Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Same New Ideas

As I write these words, a week before their publication, The Archdruid Report is starting its third year. It’s been a long strange trip, to borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead. Perhaps the strangest thing about it, and certainly the most interesting, has been the chance to watch the way that ideas rise and sink through the collective imagination of the modern world.

This isn’t simply entertainment, though it certainly has its entertaining aspects. Behind the obvious challenges posed by peak oil lies a struggle among basic assumptions about the nature of reality. Underlying the cornucopian position, for example, is a worldview in which all meaning and value center on humanity’s upward climb to a modern society, and nature is merely a source of raw materials and a place to dump waste. Go to the apocalyptic true believers at the other end of the spectrum and you enter a worldview in which humanity has fallen from grace by usurping nature’s power, and only the purifying force of total catastrophe can admit a righteous remnant back into its proper subservience.

These worldviews, like others in the peak oil debate, have ancient roots, and the belief systems that cluster around them faithfully copy equivalents from past centuries. One of the interesting things about the play of ideas around peak oil is the way that an unfamiliar predicament has been redefined in such familiar terms. What adds irony to the interest, though, is the consistency with which those who present these common notions insist on describing them as new and innovative ideas unlike anything anyone has thought before.

Circumstances give me something of a front row seat to this odd spectacle. It happens that, as a function of my training and temperament alike, my ideas about the future of industrial society differ sharply from many of the popular views on the subject. I hasten to say that my ideas are no more original than those of the other sides in the debate. Everything I’ve said about the future here and elsewhere comes out of one thread of what Mortimer Adler used to call the Great Conversation, the play of ideas down the years that traces the cultural history of our world, and they root down into a worldview at least as archaic as those I mentioned a moment ago. What interests me is the number of people who are just as dependent on secondhand ideas as I am, but have apparently never noticed that fact.

Consider the widely circulated theories that the end of industrial society will be sudden, total, and imminent. There’s nothing particularly new about this claim, which has been being made regularly since the mid-19th century. There’s rarely anything new in the arguments supporting modern versions of the claim, either; most of them were well aged before such durable classics as Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age dusted them off for a new audience in the 1970s. For that matter, the shark-fin theory of history, in which societies rise over time to a peak of wealth, power, and corruption, and then suffer total destruction, can be found in the Old Testament, and underlies the religious rhetoric of apocalypse that coined most of the ideas now being retailed by today’s prophets of fast collapse.

The persistence of the shark-fin theory in apocalyptic rhetoric, it has to be said, is not matched by a similar presence in actual history. It’s vanishingly rare for a society to collapse at the peak of its wealth and power, for the simple reason that wealth and power are two of the most effective means for staving off collapse. As a rhetorical reality, however, the sudden collapse of unjust power has immense cultural resonance throughout the western world, and people are duly lining up for the chance to say “How art the mighty fallen!” over the corpse of industrialism. What fascinates me most, though, is that each of them seems to think they thought of those words by themselves, and for the very first time.

For amother example, take the confident announcements that the current troubles of industrial society are the harbingers of an evolutionary breakthrough to a higher mode of being, where the problems that beset us today will have lost their relevance. Few claims about the future are so insistently described by their proponents as new and innovative thinking; even fewer have less right to that title. Glance through the pages of such classics of Victorian thought as Joseph Le Conte’s Evolution, published in 1888, and you’ll find the same claims of imminent evolutionary transformation that fill so many popular books today.

The idea of an evolutionary breakthrough was necessarily a bit of a latecomer on the cultural scene, since a theory of evolution had to be invented first. Once Charles Darwin took care of this detail, each subsequent generation has duly identified whatever crisis made the headlines as the birth-pangs of the new humanity. Their equivalents today insist that this time, it’s for real, since the current crisis is so much more dire than those of the past. In making that argument, they’re on familiar ground, since the same thing has been claimed about many crises in the past, and doubtless it will be claimed just as fervently about many crises in the future. The most intriguing detail about all this, again, is the way in which an idea that’s been rehashed more often than the average sitcom plot has been trotted out again under the label of new and innovative thinking.

A third example is the profusion of claims that everything will be all right if only the right people are given political power. David Korten’s widely touted The Great Turning is a case in point. Korten argues that certain people, who have reached a higher “developmental stage” than the rest of us, are uniquely qualified to hold positions of leadership as the ideology of Earth Community vanquishes Empire, the Satan-surrogate of his intensely dualistic secular mythology. His arguments differ only in details from those Plato uses to justify elite rule in his totalitarian Utopia The Republic or, for that matter, the equivalent arguments used by defenders of aristocratic privilege in 18th and 19th century Europe. Since few of Korten’s readers are apparently familiar with these latter, though, his profoundly antidemocratic and illiberal treatise has been hailed as a breakthrough work full of new and innovative thinking.

As these examples suggest, the reappearance of the same new ideas over and over again has a troubling side. Many of those ideas have been tried repeatedly in the past, and have worked very, very poorly. Despite their appeal, there’s no good reason to think that they’ll work any better in their latest incarnations. Thus it may be worth looking into the immense failure of cultural memory that stands in the way of tracing the histories of our own ideas.

In his scathing 1986 study of the ideologies of gender in late 19th century art, Idols of Perversity, Bram Dijkstra commented:

In a world which stresses the value of individualism above all else, it is a primary requirement for the ‘self-confident’ mind, to remain blind to the logical conjunction of personal ideas and the assumptions held by the ‘mass’ of one’s contemporaries. The ideas of ‘individual’ thinkers, more often than not, are largely constructed from contemporary clichés. These clichés have merely been stripped of their baser trappings, of their rhetorical conventionality, in accordance with whatever happen to be the prevailing guidelines for the ‘individualistic’ ego (p. 146).

Step past Dijkstra’s irritable prose and the point he makes is worth following up. The mythology of progress that provides modern industrial culture with its unacknowledged established religion devalues the cultural legacy of older epochs and the experience of the past; it’s symptomatic that one of the more crushing phrases of devaluation in modern teen slang is “Oh, that’s all history.” Without the depth perception that only an awareness of the past can bring, though, all we have to work with are the two-dimensional surfaces of contemporary popular culture, with all its baggage of unacknowledged borrowings from the past. Santayana’s famous dictum, it turns out, needs revision; those who do not remember their history are condemned to rehash it, under the delusion that they are being original.

There’s a way out of the paradox of unoriginal originality that besets so much of modern thought, though it’s at least as paradoxical: the way to get genuinely new ideas is to learn and value old ones. Partially that’s a matter of avoiding old mistakes, as suggested above, but it has other dimensions. Creativity, as Arthur Koestler pointed out many years ago, comes from the collision of incommensurable realities; to put that in less lapidary prose, it’s when the mind encounters two or more sharply different ways of making sense of the same thing that it can leap to a new level of understanding and come up with something authentically new.

Just as the 19th century collision between Western painting and the visual arts of other cultures enabled the Impressionists to break through to a new way of seeing light and color, and the cultural flowering of Heian Japan unfolded from the collision between the traditional forms of Japanese society and the arrival of cultural imports from China, our chance of finding the new ideas we so desperately need will go up sharply if the unstated assumptions and easy beliefs of contemporary culture are highlighted by contrast with radically different ways of looking at the world – and the past provides plenty of those.

Put this in the context of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, and an unexpected significance emerges. One of the great challenges faced by every dying civilization is the need to pass on as much as possible of its cultural, intellectual, and technical heritage to the future. Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with the role that Christian monks played in safeguarding the heritage of the Classical world during and after the collapse of Rome. The same thing has happened at other times, and in other ways – and there have also been times when it did not happen, and bare enigmatic ruins became the sole legacy of a civilization.

The extraordinary collection and transmission of information made possible by modern industrial society’s energy-intensive technological infrastructure raises the prospect that our civilization could leave a far richer legacy to the future than any before it. Still, the vulnerability of that technological infrastructure to the impacts of decline means that we can’t count on such a positive outcome. Whatever is to be saved has to be valued highly enough to be preserved, copied, and passed on from generation to generation. In a society that habitually devalues its past, it’s by no means guaranteed that anything of the sort will happen.

For this reason among others. I’ve come to think that a crucial role in shaping the future will be played by cultural conservers – individuals who choose to take on the task of learning and preserving some part of the cultural legacy of the past, and passing it on to the future. That’s not a highly valued role these days; our society glorifies the innovator and derides the conserver of tradition. Still, it’s a role that can contribute hugely to a better future. Over the weeks to come, I plan on discussing how cultural conservers might practice their craft, what resources might be useful to them, and how the gifts they preserve might benefit the world on the downside of Hubbert’s peak.


FARfetched said...

Those cultural conservers will have to struggle with more than indifference from the rest of the world. For starters, it's awfully hard to find archival-grade (acid-free) paper these days. If they clear that hurdle, then the real work begins.

Someone once described the net as trying to get a drink from a fire hose. Perhaps a better analogy for cultural conservation would be a stagnant pond — if you want a drink, you'll have to filter out a bunch of goop first. Perhaps different groups will focus on different aspects (music, fiction, news…).

