Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On the Far Side of Progress

The pointless debates over evolution discussed in last week’s Archdruid Report post have any number of equivalents all through contemporary industrial culture.  Pick a topic, any topic, and it’s a pretty safe bet that  the collective imagination defines it these days as an irreconcilable divide between two and only two points of view, one of which is portrayed as realistic, reasonable, progressive, and triumphant, while the other is portrayed as sentimental, nostalgic, inaccurate, and certain to lose—that is to say, as a microcosm of the mythology of progress.

According to that mythology, after all, every step of the heroic onward march of progress came about because some bold intellectual visionary or other, laboring against the fierce opposition of a majority of thinkers bound by emotional ties to outworn dogmas, learned to see the world clearly for the first time, and in the process deprived humanity of some sentimental claim to a special status in the universe. That’s the way you’ll find the emergence of the theory of evolution described in textbooks and popular nonfiction to this day.  Darwin’s got plenty of company, too:  all the major figures of the history of science from Copernicus through Albert Einstein get the same treatment in popular culture. It’s a remarkably pervasive bit of narrative, which makes it all the more remarkable that, as far as history goes, it’s essentially a work of fiction. 

I’d encourage those of my readers who doubt that last point to read Stephen Jay Gould’s fascinating book Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. Gould’s subject is the transformation in geology that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when theories of geological change that centered on Noah’s flood gave way to the uniformitarian approach that’s dominated geology ever since.  Pick up a popular book on the history of earth sciences, and you’ll get the narrative I’ve just outlined:  the role of nostalgic defender of an outworn dogma is assigned to religious thinkers such as Thomas Burnet, while that of heroic pioneer of reason and truth is conferred on geologists such as James Hutton.

What Gould demonstrates in precise and brutal detail is that the narrative can be imposed on the facts only by sacrificing any claim to intellectual honesty.  It’s simply not true, for example, that Burnet dismissed the evidence of geology when it contradicted his Christian beliefs, or that Hutton reached his famous uniformitarian conclusions in a sudden flash of insight while studying actual rock strata—two claims that have been endlessly repeated in textbooks and popular literature. More broadly, the entire popular history of uniformitarian geology amounts to a “self-serving mythology”—those are Gould’s words, not mine—that’s flatly contradicted by every bit of the historical evidence.

Another example? Consider the claim, endlessly regurgitated in textbooks and popular literature about the history of astronomy, that the geocentric theory—the medieval view of things that put the Earth at the center of the solar system—assigned humanity a privileged place in the cosmos. I don’t think I’ve ever read a popular work on the subject that didn’t include that factoid. It seems plausible enough, too, unless you happen to know the first thing about medieval cosmological thought.

The book to read here is The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis—yes, that C.S. Lewis; the author of the Narnia books was also one of the most brilliant medievalists of his day, and the author of magisterial books on medieval and Renaissance thought. What Lewis shows, with a wealth of examples from the relevant literature, is that nobody in the Middle Ages thought of the Earth’s position as any mark of privilege, or for that matter as centrally placed in the universe. To the medieval mind, the Earth was one notch above the rock bottom of the cosmos, a kind of grubby suburban slum built on the refuse dump outside the walls of the City of Heaven. Everything that mattered went on above the sphere of the Moon; everything that really mattered went on out beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, where God and the angels dwelt.

The one scrap of pride left to fallen humanity was that, even though it was left to grub for a living on the dungheap of the cosmos, it hadn’t quite dropped all the way to the very bottom. The very bottom was Hell, with Satan trapped at its very center; the Earth was a shell of solid matter that surrounded Hell, the same way that the sphere of the Moon surrounded that of Earth, the sphere of Mercury that of the Moon, and so on outwards to Heaven.  Physically speaking, in other words, the medieval cosmos was diabolocentric, not geocentric—again, the Earth was merely one of the nested spheres between the center and the circumference of the cosmos—and the physical cosmos itself was simply an inverted reflection of the spiritual cosmos, which had God at the center, Satan pinned immovably against the outermost walls of being, and the Earth not quite as far as you could get from Heaven.

Thus the Copernican revolution didn’t deprive anybody of a sense of humanity’s special place in the cosmos; quite the contrary, eminent thinkers at the time wondered if it wasn’t arrogant to suggest that humanity might be privileged enough to dwell in what, in the language of the older cosmology, was the fourth sphere up from the bottom! It takes only a little leafing through medieval writings to learn that, but the fiction that the medieval cosmos assigned humanity a special place until Copernicus cast him out of it remains glued in place in the conventional wisdom of our time. When the facts don’t correspond to the mythology of progress, in other words, too bad for the facts.

Other examples could be multiplied endlessly, starting with the wholly fictitious flat-earth beliefs that modern writers insist on attributing to the people who doubted Columbus, but these will do for the moment, not least because one of the authors I’ve cited was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful evolutionary biologists and the other was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful Christians. The point I want to make is that the conventional modern view of the history of human thought is a fiction, a morality play that has nothing to do with the facts of the past and everything to do with justifying the distribution of influence, wealth, and intellectual authority in today’s industrial world.  That’s relevant here because the divide sketched out at the beginning of this essay—the supposedly irreconcilable struggles between a way of knowing the world that’s realistic, progressive and true, and a received wisdom that’s sentimental, nostalgic, and false—is modeled on the narrative we’ve just been examining, and has no more to do with the facts on the ground than the narrative does.

The great difference between the two is that neither medieval cosmographers nor late 18th century geologists had the least notion that they were supposed to act out a morality play for the benefit of viewers in the early 21st century. Here in the early 21st century, by contrast, a culture that’s made the morality play in question the center of its collective identity for more than three hundred years is very good at encouraging people to act out their assigned roles in the play, even when doing so flies in the face of their own interests.  Christian churches gain nothing, as I pointed out in last week’s post, by accepting the loser’s role in the ongoing squabble over evolution, and the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that have gone into the creationist crusade could have been applied to something relevant to to the historic creeds and commitments of the Christian religion, rather than serving to advance the agenda of their enemies. That this never seems to occur to them is a measure of the power of the myth.

Those of my readers who have an emotional investment in the environmental movement might not want to get too smug about the creationists, mind you, because their own movement has been drawn into filling exactly the same role, with equally disastrous consequences.  It’s not just that the media consistently likes to portray environmentalism as a sentimental, nostalgic movement with its eyes fixed on an idealized prehuman or pretechnological past, though of course that’s true. A great many of the public spokespersons for environmental causes also speak in the same terms, either raging against the implacable advance of progress or pleading for one or another compromise in which a few scraps are tossed nature’s way as the engines of progress go rumbling on. 

According to the myth of progress, those are the sort of speeches that are assigned to the people on  history’s losing side, and environmentalists in recent decades have done a really impressive job of conforming to the requirements of their assigned role.  When was the last time, for example, that you heard an environmentalist offer a vision of the future that wasn’t either business as usual with a coat of green spraypaint, a return to an earlier and allegedly greener time, or utter catastrophe?  As recently as the 1970s, it was quite common for people in the green end of things to propose enticing visions of a creative, sustainable, radically different future in harmony with nature, but that habit got lost in the next decade, about the time the big environmental lobbies sold out to corporate America.

Now of course once a movement redefines its mission as begging for scraps from the tables of the wealthy and influential, as mainstream environmentalism has done, it’s not going to do it any good to dream big dreams. Still, there’s a deeper pattern at work here.  The myth of progress assigns the job of coming up with bold new visions of the future to the winning side—which means in practice the side that wins the political struggle to get its agenda defined as the next step of progress—and assigns to the losing side instead the job of idealizing the past and warning about the dreadful catastrophes that are sure to happen unless the winners relent in their onward march. Raise people to believe implicitly in a social narrative, and far more often than not they’ll fill their assigned roles in that narrative, even at great cost to themselves, since the alternative is a shattering revaluation of all values in which the unthinking certainties that frame most human thought have to be dragged up to the surface and judged on their own potentially dubious merits.

Such a revaluation, though, is going to happen anyway in the not too distant future, because the onward march of progress is failing to live up to the prophecies that have been made in its name.  As noted in an earlier post in this sequence, civil religions are vulnerable to sudden collapse because their kingdom is wholly of this world; believers in a theist religion can console themselves in the face of continual failure with the belief that their sufferings will be amply repaid in heaven, but the secular worldview common to civil religions slams the door in the face of that hope.

The civil religion of Communism thus imploded when it became impossible for people on either side of the Iron Curtain to ignore the gap between prophecy and reality, and I’ve argued in an earlier series of posts that there’s good reason to think that the civil religion of Americanism may go the same way in the decades ahead of us.  The civil religion of progress, though, is at least as vulnerable to that species of sudden collapse. So far, the suggestion that progress might be over for good is something you’ll encounter mostly in edgy humor magazines and the writings of intellectual heretics far enough out on the cultural fringes to be invisible to the arbiters of fashion; so far, “they’ll think of something” remains the soothing mantra du jour of the true believers in the great god Progress.

Nonetheless, history points up the reliability with which one era’s unquestioned truths become the next era’s embarrassing memories.  To return to a point raised earlier in this sequence, the concept of progress has no content of its own, and so it’s been possible so far for believers in progress to pretend to ignore all the things in American life that are blatantly retrogressing, and to keep scrabbling around for something, anything, that will still prop up the myth. In today’s America, living standards for most people have been falling for decades, along with literacy rates and most measures of public health; the nation’s infrastructure has been ravaged by decades of malign neglect, its schools are by most measures the worst in the industrial world, and even the most basic public services are being cut to Third World standards or below; the lunar landers scattered across the face of the Moon stare back blindly at a nation that no longer has a manned space program at all and, despite fitful outbursts of rhetoric from politicians and the idle rich, almost certainly will never have one again. None of that matters—yet.

Another of the lessons repeatedly taught by history, though, is that sooner or later these things will matter.  Sooner or later, some combination of events will push cognitive dissonance to the breaking point, and the civil religion of progress will collapse under the burden of its own failed prophecies. That’s almost unthinkable for most people in the industrial world these days, but it’s crucial to recognize that the mere fact that something is unthinkable is no guarantee that it won’t happen.

Thus it’s important for those of us who want to be prepared for the future to try to think about the unthinkable—to come to terms with the possibility that the future will see a widespread rejection of the myth of progress and everything connected to it. That wasn’t a likely option in an age when economic expansion and rapid technological development were everyday facts of life, but we no longer live in such an age, and the fading memories of the last decades when those things happened will not retain their power indefinitely. Imagine a future America where the available resources don’t even suffice to maintain existing technological systems, only the elderly remember sustained economic growth, and the new technological devices that still come onto the market now and then are restricted to the very few who are wealthy enough to afford them. At what point along that curve do the promises of progress become so self-evidently absurd that the power of the civil religion of progress to shape thought and motivate behavior breaks down completely?

It’s ironic but entirely true that actual technological progress could continue, at least for a time, after the civil religion of progress is busy pushing up metaphorical daisies in the cemetery of dead faiths. What gives the religion of progress its power over so many minds and hearts is not progress itself, but the extraordinary burden of values and meanings that progress is expected to carry in our society.  It’s not the mere fact that new technologies show up in the stores every so often that matters, but the way that this grubby commercial process serves to bolster a collective sense of entitlement and a galaxy of wild utopian dreams about the human future. If the sense of entitlement gives way to a sense of failure or, worse, of betrayal, and the dreamers wake up and recognize that the dreams were never anything more than pipe dreams in the first place, the backlash could be one for the record books.

One way or another, the flow of new products will eventually sputter to a halt, though at least some of today’s technologies will stay in use for as long as they can be kept functioning in the harsh conditions of an age of resource scarcity and ecological payback. A surprisingly broad range of technologies can be built and maintained by people who have little or no grasp of the underlying science, and thus it has happened more than once—as with the Roman aqueducts that brought water to medieval cities—that a relatively advanced technology can be kept running for centuries by people who have no clue how it was built. Over the short and middle term, in a world after progress, we can probably expect many current technologies to remain in place for a while, though it’s an open question how many people in America and elsewhere will still be able to afford to use them for how much longer.

Ultimately, that last factor may be the Achilles’ heel of most modern technologies.  In the not too distant future, any number of projects that might be possible in some abstract sense will never happen, because all the energy, raw materials, labor, and money that are still available are already committed twice over to absolute necessities, and nothing can be spared for anything else. In any age of resource scarcity and economic contraction, that’s a fairly common phenomenon, and it’s no compliment to contemporary thinking about the future that so many of the grand plans being circulated in the sustainability scene ignore the economics of contraction so completely.

Still, that’s a theme for a different post. The point I want to raise here has to do with the consequences of a collective loss of faith in the civil religion of progress—consequences that aren’t limited to the realm of technology, but spill over into economics, politics, and nearly every other dimension of contemporary life. The stereotyped debates introduced at the beginning of this post and discussed in more detail toward the middle will be abandoned, and their content will have to be reframed in completely different terms, once the myth of progress, which provides them with their basic script, loses its hold on the collective imagination. The historical fictions also discussed earlier will be up for the same treatment. It’s hard to think of any aspect of modern thought that hasn’t been permeated by the myth of progress, and when that myth shatters and has to be replaced by other narratives, an extraordinary range of today’s unquestioned certainties will be up for grabs.

That has implications I plan on exploring in a number of future posts. Some of the most crucial of those implications, though, bear directly on one of the core institutions of contemporary industrial culture, an institution that has derived much of its self-image and a galaxy of benefits from the historical fictions and stereotyped debates discussed earlier in this post. Next week, therefore, we’ll talk about what science might look like in a world on the far side of progress.


Tom Bannister said...

Wow yes. In the course of reading this post I've sure discovered some of my own progress narratives I've told myself over and over again. (thankfully I'm used to removing them so so this process is now relatively painless).

I'm just wondering if you might have more to say about what technologies might survive? The computer I'm writing this on is I'm guessing a goner in 20- years max. computers in general might take a bit longer to go though I guess (though of course they'll be much more expensive).

I would predict (and please correct me if you think I'm way off here), a kind of backtracking in technology in many areas to more simple formers. aka we might see typewriters making an appearance again as computers get more expensive. Some other kinds (cellphones) will stay in distribution for much longer since in my opinion they have a more deep settled, intrinsic usefulness (i cant say how helpful it is to be able to text/ be contacted from a wide variety of places, though there are down sides to this too!).

Also, I wonder how the narrative of 'moral progress' is to eventually be discarded (I mean what takes its place?) Example: feminism. Now I would argue Industrial society might have been quite harmful to women's roles. After all more energy and more material wealth might enable the suppressing/ignoring of roles traditionally done by women (medicine? I'm taking a guess here). Plus the abundance of machines meant temporarily much less need for people to physically run a household economy. However western countries like my own love to tout about how they have 'progressed' out of the old sexist gender roles. (New Zealanders for example love to boast about how we were the first country to give women the vote in 1891, and then complain about the 'nanny state' in the next sentence...)

Without the myth of progress, how might for example the narratives of the changing gender roles be changed? (there are many ways I'm sure, I'm wondering what your opinion is. cheers)

Heretic Scientist said...

Dear JMG, very interesting post!

As a physicist doing observational cosmology, so one of the closest thing to theology in the religion of progress, I may be one of the modern equivalent of a high priest: in any elaborate civilisation, isn't the high clergy always involved somehow in observing the sky and making sense of its phenomenons for its benevolent lords and the poor god-fearing peasants? I am very interested indeed in what institutional science may become in the near future, once the religion of progress starts to loose its legitimity, its faithful fidels and collapse the soviet way...

We can already see that western citizens and politicians in power are not so much interested in science anymore: despite our efforts to communicate about science with the general public, to show its marvels (like the Higgs boson, oh yes! so fundamental that its long expected discovery has no consequence at all on anything else we know in physics and of course no expected use, like everything we do in particle physics since 50 years; still wondering why politicians still did not understand that and have not yet stopped the whole charade), and how the next fantastic discoveries will change the life of everybody, once we found extra-solar planets with life on it, once we can cure all cancers and found the recipe for nuclear fusion (this is ironic of course ;-) )... so despite all this grandiose propaganda, the number of students in science decrease each year, career opportunities in our bloated university/labs complex are less and less attractive, fundings more and more elusive, and a increasingly large fraction of our time is not dedicated to research anymore, but to chase money in a bureaucratic maze and to justify *in advance* which scientific results we will obtain with that money. The ongoing endless economic crisis is already taking its toll and all over Europe, various reforms are applied on universities and national research institutions to drastically diminish the cost of the whole thing (at last...).

I feel the next steps of this ongoing collapse process of science will be the diminishing legitimity of science and institutional research: our inability to disconnect science from scientism on the spiritual side, and from the technoscience and its damage (scientists are so cheap to buy to justify 'scientifically' whatever the big industry and finance want: nuclear, tobacco, GMO, fracking, doing nothing about climate change, and so on) may slowly erode the myth of the 'good scientist', working to improve the condition of human life (the servant/priest of the progress myth), to the point that the next religion/myth that will emerge after the death of progress will certainly condemn us scientists for our numerous crimes, and probably witch-hunt any representant of this old-fashion way of thinking... I am pretty sure our destiny may look a lot like Hypatia one...

Liquid Paradigm said...

"..but it’s crucial to recognize that the mere fact that something is unthinkable is no guarantee that it won’t happen."

Something of an aside, but my first reaction to this is that statement is begging a flood of responses from the apocalyptic true believers. Still, a lot of pointless, angry sniping in the comments about zombies and giant solar flares might prove more entertaining than last week's pointless, angry sniping in the comments about theism and anti-theism.

Hmmm, maybe not entirely pointless, as it has underscored your larger points about the unquestioned narratives driving industrial culture, but it's left me more depressed than usual.

Grumpy greetings from the land of middle insomnia! Don't mind me. ;)

Marlow Charles said...

"Raise people to believe implicitly in a social narrative, and far more often than not they’ll fill their assigned roles in that narrative, even at great cost to themselves, since the alternative is a shattering revaluation of all values in which the unthinking certainties that frame most human thought have to be dragged up to the surface and judged on their own potentially dubious merits."

A hammer to the head!

Thanks yet agin.

russell1200 said...

To add to what you said about lacking the resources to maintain the level of progress of what we had visa vi the Roman aqueducts.

I have been reading a little bit about the Carolingians recently. They were in contact with the remaining parts of the Roman Empire (now referred to as the Byzantine Empire) and would make use of ideas that had low capital costs - manuals on warfare were popular. But at their decreased level of organization, they did not have the resources to build any knew aqueducts, or even to imagine that they could build new aqueducts.

While its true that the medieval monks (and a few other sources) were very important in preserving "ancient" manuscripts, from the point of view of the "dark ages" it was not a complete turning off of the tap. The "Romans" were still around for some time. It's just that nobody had the wherewithal to do much with a lot of their ideas, and a lot of their ideas would not have seemed very on point to their current reality anyhow.

ando said...

Interesting and informative reading again, JMG.

You aptly illustrate the fact that what passes as information in popular culture is one aspect of the delusions generated by greed, fear, and ignorance.



Longway said...


I came across an interview with you the other day that positively enraged me. You were offering your usual advice of learning to brew beer, and said you have little access to good beer where you live. Then the Irish interviewer made a comment about American beers, and you said we're just now starting to appreciate good beer. I'm not a man to differ with you on the big issues, but this is a major issue, and you need a thorough straightening out.

I am an avid brewer, and had you said 15 years ago that every country in Europe had better beer than us, I would have been on board. Just 5 years ago I would have gone along with the assertion that Belgium has better beers. Today though, the United State clearly reigns supreme as the beer lovers paradise. We have literally thousands upon thousands of quality brews, some of which are unlike anything available in Europe. With the exception of Belgian sours (let's face it, getting wild bacteria to rot beer just right takes a while to master), I cannot name a single European style that has not been matched or exceeded by an American microbrewery. Say what you will about our laziness, our fatness, our habit of bombing everything that moves, our obsession with that Kim chick... you get the point... but we have damn fine beer. Brewing may be the last area of unbridled ingenuity in this country. Anyway, great post. I've been meaning to tell you for some time how much I appreciate your blog, and I couldn't let that beer comment go without a proper tirade.

I also wanted to suggest that you should start marketing yourself as "the Arch Druid of Fermented Fluid", as I think this would broaden your fan base, particularly in the fermented fluid community. Brew on good sir!

adamatari said...

I suspect that "progress" in the sense of development of scientific knowledge will continue unless literacy is lost and the traditions that support science break down (schools, universities, etc.). That is very possible - Greek science pretty much got lost to all but a very few for a very long time, and there are no doubt some things they found that are lost forever with the loss of the manuscripts. It becomes the "A Canticle for Leibowitz" scenario.

As for material progress, if things go slowly I suspect there will develop ways of doing some industrial things on an artisanal level. Radios are pretty doable on that level (crystal radio), but I wonder about computers... In any case, some things will be gained and others lost, like some traditional farming methods have been lost nowadays (which will no doubt have to be rediscovered).

