Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why Decline Matters

One of the most curious blind spots in the contemporary imagination, as I have suggested more than once in these essays, can be traced in the way that the concept of decline has vanished from our collective discourse about the future. What makes this blindness even more curious is that it is a very recent thing.

A century ago the possibility that the modern western world might reach a peak, and then retrace history’s familiar path down to the common fate of civilizations, was on many minds. The art of Aubrey Beardsley and the novels of Joséphin Péladan, to name only two leading figures of the Decadent movement, announced, and at times wallowed in, the approaching decline that Oswald Spengler detailed a few years later in his magisterial prose. The belief in decline was never universally held, or even a majority view – those who prophesied the imminence of Utopia through progress or violent revolution had at least as large an audience, and apocalyptic fantasies were never hard to find – but the idea was there, and commanded attention from serious thinkers.

Somewhere between the 1920s and the end of the Second World War, however, the entire concept of decline dropped out of the modern world’s collective imagination. Except for a brief reprise in the wake of the converging crises of the 1970s, and a few manifestations on the far edges of today’s fringe culture, it has yet to return. This odd shift in the shapes of our imagined futures demands attention from those of us who try to sense the shape of the future in advance, because if the future we get is one of decline, the results could be far more challenging than anything the more simplistic notion of sudden collapse can offer

Decline, after all, is not a linear process. Trace the decline of the dead civilizations of the past along the dimension of time, and much more often than not it follows a complex, stairstep curve that alternates periods of crisis with respites and partial recoveries. Compare the process to the sort of sudden apocalyptic collapse that occupies so much space in the collective imagination today, and a striking result emerges: the amount of population decline and cultural loss in any given generation may be much less than would result from a single sudden catastrophe, but the overall impact of decline is much greater, and the capacity for swift recovery much less.

This seems counterintuitive, but it can easily be demonstrated by historical evidence and logic alike. Consider the Black Death in Europe. As an example of dieoff, it’s hard to beat – the first terrible epidemic of 1346-1351 killed close to a third of the population of Europe, and recurring outbreaks that followed every decade or so took up to ten per cent of the survivors each time – and, in the form of the peasant revolts of the late 14th century, it even managed to produce some semblance of the marauding hordes that play so large a part in contemporary survivalist fantasies. Despite the horrific death rate, the widespread social disorder, and the huge cultural impacts of the Black Death, European civilization did not collapse, or lose cultural continuity. The survivors simply picked themselves up and went on with things much as before.

Imagine a similar dieoff, or even a much more extreme one, in America today and it’s not hard to see why. Let’s say the most extreme versions of the peak oil survivalist thesis turn out to be correct; some crisis or other causes petroleum markets to freeze up completely, and gasoline and diesel fuel become completely unavailable; panic and looting set in, governments somehow fail to do anything about the crisis, and society unravels in a general war of all against all, with marauding hordes spilling out of the cities into nearby rural regions in a desperate quest for food. Five horrific years later, the US population has plummeted by 95%. What happens next?

The single largest resource base available to the survivors, in such a case, would be the material culture and knowledge base of pre-collapse society. All over rural America, in areas more than a few hundred miles from big urban centers, small towns and villages would remain, and those in agricultural areas with steady water supplies would likely flourish; lacking gas for their cars, after all, refugees from Chicago or Los Angeles will not make it to North Dakota, or even Iowa. Libraries, schools, and local governments would either still exist, or could be readily rebuilt; abandoned buildings and technology could be dusted off and put back to use; where renewable energy sources exist, those could be reactivated if they stopped running in the first place. Almost everyone alive after the collapse will have grown up in the precollapse world, and a great many of them will have learned some of the skills needed to operate a modern society. Before very long, something very like today’s rural American culture would have reestablished itself, just as late medieval cultures across Europe reestablished themselves after the Black Death.

What makes so swift a recovery possible, though, is the short time span between collapse and aftermath. Consider the possibility of decline and a much less promising picture emerges. First, and most obviously, decline takes much longer. By the time the process is finished, the people who remember how an advanced civilization used to function are long in their graves, and anything perishable in the material culture they knew has long since perished. It’s one thing to break into an abandoned library five years after a sudden collapse, when most of the books will be dusty but readable; it’s another thing to do the same thing two hundred years after the beginning of decline, when those books not looted long ago have crumbled into sawdust because they were printed on high-acid paper, or rotted after the roof collapsed and the rains got in.

