Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Glimpsing the Deindustrial Age

Most serious discussions of the predicament of industrial society these days keep their focus tightly on the near future. The Limits to Growth, the seminal 1972 study along these lines, took its computer models out to 2100 or so but put most of its attention into the first half of the current century. In much the same way, Richard Duncan’s closely reasoned papers on the Olduvai Theory – his prediction that modern industrial society will turn out to be a one-time-only pulse waveform – center on the interval between 1930 and 2030, the mathematical boundary points of the waveform. Many other writers in the field have an even tighter focus, directing their efforts toward predictions about the arrival of peak oil and its immediate aftermath.

Now of course there’s much to be said for this approach. In the far future, as some wag or other has pointed out, all of us will be dead, and that makes the near future naturally a little more interesting to us. To some extent, and especially in the face of crises of the scale we are likely to encounter in the next few decades, it’s not wholly unreasonable to take care of what’s imminent and let the distant future take care of itself. As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, though, the most likely trajectory of industrial society is a process of uneven economic and technological decline, a “long descent” over several centuries leading into a deindustrial dark age and beyond. An extended trajectory of this sort makes the occasional glance at the long view worth taking. The further an archer plans on shooting, to extend a metaphor from Machiavelli, the higher he needs to aim, and the further downrange he needs to track his target.

For this reason, over the next few weeks, I plan on trying to sort out some of the primary trends likely to shape the further reaches of the future. To keep the project within manageable limits, I’ll be limiting my focus in space to North America, and in time to the next five hundred years or so – a likely time frame for the Long Descent from the industrial age, through the dark age following, to the seedtime of the sustainable cultures of the future. Any conclusions proposed will be tentative at best, since history is above all else the realm of the contingent and unforeseen, and even those factors that can be predicted in advance routinely take strange shapes under the sway of unexpected forces. Many people in the first decade of the 20th century predicted the coming of the First World War, but as far as I know nobody dreamed that it would turn a penniless exile named V.I. Lenin into the Communist dictator of Russia and topple Tsar Nicholas II from what most observers at the time thought was one of the most secure thrones in Europe.

Surprises on the same scale are doubtless lying in wait in our own future. More generally, the one thing we can be sure of about the future is that it won’t look much like the present. A hundred years ago, the United States was not the most powerful nation on Earth; a hundred years from now, in all probability, it won’t be, either. Two hundred years ago, much of what now counts as American territory belonged to other nations; two hundred years from now, it’s entirely possible that the same thing will be true. The sweeping cultural transformations that turned a dowdy frontier society into a brash imperial power will most likely have their equivalents in our future as well.

At least five major factors, it seems to me, can be counted on to play a role in these transformations. The first is depopulation. We are so used to worrying about the population explosion that the possibility of its opposite has rarely entered into serious discussions of the future. Yet the population bubble of the last few centuries is just as much a product of the extravagant exploitation of fossil fuels during the same period as the industrial age itself. Without the massive changes in agriculture, trade, and public health set in motion by the needs of a fossil fuel-powered industrial society, the relatively modest surge in human numbers in the 19th century would have reversed itself in the normal way. (In point of fact, it nearly did so anyway; at the dawn of the 20th century, bubonic plague once again surged out of central Asia, and only massive efforts by the major colonial powers of the age prevented a third plague pandemic from sweeping the globe.)

We are already seeing a preview of the future in Russia and several other fragments of the former Soviet Union, where crude death rates have risen to nearly double rates of live birth, a trajectory that will cut population figures in half by 2050 or so. Similar population contractions can be traced in the declining phase of many past civilizations – the depopulation of large sections of the western Roman Empire is well attested by contemporary sources, for example. As the industrial age unwinds, similar patterns will likely unfold in North America; for that matter, whole regions of the American West are depopulating right now through outmigration, and archeologists of the future are likely to trace the beginning of ancient America’s decline and fall back to the failure of settlement on the western plains in whatever the late 20th century works out to in some future calendar.

Depopulation moves at different paces in different cultures and regions, though, and one of the classic results of this differential is migration. When civilizations collapse, one of the most notable consequences is a massive relocation of peoples and cultures. Before the fall of the Roman Empire, for example, the ancestors of today’s English lived in Denmark, the ancestors of today’s Hungarians lived in central Asia, and many of the ancestors of today’s Spaniards lived north of the Black Sea. Today, as tidal streams of economic and political refugees press at borders worldwide, the only thing preventing equally drastic migrations is the fraying fabric of national sovereignty, backed by military forces totally dependent on fossil fuels. As the industrial age enters its twilight, the likelihood that those bulwarks will hold is vanishingly small, and when they give way, movements of peoples on an epic scale are likely to result.

Just now, the pressures that get news coverage involve people from outside the industrial world trying to get into it – Mexicans entering the United States, Arabs and Turks entering Europe, and so forth. As the industrial age comes to its close, though, other dynamics are likely to come into play. Consider the situation of Japan. Close to 150 million people live on a crowded skein of islands with little arable land and no fossil fuels at all, supported by trade links made possible only by abundant energy resources elsewhere. As fossil fuel production peaks and begins its inevitable contraction, industrial agriculture and food imports both will become increasingly problematic, and over the long term the Japanese population will be forced to contract to something like the small fraction of today’s figures the Japanese islands supported in the past. Mass migration is nearly the only viable option for the rest of the population, Japan’s ample supply of ships and fishing boats provide the means, and possible destinations beckon all around the Pacific basin.

All this assumes the collapse of current political arrangements over at least some of the world, but this is a good bet. A third factor that needs to be taken into account, then, is political disintegration. When civilizations fall, their political systems rarely remain intact, and when they do it’s usually as a shell of titles and formalities covering drastically different political realities. The shell can exert a potent influence of its own – in western Europe after the fall of Rome, just as in China after the collapse of the Han dynasty, the title of “emperor” retained immense power even when nobody existed who could plausibly claim it, and the gravitational attraction of the old imperial state in both cases helped drive efforts toward political unification many centuries later. Along the same lines, warlords of the future may well lay claim the title of President of the United States, centuries after the office and the national polity it once served exist nowhere outside of the realm of legend and chronicle.

A fourth factor, parallel to the third, is cultural drift. Right now the manufacture and mass marketing of popular culture maintains a thin shell of cultural similarity across large parts of English-speaking North America, but even that is under strain as regional, religious, and ideological subcultures take advantage of the decentralizing power of today’s communications technology and move more and more boldly in their own directions. While the end of the industrial age will bring down the Internet, it will also play taps for the mechanisms of mass communication and manufacture that make popular culture, in the modern sense of the word, possible at all. In the bubbling cauldron of deindustrial North America, many of today’s new cultural initiatives will fuse with older traditions and brand-new movements in ways we can’t even begin to imagine today. The disintegration of political unity and the end of reliable long-distance travel, two very likely effects of the Long Descent, make the emergence of new local and regional cultures all but certain.

Finally, ecological change is the wild card in the deck. Natural systems form the bedrock foundation of all human societies, and the sweeping impacts of industrial civilization’s brief heyday and collapse promise to set ecosystems spinning into radically new forms over much of the globe. Climate change is only one aspect of this picture, though its importance needs not to be understated. Major climate shifts have affected North America powerfully in the geological and historical past, and in the latter case have played a crucial role in the rise and collapse of entire civilizations. Ecosystems are complex enough, and change over such varied timescales, that many of the effects of industrial civilization’s rise and fall may unfold over many more centuries than I intend to survey, but some possible changes can certainly be guessed at.

These five factors are the palette of colors I plan on using in an attempt to sketch out where we may be headed in the aftermath of the industrial age over the next few weeks. Many other factors will doubtless play important roles as well, including some that can’t possibly be anticipated here and now. Still, if an attempt to glimpse the shape of the coming deindustrial age can help guide us toward constructive action in the present, it’s worth a shot.

101 comments:

Loveandlight said...

Wow, an outbreak of the Plague in the Twentieth Century. I didn't know anything about that. It certainly has the makings of a heckuvan alternate history novel! (For instance, would the medieval myth of Jews poisoning wells, or water-treatment plants in the 1900's scenario, be used as a justification by the Third Reich for instigating the Holocaust?)

Loveandlight said...

According to Wikipedia, the disease that was identified during "The Third Pandemic" to which you are referring may not have been the same thing as what caused the Black Death in late medieval Europe.

Danby said...

It was known as the Third Pandemic, and made it's way from central China and south Russia, to Hong Kong, India, South Afrika, South East Asia, Hawaii, the Western US, South America and Cuba. In rural parts of South America and China, the pandemic held on into the late '50s. No-one knows how many died, but estimates run as high as 30 million over a period of 100 years. One of the results is that Bubonic Plague is endemic in wild rodent populations in the Western US. In fact, a monkey died in the Denver Zoo a couple of weeks back of Plague.

Most people confuse bubonic plague with Black Death. This is probably not correct. Most Europeans and Asians have a pretty good genetic immunity to the Black Death, due to it's initial 50-75% kill rate. Bubonic Plague's death rate is 5-10%.

Roy Smith said...

John -

I think that one thing we should do for the sake of our descendants is to make a concerted effort to explain Peak Oil and resource depletion as a major portion of the narrative of why our civilization is ending and de-industrialization is coming upon us. The reason for this is that many people are prone to misunderstanding why things happen in the world. It is very easy to see how, in a century from now, Peak Oil/resource depletion might not even be visible in the conventional wisdom explaining why things fell apart. This is important because if we (collectively) do not learn from the limits of the planet and instead blame collapse on terrorist or neocons or bankers or pick your favorite villain, we are apt to spend a long period of time in a wasted effort to re-industrialize and recapture the world of the twentieth century.

The reason I am saying all this is that I think that is one important reason we need to be concerned with the long view as well as the near-term, and I congratulate you on your efforts to explore the future in ways that may not seem immediately useful but which (I feel) may be ultimately the most important.

jason said...

To keep the project within manageable limits, I’ll be limiting my focus in space to North America, and in time to the next five hundred years or so – a likely time frame for the Long Descent from the industrial age, through the dark age following, to the seedtime of the sustainable cultures of the future.

Five hundred years would mark this as the longest collapse there's ever been, and without the benefit of unconsumed areas to lean on as in previous collapses. Don't you think this might be a little extreme? If I'm right that the 20th century was the first century of collapse (akin to the century following Marcus Aurelius for the Roman Empire), then I think most of the process of collapse will likely be done and over with in as little as a century. Those who live through collapse are those that typically describe it as quick; it's historians that note the very old factors that went into it more or less unnoticed, and the lasting aftershocks.

Many people in the first decade of the 20th century predicted the coming of the First World War, but as far as I know nobody dreamed that it would turn a penniless exile named V.I. Lenin into the Communist dictator of Russia and topple Tsar Nicholas II from what most observers at the time thought was one of the most secure thrones in Europe.

Of course, had the real economic situation in Russia been known, it would have been fairly obvious that some kind of revolution had to happen. It didn't have to be Bolshevik, but by the same token, it could hardly have been much different than that, given the influences of peasant unrest and agrarian ideals that had grown up and taken hold. It wasn't predicted mostly because the data was kept fairly secret.

Overall, I think those are pretty much the five major factors. On cultural drift, I think it needs to be underlined that additionally, all sustainable alternatives are necessarily localized, so there's not just the push factors you mentioned, but the pull factors associated with how people can make a living in a deindustrialized future.

I think there also be a sixth factor, which I recently wrote a post on at Anthropik: opening the map, the "closure of the map" that Peter Lamborn Wilson discussed, but run backwards. The five factors you mention are certainly the key ones to follow if we are intent on following the populations that remain most committed to civilization to the very bitter end, but the opening of the map is an important factor to consider, because as the process goes on, that population will represent an increasingly smaller percentage of the global human population. It was only in the past five hundred years that the population of domesticated humans surpassed that of wild humans; the implication of the opening of the map is that feral humans will outnumber domesticated humans again long before the domesticated variety dies out completely.

Bill Pulliam said...

I think depopulation is going to be the one of your five that the people of the modern industrial world will find the most traumatic. Birth rates have of course already declined by voluntary choice in these societies, but it is a long way psychologically from "childless by choice" to famine, plague, and pestilence. We (you, I, most of your readers) are members of a highly privileged generation or two that lived in the Age of Invisible Death. Most of us have been able to go about our daily business our whole lives without worrying that a sneeze or a cut might kill us; a luxury that no previous generations in the history of our species ever had. Death and mortal illness are things we have been able to avoid direct contact with to an amazing degree. After a couple of generations of this, these things were hardly even in our consciousness anymore.

With the decline of the fossil energy sources that support the whole system, this will come to an end. A bad chill might kill you; you may have to bury grandma yourself. Sure the inevitable depopulation COULD happen by birth control; but face it, odds are, it won't. It'll happen (is happening) by increased mortality, decreased life expectancy, decreased health and access to health care. We aren't psychologically or culturally prepared to handle this any more; we don't even remember how. It'll have to be learned from scratch all over again. In terms of intimate traumas directly touching individual lives at a profound level, this will be a biggie. The only thing comparable will probably be not having the food and water just materialize magically from the aether, packaged and certified like they have always done before; but of course that will be intimately linked to the depopulation trend.

Loveandlight said...

Bubonic Plague's death rate is 5-10%.

Without access to modern medical facilities, I think it may be a bit higher than that.

the implication of the opening of the map is that feral humans will outnumber domesticated humans again long before the domesticated variety dies out completely.

You mean {GASP!} civilization might not last forever and ever and ever because it is in fact not the wisest, most wonderful, most sustainable thing ever devised by human ingenuity???

/runs out of room screaming and flailing arms in the air!

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight and Dan, I've read the arguments that the original Black Death was not the same thing as bubonic plague. An interesting speculation. Still, bubonic plague is quite capable of having a major impact on human populations, not least because it tends to turn into the much more deadly pneumonic plague in crowded settings.

Roy, my own take is that the basic principles of ecology are probably the most important gift we could pass on to the future, bar none. The ability to understand peak oil comes as part of that package. You're right, though, that it's a crucial part.

Jason, take a second look at the passage you cited and you'll see your mistake. 500 years isn't an estimate of the collapse -- it includes the collapse, the dark age following it, and the first solid beginnings of recovery afterward. The equivalent in classical history would be 300-800 CE.

As for the rest, well, of course from my perspective you're stuck in an apocalyptic version of the trap Toynbee calls "archaism" -- the dream of returning to an allegedly golden age in the distant past. As he documents, it's a common fantasy among urban intellectuals during ages of decline. Since the mixed urban-rural economy (what you label "civilization") has proven resilient over multimillennial time spans in the right ecosystems, and plenty of people are already working hard on the transition back to sustainable forms of it, I see no reason to think it's going to up and die any time soon.

Bill, I spent a while in the late '80s supporting myself by working in nursing homes, and got to know the guy with the scythe fairly well; nothing like taking a no-code patient's blood pressure as it's dropping to zero to clue you into mortality. One consequence of the end of the industrial age we're already seeing is the breakdown of public health. As that accelerates, amplified by the spread of antibiotic resistance in pathogens, we'll be back in the days when half of all children never made it to maturity. Not a pleasant thing, but that's the way things are headed.

Danby said...

The next plague will not be Bubonic or Pneumonic plague, nor the Black Death. Plagues run their brutal course quite quickly. The First Pandemic was is conjectured to have been measles. It hit the Roman world like a sledgehammer, with a 75% death rate. When introduced (purposely or not) into the Americas, it had a similar devastating effect on Native Americans. Now, measles is a childhood disease with a .01% death rate. Adaptive evolution in action. That's also the major reason for the drop in lethality in plague.

It's much more likely that the next plague will come out of a laboratory in Russia, the US or China, rather then a chickenyard.

Jean-Michel said...

Hi JMG,

This is not only a comment about this last post. It is about what I have tried to grasp from your previous posts as well. As you know, I have translated some of them.

At this stage, I am not sure anymore what your purpose is and what is the coherence of your approach.

Are you telling us the story you said previously we needed to hear, in order to shift to sustainability?

I do not want to give the impression that I want to defend a belief system, but:

Don't you think your underestimate our capacity as a specie to pull out?

Don't you think you underestimate our capacity to move forward, once we have the sanity to accept reality as it is?

Don't you think the next 10 years will be decisive, that we face a fundamental bifurcation, and that it is right now?

Don't you think you underestimate the power of science and human ingenuity, very much like the other side is not understanding the power of the soul, if something like exists?

Simon said...

On cue, there is resistant TBC in South Africa.

There definitely will be cultural divergence. Anyone that is an internet regular know how careless many people are with English, and how easily the lingua franca is taken for granted. It might produce a way of writing English that is actually more than a hint to its pronunciation. North America will become very linguistically confusing very soon. At least the worldwide trend of losing languages will be reversed.

Bill Pulliam said...

As far a language is concerned, human language has always been an organic, fluid thing, adapting itself to the needs of the speakers. Linguistic prescriptivity (wow I think I just made up a word) is a blip. The idea that language should be discrete and codified to conform to authoritative rules serves the needs of large, centralized States and Mass Culture, but it is unnatural.

I see English (at least in America) heading into its fourth great incarnation. Old English formed from the merging of the languages of the many diverse Germanic and Scandinavian tribes that converged in Great Britain with a salt-and-peppering from the languages of the Iron Age people already there; Middle English formed from the merger of Old English and Norman French in response to that great cultural blending. Following this pattern, it seems inevitable to me that the rapidly growing Latino component of US society will eventually lead to a merging of Modern English and American Spanish to from a great American Spanglish as the prevailing tongue north of the Rio Grande. The present-day American English-speaking middle class is in utter denial of the fact that the US is slowly becoming another Latin American country, but their kids and grandkids are living more and more in a pan-American world. I think this linguistic transfomation will take many generations, but thinking that the US and Canada will remain an island of pure Anglo Culture in a Latino Sea in perpetuity is almost silly. Especally after society and government become decentralized and lose the ability to even try to restrict movements of people across shallow rivers and imaginary lines in the desert.

