Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dark Age America: Involuntary Simplicity

The political transformations that have occupied the last four posts in this sequence can also be traced in detail in the economic sphere. A strong case could be made, in fact, that the economic dimension is the more important of the two, and the political struggles that pit the elites of a faliing civilization against the proto-warlords of the nascent dark age reflect deeper shifts in the economic sphere. Whether or not that’s the case—and in some sense, it’s simply a difference in emphasis—the economics of decline and fall need to be understood in order to make sense of the trajectory ahead of us.

One of the more useful ways of understanding that trajectory was traced out some years ago by Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. While I’ve taken issue with some of the details of Tainter’s analysis in my own work, the general model of collapse he offers was also a core inspiration for the theory of catabolic collapse that provides the  basic structure for this series of posts, so I don’t think it’s out of place to summarize his theory briefly here.

Tainter begins with the law of diminishing returns: the rule, applicable to an astonishingly broad range of human affairs, that the more you invest—in any sense—in any one project, the smaller the additional return is on each unit of additional investment. The point at which this starts to take effect is called the point of diminishing returns. Off past that point is a far more threatening landmark, the point of zero marginal return: the point, that is, when additional investment costs as much as the benefit it yields. Beyond that lies the territory of negative returns, where further investment yields less than it costs, and the gap grows wider with each additional increment.

The attempt to achieve infinite economic growth on a finite planet makes a fine example of the law of diminishing returns in action. Given the necessary preconditions—a point we’ll discuss in more detail a bit later in this post—economic growth in its early stages produces benefits well in excess of its costs. Once the point of diminishing returns is past, though, further growth brings less and less benefit in any but a purely abstract, financial sense; broader measures of well-being fail to keep up with the expansion of the economy, and eventually the point of zero marginal return arrives and further rounds of growth actively make things worse.

Mainstream economists these days shove these increments of what John Ruskin used to call “illth”—yes, that’s the opposite of wealth—into the category of “externalities,” where they are generally ignored by everyone who doesn’t have to deal with them in person. If growth continues far enough, though, the production of illth overwhelms the production of wealth, and we end up more or less where we are today, where the benefits from continued growth are outweighed by the increasingly ghastly impact of the social, economic, and environmental “externalities” driven by growth itself. As The Limits to Growth  pointed out all those years ago, that’s the nature of our predicament: the costs of growth rise faster than the benefits and eventually force the industrial economy to its knees.

Tainter’s insight was that the same rules can be applied to social complexity. When a society begins to add layers of social complexity—for example, expanding the reach of the division of labor, setting up hierarchies to centralize decisionmaking, and so on—the initial rounds pay off substantially in terms of additional wealth and the capacity to deal with challenges from other societies and the natural world. Here again, though, there’s a point of diminishing returns, after which additional investments in social complexity yield less and less in the way of benefits, and there’s a point of zero marginal return, after which each additional increment of complexity subtracts from the wealth and resilience of the society.

There’s a mordant irony to what happens next. Societies in crisis reliably respond by doing what they know how to do. In the case of complex societies, what they know how to amounts to adding on new layers of complexity—after all, that’s what’s worked in the past. I mentioned at the beginning of this month, in an earlier post in this sequence, the way this plays out in political terms. The same thing happens in every other sphere of collective life—economic, cultural, intellectual, and so on down the list. If too much complexity is at the root of the problems besetting a society, though, what happens when its leaders keep adding even more complexity to solve those problems?

Any of my readers who have trouble coming up with the answer might find it useful to take a look out the nearest window. Whether or not Tainter’s theory provides a useful description of every complex society in trouble—for what it’s worth, it’s a significant part of the puzzle in every historical example known to me—it certainly applies to contemporary industrial society. Here in America, certainly, we’ve long since passed the point at which additional investments in complexity yield any benefit at all, but the manufacture of further complexity goes on apace, unhindered by the mere fact that it’s making a galaxy of bad problems worse. Do I need to cite the US health care system, which is currently collapsing under the sheer weight of the baroque superstructure of corporate and government bureaucracies heaped on top of what was once the simple process of paying a visit to the doctor?

We can describe this process as intermediation—the insertion of a variety of intermediate persons, professions, and institutions between the producer and the consumer of any given good or service. It’s a standard feature of social complexity, and tends to blossom in the latter years of every civilization, as part of the piling up of complexity on complexity that Tainter discussed. There’s an interesting parallel between the process of intermediation and the process of ecological succession.  Just as an ecosystem, as it moves from one sere (successional stage) to the next, tends to produce ever more elaborate food webs linking the plants whose photosynthesis starts the process with the consumers of detritus at its end, the rise of social complexity in a civilization tends to produce ever more elaborate patterns of intermediation between producers and consumers.

Contemporary industrial civilization has taken intermediation to an extreme not reached by any previous civilization, and there’s a reason for that. White’s Law, one of the fundamental rules of human ecology, states that economic development is a function of energy per capita. The jackpot of cheap concentrated energy that industrial civilization obtained from fossil fuels threw that equation into overdrive, and economic development is simply another name for complexity. The US health care system, again, is one example out of many; as the American economy expanded metastatically over the course of the 20th century, an immense army of medical administrators, laboratory staff, specialists, insurance agents, government officials, and other functionaries inserted themselves into the notional space between physician and  patient, turning what was once an ordinary face to face business transaction into a bureaucratic nightmare reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Castle.

In one way or another, that’s been the fate of every kind of economic activity in modern industrial society. Pick an economic sector, any economic sector, and the producers and consumers of the goods and services involved in any given transaction are hugely outnumbered by the people who earn a living from that transaction in some other way—by administering, financing, scheduling, regulating, taxing, approving, overseeing, facilitating, supplying, or in some other manner getting in there and grabbing a piece of the action. Take the natural tendency for social complexity to increase over time, and put it to work in a society that’s surfing a gargantuan tsunami of cheap energy, in which most work is done by machines powered by fossil fuels and not by human hands and minds, and that’s pretty much what you can expect to get.

That’s also a textbook example of the sort of excess complexity Joseph Tainter discussed in The Collapse of Complex Societies, but industrial civilization’s dependence on nonrenewable energy resources puts the entire situation in a different and even more troubling light. On the one hand, continuing increases in complexity in a society already burdened to the breaking point with too much complexity pretty much guarantees a rapid decrease in complexity not too far down the road—and no, that’s not likely to unfold in a nice neat orderly way, either. On the other, the ongoing depletion of energy resources and the decline in net energy that unfolds from that inescapable natural process means that energy per capita will be decreasing in the years ahead—and that, according to White’s Law, means that the ability of industrial society to sustain current levels of complexity, or anything like them, will be going away in the tolerably near future.

Add these trends together and you have a recipe for the radical simplification of the economy. The state of affairs in which most people in the work force have only an indirect connection to the production of concrete goods and services to meet human needs is, in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. The unraveling of that arrangement, and the return to a state of affairs in which most people produce goods and services with their own labor for their own, their families’, and their neighbors’ use, will be the great economic trend of the next several centuries.

That’s not to say that this unraveling will be a simple process. All those millions of people whose jobs depend on intermediation, and thus on the maintenance of current levels of economic complexity, have an understandable interest in staying employed. That interest in practice works out to an increasingly frantic quest to keep people from sidestepping the baroque corporate and bureaucratic economic machine and getting goods and services directly from producers.

That’s a great deal of what drives the ongoing crusade against alternative health care—every dollar spent on herbs from a medical herbalist or treatments from an acupuncturist is a dollar that doesn’t go into feeding the gargantuan corporations and bureaucracies that are supposed to provide health care for Americans, and sometimes even do so. The same thing is driving corporate and government attacks on local food production, since every dollar a consumer spends buying zucchini from a backyard farmer doesn’t prop up the equally huge and tottering mass of institutions that attempt to control the production and sale of food in America.

It’s not uncommon for those who object to these maneuvers to portray them as the acts of a triumphant corporate despotism on the brink of seizing total power over the planet. I’d like to suggest that they’re something quite different. While the American and global economies are both still growing in a notional sense, the measures of growth that yield that result factor in such things as the manufacture of derivatives and a great many other forms of fictive wealth.

Subtract those from the national and global balance sheet, and the result is an economy in contraction. The ongoing rise in the permanently jobless, the epidemic of malign neglect affecting even the most crucial elements of America’s infrastructure, and the ongoing decline in income and living standards among all those classes that lack access to fictive wealth, among many other things, all tell the same story. Thus it’s far from surprising that all the people whose jobs are dependent on intermediation, all the way up the corporate food chain to the corner offices, are increasingly worried about the number of people who are trying to engage in disintermediation—to buy food, health care, and other goods and services directly from the producers.

Their worries are entirely rational.  One of the results of the contraction of the real economy is that the costs of intermediation, financial and otherwise, have not merely gone through the roof but zoomed off into the stratosphere, with low earth orbit the next logical stop. Health care, again, is among the most obvious examples. In most parts of the United States, for instance, a visit to the acupuncturist for some ordinary health condition will typically set you back well under $100, while if you go to an MD for the same thing you’ll be lucky to get away for under $1000, counting lab work and other costs—and you can typically count on thirty or forty minutes of personal attention from the acupuncturist, as compared to five or ten minutes with a harried and distracted MD. It’s therefore no surprise that more and more Americans are turning their backs on the officially sanctioned health care industry and seeking out alternative health care instead.

They’d probably be just as happy to go to an ordinary MD who offered medical care on the same terms as the acupuncturist, which happen to be the same terms that were standard a century ago for every kind of health care. As matters stand, though, physicians are dependent on the system as it presently exists; their standing with their peers, and even their legal right to practice medicine, depends on their willingness to play by the rules of intermediation—and of course it’s also true that acupuncturists don’t generally make the six-figure salaries that so many physicians do in America. A hundred years ago, the average American doctor didn’t make that much more than the average American plumber; many of the changes in the US health care system since that time were quite openly intended to change that fact.

A hundred years ago, as the United States moved through the early stages of its age of imperial excess, that was something the nation could afford. Equally, all the other modes of profiteering, intermediation, and other maneuvers aimed at maximizing the take of assorted economic sectors were viable then,since a growing economy provides plenty of slack for such projects. As the economics of growth gave way to the economics of stagnation in the last quarter of the 20th century, such things became considerably more burdensome. As stagnation gives way to contraction, and the negative returns on excess complexity combine with the impact of depleting nonrenewable resources, the burden is rapidly becoming more than the US economy or the wider society can bear.

The result, in one way or another, will be disintermediation: the dissolution of the complex relations and institutions that currently come between the producer and the consumer of goods and services, and their replacement by something much less costly to maintain. “In one way or another,” though, covers a great deal of ground, and it’s far from easy to predict exactly how the current system will come unglued in the United States or, for that matter, anywhere else.

Disintermediation might happen quickly, if a major crisis shatters some central element of the US economic system—for example, the financial sector—and forces the entire economy to regroup around less abstract and more local systems of exchange. It might happen slowly, as more and more of the population can no longer afford to participate in the intermediated economy at all, and have to craft their own localized economies from the bottom up, while the narrowing circle of the well-to-do continue to make use of some equivalent of the current system for a long time to come. It might happen at different rates in different geographical areas—for example, cities and their suburbs might keep the intermediated economy going long after rural areas have abandoned it, or what have you.

Plenty of people these days like to look forward to some such transformation, and not without reason. Complexity has long since passed the point of negative returns in the US economy, as in most other aspects of American society, and the coming of disintermediation across a wide range of economic activities will arguably lead to significant improvements in many aspects of our collective life. That said, it’s not all roses and affordable health care. The extravagant rates of energy per capita that made today’s absurdly complex economy possible also made it possible for millions of Americans to make their living working in offices and other relatively comfortable settings, rather than standing hip deep in hog manure with a shovel in their hands, and it also allowed them to earn what currently passes for a normal income, rather than the bare subsistence that’s actually normal in societies that haven’t had their economies inflated to the bursting point by a temporary glut of cheap energy.

It was popular a number of years back for the urban and suburban middle classes, most of whom work in jobs that only exist due to intermediation, to go in for “voluntary simplicity”—at best a pallid half-equivalent of Thoreau’s far more challenging concept of voluntary poverty, at worst a marketing gimmick for the consumption of round after round of overpriced “simple” products. For all its more embarrassing features, the voluntary simplicity movement was at least occasionally motivated by an honest recognition of the immediate personal implications of Tainter’s fundamental point—that complexity taken past the point of diminishing returns becomes a burden rather than a benefit.

In the years ahead of us, a great many of these same people are going to experience what I suppose might best be called involuntary simplicity: the disintermediation of most aspects of economic life, the departure of lifestyles that can only be supported by the cheap abundant energy of the recent past, and a transition to the much less complex—and often, much less comfortable—lifestyles that are all that’s possible in a deindustrial world. There may be a certain entertainment value in watching what those who praised voluntary simplicity to the skies think of simple living when it’s no longer voluntary, and there’s no way back to the comforts of a bygone era.

That said, the impact of involuntary simplicity on the economic sphere won’t be limited to the lifestyles of the formerly privileged. It promises to bring an end to certain features of economic life that contemporary thought assumes are fixed in place forever: among them, the market economy itself. We’ll talk about that next week.

In other news, I'm pleased to report that Twilight's Last Gleaming, my novel of the fall of America's empire based on 2012's "How It Could Happen" series of posts, is hot off the press and available from the publisher with free shipping worldwide. The novel also has its own Facebook page for fans of social media. By all means check it out.


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Jay said...

Jay here. Tainter's point seems aptly summarized by the old saw that bureaucracies expand to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.

Medicine might not have been the best choice of example, though. Human bodies are intrinsically complicated and varied, and get more so as the people get older and subject them over decades to idiosyncratic traumas and patterns of abuse. Simplifying medical care probably means a significant decline in life expectancy.

Pinku-Sensei said...

"[I]t’s far from surprising that all the people whose jobs are dependent on intermediation, all the way up the corporate food chain to the corner offices, are increasingly worried about the number of people who are trying to engage in disintermediation—to buy food, health care, and other goods and services directly from the producers."

I'll provide you and your readers with an example outside of health care--the effort by states to prevent direct sales of cars by manufacturers. Right now, there is only one company trying to bypass the network of dealers to sell directly to customers--Tesla. So far, all the states that have outlawed direct sales have Republican governors and Republican majorities in their legislatures. This includes Michigan, which whose governor, Rick Snyder, just signed into law a prohibition against direct sales. This has allowed partisan critics of the GOP to paint this as an attack on electric cars by fossil fools. This spin ignores these laws having bipartisan support from politicians who benefit from campaign contributions by the car dealers. What's really going on looks more like an effort to resist disintermediation; that it happens to involve an electric car may just be a contingent accident of history.

John Michael Greer said...

Jay, you might want to look into the very large number of countries that have much less Byzantine medical systems than the US, and much better health. You might also want to consider whether a pletora insurance executives, pharmaceutical sales reps, Federal bureaucrats, for-profit medical administration firms, etc., etc., actually contribute to better health care.

Pinku-sensei, thank you -- I hadn't heard of that example, and it's a good one.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, a thank you and apology to all who posted comments to last week's essay here -- between a speaking gig over the weekend that didn't leave me much time to field comments, and a mess of work on my desk once I got back, I wasn't able to respond to most comments. With any luck, this week will be calmer.

Avery said...

It is very profound to think about how our overloaded healthcare system might be driven to a point of disintermediation. There will be big incentives in the next decade or so to make sure everyone gets treatment and insurance in the "system"; remember, we are dealing with a society of 300 million in America, and in this country, for one reason or another, we get sick a lot. We are increasingly mobile, urban, and poor, and old family doctors and community safety nets won't cut it. Expect more layers of complexity on top of Obamacare. Yet, there will be a breaking point.

Al Jazeera posted a documentary comic book today examining how people are already installing tracking devices in order to save a bit on car insurance. As health insurance prices spiral upwards, I think it is quite feasible that some insurance company will seize on this feature and become super-popular within a short number of years. What happens next, the comic asks? Well, it's George Orwell's 1984, except fully voluntary; you can choose between getting tracked, or falling into a spiral of debt. The freedom is yours.

I bet a lot of people will be linking the video of the NASA shuttle exploding this week, but much more important to me were the words of rival shuttle company SpaceX's founder Elon Musk -- the prodigal child of Silicon Valley, already seen as the next Steve Jobs among the West Coast transhumanist set. Musk recently said something rather shocking about artificial intelligence, which you'd think he would love: “In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.”

Indeed. Who's summoning the demon? All of us. What happens when we can't put it back in the bottle?

If a doctor were to go off the grid next year and start making house calls like my grandpa did in the 1950s, he'd be putting himself at huge legal risk. If he were sued for malpractice, his case would be toxic -- no insurance, no records, no accreditation to do what he is doing -- he might as well operate in an alleyway.

But now imagine a doctor in 2050, who really cares about people who can't afford the high insurance costs their microchips are telling the companies that they need-- dying people who keep cash locked away at a friend's house to avoid the debt collectors. At some point, the reward will outweigh the risk. That's when real disintermediation will begin.

Tom Bannister said...

Ohhhh yes!!! Tell me about all this!!!

How many so called 'simple' or 'easier' marketing schemes by telephone companies I have heard from, or power companies offer 'simpler solutions' to the make up of your power bills! what they actually mean: "we're going to make it sound simple so you get lulled into a false sense of security and then we ambush you with mountains of paperwork, phone calls, uncertainty, stress and what not". I'm not just talking about the two examples I just cited by the way...

I am among those, I admit who look forward to simpler economic arrangements and am currently doing what i can to make more of these simple arrangements comes about. Not that im expecting a totally rosy future of course. But aren't rosy cosy futures boring?

I do feel strongly and profoundly sorry though for all my colleagues who are pursuing management degrees and university. If only they knew what a massive sink hole the whole exercise will turn out to be...

Donald Hargraves said...

I remember "voluntary simplicity" and was once a fan of it for a few months...until I figured out that the believers in "VS" weren't so much into giving up stuff as they were into treating the ownership of the fruits of one's labors as an externality to be passed off onto the community at large. The same thing can be seen in the present day by people who get rid of their musical CD collections and instead depend on YouTube and Spotify (or Pandora) to give to them the music they will like.

Gwaiharad said...

I think this is a brilliant analysis of what everybody already knows, somewhere in the back of their minds, about what our society is and where it's headed. It's also one more persuasive argument to cultivate real skills, rather than just finding a job as an administrative bean-counter, or retail mook.

Also, I'm a bit sorry to post this now, because there's been enough discussion of Ebola, but somebody ought to say it:

Everybody needs to calm down. Granted, Ebola is pretty scary stuff, but not nearly as scary as the media has made it out to be. And in this case, the blogosphere is just as much to blame as the mainstream news.

Remember that Tim Duncan guy (RIP), in Dallas? Infected a couple of nurses - but not his family, with whom he was living at the time he came down with the bug, even though the nurses had masks and gowns and his family didn't. Apparently, until a patient is well on their way out, it's just not very contagious. This makes Ebola a bit unlikely to be the next great plague. Not that it won't kill a whole bunch of people; right now it's doing just that. And so are HIV and tuberculosis and malaria and the flu. And civilization keeps humming right along.

Maybe the hype is because everybody knows, subconsciously at least, that society is off on the wrong track, and on some level expects Ebola to provide a "factory re-set". Or maybe it's just the novelty of it.

Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed today's post. Thank you!

EntropicDoom said...

The state of the current Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project (or F-35) is a good example of growing complexity at the end of an evolving process. The WWII fighters were simple (one page of specifications) planes, designed and flown in months. The JSF F-35 is decades aborning and already obsolete, but unfinished. The new Chinese and Russian fighters that oppose it are much better and war game it to confirmed, lopsided shut outs. The F-35 was to be the end-all, 5th generation jet fighter, but it was loaded down with too many gadgets and too many missions. It was to be flown by the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines in three totally different configurations. The bloated end product does nothing well and in the words of a recent independent evaluation it; can't climb, can't maneuver and can't fight.

We have a trillion dollar rat hole that cannot fight, which we can't cancel, because we have nothing to take its place. This monster program will grow to consume everything in the Defense budget. It is supported by an immense public relations effort that runs on self interest. The plane is a complete failure. But the plane's failure is a result of the elaborate process we have in place to design and produce our fighter planes. A rotten political system birthed a rotten procurement system that built a rotten plane that is promoted by an even more corrupt public relations campaign which ignores real evidence. In every case, the dying American Empire creates complexity and that breeds failure, which is dressed up in the current fashion, pretty packaging and a flashy disguise to mislead the public.

The video to promote the F-35 throbs with a Rock and Roll soundtrack while it puffs up the plane's cool features. Opponents cite actual poor performance figures, proponents show dramatic flying scenes. The cruel reality is we are investing in more and more complexity, believing it will save because it is complex. As Wally Shawn's character says in the Princess Bride; “Inconceivable!”

Pinku-Sensei said...

@JMG: Quite welcome.

Here's another observation from my experience that illustrates one of your points.

"If growth continues far enough, though, the production of illth overwhelms the production of wealth, and we end up more or less where we are today, where the benefits from continued growth are outweighed by the increasingly ghastly impact of the social, economic, and environmental “externalities” driven by growth itself."

I show an example of this having already happened in the U.S. to my classes when I demonstrate the shortcomings of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of economic health. One of my slides places a bar graph of U.S. GDP next to a bar representing the total of all the negative externalities as calculated by the people who put together the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). The externalities are much taller, so the result is negative. People are actually worse off. Only the positive externalities (all of the free services done by friends and family, for example) that also contribute to the GPI allow the economy to be positive at all.

Also, while the GDP per capita has gone up and up since World War II, the GPI per capita has been stagnant since the mid 1970s. It seems that we hit the point of diminishing returns 40 years ago.

Speaking of diminishing returns...

"By the way, a thank you and apology to all who posted comments to last week's essay here"

I never did follow up on my promise to critique your future history, and I won't do it tonight. Instead, I was wondering if any of your readers had another image when they read your title--giving a female fairy a pink slip to wear as a present. That occurred to me, but then I recalled that lusting after the fair folk tends to be bad for one's health, safety, and sanity. Think about the metaphor that alternative interpretation yields!

nuku said...

JMG: Could it be that the calls for a “simpler“ or stripped down government coming from the Tea Party folks are in some way an unconscious recognition of, or response to, the negative benefits of complexity in the USA system? I say “uncounscious” because I believe that the Tea Party folks put a totally different spin on it; they see it is a matter of “individual freedom” vs. “big government.”

Donald Hargraves said...


My boss has hooked up a bunch of trackers to his vans already...same with the train jitneys, only they make their drivers stick to the speed limit. It's funny watching the whole of an expressway's traffic work their way around this one van that's stuck going 55 because the company can't/won't (you decide which, and I suggest you think carefully before answering) allow their drivers to go with the flow.

As for health tracking, there's developed a market of apps and smart watches of which it can be said that health maintenance is the intended "Killer app." Add to this a constant pressure to hook up to various programs made to watch over your health, and you see a health care system working overtime to justify itself. Meanwhile health insurance costs have again jumped up, I've declared that I now reserve the right to go without health insurance at the tender age of 49 going on 50.

And as for electric companies, I remember seeing this one guy come over to check out our energy usage (I, jumping on the fluorescent bandwagon early and often, had cut our usage down quite a bit) and the badly underpaid and overworked guy commented that the local electric company had reached its limit of energy usage and, instead of adding on, decided to try to give away all sorts of devices to make people use less energy. Hearing that made me think that maybe the electric companies were already planning to manage demand instead of respond to it – hence the "smart grid." Personally, I'm waiting for them to start planning brownouts and blackouts on a regular basis independent of weather – only then will I be confirmed in my thinking that they're serious.

backyardfeast said...

Oh dear. It will come as no surprise to anyone here that universities fit the description as well as the medical system. Where I teach, I'm caught regularly in this bind. In a growing economy of decades past, universities expanded at every level: students, teachers, clerical staff, administrators. Now, in a declining economy, admistration grows while student and teacher numbers shrink. To pay everyone's salaries, we need more students, which we now recruit from ever-less qualified pools. These students require extra help of all kinds, from teacher's aids inevitably paid less than teachers. There's not enough money to keep up with it all; retiring professors are replaced with sessional instructors, and few get a particularly good education. But we all have to try to stay on the treadmill, otherwise our jobs disappear. Some regularly accuse universities of fraud, as we recruit students from overseas knowing that they don't have the language skills to pass the courses they will be paying us large sums of money to take. But we know that if we can't put them through, our jobs dry up...can anyone say, pension ponzi?