The stairstep process found in most historical examples of decline, though, is a far more potent force. Periods of crisis, in which urgent needs absorb all available resources, can go on for decades. During that time, anything not immediately relevant to the needs of the moment will likely go begging for maintenance and upkeep, if it isn’t stripped for spare parts, burned as heating fuel, or destroyed in war, rioting, or any of the other common disasters that punctuate the downward arc of a civilization’s lifespan. Periods of respite offer some recovery time, but then another period of crisis comes and another sorting process hits the surviving legacy of the civilization. Each period of crisis thus becomes a bottleneck through which only a fraction of a civilization’s material culture and knowledge base will survive. Repeat the process often enough and very little remains. Thus, if we admit the possibility of decline, we face the possibility of a future more difficult and impoverished than a future of sudden collapse, not less so.

The cultural conserver concept I have proposed in recent weeks on this blog attempts to address that possibility. Alongside the dismal record of cultural loss during ages of decline, history also shows that a motivated minority concerned with the long view can have a disproportionate impact on the survival of cultural heritage in hard times.

Consider the survival of the Jewish people and their cultural heritage after the destruction of the Third Temple in 70 CE, and the obliteration of most of the Jewish presence in Israel over the following century. Faced with the very real risk of cultural extinction, surviving religious leaders drew on memories of the Babylonian captivity to launch one of history’s most magnificently successful programs of cultural conservation. As rabbinic Judaism took shape, a very large percentage of its traditions focused explicitly on preserving Jewish religious and cultural continuity. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” asks the Passover ritual; the answer, freely interpreted, is that it embodies one of the distinctive historical experiences of the Jewish people, using potent tools of symbol and ceremony to counter the pressures toward assimilation and absorption.

Equally, the Catholic church after Rome’s fall set in motion a massive salvage program that kept much of classical culture alive right through the Dark Ages. Its motives differed from those that drove the founders of rabbinic Judaism; an expanding church needed clergy literate enough to know their way around scripture, the church fathers, canon law, and the philosophical theology the Church had borrowed from Greek Neoplatonism, and this mandated the survival of the Latin literary culture that informed so much early Christian literature in the West. Thus generations of Christian schoolboys learned Latin prosody from Vergil, and acquired a taste for learning that blossomed in the great age of Christian monasticism and preserved countless cultural treasures for the future.

There are plenty of other examples, from the Sanskrit academies of India to the bardic schools of early modern Scotland, but they share a crucial feature in common with these. For a cultural tradition to survive in an age of decline, it needs to find a constituency that values it enough to put the survival of the tradition ahead of more immediate needs. In traditional Judaism, keeping the commandments isn’t something to file away for future reference whenever times get hard; it comes first, even ahead of personal survival. Similarly, the Benedictine monks who spent their time copying manuscripts by hand in unheated scriptoria through the worst years of the Dark Ages could have led much easier lives outside the bare walls of their monasteries, if the glory of God had not, in their eyes, outshone all the treasures of the world.

Thus the survival of cultural heritage must draw on emotional drives potent enough to override the tyranny of immediate needs and drive the modest but unremitting daily efforts needed to keep cultural heritage intact. This is especially true of the traditions of elite culture, which typically lack any short term survival value and often require a sizeable investment of time and resources. It is above all true of modern elite culture, which has specialized in the mass production of information to such a degree that the ability to maintain adequate storage for all the knowledge our culture has amassed is already very much in doubt.

One of my readers thus responded to last week’s post by asking me how her field, mathematics, might preserve some of its knowledge base for the future. That’s a daunting question, for which I know no easy answers. Right now mathematicians in the more abstract and less practical branches of their field can draw a salary to pursue their researches only because a longstanding social habit encourages governments and donors to cover the costs. The same thing is true of many other branches of scholarship, and of those fine arts that haven’t quite finished the process of devolving into the manufacture of high-end collectibles for the rich. Outside of university mathematics departments, it’s hard to find anyone who has even heard of most of today’s hot topics in math, much less anyone who would be willing to study and teach them in their off hours, for no pay, out of the sheer love of the subject.

