Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Future That Wasn't, Part One:

“The Sunset-Drowning of the Evening Lands”

I’d planned to devote this week’s Archdruid Report post to the fine and practical art of composting, and for good reason. It’s one of the most important and least regarded techniques in the ecotechnic toolkit, and it’s also a near-perfect model for the way that today’s mindlessly linear conversion of resources to waste can be brought back around in a circle, like the legendary ouroboros-snake that swallows its own tail, to become the sustainable resource flows of the human ecologies of the future.

Still, that profoundly worthwhile topic will have to wait a while. Even the most mercenary writer is now and then at the mercy of his muse, held hostage by some awkwardly timed bit of inspiration that elbows other projects aside, and I think that most of us who write for a living learn sooner or later to put up with the interruption and write out what has to be written. If this sudden veering from the pragmatic issues central to the last few posts needs a justification, that’s the only one I have to offer.

Well, maybe not quite the only one. The holiday season now lurching past is not a time I particularly enjoy. Our solstice ceremony a few days back was a bright spot, mind you; midsummer is a more significant occasion in my Druid faith, but it’s as pleasant as it is moving to gather with local Druids in the circle of the sacred grove to light the winter solstice fire and celebrate the rebirth of the sun in the depths of winter. Nor do I find anything in the least offensive in the Christian celebrations of the season. As human beings, we’re all far enough from the luminous center of things that we have to take meaning where we can find it; if someone can grasp the eternal renewal of spirit in darkness through the symbol of the midwinter birth of Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t find it in myself to object. From my perspective, though not from theirs, of course, we’re celebrating the same thing.

Nor, for that matter, do I turn Scroogelike at the thought of gifts, big dinners, and too much brandy in the egg nog. I can’t think of a human culture in the northern temperate zone that hasn’t found some reason to fling down life’s gauntlet in the face of winter with a grand party. Whether it’s the Saturnalia of the ancient Romans, when cold grim Saturn turns back just for a moment into the generous king of the Golden Age, or the Hamatsa winter dances of the Kwakiutl nation of Canada’s Pacific coast, when the cannibal giant Baxbakualanooksiwae, “Eater of Men at the River Mouth,” is revealed as the source of mighty spiritual gifts, this sort of celebration reflects a profound set of realities about our life in the world. Besides, I’m fond of brandy, and egg nog, and a good party now and then, too.

No, what makes the midwinter holidays a less than rapturous time for me is the spectacle of seeing the things I’ve just listed redefined as artificial stimulants for a dysfunctional economy supported by nothing so straightforward as honest smoke and mirrors. When front page news stories about Christmas center on whether consumer spending this holiday season will provide enough of an amphetamine fix to keep our speed-freak economic system zooming along, I start wishing that Baxbakualanooksiwae and his four gigantic man-eating birds would consider adding corporate vice-presidents and media flacks to their holiday menu. And that, dear readers, is what sent me for refuge to Oswald Spengler. A mild depression can be treated with Ogden Nash poems and Shakespeare comedies, but when things get really grim it’s time for the hair of the dog; the same effect that leaves the soul feeling oddly lighter after taking in a Greek tragedy, or listening to an entire album of really blue blues, hits a history geek like myself after a chapter or two of Der Untergang des Abendlandes.

I insist on the German title, by the way. The splendor of Germany’s literature and the curse on its history come from the same source, the brilliant but sometimes misleading way the German language naturally expresses abstract ideas in concrete, sensuous terms. Untergang, which gets turned in English into the anemic Latinism “decline,” is literally “going under,” and calls to mind inevitably the last struggles of the drowning and the irrevocable descent of the sun below the western horizon. Abendland, the German for “the West,” is literally “the evening land,” the land toward sunset. Put them together and the result could be turned into a crisp line of iambic pentameter by an English poet – “the sunset-drowning of the evening lands” – but there’s no way an English language book on the philosophy of history could survive a title like that. In German, by contrast, it’s inevitable, and for Oswald Spengler, it’s perfect.

Spengler has been poorly treated in recent writings on the decline and fall of civilizations. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Compex Societies, for example, takes him to task for not providing a scientific account of the causes of societal collapse, which is a little like berating Michelangelo for not including accurate astrophysics in his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Spengler was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. He was a philosopher of history; in some ways, really, he was an artist who took the philosophy of history for his medium in place of paint or music. This does not make his contributions to our understanding of history less relevant. It’s only in the imagination of the most fundamentalist kinds of scientific materialism that scientific meaning is the only kind of meaning that there is. In dealing with human behavior, above all, a sonnet, a story, or a philosophical treatise can prove a better anticipation of the flow of events than any scientific analysis – and the decline and fall of our present civilization, or any other, is preeminently a story about human behavior.

