Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Is History on Anyone's Side?

I’d meant this week’s Archdruid Report to go sailing straight ahead along the course charted out two weeks ago, with a discussion of the role that population contraction is likely to play as the industrial age winds down into the deindustrial future. Still, just as the guys on the Argo got used to Jason or Hercules or somebody pointing off to starboard and saying, “Hey, that island looks worth checking out,” those of my readers who have followed this particular voyage in search of the future have probably learned to expect sudden swerves into unexpected territory.

This particular swerve was inspired in part by the last paragraph of a blogpost by Sharon Astyk, whose writings on the crisis of the industrial world are among the best out there. The post, “Depletion, racism, and paving the road to hell,” focuses on a side of peak oil very few people like to talk about – the pervasive themes of race and class that run through so many of its current narratives, offering starring roles in dramas of survival only to middle-class whites, while relegating the poor and nonwhite to walk-on roles as victims in mass graves or members of the ubiquitous rampaging mobs of survivalist fantasy. While I have my disagreements with some of her stances, it’s a good post, and it points out issues that have to be addressed if the ideas discussed in this forum are ever to be more than the mental games of a privileged class with no better use for its time.

But then there’s the last paragraph, and the passage that brought me to a dead stop: “[T]he one bright spot in this future is that peak oil and climate change represent the greatest hope for reallocation of wealth and justice in the world.”

That’s an astonishing statement, and the fact that similar statements can be heard all over the peak oil community is one of the more astonishing things about it.

After all, Astyk is not exactly the only person who thinks that the crisis of industrial society is “the greatest hope” for social change. She may not be pleased to hear that the same hope guides Nick Griffin, current head of the British National Party. The BNP, for those who don’t keep tabs on the far end of British politics, is an extremist party of the far right that advocates, among other things, “repatriating” nonwhite people from Britain to their (or their great-great-great-grandparents’) country of origin. It would be hard to find a wider political gap in today’s world than the one between Griffin and Astyk, and yet both think that peak oil is on their side.

They’re not alone in that belief, either. Find a political or social movement far from the mainstream these days and odds are you’ll find it proclaiming that peak oil will put the future they desire into their waiting hands. Marxists waiting for proletarian revolution, Klansmen waiting for the South to rise again, neoprimitivists waiting for civilization to go away so they can lead the hunting and gathering lifestyle of their dreams, all pin their hopes for the future on peak oil. If there are still Distributivists out there – I hope there are; Distributivism always seemed more humane to me than a good many of the notions that elbowed it aside in the political free-for-all of the 1930s – I would not be surprised in the least to hear them claim that peak oil will inevitably bring Chesterton’s dream to pass. Not since Doctor Fox’s Genuine Arkansas Snake Oil stopped being sold on the carnival circuit, I suspect, has one remedy been applied to so many different diagnoses.

This invites satire, but there are patterns at work that deserve close and serious attention instead. Most of the grand mythic narratives that compete for attention in today’s collective imagination claim that history has a direction and a goal. Some, like the mythology of progress I’ve tried to anatomize before, take some set of current trends and project them out indefinitely in the direction of Utopia. Others take some set of current trends, define their necessary endpoint as hell on earth, and use that identification to rally opposition against them. Yet there’s at least one more class of narrative, one that sees the goal of history as something hidden in the undergrowth of events, known only to the few just now, but destined for sudden revelation.

Most of the narratives of this third class derive in one way or another from a single source – the unique historical experience of the Jewish people. Like the other minor kingdoms of the ancient Near East, the Jews saw themselves as sharers in a covenant with a tribal god, who gave them his protection in exchange for their faith and offerings. Like their neighbors, they struggled to square that faith with the brutal realities of the international politics of their time. After a brief heyday under David and Solomon, the history of ancient Israel was a story of decline ending in the catastrophe of deportation to Babylon.

The conquest of Babylon less than a century later by the Persian Empire, though, sent the story spinning in a new direction. Under Persian rule the Jews were permitted to return home, restore a national community and rebuild their temple. This astonishing redemption at a time when all reasonable hope had faded had a profound impact on Jewish religion and culture, and became the template against which Jewish history before and afte found a measure. To Jewish theologians then and ever since, the restoration of the Temple showed that the god of Israel had not failed his people even when all the facts seemed to point the other way. The tenacious faith this conviction bred played a crucial role in allowing the Jews to survive the much greater catastrophes that lay in wait as history unfolded.

Yet the same faith found other believers as core ideas of Judaism got taken up and reworked by the younger religions of Christianity and Islam, and spread in these new forms across the face of the planet. The same vision of a divine plan within contemporary adversities that would be made plain in some future act of redemption became common currency for human hopes across the world. When medieval Welsh rebels invoked the dream of King Arthur come back from Avalon to drive the English invader back into the sea, or 17th century Chinese secret societies claimed that the Mandate of Heaven still rested with the hidden heirs of the Ming dynasty, those claims echoed with the same hope of national redemption that kept their Jewish contemporaries going through their own bitter troubles.

Later still, as religion gave way to less overtly mythic ideologies in the collective imagination of much of humankind, the same story spun out into a galaxy of versions backing any political or social movement you care to name. Very few narratives can undergo that sort of diffusion without being debased into a cliché, or even a mental automatism, and the idea that history must be on the side of whatever ideology one happens to support has become so common these days that it approximates the latter.

A more specific problem, though, is that if peak oil is on anyone’s side, it’s not likely to be that of the liberal causes for which Astyk hopes to recruit it. Most of the great achievements of the liberal tradition have taken place in times of economic expansion – consider the abolition of the slave trade in the prosperous early Victorian era, for example, or the civil rights movement in America in the boomtime 1950s. Times of economic contraction, by contrast, tend to foster reactionary politics – consider the spread of totalitarian regimes across Europe in the decade that followed the stock market crash of 1929. Those tendencies are no more absolute than anything else in history, but they do exist.

The causes driving this pattern are doubtless complex, but one core factor can be teased out of Astyk’s own analysis. When the economic pie is growing larger, nobody has to lose part of their share in order for those unfairly deprived to get more. When the pie is static, though, a gain for anyone is a loss for somebody else, and when the pie is actually shrinking, the division of slices can all too easily degenerate into a mad scramble for scraps and crumbs. Abstract concepts of equity become hard to keep in sight when it’s your own children who risk going hungry. For many middle class people who had been secure from want, the Great Depression brought this experience, and reactionary regimes that promised them security prospered accordingly.

I don’t think it’s necessary to be a “doomer,” whatever exactly that label means, to think that as the industrial world begins sliding down the far side of Hubbert’s peak, the pie of today’s industrial economy will shrink a great deal, and a lot of people who are comfortable today will find themselves in the same situation their grandparents faced in the years after 1929. I also don’t think it’s necessary to be a “doomer” to notice that while most parties on the left are avoiding the implications of peak oil the way a ten-year-old boy tries to wriggle away from an elderly aunt’s kiss, the BNP and other parties of the far right are already hard at work positioning themselves to take advantage of post-peak realities.

Thus if Astyk means simply that liberals might be able to respond to the social impacts of peak oil and climate change, and in the process regain some of the ground they’ve lost in recent decades, she may be right. They’ll have to work overtime, both to counter the advantages held by reactionaries and to make up for time already lost, but the thing has been done successfully before – the New Deal comes to mind. On the other hand, if she’s claiming that the wrenching social problems set in motion by these two factors will necessarily favor her agenda, she’s likely misleading herself, and she may be doing the causes she supports a significant disservice.

More generally, it may be worth suggesting that those who claim that peak oil is a door to their favorite Utopia are engaged in the same unproductive act. As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, things will change; more likely than not they will change drastically, and for most people, many of those changes will be for the worse. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that the scope of those changes can best be understood by comparing them to the decline and fall of civilizations in the past. One lesson that can be learned from the past, though, is that waiting for catastrophe to accomplish your goals for you is one of history’s classic losing bets.

If anything but a slow decline into confusion and forgetfulness is to take form within the shell of today’s industrial civilization, it will have to be built brick by brick and board by board, and its resemblance to Utopia will be tempered by the sharp realities of resource limits and a biosphere in disarray. History chooses her own course, and those who insist that history is necessarily on their side are likely to find out the hard way that if she helps anyone at all – which she does not always do – it is most often those who help themselves.

70 comments:

Maura said...

Another interesting piece John. Here in UK, I like many people have been keeping an eye on the BNP for some time. Their creepy presence at peak oil events has been noted for a couple of years. In terms of political influence, they have also in the last 2-3 years been trying to gain the support of "suited" types rather than the brainless skinhead thugs who used to be their main base back in the 1980's. Even so, the places where they still get most votes are in the poor areas of decayed northern towns where there are significant communities of racial minorities who can be blamed for the poverty of poor whites. Exactly the segment of population destined to increase in an economically depressed, post-peak era. Of course, many readers will be aware that Britain does not have a spotless record in terms of racism in times of economic trouble - e.g. Oswald Moseley's "Brownshirts" in the 1930's.

Also, a point arising from last week's article. It seemed to me that Rebecca and some other writers were asking about dates, ages, etc., were tip-toeing around the issue - maybe they did not dare to ask directly - of what time schedule of decline or collapse you expect to see between now and mid-century. Perhaps you will reveal a little more in later episodes!

FARfetched said...

I saw that article as well, and agree that it raised a lot of good points. You did a great job of highlighting several implications that I missed, though.

If there's anything in common among various political communities of all stripes, it's that stubborn belief in some manifest destiny, a future time when everyone will come to see that "we were right all along" — and more, that when destiny arrives, it will bring its benefits to the "right" people (rarely is the fate of "wrong" people spelled out, but I presume it involves a spike in the population of buzzards, crows, possums, coyotes, and other scavengers). The Christian eschaton is rare for being so explicit: the saved get taken to Heaven, and everyone else dies a horrible death and they burn in Hell forever. The earth, meanwhile, "passes away" and is rebuilt anew. (This is where I part company with my imminent-end times brethren: they use "it'll all be gone by next year" as an excuse to ignore the commandment to be good stewards of the world.)

It's funny in a way that you see this same belief among groups who are otherwise diametrically opposed in their other beliefs. In another way, it's sad: at least one group is deluded, and very likely both (or all).

jason said...

I think you're right about the history of the apocalyptic mold you've outlined here, but isn't that also the basic narrative of natural selection? Some new variety emerges, and it's just a small minority until some selective pressure comes along; the new variety has some unique adaptation that makes it better suited to handling the selective pressure, so it survives, while all the other varieties, don't. Isn't this the same mythic narrative? Do you suppose that we're projecting an apocalyptic framework onto natural selection, or might natural selection be one reason that the apocalyptic framework has proven so popular? And, might that suggest that the apocalyptic framework might actually be a useful one, after all?

LizM said...

Wonderful post, and it seems to me beyond dispute that history helps those who help themselves. And also, that redemption is powerful at an individual level, and in a community, but that it dilutes pretty quickly when applied to larger projects.

The one thing I'm pretty confident will change is the scale of things. The enormity of our political, mercantile, cultural and even religious institutions, and the complete absense of accountability, responsibility or stewardship that it engenders, is made possible by abundant cheap energy. I think we can rely on a lot of that to evaporate, as you've indicated in your analysis of catabolic collapse. While I agree that Sharon's confidence in a future of shared wealth is probably misplaced, I do think vulnerability is likely to be a lot better distributed, and that wealth, pedigree, and station may not provide the sort of blanket immunities from pestilence, violence and environmental hazard that they do at present.

Loveandlight said...

Ran Prieur in one of his essays said something to the effect that liberals always lose to fascists because fascists understand better than anybody else what civilization is really all about.

As far as primitivism is concerned, one should keep in mind that before the Holocene and agriculture, we existed for many tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, and this existence was likely an outgrowth of the way our early hominid successors lived. Though to be sure, when we became Homo sapiens, our tool-making and -using as well as plant cultivation behaviors became more varied and complex. Compare this to the past ten thousand years in which we created something that demands so much in the way of resource inputs that it has, for at least the last six thousand years, been prone to rather dangerous instability. This dramatic change has also been characterized by a no-holds-barred assault on Mother Earth.

To me, this suggests that the primitive life is our natural state resulting from evolution, which as Daniel Quinn was fond of pointing out, is awfully hard to improve upon. There may be many wrenching convulsions in both human life and in nature that will frustrate the efforts of many aspiring primitivists to revert to the old ways; but as long as they are the sort of primitivists who are actively cultivating the skills and mentality-changes necessary for "re-wilding", theirs seems to me the best bet for helping themselves bring their vision of the future to fruition.

Climate change will probably be the major factor that will forestall any attempts to continue civilization as it has existed for the past ten millenia. I don't see how large-scale agriculture supporting major cities can happen in climate conditions significantly hotter or colder and less stable than those of the Holocene.

jewishfarmer said...

I enjoyed this piece, and the useful critique (along with the kind words) a great deal - thanks for taking me seriously.

I must admit that I actually have much more in common with the BNP than you've imagined - we're not such diametrical opposites as all that. I actually support the involuntary repatriation of everyone of European origin back to their respective European countries, which would simultaneously compensate Native Americans and African Americans from their land and overthrow the current administration. It would probably break a few eggs, but what the heck. I am, of course, entirely joking.