I think the decline of mass mobility is ultimately going to be the killer of the myth of progress. It's already in decline, but when it reaches a certain level and people realize that they're never going to drive a car or fly in a plane regularly again, that will be a shock.

It's almost tiring to see this play out over the years. It's obvious that things have not recovered from the 2008 oil and financial shock (at least in the so-called developed world). Everything seems to move in slow motion. Not that I want to see it move quickly (ala Egypt), just that it feels like purgatory in a way.

Rita Narayanan said...

About the environmental movement

am amazed sometimes at where some environmentalists are coming terms of the 'whole" picture.

Many elite environmentalists both from the west and India, constantly cite Bhutan's Gross National Happiness as a model. But even a cursory look at the socio-political anatomy of the Bhutanese state will point to a place completely divorced from the liberal society they envisage.

Even the feudal world was definitely aesthetic and sustainable.

what is the whole story...they never seem to tell.

Thanks for another thought provoking post!

notsomethingelse said...

For me this post started at the paragraph beginning 'Nonetheless,'.

Encapsulated and embodied within that single word was the seemingly weeks and weeks of tortuous intellectual travail and mental struggle that you have taken us on JMG as if in a meander through fields of cactus, nettles and poison ivy, to reach this point.

That is not meant as a criticism but something of a poetic picture of how my poor tired brain feels having struggled to keep up with your lines of reasoning along the way and wondering where it was all headed towards.

There have been high points and places of amusement en route too of course.

'Nonetheless', the perfect word to summate all of the past weeks effort and to introduce the six paragraphs that follow it, which contain for me all that really needed to be said (so far).

I cannot say that I have read a more apt and compelling summation of the modern future dilemma anywhere else. Thank you.

More to come, I hope. My brain feels refreshed at finding some thoughts that it can effortlessly embrace.

Odin's Raven said...

Its been said that nothing true is popular and nothing popular is true!

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

Would you be willing to venture any prediction on when the widespread rejection of the myth of progress might occur? Just for me to get a feel for whether it's gonna be in my lifetime or my children's or my grandchildren's.

Lisa said...

Dear Jmg,
I have been reading your writings for quite some time.I want to thank you for discussing our difficult realities in a calm and reasoned manner.There is so much shouting and ranting that takes place that I don't have time for.
I practice gardening and small animal husbandry and relevant food processing on a small acreage on the edges of suburbia.Alot of people make fun of us and some think we're really cool.Whatever,I keep going although sometimes I really question myself.It's not easy to live this way.You give quiet encouragement and a strange sense of solace in the face of frightening events.

Mark Boenish said...

This is a very nice essay. You always do such a good job of pointing out the fallacies and contradictions of popular 20th century myths. Yet one central myth remains that you have not addressed. I dare, I double dog dare, I triple dog dare you to discuss the most sacred of all 20th century myths - that the German wars of 1914-1945 were not a clash of cultures and empire - in the manner of Rome versus Carthage- but rather the ultimate struggle between the forces of light (peace, democracy, justice, progress) and those of darkness.

Andy Brown said...

I think this is a really important tangent you are on. I crafted a comment, but it developed into eight paragraphs about how cultural anthropologists have grappled with the dilemmas of escaping the Progress trap in their own work. I’m very curious to see what you have to say next week and whether you come up with other solutions beyond what we were able to imagine.

I would also make a case that cultural anthropologists, since they mostly study people who are partially enmeshed with and partially estranged from the grand narrative of Progress, can make a contribution to green wizardry. In fact, I think anthropological knowledge is already being put to that use.

Yupped said...

The "end of progress" debate seems to be breaking out into the light now. As an example there was an interesting piece in the NY Mag recently, discussing some of these themes.

It does start out with the strange notion that "for all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered", but then goes on to cover the work of Robert Gordon with quite an amusing account of his recent TED talk, in particular the counterpoint talk. (would still enjoy seeing the reception you would get at a TED talk).

This piece was picked up on several blogs last week, and the comments in response were generally emotional reactions: either "see, we're all screwed!" or "no way, American optimism and ingenuity will save us!". Perhaps it is inevitable that these two opposites come first, before some sort of synthesis comes through and more people start to engage reality as it is. But I do think a change in perception is starting to flow more quickly now.

oneotaBill said...

I especially enjoyed this week's column, and I look forward (as a retired scientist) to next week's.

Your comment about the continuing use of the Roman aqueducts triggered a connection for me with recent plumbing repairs on my house. A great deal of our economic growth has been based on building "things" (washing machines, homes, cars,..) that wear out fairly quickly. It's common to sell new washing machines for high prices by adding complicated and relatively fragile electronics, but I don't see manufacturers choosing to make their products more durable or more reliable.

Such products will not last decades, much less centuries, as the industrial machinery breaks down.

Ángel said...

I'm really enjoying and learning a lot from these series, JMG. Thank you very much!

I have my doubts regarding the loss of faith in Religion of Progress. Your point is that, as civil religions are promising paradise on earth, these are more vulnerable to fail that promises than other kinds of religion. You showed communism as an example of fast loss of faith. However, I think that what happened was that communism was replaced by Progress in the hearths of the believers. After all, both of them are pretty much religions of progress, believers in science and technology. Back home, in Spain, old-school communists are among the most fervent defenders of science and technology against superstition, religion and spirituality. And it's not unusual to find that old communists are now staunch defenders of capitalism. As an example, our most-famous right-winger libertarian radio show Host (think of Glenn Beck) was maoist-communist in his youth!!.

So I wonder if it would be possible that Religion of Progress could become some kind of waiting-for-the-Messiah religion. Most of theist religions are about this, waiting for something to happen in short term (Messiah 2nd coming, apocalypses...) and believer usually don't loss faith because this don't happen. Maybe in 100 years people will wait for "Free energy" to restore the path of Progress.

onething said...

I often feel discouraged by the amount of dishonesty in written history. One real difference between humanity and the other animals, is that we are able to communicate through time. It is all well and good from a spiritual standpoint to learn to be "in the now" but it is a very confined space if perpetual.
The sense of entitlement is something that I've become particularly aware of. It is indeed worrisome, but if the people begin to feel angry and even betrayed, where do you think they will direct their anger?

ohyes378 said...

Any comparison of a (quite valid) critique of Neo-Darwinism with a flat earth or medieval thinking is a bit disingenuous. Instead of merely writing off the very real problems which Darwin himself acknowledged it would be more fruitful to see that the questions put forth by those critics of Neo-Darwinism are not satisfactorily answered and attempt to get to the truth.

We are all guilty of arguing from ideology at times. It is our greatest challenge if we are to increase the store of real knowledge.

"Darwin's Doubt" Stephen C. Meyer

What often hampers the debate is to immediately assume someone who questions the mainstream Darwinist view is a "creationist". Today, especially, this is an error.

The Chinese paleontologist J. Y. Chen is quoted as saying, "In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government. In America, you can criticize the government , but not Darwin."

Tyler August said...

"...the lunar landers scattered across the face of the Moon stare back blindly at a nation that no longer has a manned space program..."
That line hit me closest to home--because I am a Planetary Scientist by education, and because that is what cost me my faith in progress. Not just the fact that we are turning away from the Final Frontier, but how ultimately laughable most efforts to turn us back are, in face of the immense challenge our gravity well poses.

I agree that the blowback from losing that faith is going to be hard. I do hope it waits a few more decades, until the last of the Baby Boomers is in the ground. My better half has become even more convinced than I of our civilization's fate, and it has lead to a very bitter sort of ageism. According to a study she read, 1978 was the "last best year" when the downward trend began for the average citizen; she found it all too easy to believe. Perhaps it is natural for her to carry a deep bitterness towards those who were lucky enough to come of age and live their lives in those halcyon days. If she were the sort to believe in hell, she'd condemn entire generations to the flames, for what she views as a betrayal. The 'scorched-Earth economic policies' that kept the supply of bread and circuses growing to 200 channels with nothing on at the cost of mortgaging our future represent, to her, the greatest sin in history. (which is saying something for a woman descended from a Panzerobergrenadier and knows what happened on the Eastern Front.) If her attitude spreads, well... I'd hate to be of the elder generation that could take blame. I do hope that when my generation (at 25, I am technically a millennial) takes power, the downward trend is firmly established enough that we can be seen to stand against it, and shan't be condemned by our children quite as bitterly.
(Though it won't be my children. We [and especially she] cannot bear the thought of bringing them into the world that's being made, and have taken permanent measures to avoid it, while antibiotics are still useful and hospitals aren't complete carnal houses. Many would disagree with what they see as a "selfish" decision, but I think it makes her the best mother I'll never know.)

lw said...

what is your definition of progress?
and in what sense are you using it in this essay?

this wont hurt much said...

Another thought provoking post. It seems to me that the press, government,and interest groups have reached a fever pitch trying to distract us from the ongoing decline and decay all around us. I think we may look back on this time period and liken it to the collapse of the Soviet Union. We might do well to learn from the struggles they went, and are going through.

Kyoto Motors said...

“It’s not the mere fact that new technologies show up in the stores every so often that matters, but the way that this grubby commercial process serves to bolster a collective sense of entitlement and a galaxy of wild utopian dreams about the human future.”

This addresses a key question that has been simmering on the backburner of my mind. I marvel at the subtle but significant technological improvements I’ve witnessed with regard to bicycle technology: fine-tuning and specialization is everywhere, and the results are impressive and enjoyable. So at least in this area of endeavour, the narrative has continued. I do question how much more refinement could possibly be necessary – after a point the needs are saturated with choice and the advances are marginal to insignificant (or merely esthetic/ superficial). The same could be said of electronic devices such as smart phones – the current capacity of which is remarkable) how much more “improvement” could possibly be required beyond the present level of techno-wizardry?
So long as the dazzling advances continue, we might continue to fool ourselves, but like you say, the gadgetry and technology (whether in circuitry or metallurgy) is only one aspect of the narrative. When set against the backdrop of slow-to-no-growth on the economic front, and general decline/ depletion on others, the narrative breaks down. What’s more the regress/ contraction has the very real effect of affecting our very ability to sustain production on the technological front. Once the gadgetry falls by the way, the mythology suffers a real blow.
(Funny how the regress on the space-race front has not sunk in yet – I hear grown adults telling their kids how one day they vacation on the moon…still to this day!)
Interesting of note, I believe is that with the two examples I have given (bikes & smart phones) the former can relatively easily downgrade into a simpler, less “advanced” form and still provide a wide-spread service to society. The smart phone may need to downgrade, but to what? The regular old cell phone? Even if we could resurrect the older technology, would we be able to sustain the systems that support it? (Energy intensive ones such as power grids, LEO satellites, the internet itself…) Will we then return to old fashioned telephone service and land lines? Would such a move be sold as “progress”?

Mike R said...

I wonder to what extent 20th-century societal recoveries from collapse and near-collapse play into people's beliefs that "they'll figure something out."

I'm reading a book (Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe) whose first page describes the Europe of 1945 like something from a late stage of the long descent: "Imagine a world without institutions. It is a world where borders between countries seem to have dissolved, leaving a single, endless landscape over which people travel in search of communities that no longer exist..."

Yet Europe in not too many decades became again of course, for all its recent economic woes, a functional, civilized, modern place -- the pipe dream of many left-leaning Americans. A similar recovery, on a much less dramatic scale, happened in the US after the Great Depression.

Reiterating that I do not personally think such a comeback is possible again (no more cheap fossil fuels, no Marshall Plan equivalent coming in from a relatively unscathed ally), I also believe that because there have been these recoveries within memory of our parents and grandparents, it clouds people's judgments. They can look at these examples and say, "See, they did figure something out and came back from worse than we'll experience." How does one respond to that argument, I wonder?

Richard Larson said...

I'll trade my place with God, out in the stars, for your lowly dungheap anytime. Ha!

I do hear the tone of disappointment around here from time to time, it sometimes gets me going. I start to tell them why, but get "better days are coming", or "how can you be so negative" regularly enough that I am not proselytizing as much as I use to.

Now, when I hear the dissapointment, I just ask, "have you ever thought that it could get much worse"? That ends their negative talk right quick. Ends the conversation as well. :-)

Those people are just going to have to find out on their own.

William Hunter Duncan said...

"Next week, therefore, we’ll talk about what science might look like in a world on the far side of progress."

My hope is, it's a science and a culture that lets nature be, for the most part.

CJ said...

Not that this will surprise you - Exxon and Chevron Miss Out on U.S. Oil Boom. "The oil giants are spending unprecedented billions of dollars to find and extract petroleum, hunting in harder rocks, deeper underground and farther offshore. " "But the big companies are finding that the pools of oil they have access to are shrinking—or are technologically more complicated to tap."

Adam Funderburk said...

I am a mental health counselor in Atlanta, GA (I am finding your "Not the Future We Ordered" book helpful). I work mostly with relatively high-functioning adults who suffer from anxiety disorders and depression. There are many points in this series of posts that I find relevant, but two ideas that crop up consistently with clients, particularly those with anxiety, are 1) an unquestioned and mostly unconscious belief in Progress, and 2) a very polarized way of looking at the world. Most of my clients, particularly the twenty-somethings looking for a “meaningful career” and the ones who are (or used to be) in real estate, seem utterly confused about what they are supposed to do. On the one hand, there is the idea about how things are supposed to work (still strongly perpetuated in our culture) and the reality of how things are actually going.
Most counseling and psychological training programs do not handle the issue of macro-forces except in cursory ways, and the mythology of progress is as strongly entrenched in the mental health field as any other. I find it ironic, and a source of amusement, that many of the “cutting edge modalities” in mental health are actually thousands of years old. However, because many of these very old methods are being “discovered” or “proven” by neurobiological research, they are being more widely accepted, albeit with an appropriately “modern-sounding” new name. In particular, the Vipassana (or mindfulness) meditation techniques that I learned through martial arts and Buddhist practice are all the rage in anxiety and neurobiological research. Now, I am not anti-research (Emory University here in Atlanta in particular is doing some fascinating work with the Tibetan monks). However, I find that there is a certain attitude of “now-we-know-what-is-really-going-on” towards some of these traditional practices, rather than respect and amazement to the minds that developed these methods over the course of human history. It’s like anything that is to be accepted has to have the “modern stamp of approval”.
Anyway, I appreciate the blog, books, and comments. Like everything in our culture, the face of mental health is rapidly changing, and what relevance my profession will have in the coming decades will depend greatly on how we address the end of growth.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, I've discussed the survival of technologies in earlier posts -- the short form is that the less in the way of continuing inputs and intact infrastructure it requires, the more likely it is to stay around, while dropping back to an older technology is only an option if you've still got people who know how the older technology works -- thus my repeated comments about learning how to use a slide rule!

Heretic, good to know that someone in the scientific community is paying attention to these issues! I'll be trying to address most of your points in the next couple of posts.

Liquid, oh, apocalypse is utterly thinkable. People think about it all the time. It's the things that nobody thinks about that are more likely to blindside us!

Marlow, thank you!

Russell, good point. Equally, the Chinese may be around for a good long time, but that doesn't mean that we'll be able to use more than a few hand-me-downs here in deindustrial, post-imperial, Carolingian America.

Ando, that could just as well summarize most of human thinking, of course.

Longway, thank you for the tirade! That's good to hear, though I'd be interested in hearing a response from European beer drinkers, who may have their own viewpoint to offer. I'm sorry to say that the microbrew revolution is only just reaching the north central Appalachians, where I live -- "beer" here usually means Bud Lite. (Ugh.) We need a decent brewpud here in Cumberland!

Adamatari, I'm not so sure that science will continue advancing much further. Most of the low hanging fruit was harvested a long time ago, and without fairly large subsidies, it's a good question how much research can continue at all. As for the rest of your comment, though, no argument there.

Rita, true enough. That's a common habit of US liberals -- I'm thinking here of the way that Cuba was lionized by some people in the sustainability scene a while back, none of whom wanted to talk about the fact that it's, ahem, a dictatorship.

Raven, strictly speaking, it's a bit more complex than that, but as a rule of thumb, well, yes.

SMJ, we'll get to that. I'd be surprised if it doesn't start within a couple of decades at the outside.

Lisa, thank you! Glad to be of help.

Phil Knight said...

Daniel Lawrence O'Keefe once pointed out that the gods of dying religions often become the demons and devils of the religions that replace them.

It's interesting that in the UK, the former civil religion of Communism has decayed into becoming the anti-religion of the civil religion of Britishness - celebrating Margaret Thatcher's death as a "witch", encouraging people to burn Remembrance Day poppies etc.

I wonder if the religion of Progress will follow the same arc and become demonic. I can foresee its followers indulging in deliberate vandalistic acts of pollution as they rage against the dying of the light.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, I see you haven't been reading this blog for long. Go back to last autumn's posts on the history of the American empire and you'll find the wars of 1914-1945 discussed in detail as a struggle over who was going to carve up the remnants of the British Empire.

Andy, thanks for the links! A lot of people have something to contribute to shaping a postprogress future, and yes, cultural anthropologists are among them.

Yupped, fascinating! Thanks for the link; I'll have to check it out.

Bill, you get today's gold star for pointing out one of the realities nobody wants to talk about -- the role of planned obsolescence in guaranteeing the loss of a great deal of modern technology.

Angel, oh, granted, there will be groups, potentially massive ones, clinging to a belief in the Second Coming of Progress for a long time to come. Based on historical parallels, though, I expect the civil religion of progress to be replaced by one or more theist religions, along the lines Spengler sketched out in his discussion of the Second Religiosity.

Onething, we'll get to that.

Ohyes, I don't make the comparison to criticize medieval thinking; that was the best model of the cosmos available at the time, and was elaborated in ways that allowed accurate predictions to be made about testable phenomena -- the medieval theory of gravity and levity, for example, explains falling rocks very well.

Tyler, it's a sensible choice just now, not least because one way or another, the human population of this planet is going to have to decrease to a modest fraction of its current level; the more of that decrease that can happen by way of fewer births, the better for everyone. As for the clash of generations, that's an incandescent issue which I'll have to discuss in a later post.

Lw, go back and read the previous posts in this sequence. The meaning of the concept of progress is complex, and I develop it at length in a number of posts.

This, agreed; Dmitry Orlov's very useful book Reinventing Collapse is a good guide to what we can learn from the Soviet experience.

Kyoto, what you're describing is the law of diminishing returns: no technology can continue improving exponentially forever due to hard physical limits, and so sooner or later you're down to subtle tweaks and shifts in fashion. As for older technologies, that'll be an option only if someone still remembers how they work; I wrote a post quite a while back on the difficulties faced by any attempt at technological retrenchment when the last step on the ladder doesn't exist any more. It's still a major issue, and one that needs to be addressed on a case by case basis.

John Michael Greer said...

Mike, that's a good point -- it won't occur to people who've had that experience that it was only possible because of the vast supply of cheap energy the US and the Soviet Union both had in the years after the Second World War.

Richard, I recall a saying about leading a horse to water...

William, good. Stay tuned!

CJ, many thanks for the link! No, it's no surprise, but the fact that the media's talking about it is a harbinger.

Adam, glad to hear the book's being helpful! The psychology of individual response to macroevents is a huge and nearly untouched field, and since we've got a mess of macroevents coming down the pike, it would be helpful for mental health professionals to get to work thinking about possible responses that might help people cope with the psychological trauma that will result. I hope you can do something along those lines.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, nihilism is another common symptom of the collapse of a religious belief -- your local Communists are an example; having lost faith in the gospel according to Marx, all they can do is be against something, and British patriotism is a convenient target. Unfortunately, I think you may be right about believers in progress, in at least some cases.

Matthew White said...

"Bill, you get today's gold star for pointing out one of the realities nobody wants to talk about -- the role of planned obsolescence in guaranteeing the loss of a great deal of modern technology. "

I worry about this frequently. The "myth of progress" is built right into modern computing hardware everywhere, as in, nothing needs to last longer than five years since it will be replaced by then anyway. Also, given the rapid progression of modern information to digital storage, how much could really be saved in the event of even a spotty electric grid and lack of a feverish renewal cycle? These days, no electricity means no communications, no books, no news, no ability to subtract (evidenced by my witnessing the inability of a teenager to make change for a twenty without checking my math with her cell phone), etc. etc. Hell, people can't even read cursive anymore.

ChemEng said...

Mr Greer:

In your posts you have often referred to the use of slide rules if ever calculators become unavailable. I come from the slide rule generation (in our final year of engineering school, the chemical engineering department acquired its first calculator — students had to go to the room in which was enthroned in order to use it). My first student job was in the production lab of one of the largest chemical plants in Europe. We had a mechanical calculator — the user had to punch in numbers and then cranked the handle; it never gave the correct answer, but it was great fun.

It is important to stress that the use of a slide rule requires a different thought process — it’s not just a matter of machine selection. For example, on a calculator we find that,

3 * 4 = 12
30 * 40 = 1200
0.003 * 0.0004 = 0.0000012

With a slide rule,

3 * 4 = 12
30 * 40 = 12
0.003 * 0.0004 = 12

In each case the user has to figure out where to put the decimal point. An experience user can “sort of guess” where to place the decimal, but that guessing is based on a childhood education in mental arithmetic. It’s not something that can be picked up quickly.