Tainter’s critique also fails in that Spengler was not even talking about the fall of civilizations. What interested him was the origin and fate of cultures, and he didn’t mean this term in the anthropological sense. In his view, a culture is a overall way of looking at the world with its own distinct expressions in religious, philosophical, artistic, and social terms. For him, all the societies of the “evening lands” – that is, all of western Europe from roughly 1000 CE on, and the nations of the European diaspora in the Americas and Australasia – comprise a single culture, which he terms the Faustian. Ancestral to the Faustian culture in one sense, and its polar opposite in another, is the Apollinian culture of the classic Mediterranean world, from Homeric Greece to the early Roman empire; ancestral to the Faustian culture in a different sense, and parallell to it in another, is the Magian culture, which had its origins in Zoroastrian Persia, absorbed the Roman Empire during its later phases, and survives to this day as the Muslim civilization of the Middle East. Other Spenglerian cultures are the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Mesopotamian, and the two great New World centers of civilization, the Mexican-Aztec and the Andean-Incan.

Talking about the rise and fall of a culture in Spengler’s sense, then, isn’t a matter of tracing shifts in political or economic arrangements. It’s about the birth, flowering, and death of a distinctive way of grasping the nature of human existence, and everything that unfolds from that – which, in human terms, is just about everything that matters. The Apollinian culture, for example, rose out of the chaotic aftermath of the Minoan-Mycenean collapse with a unique vision of humanity and the world rooted in the experience of the Greek polis, the independent self-governing community in which everything important was decided by social process. Greek theology envisioned a polis of gods, Greek physics a polis of fundamental elements, Greek ethics a polis of virtues, and so on down the list of cultural creations. Projected around the Mediterranean basin first by Greek colonialism, then by Alexander’s conquests, and finally by the expansion of Rome, it became the worldview and the cultural inspiration of one of the world’s great civilizations.

That, according to Spengler, was also its epitaph. A culture, any culture, embodies a particular range of human possibility, and like everything else, it suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, everything that can be done from within the worldview of a culture – everything religious, philosophical, intellectual, artistic, social, political, you name it – has basically been done, and the culture fossilizes into a civilization. Thereafter the same things get repeated over and over again in endless combinations; disaffected intellectuals no longer capable of creativity settle for mere novelty or, worse still, simple shock value; artistic and intellectual traditions from other cultures get imported to fill the widening void; technology progresses in a kind of mechanical forward lurch until the social structures capable of supporting it fall away from underneath it. Sooner or later, the civilization falls apart, basically, because nobody actually believes in it any more.

What made this prophecy a live issue in Spengler’s time was that he placed the twilight of Western culture and the beginning of its mummification into Western civilization in the decades right after 1800. Around then, he argued, the vitality of the cultural forms that took shape in western Europe around 1000 began trickling away in earnest. By then, in his view, the Western world’s religions had already begun to mummify into the empty repetition of older forms; its art, music, and literature lost their way in the decades that followed; its political forms launched into the fatal march toward gigantism that leads to empire and, in time, to empire’s fall; only its science and technology, like the sciences and technologies of previous cultures, continued blindly on its way, placing ever more gargantuan means in the service of ever more impoverished ends.

Exactly how the Faustian culture would metastasize into a future Faustian civilization he did not try to predict, but one element of the transition seemed certain enough to find its way into his book. The society that would play Rome to Europe’s Greece, he suggested, was none other than the United States of America. In the brash architecture of American skyscrapers and the casual gesture that flung an army across the Atlantic to save France and England from defeat in the last years of the First World War, he thought he saw the swagger of incipient Caesarism, the rise of the empire that would become Faustian culture’s final achievement and its tomb.

It was a common belief at that time. Interestingly enough, it also shaped the thought of Spengler’s counterpart and rival, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose ten-volume A Study of History stands like hoplites in a Greek phalanx not far from the couch where Spengler and multiple cups of good oolong offered some consolation for the wretched orgy of economic excess and hallucinated well-being playing itself out outside my windows. For Toynbee, who shared Spengler’s cyclical theory of history but rejected all his philosophy and most of his conclusions, the natural next step in the unfolding of history was the transition from a time of troubles to a planetary empire, and like many English intellectuals in the twilight of the British Empire, he expected an alliance between the United States and the British Commonwealth to become the seed of that empire-to-be.

As it turns out, though, this plausible and widely held belief was quite incorrect, and the actions taken by three generations of politicians and intellectuals in response to that belief are all too likely to play out with disastrous results in the fairly near future. We’ll discuss that in next week’s post.

30 comments:

michael gorsuch said...

