Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Focusing on short term issues, as I’ve commented more than once in these electronic pages, is a common habit among those concerned about the future of industrial society, and not always a good one. To some extent it’s necessary, since some of the most crucial questions deal with immediate issues like the imminent peaking of world petroleum production. To some extent it’s inescapable, part of the common currency of thought in a society whose movers and shakers think only in terms of the next election or the next quarterly profit statement.

To some extent, too, the grand mythic narratives that dominate the contemporary view of history – the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse – work to foreshorten our view of the future. Both myths insist that the future is predestined – to a heroic destiny among the stars, according to the myth of progress; to cataclysm followed by a return to the good society of the past, according to the myth of apocalypse – and so in either case, all that matters are the short term details, the next wave of technological advance or the next set of rumblings that prove that the great redeeming catastrophe is breathing down our necks. Both these narratives attempt to force history into the Procrustean bed of some form of secular theology; neither one of them, as I’ve argued repeatedly here, offers much in the way of useful guidance for the future taking shape in the circumstances, choices, and missed opportunities of the present.

What does offer useful guidance in our current situation is history. Many other civilizations have overshot their resource base and gone down the same rough slope of decline and fall ahead of us. Set aside the myths that convince us of our own uniqueness, and modern industrial civilization can be seen as just one more example of the type. Ours was made more gargantuan by the combination of luck and cleverness that enabled the industrial revolution to replace sun, wind, water, and muscle with the vast but not limitless supplies of ancient sunlight stored away in the earth’s fossil fuels. Still, the course of decline and fall traces the same trajectory across many different geographical scales; local civilizations restricted to a single bioregion, such as the ancient Maya, rose and fell in much the same way as sprawling empires built on a continental scale such as ancient Rome. It doesn’t require much of a leap to suggest that the same patterns will also shape the fall of a contemporary industrial civilization that includes several continents and dominates, for a brief historical moment, the rest of the planet.

History has plenty of lessons for us, and of course those have been central to the Archdruid Report project all along, but I want to focus on a single issue right now. Partly this is because the issue in question ties into controversies that are getting a lot of airtime in the media just now. Partly, though, it’s because the issue in question points up the importance of taking the long view as we try to make sense of the deindustrial future before us.

It’s fairly common today to think of nations and national cultures as something given, a fixed reality with which historical changes have to deal. Over the short term, this is generally true, though it’s a bit embarrassing for Americans to think this way, given that our nation didn’t exist at all 250 years ago and seized nearly all its current territory from the original owners at gunpoint. Over the long term, though, the combination of culture and territory that defines a national community is a mayfly phenomenon, and analyses that project current national and cultural boundaries very far into the future are likely deluding themselves.

Even in periods of relative stability, populations move, cultures elbow one another out of the way, and nations flow, fuse, and break apart like grease on a hot skillet. A hundred years ago the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were among the major players in world politics – try finding either one on a map today – and Norway had only recently won its independence from Sweden. A hundred years ago the very thought of West Indian or Pakistani immigrant communities in Britain would have drawn blank stares, while a good fraction of the debates over immigration in the United States focused on whether Italians ought to be welcomed or not. Look over the afternoon periods of other civilizations, when people imagined that the current state of affairs would continue forever, and you’ll find similar shifts at work.

When major civilizations disintegrate, though, these changes shift into overdrive. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire offers one of the best documented examples. Outside of Scandinavia, Scotland, and Ireland, practically none of the peoples of Europe stayed put. Before Rome fell, for example, the ancestors of the English lived in Denmark, the ancestors of the French and the northern Italians lived in Germany, the ancestors of the Spanish lived north of the Black Sea, and the ancestors of the Hungarians lived not far from the Gobi Desert. It took most of a thousand years for the rubble to stop bouncing and the new nations of Europe to take shape, and when that finally happened, those nations and cultures had only the most distant connections to what had been there before Rome fell.

German historians of the 19th century coined a useful word for the age of migrations that followed the fall of Rome: Völkerwanderung, “the wandering of peoples.” Drawn by the vacuum left by the implosion of Roman power, and pushed by peoples from the steppes further east driven westward by climate change, whole nations packed their belongings and took to the road. The same thing has happened many other times in the past, though not always on the same vast scale. What makes it important for our present discussion is that we are likely to see a repeat of the phenomenon on an even larger scale in the fairly near future.

The first ripples of this future flood can be seen by anyone who travels by bus through any rural region west of the Mississippi River, as I did a few days ago. Stray very far from the freeways and the tourist towns, and in a great many places you’ll discover that culturally speaking, you’re in Mexico, not the United States. The billboards and window signs are in Spanish, advertising Mexican products, music, and sports teams, and the people on the streets speak Spanish and wear Mexican fashions. It’s popular among Anglophone Americans to think of this sort of thing as purely a phenomenon of the Southwest, but the bus trip I’ve mentioned was in northwestern Oregon. There are some 30 million people of Mexican descent in the US legally, and some very large number – no one seems to agree on what the number is, but 8 million is the lowest figure I’ve heard anyone talking about – who are here illegally. As the migration continues, a very large portion of what is now the United States is becoming something else.