The upshot for me is that although the larger trends are clear--the model is clearly unsustainable--navigating the short term is messy, with no clear answers. Look forward to your take on the market economy next week, JMG.

John Michael Greer said...

Avery, long before the physicians get around to it, the herbalists, folk healers, acupuncturists, etc. will have beaten them to it; they're already practicing outside the machine, for the most part, and becoming more popular by the day. I hope the better parts of modern medicine survive the transition.

Tom, and of course that's the core strategy -- "simplify now and avoid the rush," so to speak.

Donald, I also liked the way that it cost twice as much to get allegedly "simple" products, which were made in the same Third World sweatshops as the supposedly unsimple ones.

Gwaiharad, we'll see. The case rate is still doubling every 20 days; whether or not Ebola turns into a self-sustaining epidemic in the industrial nations, it seems to be quite able to spread exponentially in Third World conditions.

Doom, well put. You'll be interested to know that the F-35 features in my novel Twilight's Last Gleaming, and not in a way that Lockheed Martin would approve, either.

Pinku-sensei, yes, I thought about five seconds after posting last week's essay that some people might think I was talking about rose-colored underthings for a minor figure out of the writings of L. Frank Baum. The GDP material makes perfect sense to me!

Pinku-Sensei said...

"[A] minor figure out of the writings of L. Frank Baum." I had in mind a supporting character from the works of J.M. Barrie. So, how many people are clapping for the Progress Fairy to keep her alive?

Janet D said...

I worked for a very large health insurance broker in the Seattle area 20 or so years ago. The top brokers made >$1,000,000 a year (each, and that was then). This did not take into account the additional monies that paid for the offices, the many staff members, the office supplies, employee benefits, etc. (For those who don't know, a health insurance broker works with the benefits departments of nearly every company. Invisible to the consumer, they send out the employer's medical/dental/life/etc. insurance plans to bid to the different insurance carriers, plus provide intermediary customer service, etc. Only the very smallest employers - <50 people - don't have them.) An ASTOUNDING amount of money goes to this industry and it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the delivery of actual care to sick people. And I'm not even discussing the millions in salaries paid to the executives of the actual insurance companies.

There are many, many of these type of brokers in every city of every state in the nation. It is a very lucrative job (I do not know how or if Obamacare is or will affect these jobs).

I don't know what the answer is in health care. Obamacare seems to be a mess, but, having been on the side of the "free market" in health care, I can swear on every dear relative's grave that the free market forces, when it comes to health care, only enables a certain number of private citizens to get very, very rich off of the health care premiums of those who are not so rich. It was the ultimate in adding complexity without adding much value.

Derv said...


Great piece. As Gwaiharad said, this post did a good job of articulating what I already knew in a clear, concise way.

I'm wondering your opinion on something. I'm currently in school for accounting. When I'm done, I intend to continue my education independently into the way they did accounting before Excel et al. did all the hard stuff for you. That way I'll have at least a marginally useful skill I could be hired out for, down the road. I also live in the only booming state (North Dakota), which will have at least some years of relative normalcy before the reality of the rest of the US comes knocking on our door. I plan to use that time well.

The problem is I have ankylosing spondylitis, which severely limits my physical activity. Working with my hands is fine, but not with my back and knees. So far in our little group (about 15) I've played the role of coordinator and "guy who knows stuff," but I'd like to have something more useful and tradeable than that. What would you recommend, something like cobbler/shoe repair? Fixing bikes? A more sophisticated form of "guy who knows stuff?"

My current plan has been to continue with our strong community and hope for the best. And if things get too bad, I'll just be dead, because in a world of starving peasants in a collapsed system, the cripple with no useful skills isn't high on the survival list. But I'd rather not die, if it comes to that in my lifetime. My wife and children would be rather upset with me if I did.

Any advice would be helpful.

Tom Bannister said...

Just another thing. I'm not sure who it was who said 'the bureaucracy is expanding, to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy'. Fortunately though the reverse will (eventually) apply. 'the bureaucracy is contracting, to meet the needs of the contracting bureaucracy'

Rita Narayanan said...

another excellent essay from the Archdruid :)

Hope he is going to address the matter of the luxury of modern multiculturalism & it's effects. Old multicuturalism was small scale and came together with time/also bound by social contract.

Also the abject selfishness and self-obsession of the entitlement of rights culture without responsibilities. Thanks!

daelach said...

A little news from the Old World.. in Hamburg / Germany, African underage refugees got a serious beat-up by the bullies of some pimps. The reason was that the refugees pocket-picked the customers of the prostitutes while they were negotiating the price on the street. Which means, the money didn't go to the prostitutes. The pimps say they had alerted the police to do something, but the police did nothing. After three weeks, the pimps decided to have their bullies patrol the disctrict and solve the problem themselves.

And that is new. Granted, infights between rivaling pimps have been pretty normal, but it is new that they take over actual work for maintaining order. Protection money used to be downright blackmail because those claiming the protection money usually offered protection against themselves. But I have the feeling that this is the first sign of what eventually will lead to a warlord society, and the warlords will be accepted because they have to offer something the state can't provide anymore. Mainly because the state puts up tons of ineffective layers (esp. with underage criminals) for what the pimps do directly with just some bullies.

Btw, that's also a foreshadow of a failing legal system in late civilisations, to be replaced by a more barbarian, direct legal system. Just as in ancient Rome. It was just a news article, but I have the feeling I'm watching how history is being made.

barath said...

For what it's worth, I've been kicking around ideas about how this phenomenon plays out in the field of computing and computer science, and figured I might as well postwhat I've written on the topic in case folks find it relevant. The bottom line is that computing systems often rely on two engineering tricks -- abstraction and indirection -- and these tricks are having big impacts on society these days. I've always liked Mumford's distinction between tools and machines -- maybe it's time for us to go back to computing tools before we have to?

Indrajala said...

Any thoughts on how traditional academic currents will develop in this context?

I imagine academic learning will have to decouple from the ivory towers which nowadays operate with complex business models and thick bureaucratic arrangements. The old collegiate model is dead, at least in N.America and the UK so far as I can tell. Perhaps like alternative medicine, there will be alternative avenues to pursue the study of classics (Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc.) and history, or even science (the latter is much more capital intensive however).

In the case of the humanities we'll have to do something soon. As business schools grow fatter, humanities' programs are slashed all over the world as they're generally less than commercially lucrative.

John Michael Greer said...

Nuku, that's exactly what many of the Tea Partiers are talking about. They're by and large from parts of the country where excess governmental complexity is more obvious and objectionable than excess corporate complexity, is all.

Backyardfeast, the American academic industry is very nearly as good a poster child for the effect I'm discussing as the medical industry, and it's being propped up by a substantial bubble in student loans, to boot. What's going to be left of it when that pops is an interesting question.

Pinku-sensei, too funny.

Janet, that's an excellent example of what I was discussing. The thing that makes Obamacare so toxic is that it doesn't get rid of any of the corporate insurance flacks -- it simply adds another layer of government bureaucracy on top of the corporate bureaucracy. It's impressive, in a certain sense, that the Obamacare legislation took one of the world's most corrupt and inefficient medical systems and managed to make it even worse.

Derv, a lot depends on your interests and the needs of the people you know. Your best bet is to talk to the latter and find out what skills that you can learn they need -- that way, you'll be establishing your future clientele and support group as well as doing market research.

Tom, some bureaucracies contract, some implode, some are dragged from their offices, paraded through the streets, and tarred and feathered or worse. One way or another, disintermediation is a rough row for them to hoe.

Rita, hmm. I don't normally use this blog for general social criticism, but I'll see if any of those has something to say about the deindustrial trajectory ahead.

Daelach, exactly! That's how new ruling classes begin to come together, as people who are able and willing to use violence to maintain some kind of basic order find a market for their skills. As noted in earlier posts, warlords replace the decaying state in part because they cost less -- disintermediation means that you just have to pay for a warlord and his band of toughs, rather than for a vast and ineffective bureacracy with no stake in getting things done.

Mark Mikituk said...

There is no denying that complexity often increases with the age (but not always!) of a society and when a society collapses it becomes substantially less sophisticated. One can also certainly point to various aspects of complexity and inter-mediation more specifically which add no value or remove it. But I am not entirely convinced that complexity is not a coincident factor rather then a root cause. Our earth and the universe itself for example is highly complex but, for now, is not falling apart.

Perhaps there are ways complex systems can develop in a more reasonable manner that do not cause collapse?

In any case, thank you for another very interesting read JMG!

I have been lurking here on a weekly basis for probably close to half a year or so and until now haven’t really had anything more interesting to contribute then what was already being said. Now that I finally do have something I'd like to share that I feel is relevant to your blog, I am more then a bit afraid it might be taken in the wrong way, so I've decided to write a rather long preface to the links I have provided below (Please read before clicking!!):

Like many people have mentioned here, when it comes to the sort of outlook that is explored by you on your blog; it is the sort of thing that is difficult to share with others. I also work in a creative field where I often feel limited in what I really want to express in terms of my worries/fears/concerns about our future on “Mam Gaia”.

Recently I was invited via email to participate in a very commercial (pun intended) competition which normally I would not have bothered with for a second. But I received a flash of inspiration that I just had to try and make a reality and ended up participating after all. The challenge for me was creative freedom of action within difficult constraints, and my intention, in part, is deep irony with regard to the process and the subject of the competition itself. There is absolutely no way I can win (finalists are chosen by a corporate jury), and that was not at all my reason for participating.

I did spend quite a bit of time on it though, and every “artistic” choice I made has some meaning that I hope you and others reading your blog might appreciate, and is my reason for sharing it here. It may seem overly “cutesy”, perhaps partially because I had my daughter do the voice-over, but much of my concern is for the next generation and what my generation is stealing from it, so I felt it was highly appropriate to give the v.o. a younger voice.

Finally, please do not think I am just trying to fish for votes (you can vote on it) by posting the link here. Voting is irrelevant because , as I have mentioned, finalists are decided by jury with no regard to any popular vote (you can read the official contest rules to assure yourself of this if you need to). I have not even voted for it myself as it requires a Facebook account and I have decided to be an old fuddy duddy and refuse to have one :)

Well with what was probably way too much ado, here's what I did:

(If you can, be sure to put video quality at max 1080p, and have your sound on, or you'll miss the great voice-over, and most of the meaning)

Fast Forward to the Past!

FYI, The actual submission is here, but you can get better quality 1080p video on the above youtube link:

John Michael Greer said...

Barath, thanks for the link. If you want to bring back computing tools, you'll get no argument from me -- bring on the slide rules!

Indrajala, that's going to take an entire sequence of posts down the road a bit. I've noted before that coming up with a new venue for adult education, apart from the failing academic industry, is one of the pressing needs of our time -- and yes, I have some ideas to propose.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I've once again had to delete otherwise good comments for profanity. Come on, folks -- you know the house rules. If you wouldn't say it in front of your grandmother or a ten-year-old, don't post it here.

Snoqualman said...

Another way of looking at this might be just to say that everything has become a racket. We've heard about "medicine," someone mentioned universities - let's not forget the out and out student loan rackets like "University of Phoenix" which hardly even pretends to offer education and apparently exists solely to harvest government money. Bounteously.

But let's save a cheer for quite possibly the oldest and most venerable class of intermediators, the lawyers and the whole vast Byzantine legal system along with its more recent offspring, the prison industrial complex.

Everywhere you look, everything is a racket. I suppose the remarkable thing is that society has been able to support this vast parasite loading, sort of, for so long.

YJV said...

Hi all,
Your post reminds me of the brilliant British comedy 'Yes Minister'. The thrust of the writer's political views was against excessive bureaucracy and layering of systemic complications for the benefit of a self-justifying civil service.

However most watchers already realised at the time that the character of Sir Humphrey is very real, and he does get his way as often as we saw.


unirealist said...

It's important to remember that layers of complexity aren't added for no good reason. They are added (whether by an individual or an organization) for the purpose of capturing discrete quantities of profit(energy, surplus value, etc.) The reason the process continues is because it works: the new complexity adds a burden to the socioeconomy, but the agent of the increase comes out ahead, personally.

I may as well also point out that this process is inherent in the nature of systems. Your example of ecosystem evolution is a perfect example. It will always be with us, or, more precisely, in us.

However, the rise/collapse cycle of society that is driven by runaway complexity is relatively new; it appeared along with the political state. Until about ten thousand years ago, human society was tribal, and tribal societies wisely developed rituals and traditions that effectively restrained acts that otherwise would have led to increased complexity. A couple of examples are usufruct and the potlatch ceremony. (Morton Fried covered this comprehensively in "The Evolution of Political Society", back in 1967.


Rita Narayanan said...

JMG said: *Rita, hmm. I don't normally use this blog for general social criticism, but I'll see if any of those has something to say about the deindustrial trajectory ahead.

Sorry for the trouble and thanks again!

MawKernewek said...

I am relatively young, but I can remember one of the things that mass adoption of the Internet was supposed to do is make many of the businesses that depend on being an intermediary obsolete.

So rather than for instance going to a travel agent, and booking a package holiday, you can instead more easily arrange it independently.

Clearly the Internet hasn't delivered on that promise. Instead of shrinking, the businesses that revolve around being an intermediary (e.g. employment agencies, outsourced providers of public services) appear to have expanded their role.

note to JMG - the Stars Reach blog looks like it has been hacked, there are articles appearing on it in Indonesian the latest one looks like its advertising a mosquito trap

Oasis Walker said...

I've often wondered how medicine would have evolved if the Eclectic system had won instead of the chemical system. One series of novels I enjoy is Diana Gabaldon's story of a 20th century woman who travels back to 18th century Scotland via standing stones. (apparently the witches mark is actually a small pox vaccination scar from several women with the ability to travel back via this method).

She comes back to the 20th century, studies medicine and qualifies as a doctor, then goes back to the 18th century. She has modern medical knowledge but only what tools were available at the time to work with. So a fussion takes place.

Probably as much a vision of the future as the past.

Michele said...

Wow! You must have been checking out the public school system before writing this. I have noticed in recent years that the number of teachers has declined in schools and been replaced with "reading coaches" and "math interventionists". Administration continues to get top heavy and in order to pay for these people who don't teach, they cut teachers and overload classes with students. My school of less than 1000 students has a principal, two assistant principals, two guidance counselors, two deans, two academic coaches, an interventionist, a parent involvement person, four secretaries, an ESE administrator and a full time police officer!

Yupped said...

The Federal Reserve and other central banks have been finding various ways to fill in the economic hole caused by a slowing of aggregate demand for products and services and the credit to buy them. It's going to be interesting to see how long they can find ways to keep filling this hole with digital wealth before the balloon starts to deflate uncontrollably. It could be a while, because the resulting deflation - rapid simplification of the economy - is the thing they all fear most. I wonder what they'll think of next?

You're right about the reduction in comfort, though. It's amazing how we went from a relatively normal society of working people to being a bunch of typists and cubicle jockeys in just a few decades. Personally I'm past the point of enjoying working in offices, but it took me a while to break away from their spell.

Cherokee Organics said...


Ah, I was going to mention universities, but was beaten to it!

Seriously, many of the older professionals that I am aware of, achieved entry to the profession itself via an apprenticeship. Plus their entry to the professional bodies was a $50 fee. A very tidy return on that investment of money and time.

Nowadays, it is a 3 year undergraduate university degree, 3 years work experience and a further 6 subjects (generally taken part time over 3 years as they only allow you to undertake a single subject per semester) to gain professional standing.

Plus the professional bodies also decree that members are required to undertake a minimum of 40 hours professional development (limited to a maximum of 10 hours reading) per year.

Plus did I mention they run outrageously priced courses to achieve those professional development hours (which are subject to a review too in order to retain that professional standing).

Recently I noted that they'd reduced the number of hours achieved from those courses from the actual number of hours spent at the course to half that number. A lucrative feed trough?

But what really made me question their sanity was when they had an article in their professional magazine talking about the benefits of shipping work off to India.

There are all sorts of other examples that come to mind: Nurses having to have degrees. Interestingly too I've noted that nurses now look down upon the level below nurses – the nurse’s assistant. Midwives having to practice under doctors supervision in a hospital otherwise they are unable to obtain insurance. Crazy building codes.

Seriously I could just keep going on and on.

I believe Douglas Adams summed it up nicely when he described the eventual fate of the board of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Your plastic pal that's fun to be with, indeed!



PS: I've got a new blog entry up talking about all of the disasters I've had with bees over the years and what I'm now doing about it.

Also, there's more rocks of course.

And some other stuff and lots of cool photos. All good fun and hard work: We're back babe-bee

Apologies for the shocking bee joke in the title.

Violet Cabra said...

I've mentioned before here that I've spent the last 7 years or so living in communes, squats and farm-houses. These spaces have been predominately white, middle class and radical. While in the alternative margins I've seen firsthand a non-voluntary shift towards poverty.

Most people I've known have college degrees and suchlike, but still find it nearly impossible to get a good job within the sprawling bureaucracy. So instead they work as baristas, maids and sex-workers. Frequently, in such cases, there is an inner battle going on within my peers between accepting a lower standard of living and struggling for a cushy bureaucratic position.

In my last two blog posts I explored just these issues using narrative fiction ( and market-research analysis ( Something I didn't mention was the more philosophical implications. Spengler writes that every denizen of a Civilization carries the stamp of its soul within them. Furthermore, he claims, that we carry the soul as it manifests in our lifetime – so Millenials don't carry the young robust soul of the Baroque, instead we are filled with the senile, bed-sore ridden soul of a dying Civilization.

I see in myself and my peers a cleaving of the ways in how we approach this death, both practically and philosophically. Some people tend more towards cleaving towards life and suffering deeply, while others more graciously accept the situation as it is and work with it rather than against it.

I imagine this is why there is currently such a refrain of necrophilia in our culture. One way or another we have to deal with the death of not only the economic and political landscape, but also the structure of our inner world. Reckoning with that isn't easy, to say the least.

Personally, I find Stoicism most helpful and apropo.

Ventriloquist said...

Warbands ravage anew.
Tribes die
fields fry
Wealth's face turns an ashen hue

-- David

jonathan said...

"everything i want to do is illegal",wonderful book by rebellious farmer joel salatin, describes the hordes of government functionaries and industry lobbyists battling the process of disintermediation in food distribution. just try selling food right off the farm to the consumer--i have and it ain't easy. salatin btw, for all of his battles against the food industry and it's government enablers, is no tree hugging lefty. he's a deeply conservative guy with a strong libertarian bent. this is not a left-right issue.

donalfagan said...

NB: Delete this, but you misspelled 'failing' in the first paragraph.

My question is after simplification where do the newly unemployed go? I was driving to a construction meeting in DC a few days ago. My coworker pointed out the wooded areas between the highway and the twenty foot tall concrete sound barriers where the homeless have been pitching their tents. I was thinking about articles telling us it is illegal to feed the homeless in more and more areas. I wouldn't be surprised if, eventually, there was some effort to drive out, imprison or kill off the unemployed and homeless on a local basis. I recall reading about death squads stalking street children in Brazil.

I concur about middlemen. We're adding a small bump - not much bigger than a McMansion - onto an enormous building and when we got to the meeting there were 5 project managers for the construction management firm, two from the general contractor, two from one installer and two more from another installer. All talking at once.

Also, I'm old enough that AARP and a collection of medical-related insurance outfits are sending flyer after flyer about "helping" me apply for medicare.

Bill Pulliam said...

"Come on, folks -- you know the house rules. If you wouldn't say it in front of your grandmother or a ten-year-old, don't post it here."

JMG, you're showing your (our) age. There's some pretty bohemian grandmothers out there, and I haven't noticed today's crop of young parents being all that guarded in what they say in front of 10 year olds...

Ben said...

Good post, JMG. I had a two hour long discussion with a good friend yesterday about the increasing rate of melting of the Greenland ice sheets. My guess is that if (when?) a significant amount of that ice calved off into the North Atlantic, it would create the need for a lot of economic activity, simple or otherwise. I'm guessing a significant calving, say 1% loss a year for several years is coming our way in the next decade.
On a household economy note, my wife and I are realizing that our own efforts and voluntary simplicity are really just a step one in the process. She has taken up knitting and sew and I have taken up brewing, canning and organic garden, but these efforts still are only possible because she can buy yarn, thread and sting and because I can buy new lids, bottle caps and gardening tools. I guess we have to take things one step at a time.

Kyoto Motors said...

Certainly the preventative habits & health benefits (mental and physical) of a good diet, regular excercise, creativity through work and play, etc. are often casualties in the bizzare manifestations of specialisations & complexity in contemporary society.
As in Jay's "old saw" (first comment here)it's as though we're finding ways to get sick in order to meet the "needs" of the healthcare industry.

David said...


I found this article just yesterday in our utility trade press:

CA is facing critical water shortages due to overuse? Desalination to the rescue! To be fair, the author of the article doesn't pretend the solution will be cheap, but also takes present uses of water as a given. This is a typical assumption in the utility industry...demand is to be served, not questioned.

I can also give another example of Tainter's process of marginally increasing (and marginally useless) complexity from my industry. Everyone may remember a little incident back in 2003 when the northeast section of the US was in blackout for an extended period of time. A direct result of that occurrence was the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and a direct result of that piece of legislation was the creation in 2007 of a new layer of enforceable federal regulations pertaining to electric grid reliability. You do not want to know how much time/effort/resources/dollars have been spent on compliance (not doing anything differently, just creating the paper trail to *prove* that you did what you did). And, of course, these are resources not being used to reinforce the ageing material infrastructure (power plants, transmission/distribution facilities, etc) that form the basis of the industry.

KidCharlemagne said...

"While evidence shows that more of the same leads to utter defeat,nothing less than more and more seems worthwhile in a society infected by the growth mania..."
From Tools For Conviviality by Ivan Illich from my cherished first edition published in 1973. It's on the Archdruid's essential reading list and I couldn't recommend it more. The first chapter summarizes the rise of the medical establishment's increasingly complex hegemony over human health.
Forty years later we see society still running on fumes (literally) trying to build and maintain the machinery of progress instead of sustainable tools built to human scale.

Kyoto Motors said...

On another related topic, the example of the fine arts comes to mind. Artists are most certainly among the oldest specialists in societies that feel the need to separate "art" from daily life. True to the times, we have found ways to complexify the "industry".
On the one hand you have the ubiquitous "curator". Artists as curators; curators as artists. Woe is the mere artist, not to mention his essentially disposable art, which is essentially the accessory to the whole scene. That scene is, on the other hand, increasingly being taken over by the neo-liberal ideology of global financialisation. Hence the international art-star multi millionaire, the international art-fair phenomenon and the thousands of self-curating artists clambering for a piece of the action.
Long gone is the simple economic transaction between master and patron - or at least this practice no longer has a place in the dominant narrative in the "industry"...

Matthew Sweet said...

Two separate points:
I've been reading this sequence of posts with mixed feelings. What troubles me is the sense that there is a bit of perverse joy being taken in the predicament you outline. It is a bit like the way horror films attract an audience that gets off on watching the pretty popular kids get their heads chopped off in increasingly violent ways. It feels like a narrative with built in moral judgments, and readers are eager for the final act so they can say "I told you so" while watching the naive masses and the elites squirm in the trap. This while conveniently ignoring the fact that everyone is going to be equally uncomfortable in the scenario you are describing. Maybe I'm way off. I take no joy in these posts.
Regarding intermediation, I know a thing or two about that type of profession. As a civil servant working entirely on ways to convince people to give up their cars and try walking, cycling or transit, I am in a highly specialized field, firmly entrenched in the "knowledge economy", producing a very abstract product in most cases. The most concrete product of mine is a bike lane or two, and at that it is usually changing painted lines on the existing roadway. One interesting aspect of this field relevant to the discussion is that the field is constantly arguing for the benefits of its existence. One key argument that I frequently use is that reducing the number of automobile trips is an asset management strategy for a municipality. In other words, cars cause wear and tear on roads, whereas bikes, pedeestrians, or buses with 60 people aboard cause less wear and tear and therefore save money on road repairs. Talk about an approach that, perhaps without realizing it, embraces the fact that the build-out of the road network itself has peaked and return on investment is approaching the negative.