I would quibble a bit with your choices of historical examples for your claim that social change mostly happens during good economic times - the great thing about having the whole scope of human history is that it is easy for you or me to cherry pick examples. But I would tend to suggest that American history actually suggests the opposite - for example, the abolition of the American slave trade occurred during the turbulent post-revolutionary years, the great rise of socialism, labor and other liberal movements in the US occurred during the great depression, and the civil war and the abolition of slavery followed the economic and social crises of the 1850s. Both the civil rights movement and the women's movement in the US to a large degree derived from the period of social disruption that was WWII - women and african americans had the experience of living as equals and were discontented with the experience of having equality abruptly removed. IMHO, the gestation of historical change can often be found in periods of crisis - for good and ill.

I might try and make a similar case for Europe as well, but it would be an example of cherry picking - I could poke at the great and glorious revolution and its times, but you could come up with counter examples.

Ultimately, I really do have a great deal in common with the BNP, in that I tend to be extremely practical (read Machiavellian ;-) about political change, and I believe that in unfamiliar times, people who seem to know what they are doing are more likely to be elected than people who don't. I think that could be a far right party, a left party or somewhere in the middle - what matters is wise planning and anticipatory thinking - having a plan, control of iconography and being ready is what, ultimately, will decide who takes power. I'd rather (obviously) it be people like me than people like the BNP. I'm really not sure ideology has that much to do with it - I think the world is full of people who bend with the wind, and whose politics are shaped by a desire for reassurance and security.

So I do in fact believe that peak oil represents an opportunity for political and ideological change. I don't think it is likely to lead to any *particular* outcome, without considerable work on the part of the group that wishes to lead.

Cheers, and thanks again for the thought-provoking article,

Sharon

John Michael Greer said...

Maura, glad to hear that people on your side of the pond are watching the BNP; they've become very slick of late. As for the timing of decline, that's a very good question with no easy answer. It'll proceed at different paces in different regions; for the people of New Orleans and small Kansas towns, the end of industrial civilization is well under way already, while for some of the rest of us it may take decades longer.

Farfetched, exactly - it's the same tune with an endless number of verses, and it ends with the same awkward thud each time.

Jason, very good. You're seeing the narrative as narrative, and reading it through another popular cultural narrative, the Horatio Alger Little-Engine-That-Could story that Darwin imported into biology.

The problem with your wider argument, though, is that you're confusing cultural utility with predictive accuracy. Apocalyptic myth is an effective way for a small, socially marginal group, especially one that resents the larger community around it, to strengthen its members' faith in its ideology; thus it was probably inevitable that neoprimitivism would adopt it. Still, how many of the following events have actually taken place?

- the arrival of Messiah
- the reappearance of the 12th Imam
- the appearance of the Saoshyant
- the return of John Frum
- the return of the ancestors and the buffalo
- the restoration of the Ming Dynasty
- the return of King Arthur
- the descent of the Space Brothers

I could go on for pages, of course. Clearly, the fact that apocalyptic beliefs are useful does not make them true. Quite the contrary, as the above list suggests, the more fervently a group affirms that an imminent catastrophe is about to give them the world they want, the more certain one can be that nothing of the sort is likely to happen.

Lizm, your comment on the distribution of vulnerability seems square on target to me. One very likely consequence of peak oil is that today's privileged classes are likely to be a good deal more vulnerable than the poor. Those who have grown up dealing with adversity are a lot more likely to be able to weather tough times than those who have no experience with it.

Loveandlight, you could as well use the same evolutionary narrative to claim that agriculture is an evolutionary advance on hunting and gathering, therefore more likely to succeed. As for the climate issue, agriculture evolved during the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, during some of the most drastic climate fluctuations the earth has seen in the last few million years, and during much of the Holocene temperatures were much higher than they are today, so agriculture is hardly going to be surplused by another round of climate change.

Even extreme global warming estimates would leave most of what's now the temperate world very suitable for tropical-style wetland rice farming, sweet potato culture, and many other warm-climate crops. Meanwhile, northern Siberia, Canada, and postglacial Antarctica will have temperatures and rain patterns equivalent to today's major grain-growing areas.

More generally, though, apocalyptic myth is apocalyptic myth, whatever set of claims are used to dress it up. If you pin your hopes on catastrophe to give you the world you want, be aware that people have been doing that for a long time, and the results have not been good.

locke said...

I don't think it's accurate to compare the primitivist narrative to

- the arrival of Messiah
- the reappearance of the 12th Imam
- the appearance of the Saoshyant
- the return of John Frum
- the return of the ancestors and the buffalo
- the restoration of the Ming Dynasty
- the return of King Arthur
- the descent of the Space Brothers


because there are examples of previous civilizations that have collapsed and returned to hunter-gatherer societies in the past. Ours is not exempt from this.

John Michael Greer said...

Sharon, thank you for a cogent reply! I'm glad to hear you're thinking in terms of organized political action, as that might be able to accomplish much -- if it gets started soon, and finds a vision of the future that will appeal to a wide enough spectrum of society.

Locke, while it's very occasionally happened that a civilization declined and was replaced by hunting and gathering, it's vastly more common for a civilization to decline and be replaced, first by less organized farmers, and then by another civilization. We're not exempt from that fate, either - and insisting that the catastrophe of your choice is going to give you the future you want is still a recipe for failure, however you dress it up.

Heather said...

Another excellent post! I'm not an eloquent or particularly erudite writer myself, but have been doing my small bit to raise awareness among my friends, through conversations, and posts on my journal, trying to encourage community-building, etc.

For our own part, we've taken on the 90% Reduction challenge -- not that we'll succeed across the board, at least not in the next 2 years anyway. But it gives me a frame of reference for posts that may continue to encourage readers to try some conservation efforts themselves. That work is kind of working towards prolonging the amount of fossil fuels available, and slowing down the climate change. In particular I look to do things that don't cost a lot of money, since pretty much none of my friends are 'rolling in dough'.

Also continuing to work on acquiring low-tech skills, and hopefully moving to the country, maybe next year. Yes, I know not everyone can (or should) do that, but for us it works. But where we'll be moving is to my husband's parents' town, so we already have a connection there to build on. Massachusetts is kind of crowded and already suffering from recession issues (if not as badly as some places). If/when the economy takes a serious downturn, we'll already be part of our new community -- a small town with a lot of "interesting" people, who enjoy discussing and debating at town meetings, and aren't closed to new ideas if they can be shown to be positive and workable.

On Sharon's post, I wasn't quite sure how to respond, because I'm half-Chinese... guess I'm a rare bird in the PO and sustainability crowds. Oh well, kind of used to that...

I agree with others here that preparation and changing ways of doing things in one's life are going to be key to not just survival, but living. It's been a sad thing to discover that some people would literally rather be dead than live in the world I see coming, one where things aren't so easy to come by (one is a good friend of mine). As for me, I don't see this set of challenges as being much different than what I grew up with. Yes, my parents had/have advanced degrees, taught at universities, and I went to college myself. But they came from low-income backgrounds and believed that we should all learn useful skills like gardening, cooking, sewing, and basic carpentry. And perhaps most importantly, to look at what was around us with as open a mind as possible, in order to truly _see_ what was there, not just our wishful thinking.

btw, I said "low-income" instead of "poor" above, because having grown up on stories from my parents' childhoods, I know their lives were rich in many ways. And today, gradually learning to live on less, I've been finding more and more to appreciate in my changing life, not less.

Looking forward to reading your future posts!

jason said...

As with the BNP, I've found some neo-Nazis that see peak oil in much the same light, and wouldn't you know it? They're trying to get all the neo-Nazis to get together just downstream from where I'm setting up.

Still, how many of the following events have actually taken place?

See, this is precisely where the dismissal of primitivism as apocalyptic goes completely wrong. While I agree that primitivism shares the same narrative, and even wrote an article to that effect long ago, this kind of comparison is not legitimate in the least. The narrative itself is extremely broad if we're stretching it to catch the natural selection ideas of primitivism and the Rapture of the Elect under a single heading, so what really matters is the information being assembled inside that narrative framework. Anthropological, climatological and ecological studies are a far cry from the exegesis of Bronze Age sectarian literature. That they interpreted Bronze Age sectarian literature through a basic framework that's similar in outline to that we see scientific data through does not make the two predictions comparable.

Quite the contrary, as the above list suggests, the more fervently a group affirms that an imminent catastrophe is about to give them the world they want, the more certain one can be that nothing of the sort is likely to happen.

Now that doesn't really follow from the evidence, does it? Even an historical correlation wouldn't provide a causal mechanism for such a thing. If you want to focus on the narratives themselves, that's certainly a worthy pursuit, but it rather precludes any notion of proving one narrative or another "correct," since each one will fit some scenarios, but not others. Knowing more than one story, as you say, is the root of wisdom.

... you could as well use the same evolutionary narrative to claim that agriculture is an evolutionary advance on hunting and gathering, therefore more likely to succeed.

That would be a very difficult argument to make; 10,000 years is a very short time in evolutionary terms. It's really quite remarkable how quickly it has failed. Even the most disastrous evolutionary experiments typically take longer than this.

As for the climate issue, agriculture evolved during the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, during some of the most drastic climate fluctuations the earth has seen in the last few million years, and during much of the Holocene temperatures were much higher than they are today, so agriculture is hardly going to be surplused by another round of climate change.

This is more than a little bit of an exaggeration, don't you think? It's rather clear that agriculture emerged largely after the transition to the Holocene was finished. Climate change ends not just the Holocene interglacial, but the Pleistocene itself. That's going to be by far the biggest hurdle agriculture's ever faced.

Locke, while it's very occasionally happened that a civilization declined and was replaced by hunting and gathering, it's vastly more common for a civilization to decline and be replaced, first by less organized farmers, and then by another civilization. We're not exempt from that fate, either - and insisting that the catastrophe of your choice is going to give you the future you want is still a recipe for failure, however you dress it up.

Previous civilizations have all been regional and agrarian. New civilizations arose because the Holocene climate persisted and previous civilizations had left behind sufficient resources. Ours is the first global, industrial civilization. What will future civilizations be built of, that we haven't consumed? We've discussed this before, of course, so there's no need to rehash that discussion, except to say that your statement here is misleading--even if you do turn out to be right on this, there is very good reason that you might not, so the certainty you seem to put behind this is certainly unjustified, if nothing else.

klee said...

Astyk’s conclusions of the eventual triumph of liberal policies in the coming crisis seems very similar to Korten’s The Great Turning. I found your analysis of that work to be quite insightful and shared it with several others. I also found your description of the Western Revolutionary Tradition to be such a concise definition that I used it in my Political Science class and, in light of this discussion, I think it is worth repeating:
In its basic form, that narrative claims that all of humanity stands at a decisive turning point of history, facing the choice between the horrors of an utterly corrupt past and the shining possibilities of a future on the verge of being born. The existing order of society, the primary source of human misery, is beyond redemption and teeters on the edge of collapse, and a new social and political system that will bring out the best that humanity is capable of achieving stands ready to replace it. The existence of an ideal society in the distant past shows that a better world is possible, and that society’s destruction by the first forerunners of the present rulers of the world will soon be avenged. The old order is paving the way for its own demise by bringing about social changes that foster the emergence of its own replacement, while it makes its downfall necessary by pushing the world to the edge of ruin. All that is needed is the spread of the new system’s ideology, followed by one great effort on the part of people of good will, and a Great Turning will take place, ushering in a happy future for all of humanity.

That is the essence of apocalyptic thinking. Oppressed people, seeking to reconcile why they are not granted what they see as their proper place of prominence in society and widespread acceptance of their world view, predict a future in which their exalted and special status will be revealed and their seemingly powerful enemies will be destroyed. One writer described it as using the past to predict the future to help cope with the present. It isn’t necessarily religious but when ever I see such writings I am always reminded of the Magnificat, the song supposedly sung by Mary when she tells her sister about being pregnant with the future Messiah:
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-55).

Not only was Jesus going to save your soul and usher in a new age, he was going to take care of all your enemies too! It is tempting in both its religious and secular forms, but self deluding as well.

Bill Pulliam said...

I'm always amused how much old-fashioned Darwinism persists outside of biology, because in the actual field of Evolutionary Biology notions of progress, advancement, and ever-increasing adaptiveness were abandoned decades ago. In biology, evolution is now studied as simply the process by which organisms change over generations, and natural selection is one of the primary mechanisms by which this change happens. There's no notions of progress, direction, or advancement. Some organisms are more different from ancestral forms than others, but this just described as being more "derived," not more "advanced."

Dwig said...

First, a warm greeting to the community of commentators on this blog, and particularly to the ArchDruid himself! This is my first entry, after having read some of JMG’s recent posts and the dialogues that follow them. I'm quite impressed by the general collegiality of the exchanges; it looks like a nice place to visit, learn, and contribute.