There’s been a great deal of angry rhetoric from all sides of the current debate about immigration from Mexico, of course, but very little of it deals with one of the primary driving forces behind it – the failure of the American settlement of the West. The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to the heartland of the United States didn’t work anything like as well west of the Mississippi. Today the cities, towns, and farms that once spread across the Great Plains in an unbroken carpet are falling apart as their economic basis crumbles and their residents move away, while most of the mountain and basin regions further west survive on tourist dollars, retirement income, or specialized cash crops for distant markets – none of them viable economic bases once cheap energy becomes a thing of the past. Like the Mongol conquest of Russia or the Arab conquest of Spain, the American conquest of the West is proving to be a temporary phenomenon, and as the wave of American settlement recedes, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest society with the population and cultural vitality to take its place.

This isn’t an issue unique to America. The same thing is happening right now in Siberia, where Chinese immigrants are streaming across a long and inadequately guarded border and making the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase. It’s a very common phenomenon when the reach of a powerful nation turns out to exceed its grasp. In a showdown between military power and demography, demography generally wins.

Once again, though, such changes shift into overdrive when civilizations break down. In an age of disintegration, when the political and military power that backs up America’s borders will most likely come unraveled in short order and climate shifts could all too easily hand tens of millions of people in Latin America a choice between migration or starvation, völkerwanderung once again becomes probable. Map the Roman model onto the present and it’s quite conceivable that by the year 2500 or so, the people living in the area of today’s Iowa and Wisconsin might trace their origins to a migration from Brazil, while west of the Mississippi, languages descended from English might only be spoken in a few enclaves in the Pacific Northwest.

Yet history also shows that where maritime technology permits, völkerwanderung can just as easly cross oceans. From the Sea Peoples who ravaged the eastern Mediterranean world around 1300 BCE to the Vikings of the early Middle Ages who left their mark on lands as distant as Greenland, Russia, and Sicily, plenty of migrant peoples have taken to the sea. As the petroleum age winds down, it will leave a great many nations with large populations, limited natural resources, and a strong maritime tradition, with few options other than mass migration by sea. Japan is likely to be the poster child here, though Indonesia is a close second, as Australia is likely to find out the hard way over the next century or so.

Some of these changes are already well under way. Others could very easily begin as soon as the next round of crises hit, especially if the crises include a temporary or permanent implosion of American military power. All of them need to be kept in mind in planning for the future, since options that seem plausible in an age of cultural and national stability may take on a very different character in an age of migrations, and the transmission of knowledge across cultural boundaries becomes a much more important task when those boundaries begin to move – as they will certainly move once the deindustrial age begins.


Christine Lydon said...

I love your phrase "the transmission of knowledge across cultural boundaries", this is something I had not yet thought of. I can imagine that peoples from Mexico (originally from hot sandy Spain) would know how to live in the USA south west much more easily than peoples from lush green northern Europe. I am from England, and I wonder how the black and asian communities will fare, not just because many people dislike and fear imigrants, but also because perhaps aspects of their culture, horticultural knowledge, and physical constitution are not suited to the climate here. There was a news article just the other day about the re-appearance of rickets, caused by lack of vitamin D and lack of the skin's ability to soak up sunlight (of which we have comparatively little!) On the other hand, our climate is becoming at once hotter and dryer, and also more monsoon-like. You may have heard on the news of the rainfall and floods currently being suffered. As a people, we will need to learn about new crops and new ways of managing water, as well as new ways of dressing in the sun and new ways of building homes for all extreme weathers (we have been so spoiled with our climate, the weather was always changing but hardly ever reached extremes).

LizM said...

So true! I am reminded of a TV special I saw, long ago before I gave up the TV, about these burials. It appears that the Celts, who were not originally from the lands we now associate them with, really got around. Their DNA can still be found in some local peoples of China and the Altai.

I think most Americans consider miscegenation a modern phenomenon, probably because our recent history includes its criminalization. But history makes its own laws, and along with volkerwanderung, intermarriage appears to be among the most robust.

Jeff Gill said...

John, the thing I keep wondering about as I read your always fascinating and insightful essays is this: What are your views on a replacement form of cheap energy? For instance, I know that a lot of people believe that power from hydrogen fuel cells will one day be cheap and abundant.

I know that you do not believe that technology will 'save the day', but I would like to know your reasoning behind that belief. Have you written about that previously, and, if so, could let me know where to find it?


bunnygirl said...

Interesting post, and you bring up a lot of issues that I've contemplated, myself.

For one thing, the migrations up from Mexico and Central America are part of a worldwide phenomenon. People are on the move again, everywhere.

Second, people can talk about walls, militias and the like, but the fact remains that until and unless the nations to the south get their affairs in order and provide properly for their people, there will always be plenty of people with nothing to lose, willing to take a chance on crossing our southern borders. It's human nature, as well as history. If the Cantarell oil fields are in decline, as some reports have indicated, the flood up from Mexico will be unstoppable without a war. Maybe not even then.

We are all part of the fabric of time, and we need to be looking at the bigger picture. It doesn't matter whether one thinks migration is good or bad. If you don't even understand its root causes, you have no hope of dealing with it in a successful fashion, whatever your definition of "success" might be.

Danby said...