So what will our descendents call this new language? Some combination of "Spanglish" and "Espanglés," depending on however the blending happens; or maybe just "Americano" pronounced in a thousand different regional variants.

jason said...

Jason, take a second look at the passage you cited and you'll see your mistake. 500 years isn't an estimate of the collapse -- it includes the collapse, the dark age following it, and the first solid beginnings of recovery afterward. The equivalent in classical history would be 300-800 CE.

I look forward to seeing that followed through, though of course, when Rome fell, the resources necessary for civilization were still there, hence the "Dark Age." I think other examples, where civilizations collapsed because they had run through their resources, might be more applicable, as at Chaco Canyon. Little evidence there of any kind of dark age.

As for the rest, well, of course from my perspective you're stuck in an apocalyptic version of the trap Toynbee calls "archaism" -- the dream of returning to an allegedly golden age in the distant past. As he documents, it's a common fantasy among urban intellectuals during ages of decline.

It is, but it's not as if I came to this by wishful thinking. When I started down this road, this was all the very last thing I wanted to believe. But as you say, of course that would be your perspective. I rather think that when you look at the societies in the past that were in the same position we're in now, this is the pattern they tended to follow.

Since the mixed urban-rural economy (what you label "civilization") has proven resilient over multimillennial time spans in the right ecosystems, and plenty of people are already working hard on the transition back to sustainable forms of it, I see no reason to think it's going to up and die any time soon.

It's only 10,000 years old; that's not a very long time, at all. It's really more startling for its brevity. It has only existed in the Holocene, and the Holocene is now over. From a "Gaia Theory" perspective, the meaning of life is to sequester carbon, in order to keep the planet cool in the face of its long-term challenge, the long-term heating of the sun. The ice age was a sign of unprecedented success. But the implication of peak oil is that in the past 200 years, we've undone half of that, putting half of all the carbon that all the life on earth had once succeeded in sequestering over millions of generations of birthing, living and dying, and put it all back in the atmosphere in a shockingly short period of time. The Holocene is over, and food production is a uniquely Holocene-adapted subsistence strategy.

In the shorter term, very little of the earth is still naturally arable. Agriculture always causes deforestation and desertification, but usually on a time scale of several centuries. That's how the vast cedar forests of Iraq were destroyed, and how the desert we know today was created. The Dust Bowl was a process of desertification. Today, the Great Plains owes its seeming fertility to the Haber-Bosch process, by which they're able to convert fossil fuels into fertilizers. Underneath several feet of fertilizers, the Great Plains are already a desert. As that layer peels back in the midst of energy decline, what you'll find is that all the soils were depleted by the last bout of agricultural production. There can be no simple return to agrarian homesteading when the soil quality that supported it was bled away by the first experience of agrarian homesteading, can there? No doubt many people will try it anyway, but what happens when you try to farm the Sahara? Many will try, and they will nearly all fail, because the soil just isn't there. I'd say that's a pretty good reason to think it's going to "up and die," as you put it.

Of course, in the long term (several centuries), those soils will eventually regenerate, but that's the same timeframe in which the Holocene will end. There will even be an overlap of a century or more where the soils are depleted and the Holocene has ended. Even if the continuity of knowledge could be assured over that gap (which would be iffy, since people are notoriously prone to forget things that are irrelevant to their lives), the key foundations of food producton will simply no longer be there.

And as I mentioned, this will no more be a geographically even process than the initial growth curve was. Some areas are harder to exploit, whether by virtue of distance, geological features, or both. All civilizations contract as they collapse. The Romans abandoned much of the Gallic countryside while Rome still bustled, for instance. The contraction is never entirely even, either. The "closure of the map" runs in reverse, and pockets effectively beyond civilization's reach open up. In those pockets, various kinds of life beyond civilization inevitably spring up. The abandoned Gallic countryside hosted the bacaudae as Rome declined; when the map was expanding into the Caribbean, it was pirates that flourished in the empty spaces. Why would we expect anything different for our own decline? There will be hunter-gatherers and permacultural villages in the forests of British Columbia long before the last city-dwellers give up Seattle.

Don't you think you underestimate the power of science and human ingenuity, very much like the other side is not understanding the power of the soul, if something like exists?

If a solution exists, it's something never before seen or imagined. It's a complete black swan, nothing short of a miracle. Such things don't happen because of market pressure. They happen, or they don't. It seems increasingly unlikely that any such thing exists--and there's certainly no guarantee that it does.

Of course, what would the effect of such an intervention be? It could only be some new way to keep our civilization going, to keep growth going, and that simply means you've postponed collapse, and made it that much worse in the process. Overshoot always follows the same course; shipping in new lichens to save the dying reindeer herd will just mean that many more reindeer when the herd finally does collapse.

It might exist, but we might be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow. I think the asteroid's more likely.

Following this pattern, it seems inevitable to me that the rapidly growing Latino component of US society will eventually lead to a merging of Modern English and American Spanish to from a great American Spanglish as the prevailing tongue north of the Rio Grande.

Perhaps, but I think localization will have an impact here, too. David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous makes a very strong case that human language is not arbitrary, but rooted in the sounds of the landscape we live in, as a function of ecology. At least, in sustainable cultures it is. As we're forced to live sustainably, we'll be forced also to speak more like sustainable cultures. The nature of nouns and verbs will have to change, and I think that our languages will begin to be influenced by the same factors that influenced Native languages before our arrival, with the result that the "English" spoken in New York will begin to sound much more Iroquoian.

The present-day American English-speaking middle class is in utter denial of the fact that the US is slowly becoming another Latin American country, but their kids and grandkids are living more and more in a pan-American world.

Not the whole country. What Joel Garreau calls "Mexamerica" is a functional bioregion. It takes a lot of energy to draw an arbitrary boundary through the middle of a functional unit like that, the way the United States did in the Mexican-American War, when we invaded the northern parts of Mexico and took them for our own. Now with energy peaking, you're seeing the problems with that beginning to surface, and that arbitrary border is falling apart, as the real borders of differing bioregions begin to come to the fore. The southwest (i.e., conquered Mexican territory) will likely become more Latin, but other parts of the country will be following their own ecoregional character.

I think this linguistic transfomation will take many generations, but thinking that the US and Canada will remain an island of pure Anglo Culture in a Latino Sea in perpetuity is almost silly.

I'd hardly call it that--the United States and Canada make up everything north of the Rio Grande. That's hardly an island, that's most of North America. Certainly South & Central America will be Latin for some time to come, but I don't foresee people in British Columbia or Ontario or Maine or even Kansas speaking Spanish in the future.

Loveandlight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loveandlight said...

Danby:

It would appear that the pandemic you mentioned was actually smallpox as distinct from measles or "German" measles.

Bill Pulliam said...

jason --

I don't foresee people in British Columbia or Ontario or Maine or even Kansas speaking Spanish in the future.

Actually, this is a common middle-class misperception. When I worked as an over-the-road trucker, I got to experience the "other side" of the economy intimately. Picking up eggs at an "egg factory" in northern Iowa, the prevailing language is Spanish. You will have a difficult time interacting with the staff there if you are an exclusive anglophone. Same for low-wage assembly plants here in Tennessee, and any agricultural facility ANYWHERE in the lower 48. Nationwide, Spanish is becoming the language of the working class, and it is spreading rapidly and anglicizing as it goes. In northern Colorado, "jardín" has become "yarda." In Tennessee, I hear the workers in a poorly-ventilated warehouse telling each other "Mañana voy a llevar shorts." Language flow up the socioeconomic ladder is slow, but it eventually happens, especially when the language of the lower classes is so pervasive that the middle classes have to start learning it to function in society. The Norman-descended aristocracy in England kept speaking French for many generations, while the masses spoke an increasingly Normanized English, until eventually even the royalty was penetrated and switched to the Germanic-based dialect.

jason said...

Actually, this is a common middle-class misperception. When I worked as an over-the-road trucker, I got to experience the "other side" of the economy intimately. Picking up eggs at an "egg factory" in northern Iowa, the prevailing language is Spanish

Sure, but this is an artifact of an industrial system. The Hispanic population has no real roots through most of the U.S. the way it does in the southwest: they move too frequently with the changing dictates of the market. They're the perfect economic nomads required of industrial capitalism.

Nationwide, Spanish is becoming the language of the working class, and it is spreading rapidly and anglicizing as it goes.

In a county where the working class is a shrinking percentage of the total population, though.

Language flow up the socioeconomic ladder is slow, but it eventually happens, especially when the language of the lower classes is so pervasive that the middle classes have to start learning it to function in society.

Yes, but that pervasiveness is only because of the nature of industrialism and the centralization of as many processes as possible. As that changes direction, that's going to leave a lot less room for migrant Hispanic workers. Even today, they are prevalent only in the shrinking working class.

The Norman-descended aristocracy in England kept speaking French for many generations, while the masses spoke an increasingly Normanized English, until eventually even the royalty was penetrated and switched to the Germanic-based dialect.

That was a very different situation; that was not a fluid, Germanic underclass taking up the lower rungs of an originally French society, but a French aristocracy that conquered a Germanic society. Same thing with the Mongol invasion of China. But as industrialism declines, so will the trend of nomadic day laborers as a viable survival strategy.

Loveandlight said...

That was a very different situation; that was not a fluid, Germanic underclass taking up the lower rungs of an originally French society, but a French aristocracy that conquered a Germanic society. Same thing with the Mongol invasion of China. But as industrialism declines, so will the trend of nomadic day laborers as a viable survival strategy.

A bit of a nitpick, but my understanding was that the Normans were actually "Vikings" (Norman = Norseman) who migrated to France and took up the local language.

Bill Pulliam said...

The Hispanic population has no real roots through most of the U.S. the way it does in the southwest: they move too frequently with the changing dictates of the market.

...

that's going to leave a lot less room for migrant Hispanic workers


You seem to think "Latino" is synonymous with "migrant." This is just not true. Large segments of the Latino community throughout the US are not economic migrants. They work fixed jobs in fixed locals, with families, homes, and jobs. Even here in Tennessee, which isn't Southwestern by any stretch of the imagination.

Re: Normans -- yes they were Norsemen who settled in Normandy, took up French language and feudalism, then conquered England where they eventually merged their culture and language with what was already there. One of many prime examples in history of how cultural evolution happens with migration, contact, exchange, and melding through highly permeable cultural barriers.

Roy Smith said...

The Hispanic population has no real roots through most of the U.S. the way it does in the southwest: they move too frequently with the changing dictates of the market. They're the perfect economic nomads required of industrial capitalism.

My experience is just the opposite here in Seattle and throughout Washington state; the majority of Hispanic laborers that I have encountered (I work mainly with the construction industry, so that's quite a few) are second and third generation in the U.S. and have no intention of leaving. They also have the advantage of generally having a much more cohesive sense of family (i.e., they actually know, live close to, and can rely upon extended family, unlike an awful lot of anglo-Americans), which will be to their advantage as economic conditions worsen and government begins to unravel.

My feeling is that hispanic culture and language will make huge gains in North America, because hispanics have both the numbers and cohesiveness to survive de-industrialization.

jason said...

A bit of a nitpick, but my understanding was that the Normans were actually "Vikings" (Norman = Norseman) who migrated to France and took up the local language.

Language, culture, fashion ... by the time of Hastings, though they boasted of their Norse descent, they were much more French than Dane.

You seem to think "Latino" is synonymous with "migrant." This is just not true. Large segments of the Latino community throughout the US are not economic migrants. They work fixed jobs in fixed locals, with families, homes, and jobs. Even here in Tennessee, which isn't Southwestern by any stretch of the imagination.

In Tennessee, they're also vastly outnumbered. The established Latino communities throughout most of the United States (excluding the southwest, and the very major metropolitan centers like NYC) are fairly small. The majority of Lations in the United States outside of those exceptions move from place to place fairly frequently, and make up the bulk of the working class phenomenon you've described.

My experience is just the opposite here in Seattle and throughout Washington state; the majority of Hispanic laborers that I have encountered (I work mainly with the construction industry, so that's quite a few) are second and third generation in the U.S. and have no intention of leaving. They also have the advantage of generally having a much more cohesive sense of family (i.e., they actually know, live close to, and can rely upon extended family, unlike an awful lot of anglo-Americans), which will be to their advantage as economic conditions worsen and government begins to unravel.

You misunderstand; I don't mean they're ready to leave the U.S., nor that they have no family. I'm related by marriage now to an immigrant, in construction, like the ones you mention. He moves around an awful lot, from one job to the next. I suspect that as things progress, he'll probably start moving towards Texas and the southwest.

Bill Pulliam said...

jason -- we're talking very long-term trends here when it comes to evolution of culture and language. The patterns of the present decade are just a passing moment. Latino culture and population are growing rapidly throughout the US, have been for many decades, and with the demographics and economics of North & Central America, will certainly continue to do so well into the future. If, as JMG suggests, central government and control weaken, we should expect the northward flow of people and culture to accelerate

As for the shrinking working class... there is SOOO much to say about the shrinking agrarian and working classes in the US, the role of globalization in this, and the future prospects for all of this in the post-Hubbert's-peak economy... but the Archdruid can cover that far better and more thoroughly than I.

In short, though: If we don't learn how to be farmers and carpenters, we'll sit here starving while our houses fall down around us. We're not that stupid.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, of course you're right that the next pandemic probably won't be one of the previous ones. My guess is that it'll be a hemorrhagic fever out of the tropics, but that's just a guess.

Jean-Michel, I think the fundamental bifurcation you mention already happened back in the 1970s. We had the option to embrace sustainability then, and we blew it. At this point the survival of modern industrial society is no longer an option; the best we can do now is lay the foundations for the sustainable civilizations of the future. That's actually what I've been saying in this blog and elsewhere all along.

I certainly recognize the power of human ingenuity and expertise, but I also recognize the power of ecological limits. Our species will survive; urban settlements, literacy, and many of the other features we lump together under the label "civilization" will survive; but modern industrial society is on its way to the dumpster of history.

Simon and Bill, linguistic drift will be an important theme of the discussion down the road. My guess, given cultural factors, is that the future languages of most of North America will have a Spanish base, with various other languages mixed in. More on this later.

Jason, I've rebutted these same points many times in the past, but I suppose I can repeat myself yet again. The emergence and very rapid spread of organic agriculture -- which improves topsoil rather than depleting it -- makes hash of neoprimitivist claims about the unsustainability of agriculture, and metals and other resources will be far more available to our descendants than they were to our ancestors; we've done the future the huge favor of digging resources up from far underground, concentrating them, and piling them up in vast stockpiles called "cities." As for your insistence that agriculture is limited to the Holocene, you need to keep up on current research; agriculture emerged in a period of extreme climate stress at the end of the last ice age precisely because under such conditions, it's more resilient than the alternatives.

Your arguments also consistently fudge the massive differences between urban-agrarian societies and industrial societies. The former is a very successful social mutation about ten millennia old; it's spent most of that time getting the bugs out, as new projects do, and it's had some failures, but the evolution of organic agriculture in the last century has taken care of the last major long-term limitation to its sustainability. One of the things it does extremely well in favorable ecosystems, by the way, is outcompete hunter-gatherer societies. The fact that industrial society was a self-limiting phenomenon doesn't make the older and far more resilient system any less durable.

As for the long-term prospects of Hispanic America, my experience matches Bill's and Roy's. There are more than 40 million Hispanics in the US now, the number is growing daily, and the vast majority are settled immigrants, not the "industrial nomads" of the Anglo fantasy you've repeated. They come from a culture far more used to adversity than ours, and Mexican dryland farming methods -- which are directly descended from those of the pre-Conquest native peoples -- are well suited to poor soils and sparse water. As the map unravels, in other words, the communities most likely to slip into the gap are Latino farming villages, not bands of Anglo hunter-gatherer wannabees.

Roy, your experience matches mine, in Washington, Oregon, and elsewhere. Hispanic culture these days has far more vitality than ours. That among other factors will, I think, guarantee the success of Spanish as the main parent stock for the languages of most of deindustrial North America.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, f you think that Hispanic communities in the US are small, you need to get out more -- especially in the 2/3 of the continent west of the Mississippi. A few years back, when I did a lot of traveling through the farm country of Washington state as the head of a fraternal order, it was hard to miss the fact that most of the farm towns and cities in the region were predominantly Hispanic. The same is true of rural Oregon, and many other Western states.

Loveandlight said...

One of the things it does extremely well in favorable ecosystems, by the way, is outcompete hunter-gatherer societies.

"Sustainable agriculture" is basically horticulture (intensive gardening). If it is to remain sustainable, it will have to be able to exist in a steady-state manner, therefore there will have to be a cap on how complex it may become. Because of the necessity of this capping, these sustainable societies will need to supplement their horticulture with a significant amount of hunting and gathering. Horticulturalists may out-compete purist hunter-gatherers, but that doesn't mean the horticulturalists won't be hunter-gatherers of a sort themselves. While Jason's prediction about metals might not come true in the next hundred years or so following the collapse if metals are recycled wisely, it will come true eventually because all metal eventually oxidizes into uselessness, and all the ore deposits that a nonindustrial society could possibly access are now gone.

Eric in Santa Clara, California said...

Hey JMG, your outline of trends is excellent and stimulating reading, as always.

