (I think) make it a liveable place if we try. It hasn't been a rosy trip over the last 200,000 years for our species, or over the last couple of million for humans and the future will likely get bleaker before it gets brighter, but that, in itself is no reason to party until you can't, so I agree with the tenor of that quote.

Ursachi Alexandru said...


Don't you know that we'll be mining the infinite resources of outer space soon?

Or that we'll start colonizing other planets in no time?

Just look at the "sustainability" section of this New Scientist article, you're just beeing too negative!

BRB, I'm off to buy myself some real estate on the Moon.

Les said...


Given your penchant for lancing extremely sensitive nerves, may I just say that I'm really glad you took up Druidry rather than Dentistry?

The idea of root canal treatment with you is not something that would let me sleep at night...



. josé . said...

My Thursday morning ritual has been set for a long time: after the SoP, a cup of hot tea and TAD. Even in weeks when I don't have the time to read the thoughtful comments and repartee, it gives me material to help inform a week's worth of reflection.

This week's cliffhanger is particularly interesting. Looking forward to the next set of posts.

John Roth said...

To get through to people, you have to pop the bubble of Eternal Progress. There are a lot of people who are online with the notion that things are getting worse, but they have no idea what to do about it.

There are also a lot of people who are heavily involved in making things better, but who have the assumption that they're dealing with a steadily expanding rather than a contracting economy.

Most of them don't take it well when I suggest that they're trying to arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

luna said...

I remember seeing this a few years ago: - a bit of a eureka moment for Rob Hopkins et al.

It occurrs to me that wild predictions about the future actually provide a useful service, in that they provide real test cases in what actually happens, for the rest of us to learn from. Maybe they should be encouraged? ;-)

RogerCO said...

Firstly thanks over the last 4 0r 5 years for some of the best writing I have enjoyed, although surprisingly often when I try and explain what has caught my attention to others they don't seem to get what I, reporting JMG, am talking about.
Thanks also for the occasional pointers - Theodre Roszak and Spengler being two outstanding examples I had not come across before.
My question now on the subject of lessons from history is whether in previous cycles there are examples where the available technologies have enabled the elite to extend their reign beyond the point at which you might expect each step down the descent path.
Are the forms of social control in the hands of our current elites (I'm thinking communications and circuses in particular, and the belief we share that we are all part of the elite) of a different order than those available to the late Roman or Soviet emperors for example?
I'm not seeing the levels of internal dissent that the situation would seem to warrant. Or did the people continue to worship the emperor long after he reached his sell by date?

divelly said...

Good Morning!
As you were mentioning suspending the constitution ,installing a police state and herding us into camps,I thought you would arrive at a different conclusion.
Hasn't the constitution been de facto if not de jure been suspended?And what do you make of the the hyper- militarization of police?
And,while the Boston bombing was of course not a false flag op,it did give TPTB an opportunity to de facto if not de jure declare martial law in a major city with not a peep in protest!This last thing is what I found most frightening.What are your thoughts?

Cam from Oz said...

Hello John, as always a brilliant post.

In my profession we use what is known as the Boyd Cycle or OODA (Observe - Orient - Decide - Act) loop to describe the process by which we aim to defeat the opponent (based on the work by USAF Colonel John Boyd). I have thought for several years this is a useful model to identify where our society is going awry.

In combat the idea is to go through this cycle faster than the other guy until you have him on the ropes, his decisions become increasingly irrelevant to the situation and finally you place yourself in a position to defeat him.

I guess in industrial civilization's case the other side is nature (I still scratch my head though and wonder why we treat the only world we live in as if it was something to be defeated...)and the rules (thermodynamics and ecology for example) by which she works.

I think as a society we are generally okay at observing things (at least in some fields), but when it comes to orientating ourselves to the situation we bring in our various ideologies which influence our decisions and subsequent actions.

The net result is that our actions become more and more inappropriate to the situation that we find ourselves in. The logical consequence being, as you argue, that much of what could be salvaged won't be.

This plays out in domestic domestic politics here in Australia, and I presume it is the same most everywhere else. An example being in Brisbane where I live where expensive road tunnels are still being built, financed of course by debt (and lots of it) even though all of the tunnels to date have underperformed quite dramatically whilst cancelling the building of bikeways.

RogerCO said...

Firstly thanks over the last 4 or 5 years for some of the best thought provoking writing I have enjoyed - although surprisingly often when I try to explain to others what has caught my attention they don't seem to get what I, reporting JMG, am on about.
Also thanks for occasional pointers to other new things - Roszak and Spengler being two outstanding examples.

My question now on the subject of lessons from history is whether it is normal for the elite to have sufficient technology of social control available to postpone each step down the path of decent beyond the point at which you might expect it to occur.
Is the way in which our social cohesion in small groups has been fragmented by the cult of the individual and the commodification of the social space - which seem to have the effect of concentrating social power in the elite, a normal stage of the end-game?
Were the Roman emperors able to prolong their reign with equivalent technologies to our mass mediated communication, and the delusion shared by a majority of the population that they are part of the elite and therefore that what is good for the elite must be good for themselves?

I'm simply not seeing the level of internal dissent in our civilisation that the situation seems to warrant. Why are people not "getting it"?


Andy Brown said...

A moving and eloquent essay, JMG. The thing that has always most troubled me about the predicament you outline is the lack of psychological "payoff" for achieving some clarity about our delusions. As you say, people rarely thank you for showing them that there is no brighter future. I suppose there's something to be said for the feeling of satisfaction one can achieve through shaking off one's comforting, but misleading illusions - but it has to compete with feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, helplessness and the irresistible temptation to take refuge once again for respite.

To give an example: to be in nature has long been for me healing, humbling, inspiring and spiritually rejuvenating. But nature is also deeply wounded, and when I see that woundedness, (whether I acknowledge my contribution to that or not) I feel my spirituality also wounded - and I am cut off from a joy that is crucial to my humanness. I know there is a resolution to this - to find a spiritual synthesis where this grief and joy can coexist and commingle (instead of my current dishonest toggling back and forth between the two). But that is a very hard answer to your very hard questions. I read your blog and its commentariot because green wizardry is one of the few places I think I'll find aid in my struggle to find joy and satisfaction in the honest contemplation and experience of our loss of that brighter future.

James Gemmill said...

If you hadn't had the bourbon while attempting to rationalize the intransigence of those still shrilly denying the reality of the Long Descent, would the head spinning have been as much fun?

This essay had me worried right about midway through. I was frightened you were about to throw in the towel and announce that this was the last posting.

James Howard Kuntsler's curmudgeonly rants and Dmitry Orlov's tongue-in-cheek schadenfreude make for an excellent start to the week, but I've always looked forward to this blog for a hard dose of reality.

Bilaal Abdullah said...

I diligently follow The Archdruid Report as a useful source of rational thought on energy issues. I have studied and written on Peak Oil, but I believe that a more global perspective is needed as we try to grapple with the problems of expensive energy.
Having spent most of my time since 2005 in China, I can say that it would not be true to characterize developments here over that period as "struggling ineffectually with the ecological overshoot, the social disintegration, the institutional paralysis, and the accelerating decay of infrastructure" unless one resorted to defend one's position "with every rhetorical trick in the book against any inconvenient contact with unsympathetic facts".
It would benefit everyone trying to discern the best path to be followed out of the global thicket of problems we face to not only view the situation from the American/European position.
The Archdruid's insight from a more global perspective would be welcome and produce more accurate conclusions.

Ventriloquist said...

"but I don’t know of another civilization in all of recorded history that has put as much energy as ours into creating and defending abstract theories about the shape of the future."

See, it really IS different this time.

Tim said...

I've been doing my best to walk the path of personal responsibility when it comes to adapting to the decline of our civilization, and for the most part it's a truly rewarding experience. There are days, though, when it's so difficult to not fall under the spell of wishful thinking, the kind of thinking that clouds the judgment of my family and a good majority of my friends.

I lead by example, I suppose, but it can draw derision and fear from those I used to be so close with. Thankfully, I've found people with similar mindsets and that helps me in two big ways: it makes me feel sane, and it gives me hope. There are people out there who get it, and they're willing to fight to make a difference. It's not easy, but nothing in life worth doing ever is.

JMG, your blog is an inspiration to me and your ability to write in such a clear and accessible manner is an invaluable aid in facing the reality of our time. Thank you!

Jeffrey said...

Here is what comes up for me when reading this post. Can the humility required to confront the future be generated before going through the reality driven consequences of decline.

In other words, history, as you have pointed out, shows us how civilization in the past have declined and risen anew.

Isn't the very humility you are now asking up front really only possible after going through the stages of decline that history has showed us.

How to generate humility when fed a diet of hubris for the past 100 plus years since the industrial revolution habituated us to these dreams and fantasies, of progress and control of our environment.

Is asking for humility up front not putting the cart before the horse?

J Dub said...

I'm waiting for the payoff. What does history tell us about what is happening? Starting over? Can we make it there without killing ourselves?
Sadly, I'm afraid we've become to stupid to reason this simple test.
Irony - humility. Kind of like Jesus, we'll say, "Follow me." Yet, we have nothing to offer. No everlasting life, no promise of a brighter future. Seems like we'll have a small following.

Thijs Goverde said...

Good poost, although I must say I remain firmly convinced that it really is fundamentally different this time.

Just as it was fundamentally different the last time, and it will be fundamentally different the next time, so the practical implications of my contention are more or less nil, but still it's a point I feel compelled to make before returning to my chore for the day (making redcurrant jam from my garden, together with my 5yo daughter - a 'chore' so idyllic I really wouldn't know what more to ask of life).

By the way, John Michael, a little birdy told me one of your books is to be published in Dutch. Congratulations, if that's true - both to you and the Dutch public!

RPC said...

But...all those predictions DID come true!
Fast crash: ten years ago, Joe Sixpack was vacationing every summer in Cancun; now he's on food stamps and hoping the bank doesn't notice he hasn't made a mortgage payment in a year.
Supply & demand: we can have all the oil for which we're willing to pay $110 a barrel.
Green energy: hydro and wind have a better EROEI than the average fossil fuel and even solar photovoltaic beats fracked gas or oil.
Space Brothers/Rapture: okay, you got me there.
But The World As We Knew It HAS ENDED. We didn't end with it, though, and it's time to learn to live in the world we inhabit now.

Damien said...

Dear JMG,

I’ve been following your weekly essays religiously (more on that below) for the past 3 years, and I must say that your latest series started with “The Shape of Time” has been particularly mind-blowing to me.

Like many of your readers (I’d assume), the content of your texts doesn’t appears as an unexpected revelation about the state of our world but rather as an incredibly simple but potent explanation and review of our time. Your are bringing together pieces of fact-digging knowledge and intuitive consciousness that many of us have (or sensed), but that few could previously fit together into a whole narrative picture.

This being said, as an amused observer of various group of people following one delusion or another (from an omnipotent god to “solar panels will save our energy future !”), I’m finding myself growingly exposed to a strange mental dichotomy. The comforting feeling of having (finally) found a community of people who happen to share a real will to discuss the road forward rationally. Yet at the same time, the realization that few of our human peers are willing to start thinking or even listening to these arguments, which naturally tend to nurture in me a condescending feeling of “if only they knew”…

Which attitude is something I’ve seen regularly in any of the pious followers of the utopia “du jour”.

Have you run into this kind of “introspective doubts” related to how close, the small group of people actively trying to grasp and discuss our future on rational grounds, are to say “the end-of-the-civilization doomsayer” club (in their own respective isolation from what passes for “general knowledge”) ?

Thanks for your work !

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

If our current preoccupation with embracing theories about the shape of the future because of their emotional appeal and using every rhetorical trick in the book to defend them against contact with unsympathetic facts is typical of civilizations approaching the end of their rationalist period, does that mean we're about to enter the Second Religiosity / age of memory you mentioned in last week's post?

Also, might the Second Religiosty / age of memory be the New Age originally slated to arrive in 1879?

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Isn't humility something religions and spiritual paths traditionally teach? Or are supposed to cultivate within the individual. The practice of magic, in my experience, seems to knock my sense of self down a few pegs when done right. At the same time it has also empowered me to move forward with projects that will help myself and family as we continue into the ragged future.

Nestorian said...

I would like to make a point concerning predictions involving the traditional Christian doctrine of the Second Coming (which, by the way, is essentially equivalent to the traditional Jewish doctrine of the First Coming) in light of the two criteria you propose for testing the basic validity of classes of predictions.

Your first criterion is based on asking “what happened in the past when somebody else made that same prediction.” On that basis alone, the class of predictions concerning the Messiah’s return (or his initial advent, depending on whether you regard Jesus of Nazareth as the true or as a false Messiah) seems utterly risible and completely dismissable. The prediction has been advanced literally thousands of times over the course of more than two-thousand years (including predictions of this sort advanced by Jews prior to the era of Jesus of Nazareth) without having come to pass.

It is when one also applies the second criterion you propose to test the basic validity of this class of predictions that the situation becomes much more complicated. The second criterion involves looking “for situations in the past that are comparable to the one the prediction discusses, in order to see what happened then.”

The fact is that, with regard to predictions concerning the Messiah’s return (or initial advent) in glory, none that proposed this return to occur prior to 1947 is in fact comparable to any that propose his return to occur after 1947. It was in that year, of course, that the modern nation of Israel was founded. It is obvious from predictive biblical passages in Daniel Chapter 9, Zechariah Chapter 12, and elsewhere that the preexistence of a regathered Jewish state after a lengthy period of exile and diaspora is a necessary precondition for the predicted Messianic return even to be possible.

In other words, when inquiring into the prima facie validity of predictions concerning the future based on traditional Judeo-Christian apocalypticism, one is in fact dealing with two classes of predictions that are entirely distinct from the standpoint of your two validity criteria, because of the crucial factor of the absence versus presence of the state of Israel. As such, in light of your validity criteria, the failure of nearly 2000 years of predictions of Messianic return implies virtually nothing with regard to predictions of a similar (but also crucially different) sort being advanced today. Thus, the application of your second validity criterion to this case cancels out apparent risibility and easy dismissibility that seems to result when applying the first criterion alone.

Allan said...

It is possible, looking at systems theory in particular, to conclude that "this time it really is different", but not in a good way. I re-read the original Limits to Growth report recently and the predictions were spookily accurate 40 years on. I think the issue at hand may be that this is the first time that we face a global species challenge, rather than a bounded civilisation challenge. Whilst I agree that there will be direct parallels with prior events, there may be some uniques in there, just for us, so to speak. key question for me is "does a world scale change the dynamic in speed of change i.e slower or introduce runaway instabilities?" that seems the unanswerable question and one that bamboozles anyone you try and engage in the conversation.

miltonics said...

Tom, John, I wonder if there is no way to talk about the end of progress with those that are not willing to listen. Perhaps what we need to do instead is live our lives as a demonstration of what we know.

hawlkeye said...

Asking the hard questions seems a bit easier than examining the easy answers. I so appreciate this blog for routing out the hidden questions and ass-umptions that run steady below the surface of our cultural conversations.

For many, it seems that the point of these tenuous threads is to maintain comfort and avoid mitigating actions. For me, it's the opposite; the question that runs underneath all these mental explorations is what can I do about it? What are the most useful responses I can make, not only to what I know and learn, but also toward that which I can't possibly know? What are my true gifts and how do I express them in service to the Ongoing? So many of the memes seem to provide excuses for inaction; "do-nothing" has even been suggested as adaptive behavior, and that just grates against my gumption something fierce.

I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do something, but the challenge lies in determining exactly what-something. Leave the country, build a boat, practice ascension, practice my aim, collect pairs of animals?
Our minds can be so bright, and yet so sharply blinded, it would be far too simple to decide on something way too specific.

So I've begun to think of response-able actions in broader categories. To me it appears that a critical crisis-funnel will happen around the food supply. Would it be wise then, to design a brilliant permaculture food-forest in every imaginable detail? Only if I wanted to avoid doing something effective.

Instead, I tell myself that as long as I'm involved in building soil fertility and concentrating genetic diversity (seed-saving) every growing season, then that will somehow become the field of opportunity where something can open up. Don't try to create an outcome as much as a context within which good outcomes may arrive.

Other collapse-blogs have dismissed all potential agricultural impulses as useless in the face of eco-enforced nomadism. I find this position as useless as NTE, even if it were true, because there's nothing I can do in this life about it. I simply have to do something, and squat doesn't count.

I'm beginning to think adaptive behavior can't be anything but general, that there is an ecological succession to effective responses. Thinking too much about tumbling down the catabolic stairs can put me too far into the future to accurately frame my today. At some point, I need to allow Intuition to kick-in as well, all while shushing its loud cousin, Emotionality.

Thanks again, JMG!

Allan said...

It is possible, looking at systems theory in particular, to conclude that "this time it really is different", but not in a good way. I re-read the original Limits to Growth report recently and the predictions were spookily accurate 40 years on. I think the issue at hand may be that this is the first time that we face a global species challenge, rather than a bounded civilisation challenge. Whilst I agree that there will be direct parallels with prior events, there may be some uniques in there, just for us, so to speak. key question for me is "does a world scale change the dynamic in speed of change i.e slower or introduce runaway instabilities?" that seems the unanswerable question and one that bamboozles anyone you try and engage in the conversation.

ando said...


An enjoyable and important essay, as usual.

Most people don't pay much attention to Acceptance and Humility as spiritual principles, but they are the most important.

Thank you,


Hal said...

"It’s embarrassingly common in contemporary life for theories to be embraced because of their emotional appeal..."

And that emotional appeal, it seems to me, is usually that it confirms what one already believes, or reinforces a value of one's "tribe," be it religious, cultural or political.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for the post and the clear description of the choices! I'm seeing the same issue in microcosm on my little "homestead" – I can insist that my theories are correct, or I can look and see what's actually happening; the latter is the only way that works. I wonder if we are the most abstract/theoretical society because so many of our citizens have been "freed" of the need to address basic survival issues, and have forgotten that they are being supported by a vast hierarchy of functions done by someone else. Once you have to grapple with the real ecology, you "get it" that the Universe isn't created for your convenience.

I was amused(?) your comment:Whether humans are smarter than yeast is less important than the fact, and of course it is a fact, that humans, yeast, and all other living things are subject to the same ecological laws and thus inevitably experience similar processes over time.
in light of this article today in the BBC: Scientists building the world's first synthetic yeast
It may be that we are in fact dumber than yeast!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Predictions as horses--nice metaphor!

One other thing about fantasies and predictions, in my experience: much easier overall than actually trying to do something in the real world.

It's the difference between thinking about growing tomatoes, imagining how wonderful they'll be, and actually starting the seeds, planting the seedlings, putting up the stakes, hauling the compost to side dress them and so forth. One of my favorite quotes is from Rudyard Kipling: "Gardens are not made/ by crying out 'how beautiful' and sitting in the shade."

On the other hand, having some sort of idea, even vision (?) about how one would like things to be at some future point (based on, one hopes, one's experience and knowledge of reality, history, etc., and willingness to learn from those persons more experienced) can be useful. Tomatoes are a wonderful fruit. It would be nice to have some homegrown ones since they are the best. Therefore I will attempt to grow tomatoes, even though it may not work out--hornworms, viruses, weather and so on; and, tomatoes are more easily grown in some places than others, which fact must be heeded and factored in. Environmental limitations indeed! (I remain hopeful that my tomato plants, now flowering, will be pollinated, will set fruit that will eventually ripen, so I can eat them, particularly since I don't buy tomatoes at the grocery store.)

Re humility: I see humility as a process and practice, hopefully leading to a general state and approach toward "the universe and everything," not as an act. This is something of a semantic quibble, since you amply discuss your point.

Looking forward to the next post!

Paulo said...


Thanks for the great essay, again. re: "By turning our attention to what actually happens in the world around us, and asking the hard but necessary questions about our preferred notions concerning that world and its future, we might just be able to extract ourselves far enough from that confusion to begin to grapple with the challenges of our time."

I think that grappling with the challenges of our time will be done as individuals and not by collections of large numbers of people or through 'movements' to cling to. Certainly, there will be followings and many people like to join groups for answers, but much like we all face our individual and eventual death we are forced by circumstances to make many small decisions on a daily basis that forge our course forward. We need to lead ourselves and not wait for others to point out what to do. Awareness is the first step, and writers such as yourself are forcing all of us to think more about these issues and season our awareness.

Of course, this is a self-selecting audience and probably not typical. The ride will probably be bumpy and full of anger as this decline continues to unfold.