An important distinction that needs to be made in this part of the discussion is the difference between nation and empire. A nation is a single people, with common language, religion and culture. A nation is most often run according to tradition. An empire is a collection of nations, ruled by authority from a central capitol.

Most modern countries are really empires. We all know that Iraq is actually three separate peoples ruled from Baghdad. Mexico, for another instance, is really 4 or 5 (depending on how you view Jalisco) nations ruled from the DF. Even tiny Luxembourg is an empire.

In the US, there were once several nations. Most have been broken apart by the legal and social drive for centralization. Some remnants remain of old New England, outside the cities of Boston and Manchester. The South was broken in the Civil War, and it's remnants are being destroyed by mass immigration of northerners.

Many parts of the US there never was such a thing as a single culture and history. In the NW, for example, almost no residents have been here more than 3 generations. To the extent that there is a common culture, it is the common culture of television, 60's style political activism, and grunge rock. Nothing that's going to keep people working together, or even here, in the event of crisis.

John btw is right about the influx of Mexicans in the West. In towns such as Yakima, or Pendleton, a person can easily get by speaking nary a single word of English. Mexicans are not yet a majority in many places, but they are a very substantial minority. There is an overlayer of Anglos that run the newspapers and medium-large businesses, but they are being replaced by 2nd generation immigrants. In 50 years not being of Mexican descent will be an impediment to success.

Laodan said...

You write: "To some extent, too, the grand mythic narratives that dominate the contemporary view of history – the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse – work to foreshorten our view of the future. Both myths insist that the future is predestined".

What you focus on here is an automatism ingrained in the foundational axioms of the religions of the word and by extension the civilizations that derived from those religions. As such you are speaking and writing exclusively to citizens of Europe and its diverse territorial extensions who are trapped in this axiom of duality (maximum 10% of the world population).
I guess what I want to say is that you should perhaps listen more to the debate of our times about the evolution of modernity that is taking place out of Europe and its territorial expansions. What are the Chinese and other Confuceans thinking (25% of the world population), what are the Indians and other Buddhists thinking (20%), what are the Africans thinking (not far from 20%). Those people represent approximately 65% of the world population and they don't think in terms of dualism. The notion of "change" is at the center of their foundational axioms and they understand that the Western-centric worldview of modernity is waning and gradually being overtaken by their own worldview.
But what I found most fascinating is that the conclusions you arrive at through the prism of historical knowledge are pretty much similar to the "natural" understanding of those 65% of the world population. Change is our reality. Where it leads us is not clear we only know for sure that things will be quite different not so far in the future...

You write: "German historians of the 19th century coined a useful word for the age of migrations that followed the fall of Rome: Völkerwanderung, The first ripples of this future flood can be seen by anyone who travels by bus through any rural region west of the Mississippi River... The same thing is happening right now in Siberia, where Chinese immigrants are streaming across a long and inadequately guarded border and making the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase".

What about Europe? Having defeated the Muslim armies in Poitiers over 1000 years ago it has, in the short span of 30 years, absorbed North Africans who now represent over 10% of its total population and are its most fertile reproducers. (30 years: 10% of Europe's population!)
What about China? Conquests of foreign lands has never been in its political lexicon but 60% of its present territory is nevertheless composed of foreign lands that were integrated by force... by, non-Chinese, by foreigners! The present Chinese population expansion in Siberia, you refer to, is not historically so significant but a return to what was normality in the 19th century before Russia absorbed Siberia and so as you state "the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase". What is more significant, I feel, is the changing attitudes of East Asians and South-East Asians towards China. Chinese is already their preferred second language and many dream of a better life through marriage of a Chinese... This seems to me pre-figuring the message of Confucius' grand son in the Annalects that was written some 2500 years ago. In substance: " need to leave the country. Make life conditions better and foreigners will bring us their money and their ideas". And eventually the attraction was so strong that foreigners conquered China, assimilated the Chinese culture, and integrated their lands into the Chinese empire. Will we see a repeat of such historical feats in the future?

As you state the debate in the West about the evolution of modernity is limited to the clash of dualities or the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse: science as the savior that allows continuity or the fall into apocalypse.
Euro-centric modernity has been driven by rationality and science that were as the instruments of the logic of capital that set in in the footsteps of the crusades and other "discoveries". Science is for sure one of the most important contributors of changes in late modernity but globalization is another that too often is forgotten in the West.
What we seem never to take into account is that 85% of the world population are wanting to share the spoils of modernity. That means "Völkerwanderung" and this implies that Western worldviews are bound to be changed. Which is not a bad affair after all.

Jim said...

The various notions of what gives a group of people a distinct identity, and how these identities evolve and interact over decades and centuries... I suspect we are still quite far from any very accurate understanding of the real patterns.

If we compare a community at one time with some other perhaps 200 years later, on what basis might we say that the later is the "same" as the earlier?

1. Geographical location.

2. Language.

3. Technology of living - agriculture, medicine, shelter, clothing.

4. Genetics - DNA or its manifestion in skin color etc.

5. Religion, ritual, social structure, politics, economics.

These are just some dimensions of what makes us who we are. I suspect that we tend greatly to exagerate the tendency for these components to hang together and evolve in distinct bundles that we can label as "nation" or "race" or "culture".