Sorry to interject on the excellent discussion of long term cultural diffusion of Latinos into North America, but I wanted to provide some additional informed speculation on "the near future" of deindustrialization from (of all sources!) the Fannie Mae Foundation at:

http://www.fanniemaefoundation.org/programs/hff/v1i4-metropolis.html


They come at their past & future 50 year views through the lens of urban planning and real estate. Here's a short version:


Top Ten Influences on the American Metropolis of the Past 50 Years

The 1956 Interstate Highway Act and the dominance of the automobile

Federal Housing Administration mortgage financing

De-industrialization of central cities

Urban Renewal: downtown redevelopment and public housing projects (1949 Housing Project)

Levittown (mass-produced suburban tract houses)

Racial segregation and job discrimination in cities and suburbs

Enclosed shopping malls

Sunbelt style sprawl

Air conditioning

Urban riots of the 1960s


The Ten Most Likely Influences on the American Metropolis for the Next 50 Years

Growing disparities of wealth

Suburban political majority

Aging of the baby boomers

Perpetual “underclass” in central cities and inner-ring suburbs

“Smart Growth” environmental planning initiatives to limit sprawl

The Internet

Deterioration of the “first ring” post-1945 suburbs

Shrinking household size

Expanded superhighway system of outer beltways to serve new edge cities

Racial integration as part of the increasing diversity in cities and suburbs


Seems to be (no surprises here) mostly a business as usual outlook, but even in this forecast they recognize some dark clouds gathering on the horizon ("deterioration of the “first ring” post-1945 suburbs", "perpetual underclass", etc.).

Definitely more grist for the mill of discussions here at this blog.

Best regards, keep up the thoughtful narrative, looking forward to a book someday!

Bill Pulliam said...

About jason's nomadic Latino construction worker inlaw... I've known many an Anglo construction worker who also had to travel to where the big jobs were to keep steady employment. It goes with the trade, not the ethnicity. Construction is intimately tied to boom-bust cycles, as well as the erratic powerful natural phenomena we label as "disasters."

Bill Pulliam said...

I don't see any reason to expect technology to disappear in the neo-dark ages. Metalurgy, electric generation, machines, even semiconductors and high tech re all perferctly feasible to manufacture and maintain on a smaller scale, but they will be MUCH more expensive. They may contribute to a neo-feudalism, though, helping distinguish the lords from the serfs; but they're not likely to disappear or even cease technological improvement. Sure, much of human knowldge is now on the Internet, and we can expect that to gradually fade away. But it isn't likely to vanish overnight, and it would be very surprising if most of the critical content didn't get archived in some non-electronic form during the decline before the lights go out. Again, though, access to this info might be a whole nuther thing.

Don't expect your iPhone to keep working, however...

It's worth remembering that the last Dark Ages were not so dark as the Victorians presented them. There was a lot happening in technology, art, and society. It just wasn't written down in Latin.

jason said...

jason -- we're talking very long-term trends here when it comes to evolution of culture and language. The patterns of the present decade are just a passing moment. Latino culture and population are growing rapidly throughout the US, have been for many decades, and with the demographics and economics of North & Central America, will certainly continue to do so well into the future. If, as JMG suggests, central government and control weaken, we should expect the northward flow of people and culture to accelerate

Rising population levels always shows a correction taking place. Populations rise to a carrying capacity, and then level off. No population ever contiues to grow into infinity.

The emergence and very rapid spread of organic agriculture -- which improves topsoil rather than depleting it -- makes hash of neoprimitivist claims about the unsustainability of agriculture...

I assume by "organic agriculture," you mean more in line with Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm, rather than the industrial organic you find at Whole Foods? I'm afraid this argument doesn't pass muster, since there's no real division between this kind of "organic agriculture," what Bill Holmgren calls "permaculture," and what anthropologists would generally call "horticulture." These methods do create greater ecological wealth than they take away, but to make them work typically takes more than a fair bit of hunting and gathering. What's more, no hunter-gatherer gets very far without employing at least some of these methods. Foraging and permaculture exist on a continuum, both significantly divorced from what would reasonably pass for a "farm" in everyday speech. Even intensive horticulture requires localization, and cannot scale to nearly the level needed even for a slow descent. You can ask Salatin himself; he has no illusion that his method could feed a city. It just doesn't scale like that. Rather, horticultural techniques limit human communities to the village level, with less than 300 people per village. The need for what permaculturalists call a zone 5, or the forested northern ridge Salatin points to at Polyface, further limits the scalability of "organic agriculture." It's a method that requires significant areas of what we can only call, for lack of a better term, "wilderness." So even with this, you're looking at a society closer to a primitive horticultural village than a post-industrial city.

...and metals and other resources will be far more available to our descendants than they were to our ancestors; we've done the future the huge favor of digging resources up from far underground, concentrating them, and piling them up in vast stockpiles called "cities."

Which are mostly alloyed, and thus unworkable except with fossil fuels. Within a century of collapse, any iron that isn't actively protected will be thoroughly rusted. Yes, rusted iron can be worked like an ore, it's chemically the same, but rusted iron is a lower quality ore than the ore you dig up. There will be iron around, but the quality means everything for a society-wide level. By two centuries out, bog iron will be the more abundant source. Obviously, the future primitive will differ in some significant ways from the past primitive, but by 200 years from now, iron will take on the same qualities it had in other bog iron using cultures: a rare, even magical element, and the blacksmiths who have the knowledge to work it, powerful magicians with a much sought-after power. In such societies, metals do not tend to have much impact on daily life.

As for your insistence that agriculture is limited to the Holocene, you need to keep up on current research; agriculture emerged in a period of extreme climate stress at the end of the last ice age precisely because under such conditions, it's more resilient than the alternatives.

What's colloquially called "the end of the last ice age" was the beginning of the Holocene (in fact, it's a bit of anthropocentric hubris to elevate the Holocene to a geological epoch; until the past two centuries, it was a fairly typical interglacial period, meaning we're still in the Pleistocene; global warming changes that, though). But that's a far cry from suggesting that agriculture is actually the most resilient option. In fact, more recent research than that has shown that it was not the stress of the climatic change, but the changes that made agriculture possible. In the times of stress, agriculture wasn't possible; after all, a grain of wheat can either be eaten, or planted for the future. It's an investment. Who would bury their food when they're starving? Investments are made by people who are secure; the poor don't spend their days trading on the stock market. Instead, what we're seeing is that times of stress instilled a fear for the future, leading them to begin agriculture when times of plenty followed.

Of course, this was a very localized phenomenon, and in a very specific time and place, it was fairly adaptive. But overall, it is the single least resilient subsistence strategy humans have ever tried. Humans have done well as hunter-gatherers from the Arctic to the Kalahari and everything in between; meanwhile, the history of farming has been the history of starvation and epidemic disease. Richard Manning's Against the Grain puts together a lot of the most recent evidence on the history of agriculture in a very readable volume; I highly recommend it. You may know him better as the author of a classic Harper's article, "The Oil We Eat," which summarized some of his points in the book.

Your arguments also consistently fudge the massive differences between urban-agrarian societies and industrial societies. The former is a very successful social mutation about ten millennia old; it's spent most of that time getting the bugs out, as new projects do, and it's had some failures, but the evolution of organic agriculture in the last century has taken care of the last major long-term limitation to its sustainability.

I'm sorry, but this seems absurdly short-sighted to me. I'm not fudging, I have outright stated that the difference between industrial and agrarian systems are scale, not kind. Genetic engineering is simply the power-tool of ancient husbandry; the horrors of the CAFO, nothing more than taking domestication to its logical conclusion. Ruddiman has traced anthropogenic global warming back to the Agricultural Revolution, and the ecological devastation we see today from industrial society simply fast-forwards the processes agrarian societies were already seeing to.

This is another point that Manning illustrates very well in his book. Agriculture--the large-scale, monoculture food production that allows for large harvests that can support cities--is fundamentally unsustainable. When it began in the Fertile Crescent, Iraq was covered in a desert of cedar trees. That was destroyed, and turned into a desert, due to the soil degradation and salinization agriculture brought with it. But, thanks to the west-east axis Jared Diamond talked about in Guns, Germs & Steel, the first farmers were able to expand, and stay ahead of the consequences of their way of life. Already by the time of Plato, Greece was being wiped out. Plato wrote:

What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man. ... Formerly, many of the mountains were arable. The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true.

By the time of Rome, Egypt's annual flood had to feed most of the Roman Empire, because most of its provinces had already made their land mostly useless. In the later Roman Empire, Britain became the "Egypt of the West," largely because it had been conquered and cultivated so late in its history. In "The Oil We Eat," Manning comments on Plato's words:

Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his country's soil and subsequently caused the series of declines that pushed centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western Europe. By the fifth century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting and moving on ran up against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in wheat agriculture is like rice agriculture. It balances its equations with famine. In the millennium between 500 and 1500, Britain suffered a major "corrective" famine about every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period.

Those who expanded eastward took the famine corrective even more strongly. Manning writes in Against the Grain:

For the last several thousand years, as the famine center has shifted around the world, waxed and waned, China has maintained a fairly steady course of starvation. Researchers have compiled documentary evidence of 1,828 famines in China between 2019 B.C. and A.D. 1911. They were concentrated in a famine belt between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, which is to say that China's hunger was concentrated in the same area as its agriculture. This history can be read in the numbers, but also in the language.

During China's most recent famine, people began using an expression that means "swapping children, making food." Hungry peasants traded children to avoid killing and eating their own. The practice was widespread. The specific phrase for this is about 2,200 years old and meant exactly then what it does now. As the Han Dynasty was founded, in 200 B.C., a single famine killed about half of China's population. The emperor Gao Zu issued an edict permitting people to eat or sell their children as meat, thus lending legal sanction to a long-established practice. A written report from 2,600 years ago notes: "In the city, we are exchanging our children and eating them, and splitting up their bones for fuel."


This because of the endemic overpopulation, and soil degradation, that agriculture leads to. By balancing these against horrific mortality, China kept the system going a bit longer. The Black Death and the overall overwhelming mortality of the Middle Ages achieved the same results for Western Europe, until Christopher Columbus and "the age of exuberance," to use Catton's term, which provided a whole continent of virgin soil to farm. To quote Manning once again from "The Oil We Eat":

The new lands had an even greater effect on the colonists themselves. Thomas Jefferson, after enduring a lecture on the rustic nature by his hosts at a dinner party in Paris, pointed out that all of the Americans present were a good head taller than all of the French. Indeed, colonists in all of the neo-Europes enjoyed greater stature and longevity, as well as a lower infant-mortality rate—all indicators of the better nutrition afforded by the onetime spend down of the accumulated capital of virgin soil.

Once again, the respite was brief. It took only a few centuries of farming the Great Plains to produce the Dust Bowl, and North America's soils are now 85% depleted. In 1960, the world reached a population of 3 billion, and the age old strategy of simply expanding into new territory as agriculture killed off the old finally failed, as any reasonable person would have foreseen: there was no more arable land that was not already cultivated. This was the point at which the so-called "Green Revolution" swept in, precisely because it had become necessary. Soils were failing (as in the Great Plains, where desertification was going on at a breakneck pace), and if expansion were to continue, it would have to be by increasing yield per acre by applying industrial inputs, amplifying domestication with genetic engineering, and accelerating the already-established pattern of habitat destruction, mass extinction, and global warming.

The history of agriculture is the 10,000 year history of farmers struggling to stay ahead of the consequences of their actions, and the denuded, devastated wastelands they inevitably leave behind them. Naturally, the oldest farmed locations in the Middle East are the most evident, but look at the long list of animal extinctions in Europe, or try to find Sherwood Forest in England. It's simply a road sign now.

In the New World, the short-lived empires of Mesoamerica and Peru rose and fell precisely because they lacked that east-west axis, and so could not easily outrun the consequences of agricultural life. They destroyed their soils, and then collapsed. A few centuries later, the soils would regenerate, and they would try again, with the same result.

If that's your notion of sustainable, then I don't really know what to say.

One of the things it does extremely well in favorable ecosystems, by the way, is outcompete hunter-gatherer societies. The fact that industrial society was a self-limiting phenomenon doesn't make the older and far more resilient system any less durable.

Neither does it make the older and far more resilient system of hunting and gathering any less durable. But agrarian life is also self-limiting, and self-eliminating. It is not resilient; in fact, it is remarkably fragile. There are only a very small handful of domesticable species, and those tend to be very closely related (the majority of them falling either under the heading of cereal grains for plants, or herd ruminants for animals). It's an excellent example of "putting all your eggs in one basket," and the reason why agricultural centers, historically, are also famine centers, why farmers suffer endemic starvation. By contrast, foragers have continued to exist in every climate that farmers have not obliterated, including the Arctic and the Kalahari. That's because foragers enjoy an extraordinarily wide diet, procured with a minimum of labor, so they have plenty of liesure time. While a single bad summer can starve an agrarian community, it would take something just shy of the apocalypse to starve out a forager band, because all you need to starve farmers is the loss of a few, closely-related and fairly fickle grain crops that humans can only barely digest anyway, versus wiping out nearly every form of life to starve out foragers.

There are more than 40 million Hispanics in the US now, the number is growing daily, and the vast majority are settled immigrants, not the "industrial nomads" of the Anglo fantasy you've repeated.

But they're not settled evenly. They are disproportionately settled in the southwest. As you get further out towards the northeast, the proportion of "industrial nomads" goes up. There are exceptions like NYC, but you won't find a very large, settled Hispanic community in most places in Ohio or Pennsylvania or West Virginia or New England.

They come from a culture far more used to adversity than ours, and Mexican dryland farming methods -- which are directly descended from those of the pre-Conquest native peoples -- are well suited to poor soils and sparse water. As the map unravels, in other words, the communities most likely to slip into the gap are Latino farming villages, not bands of Anglo hunter-gatherer wannabees.

Because Mexico's been fairly continuously farmed using more horticultural methods, it actually has overall better soil quality. I have no doubt they'll try to farm our soils, but there's a reason they left Mexico, too. A properly prepared "band of Anglo hunter-gatherer wanabees," meanwhile, will have a genuinely sustainable foundation (by which I mean that its practice does not eliminate the basis for its future; I do not know what definition of "sustainable" you are using to suggest that the agrarian practices that have been wiping out ecosystems across the planet for 10,000 years are "sustainable").

Jason, f you think that Hispanic communities in the US are small, you need to get out more -- especially in the 2/3 of the continent west of the Mississippi.

I didn't say they were small--I said that the number of settled Hispanics that don't change their location frequently looking for work outside of the southwest and a few exceptions of large cities like NYC were small. The very fact that you point out that I should particularly look west of the Mississippi already covers the "west" part of my argument. Now, are you saying that there are as many Hispanics in British Columbia as in southern California?

A few years back, when I did a lot of traveling through the farm country of Washington state as the head of a fraternal order, it was hard to miss the fact that most of the farm towns and cities in the region were predominantly Hispanic. The same is true of rural Oregon, and many other Western states.

Sure, because those are the designated apple-growing centers of the industrial food system, and they need farm hands. Likewise, the Salinas Valley in California is the designated salad greens growing center, and it likewise has a large Hispanic population for the same economic purpose. Without an industrial food system, with more localized food production, these centers will no longer exist, and these communities--with strong family and ecoregional ties to the southwest--will have to find some other way to make a living.

About jason's nomadic Latino construction worker inlaw... I've known many an Anglo construction worker who also had to travel to where the big jobs were to keep steady employment. It goes with the trade, not the ethnicity. Construction is intimately tied to boom-bust cycles, as well as the erratic powerful natural phenomena we label as "disasters."

That was rather my point: it goes with the job. Hispanics in the U.S. are forced into less desirable positions, which tend to be jobs that require a lot of moving around. There's a significant Hispanic population throughout the country, but throughout most of the country, most of that population is transient. They're in town for a specific construction project, or seasonal work, or as day laborers, etc. Where this is not so much the case is the southwest. This isn't a question of ethnicity, but rather the simple fact that Hispanic culture has its roots to the south, and while it has had an impact, I do not think it will be able to topple the established cultures through most of the U.S. Of course, the southwest is an exception--in the southwest, Anglo-Americans are the interlopers, and I'm sure that will become predominantly Hispanic. But throughout most of the country, I think they will remain minorities.

I don't see any reason to expect technology to disappear in the neo-dark ages. Metalurgy, electric generation, machines, even semiconductors and high tech re all perferctly feasible to manufacture and maintain on a smaller scale, but they will be MUCH more expensive.

That's not a reason? The question is, how will these help a sustainable society? If they can be made sustainably, and are still of benefit in a sustainable society, then they'll no doubt stick around. If they can't, or aren't, or if they cost more than they're worth, then they won't. At the same time that they'll become much more expensive, they'll also lose much of their usefulness simply because of the context of a sustainable society. Knowledge that isn't useful is quickly lost.

They may contribute to a neo-feudalism, though, helping distinguish the lords from the serfs; but they're not likely to disappear or even cease technological improvement.

Lords imply serfs, and serfs imply soil and climate that will work for agriculture. See above.

It's worth remembering that the last Dark Ages were not so dark as the Victorians presented them. There was a lot happening in technology, art, and society. It just wasn't written down in Latin.

Actually, the Dark Ages were pretty good for general quality of life, a brief respite between the horrors of the Roman Empire and the plagues of the High Middle Ages. But the leaders lost much of their power, and they were the ones that got to do the naming.

Bill Pulliam said...