By way of introduction, I’m an old software engineer, who’s become gradually more aware of the coming crises and interested in how we might best meet them. A few years ago, I started a project to guide my learning in this, and in the hopes of engaging others in it. You can see the current status of the project (pretty much untouched for a couple of years) at Humanity’s Final Exam. More recently, I’ve been focusing in on what I consider the essential role of robust, adaptable communities in dealing with the changes; I have a skeletal essay on this here. Finally: one of the things that attracted me to JMG’s work is his clear-eyed examinations of the role of spiritualality in adapting to the emerging realities. I’ve written up some notes on my own spiritual journey.

I welcome feedback on these; I consider them less my personal property than as offerings to a community of learning.

Commenting on the post at hand: it might be useful to compare the emerging situation with Thomas Kuhn’s model of “normal science” versus “revolutionary science”, first published in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn sees normal science as ruled by a paradigm that structures and guides the work of scientists, provides the foundational assumptions, and delimits what counts as valid research. Also “built in” to normal science, however, is a tolerance for “anomalies”: problems that arise within the paradigm, but which can’t be solved within it. A few anomalies don’t disturb the paradigm, but as they accumulate, the paradigm begins to break down, which may lead to a revolution that causes it to be abandoned. During a revolutionary period, contenders for the next dominant paradigm will arise and be tested; in fact, that characterizes the period. Eventually, a new paradigm is established, and a new normal period ensues, during which the paradigm is enhanced and fleshed out.

Relevant to the themes of the current post: it seems to me that the new dominant paradigm may not be any of the original contenders; the crisis will not only select, but also encourage adaptations and combinations of contenders.

John Michael Greer said...

Heather, thank you for the encouragement -- it's good to hear from somebody who's taking practical steps.

Jason, one thing I've learned over the years is that nobody pitching apocalyptic myth likes to be compared to people pitching other versions of the same myth. I've had Marxists object to my analysis along the same lines you have - and their objections made me no more likely to believe in their myth than yours have.

It's all the same narrative, and the specific set of facts used to justify it matters very little, because the narrative governs the selection and meaning of facts. You must have noticed that people who disagree with you consistently refuse to accept the meaning you assign to your long lists of facts. That's not just cussedness; it's because they disagree with the interpretive scheme that comes with your narrative, and so facts that seem conclusive to you (because your narrative defines them so) mean something else to them (because their narrative puts different interpretations on them).

This is why it's so crucial to read narratives as narratives, and to notice how often the same narrative produces the same result, no matter what facts are used to fill in the preexisting slots in the structure. That's the point I'm trying to make here.

Klee, glad to hear the definition was useful! You could probably sum it up, in an unfriendly but not inaccurate way, by saying that apocalyptic myth is an unusually grandiose revenge fantasy. Certainly I've known a lot of believers in imminent apocalypse whose motivation seemed mostly to be the thought of looking down with a sad smile at the bleached bones of the kids who used to tease them in grade school.

Bill, thank you! Yes, the removal of the Horatio Alger myth from evolutionary biology has been good to see.

Dwig, thank you for the offerings! And I think you're quite right about the selective effects of crisis on ideology. What comes out the other end of the Long Descent is unlikely to have more than a distant family resemblance to what went into this end of the process.

phadraigin said...

from the most common denominator of internet discourse, the Wiki:

Apocalypse (Greek: Ἀποκάλυψις -translit. APOKALYPSIS, literally: the lifting of the veil.)

The Greek root corresponds in the Septuagint to the Hebrew galah (גלה), to reveal.

...the Apocalypse technically refers to the unveiling of God, and not to the destruction of the world, just of our preconceptions.

The word apocalypse in Greek means "unveiling"...This term has been downgraded in common usage to refer to the end of the world. But it is more accurate to interpret the term "end of the world", as we see in the King James Version of the Bible, as the "end of the age". The word translated as "world" is actually the Greek word "eon" or "age".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocalypse

now, i am neither a scholar of the classic Western languages, nor of the Jewish/Christian Bible, and certainly i am not a philologist, and i do believe that current, common usage supercedes etymology, but i do think it is worth considering, in this context, the original meanings and history of the words we use.

i am concerned that disagreements over terms may sometimes come between good-intentioned people who are otherwise of a similar mind, and prevent them working together toward more immediate and concrete goals.

and in this particular case, i think i prefer the above, historical usages of this particular term--End of an Age, and Lifting of a Veil--and i do think that all of the current issues tied to the Peak Oil, climate, and related problematic global trends indeed point to an "Apocalypse" in precisely those original meanings.

i absolutely agree that it promises nothing certain, beyond inevitable change. and i agree as well, that any person or movement placing all "hope" and no ACTION in whatever Apocalyptic event/trend, is in trouble. but any time that prevailing power structures are sufficiently shaken, is a time that presents a people with the opportunity for change--though never the promise that any given "utopia" will result.

"history" (not to mention PRE-history) can be muddy enough, and the future is impossible to know with any certainty. what does that leave? the present. and in this context, i prefer an earlier essay of Sharon's, "The Theory of Anyway" (http://www.energybulletin.net/25115.html)
in which she describes very much my own feelings:

"My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls "The Theory of Anyway." What it entails is this - she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crises in energy depletion, or climate change, or most other global crises are the same sort of efforts. When in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing "Anyway.""

i would take that just a bit futher than she did in that piece, and say that any action which benefits "the common good" also benefits ME--maybe not always in terms of physical comfort, or of immediate rewards, but ultimately, as a being who is part of one whole.

to that end, i wonder if it might be possible to tweak the current, common understanding of the Apocalyptic Narrative, so that it can become a useful and adaptive Story?

Apocalypses (Apocalypsi?) come and go, in larger and smaller ways, all the time, what matters is what we make of them, in our own times and places. there is room for more than one response, to be the "right" one here.

(apologies for length, and for possibly going a bit off-topic. as before, i am impressed with the level of conversation often found here in your comments, JMG.)

-patricia

Alan said...

JMG:
"Most of the great achievements of
the liberal tradition have taken
place in times of economic
expansion – consider the abolition
of the slave trade in the
prosperous early Victorian era,
for example, or the civil rights
movement in America in the
boomtime 1950s. Times of economic
contraction, by contrast, tend to
foster reactionary politics –
consider the spread of
totalitarian regimes across Europe
in the decade that followed the
stock market crash of 1929."

Consider also the robust spread of
socialist and communist parties
during the same period (to which
the fascists were a reaction),
and the growth of socialist
sentiment in the U.S. during
the Great Depression -- resulting
in the New Deal, Social Security,
etc., and later Medicare.

The reality is that times of
economic contraction do not
necessarily lead to right-wing
reaction, but they lead to
**change**. Suddenly all bets are
off and something really different
can happen, for the first time in
a long time. Hence Astyk's comment
that peak oil and climate change
represent a real **HOPE** for
reallocation of wealth, etc., is
right on target. There's no
foolish determinism there; just
an expression of the reality that
great crisis opens the door to
all kinds of changes that might
have been unthinkable, before.

JMG:
"Those who claim that peak oil is
a door to their favorite Utopia..."

Is there anyone, anywhere, save
perhaps for a scattered few
anarcho-primevalists, who claims
that peak oil is a door to a
utopia?

Alan

Loveandlight said...

Even extreme global warming estimates would leave most of what's now the temperate world very suitable for tropical-style wetland rice farming, sweet potato culture, and many other warm-climate crops. Meanwhile, northern Siberia, Canada, and postglacial Antarctica will have temperatures and rain patterns equivalent to today's major grain-growing areas.

My understanding was that the new climate will constitute an entirely new "ball of wax", as opposed to simply shifting the current climate zones around a bit.

Danby said...

JMG,

Once again a good post. Do keep in mind though, that it is not only our hopes but our fears that we project onto the future.

It is only natural that we should become "emotionally invested" in our visions of what would be humane future. When facing up to dislocation on the scale of what might happen in a civilizational collapse, one concept becomes readily apparent. The institutions and structures that we believe are preventing our own vision will be weakened and perhaps eliminated. If our narrative, to use your word, is true, then man will at last be freed to live in the way we think is best. That other institutions and structures might rise to replace them doesn't occur to us.

For all you neo-primitivists, who believe that it takes centuries to rebuild depleted soils, I just want to tell you that today I transplanted 100 tomato plants to a patch of soil that 8 years ago could barely support Canada thistle and yarrow. All it took was green manure and lots of labor. Lots of labor.

JMG is correct that agriculture is an evolutionary advance in human society. The proof is simple. Agriculture has displaced hunting-gathering wherever agriculture is viable.

Yes, John, there are still Distributivists, although generally we now use the word Distributist. I don't know of any that think societal collapse is desirable, no matter how widely distributed Capital becomes. As I'm sure you know, we're mostly, but not entirely Catholics, so as Tolkein points out, we're used to the idea of the Long Defeat. Many of us are still reeling from the so-called enlightenment, and some from the collapse of Rome. It's one of our "internalized narratives."

RAS said...

I just wanted to drop in to say that I wasn't tiptoing around the issue last week; I was honestly curious how old Adam was that he left at sunset instead of sunrise -but then, if he was in the midst of grief, he could have been forty; grief tends to make people stop thinking rationally (or at all).

JMG -I agree that "collapse", "decline", the end of industrial civilization, or whatever the preferred euphemism eventually chosen will be, will happen at different times and rates in different places. The argument can be made that some places -Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Detroit, New Orleans, etc -have all ready "collapsed" as far as industrial civilization is concerned. It can also be argued that other places are teetering on the edge. These would include much of the Midwest, Pakistan, etc. Parts of the arid Southwest, as well as Mexico and some other Latin American countries, could also be added to the list.
aho,
Rebecca

neighbor said...

JMG,

I'm trying to understand the differences between your understanding and Jason's in light of your focus on narrative and somehow I kind of stall out. I apologize, feeling that maybe I'm missing something blatantly obvious to everyone else, and I'm not sure why that is.

In a nutshell could you give a very brief description of what you see Jason's narrative as being? I'm not looking for labels such as "apocalyptic" or otherwise, more of a descriptive "map" rather than a title. Likewise, would you do the same for your narrative? Tell me, if you'd be so kind, the plotline that differentiate it from what Jason talks about.

Because thus far, I see you both as being pretty linked on a continuum, where both ideas of what the future holds appear to be related and not mutually exclusive.

Because of that, I have a hard time understanding the, what appears to be, turf wars that flare up between you two - and yet find your processing of each other's thoughts to be really interesting and helpful.

Perhaps I just have so little experience viewing narrative structure and actually parsing out how such structure informs and directs people's thoughts and actions.

Sorry to ask for such a basic explanation... I almost feel foolish to ask, but I really want to follow this stream.

Thanks!

Dwig said...

neighbor's comment above echoes some thoughts I've had on the interchange between Jason and JMG, and I second the suggestion of explicating the narratives behind the interchanges.

In my previous comment, I introduced Kuhn's idea of a paradigm, which rules the practice of normal science, and by extension, the normal activities and thinking in any communal context (yes, I'm going beyond Kuhn here). I think there's probably a lot of overlap between this concept of paradigm and JMG's term "narrative".

Kuhn makes the strong (and controversial) claim that different paradigms are incommensurable, in that they actually talk about different concepts, so that they can't be related to each other in detail. (An example he uses, is that Newtonian mass and Relativistic mass are actually very different things, e.g., Relativistic mass is related to energy by the famous equation E=mc^2, where there's no such relationship in Newtonian mechanics.)

In the current context, I'm wondering if the apparent disconnect between the parties might be an instance of at least some degree of incommensurability. I'm not suggesting we conduct a full-up formal analysis here, but this analogy might help in exploring the different viewpoints.

jason said...

...one thing I've learned over the years is that nobody pitching apocalyptic myth likes to be compared to people pitching other versions of the same myth.

It's broader than that--no one, regardless of their mythic framework, likes to be compared to other people pitching other versions of the same myth. It's practically the definition of "pigeon-holing," or "stereotyping," or a "straw man." In a previous thread, you deleted a comment of mine invoking Godwin's Law simply because I pointed out that the primitivist apocalyptic narrative has no more in common with Christian apocalyptic than the cyclical, agrarian ideal you've espoused has in common with the Nazis. Sure, if we stick to the broad outline of the narrative, we can find plenty of points in common in both cases--were it not for its history, a concept like blot und boden would be very clearly aligned with your own. But neither comparison is particularly fair; both trade specifics for vague generalizations, both dismiss the defining details in favor of insinuation. Both amount to little more than pigeon-holing dismissal. No, I don't think it would be fair to compare you to the Nazis--just as I don't think it's fair to compare me to a Fundamentalist waiting for the Rapture. There are some vague, general similarities, because we're all humans and the human brain is only capable of so many basic kinds of narrative. That's why no one likes to hear their narrative dismissed so quickly as nothing more than a rehash of such-and-such, because it's fundamentally unfair.

It's all the same narrative, and the specific set of facts used to justify it matters very little, because the narrative governs the selection and meaning of facts. You must have noticed that people who disagree with you consistently refuse to accept the meaning you assign to your long lists of facts. That's not just cussedness; it's because they disagree with the interpretive scheme that comes with your narrative, and so facts that seem conclusive to you (because your narrative defines them so) mean something else to them (because their narrative puts different interpretations on them).