When communities evolve in isolation, then surely - just like species bifurcate in biology - coherent identities can be created. But when communities interact, through trade or migration or warfare, then bits and pieces of patterns get interchanged, and identities start to blur.

The identities we think in terms of are mostly psychological fabrications, like totem families or like sports teams. Go USA, go Russia, go China, it's just like Go Phillies or Go Sox or Go Yankees. Or like a feud - Go Hatfields, Go McCoys. These are not really cultural distinctions so much as distinctions within a culture. OK, this is going too far. Russian and Chinese are distinct languages, after all.

But really, we do get mesmerized by our language and very easily mistake our map for the territory. For example, this notion of "Asia". It is totally bogus. The idea that Europe and Asia are two continents, or that Asia is somehow a single place with more cultural unity than what "it" shares with Europe. Does someone from Turkey have more or less in common with someone from Albania than they do with someone from Japan?

Arthur said...

This is a superbly written essay, and wonderfully provocative.

We're not so different from other species, perhaps, and as migrates (or "invades") the starling, brown squirrel, American Bullfrog, English Ivy, Scotch Broom, so moves the different national, cultural, ethnic and genetic shades of the human species.

Does this say that our attempts here on Vancouver Island to eradicate the American Bullfrog or control the expansion of Scotch Broom are doomed to failure? Are these merely attempts to hold back the tide?

Are these human gestures to restore an Eden that now exists in our collective memory only? Is this a memory of that brief time when we were the dominating invasive species and things were looking pretty good?

(On the American Bullfrog. In its natural home in the southeast US, other biota have evolved which control the bullfrog population. Moved out of that environment to some place like Vancouver Island, and the bullfrog population expands uncontrollably, dominating freshwater lakes. After it has eaten all the indigenous species of just about anything it can get in its huge mouth, the bullfrog produces such a volume of its own species that it becomes a self-sustaining population.

I don't know if there is a biological or moral lesson in that for Americans, or for all humanity.)

Joel said...


A fair proportion of Mexican culture is from Spain, it's true, but a sizeable chunk of both the heritage of Mexico has been on this continent for far longer. The people who identify as "Indio" more strongly also seem to be the ones immigrating in greater numbers.

I'm not sure this is necessarily do to adaptation to the Southwestern climate, however, since migration also seems to come largely from the southern states, rather than the states along the US border.

Danby said...

I don't want to get into a technical argument, but until you can drill a hydrogen well, hydrogen is an energy storage medium, not an energy source. Of course, the lesson of peak oil is that ultimately petroleum is just a storage medium for solar energy, but that's a completely different discussion.

John Michael Greer said...

Quite the lively discussion! Just a few comments -- I've got a stack of work ahead of me on The Long Descent.

Christine, my guess is that the boundaries between ethnic groups are much more a function of current cultural habits than anything else. Who'd have thought that people from soggy England would have made a successful settlement in mostly desert Australia? And yet they did. My concern here is that people who know the ropes in a specific bioregion need to be ready to pass on that knowledge to newcomers of different cultural backgrounds.

Jeff, the problem with replacing fossil fuels is what's called net energy -- the amount of energy you have left after you subtract the energy you need to get it. The net energy of hydrogen is zero; it takes exactly as much energy to extract it from water as you get back from burning it, which means, as Danby comments, that it's an energy storage and transport method, not an energy source. Solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, etc. range from very modest net energies to negative numbers -- some biofuels, for example, take more energy to grow and process than you get back from burning them.

It's easy to forget just how extraordinary fossil fuels actually are. To equal the energy content of one gallon of gasoline, for example, takes a pile of auto batteries weighing one ton. Nothing else in nature has the huge net energies of fossil fuels. That's what makes the energy dimension of our predicament so challenging.

Bunnygirl, the distinction you've made between facts and values is a crucial one, and I plan on talking more about it in a later post.

Dan, my guess is that what'll be crucial to getting by when the western half of the US becomes a Latin American country is a good command of Spanish and a high comfort level with Mexican culture, rather than Mexican descent as such. Mexico's as much a melting pot as the US; there's no shortage of Mexicans with names like Ernesto MacIntyre and Carlos Schwartz. And of course, as Lizm suggests, intermarriage is a human universal.

Laodan, if you'd read the first post in this series you'd know that I've deliberately focused on North America here, not because the rest of the world isn't important - of course it is - but because that's the part of the world and the cultural context I know personally. It would be arrogant for someone such as myself, born and raised in industrial America, to make generalizations about the rest of the planet, don't you agree? The namesake of your online handle, after all, has more than a little to say about the drawbacks of that sort of thinking.

Arthur, yes, human beings are a classic example of an invasive species. I hope it doesn't take some other form of invasive species - say, a pathogenic microbe - to help us get into balance with the biosphere.

Jan Steinman said...

I guess that, as a resident of the Cascadia coast, I should probably become familiar with Japanese language and customs.

I don't disbelieve that such things will happen, but I'm unsure about the timing. I suspect it will take generations, though, just as it took generations to get to the peak of this energy spike.

FARfetched said...

I sat out the first round to think a little. For a change. :-)

I see culture as something entirely separate from nationhood, and even (to a lesser extent) from language. You can be a total whitebread and still embrace "Eastern" culture, for example (although distance and former cultural imprinting means an imperfect embrace). It seems like the trend in the last century has been: while the West has colonized Eastern lands, the East has begin colonizing the Western mind. My take on that is, it's one way we're beginning to mature as a species (too late? maybe, maybe not).