Shawn Aune said...

"Take the natural tendency for social complexity to increase over time, and put it to work in a society that’s surfing a gargantuan tsunami of cheap energy..."

Yes capitalists love to attribute this tendency to the nature of their favorite 'ism.

Really it is a thermodynamic certainty that complexity will evolve as the energy gradient available for the society to burn increases.

It has nothing at all to do with capitalism which is only really good at shaking scant resources loose.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, you've probably heard about the proposed "internet tax" in Hungary (I think it is relevant for this subject):

It's certainly a very unpopular move, perhaps political suicide for that country's current leadership. But it also reminds me of your article about the end of the information age. I wonder how it will play out.

Bruno Bolzon said...

JMG, I have one unanswered question from last week, and it is whether or not the decline and fall of the American empire is a consequence of peak oil or not. I mean, if peak oil was still a few centuries ahead, and the US really had plenty of it to spare, would the American empire be dying as it is now?

magicalthyme said...

On healthcare, I'd bet that 90% of the visits to my ED are for over-the-counter bugs or anxiety attacks. We have an old group of worry warts, and a young group of people who have been so vaccinated against life they have no idea what real illness feels like.

The Ebola trajectory in Liberia is confirmed to be slowing. It remains to be seen what will happen in Mali. A 2 year old was recently brought back from a visit over the border. She traveled by bus with a nosebleed throughout, with stopoffs in several major cities. And the relatives who brought her back lied for several days about her whereabouts, before confessing up to the death of her parents from Ebola. She has since died and they are furiously trying to trace her many contacts.

Also, I learned the other day that in the US, Ebola treatment includes 1.9 gallons of IV fluids per/day, i.e. somewhat higher than the 1.3 oral gallons in Africa.

I live very close to an internationally known herbalist. Based on a recent spate of hiring, her business seems to be growing. I'm hoping to get a job with her next year, once I'm able to "retire" with a base of SS income. That way instead of paying for workshops I can learn by osmosis while working with like-minded people.

A recent article by a state rep in our local weekly stated straight out that on health insurance their choice was between expanding Medicare or the current mess. He didn't explain why they went the way they did. I assume disintermediation of the insurance "industry" was not palatable.


Andy Brown said...

Thank you for the concept of "intermediation". I think I will find that a useful idea to keep in mind. The only comment I'll toss in is the notion that another of the main features of intermediation (before it becomes parasitic and counterproductive) is that bureaucratic structures and intermediaries are meant to replace the often socially complex and burdensome means by which actors come to trust one another. While the structure veers toward voluntary simplicity in one sense - in another sense we each are going to find our lives made more complicated as we have to build all of the relationships of trust and mutuality that have been removed from us - if not outlawed. Interesting times.

Nastarana said...

Jay, some of us elders, while we might not be contemplating suicide, have no interest in the prolongation of our lives beyond such time as we can still hope to be useful. My heirs have been so informed, in no uncertain terms.

Lesser Bull said...

Here's a short essay by a medical doctor who is now a professor in the UK who says that the goal of modern medicine is the doctor-free hospital and the goal of modern education is the teacher free college:

Dave Ruggiero said...

Great post as usual. I've long believed that the interest in alternative medicine in the US is not so much driven by any sort of anti-science sentiment as by the simple fact that, for a great many Americans, "maybe it'll work, $50," makes more short-term sense than "definitely will work, $1200."

I think a lot of doctors in this country (at least the small-town DOs I mostly know) would be just as happy as their patients to ditch the middlemen, even if it meant a cut in pay. But when you're not licensed to practice until your thirties, and you've got several hundred thousand dollars in student loan debt, sixty grand a year no longer seems like quite enough. That's where the academic complexity a couple of the above posters mentioned really comes in - because the higher ed system not only functions as an intermediary to itself (you have to get through it before you can become a professor or teacher), but as an intermediary to a wide range of other professions as well. I'm not sure offhand how much formal training doctors went through in 1914, but you don't have to get too far into the nineteenth century before medicine still worked largely as an apprenticeship. Nowadays the only doctors I know who voluntarily take lower-paying rural jobs are those who have their school paid for, either by rural communities in need or by getting their medical training through the military.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Voluntary Simplicity - every movement in America boils down to a new way to sell people stuff. The same goes for "green living."

I remember reading an article by someone whose *only job* was to understand and interpret the complex construction bonds that are required to fund construction projects nowadays. And I've personally seen the dozens of middle management health care "administrators" who do nothing besides attend meetings all day and make "decisions" and who never see or treat a single patient. Everybody is trying to get one of these slots warming an office chair as they are the only jobs with decent pay or working conditions anymore - people who are actually treating patients are increasingly overworked and underpaid. According to NPR, nearly a third of spending on health care — or about $750 billion in 2009 — is wasted. A good illustration of the above is this article:

Doctors Tell All - And It's Bad - The Atlantic

The demoralized insiders-turned-authors are blunt about their daily reality. The biggest problem is time: the system ensures that doctors don’t have enough of it. To rein in costs, insurance companies have set fees lower and lower. And because doctors tend to get reimbursed at higher rates when they are in a network (hospitals and large physician groups have more leverage with insurance companies), many work for groups that require them to cram in a set number of patients a day. Hence the eight-minute appointments we’re all familiar with. Paperwork compounds the time crunch. Studies estimate that today’s doctors and “hospitalists”—medical practitioners who do most of their work in hospitals—spend just 12 to 17 percent of their day with patients. The rest of the time is devoted to processing forms, reviewing lab results, maintaining electronic medical records, dealing with other staff. Physicians in non-hospital medical practices in the U.S. “spend ten times as many hours on nonclinical administrative duties” as their Canadian counterparts do, Danielle Ofri, an internist at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, reports in What Doctors Feel.

I'd also point out one item - it's much worse in the U.S. thanks to neoliberal economic doctrines which say all services must be routed through the "efficient" private sector. This is just a smokescreen, however to divert government money through a series of well-connected middlemen who grab their share of the pie upstream and leave high bills and poor service for the people actually using the service downstream - whether it's health care, education, utilities or garbage collection. These middlemen fund political campaigns, so that's not likely to change. All of these services are much cheaper and more efficient in Europe where they are provided through taxation by government directly. That does not mean they are sustainable, however.

And speaking of infrastructure, I just read that even though the economy is supposedly "growing" again, 21 trillion barrels of water is lost each year due to aging and leaky pipes, broken water mains and faulty meters. Does anyone believe that the trillions of dollars required to upgrade this will ever be spent, even as drought grips more of the country?

Marinhomelander said...

“When a society begins to add layers of social complexity—for example, expanding the reach of the division of labor, setting up hierarchies to centralize decision making, and so on—“...”after which each additional increment of complexity subtracts from the wealth and resilience of the society.”

Look also to the social and ideological realm. Political studies theory based academic programs and the movement of that ideologically based activity into local government commissions and tax-payer funded physical activities and construction of buildings is a good example of this.

The city that best epitomizes this is San Francisco. It has spent well over a billion dollars on “services” to the “homeless” who are 99% of the time from elsewhere having voluntarily traveled to the city. (I base that percentage on having grown up there and having been horrified and entertained by local government and economics for decades.)

Thus the problem grows larger and ever more money and solutions and commissions and non-profits and spokescritters represent and feed off the “homeless” and it’s now parsing to include the LGBT homeless as a special class with paid dedicated city commissions and so on.

It’s at the point where school children run an obstacle course of legs and sleeping bodies on the sidewalk on the way to school with certain areas noted for their homeless bicycle parts “markets” and others for certain kind of homeless drug sales and others for homeless sexual proclivities.

A good example of keeping things simple is veterinarians vs doctors. Your dog has a problem, you go get it fixed and pay cash unlike the human health care system. I know people who go to vets for things like stitches and rashes, even though it’s “illegal”.

National security begins with the environment.

Marinhomelander said...

Donald Hargraves commented:
" Hearing that made me think that maybe the electric companies were already planning to manage demand instead of respond to it – hence the "smart grid." Personally, I'm waiting for them to start planning brownouts and blackouts on a regular basis independent of weather –."

How about allocating electricity to those companies and individuals who are willing to pay a much higher charge per KWhour? With smart meters they can remotely turn off the power to those who are not willing to bid up their charge on a temporary basis.

Smart meters are the camels nose of technological intrusion into our homes.

Patricia Mathews said...

I already pre-ordered TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING. But please, let it not arrive until after the "second midterm" in my Environmental Science class - we actually have to learn science in that, not just BS.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
Nate Hagens has a good video lecture here. It is a long presentation and highly condensed but I like at the end his personal take on responses to changing America. He is also encouraging for his Canadian audience.
It is a somewhat abstract point but he repeats his simple yellow chart about what happens when an economy goes from spending 5% of GDP on obtaining and putting energy to work, to spending 10% of GDP on getting the same energy. Even if that same amount of energy is obtainable, the said economy loses half the original benefit that was seen from the original fuel input.
(See 17min)


Ryan Sharon said...

Greetings all

1st time poster, but I have been reading ADR for about 2 years now and actually went back and read the whole blog from 2006 on.

I attempted to post something already but due to an issue with online credentials it was 'disappeared'.

What stands out to me is not the obvious examples of this issue (health care, education) but how they spread in the collective subconscious and manifest in the little things.

As just 2 examples: the movement towards health insurance for pets and the recently hyped exodus of Facebook users to Ello (how does leaving 1 centrally governed service for another improve the situation, especially considering there was a non - centralized solution that received little attention or support: google Diaspora social network if you don't know what I'm talking about).

Does Toinbee address this cognitive disconnect in decaying civilizations? Don't have a copy to read yet.

Finally, at the risk of going off-topic (but not for the main theme of this blog I hope), some links:

For the Keepers among you, this may be of interest:

And another 'future history' (I wonder if the author reads ADR):

If the other post made it after all, please delete this one.


postpeakmedicine said...

I found this post especially interesting because I'm a family physician practicing in Canada, which has some similarities and many differences from the US healthcare system. My couple of cents' worth:

I have to work within the current system in order to earn a living, which basically means sitting at my computer all day ordering tests. However, I am preparing for a time when I might have to do a more hands-on form of practice, so for example I am collecting texts about how to set fractures, deliver babies, set up local human waste disposal arrangements, etc, so that I can hopefully rise to the occasion if and when the occasion comes.

Canadian law currently prohibits me from working "outside the system", for example by providing services to patients for direct payment. The impetus to shove me from the old system to the new system will come if and when the system of legal enforcement of this rule breaks down, or the rewards of working within the old system become so paltry that it's not worth while any more.

I am often depressed by the extent to which patients choose complexity over simplicity, for example, by seeking tranquillizers instead of going for a long walk in the countryside, by seeking prepackaged food supplements and vitamin injections instead of improving their diet, by seeking lab tests and x-rays instead of stopping smoking and losing weight, and so forth.

Leo Knight said...

I lookforward to Tuesdays just for your essays.

I work at a retail florist. I've seen both the extra complexity, and a bit of devolution as well. On the one hand, we now deal with "order gatherers," websites and 800 numbers which take orders, then forward them to real florists like us to be filled. Because of deceptive advertising, most customers don't realize their original order went to a call center in the Philippines. It reminds me of the thoroughly idiotic "personal shopper," for those too busy (lazy) to shop for themselves!

On the other hand, we have wholesalers and other suppliers going out of business, or cutting back drastically. Items which were once cheap and plentiful, such as ceramic novelty containers, or special decorations like white doves for funeral work, are now almost impossible to find. I've had suppliers say they didn't have baskets, or ribbon in common colors like yellow! This is in a relatively expendable industry. Customer complaints to the contrary, no one ever died because they didn't get flowers. Imagine what will happen when it gets to heating, or actually useful medicines, or food.

On Sunday, at the used book exchange, I found a copy of Pat Frank's classic post-atomic war novel, "Alas Babylon." I first read it when I was 11 years old. After "The Day," all sorts of things go away. Refrigeration, and insulin for a diabetic neighbor. Municipal water, and firefighting. Air conditioning, making the modern, '60s houses useless in Florida's heat. A sporting goods store sells out all its stock. The owner has a cash register full of paper, but regrets not even keeping a rod and reel for himself. Maybe we'll see similar thing, only without the Earth-shattering kaboom.

Thanks again.

steve pearson said...

I am living in a remote rural valley in N California. There is only the health clinic in the valley, open 8-5, Mon-Fri, oriented primarily to the local tribe, but open to all.Whatever they may lack in expertise,they certainly make up for in bureaucracy.My daughter went in as a first time patient, very sick with some sort of food poisoning. They wouldn't even look at her until she had filled in about 40 or 50 minutes of paper work, then wanted her to go away & come back that afternoon, which she refused to do, and was eventually looked at.Since they didn't accept the insurance coverage she had, she was forced to pay before being looked at.
Another time, I was bitten by a dog whilst cycling on a Sat. Remember: don't have an accident at night or on the weekend. The fire dept. bandaged my leg and,since I didn't have a car, wanted to send me by ambulance to the nearest hospital 40 winding mountain miles away.I refused; I have no idea whether my medicare and supplemental would have covered it or how I would have got back.
We are both alive and well, but no thanks to the system. Oh dear, how un-fond I am of this nation.
Regards, Steve

Karl said...

The point about doctors reminded me of this from a few years ago. A senate candidate in Nevada said she would rather go back to paying for care in trade or barter.

This is from the very respectable Washington Monthly

Sue Lowden (R), the leading Republican Senate candidate in Nevada, recently articulated her vision of how the American health care system should work. At a local candidate forum, Lowden, a former state senator and chair of the Nevada Republican Party, encouraged Nevadans to "go ahead and barter with your doctor." It would, she insisted, "get get prices down in a hurry."

I assumed that Lowden misspoke, and meant to say "bargain," not "barter," though the notion of bargaining with medical professionals is itself foolish. But she couldn't have meant "barter," since that's ridiculous.


I'm trying to imagine how Lowden thinks this should work. Treating a mundane ailment -- say, a sore throat -- can cost a chicken. But how, exactly, does she imagine families pay for more serious treatments? What should Nevadans expect to bring to the doctor in exchange for an MRI exam? Or an emergency appendectomy? Or chemotherapy? Should the senior citizen who just had hip-replacement surgery offer to start painting the doctor's house?
There's a lot, a lot of smug around discussing this topic, because it speaks to status, class etc. However, I think that as this economic decline continues, a lot more people will end up saying, "Yes, I am one of those people, the kind of person who trades/barter/exchanges for health care/shelter/etc." Better practice saying it proudly because participation in the money economy will be a status marker until the collapse of the current monetary arrangement.

steve pearson said...

Re the F35, I have read that the Americans best bet would be a slightly updated F16, but don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

goedeck said...

As a punctuation of the complexity + high concentration of energy, the explosive over the Antares rocket was the dot on his exclamation point.

Glenn said...


Twilight's Last Gleaming arrived yesterday, and I couldn't put it down until I was done. You fleshed it out very nicely. In addition to the bad puns from the 2012 posts, a name kept triggering my latent memory as Asian. Checked the atlas, it's the largest city in Manchuria... Very droll. While I also appreciate the nod to Walt Kelly, I am now stuck with the mental image of a bear in a loud plaid coat.

You've done a good job of living up to my expectations for the story. I regard it as a reverse Tom Clancy novel; i.e. it's full of whiz bang military tech and strategy, but the U.S. loses. The twist at the end is nice too; expecting the maid with the dagger, and you gave us the butler with a vial of poison.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Erica H said...

I described the themes of this post to my husband using the following analogy:

When building a house you receive a very large return on investment in the construction of a foundation, walls, and roof. Power, water, insulation, etc., make good sense. Furnishings are helpful and a few objects of beauty are warranted. After a certain point though, you have a fully functional house with every reasonable need met. At that point it would be a good idea to stop building and enjoy the place, but in the process of building the house your initially modest construction crew has ballooned to a massive number of people who inspect, tinker, quibble, authorize, specialize, and sometimes actually build. It is in their financial best interest to continue to build the house, so many unnecessary additions are made, rooms are torn down and rebuilt, new construction requirements created that must be met. Eventually you run out of money to pay them, so you take out a mortgage, etc. We seem to now be on at least our third mortgage in this country, paying legions of useful home decorators to redo the wallpaper just one more time (that funny money motif is really quite fetching!) and make everything look fine, while the foundation crumbles and the roof is caving in.

I am thinking a lot in terms of housing these days because my husband and I are renovating an old cabin to be our small house. Sometimes I wish we had legions of construction workers - it would get done faster - but we are doing it ourselves and that’s a bit more affordable, plus we are learning a lot into the bargain.

Thanks for another excellent post, JMG!

Dammerung said...

Solar electricity production through solar panels makes up .20% of world energy production, so far as I can find out. Now, that's an extremely low figure. But as the crisis wears on and the cost ratios change, it might become more economical to produce electricity through solar rather than fossil means.

Let's say we can get the solar figure up to 10%. Now, a 90% reduction in overall energy would be an immediate and annihilating catastrophe for our current economy, what with its JIT inventory systems and everybody driving everywhere. But you know, I'm not sure we couldn't still lead prosperous and dare I say modern lives with 10% of current electrical usage. If we can keep chip fabrication going, we can optimize for lower power consumption instead of more transistors. K' no more driving but the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline can keep a cellphone running for years.

Do you think there's any reason for optimism when it comes to renewable energy? Do you think we CAN get up to 10-20% of our current energy production using renewable means with a decent ROI? Because it seems to me that that would lead to lifestyles containing a lot less, but also enough.

David said...

@ Marinhomelander

As one who works for a (municipal) power utility, I must respectfully take issue with regard to your post on “smart” meters. I am unsure as to whether you are referring to time-of-use meters (with which larger commercial and industrial usage has been measured for decades) or radio-frequency controlled meters which enable remote reading and shut-off.
In the first case, I should mention that the flat-rate fees that most residential customers pay for electric usage results in highly inefficient customer decisions because the marginal cost of electricity varies widely depending on the time of day and day of year. A marginal kilowatt-hour (kWh) at 2 pm on a Wednesday in late July when it is 95 degrees outside costs much more than the marginal kWh in early October at 10 am on a Sunday morning. Just having a basic on-peak/off-peak pricing structure would send a better price signal for customers to manage their consumption. The grid has to be built to supply maximum draw, so more efficient consumption will result in less investment required.
In the second case, if we just look at remote shut-off capability (which, by way of full disclosure, our utility does not have), the issue has more to do with saving the well-behaving ratepayers money than anything else. We have our share of non-payers (primarily over winter, when we are by law prevented from disconnecting for public safety reasons…a policy with which I happen to agree). The incremental cost of “rolling a truck” to disconnect a customer is significantly more than the amount of money we are allowed to collect as a reconnection fee. That balance has to be made up by all the other ratepayers who paid their bills on time. This is hardly fair to them.
It is important to remember that most utilities (in the US, anyway) are regulated, cost of service enterprises. Particularly in the instances where they are publically-owned (like the one where I work), they are not-for-profit. Most folks are also unaware of how intricate a machine the electric grid is and what all goes into delivering 60 Hz, 120-volt power to their electric outlet 24x7x365.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Ah, yes. Disintermediation. I think I've mentioned it a time or two, here, in relationship to the time I spent working in Library-Land. That's where I first ran across the term. Self checkout and self pickup of held items. For us in the trenches (actually dealing with the customers) it didn't mean less work, it just meant different kinds of work.

But, it was used as an excuse to reduce the actual staff that worked with the public. On the other hand, we did have one library director (it's a very large, 5 county regional system) who managed to strip out a whole layer of useless administrators. The county managers. A few suits (that went nowhere) were thrown down.

I think (got the feeling) that a lot of the Masters of Library Science endowed felt that the Director had betrayed her profession. As in most professions, a lot of a__ covering goes on.

I think someone further up the posts mentioned "choice." That seemed to go hand and hand with disintermediation. "Choice" seems to be an either/or proposition designed to stampede the proles into some kind of behavior that is perceived to be of advantage to whatever corporate entity is involved.

An example would be my credit union. I can either pay an additional monthly fee of $5 to keep receiving my paper monthly statement, or, for "free" I can get it on-line. See, I have a choice!"

Ed-M said...

Good and timely article, JMG!

This morning I was listening to NPR at one of their interview shows (I forget which) and the host wad interviewing somebody from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was a member of Generation X, and they were talking about how hard it Iis these days to buy a house: not just to qualify for the mortgage, but even to come up with a 5% down payment, and having to pay up to $300/month extra in " Private Mortgage Insurance" when the down payment is less than 20%. Anyway, the interviewee said he bought his first house in the 1990s and like most house buyers then he had to get assistance from his family. He also said that ad he sold one house and bought another, the profit he got back from each house in turn was progressively lower percentagewise than from the previous house he sold before. I couldn't catch the rest of the interview, but I suspect that because of the RE bubble that burst, he won't be selling the house he's in at any time soon -- if ever.

And his cohort peers and younger people today probably can't rely upon assistance from relatives, thanks to the same partially-collapsed economy, plus the overburden of student debt, which explains why more people are renting and probably will not buy a house or even a condo ever in their lives, unless they get some kind of windfall like winning the lottery.

ibelievethatyoubelieve said...

Often I feel like a toddler on a beach with a tsunami of humanity bearing down, screeching at the unintelligible roar.

Thanks for providing some higher ground. From this vantage point, sometimes, the city lights seem so clear. Other times the weather rolls in and it's but a commodified, financialized, mass produced blur.

I suppose when the bottle is empty and all the bitter is gone, then it's time to draw a circle. Weee

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, it's entirely possible that excess complexity is a correlative rather than a causative factor -- Tainter's theory, as I noted, is not without its flaws. Still, it's a useful perspective in the present situation.

Snoqualman, I see your crystal ball is in working order. I'll be talking about rackets quite a bit in next week's post.

YJV, I never watched the show, but it does sound apropos.

Unirealist, before the invention of field agriculture and the rise of cities, the energy surpluses that would have allowed runaway complexity to take off also didn't exist, so those tribal customs had help!

Rita, no trouble at all.

MawKernewek, the Star's Reach blog no longer exists. Somebody else may have picked up the handle, but I deleted the blog when the book was going to press. Still, thanks for the heads up!

Oasis Walker, the Eclectic system is still being practiced, and has had something of a revival in recent years. It's entirely possible that a couple of centuries from now, the era of chemical medicine will be seen as a brief and self-terminating interruption in the growth of other healing systems.

Michele, oh, granted, the education industry also makes a great poster child for intermediation -- though I didn't happen to know it had gone quite that far. I wonder if anybody's had the guts to compare outcomes with, say, the old one-room schoolhouse system?

Yupped, they'll think of something, no question. It's that or let the whole thing come unraveled.

Cherokee, exactly. It's all about cashing in on the gravy train of productive labor -- and nobody thinks about what happens to the parasite that drains too much blood from its host.

Violet, that's one of the things that my slogan "collapse now and avoid the rush" is meant to help with. If people realize that the existing order of things is headed for the rocks, that what now counts as normal will not last indefinitely, and that everyone will have to deal with a much lower standard of living in the not too distant future, making the leap to a less extravagant lifestyle is emotionally and mentally easier.

Ventriloquist, nicely summed up!

Random Man said...

Many of the problems described here are inherently problems with the money system.

I don't have all the answers, but history shows that two things when properly applied work well: limited government and sound money. You have to have both, you can't have just one.

Of course, human nature is that we can't get this right. We demand the freebies.

The epiphany that I had recently was that the ultra-rich and the welfare class are actually on the same side: the side of easy money. You will not find this mentioned anywhere in mainstream political discussion.

Slow Moe said...

I know that youre a Conservative, but as a Socialist, the idea of the death of Capitalism makes me absolutely giddy.

Sure, theres no Socialism or Communism, and neither ever will be, but Capitalism will soon join the USSR in histories dusty annals, and for some people like me thats basically something to celebrate.

As long as Capitalism dies, thats all that matters. Im sure humankind can find a way to cope, and rather, will be better off when its dead.

Slow Moe said...

Post Script: Yes, im aware the fall of capitalism means a fall in living standards etc.

I still think humankind will be better off without it.

John Michael Greer said...

Jonathan, thanks for the reference! You're right that this isn't a left-right issue -- though it could be an issue around which an entirely new set of political alignments emerges.