This does happen to some extent, but it's not nearly so cut-and-dried. I did not always have this narrative; my narrative changed (at great personal cost), because my old narrative could not satisfactorily account for the facts I had gathered. My new narrative does, so I keep it unless and until I gain some new set of facts that it fails to account for. I think this is basically how we all operate; changing a framework is a costly move, personally, so we will try to fit new facts into the same framework. Some try harder than others, of course, adn those who try hardest we call "ideologues" and "zealots," but it's certainly not the case that facts can be reworked endlessly. Some evidence truly is conclusive. It was evidence that forced me to change my framework, and it was evidence that forced every other primitivist to change theirs. It's far too young a movement for anyone to have really been raised as a primitivist yet, so nearly all of us at some point in our lives rejected our old framework because it failed to take account of what we'd come to know about the world, and accepted this one because it fit better. So while this is true to some degree, it has its limits. That's why discussion is valuable, because with sufficient good facts, a reasonable person can be persuaded to try on a different framework.

This is why it's so crucial to read narratives as narratives, and to notice how often the same narrative produces the same result, no matter what facts are used to fill in the preexisting slots in the structure. That's the point I'm trying to make here.

I understand that, and it's certainly a valuable undertaking, but there's also the peril that this can become a rationalization for pigeon-holing and stereotyping, rather than taking the unique details into consideration. The quality of the evidence that the narrative frames is important, and the details of the narrative are important. Collapse and the Rapture have some basic points in common, but the evidence for collapse is significantly different from the evidence for the Rapture. Collapse would entail massive die-off of the ill-adapted, which asks us to change our behavior and become better adapted. The Rapture will sweep away the Elect. These details matter: for an evangelical Christian, what happens to the earth is inconsequential; for a primitivist, what happens to the earth is crucical. To dismiss the conclusions we reach based on an assessment of scientific data because similiar predictions have been made in the past from scrutinizing ancient prophecies is simply a logical fallacy.

An assessment of mythic narrative is important, but it's also important to bear in mind the limits of narrative, and what kinds of details do make important differences.

For all you neo-primitivists, who believe that it takes centuries to rebuild depleted soils, I just want to tell you that today I transplanted 100 tomato plants to a patch of soil that 8 years ago could barely support Canada thistle and yarrow. All it took was green manure and lots of labor. Lots of labor.

Well, that's rather the key, isn't it? Like the "mythical man-month," you can always shorten time by increasing labor, or decrease labor by increasing time, but that's not the question. With all that labor you rehabilitated enough soil to grow 100 new tomato plants--and that's great! Congratulations! That's vital, crucial, important, and in another context I'd go on talking about how great that is for several more minutes, but if you're suggesting that this proves that agriculture, as a basis for society, is here to stay, I suggest you look at the scale. All of these arguments are fundamentally about scale. Could you do that for the whole of the Great Plains? Could you do that while simultaneously providing food for all those cities?

Scale matters.

There are lots of ways to improve soil. Heck, I'm building up a permaculture program for the Allegheny Plateau, and one of the first things I found out was how well oyster mushrooms work to clean up oil-soaked soil; I'm a huge fan of bioremediation. But these methods don't lend themselves to mass harvesting or long-distance transportation. They can feed me and my family, and even some of our friends and neighbors, very nicely. But they don't scale. The solutions that work in the future are all permacultural; I have yet to hear a single one that's genuinely agricultural. And the problem with permaculture is that it only scales up to the village level of population density. So where does that leave the cities? Urban permaculture programs are the best hope the cities have, with stronger neighborhood communities, but even that brings back echoes of the Ik in Uganda, or the way archaeologists have characterized post-Roman Britain as "life in towns rather than town life." You're still looking at the functional end of the city, replaced with a number of villages that just happen to be really close to one another.

JMG is correct that agriculture is an evolutionary advance in human society. The proof is simple. Agriculture has displaced hunting-gathering wherever agriculture is viable.

As Bill pointed out, "advance" has little room in actual evolutionary theory. Heck, by that logic, the reindeer of St. Matthew's Island had never had it so good, and an algae bloom is as good as it gets. Evolution often deals in experiments of trial and error, and it's actually pretty common for an experiment to become extremely prolific before it kills itself off.

Neighbor, I agree, and I'd like to see a specific statement like that, as well. It would really help; I'd like to find where, precisely, our disagreements are, and see how much of it is real and how much is misconception. It seems, for instance, that much of our disagreement lies in differing notions of permaculture vs. agriculture.

Vlad said...

neighbor said:
"In a nutshell could you give a very brief description of what you see Jason's narrative as being? I'm not looking for labels such as "apocalyptic" or otherwise, more of a descriptive "map" rather than a title. Likewise, would you do the same for your narrative? Tell me, if you'd be so kind, the plotline that differentiate it from what Jason talks about."

Actually, I'm kind of struggling with this too.

jhereg

John Michael Greer said...

Phadraigin, good point -- "apocalypse" has come to carry a range of connotations it didn't originally have. I don't know of a better word to use for the variety of mythic narrative I've labeled "apocalyptic," but would gladly take suggestions. The "theory of anyway" falls fairly close to my own view, and certainly manages to put the rubber to the road where it belongs.

Alan, my read is that the expansion of leftwing parties in the '30s was pretty much a matter of trying to recover ground lost when the Second International imploded at the opening of the First World War. Still, your broader point is well taken -- times of crisis can open the door to many forms of change. Yes, unfortunately, I hear from a fair number of people -- and not just neoprimitivists -- who think that peak oil is their ticket to Utopia.

Loveandlight, you might want to do some reading in paleoclimatology. The level of temperature change predicted from global warming falls well within the range the planet has been through in the geologically recent past, and amounts to shifting climate bands northward a good deal. Mind you, there are apocalyptic claims being floated about global warming, too, but it's useful to compare those to the actual volume of carbon available in fossil fuels to be burnt -- many of the upper-range predictions assume much more carbon than is available to burn.

Dan, why does it not surprise me that you're a Distributist? Still, good to hear that there's not a lot of apocalyptic Utopianism among Distributists. As for the Long Defeat - that deserves a post all to itself, of course.

Rebecca, no argument there.

Neighbor, see the end of the post, where I've tried to answer your question in full.

Dwig, it's very precisely a matter of incommensurability, but from my perspective, it's an incommensurability of levels of discourse, rather than terms. More on this below.

Jason, what you're dismissing as pigeonholing is the core of what I'm trying to discuss here -- talking about narratives as narratives, comparing current narratives to older equivalents, and drawing conclusions based on that. I'm not surprised that you consider it unfair, as it doesn't support your project very well, but it's been the central theme of this blog all along. The "quality of information" used to support different versions of the same myth simply shows who's better at cherrypicking data to fit their narrative; I assure you that I've encountered Marxists who have just as many citations to back their prophecy as you have to back yours.

This is why I haven't been willing to get into a data-heaping match. Since you insist on violating Godwin's rule, though, I'll take the liberty of pointing out that the core narrative of German national socialism, far from being a cyclic myth, is yet another version of the standard apocalyptic narrative -- the imaginary paradise of Aryan racial purity fills the role you've given to the hunter-gatherer societies of the prehistoric past, the Jews that of civilization, the Final Solution that of the collapse of civilization, and so on. You might want to look at Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's excellent studies of Nazi and neo-Nazi ideology for a good survey of this.

Still, Dwig is right; we're basically talking past each other, because I'm trying to pursue a discussion on one level and you want to pursue it on another. I think I can answer Neighbor and Vlad and clarify what I see as the core differences between our points of view.

Your narrative -- and please correct me if I'm wrong -- runs something very much like this:

Hunting and gathering is the best and most natural way for human beings to live. Agriculture, and the civilized way of life that grows out of it, is unnatural and harmful to human beings and the earth alike. The invention of agriculture launched humanity into a downward spiral of violence and ecological degradation, which is reaching its final culmination in industrial society, the most extreme form of the project of civilization. Since industrial society is using up all the resources that would allow any future society to engage in agriculture or build a civilized society, industrialism is also inevitably the last form of civilization, and will be followed with equal inevitability by a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles and a restoration of harmony between human beings and the earth.

What I'm trying to say, by contrast, is something closer to this:

Industrial society is rapidly using up the cheap abundant energy that allowed it to come into being in the first place. Since none of the proposed alternatives seem to offer more than a fraction of the energies our civilization gets from fossil fuels, it's very likely - not certain, but very likely - that the industrial form of society will go into decline once its primary resources become too scarce to support it. This is not a new thing; many human societies have undergone the same sort of decline we're likely to undergo, and we can draw useful lessons from their experience. The most important of those lessons is that there is no fixed narrative that the future has to follow. Narratives are tools to think with. Those that have proved useful in previous situations like ours are probably going to be more helpful than ones that have usually resulted in failure or disaster. Our choice of narratives and actions, not some form of historical determinism, will shape the future that will emerge after industrial society has finished its slow descent.

Not just two different stories, but stories on two different levels. Yours is a universal story, one that claims to include all of human experience -- if there's a part of the world where civilization is actually a better option than hunting and gathering, for example, your narrative falls apart completely. Mine is much more restricted; it simply says that here we are, here's what will likely (not "inevitably") happen if things go on the way they are, here's some things we can probably do in response. At the same time, you're approaching narratives as statements of fact -- this narrative is true, that one isn't -- and I'm trying to approach them as tools -- this one usually has these effects, are you sure you want to use it here and now? It's no wonder there's little agreement between us.

John Michael Greer said...

Oh, and Jason, you're really begging the question in dismissing Danby's comment on soil improvement so flippantly. Can Danby all by himself improve the soil on the Great Plains? Of course not. Could thirty million homesteaders, using the same techniques he's used, do so? Of course. Thus his point stands; damaged soils can be improved rapidly using methods that will be readily available in a deindustrial society, and this means that your insistence that agriculture can't be viable in the future rests on air.

More generally, your characterization of agriculture as an evolutionary failure is an interpretation derived from your narrative, not a simple matter of fact. It would be just as easy to argue that we're seeing the first archaeopteryx-flappings of a new evolutionary venture; doubtless those first Jurassic birds didn't fly very well, either, and ran into trees and the mouths of hungry dinosaurs often enough. So? It takes time -- rather more than 8000 years -- to perfect a leap forward that radical, and the evolution of organic agriculture in recent years has shown that there are plenty of ways agriculture can respond to the problems of the present and near future.

No, I'm not saying that this alternative narrative is "true" - I'm saying that it's just as defensible as yours. One of the points Kuhn raises in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as I recall, is that it's possible to propose an infinite number of hypotheses to explain any given data set. This is another reason why arguing over the facts cited to support a narrative is less useful than it looks; the same facts, arranged in a different narrative, lead to completely different conclusions.

Bill Pulliam said...

Now, now JMG, there you go slipping into teleological evolutionary thinking! Those first feathery dinosaur-like critters weren't evolving with the objective of learning to soar like eagles. They were just as adapted to their own particular niche and life history as a hummingbird or swallow is today. Whatever the selective force was that first caused scales to turn into feathers, it was not looking forward to catching a thermal and sailing across pangea. Perhaps it was just trying to keep a little warmer at night to maintain a higher body temperature; then the selection might have been for fluffier forelimbs to help jump higher after flying bugs, then maybe longer feathers for sailing jumps, etc., etc. The point is, there was no goal, each step was adaptive in the present, not striving for a future.

Of course I know you were really just engaging in a little rhetorical license to make a cute and funny metaphor. But I thought I'd grab your metaphor by its prototypical tail feathers. Because the comparison is valid: In spite of extensive rhetoric about the future, in fact societies exist in the present and must adapt and function within current circumstances under contemporary stresses and influences. Societies are of course evolving into something new all the time, but they must also serve for their present occupants. If they don't keep the basic functions going they won't persist. No matter how much some societal change might be of benefit in advancing towards a future utopia, if it does not yield a fully functional society at every intermediate step before acheiving that goal, it won't happen.

This is a point that seems so obvious, yet is so often missed. People will not give up their MallWart Supercenters in exchange for tilling and hoeing and sweating until the later becomes a better immediate option than the former. You can preach about the future end times as much as you want, but until the tradeoff become immediate, tangible, and undeniable in real time, society en mass will not make such a fundamental shift. Conversely, if the tradeoffs do become all those things, then society will make that shift, possible quite rapidly. But if the forces push in some other direction, society will go that way instead, no matter how much anyone's morality, logic, and iron-clad predictive models of the long-term impacts scream otherwise.

Individuals, and even entire communities and subcultures, can quite easily adopt alternative ways of living vastly different from the societal norms. But society as a whole won't follow until and unless it is shoved that way by immediacy and urgent necessity.

I think this was embodied in your concept of Cycles of Sustainability. In response to new stresses, society responds and adapts to those stresses and then likely stabilizes for a while. Then the stresses change, and society must change again, but only as far as is necessary to reestablish and maintain fundamental functionality, not in a great leap into some vastly altered ideal. A lizard did not lay an egg that hatched into a turtle.

mixwiz said...