All the best...Paulo

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,
The tone of this week’s post is much more dreary and reflective than usual. I almost imagine that you were up late with your glass of bourbon, reflecting upon your own past as well as the historical past. Perhaps you realized there was quite a bit you dearly missed about the past whether it was the strength and energy of your youth, the social and environmental activism of the Vietnam War era or maybe a collection of more personal thoughts? Perhaps, as a seer such as yourself so often does, you were thinking of a miserable future that could be lightened by shortwave radio, guitar string making and a revival of rational thought and logical discussion in politics and social matters? Overall, I really enjoyed this week’s post.
“With any luck, the civilizations that come after ours will learn from our mistakes, and direct their last and most overblown abstractions in directions that will do less harm.”
“Attentive listening to the stories that history tells, and the even richer body of stories that nature tells, is the one reliable way we’ve got to figure out what those processes are before they clobber us over the head.”
Although I despise the oversimplification of being placed in a box or some “ism” of sorts, I myself would probably be labeled under neo-primitivism. You may already know where this is going, but as a student of history I myself am always perplexed by the culture of biases present in History itself. We have so much more information about the past 50 years than the past 200, and exponentially less about the past 1000, but exponentially more than the past 10,000, but certainly an order of magnitude more than the past 100,000 years. With our current biases of the “civilized”, the complex and petty nostalgias for great ages of learning and knowledge (which created the subject in the first place), why is it that we take the lessons of the past 10,000 years as being more important than the past 100,000. [I am biased myself, because my life has been drastically improved by just the idea of attempting to eat like humans did in the past 100,000 years rather than in the past 10,000. (Which I discovered through science ironically)]
However, what is astounding to me though is that you would think it is proper and necessary for humanity to retain logic, mathematics and experimental science. Sure, these things can provide material conveniences and temporary reprieves from the harsh forces of Mother Nature. Does humanity “need” them to survive, live enjoyable lives or maintain some civilized notion of decency and dignity? I think the answer is no, In fact, I think the opposite could be argued quite well, that mathematics and science led us on a path to destroy things we once held sacred, taboo or full of evil spirits. Rationalism through ecology, biochemistry and evolutionary biology in my opinion and ironically so, showed us the magical reasoning of holding our life support systems sacred was not such a silly idea after all. Poor scientific reasoning and “rational economic decisions” end up being used as a justification for cutting our own throats. (sorry long post, Part 1)

Robert Martini said...

(part 2)

I think you may have fallen for your own “it’s different this time” line of reasoning in this respect. There is no reason to think we can effectively control or effect the macro-scale decisions that humanity as a whole makes. I think it is more appropriate to look at these macro-earth scale problems as no more than an exotic type of weather. Paleolithic tribes were at complete mercy of the weather just as we are to the brewing storms of anthropogenic climate change, wars, political unrest and marginalization by scarce resources. The one common element in these two disparate but morphologically similar histories is that individual action to adapt to these storms is what really matters. You told Tom at the top of the comments that you weren’t sure that there was a way to talk to people about these problems. I think you, John Michael Greer, lead by example as is one of the best ways to communicate these problems to people. Think of the reader who is enamored by the thought of the Treebearded voiced wizard bearded leader of druids who despite his intelligence chooses the enlightened life as a simple rural folk. It was a survival expert named Cody Lundin ( a true fire sorcerer, skilled with a bow drill :D) who inspired me with his example of simpler living. Having the most powerful eyes of the animal kingdom (except for some birds and deep sea creatures), sometimes humans need to see their lives cemented before them in order to comfortable make changes. Do not doubt the power of yourself to lead by example Mr.Greer, no doubt I have been inspired by yours.

Juhana said...

Your understanding of history is quite similar to my own - reading and studying history of human species has been my geekier hobby from early on. And yeah, this is exactly how fall and decline looks like, when experienced from inside perspective. Most pedantically documented fall of civilization is death of classical antiquity. Fall of palace cultures during Bronze Age Collapse may have been even bigger convulsion, but we just don't know much about it. We are following roughly same cultural delusions and trends of disintegration that pushed Mediterranean civilization peaking in Roman Empire into the grave.

As Robin Lane Fox showed to his readers in "Pagans and Christians", religious worldview of classical world was still alive and kicking during fourth century. Christianity was just new, heavy-hitting contender for championship belt, not guaranteed winner. But during fifth and sixth centuries AD classical way to see world didn't match up with real world around anymore - that was true key to victory of Christianity, as you brilliantly showed to your readers in pamphlet about Saint Augustine.

Currently Western world adheres strictly to globalist, conformist and feminist ideology conjured up by intelligentsia among Baby Boomer generation, after they repelled dominant intellectual trends of pre-war West. Discontinuity of intellectual trends after war is actually quite hilarious in its deep self-deception; especially with Left, whose pre-war intellectuals were deeply committed to selective breeding of human race before nightmare horrors of extermination camps by black brand of Socialism.

I believe this current religious-ideological cult, born from delusions of Baby Boomer generation, has absolutely zero survival prospects in Long Descent you are describing. It denies too much from too many and rigs rules of the Game too much. This resentment against current orthodoxy manifests many ways among younger generations, but nowhere as blatantly as in so called Manosphere. Brilliant writers of that movement, mainly from Generation X, are blaspheming against sacred doctrines of current West. As I belong to that generation myself, I understand their anger and frustration, even if I do not share their zeal and rage.

My point is, current religious-political mindset of the West is going to crash and burn, because it can survive only in conditions of peace and plenty. Signs of cultural decay, atomization of society and detachment from reality at system level have been in the air for a long time now. World shall not end, but this current moral landscape will die off, because it is not fit to survive much longer.

I believed earlier that old school religiousness is only option strong enough to replace current globalist/leftoid-feminist ideology as it withers away... That future shall belong to leaders like Santorum in Western sphere of Christendom and conservative Elders of faith in the East. Muslim world is already turning into theocratic model of rule natural for their culture, and no political meddling by merchant banksters of West is going to chance that trend; Egyptian incursion by West shall fail like all other incursions lately.

Your blog has made me wonder inevitability of this outcome I had lined out in my mind; maybe there are other exit options available for European civilization ( aka Christendom) during this current fall of civilization. Maybe spiritual revival of European culture and rebirth of much-needed cultural bonds is possible without usurpation by most fundamental forms of old school faith. As I am mostly pragmatic in my opinions towards spirituality, that would be great relief personally. So, I am waiting with great interest your posts about religion and and peak oil... Religion is always, always heart of civilization, even if it's true believers would call it ideology instead... And these secular religions have already failed us, what we are experiencing from inside point-of-view is great convulsions of already dying system.

marlena13 said...

I've noticed that when people talk about a "theory" what they really mean is "hypothesis" Course with the lack of any real knowledge in the world today, it's no wonder. So their hypothesis about the future are based in no observable, verifiable facts, and reality does not sway them. Besides a huge number of them still fervently "believe" that "heaven with all its saints and angels" is indeed still there...oh well. I look forward to your posts every Thursday morning :)

Michael Petro said...

JMG, you've been an indispensable companion to my own processing of the facts on the ground.

There's no way to quantify it, and I'd love to take credit for my own tendency towards realism and, yes, humility, but none of us exist as an island and I'm glad you've been about.

jen vogh said...

please do know that there are many of us who are very grateful for your blog, books, and perspective. i may not pipe up too often, but i do want to say thank you at this point, as you sound rather frustrated.
i will also note that i have made very substantial changes to my life, i now live in the country, with gardens, a small passive solar house of my own design, wood cook stove, rainwater collection for domestic use, and so on. this is not simply preparing for what history (and the archdruid) tells us will come, but an accommodation for what those of us in the working poor already know - it is very easy to lose electric, water, very easy to have to choose between food and gas to get to work. i got tired of going hungry in a dark house, so i did something constructive about it, something in accord with where the flow of time is taking us all. once again - thank you for your perspective - even on the occasional instances when i do not see eye to eye, i am still grateful.
take heart

Greg Belvedere said...

"I wish I had a surefire way to talk about the end of progress with people who haven't yet grasped it."

So do I. I find it difficult to have this discussion with people without offending or upsetting them, because it involves a direct hit to their belief systems. I have noticed the same reaction to your blogs. I know most people will find what you say hard to swallow, but I think it is worthwhile to find a way to make the pill go down easier.

Although the transition down the long descent will be hard for people accustomed to the modern industrial lifestyle, I wish you would more regularly point out how much more of the important things in life we can have with LESS. I feel you came close to addressing this a few weeks ago when you wrote about values (excellent post by the way). I know this can be tricky because not everyone shares the same values, but I suspect that some core values might exist that most people share. Speaking to those might prove effective.

I do think we will have progress, but it will come more in the form of new methods of inquiry and understanding (logic, scientific method) as you discussed. Not zero point energy etc. I'm curious about what kind of McLuhanesque spectrum of effects might emerge out of our current technology and digital media. Just as print gave us a changes in perception along with new inventions, our digital media might do something similar. I will not hold my breath, but I find it more than possible because we have seen a similar pattern before.

Suburban Muppet said...


How does the idea of a "Seneca effect" fit with your idea of a more protracted long descent? Specifically I'm thinking of the electric grid. I'm imagining an eventual permanent black out from deferred maintenance. Although the lead up to a final grid failure would undoubtedly see falling standards of living,it seems to me the final loss of power would lead to a situation on the ground that could reasonably be described as a total collapse for those effected. Is the point only that it wont happen to everyone all at once? Or do you just see it as a larger step on our way to a new equilibrium? If that is the case it may just be a matter of semantics, one mans large step down is another's collapse.

In any event, the recent set of posts have been a breath of fresh, rational, air for the peak oil blogosphere. Keep up the good work!

SLClaire said...

Regarding last week's comment, yes, the Ethical Culture movement is still around, nationally and in St. Louis where I live:

Regarding this week's post, it reminds me of a recent discussion my husband and I had with a friend of ours, Dan, who teaches bioethics in the area. During part of the discussion Dan expounded on how he brings up medical care (he called it health care) with his students. Dan's presentations center on having his students consider what he calls policy options for providing medical care to the general population. In Dan's view it is politicians who, by considering these policy options, determine what sort of and how much insurance to provide to the general public and how to pay for it and who then develop and pass legislation accordingly. I made some comments along the line that I didn't think policy would have much of a chance to address the multitude of issues surrounding health care at a time when the resources to address this and other issues are shrinking rather than expanding. However I forgot the most obvious objection: the idea that politicians should be leading the effort in the first place, rather than respond to what people have decided and acted on themselves. You've pointed out in past posts how women, for instance, changed their views about themselves and their place before legislation responded to their new view of themselves. Going by the lessons of history, it might have been better for legislators to avoid addressing medical care while the public is still divided on the matter, rather than enact the mess of Obamacare as its policy option and then watch as everyone from Obama on down tries to wriggle out from under its collapsing edifice.

El Gaucho said...

I just wanted to thank you and tell you that these past several months of posts have been just delightful to read. I've looked forward to each post and devoured each and every one.

Kudos for absorbing the level of abuse that I can only imagine you've received from every corner of the blogosphere. You should get major props for standing up tall and proudly announcing your message. My few attempts to discuss these difficult issues with others have met with blank stares, incredulity, and outright hostility. I've resolved to simply live quietly, making preparations, learning skills, acquiring infrastructure, making connections with like minded folk, and generally quietly going about my business. I don't think that many are ready for this conversation yet. You deserve much respect for being brave enough to bring this message to the public, even if it means receiving the full brunt of backlash.

Unknown said...

Jay here. You might profit from a read of a psychology paper by Taylor and Brown, available here:

Short version: psychologically healthy humans have unrealistically positive self-assessments. This isn't too surprising, since confidence is often adaptive in a social environment, and because evolution has a lot of survivorship bias.

AlaBikeDr said...

Dear JMG: It's been a pleasure reading your lucid entries. It drapes more incisive thoughts around my diffuse concern about the advice I need to give my children. In the summer of 2009 I planned a cross country bike trip with my oldest son because of my recognition that careless elites had blown up the world financial system and the golf retirement my father had was not happening to me. I wanted to reflect on the "new" American dream. I do not write as clearly as you do but I did a blog on my trip at that tackled what I perceived as similar issues. I too would localize the "failure of the revolution" so to speak as the happier magical thinking imbued in Morning in America. It was time to get serious and we were sold a return to the good old days. Lightweight leadership ever since. More like criminal leadership today though the failure of progress IS a knotty problem as you eloquently address.

Rita Narayanan said...

JMG said:

"remember that telling most people these days that progress is over and industrial society is falling is pretty much on the same level as trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn't there any more."

Yes, but perhaps with their limited exposure they may yet beat modern man moulded with a surfeit of libraries & museums.

The very fact that many of these simple basics are eluding a lot of wisemen is shocking.

sophisticated bakers mocking plain bread even as their expensive devices are being carted away.

will they eat cake :)

CoCargoRider said...

I agree with Tom, you are a beacon of reality in an environment of denial.
Keep up the good work!
In Frith,

JP said...

Now that The Oil Drum is shutting for the duration, do you have any thoughts on good sources of contemporary information regarding cheap energy?

Yupped said...

On a parallel note, I've been re-reading Karen Armstrong's History of God recently. It's a wonderful work, dense but very interesting and accessible. She very calmly walks the reader through how different tribes and sects and societies shaped their stories of god or gods in the context of their history. This leaves a very clear impression of how a particular religious belief could take root as a reaction or adaptation to particular social, economic or political circumstances. It's helped me understand religious beliefs that have baffled me for years, because previously I was just looking at the belief and trying to understand it based on its philosophical content alone. Context is so important in the history of ideas.

You could apply the same approach to a "Brief History of Progress" (a book I could definitely see you writing and would be thrilled to read). For example, seen through the lens of resource constraints, the Reagan revolution does seem nuts, and very frustrating. But understood in the context of historical forces - right wing reaction to the Carter years, the continuing Cold War dynamic, political expediency, capitalism's need for growth, popular commitment to the city on the hill myth, etc, etc, etc, it all seems kind of inevitable that there would be such a reaction. Just as individually we are prisoners to the momentum of our minds, collectively we really are prisoners to all these historical forces.

rakesprogress said...

I think you hit the nail on the head there. America's deeply ingrained humility deficit is a grave handicap, and that's one of the core insights I've received from Wendell Berry. Right up there with you, Berry is another of my heroes.

Trying to sell humility to otherwise reasonable Americans is a tough row to hoe. In my experience—raised as I was within our culture—humility is gained slowly, in the school of hard knocks, if it is to be had at all.

JP said...

I think that I ended up thinking about the decline of civilization in part because I had an early interest in history and the longer ebbs and flows of civilization.

The second reason is that the Space Age ended right at the time I was born. I was fascinated with it and certainly thought that it was something I could *do* with my life.

However, as I entered college, I realized that there was no shiny future up in the distance, and there would be no "great age of space" on the horizon.

So, it's pretty easy to consider things when you already lived through some disillusionment early in life.

Robo said...

As ever, empires and their beneficiaries equate humility with weakness. Any political leader who proposes to turn the other cheek is banished. In due course the majority will be dismayed and humbled by the unfolding of inconvenient truths. After all, we hominids have only the thinnest layer of reason overlaid on our emotional lizard brains.

For the tiny minority of economic and ecological realists, the best advice so far has been to collapse now and avoid the rush.

steve said...

Possibly more relevant to last weeks post, but I'm just catching up: In any case, you've definitely crystallised something in my mind - that, as the subject of investigation becomes less amenable to empirical analysis in isolation, the less like physics and the more 'taxonomic' the approach must be; which is another way of saying "humbly listening to its stories", which is another way of saying "cultivating a Goethean sensitivity to the impress of Form".

All of which reminded me of something I wrote a while ago on the Systematic and Physiognomic in contemporary thinking, which you might be interested in:

realguy1010 said...

very good post JMG:
you cured me of many obsessions:conspiracy sites,climate change ,run away liberal secular religionists,rigid religionists..
although,i still can't get a grasp on how to apply logic to analyze problems,this is a good start for me.
just found two articles,which i hope you may have already studied:
1) A cascading failure is a horrific mode of collapse"
2)Management’s Great Addiction: It’s time we recognized that we just can’t measure everything.

a suggestion JMG:Could you post some sort of list of books referred by you and other commentators on main page?It will be really helpful...i hope i can get few of these books in my library

John Miller-George said...

I am a new reader coming here via reading some of the imminent doom variety of peak oil and financial collapse blogs.

I understand the reasoning behind your description of a stair step type of collapse, and the more I think about it the more I agree with you.

However I wonder if it is not a demotivator for the average person in an industrial nation to action now when the final stage collapse is more than a current human lifetime away?

After all young people in good health rarely think of old age when considering health insurance.

Thanks in advance for your reply.

Matthew White said...

For a second there Archdruid I thought you were going to join the recent spate of blogs I read that have decided to ride into the sunset, glad to see you are going to keep chugging. Excellent article, thanks.

Anyway, I expect that the difficulty with your prediction quality tests will be the definition of "same prediction" with respect to "what happened in the past when somebody else made that same prediction", and the definition of "situations in the past that are comparable" with respect to "look for situations in the past that are comparable to the one the prediction discusses, in order to see what happened then".

Additionally, regarding the first, context is important. A prediction of "God will destroy the major cities of XXXX empire with giant fireballs due to [insert your favorite reason to rain hellfire on humanity here]", to a modern observer, would most probably seems ludicrous during Roman times (even though it no doubt was predicted many times), but, not so far fetched once the era of thermonuclear devices was entered.

On the rhetorical trick of "it's different this time", what makes the rejection of this claim valid, IYO? Some times it really *is* different this time (or so advocates of decline might claim). A quick example is, we really *will* face limits to per capita energy use, when this has been increasing for hundreds of years, or we actually will face food production limits at some point, although yields have been increased massively during the 20th century. Is this just a problem of scale, scope, or applicability?

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Tom, probably the best suggestion is to not even try to bring it up outside of carefully controlled situations. In other words, in a calm, one-to-one discussion rather than in a big group of the kind that's likely to shout you down.

Likewise, if trying to discuss these issues on the internet, doing so outside of very well moderated venues is a massive waste of energy. And even within well moderated venues, it can be trying if there's a significant groupthink to have to overcome.

There are, however, alternate modes of discussion. The Dark Mountain Project, for instance, is approaching the issue from the perspective of art and story, which acts at a more unconscious level, and can be very effective. In fact, this was a fairly common approach for environmentalism in the 60s and 70s (e.g. films like Soylent Green or Silent Running). Another approach is Brechtian wit -- sarcastically playing up the contradictions in the various arguments. I'm not really aware of anyone who has mastered that for this topic as yet, though (perhaps the Onion?)

Lee said...

So last night I walked into a conversation about a second industrialization to be driven by artificial intelligence. When they solicited my response, I stated that there was not enough fossil fuel left in the ground to sustain a second industrialization. I went on to say that we also did not possess the ecological resources that would be necessary to make it happen. Of course, the usual round of eye rolling and looks of sympathy for being so “out of touch” followed.

The main reason I come here is that the majority of what you write, conforms to what I see going on around me. I am not, nor will I ever be the scholar you are. Your essay today has raised a question.

“…. any claim about the future needs to be confronted up front by the two hard questions proposed above. What happened at other times when people made the same prediction, or one that’s closely akin to it? What happened in other situations that are comparable to the one the prediction attempts to address? “

How would you confront the above claim with these two questions? The only comparison I can come up with would be the claims made in the 60’s about all the wonderful technologies we would have today. We all know how that turned out.

I wish that conversation had happened after this essay was posted!

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG: This behavior isn't really restricted to practical matters.

Talk to a few (sensible) Christian priests and ministers. Humility is not something humans do well. It doesn't seem to matter whether you are asking them (us) to "listen to God" or "listen to Nature" or "listen to common sense."

There's actually some sense in this behavior. At first glance, everything is impossible. Nothing works, and there is no hope of fixing anything. Think of any problem you've ever approached -- such as trying to communicate the "end of progress" -- and very little thought makes it clear that you will never succeed. It's simply impossible.

And yet, we get blindly bull-headed and forge ahead with our personal fantasies anyway. We write a novel, knowing perfectly well that a new writer can't get published. We lash together something that plows a field that everyone knows is too packed and rocky to plant. We set out on a voyage across a sea that everyone knows is too wide to cross.

Every last person who has ever accomplished anything at all is an arrogant fool. And, in fact, a whole lot of them went down in flames. Perhaps most of them: we'll never know, because they pass (mostly) unmarked, with a very few spectacular failures preserved as an object lesson in impossibility.

There is a very deep issue of values here: what is it to be human?

I've used this word "accomplished," which contains a value judgement. I could equivalently have used the expression "disturbed the balance of nature," which contains an opposed value judgement.