Donalfagan, I can't delete anything short of a whole post. As for the disintermediated, yes, that's a question of some importance, which I'll be discussing later on.

Bill, oh, granted. I considered yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, too. ;-)

Ben, of course it's one step at a time. Your wife might consider learning how to use a drop spindle next, for example, so she can make her own yarn!

Kyoto, being healthy is a drag on the GDP, since nobody in the medical profession earns anything from a healthy person...

David, thanks for the link, and the example. It fascinates me that the concept of using less has become so utterly taboo in our time. It might be worth exploiting the shock value!

KidCharlemagne, good. I hereby encourage every single reader of this post to get out there and read Illich's book if you haven't already done so.

Kyoto, well, the arts these days amount to an industry that manufactured collectibles for the rich, so it's not surprising.

Matthew, not so much joy as a certain ironic amusement, and that mostly because it's one of those situations where laughter is a better option than clinical depression, say, or heavy drinking. Thanks for your example -- it's fascinating that a clear if unstated recognition of the end of the road, so to speak, is moving through the crawlspaces!

Shawn, oh, granted. I think the cheerleaders of the free market would give capitalism credit for continental drift if they thought they could get away with it.

Ursachi, I hadn't -- thanks for the heads up! It sounds like a very sensible idea to me, but of course it's not my government or country. I'd support such a proposal here, though.

Bruno, no, as I pointed out in my book Decline and Fall, the end of US empire is no more a product of peak oil than were the end of the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, etc. Empires have their own cycle of rise and fall, and it's our bad luck here in the US that ours it hitting its sell-by date as the pressures of peak oil are beginning to bite down hard.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yeah, parasite is the correct descriptive. Incidentally, I'll also note that it is often the older and more entrenched interests at the head of those professional bodies that are turning the screws tighter.

It takes a considerable amount of personal energy to figure out how to play that system, whilst expening minimal energy. Not easy and I have been considering for a while the option of jumping ship to another body with less burdensome obligations. I don't need to be told that the average warlord runs their ship at a lower cost base - thus obtaining popular support.

It always amazes me that the actions of individuals pursuing self interest is inevitably self defeating and yet they pursue it anyway. Seems sort of weird to me, but I'm a staunch consequentialist.

Hey, I picked up a second hand hardback copy of the "The Art of War" and am looking forward to burying my nose in it. Galbraith is a good read and I'm enjoying it immensely!



Nick Nelson said...

Haven't had time to read the comment discussion this week so apologies if anyone else has already brought this up. The talk about disintermediation has put me in mind of a few stories I've read over recent months. First was a news story about rural Chinese farmers either voluntarily selling their land and moving into large cities or others who were "incentivized" to do so. I believe the intention is to consolidate the production of food crops in the hands of large conglomerates and get more people into the market economies in the cities. But many of the people who have moved to the cities are extremely unhappy with the results. Paraphrasing one woman from the story, she said something like, "when we lived on the farm, if we wanted pork we would just go outside and slaughter a pig. Now we need to get money to buy the pork at a store, but we have no money."

Also recently I was reading about the lifestyle of the Mosuo ethnic group in southwest China. They are subsistence farmers who live around Lugu lake who also herd animals and weave some beautiful cloth by hand. But like many other small ethnic groups they are beginning to have a problem with younger people leaving traditional ways of life for a "better" one in the cities.

I bring up these examples because I feel a lot of anxiety about my own future and the long term viability of my own lifestyle, but reading about people who hold the keys to the future in their hands and just hand them over or have them ripped away by governments when we are (relatively speaking) on the cusp of a reversal is a special kind of agony.

John Michael Greer said...

Magicalthyme, back when people went to the doctor rather than to the emergency room, 90% of all visits were for simple, ordinary conditions that an herbalist can usually treat more effectively than an MD. That is to say, your plan for a second career sounds like a very good one.

Andy, good. We'll be talking about the collapse of trust and the consequences thereof quite a bit as we proceed.

Lesser Bull, I wonder if it's occurred to them that they may also end up with the patient-free hospital and the student-free college while they're at it.

Dave, nah, it's "maybe it'll work, $50, and they'll treat me like a human being" versus "maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, maybe it'll give me side effects worse than the condition I've got, $1200, and they'll treat me like dirt." Between mainstream medicine's focus on major diseases rather than the everyday ills that account for most health care visits, the appalling rate of misdiagnosis and misprescription, nosocomial infections, iatrogenic diseases, etc., etc., "definitely will work" is only true in the airy realms of pure theory.

Escape, thanks for the links -- yes, those are excellent examples.

Marinhomelander, I knew a mentally ill woman whose fallback plan when life got too hard was to go off her meds, catch a bus to San Francisco, and live off the city until her stress levels declined far enough -- so no, I'm not surprised.

Patricia, how soon is your midterm? People who preordered are already getting their copies.

Phil, thanks for the link!

Ryan, no, Toynbee didn't really address it, though Vico did -- it's part of the "barbarism of reflection" that plays an important role in his theories. Thanks for the links!

Postpeakmedicine, I have no idea what the situation is like regarding herbal medicine in Canada; if it's legal, you might want to learn how to grow and prepare your own pharmaceuticals while you're at it. Physicians used to do that all the time back in the day.

Varun Bhaskar said...


Throughout my life my peers and parents all expected me to either become an academic or civil servant. The life of the academic and civil servant were most appealing because of the benefits offered to both casts. Good health care, pension, and subsidized travel. Then I actually got to college and realized that academics weren't actually teaching anything anymore. We would sit in classes and listen to lectures about readings few ever did. Talking to my professors I quickly realized how little actual teaching they did, since they were forced to teach as many classes as possible to earn their keep. The civil servants I ran into were basically glorified paper-pushers, not really involved in helping communities become self-sustaining. I saw some amazing work being done by some academics and civil servants, and they would have to deal with constant harassment from administrators. In India many of the best ones ended up in what we call “punishment postings” in some back-water office with little authority and even fewer resources. Poverty was the common punishment to all who dared do their jobs. Needless to say I decided to opt out. I think that is why then life of a Green Wizard really appeals to me. A free-lance civil servant, academic, and madman is what I was born to be.

I look forward to your posts on rebuilding our education system. I'm thinking apprenticeships for the up and coming, but how to train the adults remains a mystery to me.


Director/Chief Editor
View on the Ground

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, it had crossed my mind that you would say that. :) The thing is, the current Hungarian leadership has been going in an authoritarian direction, and this is seen as just another move towards that sort of non-democratic rule. Remember that many people today consider the internet as a basic freedom (of course it is just a product of an age of extravagance, but tell that to most people who have access to it) And while I took notice of the energy requirements to keep today's internet going, and how it's inevitable that it will be subjected to increasing taxation and regulation, I can't shake the feeling of how overtly unpopular such moves are going to be, and what is happening in Hungary may be just a preview.

How can I put this in another way: I understand that this is an immensely complex techno-structure with no future once energy gets harder and harder to come by, but while people can still afford to have a computer, they're not going to accept such restrictions easily. I would come to terms with it gradually since I grew up in the 90s (which in my country can be labeled as the pre-internet age for most people) but I would miss many things nonetheless. Without the internet, who knows if your ideas would have reached even one tenth of your current audience. But alas, nothing lasts forever.

Now, about those shortwave radios...

Kathleen Quinn said...

Particularly enjoyed your post today. My own efforts at disintermediation consume a large part of my waking hours each day—I just didn’t know what it was called! Years ago I decided that the conventional education system existed only to ensure its own existence, and took my kids out of school. Not too much later I decided that I couldn’t trust any food that came in a package from far away, and so started producing our own, and buying from or bartering with our neighbors. More recently, following a chronic illness diagnosis, I learned that large doses of vitamin D and a diet of mostly vegetables worked just as well or better than the so-called disease modifying drugs (with a price tag of 48-60k per year), and so no conventional drugs for me. I feel great, but my Big Pharma-supported neurologist is not very happy about it.

I made these decisions for the good of my family, my community, and myself, and because I prefer to participate in and support systems that are not extractive or exploitative in nature. That’s all. And yet I find myself expected to justify and defend these decisions regularly (which I often decline to do—who has that kind of time?) in the face of some seriously irrational anger. It occurs to me that all of these bloated bureaucracies from which I have unplugged must be very fragile indeed if my small, individual actions are perceived as a threat. At the very least, I am encouraged to keep on doing what I am doing. Thanks for your help in connecting these particular dots.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, that's a classic! One of the first postapocalyptic novels, and still one of the best. That the same thing is happening much more slowly is an interesting reflection on the times.

Steve, it's not much better in a big city, and can be significantly worse. Learning to take care of your own routine health care is one of the few viable options. More on this as we proceed.

Karl, I'd missed that. It's fascinating to see anybody, of any party, even hinting that the "health care crisis" is the product of intermediation, and could be solved promptly by disintermediation (and lowering barriers to basic care providers -- there's no reason on Earth, for example, why nurses shouldn't be legally permitted to do primary care on their own, up to and including prescribing the safer and more common meds; but that's a discussion for another time).

Steve, the F-35 is a roaring success at its main mission: soaking up as many tax dollars as possible. A modified F-16 might be a better plane in every other respect, but it would be a failure at what matters. ;-)

Goedeck, it was remarkably well timed, wasn't it?

Glenn, thank you! Granted, I never was able to avoid a pun. Glad you enjoyed the result.

Erica, excellent. That metaphor is good enough that it gets you this evening's gold star.

Dammerung, my guess is that 10% is very optimistic, not least because you also have to account for all the energy needed to manufacture and maintain the solar systems, etc. There's also the issue of getting from here to there in the teeth of frantic opposition from those who want to have their planet and eat it too. In the very long run, what you're discussing -- a society that can maintain a complex technology on a renewable basis -- is very likely; my book The Ecotechnic Future is about that prospect; but it's probably a very long way away.

Lewis, oh, granted, the concept can be abused. My grandmother used to be the town librarian in Cosmopolis, Washington, long before it became part of your five-county system; it was just her and a couple of high school kids getting some job experience, and somehow it seems to have worked remarkably well. More on this in a later post.

Ed-M, and the banks are frantically trying to pretend that this isn't the case, because if it is, the price of all the real estate on their books is going to plunge to something like what the market can bear -- supply and demand, remember -- and they'll be left twisting in the wind. Interesting times, definitely!

Believe, it's a common feeling. Still, I'm sure I have another bottle of bitter around here somewhere. ;-)

Random Man, limited government and sound money didn't prevent cataclysmic economic turmoil in the second half of the 19th century, you know. I know it's hard to think this in a culture that treats every predicament as a problem with a solution, but I'd like to suggest the unthinkable: there may not be any way to have a complex economic system that doesn't blow up in one way or another.

MawKernewek said...

There is often a load of random text added to abandoned URLs, there must be a whole industry in it to harvest a little advertising revenue that way.

I would expect there could be a shock coming for academia when a major paradigm shift in some science or other comes from outside the academic establishment.

There is for many fields such as Earth and planetary observation a large amount of publically available data of various kinds. And the open source movement has provided various software tools that traditionally would have been prohibitively expensive for an individual or small business.

John Michael Greer said...

Moe, except that we don't actually have capitalism in this country any more, nor have since the Second World War -- not in any sense that Adam Smith would recognize, certainly. What we have is corporate socialism. Socialism is the fusion of government and business; in state socialism, the government is the dominant partner in the fusion, while in corporate socialism, business is the dominant partner. It's all rather reminiscent of the old Russian joke: "In capitalist countries, man oppresses man, but in socialist countries, it's exactly the other way around!"

Cherokee, one of the most fascinating things, to me, about studying decline and fall is how consistently people pursue exactly the policies that will destroy them, under the conviction that those same policies will bring heaven on earth. Glad you're enjoying Galbraith -- and good to hear that you've got Sun Tzu. His ideas can be applied to a very broad range of conflict...

Nick, that's a common event in societies moving into their imperial age -- it was when the US was getting into the empire business that people stopped moving out to the country to farm, and started gravitating to the cities instead. China's just doing the same thing. As we get out of the empire business, going back to the farm may become a good deal more popular here.

Varun, excellent. You've collapsed well ahead of the rush. I'll have some detailed proposals for adult education when we get to that series of posts; I've been doing a lot of reading on what worked in the past, and can be made to work again.

Ursachi, a modest tax on the internet is not the same as banning it. Personally, I'd like to see emails cost a penny a piece or the equivalent -- it would do wonders to keep spam at bay -- and a per-gigabyte tax on downloaded content would also be a good idea, especially if some of it went to recompense artists and writers whose stuff gets ripped off via the internet. Every other medium of communication costs something, and my take is that if people love the internet that much, they should certainly be prepared to chip in some pocket change.

But you should certainly get that shortwave radio, get licensed, and learn how to use it!

Kathleen, excellent. Exactly; you are a threat. Everyone who notices that they're better off disintermediating themselves, and doing things for themselves, is a threat -- not only to the bloated corporate and government bureaucracies, but to the blind faith in progress they use to justify their absurdities. Congratulations for being dangerous -- keep at it.

btidwell said...

The Establishment is not going down without a fight. They are making disintermediation as difficult as possible. Farmers being forced to pay Monsanto royalties for seed they didn't buy because their field was unwillingly pollinated by their neighbor's crops. Artisan cheese makers are fighting for the right to use wooden shelves in their aging rooms. They make better cheese than the factory producers with stainless steel facilities. The industrial food industry as explicitly said that consumers don't need to know about GMO ingredients because it would needlessly upset them. It's already very difficult to run a home business and impossible to legally produce food for sale at home. Increasing ordinances making solar panels on residences illegal and, in local communities, making personal vegetable gardens illegal.

SLClaire said...

For about three years at the end of the last century, I and a few other folks led voluntary simplicity classes where I live. It took that long for me to realize that offering the courses wasn't simple and required some tradeoffs I hadn't anticipated when we began the effort. It involved, among other things, a considerable amount of driving to start and end courses, time spent to publicize and prepare for the courses, meetings to attend (of the project leaders and of the nonprofit board which hosted the project under whose auspices we offered the courses), and money to fund the office costs of the nonprofit. My decision to stop my involvement in favor of doing less myself did not go over well with the group whose courses we were offering. It seemed that unless I and the others were to do more and more to push the courses, we were all doomed. Reminds me of some much better known spokespeople for much larger nonprofit organizations.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Well, you do have a point about spam and artists' work getting ripped off. Either way we're going to get there sooner or later. And activists that support freedom of expression on the internet certainly have a point too. But I suspect that most of them don't grasp the issues being discussed here and elsewhere, so it's going to be hard to convince people to find a middle ground between freedom of expression/information and paying for their internet privileges.

Vesta said...

Sorry if this is a duplicate. Regarding the parallel you identify between the process of intermediation and the process of ecological succession. You point out the similar growth in complexity of intermediation in maturing economic and ecological systems. There is also an interesting divergence. Ecological systems generally grow more frugal and robust with increased complexity, whereas my casual observation is that economic system grow more profligate and brittle as they age. Understanding the 'why' of this difference between ecological and economic systems might be informative.

EntropicDoom said...

The complexity that grows within decline has been explored for Universities and the Health Care. Another realm that needs exposition is public land and the right to be on that land. Right now we have multiple layers of governmental bureaucracy managing and controlling the access and use of public land. As the funds for these agencies are cut (dry up, pun intended) blanket prohibitions are possible against any use or access to public lands by the public. This means no one will be allowed to go to the forest to hunt or to traverse a mountain range or go off road or pick mushrooms. Any entry becomes trespass. The bounty of public lands will be reserved for the government or its influential private partners.

In historical Britain the right to hunt was traditionally reserved for the well connected. The poor (everyone else) had to participate in the local economy or starve. Poaching was a capital crime. Today's regulations have grown more complex and limit what anyone can do in the wilderness or the national forests. Other Federal or state lands have increased regulation and enforcement. (Witness the issues lately at the Bundy Ranch.) Agency rules, Environmental laws, fire suppression laws and anti-terrorist laws use the excuse of the common good to severely limit people's access to even their own homes during fire season.

What results from the enforcement of overly complex regulations with limited resources is the issuing of blanket edicts by heavy handed enforcers focused on the evolved affect of the law, not on its original intent. The agency says: “We don't have enough people to check everyone, so we are banning anyone from entering.” The law was originally to support the common good, but the enforcement degrades to mistrusting anyone venturing into the forest because they might do something “bad” that was previously important enough to be prohibited. The long list of “bad” activities grows with the terminal complexity and the only way to simplify subsequent enforcement is a complete prohibition of entry. That legacy is the one that can be applied to many other fields. Complex rules can no longer be afforded, so what was previously granted is banned.

Unenforceable complexity is resolved into blanket edicts of complete prohibition. The classic example was Prohibition itself in the 1920's. The complex medical issue of Alcohol Addiction became the complete prohibition of any alcoholic beverage. It failed. In the future we may see whole sections of the country walled off to preserve a feature no one can remember caring about. Like they say, “Just don't go there.”

Albatross said...

Hi there Mr. Greer and all.

The comment by Avery that referred to Elon Musk discussing the implications of AI and calling AI our “biggest existential threat" and then making a comparison with images of the Mage and his arcanae, "...the guy with the pentagram, and the holy water, and he’s like — Yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon?" made me think of an interesting connection a friend of mine made a few days ago drawing my attention to a complexity of complexities as depicted in an interesting graphic on mathematical relationships. In a book by Gary William Flake, "The Computational Beauty of Nature: Computer Explorations of Fractals, Chaos, Complex Systems, and Adaptation" there is this pic < > (It is not my intention to post a picture to this essay blog of yours Mr. Greer. I'm not sure though how this gif-link will work on the blog here. I'm guessing it displays as text ... if not, my apologies. Just leave this post by.) Anyway it's a captivating image and it made me muse on how the discipline of mathematics might evolve under the pressures of the unfolding dynamics of catabolic collapse? How will its arcanae fare? What will become of abstract conclusions and intricate theoretical manoeuvres when deep thought does not anymore enhance its relevance by the powers of experimental verification offered with modern advanced tools, such as particle accelerators, astronomical deep field telescopes, fmri-scanners, and whatever, all the sophisticated instruments we nowadays have at hand?

(A fine SF novel by Neal Stephenson is, "Anathem", 2008. I've read it twice, all 983 pages of it, and am contemplating giving it another go when the timing is right. I know Stepenson can be criticized for his at times most extreme scientific optimisms yet in this work he does discuss collapses after collapses of civil society ... and protects the arcanae of the flame of deep abstract thought with surviving monastic orders ... all in an incredibly entertaining and intricate storyframe of space operatic background. The work embeds a cornucopia of ancient Greek philosophy into its thematics.)

You write very perceptive essays Mr Greer. 'Intermediation', good word to have for the complexification syndrome. Too much complexity leads to utter perplexity. :)

All the best,

Juri Aidas

Patricia Mathews said...

My midterm is tomorrow morning. No fear here!

YJV said...

I'm wondering now: how many of my fellow university mates are studying in a field that has a chance of giving them a future? Most popular university degrees at my university (International Relations, Finance, Economics) are all products of vast amounts of (impractical) systemic complexity.

I consider myself lucky that my parents raised me with a solid reverence for practical technical skills. Their philosophy is that technical skills and the conceptual thinking behind them are practical in more than just the applications we're taught. I'm hoping, perhaps even gambling on the fact that an engineering education (despite the highly theoretical framework I'm learning it in) will equip me skills that I can apply post-decline. At any rate I hope to retain a basic knowledge of science and such that my (as I call them, technically illiterate) friends won't have. I've yet to be explained to what use "Peace and Conflict Studies" or "Global Security" and other pointless gimmicky idiotic courses in some humanities degrees actually have.

I too aspire to be a multilingual, technical and artistic green wizard when the chips fall. What is the avenue to prepare for it now, while I'm still young and able to learn fast?

Bill Pulliam said...

Just from my own perspective (whose else can I really present?), I feel like this is getting back to the reasons I have been coming to this blog for all these years. Epidemics, wars, warbands, governments, nations, and empires rising and falling, for us little human these are like the weather. Big, beyond our control, and hard to predict accurately (even if you know a storm is coming, knowing when and what kind of storm is a whole nuther matter). But regardless of which way the wind blows, I think some things are likely to be universal. Like simplification and contraction. Spending your time thinking in very down to earth terms about what those words mean for your own life and those of the ones who will follow you is the work that needs to get underway now, yesterday, last year. Silly, wouldn't it be, to have spent your life preparing to defend against the pandemic, only to be brought down by the nasty but perfectly ordinary infection you developed after you cut your foot on a stray tool, lacking the knowledge or means to control it without an antibiotic prescription?

Mark Sebela said...


Here is test from the one room school house days. How do you think any 12-13 year old you know would do? How about today's "average" adult ?

8th Grade in 1895 -Kansas

pyrrhus said...

As to the Joint Strike Fighter, F-35, it mainly illustrates that the military is here to buy expensive but useless toys. It's useless against 4th generation warfare, which is all we currently face, and useless against 1st world enemies, who will simply use missiles. But the program can't be cancelled.
In other funnies, a CDC study finding flu vaccine worse than useless for the elderly was suppressed several years ago. And a supply rocket to the space station, using Russian engines, blew up. The Russians say that NASA modified the engines and caused the malfunction

Kyoto Motors said...

As mentioned in previous comments, I don't expect Capitalism to go away any time soon.
Meanwhile, as you point out, what we have is corporate capitalists in bed with the state. Lot's of ideological lip-service to the ideals of capitalism, but effectively a baroque, sclerotic wealth-pump at the heart of the West...
As we shed this, which seems inevitable, I wouldn't necessarily count Adam Smith style capitalism out - on many levels it persists as a mode and means of production for the less insidious types of entrepreneurs. In fact, I'd say it still represents the most viable form of industrial production (for better or for worse), which will persist to the best of its abilities, well into the post-peak process of de-industrialisation. Of course I could be wrong, but expecting capitalism to disappear overnight... well I'd say "don't hold your breath"

Gloucon X said...

The city of Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople and then Istanbul, and the Byzantine Empire were vitiated by a bureaucratic over-elaboration bordering on lunacy: quadruple banked agencies, dozens or even scores of superfluous levels and officials with high flown titles unrelated to their actual function, if any.

-Edward Gibbon

Your use of the descriptor Byzantine reminded me that wasteful complexity is not a modern invention, nor does it require fossil-fuels, nor does its existence mean that collapse is imminent. I hope we don’t have wait long, but history shows that when it comes to the demise of complexity, a long wait is possible. Scary fact: The Byzantine Empire lasted 1125 years.

Marinhomelander said...

David said, "As one who works for a (municipal) power utility...if we just look at remote shut-off capability"

Yes, everything you said makes sense. Perhaps it's a local mom and pop non profit that is a real public utility. We unfortunately have our local giant for profit utility that is ramming smart meters down peoples' throats against their wishes, Pacific Gas and Electric is definitely for profit, is controlled by Wall Street and has lied, cheated and recently incinerated an entire neighborhood, killing dozens of people, through criminal negligence.
(San Bruno).
In addition, they are in charge of California's last nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon.
Nicknamed "CALIFUKUSHIMA" since it is sitting on the Pacific and has found to be surrounded by earthquake faults. Many people are demanding it be permanently shut down, to and including the Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner in charge of inspecting it.

PG&E has recently been indicted with illegally influencing a Public Utilities Commissioner, which in California is a very powerful and influential post, akin to "Railroad Commissioner" in Texas.

As to smart meters, they cause fires, make you pay for the electricity it takes to broadcast and repeat other meters signals hundreds of times an hour, feed high frequency electricity back into your homes system, allow real time reporting of how electricity is being used in your home, to and including what kind of electric devices you are using, can be remotely hacked and are subject to accidental or malicious shut down of your power.

If your home is your castle, then having a smartmeter on your electric meters is like having a built in panopticon in your castle.


Donald Hargraves said...

If I could help on the home schooling vs present day schooling concept, I have a couple of anecdotes to give:

1) I was talking with a woman (I'll call her Ellen to make things more understandable) whose mother had just died. Out of the blue, Ellen told me that her mother told her to home school her children. Had Ellen's mother been a "fundamentalist Christian," I would have thought nothing about it – but that woman was a once-proud teacher in the Indianapolis School District and a strong Union Stalwart; so you know that since Ellen said what her mother told her I have made it a point of avoiding all home-schooling debates. (Nothing like having your ground kicked out from under you by your "allies.")