I assume by "organic agriculture," you mean more in line with Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm

Salatin actually represents much of what is still short-sighted in American "sustainable" agriculture. There is little sustainable in his poultry operations, for example. They depend on massive inputs of externally-produced (industrially raised) feed, and use hybrid poultry that are not capable of reproducing. The chicks are purchased from industrial hatcheries, from eggs bought from the industrial breeders layed by parents are raised and kept in anything but sustainable ways. The manure contributions to his system's fertility are derived from fossil-fuel dependent external sources. It is not even clear to me if his is a step in the right direction, or a distraction from the right direction. I have my own longer rant about this issue at:

http://bbill.blogspot.com/2006/07/pastured-poultry-scam.html

P.S. I have to say, these are some of the most thought-provoking, yet readable and enjoyable, and fascinating blog-comment-section-discussions I have ever seen.

jason said...

Thanks, Bill. I agree, there's still a lot of improvements to be made even to Salatin's model, though I think we can easily say that to the side of that puts us very firmly in the territory of permaculture, rather than agriculture.

Someone above mentioned a "purist forager" that wouldn't engage in ay degree of permaculture. Such a "purist" might exist among modern primitivists, but not among real hunter-gatherers. So such a person really needs to learn more about hunting and gathering!

Loveandlight said...

Someone above mentioned a "purist forager" that wouldn't engage in ay degree of permaculture. Such a "purist" might exist among modern primitivists, but not among real hunter-gatherers. So such a person really needs to learn more about hunting and gathering!

Okay. I thought there was such a thing when JMG referred to horticulturalists who outcompete hunter-gatherers. The statement, at least the way I read it, seemed to imply that there was a species of hunter-gatherer-herder who eschewed cultivation entirely. IOW, if these horticulturalists are doing better than the hunter-gatherers because of their horticulture, that would seem to imply that the hunter-gatherers referred to in that statement are for whatever reason refusing to take up any sort of cultivation.

Loveandlight said...

I'm afraid this argument doesn't pass muster, since there's no real division between this kind of "organic agriculture," what Bill Holmgren calls "permaculture," and what anthropologists would generally call "horticulture." [etc.]

That comment, for the most part, was more at what I was trying to say in my own stumbling, half-baked way.

jason said...

No, horticulturalists don't wipe out foragers; agriculturalists do. Actually, though JMG said I was fudging the line between industrial and agrarian agriculture (I'll flat out contend that there isn't one), I think JMG is fudging a very real line: fudging agriculturalists and horticulturalists, pointing to the sustainability of horticulture, and the competitiveness of agriculture. There are no hunter-gatherers that don't use one degree of permaculture or another.

Loveandlight said...

No, horticulturalists don't wipe out foragers; agriculturalists do.

I didn't read what JMG said that way. I assumed by "outcompete", he meant "enjoy a much higher quality of life", which translates into "obtain a greater share of potential food resources for themselves". I suppose that could lead to hostile conflict, but I didn't necessarily read it that way.

BTW, there is a sizable settled Hispanic community in Milwaukee, the city in which I live. The young ones who were born here tend to speak English just as fluently as anyone else born here. But for all I know, they may speak equally fluent Spanish when talking to their parents at home.

jason said...

I didn't read what JMG said that way. I assumed by "outcompete", he meant "enjoy a much higher quality of life", which translates into "obtain a greater share of potential food resources for themselves". I suppose that could lead to hostile conflict, but I didn't necessarily read it that way.

Oh, well that certainly wouldn't be the case. No group enjoys a higher quality of life than foragers. But, a legion of starving farmers can (and often have) overwhelmed them. The case for outcompeting foragers has often been made, but the point is that a vast population of diseaed, weak, half-starved farmers lucky to see their third decade can overwhelm a much smaller band of healthy, happy foragers. It certainly can't be argued that agrarian cultures have ever succeeded based on quality of life.

Loveandlight said...

It certainly can't be argued that agrarian cultures have ever succeeded based on quality of life.

Indeed. I turned 40 a few weeks ago, and anyone who made it to that age in the Roman Empire in the second century AD would probably be thought of as a senior citizen!

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, horticulture also makes a good foundation for urban civilizations. You might want to look into the subsistence base of ancient Mexican urban societies as an example.

Also, iron oxide makes an excellent ore, of much higher quality than most of the iron ores used these days. Millennia from now, people will be cracking open ancient concrete, extracting the rebar rust, and making iron from this very rich ore; charcoal and a bellows will do the trick quite nicely.

Eric, thanks for the reference! A fine example of what I've called "knowing only one story": X has happened in the past, therefore it will continue to happen in the future.

Bill, my guess is that some technologies will stay viable and some won't. Electricity may become rare and very costly, but it's likely to remain available in some areas straight through the dark age. Semiconductors are going to be much more of a challenge, since they require a huge amount of
ancillary technology, not to mention solvents and rare elements that will likely be unavailable. But your basic point stands.

Jason, yes, we've been through all this before, and repeating your claims with more quotations doesn't make them any more convincing. Your insistence that urban-agrarian society is identical with industrial society makes sense only from within the framework of your own rhetoric -- the standard rhetoric of apocalyptic everywhere, which tosses everything other than its own vision of utopia into a single bucket and paints a bogeyman's face on it.

As for your insistence that white middle class hunter-gatherer wannabees can outcompete Mexican campesinos, well, when I hear from you that you've actually spent a year living in the woods with nothing but stone tools, I'll take that claim a little more seriously; until then, it's all fantasy island. I've lived the lifestyle I'm talking about, working the land as an organic farmer. And you?

Also, as Bill, Roy, and I have all pointed out, when you claim that most Hispanics in America are migrants and transients, you're quite simply wrong. Most Hispanics in America -- the vast majority -- are as firmly settled in place as anyone on this continent.

But all this is time I ought to be spending on The Long Descent, so I'll leave it there.

bryant said...

If we merge spanish and english, can we keep english conjugations? Please!

Bill Pulliam said...

can we keep english conjugations?

No thinko so. Why wantes this anyway?

Actually, probably yes. English's history has been that every time it assimilates another language, it loses even more inflections. Although the Spanish conjugations, once you get fluent in them, are a really lovely system for expressing mode and tense with eloquence and poetry. It's like all the useful bits of Latin, minus the really esoteric stuff, set to music. It's not like it is all that complicated; a regular Spanish verb only has 45 simple forms, after all. And just think of all the work you save not having to use all those subject pronouns! Even campesinos with little formal education prattle off their preterits, imperfects, conditionals, and subjunctives without batting an eyelash. I guess it depends on whether Spanish assimilates English or English assimilates Spanish, how it will go. So check in about 10 or 20 generations on down the line and see what's shakin'.

Geoff said...

Another great post, and an expansive and informative set of comments. Thanks.

there's no real division between this kind of "organic agriculture," what Bill Holmgren calls "permaculture," and what anthropologists would generally call "horticulture." These methods do create greater ecological wealth than they take away, but to make them work typically takes more than a fair bit of hunting and gathering.

This seems to be a game of semantics? When a person with a farm goes to the vegetable patch they are “gathering” and when taking animals they are “hunting”, but this gains us nothing in terms of preparing for the future.

The primary difference between the forager system idealised here and Bill Mollison/David Holmgren's Permaculture and similar such systems is one of place. One system seems to allow people to wander and select from nature's bounty without modifying the environment, the other provides for the effective and in-tune management of the land around a community to maximise real wealth. One is invested in a location and the success of the ecosystem in that region for survival, the other relies on mobility to ensure survival. One offers us a chance to make good on the knowlegde gained over millenia in forging the future, the other will ultimately lead to the same mistakes repeated over and over.

As for foraging being a viable solution to the unfolding situation, very few places on the earth today would support foraging as a viable way of life. No matter what system is taken up we are going to see a population crash.

I have outright stated that the difference between industrial and agrarian systems are scale, not kind.

I see the differences as so much greater than this. Industrial agriculture is taking the factory system and pushing the natural world through it's process lines. The agrarian culture of the future is in tune with the land and nature, it's systems evolve around nature.

The history of agriculture is the 10,000 year history of farmers struggling to stay ahead of the consequences of their actions, and the denuded, devastated wastelands they inevitably leave behind them.

All learning involves mistakes. The question is, do we throw away what we have learnt and return to the start, in which case we inevitably repeat the same mistakes as our descendants will think no differently than our ancestors did, or do we go forward from the foundation we have built?

It is not resilient; in fact, it is remarkably fragile. There are only a very small handful of domesticable species

You are referring to industrial agriculture here. Have a look into the diversity of species that groups like seed-savers and rare-breed trusts are trying to maintain against the onslaught of agricultural rationalisation.

While a single bad summer can starve an agrarian community, it would take something just shy of the apocalypse to starve out a forager band

Any community worth the name will be prepared for such events with stored food. The foragers on the other hand will need to move on to survive, in which case they come into contact with other bands, who wont be so keen to see their food supply supporting beyond the local carrying capacity.

I think the forager vs fixed community discussion boils down to whether we are going to learn how make ourselves a nest and not mess in it, or not.

TheJollyReaper said...

John I am glad you've made the point that other living cultures (like those of Asia and Latin America) are used to adversity. They have certainly survived the proverbial Sh*t hitting the Fan not just once, but on a fairly regular basis since time immemorial. Every apocalyptic nightmare we can dream up has already come to pass a hundred times in China, and Mexico, and Laos. Yet they've found ways to continue their culture(s) and remain human.

What are we really afraid of?

It seems to me most of the debate about peak oil's effects centers around the form, intensity, and duration of Death. How will Death come for us? When, and where, and what will it look like? We say we're concerned about the larger Death of society and the context for our lives, but I'd bet my last nickel we're just plain scared of our own regular death coming "early."

I believe one of the great strengths we can learn from our non-western brothers and sisters is acceptance of death as a central part of life. In Amerika we treat death as a mysterious enemy to be avoided at all costs, and one who will, like all our "enemies," eventually be conquered. What a juvenile perspective!

Until we face our own mortality and the impermanence of our bodies, we can't face any of the issues surrounding peak oil with a level head. Instead we'll be forever projecting our fear of death onto the broader screen of humanity in the form of apocalyptic nightmares.

The beginning of wisdom, says Elizabeth Kubler Ross, is examining your own death. It's gonna happen sometime, folks, whether we like it or not. If peak oil doesn't kill us, something else will. And it's ok.

There's nothing like working with dying patients to help you realize we're all dying, and there's nothing to do but shed your fear. Maybe many Asians and Mexicans already know this, but we need to teach it to ourselves. So in between learning how to hoe that garden and posting long comments on peak oil related blogs, don't neglect a few visits to the local hospice. The way I see it, that too is a crucial part of peak oil prep work.

Why? Well, later on, if plagues and all the Nasties come down the pike to ravage humankind, we're gonna need a whole lot of level headed people who can help out. If you've already chilled out about your own death and helped other people through their deaths, you'll be less likely to fall apart as the cadavers pile up.

If cadavers don't pile up, you'll still be much better prepared to handle changes of all kinds, with the confidence that everything changes, that the only permanent thing is impermanence, and that eventually, we all have to let go of absolutely everything, including our cars, loved ones, food, and even our own bodies.

And it's still ok.

Vlad said...

jason said:
but you won't find a very large, settled Hispanic community in most places in Ohio or Pennsylvania or West Virginia or New England.


Not entirely true, actually. There is a pretty strong Hispanic community in the urban centers of Ohio. However, they are very strictly in urban centers and not outside them.

jason also said:
But they're not settled evenly. They are disproportionately settled in the southwest.

This, on the otherhand, is entirely true.

The practical offshoot of all this meaning that in some places Spanish will absorb English (and Korean, Chinese, etc), and in other places English will absorb Spanish (and Korean, Chinese, etc). In all cases local languages and dialects will diverge to suit the needs of they're respective communities. There is some reason to think that over a significant enough time there will be a resemblance to the local language spoken prior to European colonization, I don't consider it a forgone conclusion tho'.

On Foraging:
There's plenty of reason to think that is will continue to be a very viable method of food procurement. I may not be able to take down a deer in my quarter-acre suburban lot, but I can put together a pretty tasty (and nutritious) salad thru most of the year from wild and semi-wild plants. Foraging just makes sense, it's typically much less work, requiring much less energy, which is critical to an age of dwindling energy resources.

On Gardening:
I find myself starting to prefer the term gardening to either horticulture or permaculture. It just seems more accessible to people who haven't caught up on this whole "Deindustrial Age" thing. Having said that, there's a pretty big difference between growing, say, a "Three Sisters" garden of corn, beans & squash and growing a properly agrarian tilled & monocropped field of corn, wheat, rice, what have you. The former is far more sustainable than the latter. Just how sustainable is the former?, you might ask, and you'd be right in the asking. I don't have an answer, and I'm not convinced that anyone posting here has (a good) one either. There's a lot of confusion and subsequent disagreement about food production and it seems like it's all because we want to "shortcut" what we mean by using words like "agriculture", "permaculture", "agrarian", "horticulture", etc....

How about we get down to brass tacks and discuss tilling, plant associations, soil health, etc? It just seems like there's too many preconceptions about what each word means. (And, yes Jason, I know that bugs you no end, because of the anthropological definitions; what can I say? I language only lives as long as it's a negotiated, consensual experience....)

jhereg

Bill Pulliam said...

Permaculture, horticulture, agriculture...

People will do what works in their particular circumstances, no matter what it is called. And what works in Barrow won't be the same as what works in 'Bama. Experimenting and hypothesizing about many different ways to procure and produce food is essential, but it's the results, not the names that matter. And no one really knows what the results will be until they try.

On a different thread... I think the notion that languages of a place will evolve to resemble the aboriginal language of that place is a lovely romantic fantasy, but nothing more. After nearly two millenia of Anglo-Saxon society in southern and eastern Great Britain, English bears very little resemblance to the Celtic-group Iron Age languages of the Island (other than a very distant Indo-European kinship). And in all likelihood, those Celtic languages were no more similar to the stone-age languages that preceded them than French and Spanish are to Euskara, or Swedish is to Finnish; i.e. very little resemblance at all. Here in the US, isolated communities of slave descendents on the barrier islands along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina developed a language that is African and English in its affinities; it has not come to resemble the earlier Native American languages of that area in structure, vocabulary, or anything else. Native American languages from different groups that lived in fairly close proximity and similar environments can show enormous differences in structure, phonetics, and vocabulary. They can have as little in common as English and Japanese.

Vlad said...

bill pulliam said:
They can have as little in common as English and Japanese.


:-) That's actually kind of ironic considering how much (spoken) English and Japanese actually have in commmon.

Rabbit Mountain said...

JMG writes: "Your insistence that urban-agrarian society is identical with industrial society makes sense only from within the framework of your own rhetoric -- the standard rhetoric of apocalyptic everywhere, which tosses everything other than its own vision of utopia into a single bucket and paints a bogeyman's face on it."

It's worth considering that in Biblical mythology -- the myth system that underlies nearly all of western culture, in one form or another -- apocalypse is built into farming-based civilization at its very inception. The Garden of Eden is utopian because the Tree of LIfe is located there -- the Tree of Life, or rather indefinite continuity into the future, or rather "sustainability."

This is our (western cultures') memetic structure. It's what we have to work with.

Moreover, both halves of the split in Western worldviewing -- science and Biblical mythology -- point to apocalypse as the logical conclusion of our current path, and both link it to agriculture. I think this matters a great deal. It changes the question from whether or not agriculture can be made sustainable, to whether the future heirs of Western culture can be trusted not to turn agriculture into apocalypse. Our own mythologies tell us no.

I see no reason that Western mythology should be dismissed out of hand. Some will undoubtedly heed its warnings -- this may seem distasteful to you, given your clear aversion to all things Western -- but it is, within the framework of Western ways of knowing at this moment in history, completely legitimate.

I've been reading this blog pretty faithfully for several months... I first started coming here because I was very interested in possibly finding some new or different way of understanding decline. But to date the bulk of what I've seen are assertions without any apparent reasoning behind them, and breezy dismissal of any idea or person who disagrees.

It would help a lot if instead of dismissing, and in this case lashing out at, people you disagree with, explain why their ideas are wrong -- I would very much like to believe as you do that decline will be a slow and gentle, barely perceptible ride over a dozen generations. As it is, the reasons behind your beliefs are a mystery. Jason's post made a lot of sense to me -- there are no examples in Western history of a sustainable urban-agrarian society. Why is acknowledging this silly, and why is it a given that future urban-agrarian societies in North America will not balloon into self-destructive apocalypse? Why is it "utopian" to acknowledge non-agricultural modes of living in the landscape -- especially when that is what is "normal" for humanity over the scope of human history?

Bill Pulliam said...

That's actually kind of ironic considering how much (spoken) English and Japanese actually have in commmon.

Well sure, other than having essentially no cognates other than loan words, no articles, no plurals, no true pronouns, highly-inflected agglutinating predicate verbs, conjugated adjectives, a mind-boggling collection of particles that don't have equivalents in the entire Indo-European language family, and a structure built around gender and class relations that compares to our western gramatical concept of "familiar versus formal" the way complex non-linear partial differential equations compare to finger-counting, I guess Japanese is a lot like English when you get down to basics ;)

jason said...

Loveandlight, horticulture also makes a good foundation for urban civilizations. You might want to look into the subsistence base of ancient Mexican urban societies as an example.

The evidence for the Maya "garden cities" is certainly impressive, but it still required the importation of resources to make up the difference. They depleted the landscape over time, until they reached the point where a good, solid drought could put them in a major crisis. I thought Diamond's discussion in Collapse very clearly showed the ultimate unsustainability of Maya agriculture, largely because of the need to feed the cities, and especially the growing elite.

Also, iron oxide makes an excellent ore, of much higher quality than most of the iron ores used these days.

That's not what blacksmiths or metallurgists tell me.

Jason, yes, we've been through all this before, and repeating your claims with more quotations doesn't make them any more convincing.