That sort of constituency will be hard for any part of today’s elite culture to find, and without it, there’s a minimal chance that anything more than fragments of that culture will reach the future. Still, there is a wild card in the deck, and its name is religion. Nearly all the classic examples of cultural conservation have drawn their motivating force from religious beliefs. Is it possible that some of today’s scientific and cultural heritage will find a welcome within the ambit of a present or future religious movement? Next week’s post will explore these options.


micheal said...

John Michael,

You say:

"Let’s say the most extreme versions of the peak oil survivalist thesis turn out to be correct...

Five horrific years later, the US population has plummeted by 95%...

Before very long, something very like today’s rural American culture would have reestablished itself..."

What will the survivors in this rural American culture be eating to keep themselves alive?


jrc9596 said...

I think sometimes you misunderstand "comtemporary survivalist fantasies". Since the end of the cold war, most haven't been concerned about the "end of the world" as much as the "Jew in 1930s Germany" or "Bosnia 1990s" situation, which is more the end of our world as we know it. Being a news junky, this occupies my mind more often than not lately since anyone of us could find ourselves in that situation. Most of what the media would call "survivalists" just believe in stocked up pantries and gardens similar to what you have advocated. Yes, there are always firearms, but they are considered tools for an intended purpose similar to a kitchen knife. If we are headed for collapse or decline, the survivalists will be the ones who maintain the knowledge as you suggest since contemporary culture forgets the lessons of history.

As always, enjoyed the column immensely...but the survivalist label could also be applied to you, and it is a very derogatory term in mainstream America and someday one might be arrested for "being" one. Please don't perpetuate this silly myth, you're above it.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Heavens, what an eye-opener. Until reading JMG, it had not ocurred to me that insofar as we seek to conserve parts of our civilization, we must consider a slow decline to be more
insidious than a swift collapse.

This is perhaps a good time to note that the "fall" of Rome was
in the eyes of the Romans themselves more decline than collapse.
The end product was terrible, with few people outside the
clergy being able to read at all, with the city of Rome reduced
from metropolis to modest town. And yet the process played out

I have written up the Roman decline in an essay addressing our
own local (Toronto) grief, the envisaged liquidation of our
beloved David Dunlap Observatory.

The full essay, which is not directly and obviously relevant to
this week's JMG essay, is at
Here I will quote here a remark on Rome which I make in the
essay, and which is relevant to this week's JMG:

Several excellent authors [here I was thinking of JMG, Ran
Prieur, ... ] now try to chronicle our most likely future in the
emerging epoch of fuel shortages and climate change: namely, a
slow, irregular civic decline, in which each decade, each
generation, proves just incrementally grimmer than its

The imaginative task [as I originally wrote the essay, the
imaginative task facing the Toronto constituencies taking stands
regarding the future of the David Dunlap Observatory] is
basically to set oneself in the Rome of the 380s, the 390s, the
early 400s, the later 400s, and then to imagine those conditions
of slow decline transposed to the twenty-first and twenty-second
centuries. The "fall" of Rome was real, and to Augustine
terrible, and yet was so slow that inner essence of the events
must have eluded even many a connected, informed, well-read
patrician. The barbarians come, they mill around, they leave for
a while; the denarius is worth so much this year, and so much
the year next; and somehow, at least until Alaric hits upon the
idea of blockading Ostia, some grain keeps coming in, from the
traditional sources of supply in Egypt or North Africa, so the
plebs never do start a big revolution; and even after Alaric's
watershed Sack, in 410, there is perhaps enough grain to stave
off outright Roman famine: where, in all this, a well-meaning
patrician might ask, is the ever-so-hyped "fall"?


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

PS: Will someone at some stage continue discussions of
libraries, so usefully brought up in the last few days by a
commentator whose particulars I don't now recall? As I noted in
my comments on JMG's "Same New Ideas" essay, we could keep in
view the advisability of sparking library conservation
discussions at IFLA ( or some similar
organization, and in this context we could ponder
etched-into-metal or etched-into-glass microform. (Admittedly,
it IS true, as Sharon Astyk has remarked, that the conservation
of ways of life makes more sense than the conservation of dry,
dead books. I don't want, in making this plug for a discussion
of libraries, to DENIGRATE or MARGINALIZE Sharon's perspective.)