Cheers, John, and a peaceful new year to you!

I've been following this blog for over a year now, and have found your reasoning inspiring.

As the new year approaches, my wife and I will begin our plan for building a small container garden outside of our tiny Brooklyn apartment. We will be working towards understanding the basics of the nutrient cycle, and even plan to build a small vermiculture bin behind our building.

Beyond that, we've put together a 4 year plan to leave Brooklyn and move back to our original community in the midwest. We came here for business, but the value of a strong community has become obvious to us. I met up with an old friend over my holiday vacation, and his eyes lit up when I explained to him an idea of starting a 'backyard co-op' in which we all work to grow produce in our back yards and share the results and techniques. The idea is to synthesize a methodology that works well in our region and is as sustainable as possible.

I'm not sure if any of these ideas would have ever taken root so strongly in my mind if I hadn't stumbled upon your writing, and therefore would like to say 'thanks' for all of the hard work.

bryant said...

Thanks JMG,
I really enjoyed this essay. Your use of language gave me visceral, as well as intellectual delight.

The Dutchman said...

Very nice gloss of Spengler's ideas! A few points:

1] Listing a date as "1000 CE" is indicative of our decline. Spengler would want you to be a Faustian chauvinist and list the date as being Anno Domini. (See my blog entry on this at:http://festungarnulfinger.blogspot.com/2007/05/what-year-is-it-anyway.html)

2] Spengler's eight great cultures are the Apollonian (not Apollinian), Magian, Faustian, Egyptian, Chinese, Mesopotamian, Mexican-Aztec (Mezzo-American) and East Indian (not Andean-Incan).

3] While Toynbee is indeed a cyclical thinker (with each epoch returning to its starting point), Spengler is an organic thinker (with each culture having a period of growth, flowering, and death). The crucial difference is that while Toynbee sees the process as repetitive and continuous, once a Spenglerian culture is dead, no new culture ever need follow.

4] It is also worth noting that while Toynbee's histories now look like a quaint attempt to "explain everything," Spengler has proven to have enormous predictive value, seeing such things as the industrialization of non-western nations ("the Alienation of Technic"), environmental degradation, the rise of fundamentalism (or "Second Religiousness") especially in the Islamic countries.

5] Spengler's political program is worth checking out: http://torgprom.blogspot.com/2007/09/prussian-socialism.html

Bill Pulliam said...

I like keeping the word roots in their original german structure: "The undergoing of the eveningland." Sounds like something that happens just before ragnarok?

Please do come back to compost when you can. Compost is one of the great magical things: life and death all summarized in a pile of humifaction.

BoysMom said...

The Oswald Spengler book sounds interesting. Is there a particularly good translation you would recommend for those of us who do not read German?

The North Coast said...

Once more, you have managed to surpass even yourself in this brilliant essay.

I never read so many gem-like articles with so many original ideas that make so much sense, from one writer.

I also can't think of any other commentor on the challenges we face with Peak Resources who has given me so much hope that we can build a civilization that will succeed under vastly different, and harsher conditions.

yooper said...

Hello John! My first reaction to your fine article titled, "The Future That Was'nt, Part One:", instantly brought me back to the days of the early seventies when natural resource depletion made up the bulk of my study. Of course, this was the foundation that my very dark view of the future was built upon.

It seems almost hilarious today, that at the time I held, almost no hope of ever reaching maturity, let alone the 21th century! "The Future That Was'nt, Part One...."

I suppose, suggesting that "resource depletion" was only to be a lifelong academic fanatasy of mine, at best, equally laughable....

It's usually this time of the year I take stock of what I've learned over the year. I've recently went back and reread your theory of catabolic collaspe. It's here I realized, that I'm actually living this scenario you're presenting, now. That it's not some fanatasy, I would never realize or come to see.

Through you, resource depletion/global warming have finally become relevant to me. For the first time in my life, you've given me a speck of hope, that my family might actually survive these constantly changing times to come, in a longer term way than I dared possible.

Thanks, yooper

RJ said...

Gargantuan means towards impoverished ends. That's probably the best description of what I feel witness to while riding my bicycle through urban Florida. The scale of irony is breathtaking, yet few even consider it out of the ordinary.

Lewis Mumford's greatest fear was the Megamachine's complete divorce from the human spirit. We're there. It's much too late for any cult of personality to save our species (if one ever could), it will take a huge spiritual awakening. Forums such as this may in fact be key. Thanks.

Loveandlight said...

I will be interested to learn what is meant by a "Faustian" culture. Does that indicate our tendency to sacrifice long-term well-being for short term gain and gratification (selling our proverbial soul, as it were)?

Robin said...