2) I recently guesstimated the amount of time one could take home-schooling your kids if you wanted to equal what the schools did over the course of a year. Between Winter Break, Summer Vacation and Catching up to the Summer vacation lag (ever notice how the first few chapters of every school textbook was review of what we had learned last year?) I figured you only needed three hours a day to equal the education of six hours/day at the public schools. Add a fourth hour, and you're able to leap ahead – or widen the education, if you wish.

Nastarana said...

Karl, The way it worked is explained in a novel by one Madeleine Smith called "The Lemon Jelly Cake". The novel is a nice piece of regional (Midwest) literature about a small town doctor who, indeed, never charged for his services and was paid in kind. I imagine city notables would recruit a likely young doctor, provide a house and some land. He would be expected to marry, attend church (mainline Protestant or Catholic, depending on the town),and take part in civic life. He would agree to treat all comers and in return, he and family would be "taken care of". I imagine quite a lot of social pressure was involved. The mayor might happen to stop by your house when you were picking apples and offer to take a couple of bushels to the doctor.

I believe this was before the days of health insurance; maybe someone ought to remind Ms. Lowden of that. I wonder how much of her campaign budget comes from insurance companies?

About overuse of the emergency room by young people, there are some mitigating factors. If you have small children, and if, God help you, you ever have to tangle with CPS, you durn well better have ALL immunizations Up To Date, AND the records easily accessible On Demand. Furthermore, any and all slightest ailments, including any episode which can be plausibly labeled "stress"--always assumed to have been caused by you, or "anxiety", MUST receive professional attention AT ONCE, at any cost, including loss of your job.

John Michael Greer said...

MawKernewek, the scientific establishment has been circling the wagons against paradigm change for years now. My guess is that the new paradigms won't just emerge outside the official academy, they'll be developed and used there, too, and for many years to come the official academy will keep insisting that it's all a lot of nonsense.

Btidwell, of course they are; they're frantic at this point. I'll talk next week about how to get around that -- more precisely, how people in falling civilizations generally get around that.

SLClaire, there are entire industries -- though they typically don't present themselves as industries -- that survive by strip-mining idealism for their own benefit. It sounds as though you were dealing with one.

Ursachi, oh, granted. One way or another, it's going to be a furious debate, with every side covering their real agendas.

Vesta, it wasn't a duplicate, no, and you're quite correct. One of the core differences is that as ecosystems become more complex, they also tend to become more diverse and less dependent on a single dominant species; as human societies become more complex, by contrast, they tend to become less diverse and more dominated by a smaller and smaller group of people. I suspect that's what accounts for the fragility of complex human systems.

Doom, exactly -- and the extreme edicts don't work either, as they normally turn out to be unenforceable in practice (as, of course, Prohibition was). Expect the most frantic and extreme attempts to centralize control over everything as the last actual control slips away.

Albatross, yes, that pentacle might actually help keep things under control! I'd have been happier with Anathem if Stephenson hadn't larded it up with technogeekery, but it was still an interesting read, and anything that gets people thinking about monasticism is a good thing at this stage of the game. Thanks also for the reference to Flake's book -- I'll have to get that, being a longtime fan of Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science.

Patricia, then don't check your mail until you get home from the test!

YJV, can you extend your engineering studies into the more grubby, hands-on end of engineering? That might be a good start.

Bill, indeed -- just as silly as it would be to have everything in place to deal with infected cuts, and pay no attention to the news of an approaching pandemic until suddenly you have it, and die of it. Which is to say, I try to cover the widest possible range of relevant factors here!

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, excellent. I'd like anyone who thinks that modern schools are ever so much better than the old one room schoolhouses to try passing that test. I'd have to bone up on math and orthography to pass it, for that matter.

Pyrrhus, it's worse than that; the Chinese and Russians both have fighters that can take on the F-35 and wipe up the sky with it, so even for its primary mission, it's a waste of umpty billions of dollars. It's all the funnier that Lockheed Martin is now announcing that they're getting into the fusion business; if they do that as well as they do fighters, fusion's going to move from perpetually 20 years in the future to perpetually 50 or 60 years in the future...

Kyoto, to get ahead of next week's post a bit, the problem is that as long as today's tycoons are in bed with the state, they can make it very difficult for anyone to use a market economy at all on any terms but theirs. That's what usually happens, and the result is that market economies are abandoned for several centuries at least, and replaced with other systems of exchange. More on this shortly!

Gloucon, the interesting thing is that the levels of complexity to be found in Byzantium at its height are exceeded by small US states and midsized corporations. By Gibbon's pre-fossil fuel standards, it was baroque; by our present standards, it was lean and mean, and rather more capable of learning from its mistakes than our contemporary bureaucrats.

Donald, thanks for the details. I know a lot of retired teachers who are horrified by what's happened to the public schools in this country, for whatever that's worth.

Thomas Daulton said...

Hi JMG and everybody, I am in all seriousness seeking advice on a problem with complexity closely related to what JMG is talking about here. Increasing population plus technology, in my view, increases complexity as a separate process from "intermediation". I'll give a few real-life examples.

On Facebook, I started out with a few dozen friends, I Liked a few pages and Friended a few acquaintances... and pretty soon I've got half a thousand "friends" I've never met, and my daily FB news feed is too large for me to read every article even if I spent every waking moment on it. I feel like I'm missing out on something if I can't thoroughly comb my FB feed because it's so large; ergo I spend more and more time on Facebook. Which is a downside.

A simpler example (again 100% real life)... I like to go to clubs and bars and see local bands perform music live. Each club hosts two or more local bands in an evening. If I like Band #1, then I typically go to see them again at a different club, on another night later, when they're playing again. I like to support local music. That night, Band #2 opens for them. I decide I also like Band #2, so I return to the club later to see #2. Soon I'm following more bands than there are nights of the week, and spending too much money on clubs and bars! But that's not any individual band's problem, it's _my_ aggregate problem. So how do I choose which bands to say goodbye to?

A "first world problem", to be sure. But a real one. Given enough time, involuntary simplicity will be enforced. I will run out of money and stop going to live music, or I will need to quit Facebook. Is there a more graceful transition than the sudden stop?

My particular problem is not intermediation. With more population and more technological abilities come more options and side effects, a broader network of relationships, debts, and responsibilities -- even "friendly" responsibilities -- in short more complexity. Like most life-forms on Earth, humans are unwilling to give up a benefit once it's in our hands. Each of these FB "friends," or bands, adds something positive to my life, however small. But as they accumulate, I start to chafe under the burden of complexity... but I don't want to give up any single one of the friends! It’s not any individual friend’s fault, it's a drawback of having a large network and being committed to support it! So how do I pick which ones to give up?

Eastern-style philosophy tells us to let go and simplify, but I find very little guidance on the specifics of exactly what to cut. In 21st-Century America, Capitalism permeates our thoughts, so it just seems perfectly natural and logical, like math or a Law of Physics, that more of a benefit is better.

A friend of mine on FB just helpfully posted this quote: "It is harder to suffer wanting what you can have, than it is to merely cope with wanting what you can't."

I would like to see some kind of guidance in fiction and/or philosophy... a good example that I can empathize with and emulate... for how to cut down on complexity, a systemic problem, when each cut means giving up concrete and tangible benefits. What principles, what mind-sets to use?

Apart from the personal problem managing a large network of friends, I start to sense something similar going on at a large scale in our modern technological society. With increasing technological problems, and increasing technological abilities developed to solve them, it seems less and less clear as time goes on, which benefits are really worth the side effects and drawbacks. The benefits are obvious and well-advertised, the drawbacks are subtle and incremental. My "friends" problem writ large.

Compound F said...

Great post, as usual, but *everyone* hedges on timing and exact details. NO problem there, but perhaps Stoneleigh & Ilargi were not so far off as the broken clocks you once suggested. For my part, I prefer thinking in term some of cones of probability, or some similarly apt analogy.

I also quibble with this seemingly gratuitous slap:

"There may be a certain entertainment value in watching what those who praised voluntary simplicity to the skies think of simple living when it’s no longer voluntary, and there’s no way back to the comforts of a bygone era."

I suppose you know the VS community far better, but what's your point in condescension and amusement? That they did the right thing for faulty reasons?

Eh. Not a huge deal; just something that my reading eyes bomped over like an unexpected speed bump, and I'm not nearly as polite as you.

I really like what you're doing at Galabes Well, the art and science of changing consciousness as an act of will. What could a person say to that, but, "Do tell!" I'm pretty much all ears on that kind of magic, though granted, I have certain opinions that I hope don't get in the way of hearing yours. Your magical ideas "may be just crazy enough to work," if you'll pardon the shabby script-doctor's cliche (speaking of intermediaries!).

Ursachi Alexandru said...

News flash:

Somehow, I expected this to happen. However practical it may be, such a proposal is the equivalent of political suicide in today's world.

Mark Mikituk said...

@John Michael Greer said “ it's entirely possible that excess complexity is a correlative rather than a causative factor -- Tainter's theory, as I noted, is not without its flaws. Still, it's a useful perspective in the present situation.”

It is true that if everything is going to hell in a handbasket tomorrow, then whether complexity/intermediation are the cause of or coincidental to collapse might be academic, but I do believe that you argue for a slower collapse with various shocks along the way. As whatever is left of our society inevitably transforms into something else, it may be of value to have a more precise view of past failures.

Just to strengthen my previous argument a bit more before I conclude; one should keep in mind that there are instances of relatively simple societies collapsing (Jared Diamond’s description of the collapse of Easter Island society being an example that comes to mind), and that there are an enormous amount of intermediaries to be found in nature (and our bodies!) itself, and that the natural world is highly complex in general.

I would argue, that it is not “excess” complexity or intermediation itself but their maladaptive implementation which could be a more plausible cause of collapse, and it is only when they are maladaptive that they might be considered in “excess”. In general, as you have argued elsewhere, it is blindness to the reality around us which is probably the root cause of our predicament. When complexity and intermediation are blind to their costs relative to their benefits we find the true seeds of eventual collapse. I would think that when people complain about the American healthcare system (Thank God I am French!), it is actually not a complaint about complexity or intermediation but relative cost.

Why I feel this is not entirely academic is that as we start along our slow descent, I do not believe it is apropos to shoot all the intermediaries/remove complexity because we regard them as the cause of our troubles. My argument also implies that collapse of a future society, after this one, is NOT inevitable if we are careful to remain in touch with our reality around us as as we again start along the inevitable road towards more intermediation and complexity, which seems to be the nature things (more often then not, systems become more complex with time). What I am saying is the overall game is not necessarliy rigged to collapse, which is the conclusion one must draw if one assumes complexity to be a cause of collapse, and we are better off focusing on being real and living with the world as it is (not as we want it to be), rather then worrying about becoming “too complex”.

Marcello said...

"The extravagant rates of energy per capita that made today’s absurdly complex economy possible also made it possible for millions of Americans to make their living working in offices and other relatively comfortable settings, rather than standing hip deep in hog manure with a shovel in their hands"

This is something I have been wondering for a while. Industrialization has substantially cut the amount of people needed for agriculture and productivity gains in general keep cutting the amount of labor needed to perform a given set of economic activities. The saving grace has been economic expansion: make more stuff, deliver more services, add more bureaucratic layers. All these have kept people employed until recently.
The thing is, now that the economy has stopped delivering in large parts of the West increasingly large masses of people are being left without work, and it is happening quickly and right here now, while the time when putting the bulldozer back in the garage and sending unemployed car dealers to dig ditches with shovels in exchange for a bag of corn makes economic sense lies in some undetermined future (bar a fast collapse).
So far things are holding together but I fear that it could get a lot uglier than in the 30's.

ed boyle said...

I once posted the idea that we have the tendency, due to short term profit orientation, of inventing and erecting whole new technological superstructures-electrical, internet, etc. while neglectng upkeep of older infrastructure-pipelines,sewage, roads, buildings,etc. Short term profit is maintaned and stok prce, as only Warren Buffett is interested in old stuff like railroads.

So we see from this tendency how, visualized as a pyramid structure of societal infrastrcture, the bottom, and incidentally most important portion, disintegrates from decay while the top is brand new andshinybut unstable and questionable in substance. One can imagie where this leds to all too easily.

Now the USA is a verymobile society composed of immigrants on the make, tryingto prove themselves through individual acheivement,muchmoere so than elsewhere,with an integratedculture, ethnic assimilation. Taking Toynbee's concept that creativity equals civilizational success, we can accountfor America's lead on older cultures. Tainter's concept of diminished returns on complexity, would explain the other end, failure, of America.

I am reading Toynbee's 'Mankind and Mother Earth'. Egypt is very conservative culture,nile, stone masonry, etc. Other cultures came an went,brought hi-tech of the times, Egyptwas change resistant, remained intact till today. China had advanced to industrial style metallurgy but emperor, fearing competition from other power center, clamped down on renewal, allowed gradual change which stabilized country.

USA has, even inits constitution, given all power to technologists, industrialists, focused on individual acheivement,rags to riches story, to keep theprofits coming,growing masses in work, to expand recently imperial ambitions of big companies,, military, service companies, banks.

We see that other countries never kept pace but have a pleasant culture and decent standard of living, Italy, Fance. In Germany and Japan the focus is on gradualism, more downto earth attitude, not so shorttermcsino capitalism but less creative. Nokia, i-gadgets, samsung are last hope for stock growthand come from Finland, California, Korea, all dge areas of inxustrial civilization, offering last creative surge, like with fracking, last hurrah before diminishing returns takes us down.

It has often been presumed by PO commenters that low tech cultures, yanomami,etc. would survive best. However if we look at the coming decades battle for dominance the question becomes whether such a US hi-tech short term profit oriented society, with deteriorating infrastuture can overwhelm, destroy, more practical and ethnically homogenous cultures as in Europe, Russia, Japan, once the technology and lifestyle gap has been overcome. The political, consumer, tech drive has been absorbed in eurasia and only reserve currency, military gap are disadvantages. F35 is one example, shuttle another. 1960s competition of systems is renewed but latin america, middle east, china, russia are nowmore advanced, sophisticated. CIA coups, even colour revolutions to promote banana republics or oil provinces won't work anymore. USA has gambled away its moral authority and lost its lustre as a dreamland. Health is better abroad, worker protection, democracyven, infrastucure too. Perhaps a slow decoupling from a collapsed USA can be acheived t the lower tchnological level eurasia, the global southcan expect in future. We all need a rest from constant churning of tech,new invasions for profit ventures. Putin's Valdai speech is common sense. Everybody could work together on basis of mutual respect but USA, due to unstable culture is a sort of rogue state currently. Isolationism might be a solution if US economy collapses, back to noninterference maxim of Washington.

Cindy Brown said...

As a child my family went through repeated spasms of VS. My youngest brother was born in our little Spartan (well-named) house-trailer - with only my father as midwife - on the side of a remote mountain in northern VT where were hauling our drinking water in and our effluent out (in different buckets). Before that we lived in the middle of a State forest in CT eating only hand-ground grain. This was before "organic", Erewhon had only just been founded shortly before, I remember visiting the first warehouse in NYC.

My point in recounting this is in support of your statement, in effect, that VS (or involuntary simplicity, for that matter) gets old fast. Yes it does. Intelligently designed simplicity, even if voluntary, is much better. For example, having a well-functioning rain water catchment and storage system built into one's house is far better than hauling buckets from a pond or what-have-you. The very large investment of smart passive-solar heating is much better than simply figuring you'll cut up trees with a hand-saw and burn wood in the wood stove that happens to be in one's conventionally poorly designed and built house.

And so on for all the vital systems of living.

We need to get cracking.

Dagnarus said...

Probably a bit of topic for this weeks blog (so feel free to delete it if you wish), but as others have brought up Ebola. One thing which has recently come to my attention is the fact that while so much has been made of mandatory fever screening at airports, fever only manifests in about 87% of cases

Which is why it seems interesting that one of the things thrown out there by those opposed to quarantine are things like

“people are not infectious early, and anyone who has been in this situation will (as we’ve seen already in Australia) be so aware of the disease that they will report in immediately (if) there is any fever.”

I can see the act of relying on fever as a sure sign blowing up spectacularly when some guy off the plane from West Africa comes into the hospital sick, doesn't have fever, is taken into the general ward and proceeds to infect a whole bunch more people. According to the LA times article this actually a problem in West Africa.

If Ebola cannot be readily identified, Zwinkels wrote, "Ebola patients will be admitted in the normal ward and possibly contaminating health staff and caretakers. This is why a lot of hospitals in West Africa are closed. … Millions of people don't have any healthcare at the moment because hospitals treat Ebola only or are closed."

To bring this comment more in line with the thrust of the current post. Is one of the reason's why Quarantine/travel bans with regards to Ebola is unthinkable because we are now living in a complicated globalized economy where developing nations are expected grow cash crops which can be exchanged for there basic needs (food but other things as well) rather than producing these needs for themselves. Introducing a quarantine not only makes it difficult for the countries to supply there basic needs, but would remind other countries that relying on the global marketplace for the necessities of life may work tolerably well when things are going smoothly but can lead to problems in cases such as this as well as numerous others.

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

I've just finished Twilight's Last Gleaming. I read the short version online, and I think you fleshed it out nicely.

In that story it takes less than two years to go from starting the attempt at regime change to breakup of the Union. Do you anticipate it to be that swift in real life?


Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- " just as silly as it would be to have everything in place to deal with infected cuts, and pay no attention to the news of an approaching pandemic until suddenly you have it, and die of it. "

Well yeah, of course, but look round you. How many people do you see behaving that way? Hardly anyone, except maybe the ultraconservative Amish (and likely not even them). I see everyone, and I mean almost literally EVERYONE, running around afraid of Ebola, ISIS, Jack-booted UN troops in black helicopters coming to take our guns and ship us off to Obama's concentration camps, and on and on. And I see precious few even give a passing thought to where their food, healthcare, water, etc. might come from in 50 years, or even 5 years. Every 18-22 year old young man I talk to around here is worried about all the wrong things -- what they hear on Faux News and what their daddies are raving about. And they never think about what is happening under their noses, like that without Daddy's disability check and SNAP card they would have no food.

And, they are all worried about snakes, but have no fear at all of barbeque and fried chicken. Yeah, right, and the cemeteries around here are filled with snakebite victims, yet the emergency cardiac care centers are like ghost towns, hardly ever get a patient. [just in case anyone thinks I live in a really strange place, that last comment was sarcastic. I have personally known only a couple of people who were ever bitten by snakes, and no one who has been seriously injured by one. And the heart attacks happen every day].

exiledbear said...

there's no reason on Earth, for example, why nurses shouldn't be legally permitted to do primary care on their own, up to and including prescribing the safer and more common meds

In a lot of countries, you don't need a prescription to buy medicines, you can just walk into a pharmacy and buy whatever. I think Mexico supports a lucrative black market for prescription drugs (and not just opiates). I know a guy who more or less lived on the edge via 1099 gigs, he would get a doctor to tell him what meds he needed and then he's take a trip to Tijana to get them.

Many bodegas in NYC will sell you antibiotics under the table, because the hispanic population is accustomed to diagnosing and medicating simple diseases without the need for a doctor to intermediate.

Like I said before, it's going to be a DIY world, whether it's health care or education or well, anything. I guess I should add also, it's going to be a black market world too, in which anything that's remotely related to survival is going to be de-facto illegal and the only way to make it through the day, is to break some law.

Violet Cabra said...

Re: "collapse now and avoid the rush"

actually, this is one of the places where I see my friend group really getting it. My friends are accomplished seamstresses, herbalists, and gardeners. Some are adepts at brewing beers, others are handy carpenters. None of my close friends own a television. I'm the outlier in my lack of a car, but I'm hoping to help inspire more bicycling through the example of my long bike rides (later today I'll be biking the 20 miles to Northampton, ideally in full costume)!

My friends are a small sample size to be sure, more generally I find tremendous hope with organic farms in general and working on one in particular. Organic farms through farmer markets and especially CSA shares (where members buy, before the season, a weekly share of produce for the entire season) are currently engaged in market forms that disintermediate the rube goldberg machine of modern food distribution. My perspective is necesarily limited, but I'm also awed by how many people my age who are working on organic farms. Sure there is a lot of turn over, but many of my peers are into it for the long haul.

My farm also sells heavily to bike collective which distributes local foods throughout the Boston Metro area. You've mentioned that getting food to table will be one of the challenges in the years ahead. I agree and also see that the forms that can accomplish this in the medium term are already evolving

In terms of adult education I see a booming underground of farm apprenticeships as well as weekly free bike mechanic workshops in most cities. Again, I see that at least some of the forms that can help ease our way into the Dark Ages are already here.

Of course these forms do nothing to mitigate many other of the converging crises of our Civilization, but they are something and something wonderful.

Happy Halloween/Samhain everyone! hope you all have a beautiful day.

Eric S. said...

This week’s essay left me thinking a lot about how the process of disintermediation will feel on the way down for the readers who have been taking your advice and collapsing their lives. No matter how much we do, there’s still going to be a long drop for most of us who are reading for the simple reason that not many of us, especially among the younger people who will be facing the next blast full force were born into the lifestyles and economies that will step out from beneath the veneer of modern industrial society as it fades away. Meanwhile, the economies of the future have already begun to form among migrant workers and the urban and rural poor who have lived in that world for generations. What role would a reader of your blog who has taken your advice, learned to live with LESS, and picked up a smattering of skills have in a world of lifetime veterans who already have an edge in skill and experience?

That leads to my second thought: Less complicated economies are often more socially complex ones. Getting a job is a perk of community membership rather than sending a resume and passing an interview. Joining a community requires a delicate process of trust building, cultural integration, and participation in a world of unspoken taboos and customs rather than showing up and signing a membership application. Currency is replaced with manners and subtle cues and rituals of barter and negotiation. As someone with Asperger’s the thought of navigating the social intricacies of a world with a simplified economy terrifies me as much or more than the thought of dying in a wave of crisis. I’ve found communities I feel a sense of safety and belonging in, but I can’t know how those will fare in hard times and in a disintermediating world, one has to be able to engage directly with a world of strangers. As someone who I know struggles with those issues yourself, what advice would you have for navigating the social complexities of that simpler world?

David said...

Marinhomelander said “Yes, everything you said…in your castle.”

Ah. I didn’t know where you were. You do have my sympathies. I concur that PG&E’s track record and motivations have been demonstrably less-than-stellar. I myself left one of this state’s larger investor-owned (and for-profit) utilities about 10 years ago to come work for a municipal (city-owned) utility, in part because it fit better with my public-good philosophy and in part because of some of the corporatism that I observed inside the other operation. Certainly, with respect to the metering technology we were discussing, the consequences of the use of a particular tool depend significantly on the motives of the tool’s user…

That said, I would also concede that the smart/demand metering technology represents an incremental increase in complexity and for all the potential benefits I outlined, does add to the over-all complexity of the system (thus adding points of failure, etc.). In the context of this week’s post, this is not necessarily a good thing in the long run, in spite of near-term benefits.

This particular utility I work at has certain advantages of geography and history. The water plant sits on the shore of part of the largest freshwater system in the world; we have power plants sitting next to said water plant; and prior to 1961, the utility operated as an independent electric system, separate from the national grid. In theory, we could keep the city lit and powered even with the national grid blacked out. I am trying to make sure in our strategic planning process that we retain that capability and build on it. I realize that in the long run, I am probably fighting a losing battle, but I would hate to see an opportunity to cushion (in some small way) the downside path of catabolic collapse squandered through short-sightedness.

RPC said...

Completely off-topic for this week, but for all those who have been asking, "Where's my jetpack?" ,look no further!

Slow Moe said...


When exactly did we ever have 'real capitalism'? To me it seems Adam Smiths conception of capitalism was essentially as fictional as Marx's Communism.

We have essentially always had Corporatism.

Slow Moe said...

Corporatism has roots from long before WW2.

Read about the railroads in the 1800s and you should see something very familiar to corporatism today.

Nastarana said...

Donald Hargreaves,

I can tell you, from my perspective as a grandmother helping the grands with homework, this highly touted "Common Core curriculum" is an unmitigated disaster.