If we look at humans purely as animals in an ecological niche, the long-term stable solution is ... well, long-term and stable. It means we don't innovate much, if at all, any more than bears or butterflies do. We don't disturb the balance of nature, nor do we "accomplish." We just exist.

I don't know that it's in our nature to live that way. We'll have to evolve into a somewhat different species to do this. That's not impossible: at the personal level, each of us develops from embryo to adult, replacing virtually all of our material components over a lifetime, yet memory holds together a continuity that allows me to say that I am "me" for the better part of a century. In the same way, a "cultural memory" (history, mythology) could provide a continuity that would relate modern humans -- innovative, nature-disturbing, full of hubris -- with whatever post-modern species replaces us.

But I don't see how a modern human could thrive or even survive in that far-away future society. They'd kill us, lock us up, or be utterly destroyed by us. We're thistles and bindweed -- they're mosses and forests.

All of which seems to me to imply that we're going to be stuck with boom-and-bust empire building for the foreseeable future.

J. said...

I am an avid reader of your blog and a listener to whatever podcast of yours I can find online. Let me say that you are a voice of reason in a supposedly rational world, which behaves as irrationally as I can think.
Let me offer you some comments from a small European Country, Portugal, stuck in the middle of the "Euro crisis". There are two basic positions regarding the "solution" to the excess debt that Portugal has (public and private debt):
1. Austerity: the State needs to reduce its debt levels in order to grow again;
2. Growth: Keynesian measures to enable us to grow again.
Both sides fight ferociously, and are unable to see that they are actually defending the same thing: growth!
You will also like to hear that in 2006/2007 the biggest importers of Energy and Oil in Europe were the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), the exact countries where the financial crisis has hit the hardest.
Also, we have noticed a decline in public services due to lack of money, such as not enough money for gas for the police to drive their cars (!) and an increase in theft and crime. It is no wonder that small communities, especially in rural areas, are beggining to organize themselves, but everyone is still in shock and hoping things will just go back to the way they were, even thought it is clear it won't happen.
So, looking forward, the great problem I see is that the current attempts to centralize power in the EU will meet head on with the weakness of the local State and small communities, due to the smaller tax ammounts it is able to collect. You can see this happening right now in Portugal and Spain, where local councils are essentially broke. This is a recipe for centralization of power and authoritarianism. One thing we hear a lot right now is that elections don't provide "stability", and we need to postpone them, due to the "markets'" demands. Read Reuters news today about Portugal and you'll see that I'm not joking. This is generating great resentment towards Brussels, and nationalisms and fascist ideas are slowly returning (see France, Greece).
As for answers, I have none, but I look forward to continue reading your thoughts on the blog.
Pedro, Portugal

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

This Friday afternoon, the RCA receiving station at Point Reyes for ship-to-shore Morse code operation will be open for a few hours, sending and receiving Morse code messages, fourteen years after it was shut down. This is an annual event open to the public.

The station operated commercially from 1929 to 1999. When the station was closed, it was locked up with all its equipment in place. Two years later, a member of the Maritime Radio Historical Society discovered that the station was still in working order and receiving transmissions. So he restored it with cooperation from the Point Reyes National Seashore. I read about it in yesterday's (7/11) Marin Independent Journal.
Morse code returns for one night

Jon said...

Mr. Greer,

I ran across this article at:

It believe it is an early confirmation of your concept of catabolic collapse.

Briefly, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the copper infrastructure on Fire Island used for telephone service. It is now unreasonably expensive for Verizon to replace. So Verizon is going with a less expensive, and less capable, wireless solution. The wireless solution is less capable because it puts the power requirement on the user instead of the telephone company (among other reasons).

So your theory passes an early "sniff test".

Andy Brown said...

Here's an evolutionary parable. Salamanders live in a little kettle-pond lake. Clearly the sensible thing to do is to stay there and thrive and mate and die in the relative safety of the pond. And so they do. But a few salamanders are clearly not sensible. They wander off from the pond. It turns out it would have been much, much safer to stay in the pond and almost all of them die upon the predator-infested deserts. But a few, with little but absurd luck to distinguish them, make it to other kettle ponds and their descendants settle there and thrive and mate and die. And a few restless ones wander off almost always to die. But THEY are the reason there are salamanders - a hundred thousand years and a million years after that first kettle pond has reverted to dust.

For a human and the culture they are delivered into, I suspect that it is normal to accept the waters you are given, since they are usually safe and tested. The mad and the malcontent seem to offer little but cautionary tales. But when drought strikes and edifices collapse we have to hope that the madmen and madwomen have found a place to thrive.

Agent Provocateur said...

John Micheal Greer,

This is my first post here. Allow me to thank you for all your great work. I've been following your blog for years (almost as long as the Oil Drum may it RIP). I've found your posts consistently well balanced, well reasoned, and well grounded in reality (whatever that is). Its also fun that all these come from a man who proclaims to be a Druid.

So enough of the flattery. I hope its worked its magic. Now for the rough stuff: Do we need to hear about the religious dimension of peak oil and the end of industrial age? Your analysis of the dominant civic religion that leads to denial has not been been sufficient? As for those who don't hold to the dogma of unending material growth, won't those of us so inclined (and who also survive) just work out an appropriate world view, ethical system, and means to propagate these i.e. a religion appropriate to the circumstances?

More pressing issues are: how will the decline will unfold, what parts of the edifice will go next, how quickly, and in what order. I believe that Dimitry Orlov has done an adequate job of outlining the main stages of collapse; its the specifics and timing that matter. The more specific you are; however, the more likely you are to be wrong. Making predictions is a tricky game!

There is nothing purely academic about this. I have to give guidance to my young children. What education and occupations are most likely to help them best. Watch your step Druid! Get it wrong and you may give guidance that, if applied (always a big “if”), destroys lives. Yours is a heavy responsibility; one I know you take seriously. Bear it well.

PS (For NSA eyes only): Today's “Spam the Spies” keywords are: deep green revolution, Birkenstock, Jimmy Carter, pomp (damned dyslexia), and alternative technology.

Dave Coulter

fromorctohuman said...

Awesome stuff, but I don't think there needs to be a dichotomy between action based on emotion and action based on facts (which may not be what you intended but is how it came across to me).

It is possible to rejoice in the truth and to take pleasure in conforming your life to it (that is to base your action on the emotional appeal of something that is truly good, and not an empty promise of the good).

I would go so far as to say that truth and emotion are equally important. For, a life without joy is worthless, and, conversely, a life lived simply for pleasure (or in response to fear, desire for power, fame, etc) equally so.

Such a life requires BOTH mental and physical effort though. It is not "easy" to either know the truth nor to rejoice in it! A lot of work is required for both.

Thanks for your part in helping with the truth part!


ganv said...

Your tying together of emotional reasons for beliefs with the religious dimension of our future reminds me of a time when I was one of many religious believers who used the argument that 'without God, there would be no ultimate meaning to life' to support my belief in God's existence. Looking back the argument translates into 'I want meaning so I'll presume that God exists to create it.' But the emotional force of the quest of a young person for meaning made it impossible to see the irrationality. Our emotional attachments are amazingly powerful...much more powerful that the weak rational grasp we usually have on reality.

Helix said...


I understand the tenets of MMT. I do not agree, however, that MMT models the way our monetary system works. The vast majority of the money in our system was issued not by the Federal Government but by the Federal Reserve. That money, while created out of thin air, is not put into circulation freely but is loaned into existence. It therefore comes at a price, and so is not really a fiat currency in the sense understood by MMT.

That the recent financial crisis was not managed through a jobs program but rather by loans and guarantees to banks is telling. Assume, for example, that the initial $700 billion was distributed to the population at large -- with the stipulation that it be used to pay off all debts before being used for any other purpose -- rather than being given directly to the banks. The money would have ended up in the banking system anyway, and so the "liquidity crisis" that the banks were supposedly facing would have been alleviated in either case. The difference, of course, is equity versus debt. If the money had been distributed to the population, it would have improved their equity situation. Supplying it to the banks in hopes they would lend it out is exactly the reverse: it is a mechanism to further indebt those who take out the loans. Why would a government do this to its own people?

This tells me that it is not the government that is calling the shots. After all, there is no real reason that the government cannot act as the employer of last resort and meet its payroll with fiat currency in the MMT sense. But it doesn't. Why not?

It also tells me that in the present scheme of things, the wage-price spiral is not the only possible cause of inflation. Technically, inflation is a monetary phenomenon, but here I'm referring to "inflation" in the more general sense that a typical paycheck just doesn't go as far as it used to. This kind of "inflation" can also result from money being syphoned off (for example, by the financial sector) to unproductive uses, so that it is no longer available for personal consumption, investment, or provision of government services.

It will be interesting to see whether the control of the monetary supply by the banking system will result in this kind of "inflation". It appears to me that it already has.

Bill Pulliam said...

Empiricism?! Is that all you have to offer?

John Michael Greer said...

Ares, good. Attentiveness to what happens makes plenty of sense, in and out of a religious context.

Alex, if you'll read the other comments you'll find that a lot of my readers have the same experience I do. As for rationality, please reread my comments in this and last week's posts, as you've pretty thoroughly misstated what I said.

Kevin, I'd like to suggest that all paths lead through hardship and loss. It's what's on the other side of those things that matters.

KL, now imagine the same kind of errors creeping into solar power satellites or a vast new buildout of nuclear reactors...

Rita, it's not information that matters, it's wisdom -- and that's no more widely distributed now than it was ten thousand years ago.

Avery, exactly. That's why I say the religion of progress is the real faith of most people in the modern industrial world, whatever religion they claim to have.

Kristofv, I haven't had a chance to read up on it yet, so thanks for the reference.

Bruin, definitely the wisest course of action! It'll be interesting to see how long the cognitive dissonance can be kept up.

Leo, exactly. My take, of course, is that the whole system formed out of all those relationships is more important than any specific relationship...

Jo, I'm seeing that same process in a variety of places, and it's one of the things that gives me hope.

Mkroberts, good. That's more or less what I meant, anyway.

Ursachi, funny! While you're at it, I can offer you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge...

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Debora Bender: What a wonderful Mitzvah from you! On researching your news a little, one finds This Web site has particulars on the upcoming 2013-07-12 radiotelegraphy work, under a hyperlink in a yellow-box paragraph headed "Night of Nights 2013".

Thanks, and with very kind regards
(in radiotelegraphese,
TKS ES VY 73),

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
(near Toronto, Canada;
probably unable to hear
"Night of Nights" at this stage,
since gear not good enough yet)

John Michael Greer said...

Les, thank you. I take that as high praise.

.Jose., thank you also!

John, exactly. Thus my repeated hammering on the idea that belief in progress is a surrogate religion, not a description of what's actually happening at this point.

Luna, oh, they're useful, but I don't think there's any need to encourage them -- they spring up like mushrooms all over the internet!

RogerCO, people in late Roman times clung to the surviving institutions of the imperial system long after they were a cracked facade in front of chaos. That's very common -- in a time of crisis and disintegration, emblems of central authority can have a very powerful emotional role even when the authority itself has long since evaporated.

Divelly, as I was just saying to RogerCO, that's par for the course in an age of decline. As the effective power of government to get much of anything done goes away, ritual gestures such as declaring martial law help people convince themselves that everything isn't falling to bits, and so such gestures are always popular.

Cam, it sounds as though nature is going through the Boyd cycle a lot more quickly and accurately than we are at this point!

RogerCO, all this is standard. The middle classes, which have the education and access to media to make their dissent audible, are increasingly terrified of losing their privileged place in the world, and so their dissent is becoming increasingly abstract and ineffectual. The dissent that matters is down among the working poor, and that doesn't take the form of protest marches or activism; as Toynbee points out, it's a matter of a spreading but silent crisis of legitimacy that finally leaves the system hollowed out and ready to collapse.

Andy, I'll be addressing that as we proceed. Yes, it's a challenge.

James, thank you. No, I'm hardly going to be giving up now -- it's becoming increasingly clear that the Long Descent is what we're going to get, and so it's time to get to work dealing with that reality.

Bilaal, as I've said here many times, I've never lived outside the United States and so don't claim to be able to discuss what's going on elsewhere with any cogency. Of course things are different in China -- that's a different civilization, though one that's proven very adept at borrowing the technologies invented by ours (as we did with theirs a few hundred years back), and is following its own curve of rise and fall, not ours. I always encourage people in other parts of the world who want a less US-centric vision of things to get to work and provide one themselves -- the last thing you need, after all, is one more clueless American trying to tell you what's going on.

Ventriloquist, and no other civilization ever had to contend with Khloe Kardashian, either!

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, thank you and keep up the work!

Jeffrey, humility is a choice -- an act of the will, motivated by the intellect. It doesn't happen by itself, which also means that it's always an option. I'm suggesting that my readers consider trying it.

J Dub, not at all. I'll be talking about what we have to offer as this discussion proceeds.

Thijs, of course it's always different this time -- just not different enough to justify the claim that it's different this time in any practical sense. Your little birdy is well-informed, and thank you!

RPC, good. The world as we know it is always ending, and a new world is always beginning. That's the detail that apocalyptic predictions always miss.

Damien, of course. That's the normal psychological dynamic in small heretical groups of all kinds, from religious sects to artistic movements to proponents of some new venture in the sciences. As long as we don't let it go to our heads, we should be fine.

SMJ, we'll be talking about that next week. Stay tuned...

Justin, good. I see your scrying crystal is bringing in hints of next week's post!

Nestorian, your faith is of course your business. Still, I'd remind you of the millions of other Christians who have been led by spiritual pride in their own interpretation of scripture to ignore Jesus' positive statements that no one but the Father knows the timing of the Second Coming, and that it will be unheralded, "like a thief in the night." The acceptance of radical uncertainty to which Jesus called his followers, by teaching them to live in the awareness that judgment might come upon them at any moment, is very hard for the human ego to bear -- thus the flight to certainty that drives all attempts to fix a date, however approximate, for the Parousia. Thus I'd encourage you and all my Christian readers to reflect seriously before claiming even the most tentative knowledge of something that, according to Jesus, not even he knows.

Allan, sure, if you look for a reason to think that it's different this time, you can find one! Systems theory teaches, however, that a difference in scale does not equal a difference in kind, thus the mere fact that the civilization falling this time around happens to have some degree of vague control over most of the world doesn't mean that its fall will follow a different trajectory.

Kevin said...

@ KL Cooke -

I live in the same area, and so have also been witness to the Bridge boondoggle. I wonder if we'll have the necessary funds remaining after this fiasco to build the wall and sea lock across the Golden Gate that I suspect we'll need in order to protect from rising sea levels the bayside cities where millions (including me) dwell, to say nothing of the Central Valley that is the heart of California's agriculture? Or will any remaining funny monies be blown instead on that other environmentally destructive project, the peripheral canal?

John Michael Greer said...

Miltonics, excellent. That's been my argument all along.

Hawkleye, very good indeed; in the absence of certain knowledge, too narrowly focused a response is a recipe for disaster.

Ando, exactly.

Hal, of course. Social primates will be social primates, even when they dress up in business suits.

Cathy, I saw that, and immediately thought of Don Henley singing "Building the Perfect Yeast"...

Adrian, oh, granted -- it's important to have some sort of vision in place, and just as important not to assume that having the vision will automatically bring about its fulfillment. That latter is also a form of humility.

Paulo, that's exactly it. Since what I'm proposing doesn't have mass appeal, or access to lots of money and resources, or any of the other things that can build a movement, it's going to be necessary to start from the most basic level -- that of the individual making his or her own choices -- and let things grow organically from there.

Robert, yes, I'm familiar with the neoprimitivist argument, as I'm sure you know. The difference between that ideology and what I'm proposing is of course a difference in values, and thus not something that can be settled in objective terms. I see logic, the scientific method, and many of the things that unfold from those as good things, and you seemingly don't -- though I'd be curious to know how much of that assessment is reflected in your lifestyle. I don't think it's useful to idealize the primitive, any more than it's useful to idealize the civilized; out beyond that very narrow binary, there are whole worlds of possibility, and I'd encourage you to consider exploring some of them.

Juhana, I suspect that for Europe, it's either going to be a revival of traditional Christianity or conquest by Islam, take your pick. America's a different kettle of fish, and its weird religious history has, I think, many more twists and turns ahead of it.

Marlenal3, well, in scientific terms a well-formed hypothesis should always be capable of being tested, and most of these are designed specifically to avoid being tested!

Michael, thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

Jen, excellent! It's stories like yours that convince me I'm doing something useful -- well, that and fresh vegetables from the garden for tonight's dinner. ;-)

Greg, I'll be talking more about values as we proceed, so we'll see how it works.

Muppet, let's look at what happens in the real world -- there are quite a few countries where the grid is already coming apart, you know. What happens is that service becomes irregular; you get brownouts and blackouts, and then power comes back on for a while; after a few years, you have power for a few hours a day, maybe, as rolling blackouts become regular events, and poor neighborhoods get cut off entirely; the number of neighborhoods with no power gradually increases, until finally it's only the rich, the government and the military that have any electricity at all. Given that process, unfolding over a period of several years, most people will figure out ways to adapt, and some will start generating small amounts of electricity on their own. Thus there's no "cliff" at all, just a ragged downward movement with intervals of stabilization mixed with periods of localized crisis -- that is to say, decline, the way it happens in the real world.

SLClaire, the reason that politicians didn't wait for the people to make up their minds is that the people are making up their minds in a way that's profoundly unwelcome to the medical industry -- the number of patient visits per year to alternative health care practitioners is already larger than the number of patient visits to mainstream practitioners, and growing. Obamacare is an attempt to deal with the fact that a growing number of people don't want mainstream medicine, and an even larger number can't afford it, by forcing them to pay for it anyway. Yes, it's going to be a real mess.

El Gaucho, thank you. I don't mind being the target of spluttering tirades -- it's a source of amusement, really, to see just how furious and irrelevant they get.

Unknown Jay, I remember when those studies first started coming out -- they made a very nice match with the earlier research on cognitive dissonance. Thanks for the link!

AlaBikeDr, that must have been a wonderful trip, and far more interesting than a golfing retirement!

Rita, funny! Thank you.

dandelionlady said...

Thank you for "space walruses with photon flippers" That was truly awesome.

The struggle to live my life in a realistic way is hard. I think about what the best options might be for my children and myself. I find that logic is incredibly useful as a tool in life in attempting to make decisions that align with my values and the reality of decline. It helps me when I'm annoyed by shleping water to the chicken in the heat and the stinkyness to know that logically, learning how to raise my own chickens is a good step in relocalizing my food systems and will, in a small way, lead to food security in my own region.

Logic isn't enough though, and it's not all I've got. As a Druid, a big part of my spirituality is honoring the Earth Mother. When I'm laboriously hauling chicken tractors to new pastures or weeding the garden in the heat and the mosquitos I fall back on my connection to the earth to support me. I don't do this stuff just because it's good for me, I do it because it's good for other species as well and because it is an offering to my Goddess.

It's really important for me to have a larger vision of the usefulness of my actions, other than an attempt to make the oil decline less bumpy. I think we all need to think about meaning in our lives and how we create that meaning so that we can create a vision that aligns with reality.

I don't think that green energy or zero point energy or any other nifty thing is going to save us from having to live much more thrifty lives. I see my parents struggling with how to retire, my family was forced into bankruptcy because of the burst housing bubble. This stuff has hit home in real, painful, ways. But knowing that I live my live aligned with my values the best I can brings me peace. When I am kept up at night wondering what sort of denuded world I'm going to leave to my children I fall back on my spirituality.

I think that so often we see religion connected to a lack of logic that we've become used to the idea that religious ideals can't have logic applied to them. In my experience, religion and logic can and do go together and enrich each other in real and meaningful ways.

John Michael Greer said...

Devin, thank you.

JP, I don't -- does anyone else have a good peak oil news site or two to suggest?

Yupped, hmm! I'll consider it. I wouldn't say, though, that we're prisoners to historical forces -- there are always pressures, but they're always complex and contested, and history is full of situations in which people went and did something completely out of left field. The pressure of history is like wind -- if you know how to hoist a sail, you can get it to take you unexpected places.

Rakesprogress, well, there's no shortage of those coming down the pipe, so we may get there.

JP, with me it was the end of the appropriate tech era that did it.

Robo, couldn't have said it better myself. ;-)

Steve, thank you for the link. Yes, Goethe's a good teacher here.

Realguy, it's been a long time since I posted my deindustrial reading list, hasn't it? I'll do some thinking, and consider a future post on what a good bookshelf for the Long Descent might be.