OK, now I've waved my hands sufficiently; all the stuff worth saving has been downloaded, cataloged, cross-referenced, printed out, bound, and shelved in libraries. Now you have to make sure the loutish hordes of the dark ages don't use your hard work for cooking fuel. :-D

I actually addressed this scenario once in an RPG. I'll have to dig out my notes.

Panidaho said...

JMG said:

"Go to the apocalyptic true believers at the other end of the spectrum and you enter a worldview in which humanity has fallen from grace by usurping nature’s power, and only the purifying force of total catastrophe can admit a righteous remnant back into its proper subservience."

I think what it all boils down to, JMG, is we all love a good scary story. And the chance to actually *live* one is too good for some folks to pass up. Not to mention that the survivors get to call all the shots afterwards... and considering some of the posts I've read on PO forums, that's a scary thought for sure.

Btw, I also don't buy the "we're about to break through to a higher plane of being" line. I suspect that if we were, there would be a lot less arguing going on and a lot more work!

Farfetched said:

"Now you have to make sure the loutish hordes of the dark ages don't use your hard work for cooking fuel. :-D"

Yeah, or toilet paper. ;-)

But seriously, what can we keep information on that will last? Acid free paper is good - as long as it can be kept in a climate controlled building. If it ever gets damp or bug-infested, it's no better than the regular stuff. Until recently, the most enduring records were stories handed down in prose or poetry by word of mouth from generation to generation. Those often outlasted carved stone. I don't know that would very practical for medicine or soap recipes, though. Digital media can last quite a while, but it has the serious drawback of being totally unreadable without using high technology. Too bad we can't just spin CDs on edge to get the info back out of them, eh?

I'm looking forward to your "cultural conservers" series, JMG. Maybe it'll help me sort the gold from the dross and decide what I want to help conserve. There is so much to sift through, and each person can only do a little. Focus is the key, I believe.

Loveandlight said...

Well, I appreciate your point, but just because an idea has premodern antecedents neither especially validates or invalidates said idea. I am well familiar with the expression, "Everything old is new again."

FARfetched said...

I suppose I should add one clarification: there are a lot of obstacles, but the job is worth doing or at least attempting.

greatblue said...

Cultural conservers: reminds me of the end of _Fahrenheit 451_. We better sign up for classes in the Art of Memory...

Yvonne said...

I think that the very profusion of information will be our undoing if we are not careful. I would guess that the monks had much less to conserve. At present we need to rediscover some obsolete technologies whilst there are still people who remember them being current and become practiced in using them. Some of these have hung on as hobbies, knitting and spinning for instance. Others, energy intensive processes such as metal working and glass blowing, are less everyday and will require some work to downsize into a largely non-electrical technology. I wonder whether any of the working heritage centres can help with this. New Lanark, for example, retains much of its water-powered technology. There are probably similar places scattered around doing the same job for other technologies.

I recall reading _Earth Abides_ and very much understanding the character's despair that despite having a huge undamaged library no-one towards the end of the book was capable of making any use of the knowledge embodied in it. This is the next task, after whittling down the vast knowledge to its essentials, how to communicate it down the line at a time when leisure has disappeared and no-one has time for the big picture.

quiggers said...

The human condition remains constant in all but the details.
Inimical to the tranfer of cultural traditions is the current fixation on youth. In most past societies age has been respected, to the point of reverence in some. The keepers of cultural traditions, the ones that passed it on, were the elders. People who had survived and experienced, presumably with the aid of the established cultural traditions. Today, particularly in light of the speed of technological change, youth and novelty are revered. Tradition is not seen as important as it was in the past. This does not bode well for stability or transition in case of a change.

Robin said...

Loutish hordes of the future.... Well, let's not apply that temr to persons in the past, for fear of political incorrectness.

The Llibrary at Alexandria (Egypt) that housed so meany originals from the Greeks and others, was uset as fuel to heat the public baths. It is said that after the Arab conquest, the Caliph decreed that any material in the books that was consonant with the Quran was superfluous and any material that was contradictory was heretical; so it all could be disposed of.

If you really want to feel good about the future, listen to Kurzweil (author of "Singularity"): more recently he has a podcast on

Steve said...

Of course, we do have cultural conservers among us today.

My ex is an exhibits designer at the National Museum of American History. There are many there whose day job is the collection and preservation of our country's history. And there are the other museums in the Smithsonian and the other museums and libraries around the world.

In addition, my ex is an amateur historian in his own right. Among his interests are antique phonographs and antique lighting.

He has many, many examples of older electric and gas lighting fixtures. He has working gas lights in his home! He also has a large collection of cylinder and disc phonographs and a library of media for these devices.

I'm not necessarily suggesting that his collections may have any direct relevance to the challenges that face us; I'm merely using him as an example. One example that might be relevant is the collection of Foxfire books.

TheDave said...

Good essay JMG.

I think, though, that it may have benefited more from a direct relation between the modern industrial 'religion' and the death of knowledge. The current 'religion' idolizes the new and demonizes the old. As such, old ideas, old methods, and old people (as quiggers touches on) are thrown out with the bath water. Not only are ideas from the past of no value, but very often those who seek to promote those ideas or methods are considered to be familiar with the lunatic fringes of society.

The slow death of knowledge cannot be rescued by paper printouts or electronic storage. Ideas maintain their validity solely through the human experience. If a generation or two does not experience the process of weaving wool, that technology is effectively lost. However, if each generation learns and practices that technology, it is retained. People are, largely, too lazy to acquire knowledge that they don't absolutely need, especially if it has to be learned by reading.

Our hope lies in passing knowledge along as it has been passed for thousands of years, by actual practice and the spoken word.

Maeve said...

Without acid-free paper, people will revert to older technologies. And of necessity, as pivotal works age they will need to be re-copied. Cats in the scriptorium to keep mice at bay will be handy. ;)

I am one of those who loves old things and ways. I just don't do much about acquiring the knowledge and skills from those ancient times. It's one of those things that is on my much-too-long "to do some day" list.

I will be looking forward to future posts on this subject!

Christine Lydon said...

My partner is a carpenter by trade, but originally served his apprenticeship as a boat builder. He knows everything there is to know about working with wood. But as a self-empoyed sole-trader, he can scarcely make ends meet, let alone take on an apprentice himself. The economics are stacked against small-scale apprenticeships in today's society, and the large firms just don't have any use for paying people with his knowledge to pass it on to youngsters. He is in his late forties, one of the last to ever serve an apprenticeship at that boatyard, which took four years full time learning from several different old men with particular skills. He is now the last of his line, and spends his time putting in wardrobes and garden fencing and whatever else the McMansion owners want.

SCM said...

Robin's account may be politically incorrect but it is also probably plain incorrect. There is evidence that the library was already gone before Omar's time. It seems it may have been burnt and successively depleted with (partial recoveries) on several occasions, starting from as early as 48 BC.

On another topic - I've just finished reading the epic of Gilgamesh which has given me a new respect for clay tablets as a storage medium! The interesting this is that the editor wrote that he expects the epic to become increasingly complete over time as new tablets come to light (many of which may already be in collections but which there hasn't been enough time or assyriologists to examine yet). But the editor adds the rider that this is true only while society continues to value such endeavours.

Anthony said...

Having previously worked in a library this issue is near and dear to my heart.

I know JMG does not buy into the fall off of a cliff scenario and I agree it is a very long shot. But if Lovelock is right then by 2100 we are a few millions humans living near the poles. And if that happens then the loss of information and knowledge will be dramatic. That type of migration would require the very small number of survivors to leave everything behind except those items that lead to immediate survival.

One of the criticisms of Earth Abides is that there is no concerted effort to teach the children to read. But if every moment of every day is spent in survival mode I can see how reading could become a rare skill.

Farfetched - send me your RPG scenario. I volunteer to be the cultural conserver of RPGs!!


Catherine said...

Thank you for your blog. I believe that the future is so confusing to those of us who think about it that *any* simply-described future, no matter how wonderful or apocolyptic is better than total uncertainty.

Dwig said...

John: There’s a way out of the paradox of unoriginal originality that besets so much of modern thought, though it’s at least as paradoxical. This reminds me of a book I've read, and been rereading from time to time: "Paradoxes of Group Life", by Smith and Berg. They contend that paradox is a normal part of group life, and often leads to groups becoming "stuck" trying to find their way out. I've been thinking how this might apply to communities, as a particular kind of group; what I have so far can be seen in the Contents section of my project, under Paradoxes. Probably the most obvious is the Individual vs. the Community, and it's the only one I've had much to say about so far. John, does paradox play a significant role in magic?

By the way, I like the way you framed and introduced the cultural conserver concept. As you've said, there are very few truly new ideas; so, other than the well-known monestaries of the Middle Ages, what other noteworthy communities of cultural conservers have there been? Are there enough commonalities among them to suggest common themes, best practices, etc.? Who's doing that kind of work already today, under some other name? (It's a different kind of culture, but seed banks come to mind.) I guess I'm jumping the gun here; you've no doubt got answers to these and other questions in the chute.

jewishfarmer said...