OK, so have you ever addressed them? If you have, I'm afraid I missed it. So you're already familiar with the evidence--so on what grounds could you call agrarian life sustainable? Is Iraq actually covered in cedar forests, and I just don't know it? Or did the Dust Bowl not actually happen? Did the first farmers not spread into eastern Europe, and then western Europe, and then the Americas, always just ahead of failing crops and soil depletion? Did China not suffer from chronic famine? If you've addressed these points before, I'd love to see where; I'm always open to overturning my whole worldview, I've done it several times already. Of course, I'd hate to think you're dismissing the evidence without examination simply because you've made a stand, and it would be embarrassing to back down now. As someone who's been in that position a few times, I think I can say that most people are more impressed by the ability to change one's mind on a publicly defended point, than sticking to it stubbornly without evidence.

Your insistence that urban-agrarian society is identical with industrial society makes sense only from within the framework of your own rhetoric -- the standard rhetoric of apocalyptic everywhere, which tosses everything other than its own vision of utopia into a single bucket and paints a bogeyman's face on it.

Well, it would certainly stand to reason that the burden of proof should lay on the one positing that a difference exists, don't you think? Even so, I've highlighted several ways in which there is much more continuity than change between the two paradigms. You can call names about my "rhetoric," but I could do so just as easily: "They are divided only in your rhetoric--the rhetoric of Romantics everywhere, beckoning a return to the pastoral idyll of Victorian fantasy that dismisses everything but its own delusions of agrarian bliss." Now, where does that exercise actually leave us?

"Dwarfism," the key element of the "Green Revolution," is nothing more than taking the trends of domestication to their logical conclusion: bigger seeds, shorter stems, in order to make plants easier to harvest and provide more food. This is the same thing domestication did--we meticulously bred plants, and produced domesticated varieties far removed from their wild ancestors, much further removed, in fact, than the distance between GMO's and the typical domesticated varieties. Domestication of livestock involved trends towards neoteny and, frankly, stupidity. Cranial capacity in domesticated animals drops precipitously, because the cramped quarters even of the pastoral idyll do not allow for the roaming that ruminant herds are adapted to (this is precisely why overgrazing is not an occasional problem of pastoral mismanagement, but a problem intrinsic to all pastoralism). Once again, the modern CAFO merely takes this a step further. The factory farming of the "Green Revolution" is certainly an intensification of these trends, but it is not a departure in any way: it merely follows agrarian logic to its conclusion. It is the agrarian process that first denigrates a particular living landscape, filled with a diverse capacity for life, into nothing more than a cornfield going to waste. It is agriculture that gives us the logic of yields per acre, and to look at life only in its productive capacity. The Industrial Revolution merely allowed this logic to be taken to a new level and intensified, but it did not invent that logic. It had already been espoused by the settlers of the New World regarding the "wilderness," and in Europe concerning land "wasted" by forest. Examples abound in all agrarian societies. And of course, that logic ultimately expanded to humans, as well; every agrarian society has also produced some version of the serf.

Now, if that is such a radical stance to take, it is certainly not a new one, or even a necessarily uncommon one, so I think it deserves more than a brusque dismissal. If your stance is that the industrial revolution introduced a change in kind, then what is the evidence for that? Where does the above case err? If you can't provide such a case, then at the very least, I think it may be incumbent upon you to at least admit that it's somewhat more reasonable a position than the apocalyptic fantasy you've dismissed it as.

As for your insistence that white middle class hunter-gatherer wannabees can outcompete Mexican campesinos, well, when I hear from you that you've actually spent a year living in the woods with nothing but stone tools, I'll take that claim a little more seriously; until then, it's all fantasy island. I've lived the lifestyle I'm talking about, working the land as an organic farmer. And you?

If experience were a factor here, I'd be much more concerned. But an experienced farmer trying to farm dead soil is no more helpful than the very experienced Norse herdsmen of the Greenland colony who nonetheless never fished. I expect that imagination--the imagination to try something different--will be far more important than experience. In that case, experience can be a detriment; it can ossify people into set ways, ways that may no longer be adaptive. Lots of experienced farmers have tried to farm the "Big Level" in northwest Pennsylvania before, and despite lifetimes of experience, it never worked. The soil's not good for farming, and the growing season is too short.

As for the old "have you ever done it?" canard, you know full well that organic agriculture in an agricultural society is a much easier thing to arrange than hunting & gathering. I've written before on why everyone who runs off to be a hunter-gatherer while civilization is still growing ends up failing. The map is closed, and that's not a situation that leaves room for any hunter-gatherers. It leaves room for organic farming precisely because organic farming isn't all that different--precisely because the industrial revolution was a change in scale, rather than kind. If it were actually sustainable, it would be no more possible right now than foraging. So no, I haven't lived as a forager, and what's more, we both know that's exactly what my theory would predict, so it proves absolutely nothing.

Also, as Bill, Roy, and I have all pointed out, when you claim that most Hispanics in America are migrants and transients, you're quite simply wrong. Most Hispanics in America -- the vast majority -- are as firmly settled in place as anyone on this continent.

All right; all I know is, I've travelled throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and New York, and the only significant, non-seasonal Hispanic community I've ever found was in New York City. But if my experience is invalid and yours is valid, I can accept that. This isn't something I'm really going to hang my hat on. Even so, I expect that the greater linguistic influence will be the gradual drift towards more localized, indigenous sounds, as any sustainable community will need a much stronger tie to its local ecology, including the sounds of that ecology.

This seems to be a game of semantics? When a person with a farm goes to the vegetable patch they are “gathering” and when taking animals they are “hunting”, but this gains us nothing in terms of preparing for the future.

This is something I've been saying quite explicitly, actually, so I don't see how it could be a semantics game unless someone just plain isn't paying attention. Hunting & gathering exists on a contiuum with horti/permaculture. It is a very important point to be made, though, because most people planning for the future are expecting "agriculture" and homesteading to work--they're pursuing a "Little House on the Prairie" dream of planting rows of corn or wheat, and a small vegetable garden. This is a major break from the foraging-permaculture continuum, in the form of monoculture. Permaculture creates functional ecosystems, and plants different plants together so that they can help and support each other. The logic of agriculture reduces a living landscape to a mere unit of production, capital to be invested. You plant rows of corn, and even the garden has different beds for different vegetables planted in groups together. Foraging and permaculture are united in that both require careful attention to the relationships between plants and animals; the divide is drawn by agriculture, which creates monocultures and is more concerned with the noun-denominated universe of corn vs. sqush vs. beans, rather than the verb-denominated universe concerned with corn relating to squash relating to beans. Homesteading is suicide; the soil was depleted the first time around, that's why we had to move up to the "Green Revolution." Permaculture can repair depleted soils and provide food, but that's a very different thing.

One system seems to allow people to wander and select from nature's bounty without modifying the environment, the other provides for the effective and in-tune management of the land around a community to maximise real wealth.

It's more nuanced than that, really, because every hunter-gatherer ever observed used some amount of what we might call "permaculture" to better the land they lived in. They didn't wander aimlessly, but kept inside of a land they had a very close relationship with, employing methods from seedballs to fire to hunting patterns to promote their favored plants. Really, the question seems to be more whether you like to eat a lot of meat, or whether you prefer to subsist on a somewhat smaller selection of more intensive crops. But really, they exist more on a continuum, so there's no real dividing line. The most one could draw is the point at which horticultural population density grows large enough to warrant a settlement that lasts more than one year (though few last more than a decade or two, even at the far end).

As for foraging being a viable solution to the unfolding situation, very few places on the earth today would support foraging as a viable way of life. No matter what system is taken up we are going to see a population crash.

Those go rather hand-in-hand, no? Yes, there are few places on earth today that can support foragers. But the population is going to crash, and that means that the possibility is going to open up precisely when it is needed, doesn't it?

I see the differences as so much greater than this. Industrial agriculture is taking the factory system and pushing the natural world through it's process lines. The agrarian culture of the future is in tune with the land and nature, it's systems evolve around nature.

Well, the agrarian culture of the past pushed the natural world through its process lines, as I outlined above. Domestication aimed to make plants more productive long before GMO's came around, and agrarian processes were responsible for mass extinctions and global warming the world over long before the industrial age. So if the agrarian culture of the future has so little in common with the agrarian culture of the past, doesn't that make it something other than an agrarian culture? Is it permaculture we're talking about? Because permaculture has never sustained cities. It sustains villages--settlements of a few hundred at most, that move every decade or so, but hardly what we would normally call a city. So, which is it?

All learning involves mistakes. The question is, do we throw away what we have learnt and return to the start, in which case we inevitably repeat the same mistakes as our descendants will think no differently than our ancestors did, or do we go forward from the foundation we have built?

Mistakes? Learning? That would imply that somewhere, this pattern didn't hold. Where is that? The Middle East? No, they turned that into a desert. China? No, chronic starvation and massive desertification. Sub-Saharan Africa? No, they're expanding the Sahara at a terrifying pace. Western Europe? No, look at the depletion of soil illustrated by height differences between American colonialists and their Western European contemporaries. North America? No, it took them only a few centuries to turn the Great Plains into a desert. So where is this secret success story of all the things we've learned from agriculture? I think what we've learned is that agriculture doesn't work. That's what we've learned.

But where do you get the notion that by taking up a way of life that did work, we'd somehow be forgetting this hard-learned lesson? Oral tradition is very good at preserving memories of the past, in many ways much better than writing (see Ong's classic, Literacy and Orality). So, in what way would we be condemning ourselves to repeat the same mistakes by pursuing a way of life that works, rather than continuing with a way of life we already know doesn't work?

Even if it were the case that oral traditions were as useless as the chauvanistic European theories contend, the ice age is over; global warming has seen to that. Before agriculture will be possible again, geological time will need to pass. A new ice age will have to come, and then just the right interglacial to set up the right soil and climate conditions to try this unworkable way of life one more time. By that time, we won't even be Homo sapiens anymore, and at that point, I think we need to let go of the hubris that we'll have much of an impact on how they act.

You are referring to industrial agriculture here. Have a look into the diversity of species that groups like seed-savers and rare-breed trusts are trying to maintain against the onslaught of agricultural rationalisation.

No, I'm talking about pre-industrial agriculture. Take a good look at the "diversity" of those species: they're mostly different varieties of a small handful of closely-related cereal grains. Long before industrial agriculture, most farmers got most of their diet from a single species: wheat, rice, or corn, depending on what continent you were on. Even such wild diversity as barley, rye or millet tended to be in the minority. Now, compare that to the diet of even the most impoverished hunter-gatherer. It's a difference of an order of magnitude, from a number of species in the teens, to a number in the hundreds. Notice, I didn't say domesticated, but domesticable. Even then, there's only a small handful of species, as in a few dozen. A forager will eat more species than that on an average day. So it certainly can't be argued that agriculture is resilient; it is, in fact, one of the most fragile subsistence strategies ever devised. This is why prior to industrialization, agrarian life meant systemic, chronic famine. Utter reliance on such a small selection of species meant regular crop failure, and ensuing starvation. By contrast, starving to death is a concept that foragers don't understand. There are bad years, but even then, you can eat bugs and pine nuts. Not the tastiest things, but they'll do in a pinch. As Manning highlighted, historically, agricultural centers in the world have been famine centers.

Any community worth the name will be prepared for such events with stored food. The foragers on the other hand will need to move on to survive, in which case they come into contact with other bands, who wont be so keen to see their food supply supporting beyond the local carrying capacity.

I don't think you're really thinking this through entirely. Farmers can only store so much, even setting aside problems like rats or rot. The stores are eaten, and there's still no food, so people starve. This happened on a regular basis in all historical agrarian communities.

Foragers have survived in the Kalahari and the Arctic. It's rarely a question of moving outside their territory, rather than relying on foods that, frankly, are bland. Bugs and pine nuts are examples of forager "survival foods." They don't prefer them, but in a pinch, they'll do. Nearly everything in a forager's range is edible, so to starve them out of their range, you'll need to absolutely level their range. And when I say "level," bear in mind that if you've reduced it to a desert like the Kalahari, you've still left them plenty to eat. You need to make it a moonscape the likes of which the earth has only rarely seen. This is why foragers simply don't starve to death. They don't move out of their territory due to lack of food, either; they do it only when they're under attack from other humans.

I think the forager vs fixed community discussion boils down to whether we are going to learn how make ourselves a nest and not mess in it, or not.

I think that's a very bad way of looking at it, especially since we're not birds. I think the better question is, are we going to try to continue a way of life that we know doesn't work for us, or will we go back to what we know does work, the way we evolved in--the same way that birds evolved for nests? Of course, even that's not much of a question--many will try to continue farming, and it will fail, and they will starve to death. Two hundred years from now, every surviving human community will fall somewhere on the forager-permaculture continuum, because everyone else will be dead.

Not entirely true, actually. There is a pretty strong Hispanic community in the urban centers of Ohio. However, they are very strictly in urban centers and not outside them.

Well, I did say that large cities were an exception to this, no?

The practical offshoot of all this meaning that in some places Spanish will absorb English (and Korean, Chinese, etc), and in other places English will absorb Spanish (and Korean, Chinese, etc). In all cases local languages and dialects will diverge to suit the needs of they're respective communities.

That's pretty much what I was saying--expect the Spanish to absorb the English in the southwest, but I think through most of the U.S. and Canada, it's probably going to mostly go the other way. But everywhere, it's going to be much more localized, and that's going to be the much stronger trend.

There is some reason to think that over a significant enough time there will be a resemblance to the local language spoken prior to European colonization, I don't consider it a forgone conclusion tho'.

Take a look at David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous. Part of really relating to your local ecology is relating to its sounds. You can't have a truly sustainable community without the local sounds starting to influence your language. I doubt there will be much conscious emulation, but shaped by the same sounds, they'll end up being superificially similar.

I find myself starting to prefer the term gardening to either horticulture or permaculture.

Me too; most people have an intuitive understanding of how "garden" differs from "farm."

Just how sustainable is the former?, you might ask, and you'd be right in the asking. I don't have an answer, and I'm not convinced that anyone posting here has (a good) one either. There's a lot of confusion and subsequent disagreement about food production and it seems like it's all because we want to "shortcut" what we mean by using words like "agriculture", "permaculture", "agrarian", "horticulture", etc....

Indeed. Let's not forget, the Haudenosaunee conquered something like a quarter of North America in the space of about 400 years, so it could well be that even the intensive end of horti/permaculture may not be terribly sustainable. It may just look like it compared to the ravenous unsustainability of agriculture. But for the sake of argument, I think we can assume for now that it is at least mostly sustainable. If nothing else, it's an excellent first step.

People will do what works in their particular circumstances, no matter what it is called. And what works in Barrow won't be the same as what works in 'Bama. Experimenting and hypothesizing about many different ways to procure and produce food is essential, but it's the results, not the names that matter. And no one really knows what the results will be until they try.

Well, that's rather what the discussion of names is about. When JMG uses the word "agriculture," is he thinking of a Three Sisters guild, or rows of planted corn? That's all the difference in the world right there.

On a different thread... I think the notion that languages of a place will evolve to resemble the aboriginal language of that place is a lovely romantic fantasy, but nothing more. After nearly two millenia of Anglo-Saxon society in southern and eastern Great Britain, English bears very little resemblance to the Celtic-group Iron Age languages of the Island (other than a very distant Indo-European kinship).

Yes, but these weren't sustainable communities. They were agricultural communities that were rapidly devouring the soil wealth. They actively resisted becoming Native. They didn't build a relationship with the local ecology, they ripped out the local ecology so they could plant wheat. So I wouldn't expect them to start developing more native-like languages. You can cite examples of unsustainable cultures that actively fought against becoming native all day, but that hardly proves the point that sustainable cultures will have to take a different tack.

jason said...

Well sure, other than having essentially no cognates other than loan words, no articles, no plurals, no true pronouns, highly-inflected agglutinating predicate verbs, conjugated adjectives, a mind-boggling collection of particles that don't have equivalents in the entire Indo-European language family, and a structure built around gender and class relations that compares to our western gramatical concept of "familiar versus formal" the way complex non-linear partial differential equations compare to finger-counting, I guess Japanese is a lot like English when you get down to basics ;)

Well, he did say spoken. And it's true that if you listen to someone speaking Japanese, it does sound similiar, largely due to the large number of loan words. Absolutely, there are some huge differences, but at the superficial level, they start to sound rather similar.

That's what I expect to see more of with regard to Native langauges--not even loan words, but similar sounds achieving similar prominence in the general sound of the spoken language. We're going to need to lose English's fixation on nouns, and have more verbs, like Native American and other indigenous languages, simply because a noun-denominated mode of thinking makes it difficult to exist on the forager-permaculture continuum, but I would be shocked if post-apocalyptic North Americans were speaking anything a linguist would identify as resembling Native American languages. Instead, I expect them to sound alike.

Vlad said...

Informal, spoken English has undergone a number of changes over the last few decades that really do share a number of things w/ Japanese. For instance, there's a greater reliance on context. Granted, even some of that (like dropping the subject) had started long before, but, in general informal, spoken English has become more "verby" and has deviated more and more from a strict SVO word order, often dropping the subject, object or both.

bill pulliam said:
and a structure built around gender and class relations that compares to our western gramatical concept of "familiar versus formal" the way complex non-linear partial differential equations compare to finger-counting

Actually, it's really not that complicated. It does require a certain nuanced and fluid understanding of in-group/out-group relationships, but I think you're really overstating your case on this one.