Thanks for a new look from a different viewpoint at a wide perspective.

The United States may inded be like a Rome, but the hinterlands did retain some of the Roman influence and their own ways to a variable extent. So too, the rest of the Americas / Ausralia and Europe might better retain what they have.

yooper said...

Hello John,
Yes, I hope you go back also and hammer your theory of Catabolic Collaspe, the successional process of K-selected spieces replacing R-selected spieces. I think it is so important, that people understand this natural law.

I'd like to suggest that by and large, this process has been a predictable measure of time in this enviroment. I fear, that is about to change.

It's my hope you will discuss any thoughts you may have regarding "time" of the successional process we're likey to encounter in the near future.

Thanks, yooper

Panidaho said...

Please do come back to compost when you can. Compost is one of the great magical things: life and death all summarized in a pile of humifaction.

Life and Death and Life, too - as when you don't turn your compost pile often enough and the rotten pumpkin you threw on top last winter sprouts in the spring and grows like a wild thing!

;-)

Leon said...

"Sooner or later, the civilization falls apart, basically, because nobody actually believes in it any more." An affair badly ended. Illusions shattered, followed by remorse, blame, regret, recriminations, grieving. But then, what is this secret sense of great relief I barely permit myself to feel? Thanks be to God and I don't even believe in God, it's over, it's ended, it's done! In my sixth decade, I feel young again.

Leon said...

John, a technical suggestion: Your comments date time stamp presently gives only the time the comment was posted. Changing that to include the date will give the reader a better sense of the chronological give and take of the dialog.
Don't let this go to your head but your commentary is consistently among the best, if not the best, out there.
Thank you for your insight and inspiration, at least to me, to think rationally and deeply on these things.

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, good for you! When you get the backyard co-op up and running, please share your experiences on the net -- this seems like an excellent idea, well worth emulating.

Bryant, glad to hear it.

Dutchman, thanks for the comments. I'd wondered about "Apollinian" -- that's how it appears in the Charles Francis Atkinson English translation, which is what I mostly use (my German is functional but slow). I don't agree with your dismissal of Toynbee, though. He's also proved to have a great deal of predictive force -- revisit his discussion of mimesis and the development of the internal proletariat, and you've got the social history of the last century in the Western industrial countries in a nutshell. Spengler and Toynbee illuminate different aspects of our present predicament; for that matter, I find reason to quarrel with both.

Bill, don't worry -- the subject of compost is dear to my heart and will get ample discussion down the road a bit.

Boysmom, there's a quite tolerable one-volume abridgment by Arthur Helps that's available in a lot of US public libraries -- that's my recommendation as a starting point for Spengler, just as the two-volume abridged Toynbee is a lot less formidable than the full ten volumes.

North Coast, thank you! I've always regretted the way that so many good ideas get expressed in such execrable prose these days, and there's only one way to fix that...

Yooper, you're welcome! I suppose the one really original thing I've been trying to say for the last couple of years is that there's a good deal of middle ground between "don't worry, be happy" and "we're all gonna DIIIIIEEEE!" -- and that middle ground is where we're all going to spend the rest of our lives.

RJ, the one thing I'm not sure Mumford caught -- though I badly need to go back and reread his works sometime soon -- is that the megamachine is unsustainable and therefore a temporary difficulty, though a severe one just now. There's a great passage in Roszak's Where the Wasteland Ends where he talks about the latter days of the technostructure in terms of the last weeks of a World's Fair, where everything is visibly cracking, the lights and machinery are on the fritz more often than not, the crowds are thinning day by day, and a sort of terminal dreariness settles over everything; I've long suspected that would prove more prophetic than many more colorful visions of the twilight of our age.

Loveandlight, you've put a finger on one of the differences between English/American and German literary culture. For us, Faust was permanently defined by Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, arguably the most brilliant portrayal of the psychology of damnation in all of literature. (No, that's not just a Christian concept; I suspect most of us know at least one person whose life has traced a downward spiral into madness and death because of an unwillingness to let go of some craving or petty hatred.)

For German culture, though, it's not Marlowe's Faust but Goethe's that defined the legend, and Goethe's Faust cuts a much nobler figure; his fall is a consequence of his unwillingness to settle for less than the infinite. That's the sense Spengler has in mind; modern Western culture is Faustian because anything less than infinity is intolerable to it. (For a fine example, see the protests posted here by believers in the fantasy of space colonization when I posted my piece on Fermi's paradox a few months back.)

Robin, stay tuned. The dream of America as the new Rome imagined that the Empire was still to come, waiting for some new Augustus to build it. What we got instead was Macedon, and a Macedon without an Alexander to make it work on the grand scale. Now comes the payback. But more on this next week!