One yin-yang aspect (see, Eastern concepts creep in everywhere!) of Völkerwanderung is how locals react to newcomers: both xenophobia and attraction are present. The first, for obvious short-term reasons: "they" might take our stuff, run us off our land, kill us, etc. The second is a more basic drive, to diversify the gene pool. The word "exotic," translated to American Redneck, means "ain't from around here" and that's how biologists use it. But when non-biologists use it to describe other people, it has overtones of desirability.

The perils of monocultures are well-known, and even the most ignorant among us are aware on a sub-conscious level that diversity means strength. America's strength is, IMO, a direct result of the diversity of the people who built it. It's only in the last 40-50 years, as profit-driven television and fear-driven conservatism have pushed us toward homogenization, that we've begun to deteriorate as a nation.

So as ugly as an energy-depleted future might look, Völkerwanderung will likely bring us a better future long-term.

P.S. There's a large Hispanic community here on Planet Georgia, and I can tell you that lumping them all together as "Mexicans" is considered insulting. Certainly, the majority of Spanish-speaking immigrants are from Mexico, but El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries are well-represented.

Danby said...

perhaps in you neck of the woods, many hispanics are not Mexican, but that's not at all true here in the opposite corner of the nation.

I would also describe culture as separate from nation, especially if you are using the more conventional definition of nationhood. Even within a culture, you can have separate nations. Scots and Irish come to mind, or Oneida and Iroquois. What separates them as nations is their history.

And of course all of this is evolving and diverging and reconverging at all times. The Scots and the Irish are now of different religions. The Oneida and the Iroquois fought on different sides in the war of American Independence.

The fact that nationhood is contingent and sometimes difficult to discern does not in any way reduce it's importance in actual human relationships and thought. Why do some Irish-Americans still send money to the IRA, despite the fact that Britain is our ally? They identify more with their Irish fellows than with the governmental priorities of the American Empire. To put it another way, they place the clan/tribe/nation/ethnos to which they belong higher in their loyalties than the nation-state of which they are citizens. This is natural, and in it's own way good.

When the industrial state fails, which I think it will, other loyalties will come to the fore. Some will be political, some will be religious, some will be geographic, but most, I believe, will be cultural and tribal.

I would also say that experimentation with Eastern thought is a luxury, and a symptom of the overall Western decline, rather than a true mixing of cultures. I expect it to lead to division, segregation, and the definition of new tribes, especially in the US.

yooper said...

John, really liked you're conclusions here. You thoughts surrounding migration, cannot be denied, it's true. How can you be so sure,that there might not be a reversal in trend, and everybody heads south from the U.S., say if our military power waned? What happens if this country is hit harder by collaspe, would'nt they be migrating away? I would say, there are quite a few "in the know" that are doing just that, now. Fleeing. There are those suggesting that because of fossil fuels usage, this has actually postponed the next ice age, where would people move then?

Really, it's quite simple, people will migrate IF they think there's greener pastures on the other side, or if they no other choice to stay alive. What happens if there are no other greener pastures, anywhere?
What happens when people realize there may be no more "better days tomorro"?

Again, I want to offer that we're on new ground here. The world is a much smaller place, carrying a hugh population explosion of people and quickly running out of time, to support this populace. How do you propose in your "cycle down" theory to include the die-off event? Certainly, we can agree, that die-off will not happen "naturally", over many generations. No, in my estimation, a line must be drawn, somewhere. Where, John?

Picture this, billions of people treading water, with no land in sight.................Where is this migration going to go?

FARfetched said...

Hey danby,

I suppose it would make sense that the vast majority of immigrants in a border region would be from directly across the border. Just be careful: just because they speak Spanish doesn't necessarily mean they're Mexican!

Why do Irish-Americans send money to the IRA? Perhaps because they have relatives in Northern Ireland? Perhaps the IRA did them (or a close friend or relative) a good turn and they're repaying the favor? Hamas built a large voter base in the same manner, and the mob or KKK often kept order in their particular regions. It doesn't mean that any of the above were/are decent outfits.

I'm not sure how Western dabbling in Eastern thought is going to "lead to division, segregation, and the definition of new tribes" though — did I mis-read what you're saying?

John Michael Greer said...

Jan, from my perspective you're quite correct to think about generational time frames; in the world of "Adam's Story" the mass migration from Japan begins in a very small way around 2050 and accelerates thereafter. My working guess is that the downslope of industrial civilization will in fact be roughly equal, in terms of duration, to the upslope.

Danby and Farfetched, I see no reason to interfere with a fine discussion of some very problematic points, so I'll leave you to it.

Yooper, no, we don't agree that dieoff can't happen over generations. That's exactly what I'm claiming -- that population contraction will take place gradually over the next century or two, not in a single "dieoff event," and the expectation that there must be one of the latter is yet another example of the kind of secular mythologizing I've critiqued so often in these pages.