I'm also not saying that English is the closest language to Japanese I can think of (American Sign Language is actually, much, much closer), but it's hardly the exotic, esoteric language that westerners typically think. Vietnamese would probably have been a better choice for your comparison, for instance.

riverbird said...

fascinating thread in all . . . .

re: gardening, horticulture, agriculture, permaculture

for me it's primarily a matter or Scale. gardening on the micro, ag at the macro, horticulture in the middle and spicifically one or five or forty acres - including generally the zone 5 mentioned above being wild or semi-unmanaged forest areas.

permaculture is simply a design system and set of techniques. though at this point i am careful to not lump mollison and holmgren together, however they began. i think holmgren is more relevant today as he seems to be thinking/ writing/ practicing on a wider (community) scale, whereas mollison stay in the garden.

if you are in the west, in particular (myself in the willamette valley, western oregon - hi John), Learn Spanish.

Vlad said...

jason said:
Well, I did say that large cities were an exception to this, no?


If you did, I missed it. Apologies.

jason also said:
Take a look at David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous. Part of really relating to your local ecology is relating to its sounds. You can't have a truly sustainable community without the local sounds starting to influence your language. I doubt there will be much conscious emulation, but shaped by the same sounds, they'll end up being superificially similar.


A big part of my hesitation is my belief that the ecologies in question may stablize in a very different form from how they were prior to colonization, rather than disagreement w/ Abram. And, also, yes, thanks for clarifing that "similar" needs to be taken with some salt.

jhereg

Bill Pulliam said...

Yes, but these weren't sustainable communities. They were agricultural communities that were rapidly devouring the soil wealth. They actively resisted becoming Native. They didn't build a relationship with the local ecology, they ripped out the local ecology so they could plant wheat. So I wouldn't expect them to start developing more native-like languages. You can cite examples of unsustainable cultures that actively fought against becoming native all day, but that hardly proves the point that sustainable cultures will have to take a different tack.

OK, but you have just ruled out pretty much every historical case that could be used to test you theory for being invalid on this basis. With no examples of one sustainable culture having supplanted a previous sustainable culture to actually look at, the hypothesis remains an untestable and unprovable hypothesis, based on, well, to be honest, poetry rather than sociology. Nothing wrong with that per se, but it's doesn't really make for a fundamental principle of linguistic evolution without a single test case.

But, I'm an empiricist at heart, I do confess...

jason said...

for me it's primarily a matter or Scale. gardening on the micro, ag at the macro, horticulture in the middle and spicifically one or five or forty acres - including generally the zone 5 mentioned above being wild or semi-unmanaged forest areas.

Scale is immensely important, and that's precisely why there is no large-scale sustainable society. If you have agriculture in your setup, at any scale, it will be compelled to expand and wipe out everything else. If it doesn't, then the monocropping will lead to soil failure, and the agricultural component will die off. The logic of empire is the logic of agriculture: grow or die.

permaculture is simply a design system and set of techniques. though at this point i am careful to not lump mollison and holmgren together, however they began. i think holmgren is more relevant today as he seems to be thinking/ writing/ practicing on a wider (community) scale, whereas mollison stay in the garden.

Permaculture's more than just the techniques, it's even more importantly the approach to food production that engenders those kinds of techniques. It's the view of food production as part of an ecology, and a willingness to work with other living systems, as opposed to the monocropping that defines agriculture, where uniformity and factory-like productivity is enforced on a living community. It's important that approaching food production like that eliminates the possibility of large-scale systems, and it tells us a good deal about why large-scale systems always fail.

A big part of my hesitation is my belief that the ecologies in question may stablize in a very different form from how they were prior to colonization, rather than disagreement w/ Abram. And, also, yes, thanks for clarifing that "similar" needs to be taken with some salt.

That's very true. Where will the "Haudenosaunee ecology" end up? Canada, perhaps? The analogues may not be in quite the same geographical locations once climate change is taken into account.

OK, but you have just ruled out pretty much every historical case that could be used to test you theory for being invalid on this basis. With no examples of one sustainable culture having supplanted a previous sustainable culture to actually look at, the hypothesis remains an untestable and unprovable hypothesis, based on, well, to be honest, poetry rather than sociology.

Granted that it's fairly unprovable, but it's based on ethnography more than poetry. I went over some of this in an article on Anthropik titled, "The Ecology of Language," and I've already cited Abram. It's not sociology, but it's not poetry, either. But I do freely grant that it's a fairly unprecedented phenomenon. Then again, we're in a fairly unprecedented situation.

Bill Pulliam said...

Me too; most people have an intuitive understanding of how "garden" differs from "farm."

As a practitioner of both, for me "gardening" becomes "farming" when I start selling my produce. I suspect many other micro-farmers feel the same way. It doesn't matter how I grew it, how big or small my vegetable patch is, whether I have 2 chickens or 20,000, whether I till with a spade, an ox, a tractor, a rototiller, or not at all. When I enter the marketplace (in the economic sense) I become a farmer.

jason said...

As a practitioner of both, for me "gardening" becomes "farming" when I start selling my produce. I suspect many other micro-farmers feel the same way. It doesn't matter how I grew it, how big or small my vegetable patch is, whether I have 2 chickens or 20,000, whether I till with a spade, an ox, a tractor, a rototiller, or not at all. When I enter the marketplace (in the economic sense) I become a farmer.

There's some truth to that. When you're supplying a marketplace, you're providing for a non-producing elite. Yield becomes the most crucial measurement. Unsustainable practices quickly follow.

But of course, for an intuitive meaning of "farm" vs. "garden," the last people to ask would be farmers or gardeners!

Bill Pulliam said...

When you're supplying a marketplace, you're providing for a non-producing elite. Yield becomes the most crucial measurement. Unsustainable practices quickly follow.

This I think is true in the absence of a strong community context. It's true, when I was raising pastured poultry on a small commercial scale in the Salatin way, I was spending all my effort raising food for rich suburbanites and restaurants where I could never afford to eat. That, combined with the ethical and environmental issues with the practice that I described in the posting I linked to earlier, is why I stopped doing it.

Now, I supply my neighbors and community members (as well as my family who live in town). This is a whole different thing. I am growing food not for an elite, distant market, but for my local rural community that consists mostly of fellow hillbillies and small-town folk. I know my customers and they know me. This is a very different situation than the previous one. Yield and profit only become the most crucial measurement if you are devoid of ethics.

I should also add that after my unsatisfactory experiment with modest scale production last year, I am now restarting with the new focus on a teeny weeny scale, to see how it develops from here.

jason said...

Now, I supply my neighbors and community members (as well as my family who live in town). This is a whole different thing. I am growing food not for an elite, distant market, but for my local rural community that consists mostly of fellow hillbillies and small-town folk. I know my customers and they know me. This is a very different situation than the previous one. Yield and profit only become the most crucial measurement if you are devoid of ethics.

OK, so you and all your neighbors are all producing food, and exchanging it with one another? Let's follow this through a little bit. Because now you've got the seeds of a real community, and that means that over time, you'll probably begin pooling your efforts more and more, especially as the current legal structures fall by the wayside. So you'll probably end up with something more like communal fields. And since profit margins don't mean as much as sustaining a way of life, you're going to be looking into more ways to keep your methods sustainable, and how to make a real ecology. You're going to wind up, maybe a century from now, with what amounts to a horticultural village. It sounds like you're on a pretty good path right now, but it also sounds like that's where you're heading already.

I should also add that after my unsatisfactory experiment with modest scale production last year, I am now restarting with the new focus on a teeny weeny scale, to see how it develops from here.

See what I mean? :^)

Bill Pulliam said...

But of course, for an intuitive meaning of "farm" vs. "garden," the last people to ask would be farmers or gardeners!

Hmmm.. I've been pondering this one, and I'm afraid it still makes no sense at all. Are you saying that we should get our definitions from people whose romantic ideals are unpolluted by any actual knowledge?

Bill Pulliam said...

OK, so you and all your neighbors are all producing food, and exchanging it with one another?

And game too, of course. On a small scale now, but if (when) necessity decrees, increasingly so. These ideas are not at all novel in areas where rural poverty has never really been cracked. I'm hopeful the future will play out much as you describe, which is why we moved here.

jason said...

Hmmm.. I've been pondering this one, and I'm afraid it still makes no sense at all. Are you saying that we should get our definitions from people whose romantic ideals are unpolluted by any actual knowledge?

No, not definitions, but if you want to get to the intuitive sense of a word, a person who's studied it their entire life is not a good person to ask: they've typically overthought the matter, there's too much experience to know what the layperson intuitively means by the word anymore.

And game too, of course. On a small scale now, but if (when) necessity decrees, increasingly so. These ideas are not at all novel in areas where rural poverty has never really been cracked. I'm hopeful the future will play out much as you describe, which is why we moved here.

I really foresee communities like that sliding easily into the forager-horticultural spectrum, without any need for any primitivist theory to instruct them. Primitivists themselves, I think, will tend to stand much less of a chance. My own plans involve a healthy mix of primitive skills and permaculture in the Allegheny Forest area, which is a fairly similar tack, I think, but from a slightly different direction.

techman said...

The concern that our civilization
is headed for collapse is well
documented by now and future
historians will be able to look back and analyze it.
I wonder if there is
historical documentation of
similar concerns voiced by citizens
of prior collapsed societies?
Is there any precedent
of successful warnings that averted
collapse? Is the present level
of concern about collapse unusually
high?

John Michael Greer said...

Geoff and Jolly Reaper, thank you both for some solid common sense.

Jhereg, I've been talking all along about mixed-crop organic gardening and farming, not mass industrial monoculture. Historically, foraging has played some role in most food production systems, though the boundary between foraging and food production is a hard one to draw -- there's good evidence for people deliberately planting food plants as far back as the Paleolithic to make "foraging" easier.

More generally, though, I'd be delighted to get down to brass tacks and start talking about practicalities. There will be some good opportunities for that in later posts in this series.

Bill (again), thanks for another note of common sense.

Rabbit, I'm sorry you find my responses disappointing. I'm baffled, though, by your suggestion that I have a "clear aversion to all things western" -- where do you get that? I'm unconvinced by the contemporary Western religion of progress, granted, but the basis for my entire stance is the Western liberal tradition; my spirituality is very much a child of the West, and so is my cultural background, of which I'm by no means ashamed.

As for why I don't respond point by point to all the people who post their apocalyptic theories here at vast length -- whether that's Jason's neoprimitivism, Lorenbliss' Marxism, Hardleft's evangelical Christian literalism, or any of the other examples you can doubtless think of -- there are two principal reasons. First, of course, there are only 24 hours in a day, and I do have a living to earn and a lot of other calls on my time; debating people on the internet isn't that high of a priority, not least because such debates rarely go anywhere.

But there's a broader issue as well. The point of The Archdruid Report is the centrality of myth and narrative in the way we construct our future. When Jason (or Lorenbliss, or Hardleft, or any of a dozen other examples) proposes yet another rehash of classic apocalypticism -- which is what all of them are doing -- to my mind the important point is the narrative they've chosen. Of course they can find facts to back up their convictions, and I could do the same if I wanted to play that game; for every fact, as some wag pointed out, there's an equal and opposite fact.

In response to Jason's short list of places where agriculture has failed, for example, I could point to southeastern Europe, where grain farming has been continuously practiced for well over 7000 years and is still chugging away; to Japan, where rice farming was sustainably practiced from the late Jomon period 4000 years ago until the coming of industrial agriculture; and to many others. F.H. King's Farmers of Forty Centuries documents methods of agriculture -- and here we're talking large-scale cereal crops -- that have been viable in the same place over millennia. David Duhon's One Circle similarly documents that it's possible, and indeed easy, to grow enough food to feed one person on 1000 square feet of soil with no chemicals and nothing but hand tools -- and you don't need fertile soil; you can start with bare sand, as the organic gardeners did at Findhorn, if you're willing to compost your own feces. Once you establish and manage a complete nutrient cycle, you're good to go.

I could go on at much more length along the same lines, or tackle the metallurgical issues involved in salvage blacksmithying -- I have a hatchet made from a chunk of dead car, which might make a good starting point for that -- but it would be wasted breath. It's been my experience that people who are committed to a given narrative don't change their minds in response to facts; they only change their minds, if at all, when the discussion is approached on the level of the narrative itself. Beyond that, narratives are what I'm trying to discuss here -- the narratives of progress, apocalypse, and a variety of others, including the narrative that underlies my theory of catabolic collapse and the decline of the industrial world. I'm also not averse to discussing practical issues of the sort Jhereg mentioned above, since those at least have some concrete value.

Jason, I've addressed your claims and those of other neoprimitivists numerous times, in this blog and elsewhere. One point I'll add here is that hunter-gatherer societies also go through cycles of boom and bust, just like agricultural ones -- look at the evidence for cultural breakdown and population loss in the transition between the Magdalenian and Azilian cultures in paleolithic Europe, or the collapse of the Clovis culture in post-ice age North America. Living things of all kinds tend to outbreed the carrying capacity of their environment. Thus pointing to the fact that China has had cycles of famine, for example, doesn't make Chinese culture unsustainable -- quite the contrary, its ability to weather normal population and climate cycles for more than 5000 years is one of the best pieces of evidence for its sustainability. Population cycles, including occasional dieoff, are common in many nonhuman species that have been in place for millions of years -- snowshoe hares come to mind.

But as I mentioned to Rabbit Mountain above, this is beside the point. You've got your preferred mythic narrative -- a classic narrative of apocalypse in which evil gets punished and the righteous survive and prosper by returning to the Good Old Ways. As you've suggested, I've got a different narrative, one that has links with the Romantic movement but actually goes back a good deal further. The argument I've been making in this blog all along is that the narrative I've been proposing -- the myth of cyclic change -- is a more useful tool for making sense of our current historical situation than such more popular narratives as the myth of progress or the myth of apocalypse. Obviously you disagree, but that's the level where the disagreement lies, and that's the level on which this blog is trying to discuss the issue.

One more point. You've asked me to clarify the difference between agrarian and industrial societies and subsistence modes, and that's a fair request, not least because the two have profoundly different mythic structures. That's going to take an entire post, though, and it'll have to come after the current sequence is finished. All in good time.

Jhereg (again), we'll be talking ecological change in some detail later on in this series of posts. I have some suggestions for where things may be headed, based on analogues in recent geological time, but it's really a wild card, of course.

Jason (again), notice that your definition of agriculture assumes not only monoculture but a radically incomplete nutrient cycle, and neither of these is necessarily the case. You really should read King's Farmers of Forty Centuries; he documents that polyculture and systematic nutrient recycling have been used in eastern Asia to maintain urban societies over millennial time scales. For that matter, not only the Maya but the entire Mexican suite of civilizations maintained urban societies over the long term, despite drastic climate shifts, using a polyculture that took corn, beans and squash as a foundation but added close to a hundred other crops to the mix.

King's book was one of the fundamental sources for modern organic agriculture -- one of the many reasons why I've repeatedly pointed out that the last century's advances in organic farming render your claims about the inevitability of agricultural failure obsolete. The deplorable state of today's topsoils under industrial farming is a product of an extractive model of farming (based on the linear vision of time implied by the myth of progress), not of farming as such, and organic methods that reestablish a functional nutrient cycle have been shown time and again to reclaim soils that are effectively dead and restore them to fertility.

Small-scale organic market farming, using polyculture and intensive nutrient recycling, seems to be more popular on the left coast than in your end of the country -- certainly friends of mine from the eastern states seem astonished by the profusion of farmers markets in every small town in the Pacific Northwest -- so you may not be familiar with the extent to which organic polyculture is becoming standard practice. It's a factor that has to be taken into account in any realistic view of the future.

Now, back to The Long Descent...

Bill Pulliam said...

Small-scale organic market farming, using polyculture and intensive nutrient recycling, seems to be more popular on the left coast than in your end of the country

These things are growing explosively in the southeastern states, too; helped along by the collapse of the manufacturing sector and loss of employment options in rural areas (plus really cheap land in economically depressed areas).

Please, please, don't let us distract you! We'll bat ideas around like beachballs until the grass-fed cows come home, but obviously reading your next essay is the main attraction here.

locke said...

I've addressed your claims and those of other neoprimitivists numerous times, in this blog and elsewhere. One point I'll add here is that hunter-gatherer societies also go through cycles of boom and bust, just like agricultural ones -- look at the evidence for cultural breakdown and population loss in the transition between the Magdalenian and Azilian cultures in paleolithic Europe, or the collapse of the Clovis culture in post-ice age North America. Living things of all kinds tend to outbreed the carrying capacity of their environment. Thus pointing to the fact that China has had cycles of famine, for example, doesn't make Chinese culture unsustainable -- quite the contrary, its ability to weather normal population and climate cycles for more than 5000 years is one of the best pieces of evidence for its sustainability. Population cycles, including occasional dieoff, are common in many nonhuman species that have been in place for millions of years -- snowshoe hares come to mind.

John,

It's true that all cultures and species go through periods of boom and bust, but you're taking a very anthropocentric view when considering the sustainability of cities and agriculture.

I'm assuming the reason you so fervently defend agriculture, is that you enjoy the advantages of the division of labor that agriculture allows. The problem is that division of labor demands growth.

You say that small scale organic agriculture can be sustainable, but what will keep it at a small scale? Once you have a class of people who don't produce their own food and must trade for their livelihood, you'll find farmers who have and advantage in produce more food to trade and thus more wealth for themselves. This will lead to intensification, depleting the soil, or expansion whether the soild is depleted or not. The surplus food then added to the economy will allow for population growth.

This is when we start to get people wiping out entire ecosystems for strict human use. Mow down a forest and build a city, to hold the ever expanding population. Drain a swamp for more farms. In either case we're wiping out entire habitats so they can be used strictly for ourselves. Seems like a very selfish thing to do.

--locke

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, thanks for the vote of confidence. You'll likely enjoy the next post, though not all of my readers will.