John Michael Greer said...

Yes, I figured the apocalypse lobby would be all over this post as soon as it went up. Micheal, I stand corrected: there are versions of the survivalist claim more extreme than the one I cited, and you apparently accept one of them. What will people eat? Well, let's start with crops grown using the seeds survivalists are so sedulously stockpiling right now, plus widely available wild foods, plus all the livestock and crops from all the farms too far from big cities for those imaginary marauding hordes to get to them -- and I could go on for some time. Even in an extreme subsistence crisis there's food to be had, for at least some survivors. You might want to research famines and dieoff phenomena in the past sometime for a bit of useful perspective.

JRC, please note that I spoke of survivalist fantasies, not of practical survival (or survivalist) strategies. I'm not talking about the people who are making sensible preparations for hard times, but about the people who are building horror-movie scenarios and using them as an excuse to do nothing. I still think most of the survival movement, in preparing for a fast crash, is shooting at a target that isn't there, but that's another matter.

Tom, the only reason I haven't pursued the discussion about libraries is that I don't have the technical knowledge to contribute much to it -- it's no lack of interest in that desperately important topic. Still, it seems to me that it's even more important to talk about building constituencies that will keep libraries viable through hard time, since books can't preserve or copy themselves! Some of next week's post may be of interest in that context, not least because I've mulled over some of your work on the subject more than once.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Dear John (JMG):

Thanks for your encouraging response (above), in which you call the topic of libraries "desperately important".

Heartened by your response, I'd like to offer two additional comments.

(i) In astronomy (and surely also in botany, or again in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence) the library is a sine qua non for keeping the work going. We HAVE to be able to look up a star to see what it was observed to be doing in the past; we HAVE to be able to look up precedents as we try cases in an Anglo-Saxon ("common-law") jurisdiction.

(ii) Cosmologist Fred Hoyle makes haunting remarks on libraries in his essay "The Anatomy of Doom" (in his 1968 collection _Encounter with the Future_). Hoyle suggests that we face a time of decline, followed by a cultural revival, followed again by decline, and so on, in a process that ultimately encourages the survival of the more civic-minded, intelligent, and pacifist strains in the Homo sapiens gene pool. On libraries and the preservation of knowledge, he writes as follows:

It would be impossible to re-expand, at any rate after the first one or two cycles, if the whole of technology had to be rediscovered independently in every cycle. The first expansion, the one we are now living in, has important assets - coal, oil, high-grade metallic ores - that will not be available in later cycles. On the other hand, the later cycles will have the advantage of information from earlier times. Experience shows that knowledge dies very hard once it has been obtained - the acquisition of knowledge is essentially irreversible, a truth already recognized in the Garden of Eden. Not all of the multitude of libraries would disappear in the moments of catastrophe. Remnants would remain to be consulted by the survivors, or rather by survivors with the wits to consult them. Here is the selective factor. A serious re-expansion would not be possible except to the highly intelligent. Reading in a library is today merely the innocent pursuit of the scholar. In the future the ability to puzzle out the knowledge of the past will be decisive. Knowledge, organization, the library, these are the environmental factors that will determine the future. It may seem strange to the biologist to think of the library as a major environmental factor, but I think the strangeness comes form the newness of the concept rather than from any new principle.

Hoyle's language here is disconcertingly collapsist ("survivors", "catastrophe"), but his general point is an interesting one: in conditions of social strain, access to library resources will make the difference between living well and living poorly, even as will access to medical care and clean water.

Perhaps some readers who are librarians will be impelled by this pair of remarks to post comments of their own?


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Jan Steinman said...

Toomas wrote: Perhaps some readers who are librarians will be impelled by this pair of remarks to post comments of their own?

Well, I'm an "amateur" librarian. That's not the same as "not serious;" after all, the latin root of amateur, amator is a lover of something, whereas a "professional" is simply one who does something for money. The future may lie in those who do things out of love, rather than out of money.