Hi John - As wars rage in congress over internet freedom, you comment is particularly apropos, "Times of economic contraction, by contrast, tend to foster reactionary politics – consider the spread of totalitarian regimes across Europe in the decade that followed the stock market crash of 1929."

As a global death matches ensue for remaining energy resources, free global internet will be crucial is freedom is to survive.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, good heavens -- a trap laid for one heffalump caught a very different one. I never said I believed in the evolutionary narrative of farming I proposed -- rather, it makes as much sense as Jason's, and displays the same logical mistake in a different direction. But I do think that it's quite possible that Mesozoic birds didn't fly as well as later ones, because selective pressure would push in the direction of greater effectiveness over time, up to a point of diminishing returns. In the same way, farming technology has probably not yet achieved its optimum effectiveness, simply because it hasn't been around that long yet and still has to work out a few remaining bugs.

Mixwiz, I don't expect the internet to survive very long on the downside of Hubbert's peak, so we had better hope there are other alternatives. Fortunately, liberty loads and plays just fine on older technologies, too.

phadraigin said...

JMG: "I don't know of a better word to use for the variety of mythic narrative I've labeled "apocalyptic," but would gladly take suggestions."

how about Apocalyptopians? the general meaning being "those who expect that the end of our age will certainly result in one specific and inevitable Utopian future reality."

this fits the more popular "Left Behind" dumbed down version of some of the revenge/rescue-focused Christians in America today, as well as any others who might demand that there is ONLY ONE RIGHT WAY to react to the changes we see beginning around us.

my belief, and hope, is that there will be *many* Right Ways, that can co-exist, and learn/teach one another.

if we have anything on our side as humans, it is the possibility of flexibility, variety, adaptation. just as mono-crop agriculture is foolish in that it puts all hopes into One Story, i think our Narratives should be careful not to do the same. the more paths we pursue, the better chance that some of them will actually work.

in my opinion, Jason does not fall under the Apocalyptopian definition.

i think what he's trying to do, may well work for some, and hopefully it will work for him and those with him. but it is not the only way that *might* work, and probably his way would work best if it can coexist with permaculturally based villages, and (because i am partial to them) at least a few small city-like centers of stored knowledge and exchange of ideas and goods and services.

but now i'm wanting a word to describe those who expect that "Apocalypse" must result in Hell on Earth, and the War of All Against All!

Bill Pulliam said...

Well, my comment was directed more at your readers who seem to feel (or, perhaps, hope) that social evolution can be directed by theory and principle; or indeed, can be directed at all. Personally I actually think analogies between biological evolution and cultural evolution are fundamentally misguided. The two processes happen by completely different mechanisms. A swallow can't look at a hummingbird and say "Hey, that's cool, I'll learn to fly like that and grow a long tubular bill so I can eat nectar too!" However, societies can and do evolve in just that way. So there's many probems with comparison of the two.

But, y'all brought the metaphor up, so I thought I'd stretch it out a little thinner...

Loveandlight said...

I don't look forward to living in a Wisconsin whose climate resembles Mississippi of the present day, but at least there's a knowledge-base for how to deal with living in a Mississippi-like climate. (I wonder if there's a primitive way to make Mint Julips? ;-D )

John Michael Greer said...

Phadraigin, I have no problem at all with people who say, "hunting and gathering is the way for me, and I want to help make it an option in the future." There are places on earth where, lacking cheap abundant fossil fuels, it's clearly the best way for human beings to live. My objection is the attempt to claim that it's the only option. Or that anything else is the only option, for that matter.

Bill, granted, as with any metaphor, the attempt to explain cultural evolution using biological evolution as a model turns into a Wonderland croquet game if you take it too literally.

Loveandlight, a mint julep can be made with very primitive technology. You need a simple pot still for the booze, sugar cane for the sugar, and mint leaves for the mint. As you sit by the door of your thatched-root hut, enjoying the balmy 85-degree weather on a March day in post-global-warming Wisconsin, you can certainly plan on sipping one! ;-)

Bill Pulliam said...

Ya know, I've lived in the South most of my life, and I don't think I've ever even seen a mint julep...

locke said...

I have no problem at all with people who say, "hunting and gathering is the way for me, and I want to help make it an option in the future." There are places on earth where, lacking cheap abundant fossil fuels, it's clearly the best way for human beings to live. My objection is the attempt to claim that it's the only option. Or that anything else is the only option, for that matter.

John,
My problem with agriculture and civilization is that it has a long history of expanding and of being intolerant of other ways of living. So when you defend it so ardently it scares me somewhat.

Alan said...

JMG: "I'll take the liberty of pointing out that the core narrative of
German national socialism, far from being a cyclic myth, is yet another
version of the standard apocalyptic narrative -- the imaginary paradise of
Aryan racial purity fills the role you've given to the hunter-gatherer
societies of the prehistoric past, the Jews that of civilization, the Final
Solution that of the collapse of civilization, and so on. You might want to
look at Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's excellent studies of Nazi and neo-Nazi
ideology for a good survey of this."

I don't know what defines the "core" narrative of German national
socialism. But even Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke discussed the
cyclic view of history as an aspect of national socialist ideas:

http://www.vaidilute.com/books/savitri/savitri-info.html ---
"The Lightning and the Sun (1958) [by Savitri Devi]...synthesizes National
Socialism and the Aryan cyclical theory of history....
Savitri Devi believed that it was impossible to understand National
Socialism apart from the cyclic conception of history suggested by Hindu
tradition. She considered that Hitler’s vision ultimately transcended even
Germany and the Aryan race. The Nazi philosophy set at nought man’s
intellectual conceit, his naive pride in “progress,” and his futile
attempts to enslave nature and instead made the mysterious and unfailing
impersonal wisdom of forests, oceans, and outer space the basis of a global
regeneration policy for an overcrowded, overcivilized, and technically
overdeveloped world at the end of the Kali Yuga." etc.

Also, Devi's book is online:
http://www.vaidilute.com/books/savitri/savitri-contents.html
the first chapter deals with the cyclic view of history:
http://www.vaidilute.com/books/savitri/savitri-01.html

PS: Yes, I confess to a neurotic fascination with this genre of stuff.
Me and some millions of other people, apparently.

PSS: we now return to our regularly-scheduled discussion of the
grinding collapse of industrial modernity, etc., etc.

Rabbit Mountain said...

JMG -- I still don't see the narrative in your description of your narrative. It looks to me more like a position statement.

Doesn't a narrative need a beginning, middle, end, and plot? Are you dispensing not only with facts, but with the structure of narrative itself?

I don't really understand what you're trying to accomplish, but in the interest of constructive criticism, I think you're running up against a usability issue here. You keep talking about narratives as tools -- but tools need to be "usable" or no one will use them. You say your tool is a narrative but it does not look like any narrative to which most people have been exposed.

If you want people to operate on your (presumably higher) level, you will need to provide some end-user documentation. At the very least we need what the usability profession calls a 'conceptual model.' Is your tool similar to some other tool? What can people do with it? Without this, people are going to start concluding your tool is of no practical value. I'm very close to concluding this myself.

Dwig said...

JMG said I don't expect the internet to survive very long on the downside of Hubbert's peak, so we had better hope there are other alternatives.

I've been mulling this over for some time myself. I think, as long as there's a sustainable way to make computers, something can probably be cobbled up (a name I've considered is "The SlowNet", because it'd most likely have considerably less bandwidth than the Internet). In my youth, long before Cyberspace, ham radio operators were the champions of long-distance communication, using mostly home-built rigs. One aspect of the industrial society I'd definitely miss is worldwide communication -- I think it could make a big difference in the nature of the descent.

phadraigin's looking for a word to describe those who expect that "Apocalypse" must result in Hell on Earth, and the War of All Against All!

Maybe the word used by some of the folks over at The Oil Drum: "doomer".

Alan said...

JMG: "It takes time -- rather more than 8000 years -- to perfect a leap
forward that radical, and the evolution of organic agriculture in recent
years has shown that there are plenty of ways agriculture can respond to
the problems of the present and near future."

Yes, well said. I was forced to reconsider my own anti-agriculture bias in
light of readings on the recent accomplishments of the organic crowd and
permaculturists.

Another angle, which I found most uncomfortable, but I am being
compelled, is that of R Fogel, who has written extensively about
the improved health and stature following industrialization. (Book:
"The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America,
and the Third World." Also many articles. Google.) The deal, as I see
it, is that although industrialized foods are undesirably refined, and
this has led to a variety of (rather novel) health problems in the very
rich nations, on balance industrialization has resulted in general
or population-wide nutritional improvements, and these improvements are
clearly evident in the data that Fogel provides. Of course, it is another
question whether or not these gains are, in the large picture, truly
desirable or sustainable; i.e. some of them are surely being bought at
an unacceptable environmental and resource-depletion cost. Nevertheless
it is quite an impressive phenomenon. I suspect also that some portion of
the gain is sustainable, were it possible to jettison the excesses and
wild waste of the industrial system, while retaining those few portions or
aspects with the greatest value. The same is perhaps true of agriculture
itself: while petro-fueled, large-scale, mono-crop (etc) "totalitarian"
agriculture is obviously unsustainable, a much trimmed-down, human
labor-intensive, diverse (etc.) permacultural "agriculture" may be
quite sustainable. We really don't know yet. But as things stand there
is, in my view, little basis for blanket, unqualified rejection of ALL
things modern or neolithic. We actually HAVE learned some things, and
need not repeat all of the same miserable mistakes. Of course, most of us
are such idiots that we WILL repeat all the same miserable mistakes. I'm
just saying we don't HAVE to. ;-)

Alan

Alan said...

JMG: "Alan, my read is that the expansion of leftwing parties in the '30s
was pretty much a matter of trying to recover ground lost when the Second
International imploded at the opening of the First World War."

Well, I've read that comment several times, and pondered, and I cannot
see the relevance. I did not say that historical events did not (do not)
have antecedents that are influential. I only said that the progressive
thrusts of the 1930s in the U.S. were (obviously) not incompatible with
the severe economic contraction going on all around. This was in contrast
to what you intially asserted; i.e. the opposite of that. Perhaps you'd
like to re-cast your initial assertion.

JMG: "Yes, unfortunately, I hear from a fair number of people -- and not just
neoprimitivists -- who think that peak oil is their ticket to Utopia."

Really? After many years of fairly assiduous reading in this area, I've not
found any such. Could you name a few? I am curious as to what they are
saying, specifically.

Myself, I don't think peak oil will lead to any sort of utopia, but I do
think that it is, roughly speaking, a good thing. The excesses of modernity
need to be discarded or at least greatly whittled-down, and peak oil (and
peak nat gas, and peak water, etc., etc.) will be most beneficial in this
regard. IMO. Funny thing, though: very very few people seem to agree with even my
quite conservative formulation -- much less, in my experience, does anyone
think that peak oil will usher-in utopia. So, again, I'd love it if you could
name a few names, or give a few links. I've been looking for this for years,
but not finding. Apart from John Zerzan and his ilk, who thinks that peak
oil is good?

Alan

New Englander said...

Interesting observations.. I've enjoyed your perspective (as presented through Energy Bulletin) mostly because you raise points about a subject I have no use for and usually dismiss out of hand: religion. I confess that I was hoping the post-industrial reality following peak oil would rid us of religion. Now I'll be happy if we can do away with streetlights and big box retail.

Regards

Glenn in Maine

jason said...

It seems as if you're too busy figuring out how to dismiss what I'm saying to actually listen to what I'm saying. A few key examples:

(1) Godwin's Law. To quote another bit of "internet culture," from The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Godwin's Law comments on the tendency of internet exchanges to become increasingly hysterical, until someone declares the enemy a Nazi, or, as Wikipedia puts it, "This is due to the side who invoked the comparison to Hitler or Nazis ramping up the rhetoric to a point where normal discussion is impossible and the discussion ends."

I'm not calling you a Nazi. In fact, I'm saying you're not a Nazi, just like I'm not an evangelical Christian waiting for the Rapture. Now of course, there are some major, important differences between your viewpoint and that of the Nazis. Of course, there are major, important differences between my viewpoint and that of evangelical Christians, differences you keep insisting on dismissing as trivial. But the fact remains that a significant element in the historical formation of the Nazi Party formed from the very same Romantic, agrarian notions that informed the Druidic movement later on. The early ideas about turning away from industrialism, the destructive mythology of progress espoused by industrialism, the return to the agrarian ideal, the bioregionalism of blot und boden and other ideas outlined in the article I linked to above are as similar to your narrative as the evangelical Rapture is to mine--that is to say, similar in broad outline, but crucially different in important details.