Yooper, I've been collecting notes for a book tentatively titled How Civilizations Fall: A Practical Handbook that will expand the whole catabolic collapse idea quite a bit. It's still a couple of years off, but should be entertaining.

Teresa, you know my thoughts on compost! All in good time; the ideas haven't finished digesting yet... ;-)

Leon, I suspect a lot of people will feel that way. One of the reasons that apocalyptic scenarios are so popular just now, I've long suspected, is that for many, many people, a total catastrophe that left them huddled in the mud would still be less wretched than the thought of going on with the lives they're leading. As for the time stamp issue, I'll see what I can manage.

Panidaho said...

JMG said:

there's a good deal of middle ground between "don't worry, be happy" and "we're all gonna DIIIIIEEEE!"

Yeah, seems the middle ground gets lost somehow. I think the Don't Worry Be Happy side is still the majority at the moment, and perhaps the TEOTWAWKI side of the continuum is the most vocal - so maybe that's why we don't see much of the middle ground position now.

Teresa, you know my thoughts on compost! All in good time; the ideas haven't finished digesting yet... ;-)

I'll be waiting! I'm hoping to pick up some new ideas. Oh, and about the pumpkin - of course that story was completely hypothetical.... ;-)

Seaweed_Shark said...

Another fine essay. The Archdruid Report is becoming one of my major resources for contemporary thought. Well done!

Dwig said...

John,
If the present essay is any guide, I really like it when the Bitch Goddess has her way with you. If there's a downside, it's that I'll now have to add Spengler to my already burgeoning list of must-reads; the idea of civilization as the ossified remains of a superannuated culture is just delicious.

Re: In dealing with human behavior, above all, a sonnet, a story, or a philosophical treatise can prove a better anticipation of the flow of events than any scientific analysis – and the decline and fall of our present civilization, or any other, is preeminently a story about human behavior. I've been thinking about the label "hard sciences", usually applied to physics and chemistry. "Hard" has (at least) two meanings, with antonyms "soft" and "difficult". Certainly the subject matter of physics is considerably less difficult than that of the sciences that study living systems, so perhaps it's those sciences that should be recognized as "hard". Continuing in this vein, it seems to me that those sciences may be hitting the limit of what can be accomplished by what's traditionally considered scientific method. In order to break through, it may be necessary for them to embrace elements of spirituality and the arts.

I don't know it it'll fit in your next post, but I wonder what Spengler would think of the "Aufgang des Morgenlandes" (upgoing of the morning lands) currently going on.

the skeptic said...

John,
I cannot tell you how much your blog has filled my personal need for TRUTH, and valid intellectual discourse regarding the impending fate of western culture, in my otherwise cerebrally and culturally stagnant home of Houston Texas.

As a Northern California transplant, a Peak Oil preparer (I found your blog on www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net), and someone who, since childhood, has objected to the systematic destruction and waste of western commercial culture and wondered how long we can possibly keep it up, (and as a Christian who considers the Christian worldview to be merely the flavor of the millenia....delivered to the masses from the sword and the smallpox blanket and NOT the altar...; well... after 5 years of living here...I can honestly tell you and your readers that Texas, does not and will not "get it" until events stare us all in the face.

I only wish I could get my Texas-bred in-laws, friends...or even my wife for that matter...to take in your weekly offerings of excellently written thought, common sense, historical and spiritual perspective, gentle warning, and spiritually mature acceptance of the inevitabilities that our culture-run-amuck will eventually force us to adapt to; without treating it like an unpleasant chore for being un-telivized and challenging them to THINK.

Mind you, these people are not stupid nor cruel....they are just hard-working and intellectually lazy people whose concerns are purely local and personal...rather than international, global and historical. For them, these hard-scrabble, pay-as-you-go rural people, and those who are plugged-in to the debt economy with pseudo professions entirely dependent on Wall Street and cheap oil,...the edge of the world is either the edge of town, or at the farthest...the state border.

At least these folks, (the rural Texans and not the urban mega-church types) they know how to fix it...build it...grow it...hunt it...can it...fight it...barter for it...stick together...and put their faith in their God in hopes of better times and their version of salvation....many of them will survive and move-forward into the future...but will their culture resemble one that is sustainably harmonious with a permanently powered-down world? Or will it resemble its predominantly warlike Scotch-Irish forebearers (my ancestors as well) and enthusiastically elect the next political Hitler who can promise them a return of all-night gambling, ESPN and TV dinners regardless of which weaker nation or region must pay the price?