And it is important to realize the a slide rule is an analog device, whereas a calculator is digital. Hence the old joke, “An engineer is someone who multiplies 3 by 4, gets an answer of 11.9 and approximates to 12.”

Other examples of a different way of thinking are the manner in which those trained in Victorian primary schools could add up a complete ledger in their head. For example, they would hand calculate the sum of,

£3 10s. 6½d.
£4 2s. 11d.
£11 13s. 1d.

and get the answer of 18 pounds, 13 and sixpence halfpenny.

The above calculation also trained children to think in different numerical bases. They were:

20 (20 shillings in a pound), 12 (12 pennies in a shilling), and 2 (2 halfpennies in a penny).

My point is that we cannot simply revert to the old means of calculation — it starts with the way children are taught in primary school.

subunit said...

It is worth noting that our current civil religion of progress is merely a particular reconfiguration of the civilising narratives of classical states. As James C Scott notes in his seminal study of the relationship of upland tribes to valley padi rice states in Southeast Asia, The Art of Not Being Governed:

"The standard civilizational narrative for Siamese, Burmese, Khmer, Malay, and especially, Chinese and Vietnamese court cultures was that, over time, the barbarians were gradually assimilating to the luminous, magnetic center. Incorporation would never be total, for then the very concept of a civilizing center would cease to have any real meaning. There would always be a barbarian frontier.

Civilizing the people of the hinterland was conceptually more plausible if the barbarians were considered to be essentially "like us," only more backward and undeveloped. In the case of the Vietnamese, the Muong and Tay were literally considered to be "our living ancestors.""

Indeed, I think if we examine today's "civil religion of progress" closely, we will find that it is still very much constituted by ideas promulgated by the state, for the benefit of those networks of power and patronage constituting the state (as JMG alludes to in this post). As a review of some of Reinhart Koselleck's work in the context of Marx and Arendt ( put it:

"According to Koselleck, with the secularization of the political, prognosis emerged as the antonym to that former paradigm of futurity, namely, prophecy. Rather than prophets hypostasizing the what-will-be, politicians became something like rational soothsayers. To paraphrase Koselleck, calculative politicians supplanted superstitious prophets, whose prognoses of the future became the defining and determining element of political action, and by extension, of historical meaning in general.

For Koselleck, prognosis and process crossbred to create the idea of progress that would become the central feature of the modern consciousness of history. This development, however, did not only emerge in intellectual contexts but in fact in concrete political situations. For example, Koselleck describes the ways in which European states sought to suppress millenarian prophecies and their promises of divine salvation in order to consolidate the political influence of the state. However, in so doing, the state had to satisfy in some other way a future with which the people can continue to expect and hope for. As Koselleck writes, “progress unfolded to the degree that the state and its prognostics were never able to satisfy soteriological demands which persisted within a state whose existence depended on the elimination of millenarian expectations” (Futures Past, 17). Thus, the state had to produce, as it were, its own prophecies of the future, albeit guised in terms of rational prognosis which it then subsequently and ideologically called progress."

The failure of these narratives ultimately implies the end of the ideology used to explain and justify the existence of modern states. This dynamic will, I think, drive the political ramifications of the collapse of the "religion of progress". Old and new perceptions of the flow of time, messianic cults, the retreat of state space and the proliferation of non-state groups with alternate narratives of futurity may characterise the next century.

Unknown said...


The deliberate vandalism behavior is already popping up here and their. The 200 foot communication tower in California this past weekend comes to mind.

I also find the side story/meme held by the public about progress hidden from our eyes by the government or corporations. That we are held in check or cheap energy is manipulated on a grand and continues scale for some evil motive. Go to almost any story on the high cost of gas-petrol and most comments follow this outline.

ganv said...

I was well along a path thinking about how science will change before getting to your last paragraph. I am looking forward to next week.

One important piece of the story of science and the religion of progress is a strange alliance between scientists and post-modern philosophers of science. Kuhn and others declared that science is an never ending sequence of paradigms replacing each other. He explicitly denied progress, at least progress toward 'truth'. But the scientists steeped in the religion of progress easily adopted the notion of a never ending sequence of discoveries replacing old ideas with new. They of course assume newer is better, but since truth is a kind of abstract thing, they can just claim to be developing more quantitatively accurate and useful theories without approaching 'truth' and the philosophers and scientists are both expecting the same future.

Only problem is that after the revolution in particle physics that led to the standard model in the 60's and early 70s, there haven't been any revolutionary discoveries in fundamental physics. Experiments have simply confirmed the existing theories, including the recent discovery of the Higgs boson. In fact, the revolution that was working itself out when Kuhn wrote 'The structure of scientific revolutions' is the last one we have seen.

Now theoretical physics is not at its end. But it may be at its practical end. Sean Carroll gives an effective argument that we already understand the underlying physics of everyday life:

I would argue that other parts of science are still advancing quite rapidly...with new insights in materials science, biology, neuroscience, computing, and automation making advances that will continue to change our lives. But the end of practically relevant discoveries in fundamental particle physics happened 40 or more years ago, and the news is only just getting out. Check out the responses that Sean Carroll get to his posts above to see how people respond when someone questions the religion of progress.

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, exactly. As the economics of the computer industry become more and more difficult, I expect to see components become harder to replace and quality drop steadily, and yet -- since nobody remembers how to get by without computers -- governments, businesses, and individuals will for the most part remain locked into dependence on a system that increasingly just doesn't work. The only way out is to start working now on retooling toward simpler technologies -- but how many people can even conceive of that today?

ChemEng, that's why it's crucial to get working on the recovery of those skills right now. I know a number of young people of the post-slide rule era who are busy learning how to use a slipstick, complete with order-of-magnitude estimates; they're the ones who will be able to teach others as computer technology prices itself out of the market.

Subunit, thank you -- I've read Scott, of course, though it's been a long time, and Koselleck has slipped through the radar until now. No argument with your conclusions -- I'd suggest that there's more going on here than the justification of state power, but that's unquestionably a major factor, and the collapse of the civil religion of progress could quite plausibly involve the end of the post-Westphalia nation-state and the emergence of alternative forms of social organization -- or disorganization. More on this as we proceed!

Unknown Carl, true enough. The cargo cult mentality underlying so many contemporary conspiracy theories is going to be a significant force as progress grinds to a halt, no question.

Ganv, the Scott Carroll post reminded me forcefully of the late 19th century physicist who was certain that everything worth knowing had basically been figured out about physics -- well, there were these two little details, blackbody radiation and the energy source behind radioactivity, but very soon those would be solved and then physics would be complete. (For those readers who don't know the history of physics, it was precisely those two issues that blew late 19th century physics to smithereens. Now of course it's possible that Carroll is right... That said, no argument with the rest of your comment: physics has run up hard against the law of diminishing returns -- how much did it cost to detect the Higgs boson? -- and has settled into what will probably be its mature form, and yes, the responses to Carroll's post were worth reading!

Andy Brown said...

Rather than referring to Progress as a grand narrative, civil religion, or ideology - I think I'll start calling it a "tradition." As in, "traditions of progress are being increasingly called into question by young people, who want more practical and up to date ways of dealing with the world." Or, "steeped in the time-worn traditions of Progress, nation-states were woefully unprepared to deal with a changing world." There's something elegant about using traditional progress' own most insidious insinuations against it.

Leo said...

The variations on replacement across the world will certainly be diverse. Also the sequence and process that various parts of the world go through.

Always get the impression that when people say the collapse of industrial civilization, they mean complete collapse everywhere. But that's not what happens, Byzantium is proof of that and so was the northern Mayan cities.

So you could easily see a modified form of progress survive in some areas because they haven't particularly collapsed. Russia and S.America are candidates for that, through it'll be in their own forms.

And depending on how and why it happens, that'll affect the outcome. Canada and Europe are unlikely to follow America's path and each continent if different enough to get at least slightly different outcomes.

And as the international transport systems unravels, most areas will be physically separate from each over.

Australia will have a severe case of this. The distance from Perth to Jakarta is the same as London to New York, not exactly close. And the north coast is likely to be depopulated. They've been trying to develop it since before federation and it's still only has half a million people so significant settlement is unlikely. Which just increases the separation.

Repent said...

Conversations with GOD: (Audio presentations)

Even if this isn't really a conversation with GOD, it raises numerous salacious points that are being missed by the religion of progress.

(Excellent post as always)

roland said...

here are two lectures that readers (and possibly the author) of this blog might find interesting:

John Gray "The myth of progress"

Simon blackburn "Is science all we need to understand human nature?"

ganv said...

Having read your blog for a while, I of course had to consider what happened to others who proposed that the physics underlying everyday life is understood. The story of the late 19th century prognostications that physics had reached its end are not as simple as is popularly believed. A collection of quotes is at
However, only one of these is a first hand statement from an established physicist. (Jolly's comment is second hand from 20 years after the quantum revolution started, Hertz is quoted as a student, and the Kelvin quote has no primary sources.) Only Michelson's quote stands clearly: 'The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, .... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals '

The sentiment clearly existed. But there were also many scientists who were clearly aware of the gaps in their understanding of atomic spectra, heat capacities, energy source of the sun, etc and recognized that these were significant and not minor issues. Michaelson was wrong, but one can argue that he wasn't as badly wrong as some think. Look at a modern engineering curriculum. A chemical or electrical engineer might take one course in quantum mechanics, but the other 20 some courses use mostly classical physics (with some effectively classical phenomenology of chemistry and semiconductors) while making only minimal reference to 20th century physics. Mechanical or civil engineers dispense with the quantum mechanics course entirely. I am not saying that Michaelson was right. Just that the models they were using in the late 19th century were fairly accurate at describing a large fraction of what they or we experience in everyday life, and we continue to use them for most practical purposes today.

But our situation in 2013 is very very different. We have been searching with billion dollar yearly budgets for four decades for any hint of something that goes beyond the standard model of particle physics. And experimentally we have found only dark matter and dark energy, neither of which can be detected on scales much smaller than a galaxy. You might argue that some measured neutrino oscillations require adjustments of the standard model. But these are all three clear examples of things that don't affect our everyday lives. What's more, there are not even any partially plausible scenarios known in which they could affect our every day lives in the next few centuries.

So in the end, we don't know the future. Warp drives using worm holes we induce by manipulating dark energy might become practical in a few decades. Or not. But it seems to me that the claim that new technology based on physics beyond the standard model will arrive anytime soon is mostly a guess that is founded either on faith in the religion of progress, or simply on optimism unconstrained by a quantitative knowledge of the size of the deviations between the standard model and our best measurements.

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, okay, that gets tonight's gold star. Excellent!

Leo, of course collapse will take place at different rates in different places. Still, industrial civilization as such can only exist in a context of cheap abundant energy, and as the remaining fossil fuels skid down their depletion curves, nobody anywhere in the world will be in a position to maintain an industrial system. If a society were to grasp that, and start making the necessary changes in advance, they might manage a transformation rather than a collapse; as it is, though, I expect every corner of the globe currently inhabited by any approximation to an industrial society to face at least some degree of uncontrolled contraction and disruption in the years ahead.

Repent and Roland, thanks for the links.

Ganv, interesting. Clearly there's been some hagiography applied to the emergence of the new physics, too! Your final point, of course, remains sound; expecting a miraculous breakthrough in time to save us from the consequences of our own dumb mistakes is for all practical purposes a faith-based response to the challenges of our time.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

the collapse of the civil religion of progress could quite plausibly involve the end of the post-Westphalia nation-state and the emergence of alternative forms of social organization -- or disorganization.

I'm with you there.

The nation state is "tired" and increasingly subject to predation from other organisational forms. I'm thinking here particularly of multinational corporations. To me corporates look more and more like an incarnation of communism thats managed to free itself from the constraints of geography, since all you really need in order to join -wherever in the world you are - is a willingness to submerge your ego into their "mission statements" and organisational culture, and work for the "benefit of the whole" . And if someone becomes "inconvenient", there are no expensive gulags to maintain, simply notices of termination to issue.

So I sometimes wonder: If accurate cartography was an "enabling technology" of the nation state what will our maps look like in 100 years?

Remember the political maps of the cold war era (big red eastern europe etc). Perhaps "we'll" be planning our lives around the shifting sands of the various "corporatocratic ideologies" as they intersect at whatever map reference we inhabit at a point in time...

On the other hand, comms and complex supply chains are what feed a multinationals expansion. Fragile - easily subverted. That said, banks have been working much this way for centuries, so now that these additional "cultures" are out there... who knows what they may morph into.

Whatever. Speculation. Too much absinthe maybe.

Must be time to watch some cartoons...

TIAA said...

Progress's myth is that we are moving toward something better. This myth veils the truth that we are in fact moving away from something we decided we did not like in the world. When progress fails to that end, what we are moving away from catches up with us. When that happens and we are dead unprepared to face it, science in all the current forms it takes which are made specifically for enhancing progress, will be seen as useless as the vehicles technology made that hurried it along.

You Micheal Greer are very wise to recognize this work but have you faced in your self what progress as of yet protects us from? How people will react to being suddenly confronted by it? Well has anyone here read 'It" by Steven King"? That gives us a taste of what we are driven from and by. Also the book and movie "The Last Unicorn" can shed some light in simplistic format of what happens when you are confronted by these powers suddenly minus the magic that previously buffered and protected you. Well hope I did not lose everyone with my input.

Diane said...

Hi jmg
Last night on Australian tv there was a documentary made by Dick Smith, australian entrepreneur, all round mr everyman and founder of the australian branch of the skeptics.
The doco is titled "ten bucks a litre" and can be viewed on Youtube.
It really is the most splendid piece of propaganda for the infinite movement of progress with Smith taking on the role of an evangelic clergyman.
Australians are about to have federal elections, and I am guessing that many people who watched it, slept a little easier, after all Dick has said everything will be ok.
It was actually very seductive, and if I had not spent the last couple of years following your blog, I might have been more taken in by it.
Today its just mildly depressing :-)

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG (or anyone else),
It would be useful to try to construct a credo of the religion of Progress. What do the believers believe? You have referred to a few things, but a summary of statements would be good. I might attempt a few:
1. Science keeps improving our knowledge of the world and all that came before science (or offered as an alternative way of knowledge) is inferior (superstitious, ignorant, etc)
2. Industrial technology is an improvement over other technologies that preceded it because it is more efficient, and hence saves labor and increases comfort, health and creativity (other things don't really matter). Energy and material availability keeps increasing.
3. We can't go back to either a religious worldview or a pre-industrial one because they are "regressive" (less leisure time, more disease, shorter lifespan, harder labor, etc).
4. Economic wealth keeps increasing and will continue to do so.
5. We become morally better (freer, more loving, more altruistic) people as time progresses. Society keeps improving on the moral front.
6. The opponents of progress will inevitably be defeated, as they have been in the past by the heroes of progress.

Did I miss something in this credo?

Ceworthe said...

JMG, I support your position that gov'ts, etc. Will function poorly with the decline in computer technology due lack of knowledge of how to do things otherwise from 2 experiences I had. One was trying to order something art a restaurant whose computer had gone down. We were informed that we would have to wait until it was back up to order. I was like, "really you don't have pen and paper and know how to write? The second was at work (social services) where we used computers, but had a room full of the same forms that were on the computer in paper triplicate form from the old days. Of course the computer went down, and the newer co-workers were stymied, whereas the older workers just went and got the forms and carried on. I was astounded at the lack of ability and refusal on the part of the new workers to even attempt using real forms (that could have been entered in the computer when it revived). Doesn't bode well.

John Michael Greer said...

Zed, I suspect that multinational corporations will slam face first into the wall even ahead of the modern nation-state; as presently configured, they only function in an environment where they're protected from armed and predatory nations by the clout of the US military. China's government-owned corporations are probably much more the wave of the near future; further out, well, that's a subject for a future post.

TIAA, you certainly won't lose me with a reference to The Last Unicorn, though I'll pass on Stephen King -- not to my taste. Another and, arguably, a better way to grasp what progress claims to protect us from, and actually makes us more vulnerable to, involves a close look at the less pleasant chapters of history, and that's been a focus of mine for some time.

Diane, unfortunately that sort of nonsense is all too common everywhere -- and you'll notice that it's usually those who are very comfortably well off who are busy spreading it around. Wasn't that appalling bit of tripe Thrive, which spread a similar message with a paranoid slant a year or two ago, funded by one of the heirs of the Procter & Gamble fortune? I'm sure most of us can think of good reasons why the rich want everyone to believe that everything is all right...

Iuval, hmm. I'll want to think about this; it feels as though you're missing something crucial, but I can't put my finger on it.

Ceworthe, thanks for the stories! I've seen the same thing happen way too often myself.

Jonathan Byron said...

-- "I'm not so sure that science will continue advancing much further. Most of the low hanging fruit was harvested a long time ago, and without fairly large subsidies, it's a good question how much research can continue at all."

John, I would have thought you would have been the one to write about how many times in the past people have proclaimed that we were all discoveried-out, only to be proven wrong.

You are certainly right that much of the 'big-science' (like that which requires billion dollar particle accelerators) doesn't have a bright future. On the other hand, one could say that for the past 6 or 8 decades, the focus of scientia was bended by certain forces, and once these forces weaken, the focus of understanding will turn elsewhere... It is amazing what one can learn by sitting in a garden or walking through the woods.

Grebulocities said...

ChemEng, I've had the "pleasure" of grading undergrad intro physics homework. Even at the somewhat high-level institution where I got a physics bachelor's, the number of mistakes where intro students would have answers that were many orders of magnitude from anything reasonable was staggering. I remember one case where an otherwise bright student multiplied by the mass of an electron instead of dividing by it, ending up off by 62 orders of magnitude, and simply circled his answer (which came out to a charge density much less than that of a proton smeared over a plane the diameter of the universe) and went on. Other hilarious errors included many answers with velocities of 10000+ times the speed of light and similar absurdities. My dad is a biologist and has told me that his students, when asked to solve a problem involving the number of chloroplasts in a given plant cell, often give answers on the order of 10^25 (or, even crazier, 10^-25) chloroplasts/cell. Somehow, the entire concept of how to think about numbers, even without being any good at mental math, has disappeared among most students. In particular, very few people have any idea what constitutes a reasonable answer. Anyone can make a simple math error, but almost nobody seems to be able to catch themselves when they find something ridiculous. Was the understanding of orders of magnitude better in the slide rule era?

Overall, do you think this sort of problem has to do with the introduction of digital calculators and the resulting de-emphasis of mental math among students? I won't say I would prefer to live in a time where slide rules were the best way to calculate quickly - I've obtained one and learned how to use it over the past couple of months but can never seem to reliably get the third digit to be more accurate than +/- 3 of the real answer - but I can see that having to remember the order of magnitude in a multiplication and/or division problem would have taught people how to think about numbers in a way that modern calculators never could. Not to mention the math principles that a slide rule contains in a visual form - it is much harder to be confused by logarithms when your calculating device shows you how it depends on them!

Cherokee Organics said...


What is it about mobile phones and computers? They capture the imagination and provide a distraction and yes, they are super nifty!

But, why doesn't anyone realise how long the supply chains have become for those super nifty items?

Seems obvious to me.

Also, how many of those super nifty items last more than a couple of years at most? If a country can't manufacture them, then they are probably beyond repair or re-purposing too!

What about those Lithium batteries? I mean this stuff just doesn't last. The power system here forces me to think about this stuff everyday. I'm aware of some off grid householders now using lithium batteries and it has added additional layers of complexity to their systems as the individual cells have to be kept in balance with an additional battery management system.

I grew up without access to a mobile phone and the Internet and you know, you kind of just meet up with people face to face and people sort of had to plan (go figure). I personally believe society would be better without these items, but that is a somewhat heretical view!

Hope you don't mind my tongue-in-cheek rant! I find peoples obsession with this stuff to be sort dismaying.



Hugh said...

Could I suggest to ChemEng that "the answer of 18 pounds, 13 and sixpence halfpenny." is incorrect? The first half of his last sentence is thus proven.

Andy Brown said...


I might add to your credo:

7. Things must always be improved. If things are not getting better (staying the same or "slipping back") then this is a failure and a problem.

I think this insistence on the new and improved is an important one, since it not only creates great anxiety in people, but it aggressively tries to close off so many avenues - where we might have said we have enough or could even do with something less or lesser. Such a judgement is not an option - it is failure. (Ironically, this fetish for endless improvement now serves mostly to support a self-destructive status quo.)

Stephen Heyer said...

But is the “myth of progress” really that important to the ordinary person in the street in the USA, or is it mostly various elites who buy into it, or rather, use it to justify furthering their own interests?

Also, what is the situation in other countries?

Here in Australia progress (however you define it) does not really seem to be something people, even the elites, think about that much. Increases in wealth and living standards yes.

One of the areas people do seem to notice is the marvelous new medical techniques like keyhole surgery where you can be out of hospital next day after what was once a very serious operation.

Rather than “Progress”, Australians have always been more interested in building more mines and farms and factories using good, proven technologies.