I am the caretaker of EcoReality's 1,200 volumes, shelved under Dewey Decimal System. Sure, it's a small library, but it's fairly concentrated in personal development and practical arts.

I also maintain an "Info Ark" of over 10GB of what I consider important digital data, but alas, I've focused on capture, and it is poorly organized. Included is stuff like the complete set of Mother Earth News and Home Power magazines, as well as many articles of practical knowledge.

Libraries need care and maintenance. But more importantly, they need a good, safe home, and they need to be used. So our library is a lending library to our members and the greater community. We strive to be one of Heinberg's "lifeboat communities," although we are still in the formative stages. We currently have a dozen or so volumes signed out.

The most important thing in life is attitude. We neodruids often state it as the Law of Attraction, but the advice is as timeless as "what you sow, so shall you reap." Those who concentrate on guns will die in gunfire. Those who seek to serve and positively perpetuate their community will thrive as well as any, and perhaps even better than those who even now are in the process of hoarding the world's means of production.

Collapse, decline, "soft landing," whatever. Attitude is what counts. Be impeccable with your word. Don't make assumptions. Don't take things personally. Always do your best.

dharmagaian said...

I enjoyed this post a lot, and found it helpful for considering the possibilities of a slow decline. But one of the considerations of the slow vs. fast collapse scenarios I've read is how much the biosphere will be damaged in a slow decline vs. a fast collapse. That is, some ecologically informed bloggers are hoping for a fast, sudden, catastrophic collapse in order to remove enough people, and therefore the pressures on other species, to enable the biosphere to stabilize enough to enable some humans to survive.

The scenario of a slow decline that you sketch focuses on cultural conservation, but I am also concerned with bio- and eco-conservation. It's going to be hard enough for the biosphere to sustain human life with global warming, even if industrial society ceased belching out greenhouse gases today and half the humans disappeared (as in a sudden, catastrophic collapse). But if we have a slow decline that enables overpopulation (currently 3+ times as many humans as the biosphere can support) to continue for a few more generations, it is quite possible that the current biological holocaust will escalate to the point of absolute ecological meltdown, leaving the planet a desert and the oceans dead. What then will be left for humans to survive on?

The current dangers to the biosphere, which are already very worrying, I believe, makes the slow decline of industrial civilization more dire than the slow declines of past civilizations, in which the oceans still had fish, the topsoils were still fertile, the rivers still ran with potable water, and the rainforests of the planet still breathed. Personally, it is hard for me to imagine a future in which cultural conservation will matter, if the current destruction of the web of life continues.

Know what I mean?



millbrook17 said...

One correction: it was the second Jewish Temple that was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE. There has not been a Third Temple to date.

Robert Magill said...

Yesterday I was rereading my novel, Michael's Cut, (long out of print) and flashed to the following bit when
I read today's column:

This conversation is in a small plane flying over the jungle of Guatemala between the Peten and Guatemala city.
....There must be a hundred miles we can see right now. If people lived in that godawful wilderness that is now Tikal, they could live anywhere in that forest. It's overwhelming to think of a civilization that vast just ceasing to exist, " he said.
"But the Mayans are still here. Living right below us probably," said Thirza.
"So are the Egyptians, and the Greeks. Even the Romans, the same people, in the same places. But the tide has gone out on the culture. We live in a cemetery. The Sturm and Drang of life is mostly graveyard whistling," Michael said, peering through the small window.
" Then you suggest we give up. That there's no point in going on?' asked Thirza.
"No. Only that we pay attention. That we force ourselves to remember. It's easy to look down from this lofty height at the struggling remnants of a glorious past and wonder how they let it happen. All gone, extinct. Not a clue. No racial memory left intact. Why? How? I have a hunch it can happen anywhere. By the third generation a civilization can vanish forever, yet the people can remain in situ with total amnesia of the process. Blissfully unaware of what was once vital to their grandfathers and how it was lost to them."

Jason said...

Hi John Michael,

I have been reading your posts over the last while via a link from '' I find your views very balanced - nicely between those who hold a 'cornucopian' view of the state of affairs in the world and those who would suggest that we are driving blindly in an oil chugging machine at 100mph towards a cliff and our front tires have just left the edge.