John, the point you're missing is that collapse isn't a lifetime away. It's happening right now. For the people who are losing their jobs and their homes to economic contraction, and will never get either one of them back, the industrial world is ending. As each year gives way to the next, more people will experience that, and even those who are still employed and housed will have to get by with fewer options, a collapsing infrastructure, and all the other consequences of slow collapse. Look around you -- this is what a collapsing society looks like; imagine it getting worse, and worse, and worse, at the same relatively slow pace, year after year from now on, with local and regional crises spicing things up here and there, and you've got a fair image of your future.

Matthew, good. Of course there's always the question of finding the best equivalents. As for "it's different this time," that's also a claim that needs to face up to the two questions I've suggested. It's a phrase that gets used very, very often; how well has it worked as a means of prediction?

Lee, artificial intelligence, like fusion power, is one of those revolutions that's been twenty years in the future since before I was born. Try to point this out to believers in either one, and you'll get exactly the same reaction you got; nonetheless, they're shoveling smoke. As for comparable predictions, earlier claims about how soon artificial intelligence research would reach whatever milestone happens to be popular are a good place to start.

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, that's a very American way of looking at things! I'd point out that most human societies have been much more stable, and much less prone to booms and busts, than ours; as I discussed some years ago, American society is the equivalent of a weed species, and can expect to be outcompeted in the normal course of succession by a future society better suited to deal with more restricted resource use.

Pedro, thanks for the update! When the bureaucrats in Brussels start to insist that elections not be held because it would be inconvenient for the market, it's becoming hard to miss what the EU is actually all about.

Unknown Deborah, marvelous -- thank you for the heads up!

Jon, thanks for the link. I'm waiting to see how many poor and working class towns and neighborhoods that got leveled by Sandy never get rebuilt at all -- my guess is that there'll be quite a few.

Andy, nearly all salmon return to spawn to the streams where they were hatched. A very small minority of each species of salmon don't -- they find some other stream, which is how salmon expand their range, and how they repopulated newly ice-free river systems at the end of the last ice age. So, yes, it's a parable that works.

Agent, I write about what I want to write about, and right now, that's the religious dimension of the end of the age of oil. I've written at quite some length about the other issues you've named, and will write about them again, but to my mind, the way that progress has been turned into a surrogate religion, and the need to find new ways of thinking about history and destiny now that progress is over, is a major issue and needs discussion.

Orc, granted -- but it's important to start with reason, or at least to check your feelings against the yardstick of logic and science, rather than clinging to some emotionally compelling belief about the future even when it's repeatedly disproved.

Ganv, well put. There are reasons to have faith in the teachings of religion, but that's not one of them!

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, not at all. I'm simply proposing that deliberately ignoring empirical evidence in order to prop up an emotionally appealing but false vision of the future isn't a good idea. I'll be talking about the limits of the empirical as we proceed.

Dandelion, I wish I could claim the space walrus for my own, but it's a "Bloom County" reference. As for the relationship between religion and empirical knowledge, exactly -- there's no necessary conflict between them, once each gets assigned to its proper realm. More, much more, on this as we proceed.

Bozack said...

JMG - after reading this recent series of posts and going back and re-reading earlier posts your message has finally got through to me on an emotional level - belief in either endless progress or sudden extreme collapse are ideologically/emotionally driven fantasies that are not borne out by history. I have been wandering around fairly stunned reflecting on my previous smug certainty that each new Kunstler post was the herald of the Apocalypse, or that the Steve Keene and Nicole Voss have cracked the code and proved that we will inevitably plunge into an endless economic depression.

There will be clearly be a messy and protracted period of change (varying by location and time) which will involve the human population becoming much smaller via combinations of famine, disease, war and demographic transition (e.g. Japan)). No doubt many technologies that we take for granted will become luxuries and then eventually myths.

I expect rising sea levels and increased frequency of extreme weather to contribute to the chaos while also acknowledging that over much longer time frames negative feedback loops have been shown to counteract these effects.

This leaves me with a dilemma: this society is not going to progress indefinitely, and things will possibly get messy where I live, but it may also be possible to continue living like I do for the rest of my life - changing may be ethical but what does that really mean: is it unethical for yeast to consume sugar? Maybe the wise move is to try and learn some new skills while also doubling down on this foolish credit driven unsustainable lifestyle and gambling that I can get out with some free-hold land before the s hits the f.....

Similarly, since 99% of species eventually become extinct, looking at the big picture, why should I care particularly about extinction of the panda or Maui's dolphin other than the fact that I find them beautiful creatures: a very arbitrary judgement that denies the long tern biological reality of extinction.

I guess my point is that the inertia you describe as a response to the religions of progress and apocalypse could easily be generated by acceptance of a Spenglerian decline: of course the response will be mediated by individual and group psychology: some Christians respond to the coming Rapture by desperately trying to convert people and save their souls while others smugly gloat at the coming suffering of the unbelievers.

I am sure that adopting a religious/spiritual practice would be a way to make useful sense of the Spenglerian dilemma as well as sensible for many other reasons and I look forward to the next post. Seems that to construct a useful world view we need to think about what our obligations are as humans to ourselves, each other and to the future, decide what we value and why: basic ethical theory and the justification of a system of thought seem like they could be on the agenda.

Thanks again.

Robert Martini said...

[Neoprimitivism, scientific method and logic seen in a more negative light]
“Though I'd be curious to know how much of that assessment is reflected in your lifestyle”
I started my run in with Neo-primitivism, when after a slew of terrible health problems I adopted a paleo-diet/evolutionary biology perspective on human health. My diet is neither complex nor rewarding by modern standards and pleasure isn’t a big part of eating. It’s a bit ascetic in a way, because once you cast away modern foods, you can enjoy your simple diet high in fat and protein without comparing it too donuts, ice cream and any number of modern franken-foods. My health has been mind-bendingly better after exploring primitive cultures and lifestyles and their dietary practice. I have also incorporated into fitness, exercise and my values. I value relationships, knowledge and personal improvement more than money or other more visceral goals. I love to spend time outdoors and simplify my life fishing, hiking and kayaking as much as I can. It has turned my life from depressing, sad with soulless values on money and status into rewarding, exciting and happy life based upon more “human” values.

The inherent hippocracy of Neo-primivitism, is that it is impossible to really reinvent the hunter gather lifestyle as most ecosystems were compromised by agriculture long ago. Of course some hunter gather cultures still exist on some of the most marginal lands on earth. Hunter gatherers even went through a rise and fall phase as the migration of bands of homo erectus out of Africa began to hunt and burn away megafauna ecosystems, ending with anatomically modern humans like the Maori, killing the last Moa in New Zealand. It is a philosophy which holds a lot of merit for me.
What are some of the ways you think logic, mathematics and scientific reasoning have “improved” or bettered the world?

Richard Larson said...

I am happy to have found your weblog years ago. It takes time to change one's mindset from fantasy to what does happen, even in understanding the meaning of this current log.

It also takes time to change one's lifestyle!

Looking forward to next week.

Leo said...

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts". Yes, the overall system is quite important.

But if you ignore key relationships, then it can be quite hard to understand whats going on and why. It also makes for bad models.

In one of my drafts I make the argument that Capitalism, despite its many drastic faults, is more ecologically sound than Communism because it acknowledges and tries to harness competition. Ignoring any of those relationships is bad, because they still happen and you forfeit the chance to use them in a positive way.

Parasitism can be used as a way to limit certain activities. Logging and farming for example, to help leave enough relatively untouched land for example.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Actually, that's a quote from an obscure play, and is one of my favorite lines in all of English language literature considering that I am very much an empiricist. It is about the only instance I can recall of the word "empiricism" being used in a punch line...

rcg1950 said...

JMG “... I don’t know of another civilization in all of recorded history that has put as much energy as ours into creating and defending abstract theories about the shape of the future.”

Magical thinking and its comforting ideas (operative in all times and civilizations) will always be far more accessible and popular than the delicate and difficult task of linking ideas to reality (aka uncovering the truth about things). As we live – still, at least in terms of respectable public vocabulary - in a scientific age, contemporary incantations wishing to be taken seriously will of course take on the stylistic form of theory and the superficial terminology of science in order to penetrate into the target subjects. But this does not make them any different than the hoary 'abracadabra.' They are ideas conceived to work on our emotions, give succor to our hopes and quell our fears, not to model reality and find truth.

Bob Smith said...

Juhana, JMG,

"revival of traditional Christianity or conquest by Islam, take your pick." If I was a betting man, I'd place 90% of my money on the later. I've spent a number of years in Europe both in the service and a field engineering role, and the average European male doesn't have the spirit of his ancestors. See the riots last year in Britain. Somewhere Bismarck, Kipling and de Gaulle are sharing a stiff drink and not bothering to hide their tears from each other.

Great column this week JMG, humility is something that is very lacking in American culture these days. It can be a good thing and a bad thing, but the moment when super-sized expectations meet reality is what keeps me up at night...not going to be pretty. Working on the maintenance side makes you realize how few people actually understand the technology that they depend on daily.

Given the recent scandals though, the slow decline is preferable to the police state that our betters appear to want to organize. I'd feel better if that part of the modern world would just hurry up and collapse under its own weight.

All, UrbanSurvival had an interesting few posts on peak oil this week from Captain Midnight. Its old news but may provide a new perspective when reading this one. The part regarding the Carrington effect isn't overblown, but the same affect can happen slowly without spare parts.

Goodluck keeping up with all these comments JMG!

KL Cooke said...

"please do know that there are many of us who are very grateful for your blog, books, and perspective."

I've learned more from reading JMG than I ever did at San Francisco State. Of course, that was back in the 60s.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- Okie, dokie, I must have missed something.

I thought the whole point was that the US American rise and fall isn't any different (in any meaningful way) from the rise and fall of Rome, Babylon, Egypt, or (probably) a half-dozen African Empires that predate the melting of the glaciers. Similar rises and falls will befall the Brazillian Empire to come, and the Island Empire of Mozambique, and the Second North American Protectorate, etc., etc.

Which is to say, cyclic boom and bust is normal.

I certainly missed what makes the US collapse or its general weedy-ness "special." Yes, we have Kim Kardashian. Rome had the Great Whore of Babylon. We had George W. Bush. Rome had Caligula. [Although since we haven't yet come into our period of Caesarism, we may have some juicier comparisons to come.]

I've yet seen no firm reason, here or elsewhere, to believe that our decline will be any better (or worse) than the slow collapse of Rome, or the relatively swift demise of the Mayans, or the final catastrophic winter of the Vikings in Greenland. The US is a weed. Rome was a weed. Babylon was a weed.

What did I miss, that makes US America different?

There are certainly many societies that haven't participated significantly in the game of Empire, but does that make them more stable than the Empire-players?

In other words, dId they not participate in Empire because they could but chose not to, or because they simply couldn't?

I look at what happens to stable, prosperous societies at the first touch of Western Imperial money, and I have to wonder whether their "stability" is nothing more nor less than ecological constraint.

So I'm very puzzled by your comment.

Joseph Nemeth said...


Just doing some math.

Looking at my immediate generation -- sister, spouses, remarriages -- I get an "inner circle" of let's say 10 adults. Out of that group, we have a grand total of ten children.

In the next generation, we currently have three grandchildren. It's still a bit early, but if we get a total of five grandchildren out of the whole lot, I'll be surprised.

I'd not be surprised to see my paternal grandfather's line of genes die out completely with our children's generation: none of them is looking to have kids.

That's a 50% reduction in population in one generation. It doesn't involve burying anyone prematurely.

S P said...

Decline is a challenge. It is not easy.

As a youth I traveled a lot...all over the country, and to many places abroad...Europe, Japan, Mexico. I never thought twice about filling my car with gas and taking off on a 200 mile trip. I grew up very middle class, my father was an engineer and worked for the same company for decades and has a pension.

But things aren't the same now. It's not carefree. I think about everything and have trouble spending. When I do travel it's more local and even then seems like a chore.

I've also lost interest in many things...the same old things happen year after year. I can understand if a 15 year old boy gets excited about the Superbowl or a new pickup truck. But grown men...are you kidding me? They still consider it fun?

Yet, many people are wealthier than ever. Quite interesting, isn't it. Is this what it means to be at peak?

If that's the case, a lot, and I mean a lot, of people are going to start feeling like Neil Armstrong pretty soon. Traveling far, going where no man has gone before, and ending up at the same place as everyone else in the end.

I'm a 32 year old physician. The old men I treat, in many ways were manlier than I am. They were better with tools and machines, quicker to form a family, confident and aggressive. But in many ways they are less manly. They are less stoic and free minded. They are very dependent on complex systems. They were the factory and company men who made the industrial system possible, and they believe that system will keep them comfortable and alive forever.

And the oligarchs are finished and they know it. You can smell the desperation of middle aged men with all the money and power in the world, but the one thing they want is to be 22 years old and chasing girls.

Tony Rasmussen said...

Re: the issue of how to talk about the long descent with people, for me these are a few Do-not-dos:

--Don’t spend a lot of energy trying to make converts. You don’t have to convince people to believe everything you believe. In the same way that it’s not what you say but what you do, it’s not what others believe but how they act. That is, people don’t have to accept every aspect of JMG’s narrative to do what we want them to do: consume less, prepare themselves and their children / family / community for a lower-energy future, etc. etc. Focus on the practical, be an example / resource for others but avoid preaching at all costs.

--Do not express things in certainties, put them as questions. Remind yourself that the long descent is a theory (or it’s a hypothesis I suppose), probably as good as any we have, but talking about it as inevitable or established fact can put people off. Instead of declaring that ‘Progress is over’, how about ‘Have you considered that progress may not go on forever?’, and so on. Don’t try to convince anybody that you know the future, just encourage them to question their assumptions and work it out for themselves.

Many people are ready to listen, but many more are not, and for these it probably doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it so don’t bang your head against a wall, focus your energies elsewhere.

Juhana said...

@Bob Smith: If talking strictly about Western Europe, you are absolutely right. Lands to west from old Prussia are spent force; it is only question of how fast they convert. Anti-gay marriage riots in France two months ago were glimpse to future: Muslim enforcers and extreme right-wingers were bashing some liberal heads down there, if not side by side at least with mutual respect. If there has never been poetic justice in this world, that was it. Liberals truly got what they have been ordering all along. Multicultists of Europe had some explaining to do after that one, to keep their delusional liberal slaughter stock in state of sedation just a little longer...

But when you enter Eastern Europe, it is different story altogether. Very strict and fundamentalist orthodoxy has some POWER there; the experience is almost stunning. Their march through Moscow couple of years ago was something else. Young people carrying same signs as Black Hundreds hundred years ago, chanting reactionary slogans, totally repelling "progressive" ideals... Wow.

What is new in that front is how some orthodox authority figures in Balkans and Greece are talking about this pan-orthodox alliance, even taking Constantinople back... Looking for Russia as protector of all those sharing communion in Holy Faith. It is still fringe talk, but by persons whom have foothold in corridors of religious and political power.

At the same time, how shall Shiite minority in southeast Saudi-Arabia react to escalating civil war between Sunni and Shiite factions at banks of Mediterranean..? Are displaced tribal leaders of Western Saudi-Arabia ready to back them..? Jordan has two major tribes, and big Shiite minority; when their brothers and sisters in faith are fighting beyond border, tensions must be high.

What I mean is that whole edifice of world order imposed after fall of Soviet Union is fraying rapidly; new (or old) movements and identities are rising, and drowning secularism under their rising tide.

wiseman said...

Someday I'd like to hear about the ugly side of collapse, esp about cultural changes and how our treasured gems like multiculturalism and feminism will disappear when cheap energy disappears.

I know that there is a certain tendency among people in the PO community to look at things from a nostalgic POV. I sometimes find this approach nauseating, I think collapse must be approached the way a surgeon approaches an amputation, it's not fun but it's necessary.
It's the part that is hardest to convey to people.

mkroberts said...

This notion came to mind, for some reason, as I was reading through the comments here, then John Miller-George pretty much hit on it.

From a broad perspective, the idea of a centuries long collapse can be quite comforting to many. In my experience, people do focus on the good bits and try to block out the bad bits. Even though a stair-step decline is effective collapse for each group that falls off at each step, I'm sure most people would try to think positively, that they and their descendants will at least be on each step down or maybe even maintain the standard of living that they equate with quality of living. I think that, for most people in developed nations, and increasing numbers of people in developing nations, the idea of a simpler life lived within the limits of the planet is not particularly appealing (though it is to me). Also, the longer collapse takes the longer people can continue to believe that someone will think of something and make it all better. For as long as that belief persists, it would seem to make sense to carry on as normal, as much as one is able to.

So I wonder if the idea of a long decline is as likely to instil a sense of not having to change behaviours as the idea of near term human extinction is. The idea of a fairly rapid (decades) decline to a very different world seems more likely to instil that idea of change. Of course, only one of these projections on the future will turn out to be real (or maybe some modification of one of them) but this is more a question of which projection, or narrative, will get the most bang for the buck?

John Michael Greer said...

Bozack, good. You're grappling with the moral issues, which are crucial. One thing, though -- your chances of continuing to live the life you're living right now for decades to come are fairly small; things don't have to fall apart completely overnight to decline far and fast over the course of a lifetime, or even a decade or two.

Robert, nah, that's the wrong question. Logic and the scientific method are worth saving, to my mind, for the same reason that an ecosystem is worth saving: they're the product of intricate interactions among natural systems -- human beings and their cultures are also natural systems -- and have beauty and meaning in their own right. The fact that they can also be extremely useful for clearing away shoddy thinking, learning about the world, and providing practical benefits is lagniappe. (By the way, I think the word you want is "hypocrisy;" "hippocracy" would be government by horses.)

Richard, true enough.

Leo, no argument -- my focus on whole systems is simply a way to avoid overemphasis on any of their parts. As for capitalism, to my mind the problem there is the huge mismatch between theory and practice -- which of course is also the problem with communism.

Bill, okay, you got me. What's the play?

Rcg1950, as I commented in post a while back, it's ironic that the kind of thinking you're talking about is termed "magical thinking," in that no self-respecting sorcerer would ever be caught engaging in such nonsense!

Bob, a lot of people thought the same thing about young men in Europe in the 1920s. You'll notice what followed.

KL, thank you!

Joseph, ah, I see the misunderstanding. I wasn't clear on what you were referring to in terms of "boom and bust" -- and the rise and fall of most civilizations tends to be more sedate than that phrase might suggest. America being what it is, its rise was steep and its fall will likely be at least as steep; the broader arc of industrial civilization is slower, though in its own way as spectacular; compare them to the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties, say, and it's less boom and bust and more, as the saying has it, the tramp of mailed boots marching up a stairway, followed by the whisper of silk slippers descending it. Does that make a little more sense?

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, I know of a lot of families for which that's the case. It would be good if as much of the necessary contraction of population were to happen that way.

S P, no, it's not easy. It's simply the row we have to hoe.

Tony, granted. In personal interactions, I rarely bring up the subject unless the other person mentions it first, or shows a readiness to discuss it. Here on my blog, and in my books, it's necessary to be definite to the point of becoming confrontational, as I've learned that anything less forceful gets redefined by the listeners in terms of whatever more popular mythology they prefer -- but in person, that doesn't work.

Wiseman, I'll consider that. The problem is that people want it all one way or all the other -- either it's got to be wonderful, or we all get devoured by zombies or something. People these days have very little tolerance for ambivalence, for changes that are harsh in some ways and beneficial in others.

Mkroberts, no matter what gets said about the future, some people will turn that into an excuse to do nothing. That being the case, it seems more sensible to me to call it as I see it, try to make the most accurate possible predictions, and then explain why doing something is a good idea!

Chris Travers said...

Just a note on the production plateau. We've been more or less at that plateau since the oil crisis of 1973 was resolved. The upward trend of prices is caused by demand continuing to rise even as production remains more or less constant (far more constant than it was before the 1973 crisis). It is for this reason I tend to see the 1973 crisis as the economic peak of oil, and the point where we passed peak production relative to demand.

The way I make sense of it is that oil discovery peaked in the 1960's and as discovery was starting to go down, the reality that oil is a finite resource sank in, resulting in oil producers deciding that maybe pumping oil out as fast as they could was not so smart after all. This lead to the more or less stable production we have seen since. Additionally oil as political power was brought to bear in 1973, and this again counselled conservation rather than pumping as fast as demand required (the pre-73 model). Of course reserves went on to peak in 1981-1892, but they would have peaked earlier without the 1973 crisis.

So from my perspective, from a supply over demand perspective I think I was born a few years after we hit the most important peak of all.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

'"hippocracy" would be government by horses.' --something that was written about by Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's Travels.