John, do you know Stanislaus Lem's wonderful short story "Odysseus of Ithaca?" In it, a Cornell Professor goes on a search for first-order geniuses.

Third order geniuses, of course, are ordinary sort, the Einsteins and Cezannes and Wallace Stevens' we all know about.

Second order geniuses are detected only decades or hundreds of years after their appearance.

First order geniuses are so brilliant that in fact, they are never recognized at all, whether in their own time or any other.

The Professor, of course ultimately concludes that the only certain first-order genius is himself.

Worth reading - and probably conserving ;-). Somehow it lept to mind.

I'm both for and wary of the project of cultural conservation. That is, barring the apocalyptic scenarios you imagine as so unlikely, cultural conservation will go on, and the weeding process may lose much that is good, but it will also be revealing and useful - that is, what we value shows who we are.

While I'm endlessly grateful, for example, that the only version of King Lear that survived was not the 18th century version with the happy ending, the fact that King Lear was neither revered nor seen as immutable by 18th century playwrights is also endlessly valuable. I'm not sure that any self-conscious project of cultural conservation can pick and choose as well as whole societies of readers and thinkers do.

On the other hand, if we are facing a fairly rapid drop in literacy levels, access to books, art and culture, then cultural conservancy becomes much more urgent - but I have trouble envisioning that happening without the crash that you find unlikely. For example, while art holdings may become more localized as people travel less, they won't disappear - unless disaster befalls. And long before there was cheap energy, people used what small amounts of energy their was to go view art and culture.


FARfetched said...

«I think that the very profusion of information will be our undoing if we are not careful. I would guess that the monks had much less to conserve.»

Yvonne, I suspect the monks had to pick & choose too. Without printing presses, I'll bet they ended up throwing out a lot of stuff and kept only what they felt was worth investing the time in hand-copying. At least the conservers of the near future can hand off the copying part to laser printers & focus on collecting the useful information.

(Presuming, of course, they have adequate supplies of paper, toner, and electricity).

Joel said...

I'm heartened by a lot of trends toward cultural conservation, but there's a special place in my heart for the steampunks.

@farfetched: I think it's more like drinking from the ocean. It's usually too much effort to filter: better to distill, or wait for evaporation and rain.

If you want to preserve texts on a large scale and for a long period of time, it might be worthwhile to cut text into clay with a CNC stylus, and sinter it. Not much fuel value in ostraca or cuneiform tablets.

Joel said...

Thinking of ostraca, it occurred to me that it's quite possible to use the combination of magnetite and carbon in toner as a permanent pigment. Homebrew toner-transfer techniques have been developed fairly extensively in order to etch circuit boards: I could imagine some hobbyists making copies of texts that they really want to survive, by printing a mirror image, transferring with a hot roller, scrubbing off the paper, treating with glaze, and firing.

green with a gun said...

yvonne wrote, "I think that the very profusion of information will be our undoing if we are not careful."

That's an interesting point. A while back I read a book about archiving and conservation of historical objects. There was an illustrative example, that the US Supreme Court records from 1789 till 1945 were two bookshelves in the National Archives, but the following fifty years were fifty bookshelves - some figure like that.

I think of the daily newspaper, a week's newspapers would easily have the wordcount of an encyclopedia - but would they be as worth keeping?

I recently got some secondhand books which smell of stale tobacco, I asked a friend if he knew how to fix it, thinking that a guy who works in the library system would know about preserving books. He said that with 20,000 new books coming in each year and no more shelfspace, they must throw out 20,000 books a year, so "it's stinky" would get that one biffed.

This combination of the vast amount of words and images our society produces (not all "information", alas) and the practical impossibility of even cataloguing it all makes me think that only a tiny proportion of what we produce will survive down the years - with or without a collapse.

I just hope it's a good proportion. What if all they found was copies of Hustler and Dr Phil?

BoysMom said...

How about homeschoolers? We have lots of resources, and quite a few young people with daily handwriting assignments.
Books were traditionally copied by hand, after all, as was music, and while tedious it is doable. (Music manuscripting is still taught by hand copying.) We don't need a record form that will last forever if it's being recopied by each generation in turn. Split between thousands of households the danger of society completely loosing any one text is lessened to near-nothing--after all, how many homeschoolers have a translation of, say, Homer? (I think we've got two different translations at our house.) We're all avid book-collectors. Now getting that copy recopied if no one wants/needs it just now may pose a problem, and we're all going to have to do a lot of triage--none of us can recopy thousands of books, after all, and lots of them aren't worth copying by hand (my sci-fi collection, for instance) and then there's the problem of cataloging and communicating the catalogue in such a way that someone who needs my great-great's copy of Homer can find out that they even have it.

For technologies, what about the medieval recreationists? We haven't gotten together with them yet but they're busy doing and learning all sorts of skills, judging from the email list.

yooper said...

Hello John! As you might have noticed, I've "jerked a few chains", going toe to toe. When people realize the "darkness of my eyes", this can be a frightful experience and most recoil.

Perhaps, it's time for me to pull back a bit and let this sink in, not only for others but for myself as well.

I'd like to post a link to this site these are my sentiments as well.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

Just got back from a long teaching weekend at a Theosophical retreat center without benefit of internet access -- apologies to all who had their comments in nullspace for the last four days or so. I'll respond as seems appropriate once I get some sleep.

Stephen Heyer said...

I’ve been thinking along the same lines as green with a gun and reached a few conclusions.

1. A lot of the great profusion of publications of the last century do not really warrant preservation.

For example, I’m inclined to think that a dozen or so examples of “The Great American Novel” would be plenty for people in a thousand years or so, more would just be superfluous. Further, I don’t even think there would be that much trouble getting some agreement on which to include in that dozen.

In the case of Twentieth Century movies I reckon about 100 should do it.

A more extreme example is the great flood of mostly useless or even harmful legislation late Twentieth Century governments turned out after they become overrun by mediocre suburban lawyers convinced they were “lawmakers” rather than a government. The whole lot is probably best dealt with by the Delete button.

2. A lot of the stuff we really want to preserve isn’t in the form of books and for various reasons is really only suitable for electronic storage.

For example, knowledge that is both irreplaceable and of great importance such as finely detailed, digital 3D representations of all the ancient human and pre-human fossils, along with the most important archaeological finds, that kind of stuff.

Or technical data of possible great importance that took thousands of man years to accumulate and that impoverished future societies would probably have the resources to manufacture, but not develop again from scratch.

Now most of us computer nerds immediately think of computer software, however the more useful operating systems and software are so widespread it is hard to imagine their loss. It is an altogether different story with the design of the masks needed to produce the incredibly complex processors at the heart of all our computers.

As far as I know they are stored in very few places, entirely under the control of the few companies who developed them. If, for whatever reason, things ever turned out half as bad as the apocalyptic true believers suppose, the loss of these designs would be both likely and catastrophic.

That really needs to be addressed.

The same goes for a lot of more humble technology: There could come a time when it would be very handy to be able to take gifts of goats, gold and fine riding camels to the monks who have devoted the last 4 centuries to keeping the sacred computers at the regional data store operational, and return with a printout of the plans for, say, a steam locomotive, or a simple wood and canvas airplane, or an X Ray machine.

As jewishfarmer would no doubt point out, the same of course goes doubly for genetic information such as traditional crops and heritage domestic animals. I’m encouraged to see that some repositories for seeds and I gather animal DNA are being set up.

We need more, lots more.

3. Socially and historically the really important thing isn’t the data, but the conclusions we can draw from it.

I don’t know how this could be conveyed across the abyss of the centuries. After all, even with the “full data set” available to us we still draw conclusions as utterly opposed as those of people on this blog and those of the infinite growth, “hysteria of greed” neo-con crowd.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I've always been out of step with the current paradigm, and as a kid I shadowed my grandfather and any old people I could find to learn something of what they knew. Because of that, I know how to hunt big game (both by bow and gun), snare small game, and gather medicinal plants and eat wild plants and read sign, but do not know much (compared to my peers) about sports teams, stocks and bonds or cars, or money, all my own choice.

I am a cultural conserver for my tribe, one of the last to have a working knowledge of our language and culture. An old man also passed on to me his knowledge of brain-tanned hideworking, making rawhide and parfleches, hide clothes, tipis, etc. I learned the basics of lithics, both grinding stone (manos and metates, etc) and chippedstone (arrowheads and blades etc.) You guys are right, that books are fine and dandy, but even the best written source is a shadow of what you need to actually do the work.

Besides the monastic model, there are many examples of cultural conservers, the most obvious are among the elders and practitioners among the various indigenous peoples, conservers of much practical knowledge even older than Mesopotamia and Rome.