As for why people won't be migrating en masse from North America to Latin America, well, you might want to take a look at factors such as demographics and population density. Large regions of the Great Plains, Midwest, and mountain states are emptying out; to my knowledge nothing of the sort is happening anywhere in Mexico. Human nature abhors a population vacuum, and as borders begin to dissolve, Kansas farms are likely to look very inviting to a lot of campesinos with no prospect of owning land south of the Rio Grande...

Danby said...

The reason that it will lead to division and segregation is simple. If you must trust you life to the willingness of another person to help and support you in hard times, it's easier to trust someone who understands the world the same way you do, especially if that person is related to you. That is the hard nub at the center of any tribal culture.

The necessity of associating yourself with people you trust, and excluding those whom you cannot trust, has been masked by the prosperity and anonymity of industrial society. Very few of us are on the knife edge of survival. So while, for instance, a Wiccan and I might get along very well, when it came down combat, or starvation, or taking care of my children when I die, I have much more reason to trust another Catholic than a Wiccan. I understand how he thinks, and what motivates him.

So what happens is the Buddhists will tend to migrate into distinct neighborhoods, as will Wiccans, Catholics, Mormons, Druids, what have you. Especially when there are few to no jobs to draw a person out of their community, these will over the course of a few decades become distinct and formalized communities. Sooner or later, persecution will start, and the persecuted will withdraw to an area that is more friendly to them, much like Jews coming to France and the US in the 18th and 19th centuries. So, to make up some examples, Buddhists will congregate in the Los Angeles area, Hindus in San Jose, Wiccans in Portland, etc. Any place a group can become a majority and protect it's members becomes a magnet to others of the group. Think Israel for Jews, or for Gays, San Francisco.

Washington is a border region, but not for Mexico. We are about as far from Mexico as Georgia is from Canada. I know quite a bit about Hispanic Culture, at least around here. My wife teaches English classes at our Church, so it's all first hand to us.

Regarding the IRA, I'm well aware of what murderous thugs they are. Being of Irish/French Canadian descent, this is again first-hand commentary. My family left the Emerald Isle 8 generations ago. None of us has ever been to Ireland. None of us knows anyone in Ireland. Yet my sister will at every opportunity, tell you why the US should repudiate it's relationship with Great Britain, and does send money to the IRA. Why? Pure tribalism. I don't think this particular instance of it is a good thing in any way. It is, however, natural and understandable, if you can lose the modern industrial nation-state, radical individualist point of view.

yooper said...

Thanks John, of course, what was I thinking? You have explained this quite eloquently, I might add.
This too, seems feasible. You must forgive me, as back at the old one room schoolhouse, we were not permitted, to venture into any thoughts after collaspe, of what life might look like. This is all new to me. As always, I'm not about to doubt your logic here. The facts you're presenting from history are simply undeniable, in my mind.

In fact, right now, I'm doubting my instructors, whom I have placed my faith in for the past 30 some years. The mathematician, is still alive. The scientist and philosopher, have passed. The first question I'm going to put forth to this man, was what were his aspirations for me? The second, show me solid proff, that die-off cannot happen gradually, as I was taught.

As I stated before on another post, these men were wrong, as they all would have had us dead long ago. However, their message seems to ring true today,(as then), only delayed. Without major future oil discoveries, what is to become of our golbal community?

Jim said...

Danby - your talk of Buddhists. Wiccans, Catholics, Mormons, and Druids etc. is skating on very thin ice. I agree that when the going gets tough that people will tend to band together with those similar to themselves and be less willing to risk interaction with those less similar. The tricky part is to see where those boundaries will be created.

It is comforting to think that the surface structure that the world presents is a reflection of some fixed deep structure, but this is generally not true. There is a phenomenon in physics, spontaneous symmetry breaking, that captures this. The paradigm instance is a phase transition, e.g. a liquid freezing. A liquid is isotropic, i.e. makes no distinctions about direction. But a crystal is anisotropic, i.e. the crystal structure runs in certain directions, the rows of atoms line up. How does a liquid pick which directions to line the atoms up in when the temperature is lowered so the material is freezing? Any extremely slight environmental nudge can drive the alignment of the whole system.

Maybe the key difference between right and left wings politically is how they see the direction of causation. The right sees the surface structure of society, rich versus poor etc., as driven by deep structure, i.e. religious belief. The left sees such metaphysics as superstructure which is driven by what it sees as fundamental, i.e. class structure, means of production, etc. Metaphysics versus economics - which is deep, which is surface?

But if you look at this from a system perspective - it's like asking about a crystal: do the atoms get forced to line up in rows, or are the rows just determined by how the atoms line up? It's a bogus question. This is what feedback loops are all about.

Social groups are like crystal structure. The collapse of trust will freeze society from the liquid state where there is lots of free interaction to a pattern where everybody gets stuck lining up in rows. The alignment of the rows, though, is like the path a hurricane or tornado chooses to take. Hugely consequential of course, if you happen to live in the neighborhood. But the exactly alignment of these structures is hugely sensitive to subtle fluctuations in boundary conditions.

So, after the fact, we can choose to label the various groups with metaphysical labels like "Druid" or whatever. While metaphysics is surely an important component of the system, like ocean temperature is important in determining the path of a hurricane, it is just one part of pattern, one link in the circular chain.

Look at the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. The battle there is really not theological at all, though we use theological labels for the groups.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, you ask:

Without major future oil discoveries, what is to become of our global community?