Some comments this week have been about the emotional difficulty of coming to terms with the short and long term implications of economic decline and the end of progress. I too have been struggling to find some hope or comfort.

Without being sentimental about poverty, I think it has multiple aspects, some of which are bad and others not so bad. I'm not writing from personal experience but from listening to and reading what people who have been poor have said.

There are three kinds of poverty which often go together but don't always.

There is hardship. Physical hardship: unending labor for little return, inadequate food, danger and discomfort. Emotional hardship: telling your children they can't have what they ask for, renouncing dreams and curiosity because bare survival is all that can be hoped for.

There is having to live in a demoralized, dysfunctional culture full of violence and addiction, with no care for the weak.

There is shame at being looked down on by the more prosperous, and envy for what they have.

Hardship may be inescapable in the future, but this can be a little easier to bear if most people are in the same boat. In some poor societies, people have hard lives, but they have pride, dignity, self discipline, and social solidarity.

Addiction and despair are the fruits of poverty and injustice, not poverty alone. Oral histories of people who lived in poor rural neighborhoods during the Depression, or grew up in poor countries, often say, "We didn't know we were poor. I didn't find out I was poor until I moved away."

John D. Wheeler said...

"What would it mean if, instead of trying to impose an emotionally appealing narrative on the future, and shouting down any data that conflicts with it, we were to approach the universe of our experience with enough humility to listen to the narratives the universe itself offers us?" That is very reasonable. You know what George Bernard Shaw had to say about being reasonable? "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Of course, the first thing you must realize if you are going to be unreasonable is that YOU must be unreasonable. "You must be the change you wish to see in the world," as Gandhi said. You can't wait for someone else.

Second, you can't really BE unreasonable. If you're not going to BE reasonable, then you need to ACT unreasonably. "Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. (Admiral Farragut)" Predictions are okay, but "the best way to predict the future is to create it. (Peter Drucker)" You can't just expect others to do it for you. That's where your criticisms in this post are quite valid.

Finally, my favorite bit of unreasonableness, colonizing outer space, is not going to solve our problems on Earth. As JFK said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills...." If we go to Mars, it will not provide riches for the Earth. Living on Mars will be extremely difficult. The only thing of true value that Mars will produce is Martians. The predicaments we face at the beginning of the twenty-first century will be like child's play to them.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- ah. Back on the same page.

Good. Looking forward to leaving Apocalypse and Progress behind us in the discussion.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" by Tom Stoppard. The story of "Hamlet" from the point of view of two minor characters. They spend most of the play in amusing existential banter, interrupted occasionally by the characters from the original play blowing through so they can deliver the lines that Shakespeare wrote for them. After Hamlet recites his prattle about hawks and handsaws and the direction of the wind, one begins soliloquizing about the meaning of that declaration and what direction the wind is coming from. The other offers to go outside and check, to which the first responds with the line I quoted. Mediocre film version changed "Empiricism" to "Pragmatism," presumably because they were afraid film audiences would not know what empiricism was.

Mike R said...

I really appreciate the rationality you bring to this discussion, JMG. I get so tired with the popular approach to history and the future that I have to tune it out. I know it's a human tendency to oversimplify and gravitate to emotion-driven explanations, but, maybe because I've always loved history and was a history major in college, my bristles go up when I hear all the weird, highly common views people have. "Everyone in the '60s was a hippie" is one example.

I like Kunstler's rantings about the future as much as anyone (he has a way with the written word), but the idea that "it's all going to fall apart by the fall [no, winter; no, spring; no, summer]" is so at odds with the way the world actually works. (Not to pick just on Kunstler; obviously, as you state, it's an ultra-common viewpoint.) Likewise, when I read emotion-driven online comments like "We're living in a police state now!!" I have to roll my eyes. First sign you're not living in a police state? When you can express your view that you're living in a police state (or otherwise criticize your government) without any fear whatsoever of punishment.

Considering we just had a few years ago a real-world example of how governments and society deal with the onset of a truly major crisis--the financial collapse of 2008, which, no matter how much smoke and how many mirrors have gone into creating a recovery period, did not mark the end of the world as we know it--it amazes me that people still think we're going to wake up one morning and find ourselves in an apocalyptic horror film. (Rome wasn't ruined in a day, after all.)

So, thank you for your wonderful voice of reason.

Zach said...

John Michael,

The acceptance of radical uncertainty to which Jesus called his followers, by teaching them to live in the awareness that judgment might come upon them at any moment, is very hard for the human ego to bear -- thus the flight to certainty that drives all attempts to fix a date, however approximate, for the Parousia.

Very nicely put!

You just inspired me - I just caught a flash of vision regarding a book, emphasizing just this point, over against the Tribulation/Rapture fantasies.

Working title: What If The World Isn't Ending? Why Jesus Isn't Going To Bail Out Your 401(k)

I wonder if such a thing would be controversial enough to sell copies? It would certainly mean that I would get some entertaining hate mail, although probably not as entertaining as yours. :)


Ursachi Alexandru said...

This is an interesting claim :

Ok, the 720 years bit sounds like over-optimism on steroids, and this totally neglects the huge role the oil industry has in running all that mining infrastructure and so on. But still - how do you see these claims against the backdrop of the Long Descent? After more than half a year of reading your blog and other peak oil articles, and looking at the world around me, I am very much convinced that it is inevitable. But still I am curious if the future will be similar to your Star's Reach world, or if maybe some more of today's stuff will make it through the descent, albeit surviving on a much more modest and rudimentary scale. I'm not even coming close to suggesting that it would be possible though. But I will risk in believing that there could be a future for locally crafted bikes, as far as ground transportation goes.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Very respectfully, I would like to remind you that there are many people who read and comment at this blog who are of all ages, many levels of education, both sexes, hold many different political opinions and come from many religious traditions, countries and ethnic groups.

Yet we all, in large part thanks to JMG's rules of discourse, manage to hold respectful discussion in which genuine exchange of ideas is possible. This is rare in both the online and real world, and is to be treasured.

Speaking as a former teacher of rhetoric and literature, I'd like to suggest that apparently derogatory statements about, say, baby boomers, liberals, feminists, secularists and other groups you don't like make your arguments less persuasive, particularly as those statements are seemingly opinions not backed up by facts or research.

Yours is an interesting perspective, but it is not the only correct one. JMG has much to say on the idea of the commons and about dissensus--definitely worth reading.


Roger said...

I believe in the example of history and the consistency of human nature over time. I think that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour. So what happened when prior civilizations decayed and collapsed?

The way I see it, the big kahuna of civilizational decline for us in the western world was the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Documentary sources from that era are pretty sketchy. So much lost in the sands of time.

But look at the modern map of Europe. What I see, at least in the form of national boundaries, are shadows of pre Roman ethnic and tribal identity. Iberian, Celt, Latin, Greek, German and even some pre Indo European ie Basque areas of Spain and Tuscany in Italy. Speaking of Italy, what I see in the regional boundaries - for example Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria - are the pre Roman tribal territories there too.

I think this applies to some extent to the USA. I know what people are saying: it's different. And, no doubt, in a multitude of ways, it is.

But let's have a peek at what bedevils the US. You have down there, to borrow a phrase, two nations warring in the bosom of a single state. The antagonists on either side of the Mason Dixon Line despise one another, American politics reconfigured a generation ago to reflect that most basic division.

Institutional paralysis? You bet, but IMO it isn't inherent in the design of the institutions. Someone said that political affiliation is the new ethnicity. OK, but in my estimation, North vs South ethnic identity is at the root of your political affiliation. And at the root of the USA's rancourous politics.

Where am I going with this? Mainly that these two old societies and the line that divides them geographically will provide the template for the successor states to the USA just like the old tribes did for post-Roman Europe. American civilizational decline, like that of the western Roman Empire, will be accompanied by political fracture. And the North/South boundary will be the main fracture line. The coming political configuration had its seeds planted by the settlers that founded the two American nations. And these seeds were nurtured by centuries of animosities that still play themselves out with increasing intensity in American politics.

You had one dust up in the 1860s over secession. Maybe history doesn't repeat exactly but, I think as Mark Twain said, it sure does rhyme. Another thing, it's not like you can't all get along. It's more like you all don't want to.

Oh, wait, there's demographic change? Increasing Hispanization of the Old South? Demographic doom for one side? I wouldn't bet on it. The United States is an assimilationist machine and the founder effect a powerful one. Or rather you have TWO assimilationist machines. One based in the states and identity of the Old Confederacy. And it's not at all that obvious to me as an outsider that Hispanics are a natural constituency of a "progressive" Democratic party.

When, not if, the split happens and the trumpets sound and the new national flags are saluted, I wonder what will be the prevailing mood? Triumphalism? Relief? Regret?

I wonder if there's an event horizon past which there is no way but down into the black hole of dissolution. What was the event horizon for the Roman Empire, the 410 AD sack of Rome? 476 AD? I wonder if people at the time were aware of it. Or maybe it was visible only in retrospect. The sack by Alaric in 410 must have been a shock though. Eight centuries since something like it. Imagine swaggering Nazi conquerors on the streets of London ie nine centuries since the last time in 1066.

I read somewhere that the Roman Senate continued to meet until the year 603 AD. I wonder what that last meeting was like. What did they talk about? Were they aware that it would be the last? Can you imagine the last meeting of the US Senate?

Will the USA continue to exist a thousand years from now? Will it be in some geographically truncated form? What say you folks down there?

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, unless I'm much mistaken, oil production expanded dramatically from the mid-1980s through 2003 or so, so I'm not sure it's accurate to see that interval as a plateau! Still, your broader point stands.

Unknown Deborah, I live in an impoverished neighborhood in an impoverished old Appalachian mill town. Most of the people here are aware, in the abstract, that they have a lot less money than some people elsewhere, but it doesn't seem to cause them a lot of grief, because everybody they know is more or less in the same situaiton they are. Thus I tend to agree with your point.

John, I'm all in favor of having a big crew of volunteers go to Mars. The horrific consequences as the attempted colony goes the way of the Greenland Norse might do a lot to remind people here on Earth of the difference between a living planet and a dead one. That is to say, Shaw was (as usual) glib but wrong; the person who makes something happen is the one who recognizes what the world will and will not let him get away with, and acts accordingly.

Joseph, glad to hear it.

Bill, many thanks. I read that play a very long time ago -- will have to renew an acquaintance with it.

Mike, thank you. I can easily imagine a future in which we go through one bad economic downturn after another, driving down the standard of living to 19th century levels and leaving most Americans in fairly serious poverty, while the fast-crash brigade keeps on insisting that, well, this time it'll all come to bits at once!

Zach, oh bright gods. Write that book. You should have no trouble at all finding a publisher for it -- there are a lot of moderate-to-liberal Christian presses that speak to people who are desperately tired of the posturing of the Rapture bunnies, and will snap it up -- and it's something that a lot of people very badly need to hear. You might just find yourself with a writing career as a voice of Christian sanity, too.

Ursachi, it's entirely possible that the future will have plenty of locally made bicycles in it, and possibly even lithium batteries -- though you're right to be suspicious of this sort of press announcement, which is normally intended to boost stock prices. I've suggested more than once that industrial society is merely the first and most wasteful of a wide range of technic societies, that maintain some level of advanced technology on a renewable basis; the question is simply how many false starts and how many dark ages we have to go through before that becomes common.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
For those looking for updates on world oil (after The Oil Drum demise) Ron Patterson ('Darwinian') is going to build his own site. He has some good stuff up already - including what looks like amazing new data on Bakken yearly well decline rates. Ron likes to get his facts right and takes corrections when they are valid: honest man.

For maths of peak oil & climate change & sustainability I like to check in with these fellows.

Liquid Paradigm said...


I'll second John Michael's endorsement of that project and with equal enthusiasm. It's largely due to the work of modern "heretics" such as John Shelby Spong and others that I have slowly been rediscovering faith (as opposed to the dreadfully ignorant certainty of my previous literalist fundamentalism of both the theist and anti-theist varieties). More such voices are desperately needed, as the hard work ahead of us isn't, in my opinion, just physical, but spiritual as well.

That being one of the major themes here at ADR, it's why I am back every week. My own circumstances not allowing for much by way of gardening, hunting, tailoring, or the like, my passion for the soul of the species and the narratives that sustain it are what I have (hopefully) to give to the future as it comes. I imagine that I'll end up in a monastery of some sort, as many books as I can save in tow. There's always room for one more. ;)

Dianna said...


The link does read remarkably like a Stock Prospectus to me. That doesn't necessarily mean it isn't true, but it does trigger my B.S. filters.

Marrowstone Island

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Jonathan Swift may have had hippocracy... I think we now have hippopygidiacracy; government by horses a**es

Joel said...

"If there were ever australopithecines that couldn’t do the sort of basic reality testing that allows food to be distinguished from inedible objects, and predators from harmless animals, they didn’t leave any descendants."

Uh...I think this is an example of the ecological fallacy.

The genus in question was around for quite a while, so it's hard to say for certain that no individual either swallowed smooth pebbles or fled from gazelles, yet managed to reproduce.

There are also niches for helpless individuals in social species.

Lastly, there are some circumstances where clinging to doubtful patterns of behavior is adaptive, so long as there remains an ecosystem of individuals and their patterns. Sure, it's more efficient to change a mind than a population, but consider magnetotactic bacteria: oxygen is as likely to be east or west or up or down, but they always swim north or south. Still, avoiding a drunkard's path gets a typical individual more food than they would otherwise get, enough to re-coup the investment of building a bar magnet.

I'm not trying to assert that people should be obtuse, or even that obtuseness remains adaptive in our current circumstances, only that there could be old reasons for this obtuseness which aren't subject to change by rational dialogue.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi kristofv,

Modern money theory (ie. the government issuing large volumes of money through whatever means) is bunk. I really love how people always say, "it's not the government, it's the federal reserve that issues it. Like that makes a difference to the end result. Such comments stink of magic to me."

It would work if a country was self sufficient in all its goods, services and/or energy. But is your country? How is that balance of trade going?

The reason behind the federal reserves recent announcement that, they are considering reducing or abandoning quantitative easing is that they fear inflation. It is a real concern as your country imports a bucket load of energy and it is asking other countries to accept those fiat tokens. Not to forget the goods and services it imports too?

Before saying it is different this time because, blah, blah, blah, I recommend that you check your facts on the ground as this theory has been attempted before historically and it didn't end up well. Oh no!

It is sort of like playing poker and trying to pull off a bluff at an international level. Risky.

Hi Helix,

That happened here. The Australian government gave out $900 to every person who had their tax returns up to date and said go out and spend and they did. In an amusing memory from that time, I remember a sale of flat screen televisions and the retailer announced the sale of the Kevin 37" LCD television for $900. The in-joke was that the Prime Minister at the time was Kevin Rudd (and now is again). Very silly.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi kristofv,

Money has value as a medium of exchange. However, its inherent value is a reflection of the goods and services produced and natural and infrastructure assets of a country. It is also a reflection of the pressure that that country can exert on the international stage.

If a country keeps printing more and more of those units then they become diluted as a value of exchange because there is simply more of them floating around.

This is what collapse looks like as it is a slow undoing of your countries assets, infrastructure and influence.



TIAA said...

Religion was about remembering as far as I can tell to this date. Because remembering was key to everything, but our memory centers were not as well adapted in the past nor as complex. Keeping fear alive helps us remember all the skills needed and stories of goddesses, gods, hidden and visible helped weave the story of remembrance. Perhaps that is the reason dooms day predictions have remained popular, they enliven fear for memories sake. But our time and need for memories or gods and the stories are changing and to survive now is to forget as much as to remember. Forget fear, and shame and blame. Remember the moment now so you can be in the moment when change is demanded. Releasing those layers of tangled and garbled memory changes everything and eases one to see what is going on outside minus ghostly inner projections obscuring the what is now. Plus it's fresh to have a mind wiped of old cobwebs that cling and drag at one.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer: “ Tom, thank you. I wish I had a surefire way to talk about the end of progress with people who haven't yet grasped it, but I don't -- and there may not be one; remember that telling most people these days that progress is over and industrial society is falling is pretty much on the same level as trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn't there any more.”

But what is “Progress”?

It’s easy to define some kinds of progress such as:

Scientific Big Picture (Cosmology, Ultimate Physics)
Scientific General (understanding and using the everyday world)

Not quite so easy to define others such as:

In fact it is quite easy to find some areas advancing or retracting in some places and times while other areas are unaffected.

Just to add something to argue over, I thing general science and technology has been somewhat straight jacketed by a world dominated by fossil fuels and standardized, vast scale industrial processes. I think they might actually flourish when adapting to a world where that model is increasingly inappropriate.

Judging from previous collapses – Social Progress, not so much.

So I just don’t think you can say that “Progress” will start, stop or anything else, because to calculate whether it was or not would require putting together some kind of a combination of all the possible areas of progress. Different areas would have to be weighted in what would have to be a fairly arbitrary manner to form a standardized Overall Progress.

I know everybody blithely discusses “Progress” it’s just that when you ask them what they actually mean it turns into a mirage that is different for each person.

Mind you, there are some fairly bright people trying to do just that. For example, see the debate over the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), in New Scientist .

Stephen Heyer

mkroberts said...

JMG, you're probably right that some people will find any old excuse to do nothing but I'm not sure that's a valid reason for telling it like you see it. Doesn't it depend on what you're trying to achieve? It seems to me that convincing people that the decline can happen very quickly and be worse than they imagine would be more likely to achieve change, especially if one could point out salient facts as they emerge (like 30% of wildlife has gone since 1970, or 40% of phytoplankton gone since 1950, or some facts on debt levels and income, or the EROEI of the energy pie decreasing rapidly, and so on), to try and bolster than view. Enough facts might convince people that rapid deterioration is very possible and could encompass them and theirs very quickly - possible enough to cause meaningful change in their lives.

The future will turn out the way it will, regardless of what anyone thinks, but we'd like to influence that for the better, if we can. Which is the best way to do that?

Chris Travers said...

JMG, we might have a disagreement about what a plateau is. However, I think it is worth noting that world oil production went up by over 500% from 1950 to 1973 (23 years), and only about another 40% from 1973 to present (40 years). Moreover oil production has continued to slowly climb from 2000 to the present.

It is also worth noting that the rise you mention followed a fairly similar decline, and so may be seen more as a correction than a real expansion.

The larger point though (that I think we both agree on) is that the long decline has been happening since before Carter was elected. Reagan/Thatcher, and all the rest may well be seen historically as a part of that decline.

John Michael Greer said...

Roger, there's rather more than two nations in the current United States. New England and the Midwest have no more in common with each other than any of them have with Dixie; California's a country (or, very nearly a planet) to itself, and so on. I think that there's a very real chance that the US may break apart in the next century or so, perhaps in the next few decades, and these fault lines are among the likely fissures.

Phil, thanks for letting me know! Darwinian's a curmudgeon, but that's a good thing in this business; I'll definitely check out his site. Thanks for the other links also.

Unknown Deborah, okay, that gets tonight's gold star for sheer unadulterated etymology.

Joel, er, I think you're taking a rhetorical flourish far too seriously.

Stephen, I answered that question back in an earlier post in this sequence. The short form is that the label "progress" has no content of its own; it's a value judgment that gets applied to some changes and not to others as a result of political struggles between the proponents of various changes. When I suggest that progress is over, in other words, what I'm saying is simply that the label has become useless at this point in history.

Mkroberts, that's been tried over and over again, and it doesn't work. People are used to scare tactics. That being the case, why not tell the truth, and then offer good reasons to do the right thing?

Chris, fair enough -- and yes, it's a matter of quibbling over what counts as a plateau. The broader point stands.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, my mistake -- the post I'd meant to link to was this one.

mkroberts said...


" People are used to scare tactics. That being the case, why not tell the truth, and then offer good reasons to do the right thing? "

Fair enough and probably what I'd try to do but that doesn't seem to be working either. Still, it can be enjoyable talking amongst ourselves. :)

Dwig said...

I have another approach to testing a pet theory: ask "Why is it so important to me that this prediction come true (or that this description of reality be true)?" and "What would it do to me if I had to admit that I'm wrong?" Facing these questions is likely to be excruciating for the true believer, but if the pain is endured, could be liberating in a way that no argument about the external world could be.

Speaking of ecology: last week you mentioned your two favorites among your books. I haven't read either, but my current favorite is "Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth". I have a draft of a review that I've been trying to get time to do justice to; I'll get it done and sent Real Soon Now. 8^) Having said that, it'll come as no suprise that I'm eagerly awaiting next week's post.