I personally want to grow food in the countryside...sustainably... for a living someday, escape the upper middle class intellectual vaccum of the suburbs, simplify my lifestyle around minimal consumption and recycling, and creatively live a peaceful and eco-friendly existence that I can pass on to my children. My soul is telling me to adapt now before I am forced to....and I await my ability to do so since I am chained to our economic ship of fools and its inevitable monthly dues just like everybody else.

However, it is the sharing of minds like yours that continues to give me the courage to prepare for change...and plan my family's escape from what Joe Bageant refers to as "The American Hologram".

May peace, security, love, understanding and good fortune follow you and your readers into this unpredictable next year....and THANK YOU again for giving all of us so much to think about, in such a dignified, unbiased, poignant and all-inclusive manner.

Sincerely,

David Krongard
Sugar Land, Tx

Dwig said...

Oops! In my previous comment, I wrote: "Hard" has (at least) two meanings, with antonyms "soft" and "difficult". The second antonym should have been "easy". Post in haste, repent at leisure...

Lance Michael Foster said...

A interesting connection exists between Spengler's worldview and that of H. P. Lovecraft (yes, the very same) who read Spengler, as noted in S. T. Joshi's "H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West."

yooper said...

Happy New Years, John!

"I suppose the one really original thing I've been trying to say for the last couple of years is that there's a good deal of middle ground between "don't worry, be happy" and "we're all gonna DIIIIIEEEE!" -- and that middle ground is where we're all going to spend the rest of our lives."

It's precisely this, "middle ground" or you're version of it, that I'm so desperately seeking from you. Not a vision 50 years out. This is not where most of us on this post will spend the rest of our lives.....

Not that I'm objecting where you going with this! However, the very sad fact is, many on this post will not "enjoy" this middle ground for long. They will die....

Perhaps, being isolated much of my life in the forest has distorted my view of society. However, everytime when I venture out into this society, it screams, "UNSUBSTANTIAL!" There is no equilibrium, no balance.

John, I have always believed that the earth will take care of itself, it's nature's way. I suspect, you're the last person that needs conviencing of this...

It's this balance that our world is seeking just now. That balance, will come in the form of billions losing their lives, in the near future. It's our atonement....

Thanks, yooper

Steve said...

Great to see Spengler invading your muse - i have also recently found myself drawn towards the Untergang during the long nights of winter.

I meant to comment sooner - I feel somewhat professionally obliged given that i have just [*cough mumble mumble* written a PhD thesis on him or something...]. It always amazes me how litle Spengler is discussed in this corner of the cyberworld given his immense relevance to the whole collapse / decline / civilisation theme. So...

Spengler as cyclical vs spiral thinker: Some evidence that in his later thinking S. realised how the Faustian civilisation was transforming the world and threatening to be the last 'Hochkultur' the world would see. In his 1931 work Man & Technics he wrote:

"The mechanisation of the world has entered on a phase of highly dangerous over-tension. The picture of the earth, with its plants,animals and men, has altered. In a few decades most of the great forests have gone, to be turned into newprint, and climatic changes have thereby been set afoot which imperil the land-economy of whole populations. Innumerable animal species have been extinguished, or nearly so, like the bison; whole races of humanity have been brought almost to vanishing point... All things organic are dying in the grip of organisation. An artificial world is permeating and poisoning the natural."

Faustianism: i know Atkinson warns in the translator's preface that once you read Spengler, everything seems to be read through the lens of his ideas, but even I was a bit freaked out when everyone started using the Faustian meme last year, e.g. George Monbiot in ' Heat', erm, JMG in that 'monkey trap' post, (OK that one seems less of a coincidence now). Faust, of course, means 'Fist', clenched in anger and desire for control, perhaps, whilst a 'Faustel' was a kind of hammer used in mining, which got us into this mess in the first place...

For those wishing to know more about Spengler, I am loath to send people off unprepared to read the whole thing (having just spent 5 years living with it which could have been spent learning permaculture...), but equally the abridged version (the only one in print, I think) doesn't really capture the full grandeur of the vision.You could do worse than to read John Farrenkopf's 2001 'Prophet of Decline', a very readable analysis of S.'s political thinking, or, if you have access to good library resources, Goddard and Gibbons' 1926 'Civlisation or Civilisations' is a brilliant exegesis / adaptation of his ideas.

JMG, if you are interested in a more specific (if unattributed to the point of plagiaristic) application of Spenglerian ideas to the US (and if you haven't already read it...) Amaury de Riencourt's 'The coming caesars' achieves just that with some style and verve. And if I ever get round to publishing anything before the presses stop turning for want of oil, I'll let you know...

yooper said...

Another year, John! Today marks the first anniversary of expressing my thoughts about collaspe online.

One year ago today a very spirited email exchange ensued between Carolynn Baker and I. I had just finished reading her version of how collaspe could unfold in this country, much like your, "Adam's Story".