And even as a nonindigeous person you can learn some of this knowledge kept among black powder enthusiasts, historical re-enactors, and folklife centers (the national folklife festival is being held in Butte, Montana this year). Many states have living history farms and villages, as do many national historical parts. You can be a parttime volunteer and learn much at these places. Every state has a folklife department of some kind, often attached to the historic preservation or art state bureaucracies (your local museum is a good place to ask for starters). You can support such things in many ways, whether as a volunteer, a fundraiser, or even just attending events and visiting sites.

christine: There are lots of resources and even some funds (maybe this will get better with a change in the White House) for people like your shipwright. If he wanted to set up a historical boatbuilding practice, there is support for that in the many folklife centers and museums scattered all over the coast. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage ( is one good start to hook him into the network and resources. He could make a living doing his lifework and could find an apprentice. Maybe not as much money as working for McMansionites, but their money will dry up soon anyway. And he would be much happier in any case. There is a wooden canoe builder here in Montana who makes a good living building custom boats and canoes.

Besides my lifework in tribal ways, and linking up with JMG's work as a druid, and getting my hands dirty in horticulture this summer, I am adjunct faculty at a local branch campus of the state university, where I teach anthropology and archaeology (I used Diamond's "Collapse" as a required text this term), art (painting and drawing the traditional ways), and art history and aesthetics appreciation. I also care for my nephews and niece and teach them what I know about anything and everything. I am trying to get it imparted between now when they are 3 and 4 and before they become teens when most kids lose interest in old ways. They will get my hundreds of books, old tools and whatever they have. It will be up to them to keep, toss, or sell. I will teach them Ars Memoria as they get older. Right now, even at three and four, I am teaching them to identify wild plants.

I live hand to mouth, do not own a car or house, make lots of soup, eat whatever is at hand, and don't focus on the future. It makes things easier if you don't want all the toys or status symbols, or care much about money and what people think. After all, did our Neolithic ancestors worry about retirement packages? Nope, they counted every day above ground as a good day and knew their coming Death as a one of their most important life-coaches :-)


Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thanks, John=JMG, for raising the issue of cultural conservation.

So important is your issue that I will try to make separate postings on several of its ever-so-troubling subissues.

In this (my "Posting #01"), I will discuss the subissue of media.

Electronic media may prove a trap, a mere Faustian bargain. As our catabolic decay-or-collapse progresses over the next 50, 100, and 150 years, we may find computing resources becoming scarce. A few decades from now, computers may once again become the exclusive preserve of the big institutions, as they were in the 1960s. If things get bad enough, even our large institutions, such as what by then remains of our military, may be able to afford only overworked "departmental minis", twenty-first century versions of the sad old DEC PDPs with multiple VT100-style text-only terminals. By this point, the recopying of CD-ROMs, let alone of DVDs, will have become prohibitively slow and expensive.

And what, it will be asked, about the reading, in that dim impending epoch, of already-existing CD-ROMs, say from the Year of Grace 2008? Here the problem is that a CD-ROM will physically degrade after just a few decades. If we do not keep writing our data to fresh disks, our data will be lost.

What to do? A way forward might lie in the amassing, already now in 2008, of libraries that do not use CD-ROMs. The ideal "Long Future" library under construction in 2008 would not even use the fragile and bulky medium of paper but would resort instead to microform.

I gather from local plate-vault lore at work (at the David Dunlap Observatory just north of Toronto) that photographic emulsions degrade after some decades. But permanent microform archiving could be achieved by imprinting onto glass or metal - say by first taking an image with a photolithography mask, then using an acid bath to etch away the lightstruck (or is it the light-deprived?) portions of the image. The final product would be a slip of glass or metal, perhaps the size of four or eight business cards, in which the text, running to some hundreds of single-spaced pages, is etched,incised. Such a slip would not require climate-controlled storage. The text on such a slip could be read with a single-lens magnifier at high power, say at 50x or 100x, and therefore would remain readable even to curators who, while possessing a modest level of engineering skill, lack electronics.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

In this next post on cultural conservation (my "Posting #02"), I will discuss the problem of selecting appropriate conservationist institutions.

One approach, on which the coordination is centralized and it is governments that take the lead, might involve a partnership of UNESCO with some appropriately energetic and affluent national libraries and university libraries. No doubt UNESCO would itself pass much of the detailed work on to the appropriate international coordinating body for librarianship. I think this body is IFLA (, but I might be wrong.

A second approach is one on which the coordination is not centralized but proceeds on a "rhizome" or "Wiki" organizational model, rather anarchically, as Linux has successfully proceeded. Here we might imagine the lead being taken by individual institutions, none of which has authority to give instructions to any others, but each of which takes a friendly interest in the work of its peer institutions, vigilantly striving in its own small way both to eschew duplication of effort and to signpost the worst of the emerging interdisciplinary gaps. Here's one hypothetical example of a rhizome participant, an example drawn from my own field: the International Astronomical Union might find it prudent to take a backup snapshot of the main star catalogues and bibliographies and atlases within the Centre de Donnes Stellaires (CDS) (, currently housed on collapse-vulnerable computers in collapse-vulnerable Strasbourg, to etch the results onto a few hundred kilograms of glass-microform slips, and to entrust the resulting crates of slips to some such place as the Monastery of Christ in the Desert ( in the New Mexico hinterland.

Ideally, both approaches would be developed, in the hope that the weaknesses of each get complemented by the corresponding strengths of the other.

It is now necessary to stimulate some discussion on the two approaches within the august halls of UNESCO, IFLA, CDS, and the like.

JMG=John, being a book author, might have some ideas on how to get a discussion going in terms that will be visible to a few of the appropriate authorities. I for my part will raise this question with a Vatican astronomer, and maybe other people will likewise have a few contacts. Our aim must be to SPARK INTEREST in those august (and of course traditionally open-minded, public-spirited) halls, so that some effective committee work gets launched there. If only IFLA could set up a discussion forum and encourage representatives of the big libraries to post their thoughts! :-)


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

In this (my "Posting #03"), I will discuss the need to study the history of post-Roman conservation.

I don't know what morals to draw from that history, but the history is full of oddities, and so I conjecture that instructive morals do exist.

Here is one oddity: When the Western Empire fell, some of Aristotle was conserved, but not all. The Categories and de Interpretatione were at all times available. The Metaphysics, on the other hand, temporarily disappeared from Europe, becoming available again only via the Arabs in the High Middle Ages. So why was there a failure to copy all of Aristotle?

Here is another oddity, or at least striking fact: Virgil was never left unread. (Well, never was left unread **IF** the popularizing, Time-Life-Books historian I was skimming was himself accurate!) Why this small triumph? Were the copyists really good enough, as literary critics, to discern the difference between the best of the best, as represented by Virgil (the pre-eminent voice of the "Golden" period), and more minor voices (like the pre-"Golden" writer Ennius, now extant only in fragments)?

Here is a third oddity: How can it be that, among the post-"Golden" authors, not only respectable Augustine but also creepy Juvenal survived? When we read Juvenal in translation at Dalhousie University in the 1970s, our prof practically shuddered at some verses describing an orgy, and even back then I could see why. Juvenal goes beyond pornography, to the point of nausea. Was it some Benedictine monks who did the copying? If so, were they too bad at Latin to understand the details of the text before their eyes? (Maybe so: but then do we want to postulate enough skill in the monks to single out Virgil as eminently worthy of conservation?)

I don't know what to make of any of this, and here I pose only a QUESTION (to which JMG may have an answer): who are the standard analysts for conservation - from, say, 476 AD to the High Middle Ages? Who are the 20th-century or 21st-century authorities who have summarized what is now known about selection criteria in scriptoria, about quality of communications between Constantinople and the dim and struggling communities of the former Western Empire, about literacy levels within the Church hierarchy in the West, and so on? Who are the current gurus?


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

JosephG said...

I might agree with you in regard to the unlikelihood of a rapid catastrophic collapse (apocalypse is really a theological term which means an unveiling, and not a good term to use here)if it were just a matter of PO, but it is oh so much more than that as we all know.
Peak Everything includes lack of fresh water on a global scale and an incredibly accelerating loss of arable land due to desertification, salination and huge annual losses of topsoil.

How can you dimiss Lovelock when the fact is that we both know that there is no way we can stop the loss of rain forest, and forest in general,and, it doesnt look like humanity will be able to stop greenhouse gas emissions?

In other words, the only way Lovelock can be all wrong is under the absolutely best-case scenarios, which we both know never pan out.

I find that almost invariably, those with your pov rely on best- case scenarios, when the facts of the case are that we are finding out over and over again that things are far worse that thought just a few years ago.

Since nothing like this has ever happened before in our known history (our knowledge of previous civilizational cycles - things like the possibility of an Atlantis-like,or, ET-influenced Ur-civilization are still too speculative to be reliable guides)on a global scale, the way past collapses played-out is not a reliable guide to our future.