This exploration of the coming Second Religiosity puts me in mind of a hypothesis of mine: "There are 3 fundamental ways of seeing: the scientific, the spiritual, and the artistic." I wish I had a better formulation: I'm begging your indulgence in interpreting the words "seeing", "scientific", "spiritual", and "artistic", but I do have the sense that I'm onto something. (One bit of evidence: the compelling juxtaposition of the words good, true, and beautiful.) Which leads me to wonder: do the changes in the arts across historical cycles interact significantly with the changes in rationality and belief? (After writing this, I read Kieran's comment about the Dark Mountain Project; hmmm...)

In the comments, you mention wisdom. It's occurred to me lately how little that word is used these days in the popular media, and how much of it we need. (Maybe a post exploring the concept?)

As to peak oil sites: I get along these days with the weekly review from ASPO USA.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

JMG, it's the other Unknown who gets the star. Best laugh I've had in a month.

Roger, I don't believe that the United States will exist in even five hundred years. The circumstances that allowed the US to become an independent nation and grow into the behemoth it is today were peculiar. As those circumstances go away, I don't think the States will have enough common interests to remain united.

I doubt that an immediate successor state would be successful at passing itself off as the same country, but if that were to happen, it would be in the way JMG suggested in his fiction, with the core of the country being composed of some original colonies. A truncated USA with a capital west of the Mississippi would be mocked and resented by all the other former Americans.

I think the USA is likely to have a cultural afterlife when it has disappeared as a political entity. We do stand for a number of things that are attractive and stir the imagination. If there is some cultural continuity in North America (not a total exchange of populations, replacement of English by some non-European language, or complete loss of literacy), the leaders of some countries on this continent will want to associate their regimes with symbols of America even if they don't resemble it much, in the way that the Holy Roman Empire pretended to have a connection with ancient Rome.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Hawlkeye,

Dude. Doing nothing is always an acceptable option.

However, Grasshopper, you must ignore the perfect for the merely serviceable. Only then will you be ready to go out into the world.

Until then, you're not ready. Simple as that.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Robert Martini,

Ha! The past was not always good. Why would you conclude that our host considers that his life has hit its peak?

Are you living a neoprimitive life yourself?

Had it not ever ocurred to you that the Aboriginies here were some of the greatest gardeners that ever existed on a continent wide scale? Agriculture need not look like what we currently believe it to be. Neither should you think that hunting and gathering is all about skewering the nearest kangaroo. You just can't do that for very long before you run out of them.

Did you know that they actively planted native yams wherever they travelled. What about the cabbage palms planted in the SE of the country?

Far better for you to admit that you have no idea for that is humility.


Phil Harris said...

A big theme of your blog is “checking out reality” in the face of expectations. One example, you have pointed out, is where recently ‘the financial system’ in the face of ‘collapse’ adjusted the playing field to ensure survival of big players – and the game goes on.

Some of your readers a while back took some time to adjust to seeing ‘their’ USA as the world’s imperial power or ‘hegemon’ drawing on a significant part of the world’s resources to supply the home population’s extravagant lifestyle.

In the face of recent challenges the USA is making a robust response, and readers of this link should have no difficulty in recognising who intends to remain boss! The phrasing throughout is very telling, even if the conclusions are woolly optimism. Timothy always says things “must be” whatever he believes is both desirable and in his view morally acceptable. Being ‘a nice chap’ and a Brit, he would like to include China in the happy club; quote – “[and] eventually help to move China domestically towards more openness, pluralism and rule of law, as desired by a growing number of its own people.”

NB Timothy Garton Ash writes for the UK Guardian and still believes the EU and USA could be on the side of the Angels – well anyway … on the side of ‘the rational enlightenment’. His phrase ‘the great game’ borrows from Rudyard Kipling writing at the zenith of the British Empire when a key zone was the northern frontier of the Empire on the Sub-Continent.


Stephen Heyer said...

Thanks John.

Sorry, I misinterpreted what you wrote.

Looks like we are sort of in agreement over the problems when the word “Progress” is used in a general sense.

In fact, going back and rereading “The Politics of Time's Shape” again kind of convinces me that I agree with you more than I thought. In fact, as I mentioned before, when I ask myself exactly what I mean by Progress I have to answer with a solid - Duh???

Stephen Heyer

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Juhana,

As a disclosure, I too am a Gen X.

The answer is quite simple, but unpalatable to the western mind: Look to your forests and fields and get to know them. It is literally in your face and is very hard to ignore.

In the arrogance of my youth I believed all sorts of rubbish (and I freely admit that arrogance). It was only as I tested my beliefs in the real world as a personal challenge - which I never for a moment assumed I could fail - that nature gave me a good kick up the posterior that was really well deserved.

The Archdruid is correct in that humility is the ultimate outcome of this process.

Once you compare your beliefs to the facts on the ground, it is humbling and you cannot ignore that you are indeed part of nature and not somehow special or apart from it.

So few people put their beliefs to the test, that I am thoroughly convinced that we live in a society dominated by belief and magic. Unfortunately the core programming is dysfunctional for any really serious test with nature. Still, it isn't the end of the world either.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi you lot!

Honestly, this week I feel like I'm (as they say here): flicking excrement (substitute replacement four letter word beginning with an s and ending with a t) around like a dirt bike.

I talk to people about this stuff all the time without heated debate. It's not hard and people get it. It's just you lot here always go for the big picture stuff which gets peoples feathers ruffled, particularly when it challenges their core belief systems.

How about talking about stuff that is verifiable such as:
- quality of food?
- economy. Hours of work expected. Difficulty of finding long term employment. Such and such you know is facing retrenchment. etc. etc.
- quality of produced goods. What more needs be said on the matter?
- quality of relationships and connections within the community?
- the cost of energy. Isn't this rising all over the shop? How much did you last pay for litre / gallon of petrol (gas I think you call it)?

It's not hard, just avoid the big future predictions which are unverifiable and you can then shoot anyone down. It is really hard for people to say things are getting better when you can simply point out inconvenient truths to them.

Of course, they may also ask you what you are doing about them too, so be prepared for that. Remember that Al Gore looked like a bit of a dodo because his own house used more energy than the Melbourne Cricket Ground (with the stadium lights on of course). I'm making that bit up of course because I have no idea really, but I do remember that his energy bills weren't reflective of his message to other people. It was not a good look and undermined what was otherwise a good message.

Get it together people!



Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG, Joel: Actually, others have made similar statements -- Richard Dawkins comes to mind -- where the comment was NOT a rhetorical flourish. They propose the argument that reason yields truth, and humans are reasonable, because evolutionary process requires it.

To which I smile and reply, "Virgin Birth."

Non-rational non-sense goes a long way toward identifying group members and promoting social solidarity. It's called a "shibboleth" and has a long (and rather amusing) history.

Cherokee Organics said...


This essay was exceptionally clear and elegant in its straight forward no nonsense approach.

Truly, I'm only half way through the comments and I had to go and have a nice chamomile tea and a bit of a meditate (a glass of mead helped too)!

The essay really took away the ability to obfuscate which is so common in our society.

I'm actually humbled at the level of patience, compassion and tolerance in your replies.



John Roth said...

Chris - I'd be careful about imputing motives to the Federal Reserve without reading their public statements. At present, inflation is below their target, and unemployment is above; any public statements they're making that include worry about inflation are strictly pro forma.

With inflation below the rather modest historical 3% or so, the better question to ask is: where's the money going? It sure isn't going into new enterprises that will hire people. Or at least it doesn't look like that to me.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

@ Unknown Deborah: You performed a radio Mitzvah by drawing attention to the Night of Nights (cf Following up on your posting, I did minor checking during the Night with my poor Realistic DX-300 and its no-matchbox indoor basement ant.

Here is what I found around UTC=20130713T0400Z: USA Pacific shore-to-ship station KPH audible at 6.4775 MHz, sending "VVV VVV VVV CQ" at roughly 25 wpm, in my poor gear RST=349 (i.e., some chars inaudible); KPH also audible, at say RST=239 (i.e., even worse), at 8.6420 MHz and 12.8085 MHz; KPH inaudible at 4.2470 MHz; Gulf of Mexico shore-to-ship robustly commercial station WLO switching on its (seldom-used?) CW in celebration of the Night and sending inter alia "CQ CQ CQ CQ DE WLO WLO WLO THESE TRANSMISSIONS ARE PART OF THE MARITIME HISTORICAL RADIO SOCIETYS NIGHT OF NIGHTS", even in my poor gear a glorious RST=579.

The final picture on the radiomarine-dot-org page is moving, showing as it does from a previous year what must have happened also on this just-finished 2013 Night: racks of heavy gear, and heads bowed, as a lady at either paddles or straight key transmits a traditional end-of-Night benediction around UTC=0756Z (i.e., just before midnight PDT).

Also moving is a radiomarine-dot-org account of marine distress (no lives saved, despite efforts at shore station NMO), retrievable by googling on string ((STRING))my first sos at NMO((/STRING)).

@everyone: Further potentially useful points:

(1) The geojohn-dot-org site has an essay, at, on the danger inherent in old rigs, perhaps including my recently acquired Heathkit 1959-1962 Comanche-Cheyenne pair. The designs used before the 1960s made it possible for a chassis to go hot if there was a short. This can kill. (It will be a long time before I dare apply power even to the Comanche. Initial smoke test is perhaps best done by using a variac - sez a radio bud - dialing up the rms line-cord-mains-plug potential very slowly from 0 V to 120 V, looking for trouble at each step.)

(2) Most people find it impossible to erect a horizontal ant high above the soil. If horiztal ant is close to soil (2 m, 3 m, 5 m), you beam much of your signal straight up, and so you are liable to do poorly in transcontinental or transoceanic. It turns out a solution (which I have yet to implement, even for the poor DX-300) is to hang a vertical ant.

There is some discussion of this, and of other not-obvious ant points, in an obscure old book, Robert M. Myers's Practical Antennas for the Radio Amateur (Milford, CT: SCELBI Publications, 1979).

Myers can usefully be used not only along with the big fat ARRL current ant book but ALSO with a slim, clever, ARRL book, Al Broddon's Low Profile Amateur Radio: Operating a Ham Station from Almost Anywhere (2006 or 2009).

(3) What is lacking in the best-receiver-of-all-time, the R-390A ( Answ: spectrum scope! Some discussion of this problem, including at least one reference to the specifics of the R-390A, is quickly retrieved by googling on the single word panadaptors.

(4) An electronics bud in the last few days reinforced my suspicion re gear - namely, that equipment from 1990s onward is basically not repairable without an elaborate shop.

The problem is that from 1990s onward, components are surface-mount, requiring bench equipment such as microscopes.

So if we seek to set up resilient ham shacks, for an era of catabolic collapse, we perhaps perhaps do not want to buy the transceivers currently marketed.


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

Roger said...

JMG, no doubt you're right about the probable fault lines. Inter-ethnic American difference/animosity is also only one factor. There are others. You've got the problem of sheer size and by that I mean a continent-sized country, country-sized states and a really big population. Arguably too big administratively to govern from one national capitol.

Also, with energy getting more and more expensive, transportation will become a problem. If you buy into the idea that a country is a free trade zone within its own boundaries then you have to wonder whether changing trade patterns within the US (because of the cost of transport) will by itself carve up the country into separate trade zones. I would imagine that this will be a North America wide process.

Then there's basic scarcity. North of your border you have a country where people think they can sit militarily defence-less with a treasure chest of resources on what is arguably the world's richest land area and remain unmolested. Oodles of fresh water, good farm-land, wide open spaces. This in a world of 7 billion aggressive, resource hungry people. The present owners think they have no enemies but I suspect that the wait to find out otherwise won't be a long one. Amazing how people don't learn the lessons of history even when the events in question are plentiful and recent. Anyway, I think that the re-configuration of boundaries will extend northwards.

Regarding the lessons of history, I've read that post Roman Europeans withdrew into their castles and for a millenium fought for their lives against invading Magyar, Moor, Turk and Viking. And against each another. I've read that, after the 2nd millennium BC collapse of civilization in the eastern Mediterranean, trade dried up, people abandoned coastal cities (trade being the cities' raison d'etre) and fled to inland hilltop forts. Biblical narratives talk about movement of people like the exodus from Egypt. But out of this mayhem came new ethnicities - Jews being one.

Where I'm going with this is to make two points. The re-drawing of borders won't be pretty (migrations, attendant massacres, land grabs galore) and new peoples will come out of the wreck of the old civilization, the old ethnicities at least in part forming the basis.

Up north you've had for centuries French vs English, East vs West, the mutual disdain resulting in resource squabbles, fractious debates on constitutional arrangements, referenda on secession and not only that boring stuff but bombings, kidnappings, murder and the imposition of martial law. Small potatoes in a world of much bigger troubles but maybe a small taste of what's to come.

John Michael Greer said...

Mkroberts, any movement that matters is going to start out as a very small minority, and grow from there. Myself, I'm delighted to see how much traction the very unpopular ideas I'm discussing have gotten already.

Dwig, that's a workable typology. I'll be dividing things up a little differently in the posts ahead, but abstract models aren't true, merely useful, and thus can be exchanged with other abstract models where that's more helpful.

Phil, I'm not surprised to hear it. The wealthy and powerful in Britain have got to know that when the US goes down, their goose is not merely cooked, it's incinerated to white ash -- thus the cheerleading for US empire that pops up so often in the British press.

Stephen, no problem. I'll be discussing that in more detail in next week's post.

Joseph, granted, and that's also something I'll be discussing shortly.

Cherokee, thank you. Unfortunately the obfuscation continues at top volume. You might have a look at, where this post got the usual flurry of foam-flecked denunciations, all of which sedulously avoided any reference to the point of the post -- the way that recycling repeatedly failed predictions has helped to gut the peak oil movement. Sometimes it's a long road to walk...

Toomas, surface-mount can be done fairly easily if you're willing to invest in a bit of hardware, but you're right that it's far from the best option. This is one of the reasons I encourage people to look for boatanchor rigs like your Heathkits -- taking all appropriate safety measures, of course! -- or simply learning to homebrew their own rigs, focusing on QRP (low power) technologies, which are going to be much more viable than legal-limit gear as power starts becoming expensive and intermittent.

Roger, I'd encourage you to find and read some good histories of the collapse of the Roman world and the Dark Ages -- the process was much more complex, and had a lot of regional variations. That said, your broader point stands, especially about Canada -- there are a number of countries that have come to rely so completely on US muscle to guarantee their security that they're going to be facing a world of hurt when the US empire comes apart, and Canada's the poster child. Either our northern neighbors are going to have to bite the bullet and accept some very bitter transformations, or they're going to become someone else's property in short order.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

@Bill, JMG:

It seems to me there are at least two ideas called "empiricism":

1. "Methodological empiricism:" an emphasis on empirical testing of hypotheses.

2. "Epistemological empiricism:" Various theories of knowledge giving a privileged position to empirical evidence as a source of knowledge; esp. evidentialism.

The first form is a strategy, a tool, and a highly successful one at that. On the other hand, the formulation of a precise theory of radio waves prior to any evidence whatsoever for their existence shows that it's not the only path to knowledge.

The second form is another beast altogether, and it's generally what those of use who reject empiricism are rejecting.

For me rejecting empiricism is mainly about rejecting the idea that there is some deep reason for the success of empirical science that renders it categorically superior to other methods of inquiry. It's more a matter of "right place, right time;" or more specifically, "right sort of universe (for the results to be possible), right sort of brain (to produce the results), right sort of culture (to value the results)."

(That and I think Donald Davidson was right that empiricism's scheme/content dualism is incoherent.)

sgage said...

@ Dwig said...

'I have another approach to testing a pet theory: ask "Why is it so important to me that this prediction come true (or that this description of reality be true)?"'

Another interesting thing to do (and I can't remember where I picked this up) is to get 'meta' about it, and so pushing beyond "why do I believe this to be true" to "why to I BELIEVE I believe this to be true".

Some interesting stuff can bubble up during this exercise, if approached openly and honestly...

Quos Ego said...

Dear John Michael,

as often, I agree with this week's contribution, having reached the same conclusion a long time ago.

Still, I feel compelled to ask:
do you feel it is really humble to ponder over a glass of wine on how wrong your detractors have been and on how right you've been?

John Michael Greer said...

James, that confusion is why I don't often use the term "empiricism." A phrase such as "reality testing" tends to be less often misunderstood.

Quos Ego, yes, I figured people would twist what I'd said in that particular direction. Tell me this: if a series of predictions get made, and nobody ever bothers to go back, review them, and notice which of them turned out to be correct and which didn't, what was the value of making those predictions in the first place?

Quos Ego said...


Oh, don't get me wrong, I feel your endeavor is perfectly valid, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that it needs to be made.

I merely didn't find the style you used to convey the message convincing. It felt too much like the first lines of a Lovecraft novel to me.
As a long time reader, I know it is not cockiness or arrogance, but it could easily be construed as such. You've been accused often enough of being caught up in your own narrative.

russell1200 said...

A not very bold prediction.

Since the 18th Century there has been at least one major world war in each century. The big ones include French Indian/7 Years War, Napoleonic, WW1 and WW2.

Only in World War 2 was any restraint shown in weapon types used -Germans did not use nerve gas, but both nuclear and biological weapons were used.

Except for WW2, which is often argued to be WW1 part 2, the initiation of conflict came from a very unexpected direction, to the extent that the start of the "big one" is highly unpredictable.

So my prediction is that there is a high possibility (to the point of a probability, but not a certainty) that we will face a global conflict where nuclear weapons are put into play sometime in this century.

What I find interesting is that the post apocalyptic fiction that seems the most dated are the nuclear war scenarios.

Joel said...

@Joseph Nemeth:

Yes, this is sort of message I was worried he was sending. He doesn't make the noises that would identify him as part of Dawkins' tribe (he says "sibboleth" instead of "shibboleth" when asked about faith), but it was reassuring to hear that his flourish, and the intended effect of his article, didn't align in quite the way I had feared.

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

Completely off-topic for this week's post, but on target in regard to your earlier Sino-American naval war specualtions, here is an article on the US Navy's hurried attempts at systems updates in regard to Chinese weapons advances: (missiles in particular)

onething said...

I believe you were too hard on Nestorian. He was not proclaiming personal certainty but was rather pointing out that if there have been some throughout history who predicted an immanent return of Jesus then they were doing so carelessly, not taking the relevant scriptures into account.

Zach said...

John Michael,

Thank you for the encouragement! I will have to see what I can do.

Liquid Paradigm,

Thank you too for the encouragement. I will confess that I leave the scare quotes off the word 'heretic' when Jack Spong's name comes up, although I prefer 'apostate'. So we clearly have different perspectives! I hope that, if I do ever get this book written, that you will take a look anyway and that it may be of some value to you.


James Fauxnom said...

Hmm, I hadn't noticed that before but you do seem to have your fair share of detractors on the site. Spurned spectators from this blog? :)

I liked that site better when it was the energybulletin, but even then they would post articles dismissing our energy crisis. Why I'm not quite sure; maybe they didn't read the entire passage. No shortage of essays which start out with basic facts and take you for a ride if you close your eyes for a moment.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John Roth,

Kudos for engaging me on this topic as I'm only going on what I'm reading over here (which include the notes to the federal reserve meetings which actually get reported on here), anecdotal reports and historical examples of those actions. This is not fool-proof as a guide by any means so I always welcome dissenting opinions.

As to inflation. I've been reading accounts of rising house prices in the US. Isn't this real world inflation? It may not form part of the official statistical definition, but give someone an indicator and they will attempt to game it! My gut feel is that some of that $85bn being printed every month is flowing in to loose lending practices which is fuelling a rise in house prices. This is a feel good thing only (perhaps also a vote buying thing too)? Those loose US lending practices have been reported on here and I gave a link to an article on them a few weeks back. I mean if you were a merchant bank receiving all of this virtually free money what do you do with it?

As to US unemployment figures it is also reported here that the drop in official unemployment numbers has more to do with people falling off the statistics radar than actual growth in jobs and / or economic recovery.



hawlkeye said...

I can usually track what-all's being talked about here, but I'm baffled by Cherokee's barb...

And why are you calling me a grasshopper?

sign me, William T. Franklin

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Too bad about the comments at!

I've been reading a fascinating book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. It is his account of a lifetime's worth of study of how we form judgements and make decisions. In a chapter in which he demolishes the idea that finance managers have any ability to predict how stocks will perform, he mentions the concept of "hedgehog" thinking and "fox" thinking.