However, I am pondering your train of thought on how religion ends up being the keepers of the fibre from which we sew new societies together once the old ones fade away. I agree that in the past this has largely been the case. However, it seems to me that for Western Culture the role of religion has now largely taken a back seat to the belief in capitalism, free markets, and good ol' ingenuity. This may in part be due to my suspicion that humans tend to congratulate themselves and their own abilities when things are going well and then tend to look for outside (divine?) reasons when things go very poorly -- and by poorly I am talking about the extremes of war, weather related disasters, famine, market collapses, etc. As a general once said, 'There are no atheists in a foxhole.'

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself as you mentioned at the bottom of your last entry that you are going to go into the role of religion next week. My question is: Is it possible that Science might take over the traditional role of Religion in keeping the 'fibre' with which to build the next societies? An example of this might be the Svalbard International Seed Vault completed this year. It looks like, short of a direct hit by a large celestial object, that seed bank will be a keepsake of our current agricultural knowledge for many, many years to come.


hapibeli said...

I've been reading "1491", New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. In it he speaks of the many large and powerful civilizations heretofore unknown by western European historians. A few of these peoples had art, scientific knowledge, etc., that rivaled anything Europe The magnitude of these civilizations and their impacts on the earth, their places in the historical record, all but vanished until the research cited by C. Mann. It brings currency to JMG's thoughts on cultural loss.

Dwig said...

A thought on terminology: perhaps the subject of your essay should have been called "Catabolic Decline" rather than "Catabolic Collapse". Of course, you'd lose the alliteration, but you'd also lose the connotation of the kind of sudden catastrophic event that you've been working so hard to distinguish your concepts from.

I'd like to offer a different, complementary view on culture conservation: the essence of this is working backward from an imagined future in which another decline (or even collapse) is occurring. This would be a decline which would have been easily preventable if the people involved had known of some things, or some ways of seeing or working, that are readily available today. What might these things/ways be? In other words, out of all the current knowledge, wisdom, practices, cultures, etc., which might be most useful to preserve in order to help our descendants avoid Santayana's Syndrome (failing to learn from history, and thus being doomed to repeat it)?

Clearly, this view has as many issues and problems as the "forward-looking" view, but it does have the virtue of focusing the search toward what might be crucial tools in avoiding or mitigating collapses or declines.

In the same vein, here's a comment on Tom's quote from Fred Hoyle: "in a process that ultimately encourages the survival of the more civic-minded, intelligent, and pacifist strains in the Homo sapiens gene pool." I'd say that this process would be highly desirable, but also highly contingent. I'm not aware of any historical declines that favored such strains; I'd very much like to be enlightened by the more historically aware. In any case, this might be a way to sharpen the "future perfect thinking" approach above: focus on conserving and enhancing the "civic-minded, intelligent, and pacifist" cultural elements of the present.

Seaweed Shark said...

The argument that the degradation of any civilization is a lengthy, complex process with many stages seems so obviously demonstrated by history that it's strange to me that so many people appear to find it shocking. The Archdruid seems perfectly correct on this issue.

The only point I might raise is that the reports of our civilization's death may have been exaggerated. It is quite possible that advancing technology and some changes in social behavior may cause global energy prices to stabilize at a higher, but not unmanageable level for a very long period of time, and that cultural shifts driven by climate change or pollution may cause mass death (a frequent sad occurrence over the long sweep of history), but as you say, not enough to actually bring down civilization. As for culture, human societies are sadly always losing and forgetting or destroying huge tranches of their cultural backstory, but these losses do not necessarily cripple our ability to go forward. The 16th-17th centuries were a time of mass forgetting in England, as monastic and manorial libraries were closed and bought by speculators for waste paper, and also a time of vast environmental destruction as medieval forests were cut for ship building. Both of these circumstances were lamented by intellectuals of that time as signs of coming barbarity, but neither stopped the growth of the British Empire.