I found this article over at Adaptation. I can't remember the title, and since, I suspect she has removed the article altogether, I can find it nowhere. This scenario described the life of a middle aged couple living somewhere in the Detroit Metro area.

The story began with this middle aged couple moving to the suburbs, climbing up the ladder, while the husband was employed with one of the car manufactures. Their two children were now on their own and this couples decline began when he lost his job in the auto industry.

Within a short few years, communication broke down completely between the couple and their children, power outages were becoming more frequent and longer lasting, until the power went out for good.

At this point the couple decided to flee to the country side as total chaos broke out in the city. Along the way, the couple was lucky enough to get a "glass of water" a day. During this travel the husband died along the way and the wife's life was fortunatley spared when she was taken in by some kind of substantial farm....

Of course, I was extremely upset with this story! I really did'nt have a problem with her thoughts of collaspe coinciding with power outage, it was with the events she descibed afterwards. So many "natural laws" were broken to make the story not creditable. What a shame! However, in my opinion, it's the best attempt yet in describing how collaspe could happen, in the near future.

It was at this point, that I decided to attempt to describe a plausible collaspe scenario to the fine people over at BNB,(Bull not bull). This was presented in a series titled, "Royal Flush in Spades". Unfortunately, this was lost as the new forum was compromised.

This past year John, I've very much enjoyed your thoughts surrounding collaspe. Most writers attempt this challenging concept by projecting forward, from now to then. I see you as coming from then to now.......Why have you taken this approach? Is this a better way to approach readers with new ideas, forthcoming?

For one John, you have me riveted to the thoughts you will share this coming year!

Thanks yooper.

yooper said...

Oh, btw John, my prediction for 2008 is the same as year, the U.S. will enter into somekind of recognizable "depression like" era during the second quater, which will be spread very quickly throughout the entire industrialized world. This comes on the heels from realizing that due to energy depletion, there would be no reason to expect interest from mainstream investment.

Thanks yooper

John Michael Greer said...

Teresa, of course -- completely hypothetical. Splutter.

Shark, many thanks.

Dwig, you've touched on a major can of worms I plan on opening down the road a bit -- the conviction, central to the myth of progress, that science is immune from the phenomenon of diminishing returns. More on this later.

David, thank you for the vote of confidence. I think one of the reasons so few people "get it" is that for decades now, they've been served up with an apocalypse du jour by people wanting to panic them into some political scheme or other. It's the old story of the boy who cried wolf -- but it's not always remembered that in that story, the wolves did finally show up and eat the sheep.

Lance, thanks for the reference -- I'll certainly look Joshi up.

Yooper, all of us will die sooner or later anyway! My guess is that a fair number of people now living will die sooner than they otherwise would; still, there's time yet to opt into or out of that group.

Steve, thanks for the references! It's interesting that nearly all 20th century reactions to technology accepted the idea that it changed all the rules of the game, for good or ill. I find myself steadily less convinced of that. More on this later.

Yooper, my prediction for 2008 is that nobody can predict 2008! But we'll see.

Ahavah B. said...

My wish list at Amazon is getting so long...

I don't subscribe, really, to the "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIIIEEEE," mentality - but I do think it's going to be a terribly painful transition, and a lot of violence will be involved. But no amount of pointing out the obvious problems that will arise from peak oil and American economic problems (aka globalization) seems to motivate the average person to change their paradigm of thinking or living.

I have concluded, after several vain attempts to get my people (my "area of concern," so to speak) to wake up and smell the coffee, that instead of embracing reality and planning ahead, everyone is justifying their debt, consumerism and screwed up priorities, and no one will change anything until they absolutely have no choice. Self-sufficiency even at the level of community is simply not possible under our current leadership - and those leaders see nothing wrong. We, as a group, all feel that we have some sort of right to a "normal" life, and the definition of "normality" is the American consumer materialistic keep-up-with-the goldsteins culture. They attempt to conceal this paradigm with an absurdly medieval interpretation of strict religious observance, but in essence we, as a whole, have bought into the Faustian paradigm hook, line, and sinker - and have no intention of giving it up.

Unless everybody decides to "downsize" at once, nobody will voluntarily - and good luck with that, basically. Our leaders are arrogant and corrupt. Until the day when they don't have a drop of gas, not a bite to eat, and the bank sends the sheriff to kick them out of their giant ATM (formerly known as a "house") due to their outrageous credit card bills, the average family will do nothing to change their lifestyles. Many people even admit that things can't go on the way they are, but still won't give up any expense or any "normal" thing, no matter how much they acknowledge that neither their budget nor their community can survive if things continues the way they are. Their fear of being "different" far outweighs their fear of the consequences of their irresponsible lifestyle. "Different" is equated with "sinful" in our culture.