I do like your ideas, and I do think such pov's should be part of the mix, but for the sake of widening the mix, let me play Devil's Advocate for a sec.
All of us are forced - if we are to remain intellectually honest - to continually ask ourselves, "Do I believe what I believe because I want to believe it and need to believe it, or is my belief a sober, reasonaable assessment of the facts of the case, and extrapolation of the premises?"
As such, do ever ask yourself if you believe what you believe because you want to spare yourself the stress, strain and pain of facing just how bad, how ugly, how horrible the coming rapid catastrophic collapse is going to be, and that it is going to happen because we should have been addressing the situation radically and maturely 25 years ago but didnt?
warm regards, Joseph

John Michael Greer said...

The response to this week's post has been particularly fascinating to me. The theme of the essay -- the extent to which today's "new" ideas are rehashes of popular culture -- seems to have vanished down a black hole; here as well as elsewhere, people have either insisted on the sudden apocalyptic collapse popular culture's been promising them for decades, or discussions of the nuts and bolts of the cultural conserver concept, which I haven't yet discussed in any detail.

Loveandlight, thank you for being one of the few exceptions, though I think you missed my point. The notion that a claim is invalid because it's old is exactly the thinking I'm challenging -- and it's also the driving force behind the endless attempts to rehash old ideas while claiming that they're new.

Quiggers, the result of today's obsession with apparent novelty is less discontinuous than it might seem. In the absence of explicit tradition, an implicit traditionalism pervades popular culture, repeating the same ideas over and over again in various packages. As the persistence of the apocalyptic fantasy suggests, people are just as resistant to new ideas today as they are in the most hidebound of traditional societies; the only difference is that today's defenders of tradition labor under the odd misconception that the ideas they defend are brand new.

I'm going to leave most of the rest of the comments for now, because several future posts will cover the cultural conserver concept in some detail and make my views a little more clear. I'll respond to a couple of the comments, though, as soon as time permits.

Raymond said...


In Preparing For What Future?, May 07, 2008, JMG makes a rather bald statement,

My take is that modern industrial civilization is on the downslope of its history, headed for the compost heap of fallen empires alongside all the dead civilizations of the past. Peak oil and the other elements of the crisis of the contemporary world, in this analysis, are simply the current manifestations of patterns that shaped the fall of other civilizations, and our future will most likely follow a similar course – an extended, uneven decline extending over more than a century, including repeated periods of crisis followed by partial recoveries, ending in a dark age in which much of the technology, knowledge base, and cultural heritage of today will survive in fragments or be completely lost.

He's been saying this for quite a while. For instance, consider this excerpt from Völkerwanderung, June 27, 2007,

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.

As you will probably find from other responses to your statement, JMG considers, by comparison with the decline of past civilizations, the present decline as being simply a difference in degree - not a difference in kind.

However, looking at past Archdruid Report posts over the last 13 months I find that this isn't so clear.

For instance, in Glimpsing the Deindustrial Age, May 23, 2007,

Finally, ecological change is the wild card in the deck. Natural systems form the bedrock foundation of all human societies, and the sweeping impacts of industrial civilization’s brief heyday and collapse promise to set ecosystems spinning into radically new forms over much of the globe. Climate change is only one aspect of this picture, though its importance needs not to be understated.

And, again in Lifeboat Time, November 29, 2007,

When the hull’s pierced and water’s rising belowdecks, the window of opportunity for effective action is brief, and if the water can’t be stopped very soon, it’s lifeboat time.

By almost any imaginable standard, that time has arrived for the industrial world.

and, further on,

Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up 50 to 60 feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

While these non-peak-oil related issues are occasionally addressed, I find that they are not well followed up on. I think there's a reason for this which I will return to.

Still, more than that, JMG has spoken on other occasions about the truly unpredictable nature of the state of the present world.

Such as in The Next Agriculture, March 05, 2008,

Watch a frozen lake melt and you have a seasonally timely example of nonlinear change. The transition from ice to liquid water doesn’t happen gradually as temperature rises; it happens at a specific point in the temperature spectrum, 32°F, and only then once the ice has absorbed enough energy to overcome its thermal inertia and provide the heat of fusion. A five-degree warming can be irrelevant to the process, if it’s from 15°F to 20°F, or for that matter from 40°F to 45°F. The same rise between 30°F and 35°F, on the other hand, can cause drastic change.

This is a good analogy for non-linear change. It also describes how a difference of degree can suddenly change into that of a difference of kind. In fact, JMG has discussed a number of such non-linear aspects to the state of the present world in some detail.

Consider some excerpts from The Paradox of Production, March 26, 2008,

Petroleum provides so much of the energy and so many of the raw materials we take for granted today that the impacts of declining oil production extend much further than a first glance would suggest.

and, further,

I’ve pointed out in previous posts here that every other energy source currently used in modern societies gets a substantial "energy subsidy" from oil.

Of even greater significance is the following,

It’s that a huge proportion of industrial society’s capital plant – the collection of tools, artifacts, trained personnel, social structures, information resources, and human geography that provide the productive basis for society – was designed and built to use petroleum-derived fuels, and only petroleum-derived fuels.

Additionally, consider this except pertaining specifically to conditions in the U.S. from Culture Death, July 18, 2007,

Once the private car has become an anachronism and the energy costs of long-distance trucking make local production of most goods a better bargain, the economic glue that holds together a sprawling highway network and the many industries necessary to maintain it faces rapid dissolution. That same glue is most of what holds the United States together as a nation-state, and its breakdown will likely see the unraveling of the United States as a primary focus of our collective identity.

These statements by JMG are certainly sufficient to convince me that we are indeed facing circumstances to some extent unique in history. Unique enough to be construed as a "difference of kind" the results of which cannot, perhaps, be readily compared with past examples of collapse.

Still, there's no doubt a great deal of room for comparison. JMG has made a very interesting analysis of the decay of societies using the ecological concept of succession such as in the following excerpt from Climbing Down The Ladder, October 10, 2007,

… modern industrial societies as they exist today probably can’t survive the end of constantly increasing energy supplies, the impact of peak fossil fuel production will likely drive the emergence of other forms of industrialism adapted to a world of diminishing fuel supplies …

In the near term, societies that rely on the increasingly efficient use of the remaining fossil fuels, eked out with renewable resources and high technology, will likely do much better than either the wasteful dinosaur cultures of the present industrial period or the lower-energy cultures that will end up replacing them.

I think that this describes very well a country like the Netherlands or an America that began preparing for oil scarcity 10 to 20 years ago. I think his analogy with succession is a very sophisticated argument against the so-called "fast-crash" scenario. However, it could very easily describe something more like a "fast-crash" within societies that have developed immense and costly infrastructure that is nearly, completely dependent upon a declining fossil fuel supply. Perhaps something like, say, the U.S.?

What I take personally from these posts is that the process of decay is not in any way uniform over the short term. While we can expect an overall decline of historical proportions, surely we can also expect sporadic and/or permanent, rapid disintegration of civilization in some places at some times in the future. While JMG very often reminds us that the process of decay is uneven, I don't find much discussion of the nature of this uneven change.

Uniformity of events are detectable and ready comparison with the past possible only when viewed over a substantial period of time. I suggest that JMG is somewhat wedded to the long-view by virtue of his true interest in what he's called the "ecotechnic" societies of the future. To get at these, as he's very persuasively argued I think, it takes a long time.

However, considering that the phrase "peak oil" has been included in posts 121 times over the last 13 months (an average of 9 times per month) and that the pronouncement that oil production peaked in 2005 has been made on several occasions, I find myself confused repeatedly by these uniformly long-term analyses that concern themselves with the effects of that peak in oil production. Is there a third option?

FARfetched said...

JMG, the theme about new ideas being rehashes of old ones is almost tautological — "there is nothing new under the sun" — which is perhaps why most of us went in other directions. I'm guessing many of us thought, "well, yeah, of course" and focused on points where there was something more to say. :-)

JosephG: are you saying there's no hope? If so, what's the point of anything?

shadowfoot said...

Toomas, as regards the monks copying Juvenal and such-like (the library at the Vatican also reportedly has an large collection of medieval fablio, which are also tales about sexual mischief, etc.), you are making an assumption about what they considered of value. Since one of the 'jobs' of the church was to seek out and reveal evil-doing and sin, that can be hard to do if one doesn't have a good idea of what is considered sinful. So one argument, and a fairly reasonable one, for the Vatican and other Christian libraries have copies of certain topics is that they wished to 'know the enemy'.

Einstein once wrote a book listing 100 failed experiments, in order to help colleagues out by saving them the time of trying these particular theories out themselves.

While folks here seem to be focusing on the idea that saving as much of the 'best' knowledge and literature is the most important, let's hope that conservers will also include cautionary information as well -- not just what herbs are medicinally useful but in what way they are used and in what amounts, not just what energies are useful and for what purposes, but why we went away from using some other types of energy, etc.

Regarding copying, wanted to note a couple of things, although currently they may be on such a small scale I'm not sure how well they'll last down the ages.