(2) You said, "...what you're dismissing as pigeonholing is the core of what I'm trying to discuss here..." Of course, I had said, "...it's certainly a valuable undertaking, but there's also the peril that this can become a rationalization for pigeon-holing and stereotyping, rather than taking the unique details into consideration." How many times do I have to repeat that it's an important pursuit before you'll stop saying I'm dismissing you? It is precisely because it's such an important pursuit that makes it so important to do it right. If I were to pursue the ramifications of your mythical narrative and started really running with the aforementioned Nazi comparison, you would immediately recognize where I was going wrong. Yes, you both agree in a basic agrarian ideal, a rejection of industrialism, bioregionalism, etc., but where the Nazis took this to indict those they saw as lacking a connection to a particular soil (Jews and gypsies, primarily), you take a very different appraoch. Of course, if we're looking at the broad outline of narrative, this is a fairly minor detail--just like the difference that I'm looking at anthropological and scientific data, while Christians are scrutinizing ancient prophecies, is a fairly minor detail. Would you be very content with me sweeping such cherry-picked trivialities off the table, as you do in my case? I doubt it very much; you keep crying "Godwin! Godwin!" just to my suggestion that you shouldn't be compared to the Nazis! An analysis of narrative is not pigeon-holing unless it is done poorly, without respect to the very crucial details that can change the whole outcome of a narrative structure.

In short, all I'm asking for is that you take some time to try to understand what I'm saying, and appreciate the nuances that make different positions actually different. When you don't, then your analysis simply devolves into pigeon-holing, leaving a very important project undone. It's not just a disservice to me and those who believe as I do, but to your own body of work, a disservice that I would not care nearly so much about if it were not so valuable.

In my next comment, I'll respond to your outline of what you take to be my narrative.

Rabbit Mountain said...

JMG -- could your narrative be more properly considered an "antenarrative?" (Note: not "anti-narrative")

"First, antenarrating is both before whatever narratology as a method and theory supplements, frames and imposes onto story. This is oftentimes the requriement for a beginning, middle, and end, complete with a moral and an agreed plot... There are still many meanings to sort out before plot and coherence descend to close off the need for further sensemaking...

"Second, antenarrative gives attention to the speculative, the ambiguity of sensemaking and guessing as to what is happening in the flow of experience. It answers the question "what is going on here?" Antenarrative is constituted out of the flow of lived experience, narrative method is more meta; it is about the storytelling that came before. Narrative is post, a retrospective explanation of storytelling's speculative appreciations...

"Third, antenarrative directs our analytic attention to the flow of storytelling, as a sensemaking to living experience before narrative requires beginnings, middles, or endings....

"Fifth, antenarrative is collective memory before it becomes reified into the story, the consensual narrative. It is before the plots have been agreed to; it is still in a state of coming-to-be; still in flux."

jason said...

Your take on my narrative is more-or-less correct, but I find the emphases awkward, and I feel that may lead to some of your analyses which I find some trouble with. Did you happen to read the response I posted to your post of two weeks ago? There, I pointed to the story of "the Prodigal Son" in Luke 15:11-32 as one I find fairly representative of my views. But allow me to take a look at what you've written here:

Hunting and gathering is the best and most natural way for human beings to live.

This is somewhat too universal. Humans, like anything else, evolve. We evolved as hunter-gatherers. It's our home, it's what we do. Any major change from that will take many hundreds of thousands of years to really adapt to. This is basically correct, but the tone is just a tad too cosmic to really resonate with my view.

Agriculture, and the civilized way of life that grows out of it, is unnatural and harmful to human beings and the earth alike.

Again, natural vs. unnatural have little meaning for me or most other primitivists. But we do see agriculture as an abandonment of humanity's evolutionary heritage, and the problems that follow largely being of maladaptation--trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

The invention of agriculture launched humanity into a downward spiral of violence and ecological degradation, which is reaching its final culmination in industrial society, the most extreme form of the project of civilization.

This I can largely agree with--these problems being largely the consequence of humans denied their human nature--again, the problem of a square peg in a round hole.

Since industrial society is using up all the resources that would allow any future society to engage in agriculture or build a civilized society, industrialism is also inevitably the last form of civilization, and will be followed with equal inevitability by a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles and a restoration of harmony between human beings and the earth.

This is a somewhat smaller point, one I wouldn't really put into such a basic "statement of vision." Rather, the larger emphasis is on agriculture as a passing blip, "a brief disturbance in the force," an example of overshoot, no more, no less. The exhaustion of resources is one reason why, but from the long view, it really has more to do with the fact that by our narrative, the narrative that civilization is humanity's true destiny is a delusion born from a lack of historical perspective.

I've tried to condense my narrative before; The Thirty Theses were the product of such an attempt to break my view down into 30 statements I could defend. But if I were to try to express my own narrative in such terms, I think it would go more like this:

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers and permaculturalists, no better or worse than any other. At the beginning of the Holocene interglacial, though, some groups threw off their whole evolutionary heritage and began living in a wildly different and unhuman way. Of course, humans don't do very well living in ways that aren't human, so ecological destruction followed. But this is ultimately an abberation; we live in a historical anomoly. Ultimately, this blip is self-defeating and unsustainable, and humanity will live like humans again, probably sooner rather than later.

So, my narrative is much more of a curve with some "goodness of fit," than the universal rule you seem to take it for. I fully expect some isolated pockets to be farming and building cities even 500 years from now.

Of course, we may also be using very different terms. In the thread following my aforementioned response, Geoff made some comments about agriculture and horticulture, to which I responded with a clarification on how they differ. In short, I reject the idea that degree of modification is a useful criteria--"modification" is far too broad. The better question is what kind of modification we're using. The difference between agriculture and permaculture is that agriculutre is geared towards repressing succession (Manning's catastrophism, the plow as portable natural disaster replicator), while permaculture helps succession along. Thus, the dividing line between the hunter-gatherer/permacultural continuum and agriculture becomes, "When you're done, is your landbase richer or poorer for what you've done?" That makes agriculture unsustainable by definition, because it's the set of techniques that diminish an ecology. And yet, this is also the criteria one finds among traditional peoples, and I believe it's really the only criteria that matters. Certainly everything we normally think of as farming--tilling, monocropping, domestication, etc.--falls under this definition of agriculture, while every technique you've so far mentioned of a "sustainable agriculture" is an established permacultural technique. This is why the result of my long correspondence with Toby Hemenway helped to inspire him to write, "Is 'Sustainable Agriculture' an Oxymoron?"

Does this reduce this all to an argument over semantics? I don't think so; I think the difference in semantics reflects a pernicious little narrative of the "untrammeled wilderness." I've outlined this in greater depth in the aforementioned comment, so I won't take up more space here except to direct interested parties there for a deeper explanation.

jason said...

And finally, some direct responses to comments.

Oh, and Jason, you're really begging the question in dismissing Danby's comment on soil improvement so flippantly. Can Danby all by himself improve the soil on the Great Plains? Of course not. Could thirty million homesteaders, using the same techniques he's used, do so? Of course.

Of course not--how much land does it take to grow 100 tomato plants? 100 square feet? So, 30 million homesteaders could restore 3 trillion feet of soil. That's a little over 107 square miles. That's less than 9% of Rhode Island. To do that just for Texas would take 72 billion people, 12 times today's already bloated world population. And that would still leave most of the Great Plains barren, with only Texas restored.

It's not a dismissal at all; soil regeneration will be vital to our future. But as Danby pointed out, it takes a lot of work. Restoring the soil for your own permaculture garden, helping the ecology of your own range, these things will be vital. But it is simply beyond our capacity to repair the damage we've caused.

No, I'm not saying that this alternative narrative is "true" - I'm saying that it's just as defensible as yours.

Except that it's not. Archaeopteryx was not an oxymoron, as agriculture is. Note, I'm not saying cultivation, but agriculture. Making your living by mimicking a natural disaster, by destroying your land base. Evolution often takes time, a lot longer than a mere 10,000 years, but it makes mistakes, too. That narrative is not as defensible as mine because it doesn't take the facts into consideration.

One of the points Kuhn raises in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as I recall, is that it's possible to propose an infinite number of hypotheses to explain any given data set.

He did, and I think that's true. But infinite is not unlimited. A hypothesis does need to account for the facts. Those facts can be accounted for by an infinite number of permutations, but any good hypothesis in that infinite set must explain those data points. There's also an infinite set of narratives that would not make viable hypotheses, because they don't account for the data.

One of the points Kuhn raises in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as I recall, is that it's possible to propose an infinite number of hypotheses to explain any given data set.

Perhaps, but that's precisely why discussing them is so important. Even if you don't accept another's hypothesis, a healthy respect for the validity of other hypotheses is how you learn other stories, which, as you say, is the root of wisdom.

...But I do think that it's quite possible that Mesozoic birds didn't fly as well as later ones, because selective pressure would push in the direction of greater effectiveness over time, up to a point of diminishing returns.

Funny, "No one right way to live," is practically the battle cry for Daniel Quinn, the primitivist author who most inspired me. I think that given our history, hunting and gathering will likely be the most adaptable way of life in the future, just as it has been in the past. And I also think that agriculture is coming to an end. Of course, "hunting and gathering" encompasses a huge plethora of cultures and ways of life, from the Inuit to the Plains Indians to the Kwakiutl to the Pygmies to the Bushmen to the Australian Aborigines, etc. They account for nearly all of the cultural diversity in the human species. By the same token, agriculture is remarkably homogenous around the world; a small handful of social ruminants and an equally small handful of cereal grains, all depending on the mimicry of natural disasters to suppress succession, creating large pools of poor, hungry, malnourished peasants who go to an early grave, ruled over by 10% of the population who gets to rule as elites. Drop ot somewhere around 8%, or rise up as high as 12% like the Maya did, and your civilization collapses. Permaculture may work in the long term; it's only been 10,000 years so it's difficult to say, but it certainly shows promise so far. But I'm not saying there's one right way to live, heavens no. I'm saying that this one, the one we're in, is suicidal.

...at least a few small city-like centers of stored knowledge and exchange of ideas and goods and services.

There are some interesting permutations that the future will undoubtedly take on. Some that I anticipate include:

(1) The regional fairs, being the "TAZ" approach to cities. Huge festivals that gather thousands together for a brief period, and then disperse before the ecological toll becomes too great.

(2) The Holy City. Some of the early civilizations in the Andes began with ritual centers fed by devout neighboring tribes. Another variant is the Trade City, like Cahokia.

My objection is the attempt to claim that it's the only option. Or that anything else is the only option, for that matter.

That hasn't been my position. I'm just as excited about permaculture, even moreso in the short term. Of course, permaculture dovetails very nicely and easily with hunting and gathering. I don't have one option for the future; I just know one thing that doesn't work. That it happens to be the way that nearly all of us are living is a cause for some concern, but the future is myriad. The fact that we've lumped such a huge diversity of lifeways under a single heading is deceptive. You might as well call it "not-cultivating," because it includes anything and everything else.

...sugar cane for the sugar...

There are plenty of substitutes for this, too, such as stevia. We've got a great little stevia plant that I hope will one day be Grandfather Stevia to a whole load of stevia plants to sweeten the days of my grandchildren. :)

My problem with agriculture and civilization is that it has a long history of expanding and of being intolerant of other ways of living. So when you defend it so ardently it scares me somewhat.

Aye. It's easy to see why farmers are fundamentally incapable of living side-by-side with anyone other than themselves, and we've certainly seen that played out in history. I live in Pennsylvania, "the Quaker State." The Society of Friends very much wanted to deal fairly with the Indians. But they couldn't, as much as they tried. They tried to sue on behalf of the Cornplanter Seneca when the Army Corps of Engineers started building Kinzua Dam, for instance, but it didn't do any good. Today, Pennsylvania has no Indian reservations. It's not a matter of narrative, myth or vision--when your way of life is fundamentally incapable of co-existence with any other way of life, you will be compelled to annihilate all other ways of life, whether you want to or not. Even when groups that didn't want to were in charge, they couldn't stop it. Pennsylvania's colonial history is a fine llustration of that.

Carpool Crew said...

I would agree that it is harder to fall to the ground from a skyscraper than it is from the curb.

Just look at the way Paris Hilton cried for her mom and lawyers upon finding out she's returning to jail, while others who have been there before have grown quite fond of the food.

All in all, if world leaders would communicate the realities of Peak Oil to everyone, what would happen?

Chaos theory dictates a plethora of scenarios... but some facts remain true:

1) Food, water, & shelter from the elements are needed for survival

2) Not many people are actively engaged in growing food or securing water

3) Nuclear submarines will have to eventually dock somewhere

John Michael Greer said...

Locke, that makes two of us; I get nervous when some neoprimitivists insist there's no room for anybody but hunters and gatherers in the brave new world of the future.

Rabbit, you've almost got it. I'm not presenting a narrative; my point is exactly that getting stuck in a single narrative is counterproductive. Your concept of antenarrative is a good starting place for discussion, though. As for end user documentation, that's what I've been trying to do on this blog for the last year...

Dwig, I've heard of some of these projects; if they can be made to work with equipment that can be made using the simpler tools that will likely be available in deindustrial society, that would be great. I expect radio to remain viable over the long term, so at least a communications net ought to be possible.

Alan, your comment on agriculture fits my views closely. One of my objections to the whole range of romanticizations of the past - neoprimitive, agrarian, or what have you - is that they ignore the positive achievements of modern society. Of course there have been negative as well as positive sides to industrialism, but the point of this blog isn't to denounce industrial society - it's to suggest that, for good or ill, it's drawing to its close, and we really ought to think about what might come after it.