Actually, this has sometimes seriously damaged Australia as, strangely, we tend to be rather good at science and on a number of occasions were up with the best in certain areas. This lead was usually allowed to wither on the vine, partly because of a strong feeling that cutting edge science, in fact all that kind of progress, was just not the kind of thing a good solid country like us did.

I sort of have the impression a lot of countries have similar ideas.

Stephen Heyer

Phil Knight said...


If you're interested in how mythologies of progress lead to unpleasant consequences, I would highly recommend Adam Tooze's "The Wages Of Destruction", if you are not already familiar with it.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Dear JMG,

Yay for Lewis, Gould and paradigm shifts!

A story and a question:

I spent my childhood in what I suppose others at the time might have called an urban commune--large house, young adults from different countries, not much money, beer brewing in the basement, bread baking in the kitchen, mint and strawberries growing in the backyard. A child in that house learned about Greek, Norse and Arthurian myths, evolution, deep time, the concept of relativity, Native American cultural ways, LOTR, and a great deal of old-fashioned natural history well before learning about Christianity. That came with visiting a southern baptist grandmother who enrolled us young heathens in vacation Bible school--which we of course viewed as something more like an anthropological expedition than a religious experience--those happened out in nature.

Ever after, much American culture seemed somehow backwards--including the supposed gulf between religious belief and science/scientific method, and especially much of the worship of "the modern" that you are calling here the religion of progress, particularly in light of what was and continues to be done to the living earth in its name. Consequently, much of what you write feels right to me--you might say it resonates with what is deep in my bones.

Which brings me to the question.

Perhaps I missed a post on the matter, but again I notice you dismiss environmentalism in a paragraph. I agree much has been lost since the 70's. I agree that with the mess we've made of things there can be no pure green future and that we cannot go back in time to some imagined hunter gatherer paradise that never really was, or as we imagine it to have been--(though we can learn much from how indigenous peoples managed landscapes and so forth).

But, respectfully, I ask: what about the first nations peoples who are so steadfastly resisting tarsands mining (a wreckage of the living earth) in Canada? What about the folks in southern Illinois who are working against fracking (it's an area with little water and each frack requires 2-4 million gallons of water)? What about those who spend immense amounts of time learning their own ecosystem and working together to bring about wise, non-resource-intensive occupation of same by living so themselves--and informing others (including their local governments) how to do likewise? What about the networks of people who are using agroecological farming techniques that actually build the soil and respect biodiversity?

What are all these people if not what could be considered environmentalists? In this light, you, yourself, could be considered one. :)

Well, that's actually many questions, and this is getting long. So: could you please at some point, spend some time discussing "environmentalism" and explain what it is that all these earth-centered folks are doing if it's not environmentalism? And why shouldn't they speak out against wrong actions with regards to the earth? Maybe we need a new word that signifies a revised and expanded concept.

BTW, A World Full of Gods is very interesting.

Quin said...

Regarding Luval's progress creed statement summary, I propose amending the first statement, or at least adding a corollary to it, in order to include something along the lines that "Although (of course) the future's information and technology will be more advanced than today's, today's state of information and technology is likewise an advancement on any knowledge or technology which came before, consolidating the good bits and discarding the bad bits. Thus when given a choice between two pieces of information or technology, the newer of the two is to be preferred and the older, safely ignored."

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG,
Another thing I thought of was that #3 should be extended to the future as well:
3. We can't go back... and there is nothing that will come after science and industrial technology.

gregorach said...

" I'd be interested in hearing a response from European beer drinkers, who may have their own viewpoint to offer."

Well, whilst I'm not familiar enough with the range of beers available in the US to evaluate the claim that "the United State clearly reigns supreme as the beer lovers paradise", I can very certainly attest that the new wave of craft breweries in the UK is very strongly influenced by modern American craft brewing, and that's where pretty much all the interesting things are happening.

No doubt the Germans and the Czech have their own opinions, but here in the UK, we're drawing a huge amount of inspiration from the American craft brewing scene, and it's really revolutionising the market. I admit I was a bit sniffy about it at first, and I'm still not the biggest fan of some of the more heavily dry-hopped beers, but I can't deny the importance of it. After all, how hard is it to make a decent English bitter? We've taken that style about as far as it's going...

ww said...

One notable addition I'd make to Iuval Clejan's attempt at a credo of progress is the current legal definition of the "highest and best use" of real property as that use which will generate the most profit.

Herr Doktor said...

Mr Greer,

my first post here - been following your blog from a while, but the comments regarding beer have me made me to jump in. My humble European point of view to the issue (btw, I'm a homebrewer myself): yes, in things microbrewing and experimentation, the good old USA is now far ahead of everyone else. The American reference books are by far the most popular (at least here in the Continent). Unexpectedly, German beers, although qualitatively good, are very unimaginative and lack variety (I live in Bavaria, so I have had enough opportunities to taste the local stuff). On the other hand, in Spain (my country of origin) it seems that many people have followed your advice, and microbreweries and brewpubs are sprouting like mushrooms after the rain.

On another topic: I also read a mention to planned obsolescence in the comments. It's worse than that. From my experience in a quite strategic industry (large scale power generation), the trend is "manufacturing for cheapness". Nowadays customers (that's all kinds of power plants) want the cheapest possible equipment, and new designs are increasingly more prone to breakdowns and also have a shorter lifespan, as the design has to go to the limits of performance in order to reduce weight and material use, etc. By comparison, older machines were dimensioned with generous safety tolerances and did go on for decades with just basic maintenance.

And another tangent topic: IMO, Germany is nowadays the country most affected by the Religion of Progress. The victors of WWII erased almost all traditional German culture, everything that could smell like "völkisch", and Progress came in to fill the void. Now, instead of a faith in the superiority of the Aryan race, there is a faith in the superiority of German Engineering. How the German people will react to deindustrialization in what is the most central and populated country of the continent is a big question...

Keep up the good job!

John Michael Greer said...

Jonathan, good. I'll be talking about exactly that in the very near future -- but you'll probably have noticed already that sitting in a garden is unlikely to discover anything that will advance the narrative of progress.

Cherokee, I've never owned a mobile phone, and the only reason I have a computer is that you can't make a living as a writer without one these days. (I also get my computers used, since all I need is something that'll run Word-compatible freeware.) I don't get at all the insistence, on the part of the diuturnally online, that there's something wonderful about being at the beck and call of an electronic pseudoworld.

Stephen, if Australians are less committed to the myth of progress than folks over here, excellent. Here, it's not a matter of passionate commitment, but of bland acceptance -- of course everything is going to keep progressing forever, or (if you're talking to a Christian of a certain stripe) until Jesus shows up; even the Antichrist will have plenty of hot new technology to use.

Phil, I haven't. Thanks for the heads up!

Adrian, please don't take what I've said as a blanket condemnation of environmental activism; it certainly wasn't intended in that light. My point is that the environmental movement has allowed itself to be gelded and harnessed by the defenders of the status quo. Do you remember, back in the day, when environmental activists could do more than scramble to defend a long list of things under threat? Do you remember when the movement was passing new laws and talking seriously about giving legal standing to trees? Compare the way environmental groups operated then to the way they operate now, and you'll see changes that, I would argue, are largely responsible for the all but complete loss of effective influence that's overtaken the movement in recent decades.

Iuval, that's certainly an important part of it. It's not just that we're the cutting edge of progress, it's that what comes after us will look just like us, only more so.

Gregorach, thanks for the feedback! Don't knock the basic English pub bitter, though -- all things considered, I can't think of a beer I enjoy more.

Herr Doktor, many thanks for the feedback also! If I ever have the chance to visit Spain I'll certainly check out the brewpubs. As for Germany, that's fascinating, utterly plausible -- and potentially explosive. I'll have to do more reading on the phenomena of culture death and see how close the match might be.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

don't forget the idea of the need for a permanent avant-garde!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Thanks for clarifying about environmentalism. Clean air and water laws did pass relatively easily, and enforcing them actually did do some good. I suppose gelded--by the instruments of money, influence, corruption, corporate power--is as good a word as any. Yet sad. And I don't believe the story is over yet.

I suppose this is where green wizardry in its practical but also conceptual aspects and environmentalism on a local or regional scale comes into play.

Ecological knowledge is one thing worth saving--and doesn't require big tech. I'm going out now to see if various plants' seeds have ripened enough to save yet.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

JMG, the environmental movement in California does get laws passed, and some of those laws become models for federal legislation and legislation in other states. Among the better known are laws reducing automobile emissions and requiring higher average mpg, banning offshore oil drilling, subsidizing the installation of rooftop solar electrical panels, and mandating that utilities generate at least a base percentage of electrical output from renewable sources.

A citizens' initiative banned sport hunting of cougars a while ago. Human-cougar encounters are increasing as both species expand their ranges, but public sympathy seems to be with the cougars and there has been no push back against the hunting ban.

Perhaps the most effective conservation organizations these days are not big all purpose ones but groups that focus more narrowly. A forestry organizations I donate to has been an effective lobby for getting the state legislature and forestry department to write laws and regulations that put the health of the forests above timber company profits. This kind of activity gets no journalistic attention; you have to be following the topic to be aware of it. Other organizations are doing similar work on behalf of watersheds, the ocean, the desert, and agricultural lands.

Getting environmental laws passed in California may be easier than in some states because of our mixed economy. Resource extraction and industrial agriculture are important, but so is tourism, and no single economic interest has a veto all the time.

ganv said...

Heretic Scientist,

The propaganda of what science will deliver is indeed well out of touch with the reality. My comments above were aimed at identifying some things that science will indeed not give us with the hope that more accurate expectations might result.

Part of what you are saying is that science is advertised as a priestly calling, but in reality it is a bunch of humans with the politics, conflicts of interest, and misuse of power than humans typically display. Actually, that sounds like real life priests. Maybe more people know this already than you imply.

What crimes do you think future civil religions will condemn scientists for? Developing power over other parts of nature is what the human brain evolved to do. So it seems hard to call developing technology or even extracting fossil fuel a crime. Or do you mean that future civil religions will condemn scientists for trumped up crimes because progress was not delivered as promised and expectations were not met?

We are caught in a state where our technological power is out of balance with our ecological foresight. I am looking forward to hearing how JMG thinks science is going to evolve moving forward.

Ian Stewart said...

Apologies to the moderator, but it seems technical limitations force me to split this comment up.

The form and function of the patent system is a hot-button issue in the technology industry that I feel is worth discussing in this context. Both pro- and anti-patent partisans accuse their opponents of being enemies of progress. Some of the more absurd excesses of the system, such as patenting naturally-occuring gene sequences, have thankfully been ruled out. Even so, I can't help but think that patent holders seeking rents on the diminishing returns of progress may be a factor that stalls the whole damned enterprise. Perhaps I am merely acting out my role as a partisan of the more liberal faction, but consider a couple examples. Here we have Microsoft collecting over a billion dollars in licensing revenue from more successful smartphone manufacturers, despite having failed in the market up till now:

It would seem that a company that mainly produces intangibles such as software almost has to pursue such a strategy as the low-hanging fruit are picked. Note, too, that issues around the patentability of software are still up in the air. If the slow-collapse scenario JMG has painted comes true, it would seem that software giants like Microsoft, Oracle, and Google will be titans of legend 50 years hence, rather than having any remaining footprint on the world. The most compelling argument I have heard for the patent system is that it incentivizes the disclosure of methods that might otherwise be hidden away as trade secrets. However, I have to think that some fraction of the huge body of open-source software is much more likely to survive than anything closed, and will likely set an important example for cultures yet to come.

Ian Stewart said...

Another development of interest from the pro-patent side is the development of corporations that function as mass patent aggregators, buying the rights to thousands of patents while producing little or nothing of physical substance. A few executives from the accused Wintel monopoly of the '90s lead the way with Intellectual Ventures, the most famous of these entities, on the belief that such a new market hub would give the "market for innovation" the same sort of efficiencies that the stock market enjoys (ha ha). Stanford Law Review has a good PDF article that analyzes the concept here:

Here also is a PDF article from Peter Detkin, ex-Intel lawyer and IV co-founder, describing the rationale of the organization:

Note that his argument seems to depend upon the great-man theory of history. A great inventor was struggling to get his due from the microprocessor industry, and only by selling his government-granted monopoly to a larger entity was he able to receive the reward that the patent system had promised him.

My biases compel me to feel that responding to market power and centralization with more centralization is totally absurd, especially given the trends challenging the sustainability of highly-centralized markets and institutions. Another trend worth considering is that semiconductor manufacturing is increasingly done on a contract basis. Intel is the last manufacturer standing which owns its own fabs. IBM apparently owns only one and contracts out all else. AMD (Intel's runner-up) and ARM are totally divested of any production capacity, and thus dependent on patent and copyright law to ensure income from the contract manufacturers.

I believe that a more distributist philosophy, in which the means of production and research are in many more hands, will be far more effective than the consumer society we have now. I would like to help realize the ecotechnic future that this blog points towards, especially in the unsustainable and capital-intensive realm of computer technology, but the current climate in markets and research institutions makes me hesitant to follow through. Why take on huge debt for an engineering degree, then grapple with the politics of graduate education and research, only to possibly get bought off or sued into oblivion by tech mandarins who wish to perpetuate the consumer society? Perhaps the Archdruid can guide me to a healthier perspective.

As an aside, I firmly believe that smartphones and touch interfaces are hardly progress. The computing power of 10 years ago is crammed into a highly portable device, yes, but the interface is such a pain to do anything with! Also, you can't upgrade individual components as you might with a higher-quality desktop computer, you have to throw the whole damned thing away and start over! Out here on the farm, cell-phone Internet is my only option, so I've had to laboriously pound out this comment on my phone. The touch interface is optimized for content consumption, not production. Star Trek's tricorders, these things aren't.

Rita said...

I find it a little disturbing that so many reader's first reaction to the idea that progress is a myth cannot endure is to assume that feminism, gay rights and other recent changes in Western Culture will be the first victims. In what way is equality a luxury dependent on material progress? This attitude certainly betrays a lack of knowledge of other cultures that had different attitudes toward gender and gender appropriate behavior. Among the Iroquois,for example, the woman elders could veto a war. And many Native American groups had roles for homosexual men and lesbians. Lack of knowledge and lack of imagination may fuel some of this "death of feminism' rhetoric, but I can't help but suspect that some is fueled by wishful thinking.

S P said...

Somewhere in our collective psyche we must understand that the narrative of progress is basically flawed. Otherwise we would not still thrill to the nazis, who were the last of the premodern men to be eliminated...although they too had been co-opted by progress, even if they only believed in it at a more rudimentary level.

It just goes to show just how far back in history we need to go to find a human mind that doesn't assume progress.

DeAnander said...

Just catching up after a couple of happy weeks away from telecomms, mostly under sail.

I read a relevant book while wandering the coast: The Grand Delusion -- A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth. The final chapter is a bit of a yawner (for me anyway) as I was already, so to speak, on the same page. But the run-up is fascinating, tracing the roots of today's neoliberal economic lala-land to social and philosophical trends in C19 and earlier. Recommended.

Second thought was about diminishing returns, which keeps coming up when we talk about new generations of technology distinguished only by feeble stylistic variations or the addition of almost entirely useless "features." Everyone (who owns such things) knows the frustration of having a favourite camera, GPS, cell phone or whatever and when it is lost or destroyed, finding out that you can't get that model any more, and the "new improved" model is less functional. Thank goodness for refurbs and Ebay. The high prices that some used and refurb electronic gizmos command -- higher than their brand-new replacements being marketed currently -- gives the lie direct to the myth of monotonic consistent Progress. An internal contradiction out in plain sight, but I don't see much dialectic happening around it :-)

Third thought was about the mandate to engineer for cheapness; my take is that as the resource crunch is felt, the dollar price of e.g. a tool is going to go up (obviously, as materials become scarcer and energy more expensive etc). However, people don't like it when prices go up, so instead we engineer for cheapness. As a result, almost all made-in-China tools are now about half the weight (and have less than half the lifetime) of tools of 30 years ago. We might cheer faintly for this, thinking that fewer metals, etc. are being mined and used in manufacturing; but if we have to replace those tools every 5 to 10 years of service instead of handing them down to our kids when we die, then probably *more* materials are being used up over the long term. But the purchase price each time is seductively cheap and humans seem to have short memories, both collectively and individually. Hence, the Crappening (hat tip to whoever originated that pithy neologism).

That's it for now. Got company coming over for real food :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, as I recall, it took a lot of hard work to get the clean air and clean water acts passed -- and I think there's a point to studying why those succeeded and more recent efforts have failed. Still, by all means check those seeds.

Unknown Deborah, granted. It's usually the single-purpose groups that are harder to buy off.

Ian, that's the normal trajectory of a new technology -- you might want to track the way that radio and the automobile, to cite only two examples, both moved from innovative technologies open to entrepreneurs, to fossilized monopolies focused purely on quarterly profits.

Rita, it's a product of the myth of progress -- people who are into the moral-progress end of that myth, and see the extension of civil rights as part of progress, tend automatically to expect that process to grind to a halt or reverse once progress goes away. If you see those shifts instead as changes in political and social mores that happened because people made them happen, not because some law of progress made them inevitable, it's easier to see how they could be preserved or extended in a deindustrial or wholly post-industrial society.

S P, an interesting point, though Eurocentric -- it's actually not hard to find people, and indeed whole cultures, who had zero interest in progress, once you step outside the modern West.

DeAnander, thanks for the tip and the good points! To my mind, both the "new and improved" and the cheapening are forms of stealth inflation -- lowering quality instead of raising prices has become a way of life for most modern businesses, and of course that hardly gets factored into inflation statistics!

Kyoto Motors said...

This historic 19th century sense of accomplishment in science reminds me of Malthus. As Richard Heinberg (among others) has pointed out, as wrong as Malthus was about limits (and doom), he was right anyway – in the long run. It’s just that no-one (himself included) could have anticipated the industrial scale of energy inputs on the event horizon, and could never have imagined that the carrying capacity of Western civilisation could be so altered. Score one for “progress.” But, of course now the inevitable limits are coming home to roost as it were. Similarly, science does effectively have a firm grasp on enough knowables; obviously the highly trained specialists have every right to object to that statement, but when talking about the law of diminishing returns, it’s a question of where do you draw the line?

On another point, it seems that progress exists as a religion where practitioners pray regularly at the altar of consumption. Planned obsolescence is one aspect of this already discussed. I think one of the bigger questions here is, why have we accepted that “future better” must come via "stuff" in a shopping cart on it’s way to the landfill? We have fine-tuned marketing (with science as a guide!) so as to instil a widespread and constant sense of dissatisfaction that spurs us to seek out and expect better. I suppose other observers might have more to say about the psychology and culture of the mythology of progress, and I welcome any and all input, yours particularly, Mr. Greer. What I see at the heart of the matter is the inability to find satisfaction with the present speaks to needs and insights on the spiritual side of the coin…

Leo said...

Yeh, it's a bit late to avoid disruption. Mitigation at best.

And while the current industrial system is doomed, other alternative/modified industrial systems aren't. In Vietnam I visited a few factories that were solely wood and human powered; pottery, silk goods and rice products (that one was close to being a workshop through). Societies of the future will have a few more energy resources than wood and human muscle.

It's place in society will no doubt be smaller that it is now, but it will exist. And then theirs several changes that are likely to happen.

A materials textbook I have mentions that recycling is labour intensive, not energy intensive. So once energy prices soar relative to labour prices, recycling becomes far more economical. Some others exist.

@Cherokee Organics

The worst part is that mobile phones can last up to a decade or more. But their replaced so fast. talks about it.

Half of their costs are in the manufacture because people throw them away.

And if people were willing to give up capabilities, they could probably last even longer. If all they did was act as a phone (no internet, camera etc) then most countries could manufacture them,

Cherokee Organics said...


Mmmm, "Bud lite", you have my sympathies! hehe! The microbrewery thing is going off tap here (please excuse the pun). I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about a trip to the big smoke for "Good beer week" here - definitely something to celebrate!

Most microbrewery output is pretty good, otherwise they quickly go out of business.

I definitely see a still in my future, as potatoes are a weed around here. All I then need is the rocking chair, banjo (guitar in my case) and shotgun and the local farmers from down below will truly be correct when they call this place hillbilly country! hehe!

Ha! I do have a mobile phone, although it isn't a smart phone (I wouldn't have a clue how to use one). If someone handed me a smart phone, I'd say, "I don't know how to use this all I want to do is make a call!" and hand it back to them. There is no land-line telephone here or any other services for that matter (even postal services). I do enjoy having no services here! No services = no bills. As for computers, I keep them working up until the point that they no longer operate. I really appreciate that your blog has mainly text and only a few photos as the Internet service here is via the mobile phone network and it is possibly the most expensive service in the Industrial world (AU$110/month)!

If the computer went offline permanently, I'd still hear your voice via your books. With books you can travel anywhere, it is just that people forget that.

Today was spent with my lady out in the rain, moving, cutting and stacking about half a years worth of firewood. Over the course of the day it dumped 12mm (half an inch) on us, but at least the house is toasty warm.