One is that some folks (not just medievalists) are working on learning how to make their own ink, and others on making paper. For both copying or printing purposes, being able to make those basics is important. There are also people who make or know how to make vellum (the animal skin variety). Yes, I know, a horrible thought to some folks. But, vellum has a higher durability/longer lifespan in general than paper (or at least, paper as it is commonly made today). It was a time-consuming task of course and can't be done on the scale that paper-making can be, so for those who chose to use them, what they choose to copy would be even more selective.

For pure information/writing, I kind of like the clay tablets myself (fired, please), or even wax tablets -- maybe for master copies, with paper copies being made based on the masters, to cut down on the number of errors introduced by each new generation of copyists.

Another bit of info I'd like to drop in here is that hobbyist letterpress printers are on the upswing. There are some few companies that still make new type and new presses, but there is also a booming trade in used equipment. There are companies that are still making replacement parts as one of their sidelines. Some art schools are running classes on printing, and in particular letterpress printing. The key to whether these will be a help in contributing to the saving of knowledge is whether or not these printers will continue to have access to paper and ink. Parts is actually less of an issue, at least for the older machines -- the precision of the parts is not so fine that a good smith couldn't make new parts if needed, and in fact they're mostly pretty hard to break (except for springs, but those aren't impossible either).

My husband and I are rank beginners as printers, but we happen to live fairly close to one of the largest warehouses of letterpress printing equipment and supplies in the U.S. A friend of ours discovered we were interested and encouraged our interest by giving us some starter racks, a small press, and some old type, and we haven't looked back. In fact the weekend of June 7 the 50th anniversary gathering of the Massachusetts APA will be held nearby, and we'll definitely be attending. Our hope is to pick up a floor press.

Previous to this year, the most popular presses were the tabletop models -- smaller, easier to set up in a small space like one's livingroom. However as of this spring there's been a big increase in floor press acquisitions. And yes, many of the older models can be foot-powered -- there's even a guy who has a sideline in making foot-pedals for particular models of floor presses, if the press is missing them (many are, because they were converted to motors for a while).

Heather G

shadowfoot said...


Sorry, guess I jumped on the conserver bandwagon in my previous comment as well!

As regards the thought on old ideas being presented as new ones, especially without being aware they're old ideas, I would agree. What I find unfortunate about this trend is that without having knowledge of the history of a given idea, sometimes the better parts of an idea have gotten lost along the way.

Working with most anything, be it an idea or something physical like a machine, without even a basic idea of how and why it functions, can result in poor outcomes.

Certainly a lot of the ideas in the news these days for alternative energies often lack thought in regard cost, materials, scale, distribution, etc.

There seems to be an inability to look at things as a whole these days....

My own little thought on "new" ideas is that there may not be any new ideas, but perhaps with some thought and research, one might be able to combine parts of old ideas in different ways in order to find better solutions for various challenges? That would take having some understanding of each of the possible ideas and thinking about how they would interact. A sort of... community of ideas?

Heather G

JosephG said...

I guess I could say that my pov is midway between Admin on Survival Acres and JMG.

It seems to me, we are just sssooo far into population overshoot in terms of planetary sustainability and carrying capacity that it does not look like there is any possibility of avoiding a massive die-off of the human population

I actually got to meet the author of "Overshoot" at a public screening of the documentary "What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire" but there wasnt much time to talk.

Anyway, imagine the factors I talked about in my previous post. Now add in resource wars, with the possibility of the use of at least *tactical* nukes like the US has planned for Iran. Imagine oil at $200...$250...$300 dollars a barrel in the near future.

The global economy would collapse and we could easily spiral into an ever-increasing destructive chaos in short order, from which we would never recover.
JMG mentioned that we are collapsing at the height of our *wealth* but are we really? I dont think so - we are not as wealthy a world as we were before we blew the cheapest reserves of our fossil fuel inheritance, so now we would have to retool with far less real wealth that we once had. And we are getting *poorer* everday day in terms of real wealth
Plus, as Sharon pointed out recently, retooling to sustainable energy sources will in and of itself generate huge amounts of greenhouse gases.
At any rate, it is hard to see how the human race can avoid collapsing back into the Stone Age. As such, it is very likely that almost all of us will be totally pre-occupied with sheer survival in the not-too-distant future, and cultural preservation will be an unaffordable luxury

However, I am certainly not opposed to efforts to try to avoid this and the attempt to try to create some kind of ecotechnic civilization and/or engage in cultural preservation activities.
In other words, I do not believe in a rapid catastrophic collapse of global industrial civilization because I want to believe in it but because...there just doesnt seem to be a way out of it. I hope I am wrong.

As for your comment, farfetched. One can and should still act from a spiritual center - or create as much positive karmic merit as one can -for the sake of all sentient beings in the universe no matter what happens on this little mudball.
This is just one habitable planet in an immense cosmos. In other words, your present life is just one incarnation on one habitable world. Perhaps the lesson we will be learning is to face death and trading in the vehicle under conditions of planetary collapse. On with the show, good health to you,

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

You lamented “The theme of the essay -- the extent to which today's "new" ideas are rehashes of popular culture -- seems to have vanished down a black hole”.

Not really, you see I have a problem not only with your post "The Same New Ideas" but with the past half dozen or so: They are too good.

I read them thoroughly, pick them up, turn them sideways, try reading them upside down, think of a few points to criticize, then realize you’ve addressed that in another part, then have to accept that I don’t really have much to add. This is a bit hard for a born critic and debater like me to accept.

I think perhaps this is also what farfetched is saying in another sort of way.

Oh! And your main point, that the latest fads and fashions are often just remodeled versions of ideas that are often centuries or even millennia old and often crude and simplified versions at that, is something that I noticed back in the 60s and has haunted and frustrated me ever since.

I first noticed this among my lefty, flower power, conservationist, animal lib friends, whose ideas I initially had some sympathy for, still do. The thing is, being the kind of person who cannot leave well enough alone, I started to research where the ideas had come from and found two disconcerting facts:

1. Many of the “philosophers” and founders of the 60s revolution did not lead lives at all like they were advocating (although everyone had to pretend that they did). Worse, some were in reality quite vile people.

2. Most of the ideas being pushed were crude rehashes of ideas sometimes dating back millennia. Some had been tried and failed, others that could work depended on details that had been carefully removed from the latest version as not suiting the spirit of the times.

What really amazed me was that when I showed some of this to even the more aware and reasonable of my “flower power” friends they didn’t deny it, just kind of looked everywhere but at it, then carefully removed it from their consciousness. I kept trying for a decade of so as I was horrified by the long term social harm I could see being done, but eventually gave up.

So you see, it’s not that I’ve not seen your main point, just that I often don’t have much to add. I suspect that may apply to other of your faithful readers.

Conclusion: Stop making your posts so damn good!

Lance Michael Foster said...

yep, JMG, I agree with what farfetched said, which is to say, we agree with what you said...I didn't see any point in saying "what JMG said"...just another proof of what Santayana said (and doubtless, someone else said before Santayana). Only so many ways to say that old wine in new bottles bit. This post really was a dialogue between JMG and certain people, not all of us; many of us know that already, so we didn't see any point in arguing about it. There's nowhere to go, but either agree that ideas are just rehashed over and over, and that there is nothing new under the sun. Or we could be victims of hubris and stick in our thumb and pull out a plum and say what a good boy am I :-)

I think JMG spent a good chunk of the last part of his post talking a lot about cultural conservers, which opened the gates on that. You set the fuse there, JMG; a fresh and inspiring topic always distracts one from a tired and uncomfortable one. And people were inspired on that topic, something that is positive to grapple with and engage in, rather than a tautology. No one can predict what will take and what won't. Also, people are kinda burdened down by all the bad news already. That's my 2 cents :-D


Bill Pulliam said...

JosephG wrote "How can you dimiss Lovelock when the fact is that we both know that there is no way we can stop the loss of rain forest, and forest in general,and, it doesnt look like humanity will be able to stop greenhouse gas emissions?"

Actually peak oil zaps both of these. Rain forests are being cleared by petroleum-fueled machinery in petroleum-based economies, not by hunter-gatherers wielding stone axes. Greenhouse gas emissions drop when fossil fuel supply drops. Biofuels and other misguided "transitional" panic responses might create some real ugliness in the near term, but overall when the oil declines, our capacity to dismantle and disrupt the rest of the ecosphere declines as well.

Raymond -- I think it is clear from the totallty of JMG's writings that the things you describe are some of the incremental crises on the long, jagged way down, not sudden civilization-destroying meltdowns on their own. Sea level rise and climate change have both figured into his narratives of imagined futures, as things that the long-declining civilization has had to deal with on an ongoing basis.

As for uniqueness of our present circumstances (which comes up over and over again), ALL points in history are unique and distinct from all others. Our uniqueness is nothing special. And this uniqueness of every point in the space-time continuum has never precluded useful, informative, and even accurate generalizations and predictions about probable futures based on studying the patterns and processes of observed pasts.