I would be happiest if we could preserve as much as possible of the cultural, intellectual, and practical heritage of modernity into the deindustrial era; how that heritage will be put to use will have to change in the absence of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy, but it might just keep us from making some of the same miserable mistakes, to borrow your useful phrase.

As for the leftists in the 1930s, sorry if I was too cryptic. What I was trying to say is that the left suffered a huge loss of prestige and influence at the time of the First World War, for reasons that would take us rather far off topic, and the communist and socialist parties of Europe were still recovering from that in the early 30s - thus some degree of growth during that time could be expected, as a new generation came within reach of propaganda. My reading (which admittedly was a long time ago) suggested that those gains were rather limited; the left never got as big or as influential as it was before the First World War, and so the difference in economic conditions seemed like one relevant factor.

It's also instructive to compare the number of countries in the Western world that made a significant leftward shift during the 30s with the much larger number that moved to the right. The US was as I recall nearly alone in embracing a leftist agenda, while something not much short of a dozen European countries fell under far right totalitarian rule. Not much there to support the claim that the Great Depression was empowering for the left.

As for peak oil Utopians, good heavens, do you think I keep them on file? I roll my eyes and hit the delete button. Most of the ones I've seen so far, other than the neoprimitivists, either insist that peak oil will bring about a solar powered agrarian Ecotopia or go to the other end of the political spectrum and expect it to bring a conservative utopia with precious metal currency, small government, and no immigration.

Jason, I'm not even going to bother. I've already stated my disagreements with your views; you've explained why you don't think my criticisms apply, which is of course your right, but doesn't change the fact that your arguments fail to convince me; we could go around and around, but what's the point? Equally, I could hash through why it's a use of Nazism as rhetorical bogeyman to claim "Linking my narrative with its sources in Christian apocalyptic is equivalent to equating your religious tradition with Nazism," but I don't see any reason to think that would sink in, either.

For more than a month now you've insisted on dragging every conversation here back around to why you think your particular apocalyptic narrative is true. There are plenty of other forums, starting with your own website (that's www.anthropik.com, for anyone who hasn't found it yet and wants to hear more of Jason's theories), where you can hold forth to your heart's content, so I think at this point I'm going to have to ask you to leave. This forum exists to talk about other things, and the conversations I'm trying to foster are getting drowned out by your attempts to make yourself and your views the center of attention. 'Nuf said.

bryant said...

Thank you JMG.

I like Jason and I appreciate his vision, but I believe his posts miss the point of your blog. As you said, we're "talking about narratives as narratives, comparing current narratives to older equivalents, and drawing conclusions based on that.".

I, for one, am getting tired of reading repetitive and seemingly endless posts on his vision, followed by point-by-point replies to all criticisms.

While it would be nice if he could detail the specifics of neoprimitivism at his web site and talk about narratives here, that just does not seem to happen. I wish it would though, as he is a smart guy with a lot to offer.

bryant said...

Ok, now that I've criticized Jason for talking details instead of narratives...

I find using humanure and deep mulch can increase the tilth of the soil very quickly, and over a substantial area. I live on the boulder/cobble/gravel-nightmare remaining after the glacial floods of the last ice age. Double digging and trying to improve this soil is a complete waste of time. We build soil ”up” and it works great.

The added benefit of humanure is that you get the manure-loving mushrooms like Agaricus bisporus (crimini or button) fruiting in the garden. Go to the garden; collect eggs, mushrooms and chives, return to kitchen for omelet…nice.

John Michael Greer said...

Bryant, I've got no problem with details. Narratives of the sort we're discussing are made up out of the sort of details you've cited here, and it's useful to have a sense of what people have actually done. For that matter, I have no problem with people bringing in their own narratives of the future in the course of discussion -- quite a few of the regular posters here have done that, and the conversation has gained by it. It's when discussion turns into grandstanding that I have to draw the line.

I had a very similar experience to yours gardening on a hilltop in Seattle, where the soil was compact glacial hardpan that wouldn't even support weeds. Since we were renting, we didn't have the option of using humanure, but composted kitchen waste did the job. It took us two years and not all that much work to turn barren ground into a lush herb and vegetable garden. No mushrooms, though!

Matt said...

I feel like I have a larger response to both the original essay and John's response, but for now I'll just throw this out there:

Reclaim the Future.

As far as environmentalism, they're definitely optimists, meaning I've never really seen the words "peak oil" associated with them. I mention them mostly because the man who's in charge of it, Van Jones, who some of you may have heard of, has, I think, a good grasp on these same issues and is working almost exclusively in poorer neighborhoods (Oakland, CA, to specific) with non-white populations. So, that's a positive note, I think.

More later, maybe.

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, thanks for posting a link - a good way to allow people who are interested to follow up on the topic.

This is very promising. I hope Van and the others associated with the project do get around to dealing with peak oil and the other limits to growth, as that's not something the future is likely to allow us to avoid.

jewishfarmer said...

Interesting discussion. I would note, though, that I think everyone here is throwing the word apocalypse around fairly freely. I personally, for example, don't believe that peak oil *is* an apocalypse of any sort, particularly the narrative one.

Becoming poor, which is, I believe, the most likely outcome of peak oil - to paraphrase Freud, experiencing what few Americans have "ordinary human poverty" of the sort that truly poor folk all over the world experience - is not apocalyptic, it is merely difficult.

That is, the notion that peak oil can help move people towards political change is rather different than the notion that the world will become radically other than what it has been. I agree that for those of us in rich nations, the world we live in will look rather different. But this transformation is mostly a re-creation of our own collective past (in 1940, for example, 1/5 of the US had no electricity or running water, few people made more than 1K per year, and less than 1 percent made the equivalent in today's dollars of a million dollars a year), and a revisiting of what we've done to other people.

I like the stuff you do with narrative, but I do wonder whether it wouldn't be worth questioning the very usage of the term apocalyptic, and similar assumptions.

Cheers,

Sharon

John Michael Greer said...

Sharon, you've actually hit on one of the central themes of this blog. I've been suggesting for a while now that the apocalyptic mythos so common today - basically a rehash of the Book of Revelation in secular drag - has become a straitjacket around the western world's collective imagination of its own future. You might want to take a look at the third part of my review of David Korten's The Great Turning or my post Immanentizing the Eschaton for the background to this week's conversation.

Of course peak oil isn't the apocalypse. It most likely marks the beginning of the end of the industrial economy, and thus of the social forms that grew up around that mode of production; there will be quite a bit of change over the next century or two as a world used to cheap abundant energy has to get used to getting by on a lot less; some of that change will likely take the form of discontinuities of various kinds - economic, political, and technological. None of that justifies the apocalyptic fantasies that have taken peak oil as their latest excuse.

So your point is well taken -- what we're facing in the future is simply a matter of most people becoming poorer than they are today, and having to go back (or forward) to less extravagant ways of living. For many people these days, that prospect is depressing enough that it's no wonder apocalyptic fantasies are so popular!

Fergal said...

I don't look forward to living in a Wisconsin whose climate resembles Mississippi of the present day, but at least there's a knowledge-base for how to deal with living in a Mississippi-like climate.

Actually that might not be such a bad thing. 90+ degree temperatures, though annoying, don't seem as life-threatening as below-zero temperatures. And you get a longer growing season too.

Apologies if this is getting too far off-topic, but that is one thing I've been trying to comprehend lately. Once it's no longer practical to heat homes in places like Wisconsin or Minnesota with natural gas, coal, etc., will it even be practical to live there? I'm not sure wood heat would be much of an alternative. I read somewhere that it takes 10 acres of forest to sustainably provide enough wood for heat for a single dwelling. Not sure what size dwelling or in what climate that refers to, but it doesn't seem like wood heat would support a very dense population at all. Wasn't the USA already becoming rapidly deforested with only a quarter of the current population?

Jean-Michel said...

JMG,

A few comments based on previous exchanges.

OK, you are probably right, the 70s were the window of opportunity for a smooth change. Yes, we are about to take a sharp dip, in material terms.


So far, so good.

But after that, I favour a dynamic vision of the future. I believe everything is possible.

We shall first see the ''lifting of the veil'', that is the system is about to receive a shock either internal or external. There is nothing we can do about it anymore.

In other words, we are at an evolutive threshold, sort of ''mankind final exam'' as Dwig calls it.



I call it the ''bifurcation'', the moment when the shift of paradigm occurs, when small instabilities can send the system in completely different futures.

Our thoughts play a critical role in the determination of the future, because they modify our actions.

It is the moment when, we must turn towards the inside to find the right intuitions, the right solutions.

What we do today will shape the profile of your catabolic collapse curve.

There are futures where incredible scientific discoveries can still be made, especially in the field of consciousness.

ET are the wild cards. You like to joke about the ''space brothers'', so do I, but have you heard about Fermi paradox? If there are civilizations in the universe, where are they? They should already be here.

Maybe, if we pass this "mankind final exam", if we prove to them that we can master our destructive instincts by ourselves, they will show up? Who knows?

Therefore, it not absurd to believe that those who get ready have more influence than those who let others decide for them, including those who communicate with the "space brothers".

I believe, we are about to enter uncharted territories in every sense of the word. Looking back at previous ideologies or beliefs is of no help. We have never been in that situation before: too many people on a crowded and dying place.

The narrative will be told by shamans. Maybe, many among you have read Bill Herbst newsletter or have heard about James Gilliland. These are two examples that I find quite interesting. There are also the full range of indian prophecies which are conceptually interesting
(The West is not able to grasp the concept of change meaningfully, but indians are). We must look in that type of direction for the right story, the one that motivates people. It has nothing to do with politics or any other sophisticated type of thinking. I read Sharon Astyk posts every week, but I do feel she is ''too political'' to be effective. The effective narrative is about letting go, not about holding power.



Evolve or perish...

John Michael Greer said...

Fergal, this is exactly the sort of thinking that needs to happen as the industrial age winds down. It takes around 10 acres of forest to heat a poorly insulated house to what we now consider a comfortable level, if the 10 acres are natural woodland. Make the house energy efficient (earth sheltered, passive solar, etc.) and grow firewood by coppicing, and a small back yard will be enough. The New Alchemy Institute had one of their "arks" in the maritime provinces of Canada, which aren't exactly warm, and needed only a little firewood in the coldest part of the year. So there are ways to make wood heat much more sustainable.

Jean-Michel, I agree that the future isn't set in stone, but I'm too much the ecologist to believe that anything is possible. While there's a lot of positive change that can still happen, the choices of the last few decades have closed off a lot of options.

As for ETs, if they have the sense the gods gave geese, they redlined our solar system about the time the first broadcasts of My Mother the Car reached Proxima Centauri and haven't been back since. To my mind, claims that ETs will show up and bail us out of the consequences of our own mistakes are just another round of Cargo Cult logic, and Carl Jung's analysis of UFOs as psychic projections has a lot more going for it than the claim that they must be spaceships from other worlds. Yes, I'm familiar with Fermi's paradox, but talking about the ways it depends on the mythology of progress would take us very far off topic.

Finally, I disagree that the territory ahead of us is new to our species. Plenty of civilizations and humbler societies as well, right down to the hunter-gatherer level, have used up the resources they depended on for survival, gone into catabolic collapse, and faded out, to be replaced by new societies. That's the situation we're in, too, and we can learn a great deal by paying attention to past examples. It's unpopular to suggest that we can learn from history, not least because history usually teaches lessons we'd rather not learn, but to my mind it's one of the best resources we've got.

Caryl said...

Sorry, I find this post a bit "warm and fuzzy" but I miss your incisive insights here, John. Few seem to want to talk about the moral challenges of oil decline. Even fewer to discuss the ever-diminishing prospects for civilized and humane life which we are seeing today. I feel that people need to get real and talk about how hard it is to maintain standards in international behavior, law, education, art, etc. I believe that what we are seeing today is the collapse of standards across the board, but especially egregious in the case of the USA and the Western powers, and a return to predatory barbarism. It's not pretty, and peak oil can only exacerbate it.

lususnaturae said...

I don't subscribe to a PO/CC narrative - I look at history and assume that humans, for the most part, will probably behave the same way that they always have.

This would suggest that when things get worse, the people at the bottom will suffer the most, until such time (if any) that life becomes so hard across the board that everyone is in the same difficult circumstances; with a possibility of an uprising at some point that strips the wealthy of their advantages - either way, eventually everyone ends up in the same boat...only the timing is different.

At that point, I can see a possibility for change in how we live; a fairer society emerging - but it would likely happen in small groups, since presumably there wouldn't be a cohesive society on a large scale by that time. We would probably see a huge variety of social groups - ranging from strictly religious to miniature democracy to intellectual/artistic to single-sex to local tyrants ruling through fear, etc. In other words, a much smaller-scale version of what we already see in the world now; with some new variations.

(Hunter-gatherer vs. agrarian seems moot, as likely most folks will do both, depending on where they live. The fact that farming may be a bad idea in the human long run won't stop anyone who is hungry from growing potatoes...we can't turn back the clock. Also, it could be argued that whatever humanity comes up with is 'natural' for humans...but that's another topic.)