It was officially the warmest July on record here (in about 160 years of records). I'm a bit worried about the Summer coming up.

About 500m lower in elevation than here (at 200m above sea level or about 600ft), the fruit trees are in full blossom, which is kind of weird for me to observe at this time of year. About 5 years ago here, it used to snow from time to time and settle on the ground every year during August. The oceans around the continent have heated up and are sending heavy rain during the winter periods.

Your post reminded me that when I was younger, my mates and I all used to communicate at night via 27MHz AM/SSB CB radios. I'll bet not one of those rigs had a single integrated circuit in them. I should get my ham radio license and a good old rig with a massive antenna! They're reasonably cheap to purchase here too.

I've been flat out, but hopefully over the next week or two, I'll do another video showing all of the crazy things going on here because of the warm winter.

Regards and may your beer be good beer (or at least have some flavour!) hehe!


Cherokee Organics said...


I'm glad that you used the word "pointless".

I must confess that I struggled to even understand some of last week’s comments.

With writing - and I admit that I use folksy metaphors a lot - I try to ensure that as wide a range of people read the message and understand it as possible. Some commenter's from last week would do well to consider this point.

PS: Speaking of technology, I recently discovered that the preserving equipment that I use here to preserve the summer fruit for the entire year ceased production for that particular sized jar in 1970.

Fowlers Vacola

Mostly I've sourced bulk lots of them on eBay, but you can even find them at the local tip shop too. The glass is so thick on the jars, they are virtually indestructible.



Cherokee Organics said...


Quote: "since nobody remembers how to get by without computers"

At this point, I have to correct you.

I'm younger than you, and yet I clearly recall working on a business with 100 employees in which the entire process was based on paper with double entry ledgers. It wasn't that complex, but the processes may come as a bit of a shock to people younger than myself.

For a business that size, the reporting process wasn't that much slower either.



Phil Harris said...

I feel you are really hitting your stride in this series.

I value your informative interest in mediaeval scholarship. We moderns tend to be fixed on a literal interpretation of the cosmos and physical reality, as if it could trump all questions. I still find however an old idea of ‘Heaven’, as in ‘God’s Heaven’, very compelling, even if I take perhaps a latter day more poetic view than those ascetic scholars with their austere logic. But even back then, for example, Langland’s Middle English narrative poem ‘Piers Ploughman’ (1362) featured allegories of Heaven & Hell presented as visions “in the verisimilitude of a dream”. There is little to indicate ‘literal’ location, except perhaps a "fair field full of folk" in the middle ground. The slightly earlier Dante took an Italian poetic view of Hell, presumably correctly located within Catholic theology of the day.

I have some sympathy with the scholarship of that time having its reservations about the calculations (they were just that) that could decide on the planetary and solar motions. Our location within the theologically more compelling ‘prime-movers’ in a ‘moral universe’ would seem in those days to have priority?

And perhaps you are sympathetic to that older priority when we see in our day ‘the long view’ coming round again to predominate in the mess of a materialist world?
Further then next week to ‘science’ and the ‘New Garden of Eden’, apparently once promised for somewhere in ‘America’ – as if?
Phil H

Orlandu84 said...

Another excellent post! Thank you, JMG.

As I skimmed through the replies, I encountered the concept of technological obsolesce. I must admit that I have not been reading your blog for long. Do you have any posts on what you imagine the prospects of the Internet will be in a few decades? For as long as the internet exists, shared knowledge will enable a significant amount of technology to be understood and repaired. I am also interested on your thoughts on technological dispersal for defense. As companies and countries defend their infrastructure from terrorists, they are engineering ever greater amounts of redundancy and flexibility.

Iuval Clejan said...

Thanks to all who added and amended the draft Credo of Progress. Perhaps there are several versions that exist, just like with the Christian creeds. And perhaps most people might believe in some of these things but not all. While I don't believe in most of the points I and others have enumerated, I confess to a desire for a form of moral progress (#5), despite (arguably) evidence to the contrary. But I wonder if the crucial feature of the religion of Progress is a belief in the inevitability of whatever form of progress (moral, technological, economic), which I don't share. This might be a difference between desire and faith, which has consequences on a practical level. If I desire something, I try to bring it about. If I have faith in something, then I let whatever god or external force bring it about (maybe I pray for it).

Roger said...

Impervious to reason the traditionalist is. Logic? facts? Forget it. But what of the modern, progressive rationalist? That community takes pride in being evidence driven. Well, there's evidence to suggest that being reasonable is usually a good thing. So why not admit that maybe the old scriptures aren't all magic and ghosts?

I've read that the ancient Israelites came up with a novel idea that we use even today, that time has an arrow, past to future. And that time had a beginning. Other ancient societies had a different take on this. I know, some scientists say that time is illusory. Yes, I've read that the laws of physics are indifferent as to the direction of time. But have you ever tried to unsplatter an egg? Yes, I've read that given precise arrangements of initial conditions and physical forces that it theoretically could be done. But have you ever tried? And yes, I've read that time's apparent direction (and our sense of it) is a statistical artifact of the second law of thermodynamics. But still, to our eyes, time has a direction. Would it do so much harm to the cause of enlightenment to admit that maybe the ancient biblical writers with their creation story were onto something?

What about this story about Adam and Eve and Garden of Eden? Yes I know, myth and legend wrapped in fear of sky gods. But maybe the rationalist can concede that the story does contain an interesting notion ie that everyone alive is related, that we all have common ancestors. Nowadays geneticists talk of mitochondrial "Eve" and the Y chromosome "Adam". How did the ancients come up with this? Just guessing, but maybe they noticed that we're all basically copies of one another. For this you don't need a Phd in genetics. And no, I'm not a closet creationist.

And, maybe, in a broad sense, it's a story of the transformation of human existence. According to the story life was good in the Garden and the living was easy. Maybe the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden was a backward look at the good old days when life wasn't so difficult. Maybe, in glacial times when huge herds of animals roamed open grasslands, hunters had a better quality of life. Maybe ancient people were aware that their ancestors weren't always scratching in the dirt for a living. Maybe constant hunger in early farming communities wore people down. Maybe they asked how did things get to be so hard?

So maybe the story of the Garden had its origins in prehistory during that time of cultural and technological transformation from hunting to agriculture. Maybe it was, in part, a story of this transformation. Too many maybes, the rationalist scoffs, no hard evidence. Yeah, I know, a lot of reading between the lines of literary compositions by "primitive" and superstitious societies. But I don't think that reading these old books with an open mind is a surrender to darkness and ignorance.

DeAnander said...

Also thinking that the diminishing returns threshold in particle physics has something to do with the "particle" aspect of it, i.e. it's the dead end of Cartesian or Baconian reductionism, the quest to disassemble the world into the smallest possible units and thereby understand it. The compartmentalisation and hyperspecialisation of big science and the quest for the irreducible particle seem to have reached their climax more or less at the same moment, and the most interesting new research (imho anyway) is in the study of complex systems rather than the continuing, ever-more-perfect isolation of various monads.

Entanglement is one of the hottest new topics in physics; all the cutting-edge results in everything from soil biology to neurochemistry are all about complex interactions, nonlinear responses, etc. So perhaps we have reached the end of one kind of science -- reductionism -- and are now embarking on a new broadening of perspective. One could hope so anyway, as the reductionist path has led us into considerable peril by its staunch and active ignorance of the relatedness of things.

The entanglement of everything (from particles to life forms) seems to me a field so deep, ramified, and complex that even our best efforts will not exhaust it for many generations to come. The "simple" new observation that the trees in a grove are not truly individuals, but complex symbiotic communities, often sharing nutrients with others of their species or existing in symbiotic equilibrium with other species -- that observation alone undermines everything that the industrial/mechanistic paradigm thought it understood about forests (which ignorance led swiftly to the destruction of forests worldwide). There's an accessible, yet fairly solid book called "Tree" -- the lifecycle of a PNW Douglas-Fir -- which illustrates some of what I'm talking about here, the fairly recent understanding that the PNW forest is as much a maritime as a terrestrial phenomenon, depending on marine nitrogen (N15 iirc) more than on terrestrial nitrogen (N14?). The leavings of littoral predators like bears and eagles (fish eaters who leave carcases and scat on land) are an essential component of the food web of the coastal forest. Thus "the salmon are the forest" and salmon/bear/tree are elements of one larger and intricate dance of nutrients.

Here, imho, is the frontier of a science which will not soon run into diminishing returns and whose results and "inconvenient truths" are sorely needed to challenge a worldview which has completed its arc from beneficial and productive to pathogenic and terminally declining.

ChemEng said...

Hugh: Thanks for the correction. I guess that my education was not as good as that of the Victorians.

Grebulocities: I do think that the slide rule encouraged reality in thinking because it was only a small part of the overall process. After all, it only handled logarithmic functions. So the calculation (2 * 4) + (3 * 4) required the following steps:

Slide rule: 2 * 4 = 7.9
Slide rule: 3 * 4 = 12.1
Pencil and paper: 7.9 + 12.1 = 20.0

I suppose that we could have had linear slide rules, but I never saw one.

The early days of computers were even more laborious. You would layout the calculation sequence, prepare an 8-hole punch tape (and hope that it was not torn), submit it to the computer technicians at 4.00 p.m. The next day you would find a large block of green and white paper posted to an inbox sometime before lunch. Many times the paper would simply tell you that you made a coding error: start again.

I remember that one of my friends was doing a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering. His entire thesis was encapsulated in a bunch of computer cards that fit in a shoe box. One day he dropped the box; cards were scattered over two flights of stairs. It was great fun.

I would like to make the following four points:

1. These were not the “good old days”. I have no desire to return to the slide rule environment.
2. Slide rules themselves represent quite advanced technology. After all, they are made with some high impact polymer, so their presence implies the existence of an advanced petro-chemical industry. (I did once see a wooden slide rule, but it was just a curiosity — it wore out much too quickly, and it warped too easily).
3. In high school we never saw a high-tech slide rule. We had to use log and anti-log tables for multiplication and division (or else pencil and paper). If you think that slide rules are laborious and error-prone, try log and anti-log tables.
4. In order to succeed at slide rules or mental arithmetic you had to have the right kind of training — starting in primary/elementary school. It’s not just a matter of technology. It’s analogous to growing your own food. You can read books, but there’s no substitute for having grown up on a farm.

Enrique said...

@ JMG and Herr Doktor:

JMG said: As for Germany, that's fascinating, utterly plausible -- and potentially explosive. I'll have to do more reading on the phenomena of culture death and see how close the match might be.

This is one of the reasons why an Islamic takeover of Europe is such a likely and frightening scenario. In the long run, if Europe is to survive, it will need more than such weak reeds as secular liberalism, the Religion of Progress and a bunch of vaporous platitudes about “freedom”, “equality”, “diversity” and “tolerance” (all of which the Left routinely and hypocritically jettisons when faced with political and religious views it finds uncongenial) in the face of such a challenge. European civilization will either return to its roots (a la Spengler’s “Second Religiousness”) or it will die, pure and simple.

To be brutally honest, the peoples of Europe need to man up and stop acting like a bunch of deluded, politically correct wimps. The Germans in particular set themselves up for disaster when they abandoned their traditional culture and embraced the ethos of the secular, multi-culti Left and mass consumer capitalism because they were afraid of appearing to be “volkish”, as Herr Doktor alluded to. Considering the events of 1933-1945, it’s understandable why they did so, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is usually a bad idea. I believe that Russia and many of the Eastern European cultures will survive, precisely because they never abandoned their roots, but I have grave doubts about the survival of Western and Northern European cultures. Juhana has made some good observations about this in some of his comments. Perhaps the next Reconquista will come not from Navarre, Asturias and Galicia, but from Poland, Serbia and Mother Russia.

Sorry if this comment is a duplicate. I am not sure if the original went through. Feel free to delete if it is.

MawKernewek said...

@Ian Stewart
It shows a company is in trouble when it can no longer keep itself profitable by focusing on making products people want to buy, instead aiming to secure its finances through litigation.

On another point addressed, I'm also a Luddite when it comes to touch screen phones, I own a 3 year old phone with a keyboard but it does everything I need, it has 3G, Wifi, Bluetooth and I see no need to get a touchscreen model.

Kevin said...

That's a brilliant suggestion on Andrew's part concerning rhetorical tactics. Progress: how quaint!

Adrian, in the soi-disant "art world" at any rate, the avant-garde has been old-hat for so long it's moldy, IMHO.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey you lot,

I'm about out of ideas for this week, but just remembered to mention to all of those people who were up in arms at my suggestion that their 401K future is far less than secure from many months ago.

If you'll notice, there is a test case going on at this moment in Detroit of all places. Yep, the city has declared bankruptcy and they are not seeking just a shrugging off of unsustainable debt, they are seeking to restructure the plethora of services and benefits that the city had to deliver.

Fascinating stuff, until you realise that in undertaking this action, the authorities consider that the population is largely disposable. Shocking, yes, but how else can it be interpreted at the most base level? Not good and I hope that I am wrong on this and would love to hear your thoughts.

The other ironic thing is that the funds from one month of quantitative easing would easily cover the cities debt.

The other really ironic thing is that if an individual declared bankruptcy, that individual would not be able to wipe out their student loans. Yet Detroit is seeking to reduce the financial burden of pensions. They’ve forgotten the golden rule of “do unto others”.

Interesting times.

I have a nickname for people who seek to avoid responsibilities and/or blame others: "Fluffies".

Yep, my take on the whole situation is that politicians are using this court process to cast off the financial burdens that they have accumulated over the years via the court system. I may be wrong, but it smells to me like fluffy behaviour number 1 and it saves them from manning up and making the hard decisions.

I can see them now years in the future once the legal dust has settled, "the courts decided, blah, blah, blah, it's not our fault! We’re really sorry, but… We’ll set up a committee to investigate…".

Something to ponder, and again I'd love to be wrong on this matter as I don't really know the outcome and am only guessing based on the situation as reported.

Regards all.


Grebulocities said...

ChemEng - I can certainly see how slide rules would have encouraged better understanding of math even though they were more tedious, only gave a little under 3 sig figs, and required the user to do the addition and subtraction by hand. I definitely didn't think you'd want to go back to them, better insights for students notwithstanding.

I can't imagine trying to write computer programs back in those days. It's annoying enough to learn how to program when you get your output on the spot! Not to mention the tedium of writing papers by typewriter and finding all sources manually...

I did a quick search on the history of the slide rule and it appears that a crude version was invented in the 1600s, not long after an algorithm for calculating logarithms was invented. The "modern" form dates from the mid-1800s, and it seems durable models could be mass-produced as long as precision metalwork is possible. Hopefully somebody has the foresight to mass-produce plastic ones while we still have petrochemicals, though.

On log tables, I just multiplied two 7-digit numbers using no electronic help except to calculate logarithms of integers < 100,000 so as to simulate what it would be like to do that with log tables. I was able to get 6 sig figs of precision with an error of 2 in the seventh, using linear interpolation to estimate logs and antilogs lying between two integers. It was more tedious than just multiplying the numbers by hand, though. When is using log tables more useful than pencil-and-paper arithmetic?

KL Cooke said...

"If her attitude spreads, well... I'd hate to be of the elder generation that could take blame."

If her attitude spreads I hope I kick the bucket before they open up the euthanasiums. Although, I guess it'd be six of one and half dozen of the other, except for the waiting room, which ain't gonna be no luxury hotel.

Son, when I was your age we hated our elders too. And how! Now that they're shuffling off to Buffalo, we call them the "Greatest Generation."

But if your old lady thinks us Boomers are bad, wait 'til Gen X takes over. They'll giver her something to hate.

nuku said...

To oneotaBill:On the subject of things like washing machines that are more complex than necessary and designed to wear out fast, here’s an American company bucking the tide:

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Adrian,

I wasn't going to comment again this week, but you ask a tough question and it is one that is worthy of exploring.

I'll give you my story: Years ago, I moved out to a remote area to practice what I rubbish on about and I found it to be a humbling experience.

I started to try to walk the talk and it was tough, I mean, really tough. Beyond what I even imagined. Things that I considered to be easy wins were in fact actually really complex and difficult. Every day I learn new things, even today. Take the power system here for example, it took four years of tweaking - and a stroke of good fortune - for me to wean myself off the generator and even then, the batteries won't last more than 20 years.

Every single system is like that here. You research it, give it a bash, it fails and then you either accept it or implement changes to make it better next time.

"Stumpy" the local house wallaby has taken a liking to rhubarb leaves - which are apparently toxic - of all things. How do you take that into account?

From a position of hindsight I reckon that environmentalists fixate on a geographical area or issue. It is great for a campaign or to seek donations, but in doing so, they miss the big picture. It also diverts attention from their own lives, and I would strongly suggest that they should lead by example. This is hard though as it involves accepting limits. People aren't receptive to that message.

The big picture at the farm here shows me that the whole "thing" of society is unsustainable and I have nowhere to hide on this front as it confronts me everyday. I just accept it as reality and do my best.

Humility and honesty are the keys I think.

Are the indigenous people in Canada using vehicles to travel to demonstrations?

Are the people of Illinois (unfortunately I always think of the Blues Brothers movie at the mention of Illinois, apologies) using natural gas (either directly or indirectly via electricity through a major generator) to heat their homes during the long cold winter?

The local government advised my neighbour years ago, that despite having tens of thousands of trees on their property (I do likewise), not to use the local trees as firewood. An entire winter firewood is about 2 or 3 trees. Their preferred option was to freight it in some 200km - 300km away from the River Red Gum forests up north. Some of those trees are potentially 600 years old (maybe more). The mallee roots that some people like to burn as firewood can be up to 1,200 years old.

It is not a simple issue at all and the best course is to lead by example. Unfortunately, sometimes environmentalists don't. I would suggest the next time you are approached for a donation ask the person what they are personally doing. It is an enlightening experience.

I feel uncomfortable in removing the veil from the image. Apologies if I have offended.

Regards and may your forest grow strongly.


MawKernewek said...

I've had doubts about progress since a young age (I'm only 29), since I was always aware that since the Apollo landings no one had sent another manned mission beyond low earth orbit.

Likewise that we are increasing consumption of fossil fuels against a finite supply. Perhaps some years ago, I thought that renewable energy and electric cars would step up to the plate as fossil fuels are phased out as they become too expensive. Now I'm aware that green tech won't allow us to continue "business as usual".

However what really made me realise was more cultural, things like the hollowing out of community life, and centralisation of economic life as large supermarkets and big chain stores took a larger share of the economy.

Even things like the fading of the local accent was to me a sign of the things that were going on.

Economically when university tuition fees were introduced in the UK, it became clear that the government were becoming less able or willing to invest in the future. Of course it was marketed as a way to get additional funding but in fact allowed government cuts matching the fee income coming in, especially later when fees were increased in 2006 and again in 2012.

In any case the expansion of university education was linked to companies being less willing to train people up so a job not requiring a degree in the past does now, and even then, they want someone with experience, not a new graduate.

My studies were in astronomy - I started what was supposed to be a PhD but ended up as research masters due to illness, astronomy will be difficult to continue at cutting edge level, because it does rely on precision manufacturing of large mirrors (often segmented for the largest), CCDs and their infrared equivalents for detectors, and a good deal of electronics for things like adaptive optics (to stop the stars twinkling). Observations could be made with existing equipment for a good while, until spare parts become unavailable. Unfortunately certain wavelengths such as X-ray, UV, mid and far infrared, can only be done from space because the Earth's atmosphere simply absorbs it.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Leo,

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out. Low complexity is usually synonymous with reliability.



wall0159 said...


Thanks for the great series of posts. Don't have much to contribute to the main themes, which to my atheistic mind all seem pretty reasonable.

You have repeatedly said words to the effect that all the low-hanging fruit in science is gone, and that science these days requires huge budgets for miniscule results. I think this may be true in some (relatively narrow) disciplines, but I question whether this is a general truth.
There are many areas of science where great strides in understanding are being made right now. One broad sence (as deAnander said) is in systems analysis. Another is genetic research. If we get another 50 to 80 years of scientific research at anything like current rates, our world will be very very different.

Just to touch on the idea of (capital P) Progress I think it is important to emphasise that we really _have_ made great progress in the last several centuries, and simply dismissing it as an artifact of our fossil fuel use is (I think) a bit inaccurate. I agree that not all "progress" has been positive though, and wish we as a species had a bit more wisdom.

Just to refer to deAnander's post again, I remember reading somewhere that it doesn't make sense to think about evolution of an organism. Evolution occurs at the ecosystem level, and all the creatures' interactions with each other and their environment affect their collective evolution. Reductionist thinking won't help us here!

Joseph Nemeth said...

Re: beer.

All I can cite is my own experience. I visited Germany in 2002, and discovered to my surprise that most eating establishments offered two beers -- a light and a dark -- and Radler, which is a blend of beer and a citrus drink. Which light or which dark tended to be a local choice. We spent most of our time with friends in the Tubingen area (SW Germany, Schwabia, Black Forest), and the light beer was almost always an unfiltered Hefeweisen. Even Munich had what I considered very little in the way of selection.