I sent for a reproduction old time grammar book, about the size of a small diary, to teach my 6th grade granddaughter about grammar. Among the concepts of which she had never heard, were 'verb', 'noun', 'subject', 'predicate'. The subject formerly known as 'English' has been replaced with a computer program--I do not exaggerate-- called ELA. ELA amounts to children, using their fancy technology which is what school districts waste money, in addition to salaries of a host of office fauna, reading a paragraph or two and answering questions about it. In brief, they are being trained in giving their superiors answers which the superiors want to hear. Needless to say, the paragraphs are entirely divorced from any hint of a cultural context. Education nowadays takes place in the eternal present.

Andropos Nebulus said...

Titillating promise at the end, about "free markets" coming to and end! I suppose it happened under Diocletian. I'll admit I'm about equally eager to hear perspectives on *how* free markets end as I am to see just what the Archdruid's idea of a "free market" is! Will he go left? Is a "free market" the system where money reigns supreme, the rich have power, and everyone else gets scraps or nothing? Or will he go right? Is a free market nothing more or less than the system of voluntary exchange among free adults? Or will he, as usual, surprise us with the unexpected? Perhaps the anticipation itself is clarifying: If you're on the left, and generally sympathetic to critiques of free-market systems, you may be mentally looking forward to a fresh, original critique. If you're on the right, I'm sure you're mentally bracing to defend your beliefs against yet another (possibly merely perceived) attack. At least for me, it certainly is clarifying---I guess I know which side I'm on. Seems virtually nobody is neutral when "free markets" come up.

Related point: If you're on the right, I suppose, and look at it based on the "free, voluntary exchange" perspective, you'd say truly free markets are long, long gone already. As JMG pointed out with regard to healthcare, there is almost nothing that you are allowed to buy or sell simply as you wish: there are hefty requirements of insurance, inspections, taxes, and many, many other restrictions. If you hire a babysitter, you have to pay taxes---and some localities are considering legislating workplace protections, anti-discrimination laws, etc for, yes indeed, the ask-your-neighbor's-kid variety of babysitting. If you exchange gifts worth over a certain amount, you have to pay taxes---I found this out the hard way in college, when I tried to register an old car my parents had given me.

And you can get in big, big trouble not just for providing your own medical services, but for selling your own beer or even just growing your own plants (if they're the wrong kind, wink).

On the other hand, to many with a leftist bent, the "free market" looks stronger than ever right now. The rich are proportionally richer than they have ever been, and freer, too. Most of the rest of us are hardly "free," let alone free to exchange however we wish. All attempts of the government to ameliorate inherent market inequalities are palpably failing, and as the rich thrive, the rest of us sink ever deeper into oppression.

My point is not to say left-v-right divides simplistically along just this issue. My point is that opinions could hardly be more powerful on this, and rarely do people have such *completely opposite* perspectives on such strongly held beliefs (in most other spheres I can think of (religion), opinions are usually not *as* opposite, and the minor points are usually disputed most hotly). This is why I'm awaiting JMG's ideas so eagerly.

Also, if JMG is right about things, perhaps "free markets," in the a-systematic future, will see free exchange extended to violence---and perhaps not much more?---at least until social systems recover themselves many centuries from now.

Joel said... worry about Ebola is that the lower transmission rate in the 1st world will supply pressure to become less lethal, boosting its transmission rate here.

It will be fascinating to see how our system acknowledges the growing number of people who are both trained in the skills of caring for other Ebola patients, and experienced in fighting the pathogen on a molecular level; given the burden of those suits, one immune nurse is probably worth (to patients) several "naive" ones.

Ed-M said...

JMG, interesting times, indeed!

And it seems the only thing the banks know how to do in order to "recover" their lost "wealth" (lent into existence, of course) is to reinflate the bubbles. For example, we now have a rental housing affordability problem, even a crisis in some areas, where median rents exceed 35% of the median household problem. House prices are also similarly inflated, with some areas of the country like the Northeast and California now on their third or even fourth housing bubble. And who is driving these bubbles? Banks and rental real estate investment houses.

Cherokee, on your professional licensing requirements: it is just as bad here in the US, except I do not know of any state that counts the qualified number of processional development hours as *half* the number of hours spent. But I have heard of requirements for live attendance of seminars, for which on-line "digital" seminars are qualified!

Ed-M said...

Marinhomelander, last time I have heard, San Francisco has / had been making strides in housing its homeless population, by building supportive housing in scattered site apartment buildings, usually 100 or so units apiece, on vacant lots or car parking areas across the city.

Slow Moe said...

I dont mean to be rude, but as I see it, Capitalism and Corporatism have been synonymous for over 150 years. They have been together so long they may as well be the same thing.

Andropos Nebulus said...

A family andectode of mine may be interesting to some, and, hopefully, on topic (apologies for length). One branch of my family lived on the south shore of Long Island since just before the turn of the 20th c---our family has a picture of my great-grandfater, about 20, with his Seaford softball team taken 1919. Now in those days people *didn't* want to live near water so waterside property was especially cheap, and being from a family you might call "rednecks" and living partly on what he could catch in the neighboring Great South Bay, he bought a property on one of the canals they were digging with the new heavy machinery of the 1920's. As private motor boats started to emerge (1920's, 30's, 40's) he wanted to make some money renting out slips, so with help from some friends, he dug out roughly a 10'x40' widening of the canal, and put in a concrete launching ramp. Even today, county surveying maps still show the un-altered canal.

My great grandfather died after catching a flu in 1992, but my grandfather (well in his 80s) still lives on this property---indeed 6 years ago I helped him remove the old well-pump he'd used as a boy before plumbing and electricity came to the area in the 30s.

Andropos Nebulus said...

Now for the point of the story. In the 80s, when the ramp had deteriorated badly enough that he wanted it resurfaced (also somebody sued him), he found out it was against the law to do so (federal wetland protections). The bulkheading around the canal (last replaced in the 60's) was also deteriorating badly and will eventually result in the property being lost. But it can only be replaced after an expensive environmental study, and approval from at least two State regulatory bodies and at least two local bodies. If you wanted to actually *alter* the canal in any way, as my great-grandfather did with a shovel in the 30's, well that's completely impossible. Permitting must be coordinated with federal, State, and local agencies, and the work may only be done by the Army Corps of Engineers.

My grandfather, meanwhile, is required to shoulder ever-increasing maintenance costs. For instance, 4 years ago he installed temporary stabilizers onto the bulkheading at $300/ft. These ugly acetate retainers are already buckling and contrast to the treated pine from the 60's and the original anchoring from the 20's and 30's, which are still doing a fair (if steadily deteriorating) job in 2014.

Now he is blue-collar: he gave his family a decent life in the 50's-70's, but that was it. As a boy in the Depression, he and his family, again, lived partly off the bay, and in 1945 he was barely old enough to join the navy toward the tail end of things, and he learned the skills needed to become an electrician, which he remained for the rest of his life. Now he lives on a small pension, and social security. But---to our whole family's shock---we found out he's rich: as part of end-of-life planning, he discovered his property is worth almost 2 million! This is purely illusory, at least for now, as Fannie and Freddie don't issue funding for undeveloped properties, and any builder who wanted it anyway would have to deal with numerous legal, environmental, and insurance liabilities (it was hit hard by Sandy). Still, he bought it in the early 60's for about $16,000---a fair price at the time---and so it's all capital gains: when he passes, his inheritors (my dad and his 3 remaining siblings) will owe roughly $400,000 to the State and federal governments, plus $39,000/yr school and property tax.... all for a marginal property with a modest not-to-code house that, in essence, you aren't allowed to improve, and which will almost certainly be reclaimed by nature (given the state of the bulkheading) within a few decades.

The unpayably high tax figures don't count lawyer's fees. In NY lawyers are mandated by law to be involved in *any* property transfer, and like real estate agents they get a percentage, not a fee. This is a big contrast to my grandfather's original purchase from his father: they went to the county office, registered the transaction, and payed a county tax. When my great-grandfather bought the property, he probably just registered it, and likely had to travel by foot, horse, or trolley to Hempstead to do it. I understand that, to many, this seems like progress, for a whole number of reasons.

Now this may sound like complaining, but I hope it's not taken that way. I've been struck, since I was a kid, at the difference between his old stories and how things work today. What I've just related is obviously not a tale of doom, disease, or poverty that plagues too many. It is just an anecdote about how our systems over the years have become sclerotic, simultaneously more collectivized and more individuated, and how costs have become disproportionately exaggerated. I believe it shows, in stark relief, the difference between how the world around us was built, and how it will decline.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Dear Mr. Greer; This is off-topic, so you can delete it, if you want.

I had heard of Cosmopolis, but needed to do a little mind refreshing to see where it was, exactly. Outskirts of Aberdeen, of course! I worked in the Aberdeen branch, Hoquiam (what a gem of a library!), Westport, Raymond ... even Lake Quinalt. But it's Montesano I wanted to talk about.

The Montesano branch was, of course, once the main branch for the Grays Harbor County system. It's an almost identical building to the large county library I worked in when I was a pup. Ft. Vancouver Regional Library. So I knew what it was like before it was absorbed into the Timberland system.

I can only describe Montesano as "haunted." Currently, there's only 3 or 4 employees. But the daylight basement, now only used for storage was, I'm sure, once a hive of activity. Bookmobiles coming and going and, of course, cataloguers. Book processors and book menders. All that was "consolidated" and moved to the administrative service center in Tumwater. What happened to all those people?

Cataloguers, I especially wanted to mention. Back in the day, I worked a couple of summers for probably the two best cataloguers in the Pacific Northwest. Miss Fox at Ft. Vancouver Regional and Mr. Zandenburg at Seattle Public. They should not be forgotten.

Now, most cataloguing is not done by most systems. It's all been farmed out to OCLC. Can't say I'm very impressed with their accuracy. I don't know if it was enacted, but at one point there were rumors floating around that OCLC was going to off shore a lot of their cataloguing to third world countries!

I don't know what's going to happen to libraries, especially small rural branches, in the coming decline. But, there are some hopeful trends.

Recently, a small town near here, Toledo, Washington wanted a Timberland branch. Timberland could only put in a "kiosk." No staff, a few catalog computers and occasional pick up and drop off of holds and returns. The people in the town housed the kiosk in a building and are building their own branch through volunteers (several retired librarians and other townspeople) and are building a collection through donations. The building was donated, a couple of local business people are picking up the utilities.

So, glimmers of hope. Maybe I'm just a cranky old guy who longs for "the good old days" (glory days?) of libraries. Lew

Slow Moe said...

@Andropolus Nebulus

Not only are free markets 'long gone', they have never truly existed, at least not as Smith imagined them. Or if they DID exist, which I doubt, they havnt been around for at least 200 years.

Moshe Braner said...

Regarding space travel (a bit off-topic, but discussed here in the past). A HUGE deal was made in the USA in the last couple of years about the shift to the "private sector" for the building and operation of spaceships. Never mind that it is largely done by the same people who used to work for NASA, and is done on contract to NASA, with very little in the way of truly commercial clients (a few satellites here and there). And never mind that most things that NASA built in the past were cobbled together from major components bought from private companies. Anybody remember the space shuttle solid fuel boosters that blew up - made by a company in Utah? But never let mere facts come in the way of a good theory, and the privatization has been a big deal within American ideology.

And now, this week, we've seen TWO major failures in those private ventures: one unmanned re-supply rocket for the space station that exploded right after liftoff, and one manned prototype "space plane" that crashed today. The latter is (was?) being developed for space tourism, and is not a NASA contract AFAIK.

Kirby Benson said...

As someone who remembers WWII and going to the store for my mom with ration stamps I decided recently it was time to read, 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich'. There could be no clearer example of what can happen following the economic chaos that Germany found herself in after WWI.

In the matter of a few months the German people went from a democracy to being ruled by a brutal dictator (war lord).

I think those of us who were alive during that time are perhaps more sensitive to the possibility of war lords in our future than those Americans who only know about that world from words in books and movies.

As I read this book I am realizing that with a few lines of dialogue it could easily be a spellbinding novel, portraying a future that any rational person would have to consider is fiction.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Remarkable body of confirmatory facts and stats about the US's economic 'recovery' compiled here by Mike Whitney:

Testifies strikingly to the main theses if these post at TAR.

Ellen He said...

@JMG:This is OT but, To gear up for the food aspect of the Long Descent, I ordered some beefsteak tomato seeds to plant. Of course tomatoes alone don't provide all nutrition needed but I wanted somewhere to start.

Marinhomelander said...

Blogger Ed-M said...

"Marinhomelander, last time I have heard, San Francisco has / had been making strides in housing its homeless population, by building supportive housing in scattered site apartment buildings, usually 100 or so units apiece, on vacant lots or car parking areas across the city."

""It's"" homeless population? The more you provide, the more come. Here's a list of some attractants: Free housing for some. Free cell phones, free mailboxes, free city I.D., free medical care, free massages--I swear to god it's true!, free legal advice, free translations and absolutely no cooperation with ICE, therefore illegals as well as homegrown travelers head for the Golden Gate.
You sound sympathetic, how many can you host at your place?

Seriously, you want to help some of the homeless? Repeal NAFTA and CAFTA.

August Johnson said...

JMG - I'll be quite interested in your posting about education, a while ago I found a very interesting two-volume set on the history of Education that covered an amazingly large swath. This is a subject that means a lot to me, I got very lucky to have attend a high school that had had an amazing industrial arts department (now defunct) and took full advantage of it.

William Lucas said...

As regards your intention of learning another language or two, I'd urge that you explore online using 'polyglot, as your keyword. You'll find a free, downloadable book called 'The Polyglot Project' that will inspire and instruct you. Successful language learners will steer you away from the mainstream education system, and away from a grammar-based approach (in the main).


Myriad said...

Like other correspondents have mentioned, I perceive a difference between the complexity of nature and the complexity of human-designed systems. I think the key to the difference is intentionality. Nature's complexity builds upward from local interactions, such as individual entities exploiting locally available resources. Civilization's complexity seems to arise more from attempts to achieve intended results and propagate downwards into the details of life, which tends to require its actors to follow non-local rules. Some of the net results of the latter (e.g. parasitism) might end up the same, but there are real differences too.

When causes of complexity are intentional, even if the results are intended to be benign or beneficial (such as preventing fires), so many different causal pathways must be meddled with that only complex laws that apply in a non-local way will suffice.

By non-local, I mean it's not specific individual and immediate actions but certain combinations and circumstances of actions that are outlawed, so that compliance requires specialized knowledge. For example, due ostensibly to fire safety concerns, buying electrical parts and assembling them in your home so as to install a new circuit may be illegal without also performing other actions (pulling permits, etc.) that are not specified in the product instructions and not physically relevant to making the parts do what you want them to. There's no sign at the cash register at the hardware store that says "permit needed to purchase," nor in the wiring box that says "insert permit here to make the light go on." Those would be local rules, but the actual laws are non-local.

The net complexity of all the transactions going on at a large market bazaar along the Silk Road, with a dozen different currencies in use as well as barter going on, might actually exceed that of some highly regulated and elaborately taxed marketplace. But that complexity doesn't burden the buyers and sellers at the bazaar, because they only have to worry about their individual business. The regulated taxed marketplace, by contrast, likely makes a variety of inactions into crimes. Even if the overall system is simplified (e.g. by a uniform currency), the complexity experienced by the participants ends up higher.

Speaking of the mathematics of complexity, of Wolfram and Flake, I note that mathematics is the first handle on the "soul" of a culture Spengler reaches for in Decline of the West.

And here's the thing: there's nothing in the fractal, the Mandelbrot set, the cellular automaton, the strange attractor, the state machine, that Spengler would recognize as Faustian. Compared to e.g. the tensor calculus of Riemann and Gauss, these concepts are concrete, visually encompassable, and usually bounded. Many of them (including certain fractals) were known in Spengler's day, but were considered mathematical oddities or "monstrosities" without significance or utility.

The "analysis" that Spengler does associate with the Faustian remains the basis for the engineering of our buildings, bridges, vehicles, and most other artifacts, but mathematics in general is being re-conceived in different domains. I could make a strong case that the highest and final expression of the true Faustian mathematics is the analog computer.

Could the concepts in the "pentagram" image Albatross linked to be some of the hallmarks of the eventually emerging new sensibility? The new religious forms are beyond our vision (or at least, our recognition) as yet, but the post-Faustian mathematics might already be here.

Claire said...

I have tried to join the green wizard site. When I try to log in it tells me my email address is not recognized. When I try to create a new account it tells me my email address is already in use.
Sorry to bother you with this but there is no 'contact us' on the website.

rabtter said...

Mr. Bill Pulliam, being an occasional practicioner of sarcasm myself, I received your comment with some interest. That being said, I live in the unarmed midsouth where being beheaded by a secretive member of ISIS causes no concern whatsover while dying in an automobile accident is a constant source of worry.

Moshe Braner said...

Ursachi: regarding the internet tax proposed (and now abandoned, it seems) in Hungary: the amount was only about US$0.60 per gigabyte. To me that seems quite cheap. Even watching a video from YouTube (which I think of as a waste of bandwidth in most cases) would only cost about $0.0006 (assuming 10 megabytes). The same people objecting to the per-gigabyte tax are willing to pay 100x that per month for the service - as long as it is per month rather than per gigabyte. And of course they also see endless ads on most web pages, which is what actually pays for it all. I don't know that a government tax on internet traffic is a good thing, that would depend on what would be done with the money thus raised. But sooner or later, as we're forced into involuntary simplicity, ad revenue will decline, and internet services (such as Google search) would either disappear, or be offered on a paid-subscription basis, and high-bandwidth services would be sold by the gigabyte. (Google is already talking about offering such a version of Youtube access, although of course it would only be a "choice".) And the ISP connection itself would be sold by the gigabyte rather than by the month, because bandwidth is what costs real resources. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Of course, JMG has said that he expects the 'net to then enter a spiral of, um, disintermediation, as fewer and fewer people will use it, and it thus would mostly dissolve.

Shining Hector said...

Pretty insightful as usual. I've had a lot of the same thoughts before, myself.

The level of intermediation in healthcare is truly mindboggling. I've read that a single primary care doctor creates 30 jobs on average. I'm inclined to accept that premise.

We're suffering too, though. We also hate the fact that we spend more time on documentation than with our patients, but Medicare/Medicaid/private insurance demands all the documentation be just so or they'll flat out refuse all payment whatsoever, like you didn't do anything at all. Actually they can go back after the fact and fine you for documentation errors. Hassles over documentation and reimbursement is probably the main reason a majority of doctors don't actually like their job and wouldn't recommend it to others. A six figure salary as your (fractional) cut of the out of control healthcare spending is nice, but I wonder a lot about how many would gladly take a pay cut to historical levels just to be able to do their jobs the way they once dreamed they would before starting medical school. I guess we'll find out.

It's not like we had much influence over the monopoly our forebears set up for themselves 100 years ago, for every individual doctor practicing today, it was quite simply the only game in town, take it or leave it.

John Michael Greer said...

Thomas, that's one of the major challenges of our time -- knowing when to say enough, and then sticking to it. I do that with proposed speaking gigs, writing projects, and other activities all the time, and yes, it took some learning.

Compound F, I have no objection to those who did the right thing, but for a great many people, "voluntary simplicity" was simply another excuse to go shopping -- which is not the right thing, in case you haven't noticed. As for the ongoing chorus of people insisting that this is the year when the economy's going to crash to ruin all at once, that's not a matter of probability cones; their predictions have repeatedly been wrong, and that far from minor fact needs to be recognized and taken into account when assessing this coming January's rounds of identical proclamations.

Ursachi, oh well. I still think it was a good idea.

Mark, now go back and reread the several times I said that I don't agree with Tainter's theory in general, and am just using it to explain certain features of the way that economies unravel in the process of decline. If you want to offer a critique of my theory of catabolic collapse, by all means -- it's been a minor disappointment to me that none of the people who've denounced it have taken the time to understand it and critique it on that basis -- but potshotting Tainter on this blog in an attempt to insist that the industrial age won't suffer decline and fall seems like an odd use of your time, at least to me.

Marcello, exactly -- that's a good summary of our predicament.

Ed, what you've described is par for the course when an imperial superpower hits its decline phase. Britain and Spain were just as problematic for the rest of the world in their day.

Cindy, thank you. That last comment earns you tonight's gold star. Yes, indeed, we need to get cracking!

Dagnarus, thanks for the links. The attention span of the media being what it is, I expect Ebola to vanish from the news for a while; it's important to keep a weather eye on the potential for a storm.

SMJ, the world of politics routinely moves that fast these days. Notice how fast, for example, the Soviet collapse went.

Bill, that's interesting. Most of the people I hear from insist that Ebola can't possibly be a problem, and that we ought to be concerned with other things instead. It may be a regional or a class difference.

Bear, exactly. Those bodegas are the wave of the future; so is intelligent self-care using readily available treatment methods. More on this as we proceed!

Violet, I know a fair number of young people who are walking that same path. It's one of the few things that makes me genuinely hopeful.

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, those are complicated questions that deserve more than the simple answer I could offer in a comment here. The one bit of advice I can offer is that social complexity also takes time and stability to build, and those are going to be in short supply for a while. The usual bridge to that condition is something I'll be discussing in next week's post.

RPC, too funny.

Moe, capitalism in the strict sense was almost entirely a phenomenon of the 18th and early 19th century, before what Adam Smith called joint-stock companies and we call corporations took over from individual entrepreneurs. Mind you, classical capitalism was just as corrupt as the corporate capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries or the corporate socialism of today -- it was just corrupt in different ways.

Andropos, I hope to clear that up next Wednesday!

Joel, that's likely to make the later stages of a pandemic considerably less ghastly than the earlier stages, since a couple of years into it there'll be a substantial body of people who have survived it, are immune, and can provide health care and other services with minimal risk.

Ed-M, the reason we have a bubble economy these days is that in an age of real economic contraction, producing goods and services for sale no longer makes a profit; only money games do that. Once that sinks in, Katie bar the door...

Andropos, thanks for the family story! That's an excellent example of the sort of thing I'm discussing.

Lewis, I'll be talking about libraries at some length in an upcoming series of posts. As for Montesano, I know it well -- when my grandparents retired, they lived in Monty for a while, then in Elma, before finally heading south to the sun belt. I have a dim memory of the Montesano library from childhood -- dim but warm.

Moshe, good. All the talk about the wonders of American private industry loses track of the fact that that's what gave us the Edsel and the Ford Pinto...

Kirby, I wasn't alive at that time, but I have friends and lodge brothers who were, and the possibility of something very like what William Shirer wrote about is something I consider all too possible...

Rhisiart, many thanks for this. The gap between official notions of what society is doing and the reality on the ground is also an important issue, and one that bears discussion here.

Ellen, good for you. (BTW, you already posted the thing about Brin in a previous week's comment section, so please don't keep trying to rehash it.)

John Michael Greer said...

August, I'll look forward to your comments on it -- and yes, a certain two-volume set will have something to say to the discussion!

Myriad, it's entirely possible that in systems theory and the like, the new sensibility is beginning to take on intellectual shape. It's when it bears down more powerfully on the level of emotions and popular imagery that things are really going to start moving, but that'll happen when the time's right.

Claire, if you put through a comment marked "not for posting" with your email address on it, I'll forward it to the webmaster and we'll get that fixed.

Hector, would it be possible for you as a physician to start offering old-fashioned general practitioner services to individuals for cash, 1890s style, without being driven out of business by the AMA et al? If so, you might want to consider it -- even though it would be a hit to your income, as you've noted, there would be significant personal benefits. Sooner or later, the evil spirit of Morris Fishbein is going to have to be exorcized from the temple of medicine...

Shining Hector said...

Cash practices are quite doable. Like you said, cutting out all the middlemen would benefit everyone but the middlemen. It's something I think about. A lot. With health insurance now compulsory it just stacks the deck that much further in their favor, though.

The AMA really holds little actual power over doctors, they're basically a lobbying organization. You don't even have to pay them dues to practice or anything, it's a voluntary organization.

Regulatory authority is mostly from the state medical board, which can potentially yank your license for professional misconduct. There's also to a lesser the DEA, which mostly just cares about how freely you prescribe narcotics. Not doing anything to draw their attention is something in the back of your head, but mostly in a "Try not to repeatedly do anything irredeemably evil that can be witnessed and testified against" sense rather than a day to day preoccupation. The specialty boards are slowly creeping from voluntary to compulsory organizations, too, but they're not quite there yet. They've figured out to team up with the insurance companies to force us to sign up and pay over $1000 for a test and a piece of paper, though, so it's basically only a matter of time.