Hedgehogs have a set world view and believe "one big thing," which they are very defensive of and inhibits them from incorporating other or new evidence. (As in conspiracy theories, for example?) This could be an example of people who refuse to consider the reality of the long descent. Apocalypse,the rapture, and space walruses after all, are each one big thing. :)

Foxes, "are complex thinkers. They don't believe that one big thing drives the march of history." Rather they understand that there are multifarious forces, elements, players, which can produce unpredictable outcomes. Systems thinkers, in other words, with an understanding of uncertainty.

This is relevant, I think, to how some people react to some of your ideas.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee Organics

Hi Chris,

Your comments about the aborigines "gardening" in Australia are most interesting.

The North American Indians also carried on landscape management at a similar scale--such a large scale that the Europeans didn't recognize it for what it was when they arrived. The great chestnut forests of the American southeast didn't just happen by accident, and the prairies stayed prairies because the Indians set fires.

Even today, when I mention this, people disagree, sometimes vehemently, because it goes against their ideas about wilderness and Indians.

And I agree, there's nothing like nature to teach humility!


Repent said...

Excellent post as always.

I saw this moving video piece by Iraq war veteran Vincent Emanuele today:

He speaks about the same issue that you have spoken about in your posts. About the absurity of the progress narrative. About his inablity to 'reintegate' into society after his time spent in the war overseas.

I was particularly moved by his speech that we each need to transition to something else, right away, or we will all find ourselves in a place we don't want to be in.

I think everyone who is concerned about the world we live in should view his speech.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- before we move on into the meatier matters, I want to make sure I have this idea of decline solidly in my head.

There are two pieces that apparently tend to get conflated by readers (and by myself).

One is the "decline" in resources -- energy, trees, fresh water, "coolth" (what we run out of under global warming), etc.

The other is the "decline" in what we might call a civilization's (or nation's, or tribe's) resilience: social senescence.

I'm seeing an analogue to the individual human body. The resource issues are always there in one form or another: external stressors. Influenza viruses, pneumonia bacteria, a bad winter, a thin harvest, a rainy day. The human body in its prime experiences all these things and simply shakes them off. But the human body in its infancy or senescence cannot resist these stressors, and dies.

That's not to say that a massive trauma composed of all these stressors (and more) at once can't bring down an individual. But most old people succumb to pneumonia, which is everywhere and doesn't bother the rest of us.

I think this is at the root of the locked horns between the technology optimists and the doomers: they are both right, and they are both wrong. The critical question is: where is our current global civilization, or any subcivilization (like US Americanism) on the senescence scale?

If the US were in its prime empire-building days, all the hardships of global warming, peak oil, etc., would be speed bumps. Taken together, they might be enough to kill us, anyway. But we would adapt rapidly, creatively, and even enthusiastically to each of these hardships, and come out the far end with a nation strong and proud. In this scenario, the technology optimists are right, the doomers are wrong. All we need is a shot of technological antibiotic to get us through the worst night of fever, and we'll be fine.

If the US is, in fact, in its senescence, the problem is that all the technology in the world won't save us. We don't have the adaptive resilience to make proper use of it. In this scenario, the doomers are right, and the technology optimists are wrong. Every shot of technological antibiotic only weakens us further, and at best puts off the imminent and inevitable by a very short while.

It's a somewhat extreme comparison in that individual death describes a rapid phase change from living to dead, while (most) civilizations linger long past their point of collapse. But the point is that something like peak oil can be either a minor speed bump or a killer, depending on the general state of the civilization experiencing it.

Would you concur?

Juhana said...

@Cherokee Organics & JMG (publishable version without so many writing mistakes, this time):

Chris, I understand what you try to say. I really do. Like I have said earlier, I am mostly pragmatic with my opinions. Main thesis of my thinking is not easy to translate into foreign language, me being no poetical philosopher even in my own language, but I give it a try:

Problems are mounting right now in this shared world of ours. Things are escalating. There has been MANY moments when powers-behind-the-throne could have hit the brake pedal and offer their subjects peaceful, if materially poor path to the future. That 70's environmental movement was one of them, at least if you believe JMG. I have decided to trust him in this, even if my own knowledge about that time is limited to being small toddler.

Second moment was during early phase of current financial crisis, 2007-8. Iceland, being early victim, did what states should have done. They defaulted and continued their national existence being poorer in assets and money, but their system of government and rule by law totally intact.

Rest of the world chose otherwise. USA, EU and rising tigers of the East all chose way of smoke-and-mirrors. They try to conjure us out from what is basically resource limitations crisis by bunch of magic tricks. As side result, media, politics and general discourse are growing more delusional month by month.

Because nobody (except Iceland) is willing to cut losses, things are escalating out of control. Answers of MODERN morality and MODERN political systems to the crisis have been laughable and despicable at the same time. They practically try to bend reality, and hope some miracle solution to drop from the sky.. That is religious thinking for you folks.

I have some knowledge how things unfolded in Balkans during 90's. I cannot say I have any experience comparable to that of locals, and I respect their losses and suffering - impartially. But I know dimly and distantly, like foreigners always do, how purgatory of ethnic hate looks like when flames are ignited. Because our leaders have chosen road of illusions and magic tricks, forthcoming economic collapse shall lead to very unpleasant bloodshed in large parts of the modern world. It is because the fall and break-up of economic networks shall be sudden and fast, instead controlled one, thanks to current politics.

Rapes, tortures, unspeakable cruelty towards prisoners by paramilitaries, ethnic cleansing... It is coming to West, after being absent so long. I do not hope this. I do not fantasize about that. But I fear that political decisions world leaders are making right now are driving towards war. War that is going to look like that in Yugoslavia, or in failed African states... Northern Ireland is kind of "light" version showing us it can happen in the West also. War fought mainly by civilian paramilitaries and thugs in uniforms..."security" war.

I just hope very strict and uncompromising religious communities can defend themselves and maintain at the same time high level of morality during forthcoming problems. Punishing and hard morality is better choice than instincts of the beast. Only pampered Westerners have had privilege to forget this simple fact. Moral code, even fundamentalist and opressive one, protects mainly those who are weak. Strong ones, they survive anyway, feasting on those who are at their mercy... I just see no future in any these modern beliefs like feminism, which are only empty phrases when real problems start.

Shira said...

Great post and one that I will probably share with those few close to me who still desperately wish for progress or some solution to the reality that confronts us all and who have the emotional stamina to ask the hard questions. For others who lack the emotional resilience to face the answers to the questions raised, maybe it is better that they continue to dream for progress as they are dealing with the hard realities of a loss of income and the need to preserve a roof over their heads and have food in their bellies.

Grebulocities said...

I wonder about the possibilities for military conflict in the next few decades. I'm of the opinion that serious conflicts between powerful states will remain few and far between while the world's militaries are oil-dependent. The one relatively clear-cut example of a resource war in recent times involving powerful states, the Iraq War, was a disaster from the perspective of securing oil reserves. The resources expended by the US and UK militaries far exceeded any resources gained by the occupation, despite the fact that the resistance was vastly inferior from a purely military perspective.

My best guess is that militaries, and the use thereof, in the late oil age will simply cause more rapid catabolic collapse to the countries trying to use them. The US is of course the best example here - spending nearly 50% of the world's total military expenditures is substantially weakening our fiscal position and accelerating the coming debt crisis.

This isn't to say that I think there won't be substantial military conflict, but I suspect it will be largely powerful states vs. non-state actors. I could easily imagine insurgencies developing in the more rural areas of the US, particularly the Rockies and Appalachians, after another economic crisis or two. Further guerrilla campaigns could develop in poor urban areas. If this were to happen, it would ramp up spending on the military and surveillance even further than present trends indicate, leading to accelerated fiscal crises.

But a successful military invasion of Australia or Canada by, say, China? I very seriously doubt that could occur in the next ~50 years. A more likely scenario would be proxy war in Africa that spirals out of control, similar to what occurred in your "How It Could Happen" series.

Myriad said...

Regarding humility and its near-converse, hubris. Portions of New Jersey, having reconstructed after Sandy to a sufficient degree to be eager to invite tourists, have been running an ad campaign that includes a cheerful chorus singing: "We're stronger than the storrrrrrrm, stronger than the storm..."

The first time my wife and I heard this, I blurted out, "You idiots, don't taunt the storm!" And my wife -- who is as strict a rationalist and atheist as you will ever meet -- immediately agreed with me.

The challenge is explaining why "taunting the storm" (or, hubris in general) is a bad idea. For her and me it has nothing to do with believing that some angry sentient storm or storm-deity or astral karma computer might hear the boast and retaliate (which is why my wife's rational atheist sensibilities were not in opposition). The reasons it's a bad idea are far more varied and subtle than that, but are based on real-world causality and consequences, including unnecessarily raising future expectations (so as to have raised the stakes before the fact, thus increasing the emotional damage, in the event the future does not go as hoped for), and distorting future decision making by declaring an obvious untruth or at best equivocated truth (obviously, we are not actually stronger than a storm in many important respects) as a guiding principle.

Is it simply too hard to explain this? Must the architects of future spiritual systems in troubled times eventually throw up their hands and tell the world, "It's because Zan-Dee the jealous Hurricane Goddess will smite you," just like in ancient Greek myths?

I hope there's a better alternative.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Thanks very much for clarifying what you were saying. I truly appreciate how difficult writing in a language not your own can be.

The nightmare of the kind of war you describe is one I hope does not spread like a cancer as you fear. These things are hard to predict.

Point taken about religious communities possibly offering safety. What do you mean by feminism? I believe men and women should treat each other with respect; that both men and women should have the opportunity to get educated; that both men and women should have a share in governance, whether local or regional; that both men and women should have the opportunity to earn a living wage; that both men and women should have a say in family matters. Is that feminism? I look at it as humanism, not necessarily secular and in no way incompatible with religion.

mallow said...

I've been trying to put my finger on what's going on with posters like Juhana celebrating the poetic justice of liberals getting their heads bashed in and others who pop up regularly anticipating the death of feminism and racial tolerance in the Long Descent. There's always a hint, or more than a hint, that some people would be quite happy to see the defeat of those and similar ideas. No doubt they'll deny it but I never thought so many people longed for the Long Descent to bring them back to some imaginary golden age of the traditional family, strong moral fibre and strong men.

I realized it reminds me of Gibbons who blamed the fall of Rome on moral decay, I think. It's the idea that people, well men, got soft and pampered in the easy times and so couldn't compete with those tough barbarians. A nice simple story of the strong feasting on the weak 19th century Darwinian style. Then the Long Descent serves as a redemption story where humanity gets back to being morally strong and virtuous again having cleansed out all the weaklings and put women back in their proper place. I guess that might become a popular story in future, especially among those who imagine themselves to be among the strong. Ironic that these strong men have to rely on the collapse of our civilization to defeat us weaklings. Bit pathetic really.

Liquid Paradigm said...


Not so much scare quotes from me as a roll of the eyes. Orthodoxy is never so certain and ancient as it claims. ;)

But I don't have to share a perspective to learn from it. In fact...

So bring it on!

John Michael Greer said...

Quos Ego, I've tried to address the continual recycling of failed predictions in the peak oil scene in every other way I can think of, and the response has been a fairly close equivalent of "La, la, la, I can't hear you." It seemed worth trying one more approach -- however Lovecraftian it might seem!

Russell, a good case can be made that we're coming up on a global conflict of some form, but unless the people in charge are unusually dense even by the standards of politicians, I don't expect to see nuclear weapons used more than peripherally, for reasons discussed in an earlier post. That said, I hope I'm right...

Eremon, many thanks! I've got a contract for a novel based on the "How It Could Happen" series, so this sort of info is extremely helpful.

Onething, I disagree. Many of the people who claimed knowledge of the imminence of the Parousia over the last two thousand years had other ways of making sense of the verses Nestorian cited -- for example, it was once very common to assume that the return of the Jews to Israel would happen in the course of the Last Days, rather than as a precondition for them. Those interpretations are by no means prima facie absurd, and many of the scriptural arguments used to justify earlier dates for the Second Coming were extremely thorough and subtle -- they just happened to be wrong. Still, the temptation to go around shouting "Lo, here" and "Lo, there" is a powerful one.

Zach, excellent.

Adrian, my immediate response, of course, is to ask, what's the third category? Druids are like that...

Repent, thanks for the link!

Joseph, I'm going to offer slightly different names for your two modes of decline, for the sake of clarity. The first is ecological overshoot -- the process by which human activities in the biosphere run up against hard limits to resource availability, on the one hand, and capacity to absorb wastes, on the other. The second is imperial senescence, the process by which empires run their wealth pumps too hard for too long, and bankrupt themselves and their subject nations. Here in the US, we're getting clobbered by both of those at once, but they're separate processes, even though both of them have the same overall effect of weakening a society so that its ability to respond to normal crises breaks down.

That said, it's not true that the US could have brushed aside peak oil or global warming in its prime empire-building days, because its prime depended on access to the abundant resources (including oil) and ample capacity of the biosphere to absorb wastes (including CO2) that it had at that time. Peak oil and climate change aren't external factors that just happen to be hitting us now; they're feedback loops generated by our own activities, in exactly the same way as the processes of imperial decline and fall. Thus it's important to see them as part of the whole system of decline, not as externals impacting a system declining for other reasons.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Hawlkeye,

Apologies. I wasn't trying to troll you and in hindsight and with a second reading, probably misread your comment.

Quote: "To me it appears that a critical crisis-funnel will happen around the food supply. Would it be wise then, to design a brilliant permaculture food-forest in every imaginable detail? Only if I wanted to avoid doing something effective. "

A focus on the first sentence, meant that the second sentence was lost to me.

There is no such thing as a brilliant permaculture food-forest as conditions vary considerably from one site to the next. The design guidelines in permaculture provide for a good structure and starting point, but nothing beats on the ground experience, observation and then correction and adaption. The second sentence indicates that you understand this point.

The perfect must never stand in the way of the acceptable as an excuse for inaction.

Peace, we're cool!


John Michael Greer said...

Juhana, the claim that a rigid theological morality is the only bulwark against a Hobbesian war of all against all is popular, but I have a hard time finding it plausible. If anything, rigid theological morality seems to predispose a community to engage in atrocities against outsiders and internal dissidents; the Muslim fundamentalists who shoot children for making "blasphemous" jokes have a very rigid and profoundly theological morality, you know, and they've had plenty of equivalents in other religious traditions. Old-fashioned though it may be, the concepts of individual liberty and the rule of law seem like a better bet to me.

Shira, what I'm hearing leads me to think that faith in progress is fading anyway, especially among the nouveaux-pauvres (and we have a lot of those in America these days). The questions are going to get asked; the question is what's to be done now that the great god Progress is dead.

Grebulocities, well, that's why I chose the scenario I did! I could see proxy wars spinning out of control on any number of scales, up to the point that the US has to reactivate the draft to send millions of troops to the fronts in Africa, Pakistan, and northern Latin America, but major power confrontation will probably have to take that sort of indirect form for a while yet.

Myriad, excellent -- you and your wife get tonight's gold star. A keen ear for the accents of hubris is going to be a very important skill to develop in the years to come -- and in practical terms, of course, no human being or human community is as strong as a storm, and we'd better get used to that reality in the very near future.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks. I'll have a look at resilience tonight. Sounds a bit scary...

Hi Adrian,

You may be interested in this:

The biggest estate on earth

It's good stuff.



Tim said...


Since you live in Maryland, I though you'd be interested in knowing that the Montgomery County Green Party is going to run candidates for County Council based on the platform that sustainability can only be achieved through a transition to a steady state economy.

If we manage to get any media coverage it may be among the most unpopular campaigns ever, but the idea has to be put out there.

Wish us luck! :)

John Roth said...


The housing market is not a good indicator of anything. It's still recovering from the housing bubble that set off the financial recession back in '06 or '07, although it is true that there's a lot of investment money going into buying up houses, depending on the specific market. It seems to be dying down now, though. If you want to keep a good watch on the US economy, I can recommend , he's all charts and relatively little comment. Some government, some private. He does have decent commentary on the jobs situation as well.

People falling off the unemployment rolls is a significant problem, but it's not the whole story. Yes, there's a recovery in progress. It's a slow grind. Sometimes I think that it's being controlled as much by demand destruction for petroleum as anything else.

@Adrian AF. Foxes and Hedgehogs are a pretty standard metaphor in the prediction business. There's a good article on Wikipedia IIRC.

Juhana said...

@Adrian Fisher: Humanism sounds okay in my ears. It is good to have equal relations inside your own community. About feminism... I have seen many so called feminist activists fighting over some semantics how university professors should adress them, and over stuff like that. It is like they are fighting overtly zealous purity campaign inside hermetically sealed community, which is already altruistic, equal and safe for them. People who actually work where women have worse position... They as a norm do not adhere to feminist narrative. To humanist narrative, yes.

To me it seems that many "sacred cows" of Western intelligentsia have metamorphosed during last decades into something they were not supposed to be... They are like decadent and cartoon versions of noble ideas from earlier times.

Feminism is by no means only one of these, but it´s decay from movement for equality and justice to this supremacist idiocy confined strictly to those already affluent and privileged (universities, colleges, middle class whites)is just so obvious anyone outside those circles... It serves as good example of wider trend, nothing more.

And JMG, I have to confess I am little confused what should be right path onwards... I have many strictly religious relatives, their church communities are doing amazing job helping each other, and I just feel they are calling me back home... Me and my circle around, we are just so disappointed how this sosio-political system to which we belong is totally unable to make even small corrective movements. It is not like everyone should have same opinions, but contraction of economy should be obvious to adherents of all political creeds... Some scaling down is unavoidable, but our leaders just accelerate speed. "Let´s print some money, it helped last time around! 0r it didn't, but let's try it anyway."... Similarity to Soviet bloc, when their political class chose to close their eyes to lethargic and shrinking economy after Russian oil revenues dropped during 70's is so obvious... And again, I have seen what kind of damage that inactivity did to lives of peasant class... What should be our safe haven, if not strong community, adhering to ancestral faith..?

Juhana said...

@mallow: Point of having strong moral code capable to survive in simpler, materially less abundant times actually is to make sure there is racial tolerance and safety for those perceived as weaker, among other things... I know it is hard to see how any anti-liberal can be anything else than racist misogynist from point-of-view of Western university assembly line product, but still... Do you honesty believe that opinions of fashionably leftist and globalist students in Western universities can win the day in current chronic contraction?

My point is that fashionable "environmentalism" and such are just tools for egoism and mental self-masturbation. They actually fail to deliver any positive outcomes. It is same thing with multiculturalism... Hoods around Europe just are not obeying it's Ten Commands of faith... If movement or ideology is to be perceived as positive, should it not actually produce positive outcomes in real world, outside those university walls also?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Juhana,

I agree with the first part, but not with the second half of your comment.

What do you mean by the word feminism?

The reason I ask is because I see this word thrown around and it means different things to different people. It often gets used as a justification for all sort of odd behaviours so I'm not sure it actually means what its original definition was.

As a suggestion, I'd probably avoid using it.

Perhaps you are speaking about gender roles in society? Historically they were much more diverse prior to the industrial revolution. They became very narrow at this point in history. People often use this recent history as a guide to gender roles, but I believe this to be a very poor guide.

If you look at the birds and animals in the forest, it is only the very young that get any support. This is probably indicative of the needs of a sustainable society. Yes, their lives can be rough, but I don’t see domination as a central core problem in male / female relationships in those birds and animals.

The meme of domination by males in society is probably a reflection of (anger? resentment?) due to the loss of land (read territory) that has been accelerating since the industrial revolution as inequality in wealth rises and access to land is reduced. It is a wealth pump after all.

Essentially, the industrial revolution has had a subtext of destroying previous cultures and replacing them with new cultures. It is hardly surprising that your view of the past gender roles is a little bit off as you are not questioning those messages.

Something for you to have a think about. No judgement here.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John Roth,

You dismissed me!

Why do you say that the housing market is not indicative of anything in relation to inflation?

I'd suggest from your comment that you are in the housing market and have no problems with price rises. This is a common perspective which I am uncomfortable with.

However, people outside the housing market will find that rising house prices is a problem and they would view price rises very differently.

Inflation is defined as: "A general increase in prices and fall in the purchasing value of money"

Demand destruction for petroleum is only to be considered from a local perspective as on an international stage, demand is increasing for Oil based products. On that basis, a reduction of local demand is irrelevant if the global demand rises.

Are you aware that the Chinese are building 10 million motor vehicles every year?

I recently paid AU$1.60/litre for petrol. That works out to be US$6.68/gallon.

I'd call that inflation.



LunarApprentice said...

Hello JMG and all.

I respectfully acknowledge this comment is not on topic, I hope you do not find it impertinent.

I'm prompted to comment after JMG's passing remark about the “nouveaux-pauvres”. Well, it looks like I may be starting my own rocky ride to join their ranks.