It was much the same in Colombia, by the way: their beers were all light, weak Pilsners, like Coors or Bud, though they had different names which I no longer remember.

Of course, I live in one of the US beer capitols, Fort Collins, Colorado, but my goodness, do we have beers! New Belgium is located here, and has a "Lips of Faith" series I was just hearing about last night: highly experimental beers that are sometimes outstanding, sometimes "not quite nice." You won't find those in the liquor stores, you need to visit the brewery. They are innovating like mad. A local pub, Coopersmith's, has had a green chile beer for a couple of decades that's very popular. This summer, they introduced a watermelon beer that is both startling and excellent. They also have one of my favorite stouts (outranks Guinness in my book). If I have any complaint about US micros, it is that they tend to over-hop them, though I'm starting to see (I think) a movement away from that.

QED2416 said...

Fritz Mauthner, I think, summarized it best. "At all times and in all places, the science of a particular time is the expression of the poor human spirit’s wistful desire for rest."

Watershed Sentinel said...

I wonder how the Indians of Central and Latin America think about these things -- I understand their original sense of time was as a circle not a linear experience, so that might change the way they think about progress. They are certainly doing some interesting tinkering, if not outright revision, with the constitutional Rights of Nature.

Thank you for your fascinating and inspiring writing. So nice to see the Art of the Essay alive and well. Not to mention the pure joy of thought.

PS I'm not a robot, just an idiot - I only see one "word."

ChemEng said...

The title of this particular blog is “On the Far Side of Progress” whicg suggests that there should be a follow-up, “The Extent of Regress”. That is why the slide rule discussion is has a broader application.

If people of the future need to multiply and divide then a slide rule may turn out to be impractical if we do not have high impact polymers and the machine tools to etch them. Grebulocities alludes to steel slide rules, but I would have thought that stainless steel would be a necessity. In other words a slide rule is quite an advanced device — one that may not survive in a deindustrialized future.

We can however, perform quite complex calculations using log/anti-log tables — including the real challenge: long division. It’s one thing to calculate (2 * 4) on paper, but quite another to calculate (671.2 / 893.2). Log tables make this quite straightforward.

If a = x / y
then log (a) = log (x) – log (y)

In this case, using base e:

ln (671.2) = 6.5091
ln (893.2) = 6.7948
∴ ln (a) = -0.2857
∴ a = 0.7515

All this can be done with 15th century technology, i.e., a printing press.

I would suggest that this way of thinking could be done with all forms of technology invented within that last 300 years.

DeAnander said...

good point wall, about ecosystems evolving... and organisms *co-evolving* in their interacting niches. flowering plants and pollinators are a prime example: who's zooming who? is the flower altering its shape to be more attractive to the pollinator over time, or is the pollinator's preference being shaped by the flower? the mechanistic worldview would force us to pick one chain of causation -- after all, if a mechanism moves it's because energy is being applied at an identifiable point. but the reality is always *both*. plus a host of other interacting factors, the kind of stuff that reductionist science needs, and tries, to isolated and eliminate as "confounds."

in evolution, no one's driving (except maybe planetary-scale changes in climate and hydrology). everything seems to be in an intricate near-equilibrium, wobbling gently, like a person on a tightrope waving hands gracefully to balance, stepping forward and backward, dancing in place. then along comes some catastrophic event like an overbloom of one species (oops, lost equilibrium, frantic flailing of arms and running about to find a new balance point) or a big asteroid hit or volcanic spew. and we start over, finding a new place to wobble and dance.

the sobering thing to me as an "advanced" primate is that we humans seem to be a catastrophic event. the web of life has persisted despite many such, and I don't think we will really eliminate all life on the planet -- maybe not even ourselves. but we do seem to be one of the game-changing macro-events that disrupt equilibrium; this might have started with the -- disputed -- Pleistocene Overkill, or maybe a bit later than that with the deforestation of large areas by civilisation. whatever, the process is now well-documented and accelerating as we displace all other biomass in favour of human biomass, and accumulate toxicity around our industrial hotspots.

so even as we see ourselves participating in a mythic narrative of Progress, building and bettering, in a large story of the biosphere as a whole we seem to be a catastrophic event like flood or fire, disrupting entire ecosystems, causing mass extinction, even altering the climate. planetary-scale stuff. I wish this narrative had any hope of popular uptake; it would be a good corrective to the Heroic Humanity story that has been driving us -- particularly the industrial northern hemisphere -- for far too long. as individuals, in a cultural context, we may manifest heroism, but as a species we're about as heroic as an algal bloom :-)

(end of part 1, max length exceeded)

DeAnander said...

(part 2 of long rambling comment)

one last thought is that the mechanistic universe, the reductionist approach, and neoliberalism are (as the book I cited points out) intimately entwined: the same mindset that reduces the living world to the simplest possible building blocks, relying on isolation and separation for understanding things, engenders a view of human life based on the independent individual or monad -- the "homo economicus" or rational actor rather than the community, village, family, clan, band, or what have you that was our conceptual unit of humanity for previous millennia. as Maggie Thatcher famously said, "there's no such thing as society, there are only men and women and families." classically reductionist!

the Theory of Progress tells us this shift towards individualism is a Good Idea -- yay, freedom and human rights and expansion of horizons -- and as someone who would most likely have led a much narrower and more stifled life in a traditional agricultural village, on a gut level I'm inclined to agree... but... can we preserve this newfangled ethic that values individual freedom and autarky while we ditch the radical monadism, the reductionist obsession that is rapidly impoverishing the whole biosphere? here's hoping.

it's so ironic that the reductionist approach which insists that life can be broken down into simpler and simpler mechanical units, in its long term effect, is in fact radically simplifying the entire biosphere. if the damage continues, eventually the food web really will be almost simple enough for our masters of reductionism to understand -- just a few weedy species in a poor food chain with few niches. painful irony.

btw Cherokee, I'm appreciating your honesty and humility in recounting how hard it is to put subsistence theory into practise. I have the same experience daily. my respect for successful peasant farmers worldwide was once theoretical and "politically correct" -- now it is heartfelt and tinged almost with awe.

valekeeperx said...


Over the last couple of weeks, you indicated that perhaps you might need to write a book on evolution. While I believe that would be a worthwhile effort, in my view, I think it is too narrow a focus. IMHO, I think you should focus more broadly on the scientific method itself, but include a major, detailed discussion on evolution, as well as minor sections on other subjects such as ecology, chemistry, mathematics, etc. Just my 2cents.

Again best regards.

PS – I’ve read several of your books and found all of them to be very good writing, well worth the time and funds, and I agree, “A World Full of Gods” is among your 2 or 3 best. I would put “Not The Future We Ordered” in the same category. Haven’t read “Inside a Magical Lodge,” but now will need to.

valekeeperx said...

Not sure if this comment went through during previous attempt. If it did, please delete that first effort (would have been under a different name).


Great series of posts and excellent discussions in the comment sections.

Detecting the descent can be a bit of a challenge, particularly here in southern California. Teasing out the signs from among the noise takes some time, and a practiced and educated eye. Odd juxtapositions are seen, though this is California and oddities are part of the lifestyle here. Construction is a major industry here and it slowed drastically after 2008, but did not come to standstill. Over the last 12-18 months, however, it appears that new housing starts have begun slowly increasing and existing house values are back “above water” in many areas. At the same time, we seem to have an increase in homelessness, some infrastructural neglect, and municipal budget issues (see bankruptcies for Cities of San Bernardino, Stockton, Mammoth Lakes, and rumblings elsewhere). At the same time, however, it is odd to see new 10- to 15-story office buildings going up in other cities even during these last few years of recession. These sorts of conditions always seem to come and go. So, I am concerned about my own confirmation bias (I ask myself if I am looking too hard and selectively to find evidence of descent, or am I now seeing things a bit more clearly). As I said, here in SoCal, there is a lot of noise. Where does one look and what does one look for?

You’ve indicated that California will be the next Rust Belt sometime in the near future. I don’t necessarily disagree. Perhaps, we have a few more years of California Dreaming until things begin in earnest?

Best regards.

Tyler August said...

@KL Cooke
GenX won't earn her hate for the simple reason that no matter what they do, the decline isn't their fault, and they cannot stop it. It was the boomers who took the greatest inheritance the world has ever known and through it away on plastic trinkets and happy motoring. This is just the viewpoint of one young lady, however. Others may not feel that nuance, though--whoever is in charge when the public realizes things are really getting worse and gets the reputation as the last generation to have been pampered by petroleum, whether anything is really their fault or not, is going to be hated, loathed, and reviled by their immediate descendants. Personally, I'd pin it as much on the Greatest Generation as the boomers-- the Reganite/Thatcherite "conservative" reaction that turned us away from a decent chance of a 'soft landing' was not lead by boomers, after all.

As for the creedo of the religion of progress, I'd add something to the effect of
"Progress is an inalienable historical law, and is always proceeding. If it slows or seems to stop in one area, than that will be more than made up for in other innovations."
I've run into plenty of folk who praise to high heaven the gadgets we have now, and really seem to have deluded themselves into thinking that an iPhone makes up for personal jet-packs and cities on the moon.

Tyler August said...


Why do you need stainless? Granted, an iron slide rule shan't last as long, but if properly cared for, it could last a couple centuries--look at antique muskets for how to care for plain ol'e iron. More likely to be bent out of shape before it rusts, if well cared for.
For that matter, I'm not sure why you reject natural materials. While most woods might not be dimensionally stable enough over temperature/humidity swings, there's still bone and horn stone. I'm tempted to try and carve a soapstone slide rule just to prove it can be done-- just don't drop it!

I was going to say something about the more advanced mechanical calculators based on cams and gearssometime in the late 60s in the West, that used to be used for naval firing computers, but then I remembered the Antikythera mechanism. Nothing that sophisticated stands much luck of passing through the eye of the needle that a Dark Age will represent. The technique is so elegant that I'm confident it will be eventually reinvented (again).

Log tables would be wonderful to preserve, but they're already getting rare. Only if the decline is slow enough could they return to common enough circulation for some copies to have a chance of being preserved.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ ChemEng

The first slide rules (Napier's Bones) were made of bone, which when properly dried and preserved will be quite adequate as a material.

Nor do you need the 15th-century invention of printing with moveable type to print log tables, which are not all that lengthy: woodblock printing, or engraved metal plates, or even lithography would suffice for a work the length of a good set of log tables.

I am old enough to have made extensive use of slide rules and log tables in high school, and to have learned how to extract square and cube roots, and to do all sorts of mental arithmetic. There's no reason why the students of the future who have an aptitude for math could not do the same.

John Michael Greer said...

Kyoto, good. One of the rarely noted implications of the mythology of progress is that it implies that the better world of the future must always be achieved by doing more of whatever we're doing right now -- at least whatever is up-to-date and, er, progressive. It's a neat way to block criticism of current habits, and blind people to the possibility that, say, mindless consumption of shiny new trinkets doesn't actually make them happy.

Leo, if those shops are going to be available in your country, somebody had better get to work picking up the necessary skills! That's one of the crucial points of an age of decline -- as the current resource-intensive ways of doing things break down, does anyone remember simpler ways of doing the same things?

Cherokee, get that ham radio license! North America to Australia is well within range of HF transmissions when the ionosphere behaves itself; someday we can discuss beer over the airwaves. Do you remember how to do double-entry bookkeeping, by the way? If so, bone up on that; you may end up making good money teaching the next generation of clerks as computers price themselves out of the market.

Phil, excellent. In the middle ages, astronomers were careful to note that their theories were just convenient mathematical abstractions that more or less duplicated the behavior of the planets; one of the things that got Galileo in trouble was his insistence that his theories weren't just models, but the whole and complete truth about the heavens.

Orlandu, I discussed the internet at some length a while back -- here's one of the posts. You'll want to read the comments, and watch the way that the pro-internet commenters pretend that the economic argument I made had never been mentioned.

Iuval, I think inevitability is crucial to the faith in progress. It's one thing to suggest that you might be able to achieve some kind of improvement, if you work hard at it; it's quite another to insist that history is biased that way, and it's the latter belief that's central to the religion.

Roger, there are many ways to read scriptures. Most of them make the exercise worth doing. My objection is purely to the claim that they can only have value if they're good geology textbooks!

DeAnander, "entanglement" is the latest way of talking about whole system effects, which have been taboo in many scientific circles since the Reagan counterrevolution of the 1980s. It's good to see points such as the one you've made about trees and forests being brought up again -- that was what classes in forest ecology were teaching in the early 1980s, when I took them! Still, whole-systems research is tricky; it's very difficult to generate meaningful experiments because of the sheer complexity involved, and the number of variables you can't even begin to control; and there's a powerful law of diminishing returns there, too. Not that such things shouldn't be studied, far from it, but things may not proceed as far as you think. More on this as we proceed.

ChemEng, I have a wooden slide rule -- picked it up at a junk shop for a few bucks last year -- and it works quite well. My good slide rule (a Pickett 903-ES) is solid aluminum, and I'm guessing you could make one of a suitable brass alloy that would last for a very long time as well. I'm not saying that the slide rule era was the good old days, simply that they take a lot less in the way of resources to manufacture than calculators do, and it's not that hard to learn to use them -- I had no training back in the day, and aced every trig question on my Extra class amateur radio test using my Pickett.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Roger,

As far as the arrow of time, the situation is a bit complicated. In classical (relativistic) physics, a massive particle which is going forwards in time can't change its forward direction because it would have to approach the speed of light (and then go faster, but this is not relevant) which would take an infinite amount of energy. A massless particle which is not constrained to the speed of light might be able to go backwards in time, but I think all known massless particles travel at the speed of light (for reasons which I embarassingly do not know, except for photons, which I understand as a consequence of the Maxwell equations, but have not a deeper understanding of this constraint). There are hypothesized (so far unobserved) particles going in the reverse time direction called tachyons, but they too are stuck going in only the backward direction, for the same reason just mentioned.

For classical waves, I don't think there is any arrow of time, except the one coming from that poorly understood second law of thermodynamics. Some people think the origin of the 2nd law is the initial (as in, at or pre-big bang) condition of very low entropy, combined with the tendency of most (complex enough) classical systems to act chaotically. Other people (including me) think this has something to do with consciousness, measurement, and general relativity.

In quantum mechanics, the only time asymmetry arises from measurement (which is not described in mechanistic detail), though there is at least one theory that tries to view measurement in the future as influencing the present just as much as measurement in the past. There is also a theory of quantum measurement (decoherence theory) that tries to explain the asymmetry in terms of information leaving a system and going into the environment, something reminiscent of the second law. I have not been convinced by this at all.

Sorry if this is becoming off-topic.

As far as all the talk about slide rules and log tables, I actually enjoy long division and any calculation (roots, math functions) is possible with just the four basic operators and power series (which means knowing how to do derivative). Humans could do it just fine and some of them would even enjoy it. But I admit I would miss Mathematica for some calculations.

onething said...

I've got a GE hand-held electric mixer that was given to me as a wedding present in 1978. Still working fine.

Someone at work said her daughter complains that several young men she has tried to date don't really want to go anywhere because they just want to play electronic games. A teacher of geometry said he told a kid he almost had the answer and just needed to add 9 + 9, and the kid pulled out his calculator... another teacher spoke of a group of teens after school sitting around a round table - not looking at one another or talking, but all face down in their electronic gadgets, texting, sometimes to one another!

At work, they tried to say that people could not carry cell phones on their person, but it was a joke. Everyone has one, and so do their elementary school children. Meanwhile, the local paper had an article last Sunday that wireless devices can give you cancer. Especially when women do things like carry their cell phones in their bra.
Meanwhile, more and more schools are issuing ipads and such. Some electronic devices are more powerful than others, but children are more vulnerable to carcinogens. (The article did not mention children, I'm just adding that)

The article ends: However, Congress is unlikely to act without public outcry given the money telecom industries contribute to election campaigns and the influence the industry exerts through advertising.

Well, well, well. What have we wrought?

Paul said...

@Longway "Today though, the United State clearly reigns supreme as the beer lovers paradise....I cannot name a single European style that has not been matched or exceeded by an American microbrewery."

Really? I love a good beer once in a while, and I love German beers. Guess you folks need to do a bit more marketing. Anyway the point is we all love something better, we only differ as to our particular areas of concerned. And I guess most readers and commenters around here are experts in their own fields and we are all just trying to a little extra to excel (in products/services and marketing) to win customers and to make a decent living.

We might actually be labeled as "victims of the progress myth" by the unsuspected because we might allegedly be said to (religiously?) believe in never ending progress being achievable.

Yet, in Longway's case, it is just the customers who want a better beer (our host included). And actually it might even be perceptual (which is still empirical, by the way) rather than product-physical (the Pepsi challenge comes to mind). But as producers (most of us are) we just want to deliver something better, in the perception of our customers (hence marketing is important).

And we don't even assume that our customers believe that perpetual progress being possible ("given a choice, I take the better tasting one at the same price (or everything else being equal)", Economics 101), and we neither (if we genuinely believe that there is no way to do a better beer in future, we should or have to find another job, unless we are selling the leading brand!).

Yet, from an alien looking at us from Mars, we are all under the civil religion called progress!

Guess it doesn't matter after all, as far as practicality is concerned.

John Michael Greer said...

Enrique, that's part of the backstory I'm weaving into my post-peak oil SF novel Star's Reach: as the industrial world came apart, most of Europe was overrun by mass migrations from the Middle East, with Russia, Norway, and a few other countries in the far north and east as holdouts. Like most of the other details in the story, it's my best guess concerning what might happen.

Kevin, at this point the avant-garden is circling around the same gimmicks that have kept it busy since the 1890s. Do you know how many times public masturbation as performance art has been reinvented, and each time praised by the critics as new, relevant, and shocking? Heh.

MawKernewek, it's got to be particularly easy to see from that perspective. Curiously enough, I'll be talking about astronomy in the upcoming post.

Wall, I'd say rather that our science has ripened and matured a great deal over the last few centuries. It's when you label that process "progress" in some absolute sense, it seems to me, that you've passed from history to mythology. As for the great strides the sciences are making today, I'll probably need to address that in a future pose.

Joseph, I'm afraid that when we get into green chile beers, my relatively conservative tastes have been left far behind. A nice brown pub ale, a good porter or stout, or something along those lines is my idea of beer worth drinking.

QED, hmm! You get tonight's gold star for the Mauthner reference -- it's been a long time since I've heard anybody refer to him.

Watershed, I don't have any control over the captcha words! As for nonlinear shapes of time, granted -- most cultures outside the modern industrial West and its immediate predecessors have had much richer and less rigid ways of thinking about time than we do.

ChemEng, I'm certainly in favor of preserving log tables as well, but that's not an either/or thing -- and as I mentioned above, I've got a wooden slide rule that works very well. Most slipsticks were made of wood until after the Second World War -- you could get Hemmi slide rules made of bamboo until the slide rule market crashed, for the matter. So it's not a matter of having to have polymers; a good cabinetmaker can manufacture slipsticks.

DeAnander, your question -- can the rights of the individual be preserved in a postreductionist world? -- is one we'll be discussing extensively later on.

Valekeeperx, thank you! I'll keep the suggestion in mind. As for tracking decline, in California as anywhere else, the crucial point is to keep focused on the big picture, and don't let yourself be misled by short-term fluctuations. It's easy to forget that not too many years back, the strip malls weren't empty, banks weren't having to keep millions of homes off the market to keep the value of real estate propped up, etc.

Onething, one future career I recommend to the mechanically minded is that of learning how to repair and recondition old appliances. With the ongoing collapse in quality, a market for old-but-it-works devices is pretty much guaranteed to develop.

Paul, I don't want a better beer; I want a good beer. Not the same thing. It's the delusion that everything must always improve -- the core of the progress myth -- that leads to things such as beer with green chiles. (Ugh.) A good porter is like a good novel or a good day in the garden; the differences that distinguish it from another good porter, novel, day spent gardening, etc. don't make one better than the other, and don't necessarily provide any support for the progress delusion.

Paul said...

" I don't want a better beer; I want a good beer. Not the same thing."

A is good, B is not so good. That makes A better than B (unless we speak a different language or use a different logic). Given a choice, a rational person will always choose A over B (assuming everything else being equal). This is economics 101 (to be precise, transaction cost is assumed to be zero).

We were fine with slide-rules (When I first touched a slide-rule decades ago as an engineering student, I was thrilled with its capabilities. It was a good product!). Engineering students don't use slide-rules nowadays.

Some people like a brand of beer and will stick with it for the rest of their lives, and don't even bother to search for a better beer. Fine. Others always on the look out of a better beer (these will be Longway's microbrewers' potential customers). Also Fine. Some can't even distinguish a good from a bad one, and just want being intoxicated, and therefore most likely will choose the cheapest. Still fine.

My point is we don't need to apologize, or play with words (philosophize?) when we take or do not take a better product. Economics is not the same as philosophy, as an academic subject.