Locke, Jason made the same claims in almost exactly the same word -- are you quoting from his website? You're quite right that I appreciate the creative cultural possibilities made available by division of labor, but my defense of the potentials of organic agriculture is also based on a background in human ecology and history; as I've pointed out here repeatedly, there are plenty of examples of agriculture as a sustainable practice over the long term. The three examples I cited above all have had agriculture continuously since it was first introduced there; it's hardly a strike against agriculture that it hasn't had a longer history than the time from its introduction to the present!

The claim that agriculture inevitably leads to unsustainable growth and ecosystem collapse is disproved by numerous historical examples, including several I've cited. I'd encourage you to look into the agricultural history of premodern Japan in particular. Intensification took place by maximizing the efficiency of the nutrient cycle, and forests and watersheds were protected by laws dating from the Nara period and rigorously enforced by the Tokugawa government right up to the beginning of industrialization.

In Japan as in many other agricultural societies, ordinary population and climate cycles caused occasional famines, but I'd suggest you are engaging in the anthropocentrism of which you accuse me if you think this is a sign of failure. Snowshoe hares and countless other species cycle through population booms and busts, and ecologists consider them to be successfully adapted to their environment. Human beings are no different -- whatever their mode of subsistence.

locke said...

Locke, Jason made the same claims in almost exactly the same word -- are you quoting from his website?

I'm not quoting directly from his website, but I'm heavily influenced by his arguments. My argument was basically Jason's Prisoner's Dilemma argument. I've rephrased it slightly different from Jason, because when showing people his work they could see the Prisoner's Dilemma as a positive feedback loop, but couldn't quite understand how it begins. So that's how I describe it.

In Japan as in many other agricultural societies, ordinary population and climate cycles caused occasional famines, but I'd suggest you are engaging in the anthropocentrism of which you accuse me if you think this is a sign of failure.

I wasn't accusing you of anthropocentrism because of your argument of booms and busts for species populations. But because of your defense of cities in general. Clearing an entire area and reserving it for humans and their domesticates alone, with no thought for what may have lived there before is what I'm accusing of being anthropocentric.

As for booms and busts, when a population an a city booms it requires the city to expand clearing even more ecosystems along the edge of the city. If a population of hunter-gatherers boom then the species they depend on for sustenance will become more scarce. This may effect other species that depend on those same species, but it won't effect the whole ecosystem as drastically as clearing it entirely.

Rabbit Mountain said...

John -- thanks much for your thoughtful reply. It has helped clarify numerous things from your blog which have not made sense to me. I lacked context.

I also realize now that I've been projecting onto your work what I encountered during my own brief foray into druidry. The folks I was working/studying with at that time were very committed to adopting an indigenous European worldview, to the extent they were able to discover what that was, and there was an undercurrent of hostility toward what they considered Roman influence. As a newcomer it was confusing, to say the least; I never did get any satisfactory answers as to how that worldview might translate into everyday relevance.

But the same type of confusion I encountered then, I am encountering on your blog. I am still not clear why rejection of the apocalyptic narrative is the appropriate response to it. Given that this is our metanarrative, mythology, or whatever you want to call it, doesn't it deserve to be taken seriously -- if not as "truth," then as cultural context? Personally, I think it is entirely possible that the pervasive apocalyptic narrative of the West might actually drive us to apocalypse. The means of accomplishing this exist a zillion times over. Is this not even worthy of consideration? If not, how does it fall short of worthiness, and what would it have to do/be in order to qualify? What are the criteria for an acceptable narrative?

TheJollyReaper said...

Hey Rabbit,

I agree with you that apocalyptic ideas should be taken seriously. As you point out, many (most?) Westerners subscribe to some form of apocalyptic vision for the future. Because we're half-expecting the worst, we may well get it. I see what you're saying there.

However, taking the apocalyptic narrative seriously doesn't mean adopting it as your own or agreeing with it in any way. Taking it seriously, if you think it's a dangerously misguided idea, means trying to combat its pull by offering an alternative narrative.

I reject the apocalyptic narrative because I believe it's incompatible with sustainability. If we want to create a sustainable post-industrial world, we can't base our lives on the idea that humanity is progressing toward a hell on earth. It just doesn't work.

Apocalyptic fears leave us either apathetic or paranoid. Struck with fear, we're likely to cause more problems than we solve. Neither the self-destructive type nor the lone wolf survivalist will be very useful to anyone in a time of crisis and adaptation.

The apocalyptic narrative turns us into basket cases. The very viable alternative is a cyclic narrative, which leaves room to act with dignity and serenity in all situations.

Loveandlight said...

Well, as long as we're talking about narratives, here's what I consider to be the heart and soul of my narrative more than "apocalypse vs. cycles": "harmony with nature vs. domination of nature". Even if we don't go back to the ways of our paleolithic ancestors, any human society which is going to be functional, sustainable, and adaptable is going to have recognize itself as part of nature and strive to live in harmony with nature as a consequence of this recognition. If the righteous agriculture, for want of a better term, that our bloghost is championing is truly the way forward, then it will have function as part of this harmony. This righteous civilization of the future will also have to exist in a steady-state (little or no growth or need for growth) in terms of population and its resource demands on the natural world. I'm pretty skeptical about the possibility of such a thing myself, but I won't rule it out as utterly impossible even if only because I know that I don't know everything.

Where civilization has gone wrong is in falsely setting humanity apart from nature in order that humanity may rule over nature in its quest to turn all food and potential food in the world into human food. This goes against the Universal Design. We are spiritual beings who exist in this physical universe so that in the contexts of its limitations we may experience and appreciate the unity and harmony of all that exists. When we go against this design, we incur consequences. If continuing to go against this design enables us to put off the consequences, then the consequences will just come later and be worse for being held off by compounding our error. If you would call the suffering and hardship that ensue from these decisions and their consequences "apocalypse", then so be it.

As for "boom and bust" cycles, the intense suffering that characterized pre-industrial life really does show civilization's bust cycles have been a lot worse. Daniel Quinn named the cause of this problem, "The Food Race". We expand the food supply, and this makes the population grow so much that more food supply is needed, we expand the food supply some more, population growth is again stimulated past food production levels, and it just keeps going. Eventually the population growth starts impacting quality of life and society needs to become more complex in order to manage this. This complexity becomes a self-perpetuating thing that continually demands more growth and creates more problems than it solves. The problem is, neither food production nor complexity can fully manage the needs of the ever-growing population, so once this population with unmet needs gets to a certain size, the weight of the unmet needs increases. So while a band of primitives will perhaps not have full stomachs all the time and have to do more work to meet their simple needs when things are going downhill for them, a large medieval city will experience a full-on famine exacerbating the ill health and social tensions that plague society even in times of plenty.

Right now I favor the idea of future humanity "rewilding" because it seems in my evaluation the most effective course for living in harmony with nature. A more complex social arrangement could perhaps live in harmony with nature. I'm just concerned that it would present the temptation to once again go against the Universal Design in favor of separation and domination.

locke said...

loveandlight said...
All kinds of awesome stuff.

Hear, hear! I agree! I really gotta learn how to express my opinions as eloquently.

Bill Pulliam said...

There is nothing unnatural in an organism modifying its environment to make it more suitable for its own kind. Beavers make dams and clear forests, chaparral plants evolve enhanced flammability to promote brush fires and wipe out the less fire-resilient competitors, walnuts poison their root zone, woodpeckers excavate cavitities. I'd submit that environmental modification is an innate, instinctive, natural behavior in humans, wild ones includes. So is tool use and development. And as good vs. bad is a human construct, not a universal natural concept (sorry Abrahamists, but that is my belief), much of this comes down to our own morals and ethics, not natural law.

Loveandlight said...

There is nothing unnatural in an organism modifying its environment to make it more suitable for its own kind.

Of course there isn't, especially for humans, as we are tool-users by nature. Any attempt to forsake tool use entirely on our part would fail as a cultural endeavor for that very reason. What is disharmonious and perpetuates dominator-culture is when what tool using and making can do for us entirely eclipses the vital importance of living in harmony with nature. The use of simple tools guided by the recognition of our being part of nature and subject to it, can in fact enhance our harmony with nature and therefore our quality of spiritual and physical life. Thanks for bringing this up, Bill, because this is an important clarification.

riverbird said...

i second the recommendation of "Farmeers of Forty Centuries." i feel it has a lot of usefuul and relevant ideas and methods the the scale and style of food production we're talking about now, heading into energy descent.

FlyintheOnintment said...

I've read this blog over the course of several months and found the discussion on "narratives" extremely important. I rarely contribute in comment threads, though I enjoy following the conversations, because of the immense frustration experienced in expressing my thoughts in written form. If I state the obvious, reiterate or simplify something mentioned before or elsewhere, please excuse me. I do hope that my thoughts can contribute to the dialogue, so thank you in advance.

Narratives form the emotional bond that gives community cohesion. Naturally, societal narratives must validate personal experience, particularly those of the formative years. While it may strike some as obvious, those narratives often have debilitating effects on the growth and well-being of both the individuals and community. Personally, I doubt the obviousness of this fact, because, in general, people actions contradict their stated desires, wishes, and goals.

Robert W. Firestone’s, "The Fantasy Bond: Structure of Psychological Defenses," delves into many of the issues surrounding personal narratives and the societal import. According to Firestone:

"There is an enormous discrepancy between what people say they want and what they can actually tolerate having. When one’s dreams come true in reality, they are no longer under one’s control. One can no longer conjure up the satisfaction of these wants in fantasy and obtain partial gratification and escape or relief from psychic pain. It appears that most people are well-adapted to being unsuccessful, to not getting what they want. Anything that disrupts their fantasies of always waiting for and hoping for success, while at the same time blaming their failures on external circumstances, is usually strenuously avoided."

I am not implying, nor does Firestone, that people can not change, but that in general most people will not change. It truly is a strenuous task to short-circuit the seemingly never-ending layers that compose our personal narratives, and re-write one’s own. That being said, the first task is to acknowledge our narratives and understand how they shape behavior, both personal and societal.

Now, I have made some sweeping statements, which I will readily defend, but I do have a larger point that applies to the “Sustainability Movement.” My experience is that the “Sustainability Movement” largely exists online, and largely amounts to fantasy. I have tried to get involved in “real world” groups, and by and large, they consist of people whose fantasies intersect at points, yet diverge at others. The inability to resolve those points of disagreement prevents the formation of real community, and in my experience, only serves to drive people away.

Firestone also notes this fact: "a person who is actively defensive cannot tolerate an open forum for honest communication. He or she tends to have an aversion to a democratic process and to an equal sharing of views."

I would point out that Firestone's work is supported by nearly three decades of work with a broad spectrum of patients, spanning the socio-economic continuum.

We, as a society, simply cannot deal with our emotions, or those of others. I believe that addressing “narratives” is the best place to begin, as does Firestone. By and large, I agree with John’s assessment; however, I think that he could clarify or emphasize certain points. The “uneven” nature of deindustrialization, as referred to here, seem to escape some.

I imagine, at some point in the future, people will adopt a Hunter-Gatherer type life-style, because environmental constraints allow it. Naturally, their culture, and sense of “rightness” will reflect that lifestyle. Similarly, people will most likely engage in some form of agriculture, regardless the label, because it is adaptive, and the culture will reflect it. The “local” part really does mean local, and one’s preferences will play a limit role in what is adaptive.

Once again, the uneven nature of the process should be emphasized, because the opportunities will vary, and be widely distributed. I also imagine “apocalyptic” narratives will adequately describe most people’s experience, because most people will not be successful in the most apocalyptic sense of the word, despite their convictions; the ability to maximize one’s opportunities surly does not reside not in the strength of one’s convictions.

Personally, expressions of certainty strike me as defensive in nature, and indicative of a “fantasy bond.” Firestone explains:

“any cause or ‘ism,’ whether potentially good or evil, is capable of fostering a corresponding addiction in the individual…In substituting an idealized cause for individual acts of mastery and personal power, people use the philosophy of their adopted cause to fantasize that they are being taken care of.”

I am skeptical about the usefulness of delving into the distant future, because, in practical terms, it is to delve into fantasy, as sections of this comment thread illustrate. I am open to being wrong, though, and will end—hopefully having contributed—by quoting "Nature and Madness," by Paul Shepard:

"The adult in full realization of his potential both uses and experiences the non-human world in characteristic ways, particularly approaching it as both instrument and counter-player, gift and home, and particularly not as an escape from or alternative to interpersonal and social relationships. To be fully mature…is to understand and to affirm limitations. There is also inherent in maturity an acceptance of ambiguity, of the tensions between the lust for omnipotence and the necessity to manipulate, between man as different and man as a kind of animal, and especially between a growing sense of the separateness of the self and kinship to the Other, achieved through an ever-deepening fullness of personal identity, defined by a web of relationship and metaphorical common ground."

Rabbit Mountain said...

JollyReaper writes: "I reject the apocalyptic narrative because I believe it's incompatible with sustainability. If we want to create a sustainable post-industrial world, we can't base our lives on the idea that humanity is progressing toward a hell on earth. It just doesn't work."

And LoveandLight writes: "'harmony with nature vs. domination of nature'. Even if we don't go back to the ways of our paleolithic ancestors, any human society which is going to be functional, sustainable, and adaptable is going to have recognize itself as part of nature and strive to live in harmony with nature as a consequence of this recognition."

Sure, I understand, but to me these are to accept the apocalyptic narrative and choose "good" over "evil" within its parameters. It's still an apocalyptic narrative -- apocalypse still lurks in the collective shadow. That's what I mean when I say we are memetically programmed for apocalypse.

Earlier in this thread I posited that the question is not whether urban-agrarian can be made sustainable -- it is certainly possible at least theoretically, I don't dispute that -- but whether the descendants of Western civilization can be trusted with agriculture at all. Our mythologies tell us no, we are not to be trusted with agriculture because we will destroy ourselves with it, and potentially everyone else as well. I am inclined to take these mythologies seriously because they are ours, and like all mythologies they illustrate fundamental truths about our culture.

I can't see any way of ridding ourselves of apocalypse except to either a) acknowledge it, identify its origin, and formulate a way of living that avoids its triggers, as is done routinely in psychotherapy; or b) go through it. What Jason and other neoprimitivists have done is A. Pushing for a sustainable version of agriculture without acknowledging that, for us, agriculture is the seed of apocalypse, is B. It is akin to an alcoholic proclaiming with sincerity and conviction that he is only going to drink responsibly from now on. How often does that work out?

JMG is right when he says Jason's rhetoric comes from an apocalyptic context -- but this is our context. I don't see how a cyclical narrative in any way undoes or divorces us from it. A cyclical narrative still has fundamentally linear qualities, and one-time events still happen along the way. How does a cyclical narrative delete the fact that humans have the capacity to destroy the planet's habitability a hundred times over? Does it somehow change this trajectory? Doesn't a cyclical narrative actually make our trajectory unchangeable? Or perhaps the point of a cyclical narrative is to do away with human agency?

To date, the neoprimitivist arguments are the only ones I've seen that squarely face human culpability for apocalyptic potential, demonstrably trace it to a definable origin, and identify an alternative that has a proven history of success. Significantly, the neoprimitivist solution also squares beyond reasonable doubt with our culture's dominant Judeo-Christian mythology, in all its overt and covert forms; and, the only standing charge against it is that it is impractical at this time. The cyclic narrative as presented at this blog accomplishes none of these things, and appears to reject even the potential for human-induced apocalypse. It's entirely possible that I've missed something along the way,, but to the degree that this is the case, it strikes me as just plain intellectually dishonest. Humans -- especially humans living in Western cultures -- do have the capability of destroying all higher orders of life on this planet. What narrative can possibly address this state of affairs except an apocalyptic one??

So, again, I do not understand why rejecting the apocalyptic narrative is the appropriate response to it. Are we going to build a bomb, light the fuse, then sit around singing Kum-Ba-Ya as if it was a toasty campfire? Seriously.

Bill Pulliam said...

Continuing the earlier thought...

Even though there are no moral absolutes to be found in Nature, the sense of moral/ethical/social right and wrong is innate within our own species. I'm sure millions of years of evolution within complex social structures has firmly engrained this in our DNA, psyche, and spirit. It is this sense that can prevent us from actually destroying ourselves and everything else in unmitigated wanton greed. The inner compass is guided by our religions, socialization, mythology, etc. And this is where I agree that apocalyptic mythology is dangerous. It leaves many western minds feeling that "this" world is both doomed and of secondary importance. So what does it really matter if we tear it apart; there's nothing to do about it anyway, the end of everything comes just the same. I believe that this is what has divorced us from nature in spirit, consciousness, and day-to-day life. Not the plow.

John L said...

JMG said: "the population bubble of the last few centuries is just as much a product of the extravagant exploitation of fossil fuels during the same period as the industrial age itself."

John, this begs to be restated for accuracy ==> The industrial age and population explosion are both a direct result of fossil energy. The most recent jump in numbers (3 billion to 6 billion in the last 40 years) is a direct result of the Green Revolution, which is nothing more than the industrialization of fossil fuels into the food chain.

Loveandlight said...

I just thought I'd also add that if we can smelt metal for simple tools out of rusty old cars and revitalize dead soil in order to feed people who might otherwise starve, I certainly won't sit there and object because "that's just not primitive!" (And not just because I'd probably get my posterior pounded for it, either.) Whether or not it's a long-term solution to correcting the imbalance we've created on this planet may turn out to be another question entirely, but anything that could help us manage the collapse in simple and ecologically sound ways is nothing to be dismissed out of hand. The population will certainly crash, but it will make a huge difference in human quality of life if this "population implosion" can be managed so that it isn't sudden horrible massive death everywhere.

John Michael Greer said...