To the topic -- I'll be very intrigued to hear what our host actually has to say in the coming weeks. These matters have been much on my mind for many years as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Finally got through the back email and minor crises waiting for me when I got back, and so have a chance to comment in a bit more detail. Tomorrow's post will begin the process of responding to most of the comments on the cultural conserver concept, though the brass-tack issues are a few weeks away; I owe thanks to those who picked up that concept and ran with it, as their comments have given me some additional ideas for the discussions to come.

A few things do need saying now, though.

Joseph, the word "apocalyptic" has meanings not found in its etymology -- you might as well insist that nobody but retirees can be priests, because the English word "priest" comes from a Greek word for "elder." It's relevant here because the fast-collapse scenario pretty much always comes along with a moral condemnation of existing society; it's the essence of apocalyptic that its believers hate what they believe is about to crash and burn.

You've inquired whether I've ever considered the possibility that my opinions have been shaped by an unwillingness to accept the horrors of the future. That's a fair question, and the answer is yes, I've considered that. Have you ever asked yourself how much of your belief in sudden collapse comes from your own feelings about the society you inhabit?

If you'll glance through the archives of this blog, or wait until The Long Descent is published this fall, you'll find a detailed discussion of why I consider the apocalyptic scenario hopelessly flawed as a model for the future of industrial society. Our present predicament differs in scale from past examples, but not in kind. The collapse of the Classic Maya, for example, involved multiple pressures that were as drastic and challenging for the Maya, given the limits of their technology, that our current situation is to us, given the limits of our technology. Different scales, same phenomenon.

A glance back over the history of the peak oil movement might also lend perspective. Not that long ago people insisted that industrial society would suffer total economic implosion once oil hit $100 a barrel. Only the short memories of the apocalypse lobby have kept those people from recognizing the egg on their faces. There's a great deal more resilience built into human societies than fantasies of sudden collapse take into account.

Sharon, er, you have heard of the fall of the Roman Empire, I trust? That was a slow collapse, and yet it involved drastic cultural losses. Thus your contention that cultural conservation only makes sense in a fast-crash scenario may need a bit of rethinking. In a future post I will be arguing that a slow collapse involves a much higher level of cultural loss than a fast one.

Raymond, if you want to know how I see peak oil fitting into the broader pattern of the decline and fall of industrial civilization, you don't need to spend your time pulling quotes out of context or, heaven help us all, counting the number of times the phrase "peak oil" appears in this blog. You could simply ask me.

Peak oil, as I've said repeatedly, is one aspect of the broader predicament of industrial society. It happens to be a very visible and obvious one just now, but the collision between unlimited growth and a finite planet is the driving force behind it -- and behind the rest of the unfolding crisis of our civilization. Thus the short-term crisis of peak oil is simply one aspect of the wider problem.

Heather, I think it's entirely possible to have new ideas, and I suggested a way to get there -- which is one of the reasons why I've been grousing about those readers who seem to think the post claimed that new ideas don't exist. I'll try rephrasing: it's by giving our ideas a historical context, and contrasting them with the very different ideas current in the past, that we can break out of the endless rehashing of contemporary cliches that passes for innovative thought these days, and think something genuinely new. That's a crucial need just now, and it's not being met by the broken record of "new" ideas that fills today's popular culture.

Joseph (again), once the phrase "back to the Stone Age" appears in somebody's vision of the future, it's usually a waste of time talking any further. So the trillions of tons of malleable metal currently all over the Earth's surface, ripe for salvage, are going to vanish, leaving us scrabbling for flint? Nice trick.

Stephen, thank you for the substantive response! I've noticed the same sort of institutionalized hypocrisy, on the right as well as the left -- the antics of fundamentalists who aren't willing to live the lives they want to impose on the rest of us have been much in the news recently. Not a new thing, but a factor of some importance in dealing with the crisis of the industrial world; a lot of people who speak movingly of living the simple, sustainable life still drive SUVs, after all.

Lance, yes, I've noticed that the cultural conserver idea seems to have touched a live wire. I'd originally planned on giving it a single post and going on, but it's clearly something that deserves more than that. Tune in tomorrow...

Bill, thank you for clear comments and a crucial point: "As for uniqueness of our present circumstances (which comes up over and over again), ALL points in history are unique and distinct from all others." The modern myth of progress insists that our society is bigger and better than any other, simply because it's later, and that's spilled over into the secular apocalyptic of our time; it's an item of faith among many people nowadays that the fall of our civilization will be similarly exceptional. I don't buy it -- and I think it's that lack of faith in the Great God Progress that riles the believers in apocalypse just as much as those who put their faith in the technological millennium.

Raymond said...


Well - this is annoying. I'll drive a fancier car onto the blog-lot next time ...

I'll try to put this into plainer terms: we have a binary situation here wherein one side is "slow-decline" and the other is "fast-crash".

I must conclude that, presently, you are trapped in a kind of glamour. You're fixed upon the background messages inherent within the typical fast-crash scenario (those old, new ideas you've spoken of in such fine detail): "our civilization is unique", "our civilization is better", "our society is evil and needs cleansing". These messages have nothing at all to do with the physical circumstances we find ourselves in. These physical circumstances you have cataloged quite well but will not (can not) freely infer from them other meanings than those that toe your particular party line (the "context" you speak of).

SO, I'll ask again: have you got a third option?

Raymond said...

I mean, tow (as in pull along) - your particular ... etc.

Another disclaimer before someone gets snagged on it (e.g., stone age), when I say nothing at all, what I mean is nothing at all. Obviously, these myths will impact peoples responses to the physical circumstances - but the circumstances exist all by themselves apart from any "meaning" people might try to give them.

John Michael Greer said...

Raymond, I agree entirely that the narrative dimensions of the fast collapse scenario have nothing to do with the physical circumstances. That's central to the point I've been trying to make, which is that the physical circumstances do not justify the apocalyptic rhetoric being flung around so freely just now, and so the origins of that rhetoric have to be traced to popular religious narratives under a thin secular veneer. It's a nice bit of rhetoric to dismiss my analysis as a "party line," by the way; I wonder if you've actually read the posts in the archive here.

I find it interesting, though, that you've defined a binary between the scenarios of decline and sudden collapse. To my mind, rather, the situation is a ternary in which sudden collapse and a continuation of business as usual are the two poles of the binary, while somewhere in the middle ground, in the realm of gradual breakdown, lies the third factor that resolves the binary into the ternary. I suppose you could split the difference between slow and fast collapse and come up with a breakdown at moderate speed, but that sort of thing can be repeated endlessly and quickly turns into a replication of Zeno's paradoxes.

More generally, leave the fancier car at home -- it'll run out of gas soon enough as is. The rest of us are proceeding on foot; as Chaucer reminds us, that fosters conversation.

Raymond said...


I can see that we are now both annoyed and, while I'm at it, thank your for the reminder that my reading skills are more or less on par with my writing skills.

Thank you also for clearing up the notion that you feel that "the physical circumstances do not justify the apocalyptic rhetoric being flung around so freely just now, and so the origins of that rhetoric have to be traced to popular religious narratives under a thin secular veneer." So, evidently, you're not "enchanted" right at the moment (maybe just a little sleepy).

Could it be that you're better suited to an analysis of the rhetoric (where it comes from) than you are about the ramifications inherent in our physical circumstances? I don't know the limitations of your point of view. I'm certain however that you do have them and I hope that you've tempered your certainties through careful consideration of them.

Honestly, what I can't understand is how it isn't obvious to anyone that fast-collapse, slow-decline and business-as-usual are, all three, accurate descriptions of the ramifications of the physical circumstances we find ourselves in. The only difference between the three is the little questions of when, where and for how long. This is the "third option" that I'm so very surprised to find you backing away from. Slow-decline might be most accurate for very large parts of the world over a very long period of time (compared with a single human lifetime). However, business as usual could remain firmly entrenched in some isolated regions far into the future and isolated regions of the world (including the U.S.) could experience very rapid changes in their local social and material environment in the near future.

Lots of room for conversation there - outside of the monolithic slab of slow-decline as I'm sure you'll agree.

Lance Michael Foster said...

JMG said: "...the narrative dimensions of the fast collapse scenario have nothing to do with the physical circumstances. That's central to the point I've been trying to make, which is that the physical circumstances do not justify the apocalyptic rhetoric being flung around so freely just now, and so the origins of that rhetoric have to be traced to popular religious narratives under a thin secular veneer. "

I was just reading an online paper by world historian William H. McNeill, which underscores your point here, JMG. (see the paper at

The pagan past of the Greeks etc. saw history as a series of cycles, with a heavy involvement by the gods. There was a creation, a Golden Age, a rise to power and empire, a period of decadence and decay, and then the fall back to a primeval state, to start the whole cycle all over again. The Chinese and Indians kept this view almost to the present time (the dynasties etc.)

With the dominance of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, history became more linear, with the ultimate goal the end of the world, salvation of the select, and damnation of the rest, all under the directions ultimately set by God.

With the Enlightenment, God was removed/ignored by the intelligentsia and the development of science in the West. The driving force of God in history became the driving force of freedom, liberty, democracy etc.