Most likely the same thing that has happened to so many other civilizations in the past: a long uneven descent taking somewhere between one and three centuries, ending in a dark age, and followed by the rise of successor cultures on a more localized scale and with a simpler and more sustainable technology. But you knew that would be my answer, presumably.

Danby said...

the difference between the systems you describe and human societies is vast, with a label bearing the word "consciousness" . Molecules cannot intentionally line up in a particular order, as molecules cannot intend. I can associate with, and dissociate from other people intentionally.

Unless you want to posit pure materialist determinism, there is virtually no correspondence between the two phenomena. And if you do want to argue pure materialist determinism, there is nothing more I could conceivably have to say to you.

FARfetched said...

Danby, it seems like there isn't that much trust to go around already. Take suburbia (please!) for instance: people tend to not know their neighbors very well, and it shows itself in a variety of ways including association squabbles. If people were interested in building a community, rather than treating their house as a cash cow for the next step up the ladder, would they be complaining that someone four houses down painted their trim the "wrong" color? Seems to be that before we can have a "tribal culture," we have to develop a concept of tribes.

The closest thing to an example of Völkerwanderung in US history is perhaps the "Okie" migration to California during the Depression days. The plight of those unfortunates was memorialized in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, but neither the fiction nor the history books really explained what happened to the Okies over time (especially when the New Deal kicked in and recovery started) — did they settle in and become California citizens? or did they disperse?

But I digress. The Okies were indistinguishable from Californians in the important ways — both were American citizens, both were mostly white, both were some stripe of Christian, and both were even some stripe of farmers — but the Okies were cheated, starved (the landowners destroyed surplus food rather than give it away), and were basically treated worse than animals. It's amazing there wasn't an organized uprising (Steinbeck clearly expected one), but the New Deal may have kept it at bay. The Californian fear was obviously there, but since the Okies were essentially the same tribe, there wasn't the attraction.

The ties that will bind in a future of power-down, nation and culture disruptions, won't be the granfaloons of locale or even a particular religious denomination — but rather of friendship. If you know a Wiccan and get along with him well, you're more likely to trust him than you would a Catholic who comes walking in off the road. There will certainly be some self-segregation, and I expect Jim Crow to come roaring back in this region as soon as the national oversight falters, but I doubt that it will be either as widespread or as granular as you describe.

Danby said...

It seems that you and I have different views of the future. But since all views of the future are contingent, and all are to one extent or another wrong, we will have to prepare whatever future seems most likely to us. Besides, both scenarios will likely be true to different extents in different places.

I will say that the breakdown in trust has many causes, one of which is cultural diversity.
"His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – from their next-door neighbour to the mayor. … 'In the presence of diversity, we hunker down,' he said. 'We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it's not just that we don't trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don't trust people who do look like us.'" -- E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century by Robert Putnam

Jim said...

Danby - you're right, that my comments lead to the issue of the relationship between matter and consciousness. I am certainly not proposing that consciousness is any kind of clockwork mechanism or reducable to mere matter. But I do think that consciousness participates in causality and that regular patterns can be discerned in the people's behavior. Crystals are of course infinitely simpler than people.

But do think that lessons learned from observation and analysis of physical systems can help one to understand better the behavior of people.

I actually think that matter and consciousness are yet another kind of chicken-and-egg feedback loop, that neither is more fundamental or prior to the other. It's really just the metaphysics versus economics puzzle again. Consciousness, people's ideas and beliefs, really are strongly influenced by the physical world, by nutrition and medicine and violence and what folks see on TV or down the street or listen to while walking and driving etc.

This comes around again to the free will versus determinism debate. I doubt there is any way to get to the bottom of that conundrum. But just to pretend that people's wills are totally free, not conditioned at all by circumstances, that would be a level of blind faith that would indeed seem to make discussion pointless.

klee said...

We were sitting in a car in a long line of cars inching our way forward. In between the six lanes of traffic, was a sampling of third world entrepreneurial endeavors – vendors selling t-shirts, gigantic crucifixes with bleeding saviors, oversized Carona Beer mugs and 3D Da Vinci last suppers, fruit, agua, popsicles, soft drinks, churros, small boys juggling multiple colored balls, and tiny elderly ladies or “abuelas” as my son called them, having saved a bunch of change to place in their supplicant paper cups. It was my first time crossing the US Mexico border and it provided a stark illustration of Völkerwanderung and I shared with my offspring your observations about the inevitability of human migration
It had been a very long weekend already, as I had left the safe confines on Humboldt County early Friday morning, flown to San Diego to meet my children, and then accompanied them to Ensenada to help with a wedding of one of their close friends. The traffic came to a crawl about 3 miles away from the US Border, giving us an opportunity to examine the decrepit back side of Tijuana on one side and the rolling fences along the border (small and insubstantial on the Mexican side, large and formidable on the US side). To the south one saw crumbling walls, political posters for PAN, PRI and PRD, and autos far past their prime; to the north, the condominiums, apartment complexes and mini malls of Chulla Vista.
If there is any starker contrast across a land border in all of the world, I am unaware of it. It brought to mind the definition of diffusion - the movement of molecules from a high concentration to a low concentration. Given the income disparity of Baja Norte and San Diego County, one might as well try to stop the diffusion of gasses from a lower to higher concentration as to stop the movement of people from the impoverished south to the affluent north.
We passed through the border checkpoint with a stern faced DHS agent seeming far more concerned about my California born son’s origins than my Canadian passport and Green Card. Then, within 60 seconds, we were again zooming north on I-5 at 65mph in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This morning, I braved the Code Orange chaos of the San Diego Airport, finally making it to San Francisco and back to water my thirsty garden by late afternoon. It is exceedingly good to be home but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to observe the push and pull of immigration close up and personal.
Ever since a group of Homo Erectus walked out of Africa 1.5 million years ago, Humans have been on the move. It is unlikely that that movement has ceased or that it will do so any time soon.
Now, there are a lot of blueberries to pick…….