I happen to be a physician in a small private practice, only 4-5 years into my profession as a rehab medicine doc; I'd often patted myself on the back for having made a bold and savvy career change when I started medical school at age 40. I'm 54 now, and my decision isn't looking so good anymore.

Lately, I've seen insurance companies increasingly deny authorization for admission to inpatient physical rehabilitation after stroke, joint-replacements, spinal-cord injury, critical illness, etc... These patients are being frequently shunted to nursing homes instead. Of course the hospital wants the rehab unit full for financial reasons, but this year, our average inpatient census has been below the break-even point. And even when we get an admission authorized, it is no longer sufficient for the patient to have rehabilitation needs and achievable rehab goals, I have to document that the pateint has medical needs that CANNOT be safely met in a nursing home. If I don't state such, the admission won't be authorized. This requirement is imposed, and not intrinsically necessary for us to rehab a patient, so the truth needs to be teased and stretched, otherwise: no admission. I have little doubt these statements will turn around and bite down the line. Recently the hospital CEO called our rehab nurse manager (!) to ask why our census has been so low. We're being monitored. The hospital does not need the rehab unit. Many inpatient rehab units across the US (22% of them in the midwest) have closed, basically for financial resaons.

The situation for outpatient care is worse. This year CMS (the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services) reduced re-imbursements for the electrical procedures I frequently perform to diagnose nerve injury or disease. The reductions amount to a 50-65% decrease from my previous reimbursements. These reduced rates have been adopted by ALL insurers, and apply to all physicians who perform these procedures. Since regular office visits already reimburse poorly, my clinic has long depended on the electrodiagnostic procedures as the main source of income. Now my take-home pay is 50% down, and every month is a cliff-hanger. Then there is the sequester, docking our medicare reimbursements by 2.5%, increased rates of claim-closure by the state-administered Workers Comp administrators, and increased rates of patient defaults on their portion of their medical bills (in June, this one item amounted to a $1600 hit for me).

From my perspective, Obamacare is a pirate ship on the horizon. The currently uninsured will get Medicaid; but my clinic can only accept a small percentage of our caseload as Medicaid patients because reimbursements don't even cover overhead. We can't take any more. Many current medicaid patients will end up on one of the Obamacare “bronze” plans that require 40% copays. Even the “silver” plans require 30% copays, and I'm under no illusions that those will ever be collected. If you and your readers want to know about Obamacare, the most comprehensive decription I've seen is this (27 pages)

Just the other day, I learned of yet another vulture circling over my inpatient income: (Medicare proposal to cut inpatient physician reimbursements, 2-3 pages).

[Continued because of char. count limits....]

LunarApprentice said...

[... continued...]

We bought our house a year ago on twice my current salary, now the mortgage is nearly half my take-home. I have medical student loan debt, credit card debt, debt to relatives. My wife and in-laws are certain things will turn around; my wife says that when our 3 year old starts kindergarden, she'll get a job--- that's 2 years out. My father-in-law insists “they” won't let doctors starve, and asks, “where will they send the patients for electrodiagnostics, there are hardly any doctors who do what you do, ...the hospital IS BOUND TO HIRE YOU AND SUBSIDIZE YOU...”. My medical director is an incorrigable optomist, mentioning how may crises have come and gone over the decades, and how this too shall pass...

I feel like the hand-writing is on the wall for my specialty. I know there are some comfortable positions still out there, but I have a gut feeling that to move to a better rehab doc position would amount to climbing the rigging of a sinking ship. So I'm endeavoring to prepare lifeboat professions for myself. As a 54-year-old, a sole-bread-winner with 9 and 3 year-old kids, I'm sweating bricks. I'm attempting to retrieve and repurpose my previous electrical engineering career into an electrical power engineering career for the utilities. So I'm preparing to take the engineering licensing exam this fall. I have 4 months to bone up on 2 years of curriculum I completed over 30 years ago.

But the electrical engineering profession has long been notorious for defacto age-descrimination, labor shortage or not. So I'm working on a blue-collar option: substation electrician, or perhaps meter technician (again for the utilities). These involve apprenticeships, and I'm not sure how competitive I'll be. But I do plan on obtaining a commercial drivers license which is mandatory for a substation apprenticeship... BTW, I'm really open to any suggestions....

One last thing: JMG, I have stopped working on my entry to your contest (I'd started a white-paper on detecting and measuring radioactivity and radionuclides with homebrew technology). I can't spare the time and mental energy now. I'm sorry.

Juhana said...

Last post before excessive free time for me is again gone, and giving...ahem..."expert" comments thankfully ends for a while :).

David McWilliams is capable to give introductions to complex problems with light tone and good graphics, unlike me, for example...

Even if I do not share his cheerful and basically positive view of world, and balancing between deflation/inflation demarcation line is not so easily explained and blaah blaah...well, his videos are very good. If this guy is not familiar for JMG or readers of this blog, enjoy his funny videos aout not so funny subjects.

About liquidity crisis:

About food:

Ursachi Alexandru said...

I keep posting links, but here's another relevant article:

Dismantler said...

Alright. I'm ready to experience some humility. Although the discovery of your blog is recent for me, I've long read about the topics expressed here.

What strikes me the most about the way you approach the subject, is the level headed outlook. It's a gradual let down, with scary possibilities out in the dark future, unpredictable occurrences in the present, and a slow decay as the sprawl of our culture looses it's intended value.

It appears to me, that this is the great fallacy before me; that everything we've built has inherent value beyond what we need as consumers.

I'm a young man of thirty, but my perception of this illusion has always been attuned. I've always contemplated why we build what we build. The one theme that's always stood out to me, is how much decay has always been apparent from the start. The incredible amount of misplaced resources, under utilized structures, and misused land.

To offer an example: In the 80s, my mother would always take me to a Pizza Hut at the end of a huge parking lot. I would ask her "Why is this gigantic space always empty?" She always replied that it would be used one day. Yet to this day, it remains 90% unused.

Everyone I know thinks growth will continue unabated. It's basically blasphemy to deny it. The people I've encountered always approach the problem as if it were a problem of intellect. Perseverance has become a matter of sub-doing mother nature, and everyone I debate assumes it's a lack of determination on my part. That I don't get it, because we've always been able to out-think our limitations.

I noticed you live in the Appalachians. I grew up there. As a young teenager, I helped my step-father do plumbing jobs. Wealthy people seem to think the best places to build are on the ridge line, with a nice big hot tub on the deck, however that's not the case. I've helped re-plumb many houses that froze the same night they lost power. Hundreds of second homes that use huge amounts of energy just to keep them from withering away. That's blasphemy to me. Those homes are seen as the pinnacles of American achievement. My jealousy must be overcoming me, that's all.

We have way too many testaments to wealth now, and pitifully few examples of productive developments. I'm terribly afraid, and feeling more humiliated by the day, that our current arrangement is untenable. My friends suggest that my poor background has slanted my outlook. They are right, in the sense that I didn't understand what was possible financially.

Poverty granted me something in turn, though: The understanding that there are times when all I'll have to work with is what's at hand. That I can't count on elaborate systems to fulfill immediate needs. It makes me invaluable to them as a problem solver.

Although I'm not as versed and educated as you, your readers, or the thousands of people who debate these topics, my intuition has always proven reliable for me. That's been reinforced over the years by my friends and family.
My call is to them.

Yet I'm always led back to the question of energy when I think about our future, which seems very abstract and laughable to them. It's left me in a frustrated holding pattern while I attempt to understand all the incredible forces which dictate our ability to thrive. On top of that, any idea I come up with to circumvent some of the outside influences is regarded as regressive.

None of them would dare regress, for fear of being humiliated. So far as I can see, we're regressing anyways. There's no longer an ore mine in our town, which cost our state several million to clean up forty years later, or any significant source of agriculture. Oh wait, I forgot, we're the Christmas Tree capital of the world. Those should taste good.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, nah, it's entertaining.

Tim, best of luck!

Juhana, what your best path onward should be is up to you. If returning to ancestral religious traditions works for you, then by all means do so. Here in the US, religious pluralism is our ancestral tradition -- despite the efforts of Johnny-come-lately fundamentalists to obscure that very well documented fact -- and, as a member of a minority faith, I have very good reason to uphold the values and traditions involved!

Apprentice, you're in a very tough corner, no question. Health care is one of several institutionalized industries in the US that are facing collapse in the near term -- the higher education industry is another -- because the arrangements that shelter them from the direct discipline of the market have allowed them to continue growing while the society that supports them is well into contraction. My working guess is that the crisis will play out over the next decade or so. In your place I'd look at getting qualified for general practice -- once the dust settles, there will be a lot less of the extreme specialization that currently shapes the medical field, but people will still need basic health care -- and at least a basic background in one or two of the popular alternative health care modalities wouldn't be a bad move, either.

Even so, you're looking at a major crunch over the next decade or so. As long as your family remains committed to the fantasy of endless growth, there won't be much you can do in advance -- I've seen way too many marriages blow up because one partner woke up to the realities we're facing and pushed too hard when the other partner was still clinging to the dream of endless betterment -- but it might be helpful for you to get used mentally to the likelihood that you will have to declare bankruptcy and lose your home -- that way at least one of you will be able to function if it happens. Once your wife discovers how tight the job market is, and sees the ongoing contraction first hand, she may have an easier time grasping the necessities. Other than that, I don't know that there's much more that I can say.

Juhana and Ursachi, thanks for the links!

Dismantler, all I can say is "hang in there." Having grown up in poverty is a major advantage -- you got the chance early on to learn lessons I had to pick up much later! -- and that may help you see what's unfolding in time to dodge some of the worst of it, where people you know who cling to the illusion of prosperity will be blindsided. It's hard living among people who just don't get it, but worth remembering that the illusion won't last forever.

mallow said...

The level of tolerance here for someone supporting liberals getting their heads bashed in and the Manosphere is disappointing. Maybe you're all just safely continents away and/or male so you can skim over these things.


Yes yes of course the dumb fashionably Western university assembly line products couldn't possible understand the complexity of being an anti-liberal. This one is bowing out. You've created an imaginary enemy who you're obviously not going to let go of. At least universities are a fairly harmless target I suppose.


Juhana shares the anger of the Manosphere, google it and you'll understand how he really feels about feminism, whatever you understand that to mean.

John Roth said...

Hi Chris,

No, I'm not associated with the real estate industry - in fact, I've never even owned a home. I'm a retired software developer who will turn 70 in the next couple of weeks, and I spend a chunk of free time (which is all I have - free time) checking economic stats and working my way through some of the public economists statements. That is, charts and graphs, and trying to figure out whether what they're saying has any relevance.

My comment re the housing market is that you can't prove anything in the aftermath of a bubble until the situation stabilizes - and it hasn't stabilized in the US housing market yet. Housing prices are still below pre-bubble levels, so they've got a ways to go up before the market stabilizes.

I grant you, it isn't exactly easy to tell that the housing price stats are irrelevant from outside without a deep knowledge of what's going on in the US economy. There was a reason I recommended the Calculated Risk blog - it's all charts and graphs with mercifully little bloviating about what it all means.

Yes, I do know about the world petroleum situation, including China. I'm much more interested in the US situation than the world situation; this is, after all, where I live. Here in the US, aggregate demand is down and so are imports. The miles driven statistics from the Dept of Transportation peaked about five or six years ago, declined somewhat and have been moving sideways since then. There are a bunch of reasons; Bill McBride at Calculated Risk has a boilerplate explanation that he repeats each time the new monthly data gets released.

ViewFromHere said...

The last two weeks have really hit close to home. I live in an area hit hard by the farm crisis of the 80's and with a 50% population loss over the past 30 years. When one of the granite foundation, hand built, three story brick buildings on Main St falls- due to extreme weather events combined with benign neglect, we all know they will never be put back up again. But I am drawing hope and reaching out to salvage those high quality bricks and foundation stones so that we can do precisely what you suggested last week: repurpose them for a smaller, more modest Main St. business.

A few years ago I was sitting in a graduate level ecology course and the lightbulb went off that ecological principles applied to human organizations as well. I spent a few weeks delving into the field of Organizational Ecology and applied those models to some water management organizations. Ho boy!! did that ever anger both the engineer and the ecologists on my graduate committee. Tantamount to blasphemy. But what I showed was the life and death process of organizations looked the same as individuals and groups of individuals under ecological processes. I'm guessing the same would apply to civilizations-- a higher order of organization.

Thank you for your novel thoughts and your voice on these topics. The third way is refreshing.

Mike R said...

Cherokee said:

>>>I recently paid AU$1.60/litre for petrol. That works out to be US$6.68/gallon.

Not quite right. AUD $1.60 = USD $1.45 at today's rates.

There are 3.7854 liters in a US gallon.

$1.45 x 3.7854 = $5.49/gallon.

Still, that's a price that's higher than has ever been seen in the U.S. to my knowledge (Some gas stations in California may have broken the $5/gallon mark at one point, but if they did, it wasn't for too long). But in some states, gas has been over $4/gallon quite regularly.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee organics

Hi Chris,
Thanks for the link. I've ordered the book from my library already. It looks like it should be right up my alley--or should I say, in my field?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@John Roth
Hi John,
Thanks for the info on hedgehogs and foxes. The only kind of prediction I'm involved with is in terms of plants, ecosystems, gardens--not business and finance.

Have you read Kahneman's book
Thinking, Fast and Slow? Since it has everything to do with statistical thinking and how we make judgements and predictions, I'd think you might find it interesting. He is well known in the field. It is not at all simplistic. I'm finding it fascinating.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Ha! So you're asking me to apply ternary thinking, are you?

How about a category of Ravens, whose thinking includes things spiritual as well as things material and temporal? And Chickens, who have no world view but are always reacting to acorns falling on their heads and concluding that the sky is falling because their heads have been bent down looking for things to eat in the dirt?

Sheesh! these druids...

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ mallow:

I think you are oversimplifying Juhana's theses, and somewhat demonizing them in the process. If I understand him correctly, he's articulating what he thinks *will inevitably* happen (in Europe), no matter what anyone might do to try to prevent it, not what *should* happen. These two are not even close to being the same thing.

He may be right about the details, or he may be wrong. In any case, I think his underlying thesis stands: the moral or ethical progress of humankind is *not* inevitable over time, and indeed, some combinations of economic and political circumstances may prevent further progress, or may even force its reversal.

And this thesis of his is not something that flows from the idiotic so-called "manosphere."

Juhana said...

@mallow: I never supported anyone getting his/her head bashed. It was just odd to watch from European news - as impartial eye witness, I remind you - how French Leftist upper-to-middle-class youths were genuinely surprised as their enormous Muslim population did not support their rainbow ideals, instead founding common ground with extreme right-wing in unholy alliance... If you not see any spin by historical realities in that, that's fine... As a person who has actually been in central Asia, I could have told those innocent youths that supporting gay marriages is probably not very popular among "sensitive neighborhoods" of France.

I do not support any kind of aggression in already flammable situation of Europe, but that gullibility just is...well, you have to either laugh or cry.

About universities... Been there, done that. As genuine blue collar working man attending nervously institute of higher learning during rosy years of my late youth, I was somewhat surprised by what I encountered... It was like all that streetwise, feet-firmly-on-the-ground knowledge about life possessed by almost all working class females/males was totally unknown to these pampered aristocrats around me...

They cackled endlessly about important revolutionary ideas, like how calling someone "girl" is SO degrading... Just a couple of months before witnessing that particular conversation, as welder in heavy steel industry, I had witnessed my workmate loose three of his fingers in gruesome accident of heavy roster steel plates falling from rigs... That world was just so incomprehensible to those kids... And these chubby besserwissers were nurtured as our next generation of leaders. Oh Lord Almighty. Instead of being angry, I chose to laugh that time also. Humans. They are something.

Helix said...

Hi Cherokee,

We had a similar event here under Bush II. $300 checks were mailed out with no stipulation as to how the money was to be spent. A two-parent household got $600.

The problem with this is, of course, that $300 is not enough to make much difference to anyone's equity situation. At the time, it seemed more like a bone thrown to the masses to keep them from realizing that other actions being taken by the Bush administration fell largely into the screw-the-little-guy-and-further-enrich-the-already-obscenely-wealthy category.

We could do some math on the $700 billion bailout to see the vast difference between cookies and crumbs. There are about 110 million households in the US. Had the $700 billion been divided up among them, that would have come to more than $6000 per household -- more than ten times the $300 giveaway assuming two-parent households! Now THAT'S the kind of bread that can make a difference in a household's equity position, especially in the near term.

Assuming that the money came with the stipulation that it had to be used to pay down debts, the money would have found its way to the banks anyway. The difference is that a few million families would have been able to keep their homes and those with little or no debt would get a windfall, which might be very good for sales of those flat-screen TVs that you mentioned. And the banks' "assets" would be reduced by $700 billion.

But that's not the way things went. The other difference is that the "assets" of the financial system would have been reduced by a commensurate amount, so there was no way this was going to happen.

And, of course, the $700 billion was just the beginning.

Juhana said...

@mallow: I popped to look your blog; well written pamphlets, keep up the good work. And best wishes for parenting - not an easy task in these confused times. No pun intended. I apologize for calling you university assembly line product, and sorry JMG that we were using this blog for useless word war. Adios, plane waits.

Liquid Paradigm said...


"I know it is hard to see how any anti-liberal can be anything else than racist misogynist from point-of-view of Western university assembly line product..."

Begging your pardon, but that is a straw man argument (to say nothing of what seems a very petulant insult to others you don't know). Some of us have very good, very personal, and very painful reasons to be at least initially wary of someone who peppers his speech with language like that.


"The level of tolerance here for someone supporting liberals getting their heads bashed in and the Manosphere is disappointing. Maybe you're all just safely continents away and/or male so you can skim over these things."

Also presumptuous and equally unhelpful. Can we please let off the reactionary throttle just a bit?

Bill Pulliam said...

mallow -- it it extremely normal that, when a ruling group has their exclusive grip on power challenged by a disempowered minority, they will then claim that they are the true victims of discrimination and the ones who are now disempowered. It is very very easy now in the U.S. to find people who will explain to you at great length why it is in fact the white male christian who is the downtrodden person and the primary target of racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. There is not much point in engaging these folks; they will just use anything you say to support their own fantasies of victimization. They are comparable to the spoiled brat who is having a tantrum because he now only receives 87% of the cookies rather than 91%.

I don't think the "manosphere" is being "tolerated" here really; more like ignored.

LunarApprentice said...

Hello JMG,

Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

Everyone suggests I switch to primary care with the unspoken assumption that it would be an easy transition. But such a switch would require that I complete a new residency, an onerous undertaking in its own right, one that appears more daunting to me than trying to break back in to electrical engineering. At least in the planned Obamacare setup, primary care docs get some financial reward they don't currently get. But the "productivity" demands even now are grinding, and many primary care docs now need to touch-type their patient notes while they're with the patient. This trend is increasing, and I would need to learn to touch-type; some docs I know are retiring early because they don't want to founder, failing at the new work-skills that the deprofessionalization of medicine is demanding of us. One of the reasons I chose rehab medicince to begin with is that I could take the time I need to evaluate my patients. Every day I receive grateful comments from my patients that there is finally some real insight as to their problems (pain often), and I frequently make difficult diagnoses because I have time to analyze, and not just pattern-recognize, their issues. I'm frankly afraid that I would fail the current productivity requirements in a new primary care residency.

Just the same, I recognize that might well end up as my only option.

A colleague of mine learned accupuncture thinking it would represent a useful diversification as you suggested, by she finds that her patients can't get insurance coverage for accupuncture treatments, and so she doesn't use it.

I have developed a little knowldge of herbal medicine, and have used it only on the several patients who have asked for such care. My malpractice insurance doesn't cover alternative medicine, so doing much of that now is risky.

Really my biggest barrier to getting my financial situation under control is my family. I would sell our house and move into a mobile home or a trailer in a heart beat. My wife (and in-laws) just won't hear of it. Her attitude is that I'm a doctor for crying out loud, but a worry-wart, and that I should just handle uncertainty and stress with more equanimity, dictate faster, be less fastidious, and be proactive with getting up to speed with touch typing. I am drawing the line on not using our 401K to cover living expenses, at least not without an exit plan that includes dumping the house ASAP. I'm afraid that may become the flash-point in our marriage.

I would like to avoid bankrupcy; my credit rating is outstanding, and these credit scores are incresingly being used in employment screening. The substation electrician apprenticeship I'm looking at specifies "financial responsibility" as a necessary qualification. I hope a short-sale of the house can be arranged when push comes to shove.

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