Still the same Deep Mythic structure of the people of the Book --evolution from savagery and barbarism, through the development of state and empire, to the point when all of the select are brought safely into "The Perfect State of Liberty and Freedom," and all those who reject or are rejected are consigned to oblivion. And Democracy marches on...

That did take a sidestep according to McNeill when World War I put a glitch in the theory of leaving behind savagery and barbarism, and historians like Spengler and Toynbee tried to make sense of the backsliding by returning to look at the old pagan notions of cycles of development, collapse, and replenishment.

But they alas were in the minority apparently, and you only see such a pagan deep myth cycle in indigenous peoples, some neopagan groups like Asatru, and some scholars like Jared Diamond. Now, as a whole we instead are trapped in the deep myth cycle of the People of the Book, which ultimately leads to "the End of _THE_ World"...instead of the pagan deep myth (the Hopi, the Norse, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Indian) which saw only "the End of _A_ World"...and the seed of a new one.

This is why everybody who is freaking over the Mayan 2012 is wrong when they think it is the end of THE it is the end of the cycle of A world...and the world will continue in a new cycle.

The Lakota believed that Time is a Buffalo, that had Four Ages. Each Age passes away in its time, each Age represented by a Leg of the Buffalo. Three legs are gone and the other one is about to go, when the Buffalo will fall...and then a new Calf is born. The Hopi stories are the same...people live, multiply, destroy their world, most die, and some survive to the next one. Some believe that this means THE END...but no, it is the end of our "world" not the "earth".

Bill Pulliam said...

Enough of commenting on the comments, time to comment on the posting itself!

I generally find that when I make the same sorts of points you make in conversation, face to face, the response is often anger. When someone believes that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, or on the verge or galactic consciousness transformation, they get really p*ssed off when you mention that just about every generation of people that has existed in the western world for thousands of years has believed the same thing. Somehow they feel like you are belittling their beliefs, their joy, and/or their sorrow by suggesting it is analogous to the experiences of earlier, less enlightened, less insightful, less wise, less sensitive, less realistic, and obviously less clear-thinking people. Besides, we can discount those old silly notions of apocalypse and messiahs because they were obviously wrong, so how dare you compare us to them?!? There is also the correct, but unhelpful and uninsightful answer that "just because they were wrong then doesn't mean it's not really happening this time!" After all, there can only be one true End Of The World, and eventually one of the doomsayers or messiannic heralds will be correct, right? Ummm... no, not if in fact there will never be even one single End Of The World or Coming Of The Astral Plane.

JMG, have you ever found an approach to raising this matter that does NOT trigger anger? I see the apocalyptics berating you here on a weekly basis, but this is the internet, everyone bickers and berates. Do you have kinder receptions in person? The only time we've met in person was at a spiritual venue, not an environmental-ecological-energy-whatever one, so I've not seen you in action in that mode. (you certainly charmed everyone in your Archdruid phase!)

Curious also, as I am sure you have noted countless times, that the End Of The World and the Coming Of The Astral Plane are so often linked in spite of seeming like polar opposites, where it is believed that BOTH will come. The only significant variation here is whether the Enlightened Ones will be taken to the higher place BEFORE the apocalypse, or whether the apocalypse will clear out the rabble and leave the Enlightened Ones to live in the New Perfect Earth afterwards.

As to creating truly new ideas by honoring old ideas, and the coming together of seemingly disparate threads of society to trigger fundamental innovation and creation, right on brother! I think this will happen (is happening) very much as an organic process as it always has, spurred on by global communication and travel, and enhanced class-ethnic-gender-etc boundary permeability within societies.

I actually have a fair bit of faith and optimism that cultural innovation and conservation (ok, ok, I'll hold off 'til next week on the latter!) will be naturally spurred along by the crisis-recovery cycle and get us on through the coming centuries. Nothing like hunger to help you remember and invent ways of producing food (take that both metaphorically and literally)!


John Michael Greer said...

Raymond, while I don't propose to judge your reading skills in general, it's pretty clear that you've missed much of what I've said in this blog. The idea that different regions can decline at different rates has been something I've proposed many times here; nor does the concept of decline impose a fixed speed limit on the process I've been trying to outline. I don't object to people who disagree with me, but it would be helpful if more of them -- for you're far from the only example here -- would take the time to listen to what I'm actually saying, instead of trying to score points against a straw man of their own manufacture.

Lance, thank you for the McNeill link -- a very capable historian, always worth reading. I'm a bit shaken by the Lakota myth you cite, by the way: it is almost exactly duplicated by one of the standard Hindu accounts of the four Yugas, in which the cow of righteousness loses a leg with each passing age. I'm not sure that the easy answer of archetypes accounts for a parallel that exact.

Bill, I've never found a way to bring up the comparison between present realities and the past, in face to face conversation or any other medium, without risking either an explosion or blank incomprehension. This is one of the reasons that I talk about belief in progress as the established religion of the modern world; try to tell people that our current society is following a familiar track, and our present experience has ancient equivalents, and they react like a medieval peasant would to the claim that heaven, with all its angels and saints, wasn't there any more. We are profoundly obsessed by the fantasy of our own special status.

Raymond said...

No, you're mistaken. I don't actually disagree with what you're saying. While I'm not Ghandi, I'm also not trying to "score points" against you (or some figment of my imagination). Like you (or anyone), I want to be understood. In fact, I'll go so far as to state that I would like YOU to understand what I'm saying since, surely, when it comes to the contents of this blog, you are not wrong - just incomplete. Not really an earth-shattering claim to make now is it.

Right. We can argue the standpoints of business-as-usual, fast-crash and slow-decline separately but, as you've said in this post (see: on-topic!), if we place them, all three, together and let them jumble about, then we have an infinite number of scenarios available to us - each being accurate at some place and some time. I KNOW that you've said this (not in so many words), but, like the significance of climate-change, I think you fail, significantly, to follow-up on it in any coherent way. Why is that? I think there's a reason.

As a means of evaluating this reason, please consider what you said just a few hours ago (as I write this) to our good buddy Bill,

"We are profoundly obsessed by the fantasy of our own special status."

John my good man, from what I can tell, you are just as obsessed with this as anyone else - only in reverse and the context of this blog reflects that obsession. Now, I've obtained this opinion by reading your blog and many of the comments associated with them. Often, your comments-in-response are more indicative of your obsession (maybe passion - if you'd prefer) than the actual post.

I understand that the term "special" is a value judgment placed upon our circumstances by people. As such, anyone who seeks some kind of clarity on the subject would like to weed this out of the conversation. Uniqueness however refers to objective phenomenon that we can observe. While you argue again and again (oh - a whole lot!) that we are not special, you seem to forget that, again, as our good buddy Bill said, our situation, while not special, is unique. Sure, I know, ... you've been saying this all along. You have - but, you haven't. Regardless of individual comments sprinkled here and there (like those 11 quotations I cited above that you complained were taken out of context), the context continuously and vigorously stresses the similarities of our present circumstances with those antecedent cases of collapse. Yes - it's a good idea - but - there IS more.

Mythology, like our dead parents, can rule our thoughts from beyond the grave. Golly! That would make a great Bluegrass song. Get out your banjos boys!

John Michael Greer said...

Raymond, if all you can do when I challenge your misstatements of my position is try to launch a slanging match, I see no point in continuing this conversation. Please take your opinions somewhere else.

jewishfarmer said...

LOL, John, yes, I've heard of the collapse of the Roman Empire. I'm just not convinced that a formal, monastic style cultural conservancy is the right solution.

What I think might be instructive is looking at the difference between how Jews and Christians responded to the collapse of Empire. There were quite a lot of Jewish texts in the ancient libraries that were lost - but the texts themselves were never lost. Why? Because Jews remained widely literate and read the texts, kept copies of them in their homes and synagogues, and when those were destroyed at various times, carried them along with them on their retreat. They did not *preserve* their books, they used them. So very, very few Roman era Jewish texts were permanently lost.
In fact, a surprising number of relevant classical texts, particularly medical ones, were preserved by Jewish doctors, rather than monastic libraries.

On the other hand, Christians made education an extremely narrow project, discouraged, in many cases, literacy, and crammed the books into libraries in the hands of cultural conservators. And when the libraries were sacked or burned or lost or the conservators lost interest, many of these were lost permanently. The classical texts of antiquity were lost in part *because* they were primarily in the hands of cultural conservators.

That's why I'm wary (and I speak here in part as a former lit Prof) of conscious cultural conservatorship that seperates the project of preservation out from the project of making books, or art, or whatever integral to our lives. I'm not saying that there isn't a place for libraries and museums and other excercises of cultural conservancy, merely that what is valuable in a culture is preserved best by the widest possible distribution and integration into daily life. This, I think is a somewhat different project than the one you are articulating - there's some overlap, but I'm not sure that encouraging people to self-consciously seek to preserve culture works as well as finding ways for the culture to be integrated and valuable in daily life.