Stonymeadow said...

you missed the opportunity to use that old joke:
Q: if the opposite of pro is con, what is the opposite of progress?
A: congress!

a few other prospective candidates for the creed of progress:

* Experts know more than average people in their field of expertise, and should always be followed. If it doesn't ring true, it's because you aren't smart enough, not because the expert is wrong, or their model is wrong. Experts are required for every daily activity, even if you think you know how to do it. Eg, you should consult experts for childbirth, child-rearing advice, breastfeeding advice (unless you're really progressive and use formula), relationship advice, etc. (Please ignore the fact that humankind has been birthing, feeding, raising children for centuries without said experts).

* Every "problem" has a technology solution. Eg, small boys fidgeting in school has nothing to do with being young and energetic, or lack of sufficient time at recess, or any problems in the home life. It can and should be easily solved with an attention-deficit pill.

* Progress is logical and rational. The experts who are guiding progress are therefore logical and rational (like Spock), and devoid of any personal motivations like greed, envy, lust, cover-your-derierre defensiveness, etc. Anyone who opposes progress is irrational and emotional and cannot be trusted to make informed decisions. Any criticism of experts can be safely ignored.

* if it can be done, it should be done. Any negative impact from any new technology will always be smaller than the positive aspects of that technology, and will soon be eradicated completely with later improvements. Eg, since we can take pig genes and splice them into a tomato plant, we should do this. any problems that might possibly arise from this will be small, and easily fixed in later improvements. (or, as a cartoon i saw 25 years ago just out of engineering school said: "who cares what it does, it's made from titanium alloy!")

* Progress should be centrally planned and organized, and applied uniformly throughout the world. There are no local or regional differences which need to be taken in to account.

* Every deviation from uniformity is a "problem" that must be eradicated (with a techology solution; see above)

* The full force of gov't can and should be used to enforce progress to improve the world, and guided by experts, despite the protests of any group or individual. If people are fat, we should micromanage the serving sizes of sugary drinks in NYC. If the public opinion opposes the logical and rational centralization of control in Brussels, then the public should not be allowed to vote on a referendum on it, as that would hold back progress.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Your image of the moldy avant-garde made me laugh. I was using the term somewhat ironically, meaning the endless requirement for the new and "original," just different enough to feed marketing efforts and inspire consumption, as in fast fashion, "cool hunting," the various permutations of e-tablets and so on. Successfully couple this with planned obsolescence and you just might be a capitalist exploiting the myth of progress.

Adrian Skilling said...

@kyotomotors. I've too seen a lot of improvement in bicycling technology, such as lighter frames getting cheaper, etc... But Aluminium is very difficult to repair, as opposed to steel. Though my Al racing bike has lasted about 15 years now. Having cycled keenly for about 30 years now I've seen following:

- Necessity to replace whole complex components, i.e. sealed bearing units. I used to regularly replace individual ball bearings

- Lack of durability. I reckon on replacing a Shimano LX bottom bracket almost every year. It tends to click (broken bearings). I'm sure this used to be less frequent, and I do less miles now.

Like you though I question what is necessary. Do 6 year old children need front suspension bikes? do all adults? Perhaps we do with the state of the roads now :-) We could fairly easily revert to simpler bikes for a long time, although manufacturing needs to be pretty good to make many of the high precision components.

Anyway bicycling probably isn't the worst example. Electric kettles however!!!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Unknown (Deborah Bender)
Regarding local efforts--I agree with you since in Illinois battles have been fought and won against coal-powered power plants, initiatives created to improve our conservation of water (necessary even here in the Great Lakes region), and new natural areas have been protected from encroaching development. Possibly encouraging, if you ignore that one of our biggest industries is industrial corn production.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Paul wrote:

"Economics is not the same as philosophy, as an academic subject."

No, indeed! I rather like the old quip that

"Economics is just Mathematical Politics."

John Michael Greer said...

Paul, you've just demonstrated one of the basic fallacies of modern economics. If A and B are beers, the differences between them are complex and contextual, and can't be flattened out into "A is better than B" without reducing the discussion to absurdity. A is an imperial stout, B is a brown ale; even if A is in some abstract sense "better" than B, there are still times when I'd rather have a mug of brown ale, thank you. Nor will I stop drinking A and B if somebody comes up with C, which is a really, really excellent IPA.

These same distinctions also apply within categories of beer -- for example, while North Coast's Old Rasputin is a splendid imperial stout, there are other imperial stouts I also like, and trying to rank them as better or worse than Old Raspy strikes me as a waste of time; any good beer has its own distinct character, which is why different beers appeal at different times. That's among the many reasons why contemporary mainstream economics reliably fails to predict the real world: human beings are not rational actors, everything else is never equal, and "better" isn't an objective property of a product -- it's an individual judgment call, irreducibly personal and contextual, and always includes the whole system of which the beer and the beer drinker are part.

And I can say "Man, that was a good beer!" -- and mean it -- without implying any comparison between that beer and any of the other good beers in the fridge.

Stonymeadow, good. Very good.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee Organics

(Your indulgence please, JMG, for wandering far afield.)

Hi Chris,

Your points are extremely well taken. What you are doing is very impressive to me, since, city girl that I am, I know I couldn't.

I agree with you about living what you stand for. In my story I didn’t mention the fact that, even though I always lived pretty green, at the turn of this century I had the remarkable experience that over a period of months, every time I went outside I felt a pressure as if the trees and sky and everything else were speaking to me, asking, “so what are you doing for us?” In a very demanding way. City streets, forest preserves--it didn’t matter where I was. Well, that caused me to completely reorient my life, let me tell you. How did you decide to do what you are doing?

Yes, in cold-winter Chicago we do use gas to heat--coal is a terrible idea and the thought of 8 million people trying to use wood makes me shudder. (Yeah, way too many people!) There are vast tracts of the US impossible to get to without a car. When going to those places I carpool.

My husband and I are adapting in place: we’ve insulated the house, keep the heat down low, hang-dry clothes. We intentionally live in an old suburb connected to Chicago public transit and I’ve never worked more than 5 miles from home, so I bike to work. We’ve saved some money and are putting a shade porch outside our kitchen in back, with a trellis where native grape vines will grow.

Besides my own yard --which I wouldn’t call a food forest but more of a tiny food savannah -- I maintain a small prairie area, help manage an oak woodland/savannah by a river, and have just started helping someone reclaim a backyard in the city, with native plants and so on.

There is so much misused land in urban areas that could be well managed for food and habitat!

BTW--I agree with you about writing clearly (as our host does). I always think anyone who writes anything, including blog comments, might find useful Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


I'm probably not saying anything you don't already know, but re ecosystems and humans as catastrophic disruptive event: ok, we are, but I also think humans can fit in with landscapes and manage them in long term ways that are not so destructive. I see that as part of the ecological project.

And perhaps we will do so yet. Societies have done so before, but as you point out the life is very different, and requires deliberately (or otherwise) restricted populations. And everyone in the society must have thorough ecological knowledge (not necessarily in scientific terms).

I believe good ecological knowledge gained through study and experience is as important to conserve and even increase as knowing how to use a slide rule or brew beer. : )

Paul said...

"Man, that was a good beer!" There will be absolutely no comparison (to certain standard which some beers fail to attain - I heard you complained..:)) if and only if every beer tastes good to you. Likewise "Man, she is beautiful". You are not consciously comparing her with any particular woman at THAT moment. But there will be no comparison if and only if you consider every woman beautiful. In real life there are always some situations we need to make a choice (resources are limited for one - you can't afford buying all the beautiful cars and you're legally forbidden to marry more than one beautiful woman). There are two+ and we can only choose one (well you can buy more than one beautiful car, but the logic holds). Economic theory says a person will choose one he (personally - i.e. I'm NOT making comparison, HE is making comparison) considers better (or best if more than two). If he considers both (or all) to be more or less the same, he will choose randomly.

As I said previously some people are not too choosy for certain things, but some do (and those who do will not necessarily be choosy for all things). My point is those who are choosy in those things do not necessarily hold on to the belief of perpetual progress. And because there exists people who are choosy for certain things, some suppliers will try their best to deliver a product that these people might consider better. My point is that these suppliers do not necessarily hold on to the belief of perpetual progress.

Enjoy your good beer...I'm enjoying mine...Cheers!

Ol' Bab said...

Regarding sliderules, when I started (1955) the current models were all wood, actually bamboo, and had neglidable stability problems: the ways could get bindy if dunked, I imagine, but the scales must have grown and shrank in a sufficiently precise match. Soon the passion was for aluminum, which I used for many years. Needed a bit of molly to slip well. Bright yellow finish, with an overcoating, which chipped a bit.

The one I have held on to (but never use!) is circular aluminum. This has the interesting property (it said in the manual) of permitting keeping track of the decimal point by rotating around through the log-log scale... or maybe not. I never needed that feature after several years of keeping track of the orders of magnitude in my head.

Unmentioned so far is that slide rules also had complete trig tables, including hyperbolic functions, and others I never used, and you bought the model with the more esoteric scales your major might require.

When calculators came out I slavered over the fun, but I never -er, almost never- needed the precision. Most real world engineering works fine at 3 digits.

Ol' Bab -who was an engineer

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Stonymeadow, I like your credo very much (I mean I am not a believer in all these points, but you stated them very clearly). I may try to distill and eliminate redundancy and merge with what I and other people suggested and publish it on my blog, if the people who contributed give me permission to do so.

Everyone: this begs a question: can we come up with an alternative credo that is not an "anti-religion" of Progress? Of course we all might have differences, but maybe a few commonalities? Or are you not comfortable with stating your beliefs in such a concise form? There is also the question of what areas to include? Economics? Spirituality? Ecology? Psychology? The future direction of society? Your desireable future direction? A can of worms... Perhaps it would be most useful to offer rebuttals to each of the articles of faith in the ROP (Religion of Progress), but without the trap of becoming an "anti-religion".

Dear JMG, I can imagine you might bristle at this given your tendency towards erudition, wholistic thinking and subtlety. It does smell like the crass attempt of a reductionist, still-influenced-by-ROP engineer to oversimplify and control the world.

Herr Doktor said...

@Don Enrique & Mr Greer:
I feel a bit skeptical about the "Europe overrun by Muslims" scenario, at least in the short and medium term. For me it would be a possibility in the very long run (and with that I mean 1+ centuries), but not before.

Why? The proponents of this playing out usually start from a business as usual perspective, where an ever increasing immigration from Muslim countries, coupled with their higher fertility rate, would make their population grow until it surpasses that of the "natives" of the host country. This is NOT going to happen! As the neverending economic crisis takes hold in more and more European countries, you can count with 100% confidence that 1) immigration will be banned for good and 2) illegal immigrants will start to be deported, first in exceptional causes, and then en masse when the living conditions in the host countries further deteriorate. I give close to zero chances of this "invasion from within" from happening...

I'm not buying also the scenario of "Muslims hordes overrunning the weakened European nations with brute force". At least not for several generations, until (if) the European nation states are really kaputt. Come on! During 1300 years Islam has been The Enemy of Europe, starting in Spain, but with other highlights such as the Siege of Vienna, the battle of Lepanto or the Crimea War. NOTHING would unite the whole continent more - from Msdrid to Moscow- than an invasion of a Neo-Ottoman Empire or similar "Muslim Menace".

Another good point that makes me doubt a Muslim invasion of Europe is that it will probably be in Muslim countries where the big wars of the next century will be fought - the struggle for the last drops of oil and gas. Europe is already full of people and resource-poor, so, what's the point for trying to break in? Agricultural land? I bet it would be much much easier for a Neo-Caliphate to go for a Sub-Saharan African land grab, IMHO.

I'm not saying that we Europeans aren't a bunch of decadent pansies (we are, indeed), or that we don't have a problem with immigration (there is one, for sure!), or that such an scenario is impossible (it is, but most probably only over the very long term). How was the quote? - "History rhymes but does not repeat?" - or something like that...

Herr Doktor said...

One last thing for today!
Regarding beers, you have to start thinking about beers in the same way that you think about wines - there is a beer for every occasion! When I go to the Oktoberfest looking to get (a bit) hammered, i will not order a couple of 1 liter pitchers of IPA (I sweat of only thinking about it!). For that I will rather have a very drinkable Festbier. On the other hand, when it's hot I would rather have a refreshing Belgian wit or an American Pale Ale. An IPA can be perfect as an appetizer. A 9%vol strong Bockbier is the thing to have during cold Winter nights, while a humble Pils is probably the best thing to drink during a heavy dinner, while a stout would be the thing to have afterwards, not before. I could even think of an occasion to drink a chile beer! Speaking of that, there is an excellent Spanish rosemary and honey beer that fits perfectly to rice dishes!

John Michael Greer said...

Paul, I think we're basically talking past each other at this point; you seem to have missed my point completely, and I'm pretty sure I'm missing whatever point you might be trying to make.

Bab, I've never had the chance to use a circular slide rule, but I'm hoping to do so someday! As for trig, no argument there -- in radio work, you have to have trig functions to deal with reactance, among other things, and I can usually have the answer to a trig question via slipstick before the guy with the calculator has finished entering the digits.

Iuval, I'd encourage you to think in a slightly different direction. Rather than rebutting the religion of progress -- which means that you're still working wholly in a context defined by that religion -- you might consider proposing a positive alternative. What would a sane relationship to time and technological change look like, in the light of the points we've discussed?

Herr Doktor, in the future history I invented for Star's Reach, the EU wrecked itself via a series of increasingly bitter and violent struggles between the centralizing efforts of Brussels bureaucrats and a rising tide of separatist insurgencies on the southern periphery, leaving Europe open to mass migration from the south and east driven by the exhaustion of oil reserves (and thus the collapse of oil-drive economies) and increasing water shortages driven by climate change. It wasn't a matter of ordinary immigration, or for that matter ordinary war, so much as a volkerwanderung on the scale of the early Dark Ages. Still, it's only a guess; history does its own thing.

Richard Clyde said...

To the evolving credo, I'd add the element that progressive knowledge structures, including the structures of expertise Stonymeadow alluded to, are always and everywhere hegemonic and authoritative in the present moment. As an illustration, the latest round of chatter about legalizing marijuana provoked an editorial in the Globe and Mail, arguing that marijuana was an unknown and dangerous chemical until it had been subjected to extensive clinical trials (i.e., hegemonized).

Another dimension I've noticed is that the progressive frame of mind, where it encounters genuine difference that it can't assimilate to the nostalgic/backward-looking Foe, will almost inevitably rely on a My Time Among The ________ mental frame. In this frame, a privileged "anthropologist" navigates inscrutable superstitions and attempts, through the application of progressive discipline, to extract genuine, portable knowledge and relay it to the progressive consumer.

Once I'd noticed this, I've found it to be endemic to journalism, irrespective of political stripe, register, or subject matter. Nearly any interrogation of an author or group that seriously professes an unfamiliar set of knowledge practices will to that extent, in acid-by-numbers fashion, instance the frame and its subtropes. This guarantees that the knowledge practices will only ever be contemplated as an inert and hegemonized product, as if an elephant had no existence other than as piano keys.

Cherokee Organics said...


That would be good as beer is a large topic and as Jack Vance would write, "will only yield after thorough analysis!" hehe!

There's a radio club in my area (who'd have thought?) and you can get a provisional license to get started. I'm not sure whether 10w (the provisional license limit) would bounce off the ionosphere that far though - perhaps at very low frequencies? Stuff to think about after the current batch of projects are done.

Hi DeAnander,

Thanks. It is complex and they deserve respect. Some of the chooks here had an outbreak of scaly leg in the past few weeks, which is caused by a mite that lives in the timber. Most of them sleep on perches made from reinforcing steel rod so they are unaffected. The timber is now covered with plastic (damp proof course) to stop future outbreaks and their straw sits on top of that. It was surprisingly easy to treat with a bit of petroleum jelly. But, without the steel, plastic and jelly I have no idea how they would have treated this problem in the old times. Possibly lard? Who knows, just another in a long list of learning experiences...

Hi Adrian,

No stress, I grew up in the big smoke too. Nature is a good place for reflection and I can well understand why they had monasteries in mountainous regions. It took years for me to understand what the locals up here used to mean when they spoke about "greenies" in a derogatory manner and the complexities that I mentioned to you are part of the reason. Did you know that old growth forests here get turned into pulp which is used for paper products (including toilet paper)? It just goes on and the more you look into it honestly… Not to despair though the important thing is living consciously and you sound like you are doing some good work plus growing a garden is the best place for anyone to start.

The first blossoms on the fruit trees turned up in the past day or so (almonds). The apricots look not too far behind them. It is meant to be winter here...



Joseph Nemeth said...

@Paul -- go talk to some successful salesmen.

Economic theory posits the "rational man" who is informed, adaptable, and rational.

Any successful salesman will tell you that all three of these assumptions are total nonsense. Buyers are, with very few exceptions, uninformed (or misinformed), brand-loyal to a fault, and almost completely emotional in their purchasing decisions.

Furthermore, any large purchase will invoke the fallacy of sunk cost, where the perceived pain (and cost) of making a change almost always outweighs the pain (and cost) of dealing with the bad product you bought in the first place.

That's why scoring the first sale is so important, and why salesmen (and their backing companies) are so willing to go "all-out" to impress a new customer. They know that once they've scored the first sale, subsequent sales will move forward with relatively little effort.

I've always wondered what would happen if economists built their models around reality rather than this fantasy of the "rational man."

Paul said...

Robert:"No, indeed! I rather like the old quip that

"Economics is just Mathematical Politics." "

Indeed, those who claimed themselves to be economists (or gurus of macro-economics) do not necessarily do better forecasts than a professional fortune teller in a Taoist temple in Hong KOng. And oftentimes (or most of the time?) the economists contradict one another.

Economist's apology: in a macro-environment, we have to use many assumptions and different economists use different assumptions.

Politician: I will choose an economist whose CONCLUSION (or forecasts) matches my political objective.

Don't blame the economists or the politicians...why? When (I mean if) doctor asks you to cut half you stomach, asked for more opinions (he might just need that extra surgical fee to pay his bill at month end...:):) And needless to say a banker (insurer) will give you professional advice to put your savings in his bank (insurance company),

And you know who will advice you to shun progress....:):) (I'm just joking...)

Each of us is (or should be) in the driver's seat.

Andrew H said...

Yet another great post.

I can see some positives in a return to slide rules or even log tables.

One of the banes of my life as an academic (in science too) was trying to convince students that 3.1415926535897 cm was not an acceptable answer to the question; what is the circumference of a sphere which had been measured as having a diameter of 1.0 cm.

Another was the relatively common sight of a student who had to calculate the answer to a relatively complex calculation on their electronic calculator. They would furiously punch away at the keys and come up with an answer: 1.56478435 say. One would frown so they would immediately start punching again and give another try: 745.75642 say. With a good range of facial expressions it was possible to make a student come up with at least half a dozen wildly different answers. Then some of the students would even ask me to choose the correct one. (Sigh!)


Paul said...

@Joseph "Any successful salesman will tell you that all three of these assumptions are total nonsense. Buyers are, with very few exceptions, uninformed (or misinformed), brand-loyal to a fault, and almost completely emotional in their purchasing decisions."

you're absolutely right. I had been a professional salesman for some years. Every salesman knows it is a formidable task to change a customer's behavior. The meaning of rationality goes: "your customer will choose the product HE perceives to be better, no matter how irrational the salesman considers his customer to be." The Pepsi challenge is an example ("why are you still buying Coke if you know that you found Pepsi tasted better in our blind situation" "..sorry, but out of your research environment, I only drink cola drink, and for that matter any bottled drinks, knowing which brand I'm drinking, and I prefer Coke". Having said that sometimes (oftentimes?) the salesman is biased towards his own product because his boss will put up all "professional research" to convince (sell) the salesmen that their company's product is the best. And the salesman being rational, he will try his best to sell (why not? it is good for me (I have commission) and for him (he will have the best product instead of the lousy product that he is now buying from my competitor.)

Adam Smith took care of the real world.

Paul said...

JMG, point taken. I would like to share a bit of Tao Te Ching with you (chapter 11, my translation into English).

Spreading thirty spokes around a circle to make a hollow center
though nothing there
makes a useful cart.
Taking clay away from the center to make a bowl
though nothing there
makes a useful bowl.
Chiseling away the stones to make a window
though nothing there
makes a useful dwelling place.
Making use of material things, and
Create usefulness out of nothingness

I always find the best learning comes from people looking at the world differently from me, not to convince me that I'm "right" (or "always right", which is worse), but to give me an opportunity to grow and develop. (BTW: I-ching can serve similar purpose).

And I find much food in your blog articles and comments (you and others). Thank you. ("Man, it is no easy task writing a long piece every week and attending to (sometimes) rather "mindless" comments from people out-of-no-where").

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Paul -- it might be worth mentioning that the salesmen I've conversed with have 18-month lead times on multi-million-dollar first sales. I'm not talking about pet rocks or toothbrushes.

A lot of "rational" research goes into these huge purchases, but in the end, it comes down to a "feeling" of which company is going to provide the best long-term support for the overall "solution."