The only other point I might make in relation to religion, is that it seems to me the emotional energy required for successful cultural conservation must also have a potent pragmatic component. By 600 AD the Christian churches had largely taken over the functions of the Roman civil administration in much of Europe: they saved all that Roman law and philosophy because they needed it for the very pragmatic exigencies of government. It's no accident that we have a large number of Cicero's letters but that Petronius's "Satyricon" survived only in a tiny fragment by chance. Most of what we like to call our artistic heritage--including the movies seen by the unwashed public as well as the incomprehensible art of the elites--are unlikely to survive, just as Greek painting and Roman music do not survive--not because they are impossible to maintain but because they just don't serve to keep people in order.

It seems to me that those of us who amuse ourselves thinking about very long term cultural conservation ought to take a very unsentimental look at what we are investing our time and energy into saving, and consider its practical value--lest we end up as the guy in S. Fowler Wright's "The Deluge" (a 1930s catastrophe novel) who survived the destruction of society in a house packed with light novels and symbolist drawings that perished the moment he lost the power to preserve it.

All the best,


Robin said...

The most basic things might be the only ones that remain. And Homo sapiens may or may not be the vehicle for these.

If one has watched a gecko yawn, or a goat catch a banana peel (thrown at it) in mid-air and promptly devour it, (as I have, perhaps five decades ago) one would have the conviction that even if Homo sapiens went extinct,some of the most improtant things in life might still survive.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, I'm certainly open to ideas that might save libraries -- I'd be lost without my overloaded bookshelves.

Jan, excellent. As it continues to grow, AODA will be encouraging its local groups to set up lending libraries for their members and friends, for very much the reasons you've outlined.

Suzanne, I understand your concern but I think you're missing the implications of the process of catabolic collapse. A fast collapse with mass dieoff can be followed by an equally fast recovery -- including a recovery of human populations, as people breed to capacity. A punctuated decline of the sort I'm predicting will see the same sort of demographic collapse we're seeing in the former Soviet Union, where the population is expected to drop by half before 2100. The reasons are the same: economic contraction, collapsing public health, death rates outpacing birth rates for a wide range of reasons. I expect to see that pattern spreading over much of the world in the next decade or so.

At the same time, there's quite a bit that people can do to soften their impact on the biosphere and establish refugia from which threatened ecosystems can recolonize damaged areas. That's a topic dear to the hearts of many Druids, and will be the subject of several posts not too far in the future. Stay tuned!

Millbrook, I stand corrected. I'd picked up the idea somewhere that Herod the Great's complete rebuilding of the Second Temple counted as the Third.

Robert, beautiful.

Jason, you're using a crystal ball, I see. Stay tuned for next week's post.

Hapi, one of the great lessons of history is that civilizations fall. It's a lesson we've been doing our best not to learn, but you know, I think we'll have our noses rubbed in it shortly.

Shark, well, we'll see. My take is that there's a significant difference between the cultural rhetoric of decline we saw in the 1600s and the historical and ecological analyses that put teeth into current predictions of major trouble ahead for industrial civilization -- and nobody's yet made a convincing case that other sources of energy can replace fossil fuels as we use them up.

Robin, that's a Druid perspective (among other things) -- the survival of the biosphere is more important than the survival of any individual species, ours very much included.

Dwig, that's a fascinating idea, one I'll have to consider at more length before responding.

FARfetched said...

Wow. One of those "seems so obvious once someone points it out" moments. Fast crashes are easier for cultures to handle than slow declines. Again, wow.

Like you, JMG, I tend to shake my head at some of the survivalist fantasy scenarios. Some of them — especially the "marauding hordes" scenario — are based on contradictory facts. How can anyone expect that people, who haven't walked farther than building-to-car in years, will be able to hike out to someone's armed compound and take their stuff? A simple lack of knowledge about proper footwear (let alone backpacking, camping, water purification, foraging, or combat) will keep those "hordes" close to home. Chicago to North Dakota? Like you said, it won't happen. Even Chicago to Rockford is unlikely, IMO.

Sure, sheer numbers will guarantee a few will get more than 20 miles, but I doubt there will be more than a few. Urban gangs may look scary, and actually be scary on their home turf, but I doubt their "away game" would get them far either. Those marauders of the plague years were almost certainly used to walking everywhere and getting by on near-constant short rations, probably knew every edible wild plant, and didn't have to contend with polluted streams.