Honestly I'd say 90+% of the de facto coercive modification of doctor behavior comes from Medicare/Medicaid/private insurance, not laws, not regulations, not even patients. Realistically, we only have to keep patients happy enough to not want to sue us, we have to keep the insurance companies happy to still have a practice. Given that collective bargaining is actually illegal for us, you can imagine where the balance of real power lies.

KL Cooke said...

8th Grade in 1895 -Kansas

That one appears on the Web at times as an example of how dumb we've become (which I don't dispute).

What they don't tell you though, is how well the pupils of the time performed.

At time's I'm called upon to help my granddaughters with their (elementary school) math homework. This involves a new teaching method called "Common Core." I can get still the right answers using the old fashioned method, but I'll be darned if I can figure out the new steps. It doesn't make any sense at all, to me, but maybe it's another kind of intermediation (which is to say, one more racket).

Bogatyr said...

JMG said:

"Violet, that's one of the things that my slogan "collapse now and avoid the rush" is meant to help with."

As someone who unwillingly and precipitously crashed out of the middle class in the recent past, I have to say: reminding myself that I'm just ahead of the crowd has been some consolation - but not much, during all those sleepless nights.

There's some time before everything goes pear-shaped. Perhaps I'll be able to claw my way back to having a disposable income. I had a plan laid out for my preparations (including Green Wizarding), but right now I'm back down at the lower levels of Maslow's pyramid of needs...

Eric S.'s question is very much on my mind now:

"What role would a reader of your blog who has taken your advice, learned to live with LESS, and picked up a smattering of skills have in a world of lifetime veterans who already have an edge in skill and experience?".

KL Cooke said...

Thomas Daulton

"I would like to see some kind of guidance in fiction and/or philosophy..."

Bogatyr said...

@Donald Hargraves Thanks for your comments on homeschooling! They came at an opportune moment, and guided my thoughts in a useful manner. I don't have children myself, and perhaps never will. Still, establishing a resilient education system that can survive collapse is an important project. Can anyone give links to good resources? (I'm aware there are lots of books etc on Amazon - I mean education networks, rather than just resources for individual families).

Mark Mikituk said...

@JMG said " potshotting Tainter on this blog in an attempt to insist that the industrial age won't suffer decline and fall "

I strongly agree with your theories regarding collapse, and that was not at all my argument. After rereading my post, I can understand how you might have misinterpreted it, and the fault is of course mine in that I did not write clearly enough. I am not sure how to explain myself in plainer terms though, perhaps if you reread it you would catch my drift.

Bogatyr said...

Still on the topic of education, @Tom Bannister said:

"I do feel strongly and profoundly sorry though for all my colleagues who are pursuing management degrees and university. If only they knew what a massive sink hole the whole exercise will turn out to be".

Very true, Tom. I spent a great deal of money on my MBA, and I don't really regret it: it opened a lot of doors for me, and really gave me a lot of insight into how the world operates. I was lucky, though, to go to a very good school, with professors who had a lot of hands-on experience, and very motivated fellow-students.

I say I was lucky, because I've also been on the other side of the relationship, having taught business at several universities. This was more like what YJV, Cherokee Chris, and others have described: "a lucrative trough". Upper management being paid small fortunes creamed off the vast wave of money from fees paid by affluent students, many of who speak completely inadequate English and have never been trained in critical thinking. The teaching staff get more and more work, with laughable pay increases... and basically have to wave through students who really shouldn't get degrees. Of course, to fail them would be a sign of 'inadequate teaching'; similarly, giving challenging assignments leads to negative student feedback - which along with pass rates is the only metric the managers pay attention to....

Sigh. It can't and won't last, and then a lot of fundamentally decent and hard-working academics will be on the scrapheap...

patriciaormsby said...

Every week, I come away from your blog with so many things going through my mind, that I would be a real pest if I wrote them all, and it usually takes me a few days to collect them into any usable form anyway.

Here is something I just read by George Eliason about a new "war lord" at:

"Sergei77 is one of those guys that first impression conjures an image of a strong military background. I could picture this guy scaring the living hell out of "bad guys" anywhere in the world.

I was wrong. Before the war, Sergei77 was a grape and potato farmer who was forced to jump into large boots and fill a void in leadership defending cities and peoples lives with very little notice or training."

It struck me that in different ages with different circumstances, different people rise to leadership, not so much because they want to, but because others simply lack the capacity to lead under those circumstances.

The people we call "psychopaths" certainly seek out leadership, but the reason they seem to take over in times like these is that the rest of us lack the sort of callous ruthlessness that it takes to run an empire.

Andrew Lobaczewski, who studied societal corruption in depth said that the good times seem necessarily to lead to the bad. He was hoping (aren't we all?) that by elucidating the mechanisms of corruption, something could be done to thwart it. I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor on a small scale (and I've seen awareness work on a small scale), but probably impossible on a large scale. All we can do is recognize what is happening and deal with it one way or another.
It looks like in the next few weeks, you will be providing us some good ideas.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Kevin,

Many thanks for the picture last week. It promises much, does it not?

To quote the band - Public Enemy - "Don't believe the hype". I've heard an interview with Chuck D many years ago, who said how much he likes performing in Australia because the band gets such a different audience from that of the US.

Thanks for the link too, I'll check it out.

Hi Troy,

But of course, it isn't a good look is it? On a serious note, the Australian government is refusing to send medical personnel on the grounds that it would be too hard to evacuate them back to Australia.

Hi Ed-M,

Yeah, it is a bit cheeky. Honestly, you'd think that they believe that people waste time on such things for their own entertainment. On the other hand though, it appears to be a rather cunning plan to make even more money on courses. Who knows, it may be coming to a state near you soon?



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and Ursachi,

Your dialogue about the Internet is quite interesting. There is an underlying assumption that somehow the Internet is a free service.

This is an opinion only, but from my perspective the Internet is hardly a free service. It appears to me that many of the larger multi-national companies that have revenues derived from the Internet are paying very little taxes in the companies within which they operate and derive those same revenues. Their revenues - a lot of which appear to be derived from advertising - are really quite impressive but it is their tax payments which are more impressive to me.

My understanding, and I'd be both pleased to be corrected and apologise profusely if I'm wrong, but they're simply like a lot of the big end of town and are paying very little in taxes.

In turn, many services are provided free of charge to Internet users. Of course, server farms are hideously expensive to own and operate. It is only that it appears to me that the majority of users have completely forgotten these not insubstantial costs. We're all paying for it one way or another... Transfer pricing again!

Just sayin...

I noted that Galbraith quoted a Rudyard Kipling poem which applies to the activities of colonialism:

Take up the White Man's burden -
The savage wars of peace -
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
Go make them with your living
And mark them with your dead!

Take up the White Man's burden -
And reap his old reward:
The Blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard -

Possibly it could be said that the poem was from a less politically correct day, but the truth is still there: Eventually an empire dies its own death of a lack of will power to maintain that empire.

Another quote: "All modern empires... could have been kept if the people of the metropolitan country had thought it worthwhile to do so. But none was as willing to expend blood and treasure to keep the colonies as it had been to win them. Also, an important point, the people of these countries were no longer willing to suspend disbelief as to their purpose in being there. They would no longer accept the myth of righteous purpose as opposed to the lower facts of pride, prestige or the pecuniary interest of those who had committed themselves and their money to the colonies."

Oooh, and I thought that I had a sharp tongue. He's like meeting Darth Vader in the flesh!



Cindy Brown said...

John, thanks for the star! BTW, Cindy is my wife's name - I didn't realize I was logging in under her account (she probably would be pleased to receive a star as well, maybe hasn't got one since grade school). I have posted here a few times as "scyther". My true name is Pat. Nice to meet ya.

PS: your many references to Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies is about to compel me to buy a copy from that example of immense civilizational complexity itself - Amazon.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

JMG & bear,

regarding the "intelligent self-care" option. I've been wary of the various online diagnostic systems, mainly because I was never sure who/what stands behind them. I'm guessing the sources given on this page

.. are pretty good, FWIW. Still not sure how useful they are in practice.

However I recently discovered the existence of this:

… and it seems to me to be a pretty good example of the advantages a printed book can have over the online experience. In many cases it will allow people to rule out serious problems and deal with simple problems themselves. I found it at a library but it only costs $45 new from the AMA or maybe $5 used from Amazon for a copy in reasonable shape.

D. Mitchell said...

When it comes to public school, though I am just 34 years of age, I don't even recognize the institution I was educated in. I have been homeschooling children and teaching in private schools for almost 15 years. I have found that it takes less than 2 hours of instruction daily for elementary grades to receive equivalent instruction for 8 hours of public schooling.

Part of the reason for this vast difference is the smaller class size, superior materials, the ability for children to learn when they want, the ability of children to take a break every 15 minutes to remain focused, the ability of a teacher to assess a child without the tests, the lack of meetings for classroom management, etc. It is a simple and direct approach that requires very little outside oversight and provides a decent education to the child on the child's terms when that child is most interested and thus most likely to retain the information. This is only for a normal healthy child...

For a child that is disabled, it can be the difference between getting the education you need and not. For example, there is no limit to the amount of times you can be absent from school, because schooling can be done on the way to the doctor through worksheets, cd's and even in car dvd players. PE can now be physical therapy, instead of having to sit every PE class out or having coaches that dismiss the severity of your disability and insist you participate as well as normal non-disabled students.

I believe the only option we have to improve educational outcomes are to go back to small private community schools or to homeschool our children.

Finally, there is another way. There are Direct Primary Care doctors which operate directly for the patient. I have opted to go to these kinds of doctors now, they aren't so quick to prescribe expensive treatments and I can spend 30 minutes or more with my doctor. Google direct primary care and find out why this model is so much better as it is simpler.

Kutamun said...

Yes , i liken our situation in some sense to the dying days of the Reich with its war on three fronts , or perhaps a chess game where ones formation or structure has been catastrophically compromised , with little hope of victory , though still plenty of materiel left for some localised , vicious tactical actions , even victories ,though in the context of overarching inevitable strategic defeat . Watching some amazing footage on youtube , i marvelled at how the SS ( QE / ZIRP?) were thrown in repeatedly into the major breaches , often able to reverse the tide only to be forced to withdraw or called away to the next major failure , like the boy with the dyke . There was just a whiff of technology being able to save the day , with devices such as heavy water fission, jet fighters and V2 rockets ( renewable energy ) , though in general these advances lacked the resources to devote to them while under the strain of constant battle and defeat , as time and geography ran out .

The dictator remained in the lowland capital until the eleventh hour ( wall street) against a backdrop of worry by the enemy commanders that he might actually flee to the Alpine Redoubt ( BRIC Empire, new currency) to continue the struggle for an indefinite period , causing many more lives to be lost , with defeat still assured . It is instructive that towards the end , there were desperate last minute offensives in the Ardenne and Lake Balaton , Hungary ( more QE, petro wars ) . With the Reich almost being split in two , there were substantial forces still garrisoned in the periphery , Norway , Czech Austria ( the one percenters , u.s gubbermint ) , though these were finally powerless to stop the onslaught . At the final hour , some elite formations had had enough and declined to attack , such as Felix Steiner ( investors , u.s military ) , while many of the crack S.S divisions retreated through the southern alps to attempt to surrender to the Americans( marthas vineyard , the hamptons, uruguay , new zealand) , rather than face the wrath of the Soviets , who they had a penchant for massacring ( the western public ) . Dont even get me started on The Titanic !"

Leo Knight said...

I regularly check back in to read the comments. Unlike most comment sections, this one is worth the time.

I woke up this morning thinking about intermediation, and all the calls I get each day from "energy providers" wanting to sign us up. As far as I know, our electricity comes from BG&E, like it always did, yet a bevy of intermediaries have sprung up to bid for the privilege of billing us. Several years ago, after electric rate deregulation, the Enron model would bring us cheaper electricity, and everyone would get a pony. Instead, rates went up. Local regulators delayed this for a while, but at a certain point, the rates went up by about 70% in one year, IIRC. Naturally, some people blamed the regulators. Then mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley held hearings about the rate increase. One fellow who worked for BG&E testified that the entire model was, essentially, a sham. I've tried over the years to find records of this, but it seems to have vanished into the aether. He said something like, "In terms of electricity, of moving electrons from one place to another, nothing has changed. In terms of bookkeeping, everything has changed."

This also links back to your paragraph on fictive wealth. So much of what goes on today seems like a Potemkin Village, or as David Graeber called them, "bullshit jobs."

Thanks again for the brain boost.

Slow Moe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Slow Moe said...

Apologies Greer, diregard my last post.

I got confused.

I confused the 19th and 1900s again, my bad.

Ok, so you regard original capitalism as existing before the 1850s... Thats fair enough.

I assume you realize its impossible to go back to that though? Because some people think capitalism can be 'fixed' somehow.

We cant really go back in time 150 years any more than we can go forward in time 150 years.

dltrammel said...

Speaking of the healthcare "industry", a good friend of mine works as a nurse at a large local hospital. The doctor her and her family have seen for over a decade is now going "private" practice and opting out of the insurance system.

He will now only see people who pay a $1000 a year fee, though this covers any procedure of visit you have with him for that year. Kind of the subscription based model which IIRC JMG mentioned was common before the AMA with things like fraternal organization.

Problem is she still has to pay for insurance for the rest of it. I don't know if that's a deal or not, but it sure does seem like the doctor is trying to cut out the intermediate layer of paperwork and insurance filings.

Wave of the future perhaps?


BTW, if you have problems with registering with the Green wizard forum, please send me an email directly at dtrammel at greenwizards dot info with your id and I'll make sure you can post.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, Moshe Braner

Meanwhile, in Spain:

Roger said...

Talking about complexity, how many times have you heard "the rules are complex but fair" in relation to some tax law or other?

Fair? "Fair", maybe with a megabuck tax accountant or lawyer to guide you through the mine-field.

So, even if some provision in tax law is "fair", it's a fair bet that you have roughly no hope of getting a handle on it. It's also a fair bet that even a tax practitioner will have a hard time. And that goes too for your esteemed government tax agency and its army of auditors. But never mind the difficulties and expense of compliance.

Because a natural and expected result with the system, as it is, would be tax avoidance.

Yes, I said "avoidance", especially if you're a bazillion dollar multi-national.

"Avoidance" because you're not breaking the law (and besides, "evasion" sounds so greasy). All you're doing is living within the law as it's written. And all you're doing is your job which is maximizing shareholder value. Nothing wrong with that either. It's the American Way. And you have the best tax advice money can buy. And if your highly costly tax counsel says that an offshore arrangement is ok then it must be ok.

At least, if I was a CEO and I was getting grief from lousy, grandstanding congressmen for my company's tax strategies, that's what I would say. What would YOU say?

And I say "avoidance" because I'll bet congress and all its microphone hogging legislators were lobbied to within an inch of their lives to facilitate such "avoidance" by special interests. Especially special interests that fund the political system, that provide post-politics careers for washed up law-makers. How many congressmen are in YOUR pocket?

Which leads to the next natural outcome: evasion. Especially by those that can't buy legislation. Besides, what would you expect when influence in the system is so lopsided, with the malodour of unfairness and rigging?

So, why is tax law so complicated? Is it "make work" for tax lawyers? Maybe it is, I mean, they need to eat too. Or is it to obscure the true intent and effect of the law? This is the conspiracy-minded paranoid in me talking. Well, I'm sure that effect of obscuring wasn't intentional, no, it's just a happy and very convenient result.

You hear about "tax reform". There are as many reformist agendas (simplicity, fairness among them) as there are reformers. What are the odds? I would say there will be a symbolic effort. But only that.

I would encourage the oligarch elite (who can get such stuff done if they wanted), for the sake of their own interests - simply because that's all they think about - to do the smart thing. "Smart things" usually being obvious and usually benefitting everyone including oligarchs. But, knowing those guys, I'm pretty sure they won't.

Cathy McGuire said...

Claire -
I realize there is no Contact Us button on the Green Wizard site, but under the topic "New User Postings Blocked for Now", which is under Forum Rules and FAQ (this is the link:
you'll find my contact info and I'll get you figured out... we were buried in spam, so the new users have to go through a gatekeeper until/unless we find a better way... thanks for understanding!

onething said...

@Thomas Daulton--

I must admit I find your dilemma a bit funny. You have 500 Facebook friends? Do you actually know this many people? I don't accept a friend request unless I know the person by name and can conjure up their face. But I, too, have to find ways to deal with information overload, and excess choice. In fact, on that note, I've been noticing something now that I had a vegetable garden for the first time this past year - when the pole beans are available, we eat them. When kale is around, we eat it. When there's lots of carrots, that's what I choose. This is a big difference from going to the grocery store and always having all equal choices. Fact is, I prefer it. There's enough trouble deciding what to fix for dinner, enough choices as it is. I rather LIKE having my choices limited by the realities of nature, and I LIKE saying, "Oh, yum, pole bean time" until it is no longer pole bean time. You're glad when things come in season, and get your fill while they last. There's something satisfying, something gratitude-producing in this sense that the pole beans are a gift of nature's bounty just like the paw-paws which you just can't eat enough of in their short season.

Magical Thyme--
What IV fluids, specifically, are they using?

Mark Mitituk @ 10/31/14, 2:36 AM
I found your post very thoughtful, but I wonder if it is possible to gain complexity while remaining grounded in reality and being vigilant as to when the complexity goes too far. It would be if the society had a benign dictator...but it is human nature that causes runaway and parasitic intermediation.
Here's my examples. Hospital floor (ward). Regulatory agencies with the power to inflict fines and perhaps get people fired come around and spread terror in all levels of workers. Who knows what they will focus on. I'm sick at the thought one of them will come up to me and ask me routine questions. They coach us when they are due to come - you must know this! And that! They are not things I know as they are not what I routinely do. Anyway, a couple of years back they came to our floor and decided that our code cart could not be in its little cubby hole because there are two electrical outlets behind it. (So?? The defibrillator is plugged into one of them!) That place is like an inlet within the hallway and was probably designed into the building as it was being built. There really ISN'T somewhere else to put it. So the asst manager moved it behind the nurses station. It was of course totally in the way there and obstructed the flow of movement. But a day or so later there was an actual code, and they struggled to get it out of there! So the code cart was put back where it belonged and no more was heard about it, which is not typical. I think the attitude was "Let them tell us we can't run a safe code!" Another thing they decided is that these little kits that hold everything you need for taking blood sugars - 6 items in compartments that don't spill when you carry it around. Two of the items have a needle, neither of which is exposed until you do something to it. One of those two was deemed unacceptable to have in its case, all designed by the manufacturer to be ergonomic. Let me just interject that in nursing having things organized and within reach is very important for efficiency and saving steps. So we had to remove one of the needed items and keep it in the med carts instead. None of us can figure out what was unsafe about storing it there and why the other item with a needle was allowed to stay. We joke about it.

But think if you are employed with this agency and you go to floor after floor looking for lapses in protocol or unsafe practices. Eventually you've got to come up with something or your job category is fluff, right? Does that mean we never needed regulatory agencies and there were no egregious lapses in the past? I don't know the answer to that.

Jeffrey said...

Somehow relevant to this essay is a certain Cuban American dentist living in south florida who immigrated from Cuba in the 70's where She was a licensed dentist. For whatever reason she never got accredited to practice dentistry in the USA but she converted a back room of her suburban home into a dentist office buying used equipment. She operated for over 30 years offering teeth cleaning, root canals, filling of cavities etc. She screened her clients, one of my best friends who is cuban american went to her and that is how I know of her. She never got caught and retired just a few years ago.

I think this is an example of the resilience that should be possible in communities who build alternatives to the inefficient intermediary laden institutions we have.

GHung said...

Pinku-Sensei- " a female fairy a pink slip to wear as a present..."

...for some reason brought to mind Cheech Marin rocking out in his tutu in "Up In Smoke" (Earache My Eye), which closely follows the great jam "Lost Due to Incompetence".

JMG: My doctor for 5 years in Atlanta ran a practice which centered around disintermediation: no insurance accepted; used "last year's" used equipment purchased at salvage; very hands on with lengthy examinations and lots of questions; in-house testing, etc. She opened the practice after a long stint as a department head at a major teaching hospital. She recently retired and offered her practice to any qualified takers, for free. No takers. Seems no one is interested in a general practice that bypasses health system complexity. I expect that her former patients were more sickened by their return to industrial health care as they were by whatever actually ailed them.

One wonders if today's medical specialists are even qualified for general practice.

Myriad said...

JMG wrote: "... But that'll happen when the time is right."

Yeah, we'll see. Or rather, we won't.

One issue, of course, is that it's hard to experiment with iterated systems without computers. I can imagine people working through some examples by hand as a monastic devotion (an idea poignantly touched on in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia), or a student spending a day or two forming the Barnsley fern with dice and a ruler as an exercise. A culture where the types of system behaviors are taught at about the same age as fractions. Such imaginings can't really be right, though.

By the way, I haven't forgotten your suggestion, from a while ago, to look into Geomancy. Your book on it is next, after Volume 2 of Spengler... I don't often remember to thank you for all the food for thought, but, thanks!

Don Plummer said...

John, this photo article from PBS just came to my attention and I thought you might enjoy looking at it. Here's another run-down rust belt river valley town not all that far from where you live (or from where I live either) that appears to be experimenting with developing some local resilience--although that's probably not the vocabulary they're using.

Chris G said...

JMG et al. - Thought I'd throw down another example from personal experience of complexity bred of intermediation - from my post-college years: I worked for a law firm that consulted Workers Compensation Insurance carriers regarding how to handle Medicare's subrogation interest in settlements of claims. What this story shows is the accumulation of layers of legal precedent over the years in a constantly growing nation; the competition among institutions both public and private who compete for security and the preservation of their bureaucracies against each other; the folly of humanity; and the limits of rationality.

WC law states that the injured worker if permanently and totally disabled is covered for that injury for life. But WC Insurers are allowed to settle nearly any claim: legal precedent in many cases has established that almost all settlements can be a compromise settlement (the legal mumbo-jumbo by which this becomes the case is inconsequential - it might as well be glossolalia.)

For years and years WC Insurers would settle claims of Permanently Totally Disabled workers for fractions of a dollar, that would is projected over the life of the claimant. They did this with a kind of sincere ethicalism: they knew Medicare (which the business ownership class considered to be a kind of theft anyway, just like the whole Social Security trust) would cover the person anyway, as he or she would be found eligible for Social Security Disability and thus eligible for Medicare. (Incidentally, the roles of SSD are where a very significant number of unemployed are ending up - the government claims unemployment is going down - Hurrah! For the owners of corporations with an American label and a foreign labor force, all they need is a buyer, so they hardly care.)

From the roles of WC Insurance to Medicare thousands of disabled people were being shuttled. The Medicare Secondary Payer Act was passed in 1983 - it said a WC settlement could not be a burden shift to the public sector, and that WC Insurers had to consider Medicare's interests. It was never enforced until a law firm brought it to the attention of Medicare and several large insurers.

A work-around was crafted called a Medicare Set-Aside, in which the Insurer apportions an amount for future Medicare-covered medical costs would be paid for out of a special account after the settlement. Along come a host of law firms who specialize in figuring out how much money to put in that special account, and to persuade Medicare administrators to give it their blessing. A back-of-napkin estimate of the monetary costs of these law firms is about $50 million a year. It's not tax payer money - it's a business cost for employers, through WC Insurance, but still - it is about as far removed from improving people's health as you can get - except that it puts money in the pocket of more consumers. And in a way it doesn't affect the delivery of health care to the Injured Workers themselves - they get care under WC Insurance or Medicare, there's not that much difference. It's purely a $50 million cost per year that has to do with whether private companies or the public sector pays for health care.

One of the great ironies I think is that as of right now many business owners would probably be better off letting Medicare pay for everything, since Medicare tax is applicable to only the first $117,000 of earned income, and not applicable to capital gains, dividend, interest income - and not over $117,000. If care is paid for by WC Insurance, it is a business expense and affects either profit or the compensation of labor - and thus the quality of labor and resultant profitability.

Thomas Daulton said...

@ KL Cooke and onething

Thanks for picking up my discussion! The Tao Te Ching website KL Cooke pointed out is nicely done and I will return to it.