That "feeling" is truly a feeling -- it's mostly emotional. I've seen huge sales go to companies that had a terrible product, and even worse support, but which had a "name" in the marketplace that made it more comfortable for the customer to buy. Everyone in the tech business knows IBM's old saw: "No one ever got fired for buying IBM." They've built a world-girdling organization around a sales arm that knows how economics actually works.

KL Cooke said...


Honestly, we didn't know any better (same defense the German citizens tried after the war). Remember, we were the first media generation. Look up Edward Bernays sometime, if you're not already familiar with him.

Like many hippies, I became a yuppie. It wasn't until our host directed me here to some reading material that I realized I was living through the collapse my entire working life, all the while drinking the Kool Aid.

Does the Mrs know how many people hate her for the fact of being an American?

Grebulocities said...

Quoting a portion of one of Stonymeadow's points: "* Experts know more than average people in their field of expertise, and should always be followed. If it doesn't ring true, it's because you aren't smart enough, not because the expert is wrong, or their model is wrong."

This reminded me of one of the thoughts I had right around the time my faith in progress showed its first signs of breakdown in 2011. It was shortly after the Fukushima disaster, and some mainstream news article was trying to reassure the public about nuclear power. It stated that ~75% (IIRC) of scientists supported nuclear power, citing climate and energy benefits and playing down the problems with nuclear waste and accidents. It then went on to say that the support rate among nuclear physicists and engineers was over 98%.

I started thinking about this - could it be that specific expertise in nuclear physics causes, or is the result of, a bias in favor of nuclear power? At what level of specialization should we stop weighing the expert's opinion as an advantage and start counting the expertise-induced bias as a liability? Not that I have any specific answers, but it does seem reasonable to favor people who have a wide breadth of relevant knowledge rather than a single narrow but deep specialty when making policy decisions such as whether to build nuclear reactors.

@Joseph Nemeth - I think it's also useful to bring up the roles of the advertising and PR industries. The free market spawns industries whose entire function is to cause consumers to make irrational choices! I'd like to see an economic model that incorporates agents that try to deceive the "rational actors" - that would be worth reading!

I think a major reason for rational choice theory is that it makes the math tractable. An economic model that tried to incorporate much human irrationality would be unable to make any quantitative predictions. Since we all know that economics is a "real science" and that "real sciences" rely on mathematical predictions, surely we can approximate humans as rational actors!

Celine Kelley said...

@CherokeeOrganics - scaly leg mites are easily suffocated by the application of any greasy substance. People of my acquaintance have had excellent luck with everything from used motor oil (popular in the 1930's) to lard, neem oil, basically anything that makes an water-repellent barrier and coats their legs. My personal favorite is a mixture of beeswax, pine tar, and sulfur powder. Works well for any sort of mite or louse, and promotes feather growth if they've got bald spots. Used it with great results after a nasty bout of feather lice last winter.

JMG - have you read any of Paolo Bacigalupi's short fiction? "Pump Six" had me totally convinced that if he's not a regular reader here, he's certainly on the same wavelength as you are... I highly recommend his short fiction.

August Johnson said...

JMG, I can’t help but laugh when people dismiss slide rules and books of log and trig tables. My father did his pioneering work on the UBV system and reduced thousands of observations using only these tools plus Marchant and Monroe mechanical calculators in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Only in the 1960’s was he able to take advantage of digital computers to help speed up the process, no improvement in the precision.

For development work in his office, he was still using these until he finally bought an HP35 calculator in 1972. I still have his slide rules and books of tables of logs, trig functions, squares, cubes, etc. I remember him showing me the tricks to getting sum of squares on his Monroe calculator.

Please keep encouraging others to get their Amateur Radio licenses; this will be a valuable resource. I really enjoy fixing up older equipment and putting it on the air. What’s your preference for equipment? I may have something around here for you. I’ve gotten back on the air recently after our move but haven’t had much time yet as we’re still getting the garden and orchard established as well as getting the solar power set up again.

Iuval Clejan said...

I have some comments on Stonymeadow's ROP credo (his comments are following *s in the same paragraph, mine follow his):
* Experts know more than average people in their field of expertise, and should always be followed. If it doesn't ring true, it's because you aren't smart enough, not because the expert is wrong, or their model is wrong. Experts are required for every daily activity, even if you think you know how to do it. Eg, you should consult experts for childbirth, child-rearing advice, breastfeeding advice (unless you're really progressive and use formula), relationship advice, etc. (Please ignore the fact that humankind has been birthing, feeding, raising children for centuries without said experts).

This is universal to religions that have a hierarchy. The priests of progress are scientists, engineers, and psychiatrists,

* Every "problem" has a technology solution. Eg, small boys fidgeting in school has nothing to do with being young and energetic, or lack of sufficient time at recess, or any problems in the home life. It can and should be easily solved with an attention-deficit pill.

This is also universal to religions that have priesthoods or medicine men. And it is also an instance of techno-fixism which might be a sub-branch of the ROP.

* Progress is logical and rational. The experts who are guiding progress are therefore logical and rational (like Spock), and devoid of any personal motivations like greed, envy, lust, cover-your-derierre defensiveness, etc. Anyone who opposes progress is irrational and emotional and cannot be trusted to make informed decisions. Any criticism of experts can be safely ignored.

Was rationality in the past, in Spengler's scheme, worshipped and did it become a religion like in our time?

* if it can be done, it should be done. Any negative impact from any new technology will always be smaller than the positive aspects of that technology, and will soon be eradicated completely with later improvements. Eg, since we can take pig genes and splice them into a tomato plant, we should do this. any problems that might possibly arise from this will be small, and easily fixed in later improvements. (or, as a cartoon i saw 25 years ago just out of engineering school said: "who cares what it does, it's made from titanium alloy!")

This is just an instance of blind obedience, which is a virtue in some religions.

* Progress should be centrally planned and organized, and applied uniformly throughout the world. There are no local or regional differences which need to be taken in to account.

Totalitarianism is just a sub-branch of ROP. Many ROP believers are not totalitarian.

* Every deviation from uniformity is a "problem" that must be eradicated (with a techology solution; see above)

Same comment as above. Even McDonald's tries to respond to local differences.

* The full force of gov't can and should be used to enforce progress to improve the world, and guided by experts, despite the protests of any group or individual. If people are fat, we should micromanage the serving sizes of sugary drinks in NYC. If the public opinion opposes the logical and rational centralization of control in Brussels, then the public should not be allowed to vote on a referendum on it, as that would hold back progress

Again, this is just the totalitarian branch of ROP. There are totalitarian branches to most religions.

IndiaJP said...

Not sure why my comment didn't get through the first time. Please delete if this is a duplicate.

ChemEng said...
>Other examples of a different way of thinking are the manner in which those trained in Victorian primary schools could add up a complete ledger in their head. For example, they would hand calculate the sum of,
>£3 10s. 6½d.
>£4 2s. 11d.
>£11 13s. 1d.
>and get the answer of 18 pounds, 13 and sixpence halfpenny.

And they would get an "F" for arithmetic, since, as Hugh and others pointed out, this answer is wrong.

The correct answer is £19, 6s, 6 1/2d.

I went to school in Canada before Britain decimalized their currency and Canada went metric, and was always fascinated by what my parents called "pounds, shillings and ounces". I could certainly have done the kind of calculation that ChemEng gave as an example, although I don't think that many of my classmates could, unless they had come to Canada from Britain.

Robert Mathiesen said...

What August Johnson said!

His father was an astronomer, mine was a mechanical engineer, part of the team that developed the Norden Bombsight for the Navy during WW2, basically a primitive analog mechanical computer. Later he was part of another team at Stanford U. that developed some of the first stable-orbit satellites that could serve as navigational aids. For him and the people he worked with, it was slide-rules and log-trig tables all the way. They are at least as good than electronic calculators, once you learn how to use them. In some respects they are better than any calculator could ever be, since you don't have to worry about batteries or electronic decay. Also, you do have to learn how to use them and that takes some doing: this is also a huge plus!

James Hathorn said...

I was going to make a comment about Spanish beers, but Herr Dokter beat me to it! I would only add that such good Spanish beers are 1) not found in your typical Madrid supermarket, so you have to go out and pay about $7 a bottle in a pub, and 2) are very expensive, compared to beer in general which is cheap here. Personally, I'm not on a budget that allows me to go out much, except for a kabab. But at least the cheap beers (I'm talking about 35 cents a can -- and it's perfectly acceptable here to pull two cans out of a six pack and just buy those) here are of much higher quality (meaning taste in my book) than Bud Light and its ilk.

Herr Dokter also beat to me to the "Muslims taking over Europe" comment. It's ridiculous -- on par with Americans who think that Socialists are taking over the country, led by that arch-Socialist himself, Presedient Obama. A lot of my Spanish friends do joke about the Chinese taking over though, and increasingly the Russians. I wouldn't mind reading his take on that.

But a really wrote to send this link I just found:

It specifically mentions progress.

Tyler August said...

As breathlessly as I await your take on the post-progress fate of Science, what of the post-progress fate of Scientists? I have to admit, that's of more immediate personal relevance, as I've had to withdraw from my doctoral studies. I'd thought we were 'learning to be poor' as graduate students... I really can't see how half that income is going to work, and so far the invisible hand has refused to grab me out of the unemployment line.
(That's metaphorical: I don't qualify for unemployment.)

@KL Cooke:
Oh, yes, you lot were fooled, and badly. I'm familiar with the history of what they called the 'public relations man' and Freud’s shifty little nephew. Does being tricked into a poor choice absolve us of responsibility? I don't know. I tend to go by 'judge not, lest ye be judged,' because, let's face it-- I would have most likely drank the kool-aid the same as everyone else. I'm not going to say "ego te absolvo" but I'm not damning you, either. Personally.
As for the Mrs... oh, yes, she understands the hate she gets for being a member of the ruling class, white and western (though not American). Though she's not about to give up her life here for the sake of a kid in the Calcutta slums, she admits that she would hate just as fiercely as any Muhajadeen if she was on the other end of the wealth pump-- the same way she curses those on the other end of the temporal wealth pump. She also admits, on rare occasions, that such bitterness isn't good for her soul, but! We're all only human.

Melissa M. said...

Adding to the Credo of the Religion of Progress, the part that irks me the most...

Having been formed from nothing, and lovingly built upon for centuries by the best and the brightest, our body of scientific knowledge is incomplete, yet infallible. Modest refinements and new additions are not only desirable, but expected. However, there must be no regression. Any new information that directly challenges accepted theory, would cause regression and should therefore be ignored, or in serious cases, condemned as irrational.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Hello again, JMG.

I saw a comment here about how Europe needs to "man up" and discard the "multiculti politically correct liberalism" in order to survive. I can't help but notice the xenophobic stance of that comment.

But what really interested me was the idea that, in the event of an "Islamic takeover" of Western Europe, the East will survive because it kept its heritage intact. I can confirm that the Second Religiosity is well under way here in Romania, manifesting itself not only in the very high procentage of believers (98%) but also in the construction of a vast array of giant cathedrals to rival the architectural megalomania of the Ceauşescu era. I am an atheist myself, but I admire the traditional architecture of Orthodox churches here, and I can say that these new mega-churches are just plain ugly. In short, it's more of a bling-bling pimp my church thing that a return to tradition.

So I don't think this is the mark of a surviving nation. Sure, the collective faith and rural traditions in Romania will long outlive the more recent big box store culture explosion, but I don't think building gigantic churches is "sustainable", especially when our education and medical systems are on life support. Also, Romania's population is expected to decrease drastically over the next decades, even without emigration which already is a huge factor. Also, it's worth mentioning that while ethnic Romanians have lower birth rates, it is the opposite for ethnic Rroma/Gypsies.

And I'm just saying that as an observation. I won't say that Romania is on the verge of a "Gypsy takeover" because I know some right wing nutheads who just can't wait to scare people into supporting their political agenda. There are some serious problems with that ethnic group, like high crime rates, and of course Western Europe has to live with the consequences of its colonial past - but that's no reason to feed into right wing scaremongering.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

@CherokeeOrganics wrote:
There's a radio club in my area (who'd have thought?) and you can get a provisional license to get started. I'm not sure whether 10w (the provisional license limit) would bounce off the ionosphere that far though - perhaps at very low frequencies? Stuff to think about after the current batch of projects are done.

Chris, you can work the world on less than 10 watts, assuming you use the right modes and right frequencies at the right time of the day or year. Part of the licensing process, and the study that one goes through to get the license and the continued learning one should do afterwards, is to figure out these opportunities and limitations.

I am almost exclusively what is called a "QRP Operator" in my amateur radio operations. This means I vow to use 5 watts of output power or less. This is easily done if one takes the time to learn Morse code (labeled "CW" in radio jargon, meaning Continuous Wave), but is still possible for voice communications. I operate both modes and have made contacts across the world in both modes, although not routinely as I have mediocre antennas.

Yes, by all means free up some to study for and test for your country's amateur radio license.

Kevin Anderson, K9IUA, licensed since 1993

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG: just spotted this:

Thought you might be interested that it exists.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, good. The colonizing agenda of progress toward all other forms of knowledge is an issue I confront fairly often, as I'm sure you can imagine!

Cherokee, 10 watts and a good antenna will get you anywhere on the planet when the ionosphere's cooperating. Once you get past the first stage, your power options increase. I'd say go for it!

AndrewH, I've seen the same thing. I've long wondered to what extent the kind of blank innumeracy we've both encountered is a function of bad educational methods, or just possibly of the black-box nature of electronic calculators.

Paul, I learned a long time ago never to argue with Lao Tsu; he smiles and wanders away, and always turns out to be right!

Grebulocities, nice. Not to mention the very real financial and professional incentives that generally exist in the lives of experts in a given field -- your career opportunities as a nuclear physicist are noticeably shaped by the popularity and prevalence of nuclear reactors, after all...

August, thank you! In ham radio as in most other things, I'm a fan of modest power and low complexity -- I'll probably dabble in digital modes one of these days, if only because "Hellschreiber" is too delightful a name to pass up, but my main interests are CW and SSB on the HF bands. Courtesy of another ham reader here -- tip of the archdruidical hat to latheChuck -- I now have a nice little general-coverage receiver alongside my still-in-the-process-of-fixing-the-dratted-thing Heathkit boatanchor -- but if you have an old transceiver or transmitter-receiver pair that you'd like to pass on, I'd be the last person to say no.

James, thanks for the news about Spanish beers. As for life in America as a hazard to sanity, no argument there. It's a very crazy place these days.

Tyler, stay tuned. Today's post has more than a little bearing on that.

Melissa, good. And of course, even though improvements are to be expected, the current consensus of the relevant experts is to be treated as absolutely true, and may not be questioned by anybody outside the discipline, even if the same experts were saying something completely different last year.

Ursachi, you'll notice that I didn't include Romania among the countries that remained unconquered in my fictional future history! That's worth knowing about population decline, though -- it's been a while since I've done a detailed study of population trends, and I should remedy that.

Joseph, thanks for the catch! Yes, that's worth knowing.

Ian Stewart said...

All this discussion of logarithm tables makes me realize that I missed out on something dramatically important! Discussion of logarithms and differing numerical bases were part of Algebra II in my high school curriculum - about 10 years ago now. However, actually calculating logarithms was always done by calculator, and I do believe that a scientific calculator with log and ln keys was on the syllabus as a class requirement, with a full-on graphing calculator being preferred. Anyway, long story short, I made it through that class without ever once seeing a table of algorithms! I mean, maybe I just wasn't paying attention, since the teacher was a dreadful bore and I was a lazy student in any event... But I can't help but think that the whole concept would have been clearer if I had been introduced to the old methods, rather than relying on an electronic prosthesis. The math curriculum was hardly integrated, too. We learned trigonometric identities the year before in a dedicated geometry class, and only briefly touched on the relation of logarithms and trig in the Algebra II class. Additionally, the statistics course was something of a ghetto for people who weren't considered bright enough for calculus, or were going onto humanities majors in college.

Anybody got a good primer on log tables? Is the Khan Academy stuff any good?

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, as much as I admire your fictional future history novel (I'd love to see a webcomic based on it), I really hope you got a lot of the details wrong. Not least, this whole "Islamic takeover" thing. I tend to agree with Herr Doktor's comments on the issue. And I remind you of right wing nutheads for whom such a perceived future threat is a heaven sent tool for attracting popular support.

And I sure hope you got it wrong by excluding bicycles! I just did a 300 km cross-country bike trip on a Romanian-made bike (granted, with Japanese breaks) and I am considering learning more about maintaining, repairing and building bikes in the future...

MawKernewek said...

As far as population trends go, I'm sure you'll be aware you can't simply extrapolate current trends indefinitely into the future.

One particular effect which I would be interested in your opinion on is over a long period of time, how a small subset of a population which has a higher fertility rate than the general population, will become much more significant if it is cohesive and maintains that over the long term.

This is already happening I believe to some extent in Israel, where the very religious segment of the Orthodox Jews are increasing in proportion in this way.

MawKernewek said...

It must be remembered that the Muslims of Europe are by no means a monolithic block, in fact they come from a diverse collection of ethnicities from throughout the Muslim majority world.

So any speculation about a future demographic takeover would have to bear this in mind.

In any case I am not convinced they will maintain significantly higher fertility rates over the long term than other European populations. Muslim majority countries have not been exempt from trend in the decline in fertility rates in the last few decades.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

JMG, I just checked the World Bank's country by country population growth statistics at

Most of the countries reporting annual population growth of 2.5% or more are in Africa or the Middle East.

The developed nations with the fastest population growth rates are Luxembourg, Singapore and Australia.

Countries whose population declined at least two years in the past five include Portugal, Germany, Greece, Japan, and many former Warsaw Pact and Yugoslav nations.

China and Brazil are listed as having no changes at all in their population growth rate in the past five years, which is atypical and unlikely to be true.

Paul said...

Some reflections on radio, repairs..

I remembered having watched a movie depicting a positive figure using radio communication to save the planet after modern communications failed. "That is brilliant! Make be I should get on with it..." Then it daunted on me, probably there also be no policemen (self defense against armed robbers?), no water supply (digging a deep hole underground?), no vegetable (get a decent house with a backyard? can't afford it in cosmopolitan HK).... "Afterall it is a movie..." I rationalized and forgave myself for lack of action.

In HK we can't get a repair man who charges reasonably (the repair charge of manufacturer after warranty is as much as half the newest model with more functions!) to repair our old appliance (we buy a new wasteful!) because people can't make a decent living that way. Some people take an interest to do their own repair (I do for simple things too). Once in a while, local news would report a brave guy burned his appliance during repair (in rare cases also his flat), afterall we are all amateurs without proper training. But no complaints, boxers got head injuries. Fighting is fun and so is appliance repair.

In China appliance repair is a dying industry (dead in HK). I chatted with one owner once and he told me that he could feed his family well with repairing old appliances "But I like my boy to go to University and earn more!" Sure he does. "Do you teach your boy to do repair?" "I am eager to, but he aspires to be a pop singer! I hope I can find an apprentice...."

In case any of you have kids who are good at mechanical things and who are interested to learn old appliance repair and don't mind to be an apprentice at a small shop in China, there will be lots of opportunities. Monthly salary: RMB1,000 per month (give and take 100). Free room and board. Buy your own flight ticket.

ww said...

As an aside, although it's somewhat on topic, have you read Kipling's "The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat"? (

I find it instructive on a number of levels with regards to some of the points you've made recently. Most obvious is the method of assigning something to the category of things comprising the supposed benighted past of ignorance, stupidity and superstition. Of course there's much more, but Kipling is hardly improved by my halting explication.

Dagnarus said...


I'd just like to add to the discussion about slide rules and log and anti-log tables. I noticed that while the relative difficulty of preserving slide rules and log/anti-log tables was considered, the knowledge of how to work out the log/anti-log was not. It should be noted that the first log and anti-log tables were not found written on stone tablets given to our ancestors by angels but rather calculated by our ancestors. Thus I feel that any discussion about preserving log tables and slide rules should also include the idea that we can preserve the knowledge of how to calculate log/anti log of a given number. I thought that deserved mentioning even though I have arrived after the discussion had ended.


Chris Hope said...

I've spent my spare time the past few weeks reading every post on your blog. I didn't have time for all the comments. You've convinced me that we are not headed for an apocalyptic end, but rather a bumpy ride down the other side of Hubert's curve. If we start individually to make changes we can come through it with some hardship, but it won't destroy us. I've shelved my plans to buy 5 acres in the country and grow all my own food. I believe my chances are better in the city even if I can't be self-sufficient.

I gardened in the past, but not for several years now. I'll start a garden this spring, along with a small greenhouse built from old windows. I'm setting up a rainwater catchment system to divert for both the garden and the washing machine. I'm also considering how to divert rain water to flush the toilet. (My water/sewer bill is high and I have to do something)

The dream of 5 acres and independence, aside from being somewhat unrealistic, also served as a way of stalling doing anything concrete in the present. I could justify a wasteful present by dreaming of the future.

Thanks for sharing your insights. I'm a regular reader now.