Jim said...

Danby - your quest for social and metaphysical purity reminds of Karl Popper's book(s) _Open Society and Its Enemies_. I suppose it must be a lofty position to have a famous book to argue against it! So lofty that in fact maybe it leaves life behind. Conscious intent separate from life? Well, death as the path to purity was popular in the 20th century, and it sure isn't clear that we'll try anything much different in the 21st.

But I don't mind dedicating my life to promoting life as an essential component or partner of consciousness, even if the effort proves futile!

bryant said...


You wrote:

...the failure of the American settlement of the West. The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to the heartland of the United States didn’t work anything like as well west of the Mississippi.

Did you read Wallace Stegner's Beyond the 100th Meridian by any chance? The failure of the Anglo settlement of the western United States seemed predestined by the choices we made and our inability to understand the limitations of the ecosystems we were exploiting.

That failure is reminiscent of the Norse’ failure to adjust their settlement patterns to the changes wrought on Greenland's climate by the Little Ice Age.

Jeff Gill said...

I've been away from a computer for a week, but I wanted to follow up my first comment.

First, I appreciate you letting me pursue this more general train of thought in the middle of this more specific discussion.

In my 33 years on the planet. The end of the the world as we know it has been predicted several times. Some of the big ones were:
- nuclear war with the USSR
- airborne AIDS
- Jesus coming back (at least twice)
- y2k (I'm still rolling my eyes)
and in the background the Antichrist was always about to rise and the Liberals were going to force us all to be sexually deviant communists.

None of it happened. Of course THIS is defferent. I would be a fool to think that just because it hasn't happened all these other times that it won't happen now, but you can see why I'm skeptical about the Peak Oil version of the The End of the World as We Know It -- even your well-reasoned, historically-grounded, dispassionate, non-alrmist take on it.

it seems to me that technology and Progress will probably soften the blow. Maybe hydrogen extraction will become an energy source, not just a sstorage medium. Maybe the energy will come from some kind of bio-whatever. (This week's New Scientist has a rather breathless, but still interesting article on some of the progress being made in the bio-energy and bio-chemical fields. Most of the stuff that seems actually useful is still in a fairly embryonic form, but there is nothing like a bit of pressure to focus the mind and get stuff done.

The question that is always in my mind as I read your posts is, Are we really moving into a de-industrial age, or will we just continue to have Progress, but in a different way?

When the future becomes the present it never seems to be as dramatic as it was predicted to be. Maybe that's just because I'm living it in real time, and I still have to get the kids to school and do the dishes and go to the office...

Thoughts and responses gratefully received.

Jim said...


Actually, the world is constantly changing, and there have been many dramatic changes throughout human history. The challenge is really one of scale. Our lives are lived on a small scale - 80 years or so and how many different people can we really get to know in that time?

Probably Jared Diamon's book _Collapse_ would be the must useful place to start understanding how the end of the world as we know it is a commonly recurring phenomenon. To expect collpse is not to predict the extraordinary. What requires special pleading is a prediction that this time is different, that we can sustain this culture indefinitely when every other culture has met its end somehow or other. Of course, it is quite common for cultures to take a century or two to dissolve. Many folks who live through such a dissolution will likely not recognize what is happening on that grand scale.

Jeff Gill said...

Thanks, Jim.

You are of course correct that no society or culture lasts forever, and to claim that the current Western ones will would be blindness.

I also don't think you have to try very hard to reach the conclusion that the United Sates peaked as a nation quite a while ago. (That's very non-specific, I know.)

I guess what I am trying to get at is two-fold

1. The reaction of "This isn't really going to happen." is based on personal experience, i.e. the end of the world as we know it has been predicted many times in my lifetime, but it hasn't ended, so I will tend to think that it won't. It naturally follows that it will take extraordinary evidence and probably something that hits me in the gut/instinct part of me to convince me that this time the big change really is happening.

2. This is also based on my experience. the scientists and the engineers always seem to come riding in on white horses to save the day. What is to say they won't this time? I'm not saying they will preserve the status quo -- Obviously, you can't burn oil that doesn't exist -- but perhaps technology will ease the transition from the oil-based present to what's next. Perhaps that transition won't be as full of wars and death as JMG predicts.

I realise that neither of these points are based on rational, empirical arguments. I'm reacting like a normal, reluctant-to-change human being.

I think that's a good reaction to have on this blog, if only because it illustrates how most of the world will react as Peak Oil gets more media attention.