I am deeply impressed by your writing, btw. But even getting most of them to read your blog (or your forthcoming book - can't you write faster?) is a non-starter.

Many have been brainwashed to believe that the only wisdom on earth is to be found in their own medieval writings - which are themselves products of the infant faustian culture. Add to that a holier-than-thou attitude and I am deeply disillusioned that my people have any end other than ruin.

And what I see among people of other religious and ethnic groups is simply the same stuff with different labels. Don't get me wrong - my point is not that religion or distinct ethnic culture is bad, but simply that all have to a greater or lesser extent been invaded by the Faustian mind-set, and exorcising it seems impossible.

As I said, I am in despair that anything can be changed until it's far too late. Spitting into the wind is what I'm doing. Is it really "worth it" to keep trying?

NeoLotus said...

I know I have a month to wait for any kind of response, but since I'm here today I wish to say first, I'm glad to have found this blog.

The more I read however, the more I come to realize my importance as an East-West hybrid.

My mother is Japanese, my father was U.S. Army born in Minnesota. I was born in America and grew up with Buddhism and Confucianism.

The six months I spent in Japan when I was 19 was the only time in my life I was most naturally myself. In America, I have always felt I was a foreigner--didn't help I was treated like one either.

My interests are deep philosophical thinking, ancient history, science, anthropology, gardening, complex systems and chaos theory, psychology, and anything else tickling my curiosity.

I have a BA in philosophy and humanities and an MA in urban planning/studies. My master's thesis was to provide a philosophical underpinning to New Urbanism's emphasis on community.

It was in writing my thesis that I found Lewis Mumford's "The City in History" quite helpful in understanding cultural trends and civilizational cycles from the perspective of chaos theory's emphasis of the dependence on initial conditions. To boil it down, the cultures which emphasize individualism, namely, the West, tend to fail. The cultures which emphasize family, namely China, India, and ancient Egypt, tend to endure. The fate of Ancient Egypt became sealed when it was Hellenized. Given this, things do not bode well as the East adopts more of Western culture.

However, this is not to say that Eastern wisdom cannot make inroads into the West. The Chinese philosophers were very astute in their observation of the cycling of life and phenomena best exemplified by the yin/yang symbol.

I think if a more concerted effort for East-West discourse and dialogue would take place, I think a more sustainable future could be built. Not to mention that for all its industrialism in Japan, there are still those who preserve the old ways, and in some cases the only thing the factory did was to automate the process, not replace the actual craft. Also, they venerate their master craftsmen as national treasures, such as sword makers. The Japanese katana is still some of the finest steel in the world.

They are also some of the most hygienic people on the planet and worked out long about how to prevent the transmission of disease by removing their shoes at the front door, and they conserve their bath water by washing their privates before soaking in the hot bath.

There is a whole lot to be discovered in an East-West dialogue. I think doing so now puts us in a unique position to take what's best in all the respective cultures of the world and using what works best to build a more sustainable future.

Sorry this got so long.

Bernd Ohm said...

Dear John,

It never fails to amaze me when I see the influence Spengler - all but forgotten in his native country now - seems to be having in the English-speaking world today. There's this guy over at the Asia Times that poses as old Oswald in his Muslim-bashing diatribes, and now even my favourite Archdruid of the Northwest confesses a weakness for the "master thinker" of the Weimar Republic's Conservative Revolution. Interesting times indeed!

Speaking of this, it might interest you that Spengler himself refuted your interpretation of "Untergang". In his own words: "The notion of 'catastrophe' is not contained in the word. Instead of saying 'decline' one could use 'completion' [Vollendung], (…) thereby eliminating the 'pessimist' connotation for the time being, without changing the true meaning of the term." (my own translation, from Reden und Aufs√§tze, p. 63, which probably hasn't been translated into English).

I do agree though that the "deep dark" resonances the title evokes probably had some influence on the best-selling status of the book in the Weimar Republic. Just think of Germany back then as a country with a post-Vietnam trauma raised to the power of ten. My great-grandfathers had dreamed of becoming number one in Europe and of being at least equal to Britain in the world - only to be faced with a lost war, hyper-inflation, unemployment, and the unsecure status of a European middle-power. They just loved that Decline book.

Hope you guys do better over there! I'm sure you know what came out of that national depression - a strong desire to vote for charismatic Austrians with weird world-views and Chaplin moustaches...

Greetings and enjoy your vacation!
Bernd

Betsy aka 'the goat yoda' said...

My life *is* a compost pile!

Good to have found your blog.