Unfortunately, for a society to be successful at 'being utopian', (meaning fair, no one better off than others, no one taken advantage of, environment respected, future needs accounted for, etc.) everyone in it, and more imporatantly around it, must think the same way; or at least be willing to respect your rights and leave you alone. Utopia can't last if your neighboring society (or a lot of passers by) are dictatorial, or selfish, or acquisitive, or significantly more forceful or uncaring than you - for example, if they dam the river upstream, so much for your utopia.

The likelihood of this kind of society happening with any lasting success also shrinks in proportion to the number of participants in it. However, if a large number of us instill 'utopian' values in our children, eventually such would probably happen on a larger scale- a very long time from now, after much upheaval and decades of hardship. How long it would last, or how large it could be while remaining true to its principles is anyone's guess.

*I have moderate post-concussive syndrome, so I apologize for typos and poorly-constructed phrases in my posts.

RAS said...

Hey JMG, it might be a good idea to have good definitions for more terms than the apocolyptic narrative. For instance, I don't think most people really understand the difference between an apocalypse (as its meant in vernacular usage), a collapse, and a decline. I must admit to getting confused about the exact differences myself at times.
-Rebecca

Bill Pulliam said...

Make the house energy efficient (earth sheltered, passive solar, etc.)

AND SMALLER!!

The goal in a wood-heated house was not/will not be to maintain 68F in every room. It was/will be to prevent damage to occupants and goods. For the most part this means maintaining temperatures above freezing in the primary spaces, and having warm spots for people who are wet, ill, chilled, old, young, whatever. Healthy vigorous occupants don't need temperatures anywhere near what we keep our houses at now to remain healthy and comfortable. Lemme tell ya, when you come in from zero F outside, that 45F interior with a nice warm woodstove to sit around feels plenty toasty!

Bill Pulliam said...

On the main topic...

This is too much really for just a comment thread, and you've doubtless addressed it elsewhere at length. But I just keep coming back to the question of, how much us the narrative a product of society versus a guiding force of society? The myth of progress seems a quite natural response in the healthiest, wealthiest, most rapidly growing civilization our species had ever seen. Doesn't it inevitably fall out of the fossil-fueled technological boom? And won't another narrative fall out just as naturally from the post-Hubbert contraction? I guess the question is, is it really a straight jacket, or is it a rubber suit that will adjust itself as circumstances change? I'm unsure.

Bill Pulliam said...

Sorry for multiple comments, was away for a bit so multiple streams in the head.

As far as comfort levels and such, it needs to be remembered that (just my opinion) none of us reading or writing on this blog are going to see anything even close to a post-petroleum world. What we are likely to see in the 20 or 40 or 60 years we have left is episodes of scarcity, increasing in magnitude, but intermittent and spotty. We will also see significant accomodation to this scarcity, through many avenues, some of it violent, some of it peaceful and controlled. But probably nearly everything we have now will still be available to some extent, at some price, at the end of our lives. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren (or -nieces, -nephews, and younger cousins 2 and 3 times removed for us childless sorts) will be the old geezers blathering endlessly and tiresomely about the good old days when you just flipped a switch and the house was warm all winter and cool all summer, yada yada yada. Their grandkids will grow up without ever having had this as an expectation, and will be much more content with diminished affluence and comfort levels than we would be if chucked into it cold turkey tomorrow.

John Michael Greer said...

Caryl, no argument there. One of the worst things about periods of decline is the way moral concerns get chucked out like last week's fishwrap when people start to panic about maintaining their standard of living. Of course there's a reaction the other way -- as Toynbee points out, it's not accidental that most of the world's major religions took shape in periods of decline like the one we're heading into.

Lusus, well put - one of the most likely themes in the story of the future is that there won't be just one story of the future, and that opens doors for various kinds of creative work, within the limits of ecological reality.

Rebecca, you're right that terms are bandied about very loosely in this field, as in so many others. I don't know that anybody has hard and fast definitions that would be accepted by everyone. What defines an apocalypse, from my perspective, is that it's the climax of a particular kind of mythic narrative that begins with a paradise of primal innocence, proceeds through some form of fall from grace into a long age of suffering, and then ends with a bang as whatever the story considers evil blows itself up, and paradise returns.

Whenever you've got that sequence -- paradise, fall, suffering, and redemption through destruction -- you've got an apocalyptic myth. Collapse and decline are much more generally applicable terms, and mark the ends of a spectrum of social change; a collapse happens relatively fast, and a decline relatively slowly. Many events in history can be described in either way, depending on where you draw the line.

Since these are general terms, you can have apocalyptic myths that end in collapse, and you can also have apocalyptic myths that end in decline -- though this latter is a good deal less common. On the other hand, there are theories and predictions of collapse and decline that aren't apocalyptic, because they don't import the rest of the myth -- the primal paradise, the Fall, and all that.

Bill, yes, one of the things that shows how unrealistic we've gotten in the US is the preposterous size of new housing. The next round of energy crises ought to put paid to a lot of that.

As far as narratives and societies, well, to some extent it's a chicken and egg scenario. Over time, narratives shift to accommodate experienced reality, but at any given point in time, the narratives we're familiar with can sharply restrict the possibilities we can imagine, and thus act on. During the rising arc of industrial society, the myth of progress worked -- that's why it got so solidly established. The problem is that familiar narratives can stay on for quite a while when the conditions that originally fostered them have long since changed.

You also get narratives that are good at replicating themselves because they appeal to powerful emotional drives, but produce dysfunctional responses to the world. The myth of racial superiority is a good example of a dysfunctional narrative -- emotionally appealing, especially to people of a once-dominant group who feel their status threatened, but self-defeating in every practical sense.

As for your final comment, yes, exactly, and thank you! Nobody alive today will see the arrival of the deindustrial societies of the future; this is one of the core ideas I've been trying to communicate all along. Civilizations take a long time to fall, and the Hubbert curve is a bell-shaped curve -- that means it'll take right around as much time to sink back to zero as it took to rise up from zero in the first place. If peak oil happens in 2010, that means the world will be able to pump about as much oil in 2040 as it did in 1980, as much in 2090 as in 1930, and so on. This is one of the reasons I sometimes get exasperated with people who insist on redefining what I'm trying to say into a narrative of overnight collapse.

Dwig said...

JMG:
Civilizations take a long time to fall, and the Hubbert curve is a bell-shaped curve -- that means it'll take right around as much time to sink back to zero as it took to rise up from zero in the first place. If peak oil happens in 2010, that means the world will be able to pump about as much oil in 2040 as it did in 1980, as much in 2090 as in 1930, and so on.

I wonder if that's necessarily true. Complex adaptive systems can change "modes" pretty rapidly on occasion (e.g., the melting of the glaciers that was thought to take centuries to occur, but recent evidence shows can take place over a few decades). On the way up, you had societies mostly building on past experience, with a confidence that they were doing the right thing, going the right direction. On the way down, you'll have a lot of demoralized, uncertain, and sometimes outright desparate people, which doesn't make for a nice controlled decline. There may be about as much oil to pump in 2040 as 1980, but will we have the necessary social and political relationships and cohesion to keep the extraction and distribution system going?

Which kind of segues into: I've been considering what might be the "internal requirements" for individual and group survival over the timescales you're talking about. I've come up with some strawman "rules of community", which I offer for dialogue:

Rule 1: Don't try to go it alone, or even with a small group of family and/or friends. You need enough people to create a society.

Rule 2: Social cohesion is a crucial factor for success; put differently, you need to create a true community (or leverage an existing one).

Rule 3 (law of requisite variety): You'll need a variety of roles, skills, viewpoints, and personality types. It's true of communities as well as biomes: a rich web of relationships among diverse entities is more survivable than a sparse one or a “monoculture”.

Rule 4: No matter how well you plan for your future, you're going to be surprised. Build a capacity for continuous learning into the community (in Peter Senge's terms, become a learning organization).

Rule 5: In particular, learn to see whole systems, and to understand/perceive cross-time trends, relationships, etc. As an example of the latter, understand the interplay between normal change and revolutionary change; learn to be good at both.

Rule 6: As for individuals, so for communities: don't try to go it alone -- form communities of communities within your region.

Rule 7: In particular, you need enough people within the region to provide a viable breeding population, and to avoid genetic stagnation. Exogamy is good for the genes and, by enriching the web of relationships, for the society.

Rule 8: Aim to thrive, not just eke out a survival. Pessimism and despair have negative survival value. Consider yourselves not refugees from a doomed civilization, but founders of a new one.

Rule 9: That said, allow yourselves occasional time to grieve, to mourn, to remember, and to honor those lost. This will keep them from becoming “elephants in the room”, an unspoken burden on your spirits.

Rule 10: Develop an understanding and acceptance of the role of death in life.

Commentary:

I use the word "rule" with considerable trepidation -- I have no authority to make rules, just to offer what seem to me to be salient points. If you prefer something like "tentative suggestion", please read the above that way.

I'm certainly not the only person to propose community as an important, even crucial factor for long-term survival --- it's a theme that has arisen in many places; however, I haven't seen this kind of focus on the nature of and requirements for a strong community.

This list is definitely not comprehensive; there are certainly other "rules" of this kind that are as important as these. On the other hand, I do think that all of these are necessary elements to have a chance for long-term survival.

bryant said...

If peak oil happens in 2010, that means the world will be able to pump about as much oil in 2040 as it did in 1980, as much in 2090 as in 1930, and so on.

This is true, but somewhat misleading. Global oil production may be less critical than the availability of exportable oil. Westexas's Export Land model on TOD is relevant here. Global oil production in 2040 may be similar to global production in 1980, but oil available for import to the US in 2040 may be quite different from 1980, as exporting countries begin using a greater and greater percentage of their production. In other words, production rates may be as you suggest, but the distribution of that oil may be radically different. Sort of an oil version of “the future has already arrived, it is just not evenly distributed”.

Consider that the US now produces around 5 mbd, about what was produced in 1950. If the US is increasingly forced to rely on domestic production as available exportable oil declines, our situation will be complicated by our advanced state of depletion. Since our utilization is presently 17 mbd greater than our ever-declining production, an ever-decreasing supply of oil from exporting counties hurts the US especially hard. An exporting region like FSU, which consumes less than it’s total production, will be in relatively better shape.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig and Bryant, yes, I thought that would get a reaction! Dwig, of course social change can happen fast, but the payoff to anybody who is able to keep extracting oil is big enough that I suspect there will be takers until the net energy goes so far into negative territory that it's impossible to ignore. Your suggested rules are great, BTW.

Bryant, I'd point out that the only reason the US has to import oil is the fantastically wasteful way we use energy. If Americans used the same amount of energy per capita as Europeans, we'd either break even or still have a bit to export -- I've seen varying statistics on this. Westexas' model is very savvy, and it's something countries with no oil production need to worry about, but the US is still one of the world's largest oil producers, and once the economic and political gimmickry that nets us a quarter of the world's energy resources falls apart -- something I expect to see in my lifetime -- my guess is that we'll figure out how to get by on the still substantial energy resources we've got left.

Alan said...

JMG:
"As for peak oil Utopians, good
heavens, do you think I keep them
on file?"

No, I don't. But I do think it
ought not be too hard to name ONE.

yooper said...

John, I'm not so sure I agree with you're assumption about the same oil production in 2040 as in 1980.

You're comparing apples to oranges here, as any oil pumped in 2040, under the best scenario, would be extremely difficult to get at. 1980 oil, likely was easy to get and of higher quality.

Also of interest, would be assuming that we'd be able to find and equal amount of dicoveries in oil, on the downhill slope of the curve............

stream said...

I'm working with some people in Lawrence, KS (Lawrence Sustainability Network/Peak Oil Action) and I'm sharing your essays with other folks in LSN. I find them to be of great value.

As for the note that if oil production peaks in 2010, then oil production in 2040 will be where it was in 1980, if the depletion curve is Gaussian (which by the way indicates a rapid decline then a slow falloff after the peak). Of course, the population (and thus demand for energy) has increased at least linearly, if not geometrically, over the same time period. Thus we appear to have a constant increase in demand simultaneous with a decrease in supply. If the depletion curve is indeed Gaussian (and not Gaussian with a longish plateau for a "peak"), then we need to look at the amount of oil available for export to the US, i.e. the rise in population and demand for Middle East (and Far East - Indonesian) oil versus the available supply of oil reserves waiting to be pumped out of the ground.

We also need to consider what kinds of oil are available: light, sweet crude from Al Ghawar is likely to be 45 to 50% gasoline, 20% lighter fractions, with low to no sulfur content whereas Venezuelan crude oil has maybe 10% gasoline with relatively high sulfur content. btw, a barrel of oil has 42 US gallons. If 10% of that is gasoline, then a barrel of heavy sour Venezuelan crude might get refined (fractionally distilled) into (say) 4 gallons of gasoline. At $100/barrel, the gasoline might end up costing $10 to $15/gallon, wholesale, assuming the other fractions are salable.

So we really need to look at oil production versus the population-driven demand for energy.

by the way, I'm going to look up your snail mail address and send you a letter if this doesn't work again. It's taken me 15 minutes of trying and after this, I'm giving up...