At this point the number of comments has gotten high enough that, while I'll still be reading all comments, I won't be responding to them all. A couple of comments, though:

Locke, it's a common fallacy to think of a city as an ecological unit. Look into the human ecology of the Greek city-states, and you'll find that city, arable land, and eschatiai -- the wild lands further out, which were left to nature -- were all part of a single fabric. A strong case could be made (and in fact has been made by Paolo Soleri among others) that concentrating human beings into urban centers actually lessens their impact on nature as a whole by localizing it, and leaving larger areas of wild land where few people go. Despite Jason's claims, intensification of food production commonly took place in premodern times without expansion of arable land, and in Greece and many other places the wild lands of the periphery were protected by legal and religious safeguards from any human interference. (In Athens, again, if you let your cows graze in a sacred grove, the cows became the property of the god or goddess and were sacrificed -- a definite incentive!)

Rabbit Mountain, the Druids you ran with apparently belonged to the minority "Celtic Reconstructionist" faction of the movement. Most modern Druids acknowledge that our traditions come from 18th and 19th century Britain, not Celtic antiquity, and their value is a matter of their relevance to today's spiritual and ecological realities rather than some claim to historical authenticity.

You seem to be saying, though, that the apocalyptic myth is the only one we've got, and that's not the case at all -- it's not even the only option within the Abrahamic religions, and that's only one stream of myth in Western culture. One of the core themes of this blog is that we have the power to choose our narratives. Thus it's not a matter of what narratives are "acceptable" -- narratives are tools, and it's simply a question of whether the narrative you choose will do the work you want to do with it.

If you want to choose the apocalyptic one, that's your right, but believing in apocalypse has been a fertile source of disaster in the past and I suspect it will be even more productive of suffering and death in the near future. You might want to read my old posts "Knowing Only One Story and Immanentizing the Eschaton, which deal with aspects of this same issue.

Fly, many thanks! I'm not familiar with the authors you've cited, and clearly I ought to be. Your critique of the sustainability movement matches my own experience -- one of the many factors behind my decision to focus my practical work in the Druid community is precisely that I've noticed that, outside an explicitly religious context, most people like to talk about lessening their impact on the earth but very few want to do anything that will inconvenience them. As I said to Jason earlier in this discussion, it's all fantasy island. One of the extraordinary powers of religion, for good or ill, is its ability to help people redefine their narratives, and that's a power I'll be discussing further in later posts.

Loveandlight, thanks also for your most recent comment. As the industrial system stumbles down the long staircase of catabolic collapse, the great challenge we face, it seems to me, is how to learn to live in harmony with nature without abandoning our own humanity. Thus anything that will allow us to make the crossing to the sustainable societies of the future with less suffering and brutalization is worth doing.

That's all for now. I spent this afternoon putting in a 4x8' double dug organic garden bed for a couple of friends; I love gardening and had a grand time, and the first three beds I put in for them are chockfull of medicinal herbs and food crops, so it was time well spent...but I'm one tired puppy just now, and tomorrow's going to be a long day, too.

locke said...

Regarding Japan. I couldn't find anything about farming beginning in Japan 4000 years ago. I did find that the Jomon period was from 13,000BC to 300BC and the people of that period were hunter-gatherers [1].

Agriculture began in the Yayoi period around 300BC on the Northern part of Kyushu and began spreading Northward from there. It was probably introduced from Korea or China.[2] This began driving the indigenous people of the Jomon period Northward towards Hokkaido where their remnants maybe the Ainu of today.[3]

It still seems to me that civilization must expand at the expense of all else.

locke said...

Lastly, I'm gonna apologize because I'm afraid I may have been dragging this out a bit too long.

Loveandlight said...

I love gardening and had a grand time, and the first three beds I put in for them are chockfull of medicinal herbs and food crops, so it was time well spent...but I'm one tired puppy just now, and tomorrow's going to be a long day, too.

I know what you mean. Working in a grocery store on Memorial Day Weekend is pretty taxing, too.

The neoprimitivist narrative may have an apocalyptic element in it, but this element also stresses that our actions and choices have consequences that may not be immediately apparent but that make themselves eventually felt nonetheless. Recognition of this crucial fact will be key to living sustainably on this planet.

jason said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bill Pulliam said...

Jason --

Whatever havoc the earlier agrarian societies wrought upon the land, it did not lead to the sort of mass extinction that is presently underway and which coincides almost exactly with the fossil fuel - industrial era. Indeed, the only other (apparently) anthropogenic mass exctintions occured in prehistory when the hunter-gatherers improved their technology and spread into new lands. Of course, these late pleistocene / early holocene extinctions were much more limited in scope, and most of those species would have probably also been exterminated by agrarian societies if the hunter-gatherers hadn't already done the job (can't have mammoths in the beet fields...). But the point remains: the record shows two waves of mass extinction that are attributable, at least in part, to humans. And these correlate with expansion of the hunter-gatherers, and the expansion of the fossil-fueled industrial civilizations. The intervening 10,000 year-long spread of pre-industrial agriculture changed, altered, and in many places degraded the landscape, but it did not drive large numbers of species entirely from the planet the way its predecessors and successors did. I think this is an important point that should not be missed.

Raymond said...

"But the point remains: the record shows two waves of mass extinction that are attributable, at least in part, to humans. And these correlate with expansion of the hunter-gatherers, and the expansion of the fossil-fueled industrial civilizations. The intervening 10,000 year-long spread of pre-industrial agriculture changed, altered, and in many places degraded the landscape, but it did not drive large numbers of species entirely from the planet the way its predecessors and successors did. I think this is an important point that should not be missed."

What about Madagascar?New Zealand?
The entire Pacific region?

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, you surely know that comparing opposing viewpoints to Nazism is the generally recognized internet signal that rational discourse has come to an end. Also, posting no less than 29 screens reiterating claims you've already made is a long way past the limits of netiquette. I've therefore deleted your post, and encourage you to post elsewhere in the future.

Bill, thank you for another sensible comment. You're quite correct about the role of some hunter-gatherer societies in mass extinctions in the past, though of course other hunter-gatherer societies have had a much less damaging impact on the biosphere. My guess is that it's not the general nature of the subsistence economy (hunter-gatherer, agrarian, or what have you) but the fine details of interaction between human subsistence and local ecology that makes the difference.

John Michael Greer said...

Raymond, you commented:

What about Madagascar?New Zealand? The entire Pacific region?

The Polynesian peoples who colonized these areas practiced exactly the kind of low-impact horticulture, supplemented by foraging and hunting, that many neoprimitives claim as ecologically harmless. Grain crops didn't reach Madagascar until the Arabs brought them, and didn't reach New Zealand or Polynesia until European colonization. Thus the examples you've cited weaken the neoprimitive case even further.

But we could go around and around about this for months, of course, and -- once again -- this is not what this blog is about.

John Michael Greer said...

At this point I think it's time to draw a line under the whole neoprimitivist-vs.-agriculture debate on this blog. There are other places for those who want to debate these issues to do so, and the core issues this blog exists to discuss -- issues of myth, cultural narrative, and the practical steps that can be taken here and now to deal with Hubbert's peak and its consequences -- are getting lost in a jungle of multiscreen rants. I think it's time we move on.

FlyintheOnintment said...

John,

I think you dealt with that appropriately, and in a way that is sorely needed within the sustainability movement.

I've been thinking about practical ways to approach the future that waits on the horizon, and I've am starting to detect a pattern of thought emerging across the expanse of understandings that occupy this world of hyper-specialized thinkers.

Unfortunately, it seems that a language barrier (the language of technical jargon, classifications and concepts composing the various systems of thought) is hindering the cross-pollination of ideas.

Your position on narratives is supported by the human development process. Humans develop most of their responses outside the womb through a socialization process, with limited hardwiring. In other words, narratives are the triggers that prompt actions.

It seems many of the narratives about the future only offer emotional respite from a reality most will not face willingly. The hard work of changing your pattern of living does not take place on the internet, overnight, nor the safety of one's imagination, no matter how detailed.

The efforts in my own life have brought up several practical matters for dealing with the uncertainties of the future. First, I've come to realize that listening to my narratives closely clue me in on many of my own emotional response and the pursuant actions. Further, my emotional responses also tell me indicate something about others in social interactions, if I am aware of myself, and listen closely to others.

This is a powerful social tool that can be cultivated to with practice, and some practical knowledge.

I have to end here, and I know my thoughts lack focus, but I was wondering what you thought about the emotional requirements of a community, and narratives role in shaping that. Is this potentially a productive line of thought in you mind?

I have been experimenting in my daily social interactions and it does have a positive effect that radiates outward. I will have to share some very specific, positive, though localized experiences which appear to offer the potential for new opportunities; unfortunately, I must end here.

John Michael Greer said...

Fly, thanks for the vote of confidence. You comment:

It seems many of the narratives about the future only offer emotional respite from a reality most will not face willingly.

That's my take, certainly. The problem with the set of narratives I'm trying to offer as tools for understanding the predicament of industrial society is that the only comfort they offer is a kind most people don't welcome.

As for the role of narrative in the emotional needs of a community, yes, that's not only a productive line of thought but a necessary one. I haven't pursued it here to any great extent; that project, in my work at least, centers on the Druid traditions I practice. But it's not off topic here by any means.

RAS said...

JMG,
I hope you don't mind my interjecting into this conversation, but I have a question/comment regarding narratives, particularly the apocalyptic narrative. I read your blog every week but rarely comment.

There seems to be some confusion regarding your definition of the apocalyptic narrative (judging by the comments on this post and others) and I admit to being slightly perplexed myself. I think that this is because there is more than one definition of apocalypse. The formal one is the Book of Revelation/End of the World scenario, and I believe that's what you're referring to when you mention the apocalyptic narrative.

However, the more common definition of apocalypse is somewhere along the lines of a massive catastrophe, "the end of the world as we know it", etc. I think that the end of industrial society with its massive upheavals and potential die-off, qualifies as an "apocalypse" in the minds of most people, and that is why there is confusion. There are two different definitions/narratives that both operate on the term apocalypse. Or at least, that's the way I see it. Please correct me if I'm wrong!

Also, I fully agree that focusing on the apocalyptic narrative, or any of the other current narratives, is completely counterproductive. We need to build new narratives.
-Rebecca

jason said...

I made the comparison to the Nazis--and it is plain historical fact that the agrarian, Romantic ideal did play a significant role in the rise of the Nazi party--precisely to underline the absurdity of similar comparisons you've drawn for me. I made them specifically to illustrate how useless such caricatures are. What I posted was not a simple rehash of what I've said before, any more than what your comments have been, but rather, a thorough response to the claims made against me above. I won't bother answering them again, nor more recent claims like Bill's that agrarianism didn't cause mass extinction (which it clearly did), or the claim about the "Overkill Hypothesis" that hunter-gatherers caused a rash of mass-extinctions (they didn't), since that will simply be deleted as well. My post spoke directly to the issues of myth and narrative, and to the facts that such myths must take account of. That you would delete it simply because it made a strong case that you couldn't answer shocks me. We've long disagreed, but I've always respected you until this. I thought you were above that, but from the deletion and your response, it seems that my very viewpoint is not permitted? So your blog will continue to disparage people like me, but we are not permitted to defend ourselves in response? If we're not allowed to voice our opinions in your comments, can I trust that we'll no longer read the insinuated accusations that so often lace your entries? Or is it your intention to merely use this as a bully pulpit?

I'm sorry I can't answer the points made above; they'll take hours of work, as my previous post did, only to be deleted because they make my case too strongly. I do not know if this comment will stand, either. But anyone who would like to continue this discussion is welcome to do so on Anthropik; we've had many people there we could hardly disagree with more, but we've never deleted their posts just for that. This blog cannot claim the same.

Bill Pulliam said...

Jason, I got the impression your post was deleted as much because of length as anything else. Some other blog hosting platforms limit the length of comments, blogger doesn't. Still, in general, if you have a 10,000 word essay to contribute there's an expectation that you can write it on your own blog and just reference it in your comments on others' blogs, rather than overflowing someone else's comment page with a monologue.

I'd love to see examples of more than a scattered few non-insular species whose global extinction can be dated to the period of pre-industrial agriculture. But that may be off-topic here.

jason said...

I'll be writing a response on Anthropik, where lack of such censorship can be assured. It will include significant evidence for mass extinction and anthropogenic global warming over the past 10,000 years, as well as a rebuttal to the oft-cited "Overkill Theory" you mentioned above. You're all welcome to comment, of course; I've never deleted someone's comment simply for taking a stance I disagree with and defending it well.

Some subjects require long posts; sometimes there's just a lot of evidence to go through. That there are so many claims here to respond to certainly exacerbates that. But JMG took my Nazi comparison out of all context and used it to invoke Godwin's Rule. Because my original post is gone, no one can even see how preposterous that claim is.

I've worked with Blogger in the past. They don't limit comment length, and they don't limit memory or bandwidth. This isn't on JMG's own server, and he doesn't bear any of the cost. Even the argument that it was too long and made the page unweildy can hardly stand up given how long and unweildy this particular thread already is. I've been a webmaster myself long enough to recognize censorship for what it is. There's no legitimate reason my post was deleted; it was deleted only because JMG couldn't answer it, so he deleted it so no one else would see it.

John Michael Greer said...

Rebecca, on the level of narrative, Biblical apocalyptic, ecological apocalyptic, and all the other species of apocalyptic strolling through the jungle of today's collective consciousness are variations on the same theme, and when I talk about apocalyptic I'm referring to them all. The names of the players change -- for example, "original sin" in the Christian narrative becomes "private property" in the Marxist narrative, "agriculture" in the neoprimitivist narrative, and so forth -- but it's the same game. I've discussed this at more length in my post Immmanentizing the Eschaton, which you might want to take a look at.

As for the need for new narratives, no argument there -- that's one of the reasons I've been uninterested in debating the fine points of the various apocalyptic myths that have been posted to these comments over the last month or so.

Jason, I explained why your post was deleted, but if you want to redefine the reasons in a way that makes you feel better, by all means.

Bill, I've considered a length limit on comments here, and I've also considered doing as you've done with your blog and moderating all comments. I'd rather avoid that if I can, and simply snip posts that cross the line as they happen. Until the last month or so, it wasn't an issue -- pretty much everyone kept their comments within reasonable limits of size and civility, and I just deleted trolls as they appeared.

I'm not sure why all of a sudden I'm getting a series of true believers posting 5000-word essays defending their own apocalyptic narratives. If it continues, I'll probably have to go to moderated comments -- it's getting in the way of discussing the issues this blog is about.

Bill Pulliam said...

I moderate comments because one of my principle topics for some reason draws large numbers of mean-spirited anonymous mudslingers. I do approve the large majority of comments that are submitted, including a few fairly nasty ones, and at least one that then got me threatened with a lawsuit. That was interesting, in fact. The complainer stated that since I moderate comments, that means I am legally responsible for the content of the ones I approve. Presumably if my comments were unmoderated, then it would be a public forum and the responsbility for content would fall only on the actual authors of the comments. I'm not sure if there is any merit to this claim, but it might be worth considering especially since you are higher profile and more of a public figure than I.

jason said...

Jason, I explained why your post was deleted, but if you want to redefine the reasons in a way that makes you feel better, by all means.

Yes, and what was that again?

Jason, you surely know that comparing opposing viewpoints to Nazism is the generally recognized internet signal that rational discourse has come to an end. Also, posting no less than 29 screens reiterating claims you've already made is a long way past the limits of netiquette. I've therefore deleted your post, and encourage you to post elsewhere in the future.

A number of people saw my post before you deleted it, and they all agree that it's pretty far and away from Godwin's Law. It's a matter of historical fact that Romantic philosophy and agrarian idealism, e.g. blod und boden, formed one of the historical bases for the Nazi Party, trends which also inspired the beginnings of Druidry. Now, if I were to call you a Nazi, that would have some historical merit, but it would obscure far more than it would reveal--it's a useless caricature that selects the very worst examples I can find and assigns them all to you. It isn't rational, fair, or honest. Likewise, your comparison of primitivism to apocalyptic cults is no better than if I were to compare you to the Nazis. Godwin's Law suggests that rational discourse ends when one party or another is compared to the Nazis; the very point of my mention was to illustrate that you aren't addressing the primitivist narrative, but your own caricature of it.

As for length, that's certainly convenient--either I choose to provide my "short list" (that included the vast sweep of agricultural history), or I'm deleted for making a post that's too long. Of course, in all the years online, I've never heard of this standard of "netiquette" that you invoke against posts that are too long. Long posts tend to be the most thorough, and thus, the most encouraged. The scrollbar eliminates length as an issue of etiquette. So I have to assume that the sudden appearance of some new piece of "netiquette" unknown to me after a decade of participating, moderating and creating a number of online communities is primarily specious.

So, I'd say someone's trying to rewrite what happened here, but only one of us gets to eliminate the evidence. Even so, I've been seeing a lot of comments and getting a few emails, and I don't think this incident has reflected well on you.

But since you've told us that people who disagree with you are not welcome here, I made a post to Anthropik, "Answering the Archdruid." I hope you'll join us, and anyone else who'd like to continue our discussion there.

Danby said...

Jason,
That's exactly what JMG asked you to do.

jason said...

That's exactly what JMG asked you to do.

Yes it is, and that's what I've done. I just wanted to make sure the participants here knew about it, because I really would like to continue the discussion, and I don't want the casual passerby to think notions like "Overkill" are unchallenged simply because all the challenges get deleted.

I do find the general idea that contrary opinions are somhow "disruptive" more than a little vexing, particularly given JMG's habit of making egregious asides that denigrate people like me based on straw men and caricatures, but that's just something I suppose I'll have to live with.

jason said...

If anyone is interested in reading the comment in question, a reader happened to have an old screen open and was kind enough to email me the HTML, so I have reproduced it in the article linked above.