But even though I have studied a bit of Eastern philosophy, it has improved my life and I enjoy pursuing it -- I often find it more prescriptive than tactical.

For example, isn't it Taoist wisdom to say, "Better never to begin. Once begun, better finish." All of us writing here have well and truly begun embarking down this path to complexity, haven't we? Just by being in a position to comment in an Internet chat room? So once begun, it seems like a wasteful and dishonorable retreat not to delve into it and master it.

I searched for "begin" on the Tao Te Ching web page you recommended, and got this verse:

>> "In the beginning, there were names
Names came to exist everywhere
One should know when to stop
Knowing when to stop, thus avoiding danger"

This is my problem in a nutshell. The Eastern philosophy says "one should know when to stop" but I find few specifics about _how_ one knows when to stop.

It's up to the individual, and I guess a Taoist would tell me those answers can be found in stillness, internal contemplation and meditation. Something which our technological society tries hard to prevent us from doing.

onething, you find it "funny" that I have 500 Facebook friends, most of whom I've never met. So a serious question: have you ever met JMG the Archdruid face to face?

I haven't, I don't believe we have ever been within 1,000 miles of each other. Yet I find his advice beneficial and the same goes for many of the commenters on this page, including your own comments on past columns. So if I should voluntarily accept limits to my opportunities just from my natural physical surroundings, should I quit reading the Archdruid report?

For me, Facebook friends work the same way. Typically one of these "sight-unseen" Facebook friends is a friend of somebody I _do_ know face-to-face, who comments on the news articles etc. which our mutual friend posts. I find that "unseen" person's comments to be interesting and enlightening. More often than not, the other person notices _me_ and _they_ make the first overture in the form of a Friend request. Then in this new person's stream, I find a mother lode of other articles, links and comments -- which I had not been exposed to through our mutual friend -- which I find interesting, enlightening, useful and so forth. Some of these "sight-unseen" friends become more useful to me than many of my real-world friends who parrot mainstream opinions and follow mainstream entertainment. Sometimes I end up meeting these "sight-unseen" friends in person after establishing an interesting virtual relationship.

That's the ostensible purpose of electronic social media, and it still works that way.

So it's too easy to offer prescriptive advice and say "you need to simplify, jettison some of these frivolities." But that's not the same as tactical guidance, once I'm in the thick of a complex situation, to select which particular details to push away. Each single one of the frivolities and complexities in question offers some sort of concrete, tangible benefit -- whereas the drawbacks and costs are systemic, subtle, and incremental.

It's easy to say "give it all up" but that would be an overall net detriment. Like JMG implies, he could give up public speaking and book tours, but that would impoverish his own life and the lives of many others, so he ends up being carefully selective.

Yet how do I choose individual particulars to give up or retain, with an eye towards systemic purposes, when they're all in some sense individually beneficial? Modern Western Capitalistic thought says "go for it all, technology will support you" whereas Eastern thought seems maddeningly vague to me.

Michelle said...

Bogatyr - you seem to be asking about home school communities rather than curriculum. Many if not most towns and cities have such groups, some operating as co-ops, and others as social gathering points. A quick search of (your locality) and "homeschool groups" should bring up what you seek. As far as national organizations, the one with which I'm most familiar is the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) which acts as a sort of legal insurance pool, and takes on cases where school districts and/or elected officials overstep their own laws (happens a LOT) or try to institute regulations that violate some other law. I'm not a lawyer - I don't even play one on TV - but I am a member of HSLDA and was glad to obtain their "information you might need in a divorce/family court situation" packet while sorting out custody matters last year. I hope that helps you refine your search a bit.

YJV said...

I've been learning Chinese (Mandarin) throughout high school and am carrying it on in university. I'm lucky that my university is one of the best in the world in in teaching languages, and they put in real effort in having high quality lecturers/tutors - the course itself is quite rigorous (with a strong emphasis on remembering grammar and characters). Personally I think Mandarin is in the category of languages that is very hard to self-learn for an Indo-European speaker (in comparison to say, Spanish). I also want to brush up my non-English native Indian languages though, and maybe later learn Russian. Thanks for the website!

One of the biggest benefits of living outside the US but in the developed world is the subsidised education and regulated tuition fees, which despite gripes from the upper and lower classes, helps keep prices down in general and forces universities to allocate resources somewhat decently (or as well as you can after you pay the parasitic bureaucracy). All of that is under threat in Australia, and it seems like either the government is blatantly ignorant in learning the hard lessons, or has adverse interests. Of course, I know that the current academic system won't survive, but universities as an institution far predate Industrial civilisation and some form of higher education is likely to re-emerge in the far future.

Michael said...

"Voluntary Simplicity - every movement in America boils down to a new way to sell people stuff. The same goes for "green living."
So true. I reserve particular scorn for the very bourgeois bohemians who live lives of great material comfort while buying their experiences of simplicity and never, I suppose, becoming aware of the irony.
I have always consider myself one of the "low" to which Orwell referred and for me, authenticity to that much romanticized idea is paramount. I view with suspicion those who have never, and likely never will, have to live involuntary simplicity. There is something offensive in their intrusions upon my ideals.Something about their presumptuousness, their paternalism, their posturing that makes me a bit crazy.

Shane Wilson said...

Personally, I get overwhelmed thinking about how entangled I am in our Byzantine corrupted, intermediated late imperial system. Sometimes, it seems like nothing but negatives of things NOT to engage with--industrial healthcare, ag, banking, imports, etc. So I have to create a positive alternative & vision of what I DO want to engage with-the local disintermediated, simple, handmade. It also helps to remember that Rome wasn't built in a day--disengagement from a very" sticky" (to use a sales term) industrial/consumer behemoth is a process, and the important thing is to be taking steps to disengage from it, on the path to minimal engagement.
Which brings me to meeting people like Violet and her friends. I've just recently connected locally with wwoofers and others living off grid in Appalachia, and I'm finding them an inspiration and role model. As a bust generation on the cusp between the boomers and the millennials, I'm finding I'm playing catch up with those 10-15 yrs younger than me who are already ahead of me in collapse and disintermediation.
Regarding the internet, I find it helpful to focus on the motives behind those promoting it. Once you realize that" big silicon" is just another consumer product funded by Wall St, entangled in a nasty, environmentally harmful industrial process, marketed without your best interests in mind, it quickly loses its appeal. Really, there's nothing different about" big silicon" than" big tobacco", "big ag", "big banking", "big healthcare", or any other industrial consumer product. The internet is designed to get you to buy products, and it does this by being as sticky as possible, which is why Facebook friends and feeds multiply exponentially. The internet thrives by keeping your eyeballs on it-it's designed to maximize addiction. The more your eyes are on your screen, the more chances to market to you. The internet does not exist to provide you information or connect you to others, that is just how it is marketed to you. I personally prefer to place cyberspace in my own personal" unreal" category, as opposed to the real, concrete things in front of me that I can see, touch, taste, and feel. For me, it's helpful to lump cyberspace into the "less than real" category. I've been noticing the beginnings of a backlash to online culture/addiction, and I hope I live long enough to see the internet/screen usage to be regarded as the mental equivalent of cigarettes/asbestos paper. I think our host provides an excellent example of avoiding internet excess/ being offline. If you do a search of John Michael Greer, all that comes up are his blogs, AODA and other druid sites, and websites selling his books. His online presence is noticeably small.

peacegarden said...

@ Thomas Daulton

Your post reminded me of a retreat I once attended, offered by a Catholic priest named Blessin… (Add your own g). The theme was, “Much depends on your point of view”.

Your example of the increasing complexity of increasing Facebook friends giving increasing benefit gives me the willies! Half a thousand “friends”…what does the word friend mean?

It took me a long time to realize that I had swallowed the idea that “We can have it all”. That thought was behind my being basically too paralyzed by all the possibilities out there that I had trouble committing to just one thing at a time.

I think our dear Archdruid is suggesting that as we make choices now, we can avoid having them all being made for us. I hope you find your way…or make it.



blue sun said...

As already noted, I think an excellent example of where adding complexity to solve the problems caused by complexity fails in practice is Obamacare.

One of my favorite charts in Tainter's book has stuck in my mind ever since I read it a few years back. Other readers with their hands on the book may want to check it out. It is a graph that shows time on the horizontal axis and health care costs on the vertical axis. The trend line on the chart just goes up and up. A graph of recent health care costs in the US?

Nope. It's a plot of data points from the tail end of the western Roman empire. For me it was a really eye-opening illustration because you could practically rub off the years at the bottom of the chart, add a couple thousand, then replace the denarii with dollars at the left of the chart, and come quite close to the modern situation.

This is something almost every American on the street today can relate to. In fact I think it'd be pretty cool if someone could overlay the modern American case on top of Tainter's chart.

Shane Wilson said...

I tutor immigrant children at a local library on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I wanted to second what was said about education and libraries. All of the tutors and most of the staff have problems with Common Core methods and feel it introduces unnecessary complexity into what should be simple. The library itself pretty much unquestionably accepts technology, with banks of computers, iPads, and laptops to use. The worst are the commercialized superhero books many of the children pick to read. It brings me back to JMG'S post about the commercialization of children's lit--I so wish that the kids who bring me a superhero book to read would bring a Newberry or Caldecott winner instead. I usually go along with whatever they pick, but I'm wondering if I should guide them away from that carp to something better. The superhero books are poorly written for the grade level, as well, especially for English learners such as I'm working with. The biggest issue I have with the superhero books are their use of contractions, which are impossible for young children who are learning English to pronounce. Is it that hard to write" we will" instead of" we'll"?
Related to that, as far as preserving knowledge for the future, and loss of knowledge, the time for that is NOW. We're ALREADY losing knowledge--information and knowledge that was commonplace 40-50 or even 100 years ago is now rare, only discussed on blogs like this by unusual outliers like ourselves. I read this blog and get a sense of how unread, illiterate, and unkowledgeable I actually am, yet older students I work with find me to be the most knowledgeable person they've encountered!

Ed-M said...

JMG, as it has been since 1973 (or even 1970 when Nixon took the USD off the int'l gold standard).

Marinhomelander, before the city started doing this, the city according to my relatives who live out there literally smelled like excrement. And a good portion of the LGBT homeless are throwaway youth: kids who got kicked out of their homes by fundamentalist parents.

And as the economy continues to decline, you will see even more homeless people. You might even be one of them.

Would I be willing to take in one or two? Can't. I collapsed early and beat the rush. I and my partner live in a broken-down house whose owner cares nought for it and only two rooms are minimally habitable. So there is no room. Besides, neighbors might complain.

And we may end up in San Fran ourselves as what you would call, homegrown migrants.

Ed-M said...

Chris, it sound like a cunning plan to make more money to me. As to when it's coming to a state near me, who knows? But I'll definitely bet on it coming soon if I had to make a wager on it.

onething said...


I replied to Thomas Daulton- did it get lost? There wasn't any profanity or offense that I'm aware of.

William Lucas said...

@Shane Wilson
"I read this blog and get a sense of how unread, illiterate, and unkowledgeable I actually am"

too true! (i.e. this is exactly the same in my case). Visiting this site stretches my mind in many ways


onething said...

Thomas Daulton,

Thanks for the tongue-in-cheek bit of levity. I'm afraid you might be pretty good company, a bit of a curse in your case.

When to stop...well, during a power outage for one. I mean, I guess the question I'm asking is, are you having a good time? Because it sounds like you are. Are you only considering cutting back because you think you ought to?

I also envy you your social mileau - I also get many fine and useful posts on Facebook, interspersed with a glut of nonsense. Some post quite a lot and NEVER have anything interesting to say.

I don't know what to suggest other than cloning. And I don't mean just once. Can you imagine how many truly interesting conversations are taking place around the world that you could be privy to if you spoke the languages? And many of these would not only be just a matter of more, but would have fantastically interesting cultural perspectives as well. The Russians have the best, bitterest jokes. And so on. You're missing out on so much, it's better not to think about it, how cramped and limited your actual situation is.

Or, you could follow the east, become totally enlightened and merge with the mind of God.

wiseman said...

@Thomas Daulton
Eastern Philosophy is vague for two reasons
1. It is the essence of thousands of years of wisdom without discarding competing thoughts. (as there is no central authority like the vatican to filter ideas)

2. Good advice is generally vague since life is complicated. Much like the general rules of finance, "
save first and spend later", "don't buy unnecessary stuff".

No one's going to tell you what's necessary and what's not. You want specific advice then someone would have to sit with you and analyze your situation.

Again it's not 'good' because it's Eastern and I am from India. It's good because it's time tested.

I am with you on getting out of the matrix, it doesn't make sense for everybody. At least for me farming isn't an option, subsistence farmers have lived at the bottom of the pile for past two thousand years in India and I am not about to join them.

Threat assessment is also different for different people. For me technological unemployment poses a much bigger challenge than anything else at the moment and that's where I am focusing on. Still this blog has taught me a lot, I have taken whatever is applicable to me and discarded the rest. Hope you are able to do the same.

Redneck Girl said...

@ Bogatyr, as you're trying to figure out how to get your balance back, have you ever considered online tutoring? I believe a year or more ago I saw something about that. There are some other permutations possible in doing that. At least that way you'd have a lot of time at home to get other things done. That would definitely cut out the intermediation in your transaction!.

I've decided to try to make extra money, above my current in home position, by doing some creative beading. I use seed beads and thought about decorating old denim jackets and hair combs to sell online. I've even thought of getting some old calendars and using some of the beautiful pictures in them to make bead tapestries. Kind of like the old paint by the numbers pictures except I'd be using enlarge photos and seed beads. Successfully done they might look somewhat like stained glass.

I'm thinking they'd be money put back, (along with half my pay check), to buy property and the equipment and tools I'd need to set up my little farm. As usual my ideas are a little bit expensive but the goal is not to have to work real hard at upkeep afterward. I'm only a few years from retirement age and anything that's sturdy and easy to keep is valuable to me.

@ Cherokee Organics,
Chris I've always liked Rudyard Kipling although he'd classify me as 'one of those brown people'. He would have thought even less of me because he didn't like Americans. I understand he had reason. Have you ever read any Robert Service? He wrote about the Northwest and Alaska. His poems have a resonance with Kipling. Wish I still had his poetry books.

@ D. Mitchell,
Back when I was a brainless young woman I knew a remarkable teacher who taught in a one room school house. Except for recesses she had NO STRUCTURE in her classroom. Every morning the lessons for each grade were written on the black board, there were no time limits set for getting them done except by the next morning. (There was very rarely any homework.) They could take as long as they needed on any subject, ask for help from the teacher at any time and they were encouraged to help each other. Mrs. H's classes ALWAYS scored above their expected average compared to the local school system and that included one mentally slow child in her students. One boy was boosted up a grade while under her instruction (he was one sharp little character!) and when his family transferred to another posting the school system there tried to bump him another grade. His mother refused wanting to keep him at least close to his age group.

Sadly, Mrs. H did not continue as a teacher, school politics got in the way. Since her classes always did so well she was transferred to a bigger school. It didn't help that the Principle would send his trouble makers to her classroom where they did behave themselves! The parents in the district were a bunch of idiots. Can't say I think much of flat landers like them.

@ JMG,
BTW, I didn't realize it at the time but with all the posts on the Ebola epidemic and the books by Stephen Buhner I actually picked up one of his books that I'm sure many on the comments list wish they'd have found! "Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers"! Neener! Neener! And a ppppttthhh! to those who wish they had it! LOL!


Janet D said...

Hmmmm, I'm going to sound the cautionary note on homeschooling, which is rather interesting, given that I'm in the 6th year of homeschooling my own two kids (OK, the last two years they techically have been alternative public school students, where they attend public school one day a week for enrichment classes and are home the other 4 days - WA State allows this hybrid; but they have still been schooled at home 80% of the time).

My kids are way ahead of the curve & I wouldn't do anything other than what I am doing. However, I will say that I doubt hsing (homeschooling) in any meaningful fashion will survive the long descent. I cannot imagine homeschooling on top of growing/processing my own food, making our own clothes, washing clothes by hand, plus whatever else may need to be done. I spend 3-4 concentrated hours a day on school for 2 kids, but my son does some school online, reducing my workload. My daughter has a type of dyslexia that proved near-impossible for me to understand/correct. The Special Ed teacher in the local elementary school has worked wonders with her over the last year by seeing her only 1/2 hour a day. Skill matters.

Over the years, I've met a number of hsed kids who can't read (including two over age 12), taught an 8th-grade science class where at least 2/3 of the kids were perhaps operating at a 3rd grade level, and been involved in helping provide state-mandated annual testing where 1/3 of the kids tested in our group were below the 40%ile. There are now so many formerly hsed kids who have suffered abuse and/or educational neglect in some form or another that they have banded together to form the web site Homeschoolers Anonymous for social support and healing, which claims to have surpassed 3 million views last month (I'm going to assume that that is cumulative - they didn't specify).

Don't misunderstand me. I have seen many INCREDIBLE hsed kids, and I hope/think my own two are some of them. Nothing - nothing - beats hsing when done with care & diligence. But I've also seen far, far too much of the attitude of "well, anything is better than public school", when, at least in a number of cases, it isn't true.

Cherokee Organics said...


You're good. Historically, change rarely comes from the middle class. Books are endlessly fascinating.

Hi Ed-M,

It is a good idea isn't it? hehe. Very creative: 2+2=1 is how it looks to me.

Hi Redneck Girl,

No stress, I doubt he could be accused of political correctness! I thought that he lived in the US? He comes across as a smart guy, but he probably suffers from a bit of arrogance?

Hi everyone,

There's a new blog entry up, with lots of cool photos of the ripening fruit here - the seasons are back to front here: Access all areas



jonathan said...

@ jay-
i'm about to hit 65 and i hope, even expect, to make it to 75. having watched my father drool and wet himself to 87 and now watching my father in law babble and rage his way to 84, i'm quite willing to forgo those last 10-15 years. i agree with zeke emanuel: 75 years will do nicely, thank you.

Janet D said...


Although this is not an "educational network", one resource I highly recommend is the book The Well Trained Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer. I don't do everything in the book (I don't think anyone could), but it lays out a foundation for classical education, with recommendations for each grade. Although there are curriculum recommendations (which may not be relevant through the future), it does provide a basic framework for how to educate a child, based upon what has worked in the past.

I am actually stockpiling classical textbooks for math, Latin, and a few other subjects, based upon the recommendations of this book and what I have found to be successful with my children.

I think one of the biggest things to figure out, besides what to teach, is the matter of how the teaching is going to get done when so much of survival-type living needs to be taken care of.

On the other end of the spectrum, the whole Coyote Teaching/Nature Connection network is another option. Based largely on how indigenous tribes educate(d) their children, in which kids learn survival skills, edible/medicinal plants, tracking, etc., all while having the time of their lives (ask me how I know), it is a very successful "unschooling" method. You can find said schools thru Google, or check out the list at Tom Elpel's Primitive Skills site or the following book, "Coyote's Guide to Connecting with Nature" by Jon Young (et al), which details the methods used, although I would still advise some upfront training from a related organization.

Best of luck. Figuring out how to educate the next couple of generations is not a task for the faint of heart.

DW said...

@JMG - you do realize of course that those studying alternative medicine (from acupuncture to Chiro to Naturopath) are likely to be permanent serfs due to the <$100k loan debt they have to go into to be able to practice in the US? The only loopholes seem to be massage therapy (as a replacement for mild Chiro care) and life-coaching (as a replacement for shrinks). Also, it's not like those needles will be so available in the coming years - maybe self-taught acupressure is more resilient..

Kathleen Quinn said...

@Janet D

I think homeschooling will certainly survive in one form or another--indeed, humans have educated their children for millennia, and will likely continue to do so. What will certainly disappear is childhood--at least a childhood that last well into the child's 20s. Maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing!

Shawn Aune said...

"There’s an interesting parallel between the process of intermediation and the process of ecological succession. [...]"

The current level of intermediation is way beyond what is sustainable and we're due for some surprise simplification. Some intermediation is good though; especially if it is kept local and can exist within the context of the current system.

I spotted a great example of a budding community industry on the site. Community Supported Salvage

Thomas Daulton said...

Onething, KLCooke, Shane, Gail, wiseman...

Yeah, maybe you guys start to see what I mean! Of course I have already heard, over and over, that FB is a waste of time and it's a big advertisement and it's frivolous and takes you away from real life in your local area. I know. I have generally heard this advice over and over from (a) news articles on the Internet, and (b) people on the Internet, e.g. on FB.

Ergo, lots and lots of fairly smart people, who give useful advice and thoughtful commentary -- actually _DO_ in reality have some sort of selection and filtration system regarding the Internet. They participate in some selected parts and discard the others. So I want to discuss our selection and discrimination systems. The principles we use. They exist, even though those same people advise others to just give up the Internet wholesale.

Are we happy with our selection and discrimination systems, which we use to ward off the disadvantages of complexity? Is our filtration system even conscious, or unconscious? Could we improve it? In order to discuss it, we have to admit first that it exists, so the advice to just "jettison everything and live local" is not useful to my discussion. Obviously none of _us_ are doing that. We _DO_ end up making these selections. How do we make them? Is anybody happy with their choices, and if so, what principles work for you? If not, can we pinpoint why we're unhappy and do something about it?

Thomas Daulton said...

Another objection: I am not talking specifically about the Internet, I am talking about complexity in general. I actually had _two_ examples in my initial comment. I talked about complexity on FB, and then I talked about how my fan-dom of local bands also increases exponentially with population. Everyone leaped to condemn FB and talked about the evils and frivolity of the Internet. I guess I should have predicted that.

However, my second example sidesteps everything you guys are advising me about the Internet. Within bicycle distance of my house, I can easily find enough talented local musicians to cause a complexity problem. If I stop hanging out on FB and live my life in my local area, I will spend _more_ time following local bands. I wish I could follow them all, but I can't. I start to worry that I'm already following "too many", but how much is too many? Obviously it varies with the individual and his or her situation, but what principles should individuals use to discriminate in their own situation?

Each individual band is a rewarding pursuit. I enjoy their music, I like supporting local artists, and I receive a sort of camaraderie as I am a repeat customer and I build relationships with the musicians and their other fans -- I love bringing my friends to hear a new band! As I meet more bands and appreciate more local music, including more _genres_ of music, my life is enriched.

But the drawbacks of a large, complex network still exist. As I appreciate more local music, I'm also spending beyond my budget on buying music, and on club/bar admission and alcohol. I'm spending a lot of time in the evenings, which I should be using for other purposes. I feel torn when two bands I like are playing in different places simultaneously.

So forget about the Internet and FB. Think of my example of local bands. Re-read JMG's response to my initial comment. Here in the "First World", still under a situation of petroleum abundance, "How Much Is Enough" of a benefit or reward is a huge problem and a question that receives very little nuts-and-bolts discussion. Can we discuss it?

Shane Wilson offers a good example of a helpful principle: "Focus on the handmade". As the handmade becomes more appealing, the electronic will lose its luster. That's a good start. Anyone else have principles to offer?

onething -- one of my deepest wishes is to be able to understand every language in the world, without actually, y'know, going through the time and the effort to actually learn each language. There's an example where I wish D&D/Harry Potter type magic was real!

And thanks for the good wishes, Gail and wiseman!

Bob Patterson said...

To me, the US indicators are still pointing towards a deflationary slide.
As Gross pointed out this morning, after all the money literally dumped into the economy, only the financial system has recovered and taken off.
In general, consumer prices have stagnated or fallen. Why is that? Usually a huge amount of funds dumped into an economy would cause price inflation.
(a la 1970's) I suggest that the 2008 debale wiped out more assetrs than we realize (the Fed supposedly also bail out Europe) and people have lost
so much confidence, they are squirreling away everything they can and resisting spending as much as poissible. This would mean that
additional funds would be hoarded and not spent, Thus the Fed would be powerless to prevent a slide into extereme deflation. The fact that the
dollar appears to be in a rather risky position adds to the confusion. Exteme deflation combined with a currency collapse? What would that look like?

Varun Bhaskar said...

Thomas Daulton,

Here's how to know when too much is actually too much. If you're listening to so many bands, or spending lots of time doing with thing to the exclusion of all other things, then it is too much. The whole point of voluntary simplicity is to spend time training yourself in pre-industrial arts and crafts? Are you doing that?

Answer that question then see if you can do more to improve those skills.



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