Disaster preparation is simply the smart thing to do. But like anything else, it can be taken too far. Even if the lurid fantasies came to pass, and those with beans and blasters were the only ones left afterwards, what then? "Rebuild society," I've heard some say, but with what? and in what image?

It might be useful to divide knowledge/information into categories: things we need to know to survive during the crisis years (farming, renewable energy production, herbal & other medicine, recycling scrap metal, weather forecasting); things that might be useful to our descendants (machining, manufacturing, other forms of light industry, mechanical calculators such as the abacus & slide rule); things that could be enlightening but could be replaced (art, music, literature, history, computer technology). More effort will be needed to preserve the later categories, simply because they are convenience items or outright luxuries, probably considered expendable during a crisis. I'm not sure it's our job to preserve our civilization; our descendants will create one that suits them.

The Naked Mechanic said...

Via David Holmgrens new website

"Like Pythagoras and the monks of Lindisfarne we live in a
world of collapsing culture where we have to choose what is
worthwhile at this great turning point in history. We are
faced with the mixed pieces of the myriad of broken
traditional cultures of the world and the novel and shining
bits of unravelling industrial modernity. All of this will
end in the dustbin of history. Our task is to choose which
pieces of these jigsaw puzzle will be useful in creating an
energy descent culture, the boundaries, features and colours
of which, we can scarcely imagine. What is worth saving?
What are the limits of our capacity? We have little time to
decide and act. We must commit to concrete actions and
projects. We must stake our claim, not for ourselves but
for the future. However in committing to our task we should
remember the stories of Pythagoras and the monks of
Lindisfarne. It is not the project but the living process
that will be the measure of our actions. Let us act as if
we are part of nature's striving for the next evolutionary
way to creatively respond to the recurring cycles of energy
ascent and descent that characterise human history and the
more ancient history of Gaia, the living planet. Imagine
that our descendants and our ancestors are watching us."

Highwindows said...

Decline may have temporarily disappeared from mainstream consciousness, but in my field, literature, it is experiencing a resurgence. Contemporary poetry is (in a kind of modernism redux) all elegy and endings and hopelessness, and the best prose (WG Sebald, for instance) is also obsessed with decline and destruction. Try, if you haven't yet read it, "The Rings of Saturn," a very beautiful book... Thanks for your blog!

yooper said...

Hello John, gee, you having a tough time here. Alot of confused people. Better you than me....

This post deserves, my best response yet. Rest assured it's forth coming.

Thanks, yooper

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
I don’t know, you’ve done it to me again: Covered just about every thought I’d had on why a slow decline could “burn up” a culture and be far more damaging than a single, albeit severe, collapse.

You even nailed one of my pet little pieces of knowledge I thought few other were privy to, how much “the philosophical theology the Church had borrowed from Greek Neoplatonism”.

My main hope is the there are now enough, complex enough societies, and their formation rate is high enough, so that societies successful in the new conditions will arise that perhaps include the best from our current societies. I have to note, however, that what they consider our best may be very different to what we consider our best.

Seaweed Shark also has a very good point: It is useful, practical knowledge that it will be the easiest to preserve and reuse. As I’ve suggested before, it is probably neither necessary nor useful to try to preserve the vast mass of useless crap that comprises most of the “data” out there, even if electronic storage good enough to make that practical survives.

micheal said...

John Michael,

In response to my question regarding what the survivors will be eating you said, "What will people eat? Well, let's start with crops grown using the seeds survivalists are so sedulously stockpiling right now, plus widely available wild foods, plus all the livestock and crops from all the farms too far from big cities for those imaginary marauding hordes to get to them -- and I could go on for some time. Even in an extreme subsistence crisis there's food to be had, for at least some survivors."

Seeds that the survivalists are saving: First, for that to be of any significance, all of the people that are saving seeds would have to be among the survivors. That's not likely. Second, saving heirloom seeds is only a small part of the food growing puzzle. One must have the fertile ground to raise the crops, the water to quench the veggie's thirst, the know-how to eke from Mother Nature and her other favorite critters who dine at the human's garden an adequate harvest, and the additional know-how to cultivate, harvest, prepare, and save seed from year to year. These are skills that only a sad few possess. Thirdly, why would you assume that those outrageous, extreme survivalists would even consider sharing their precious seeds with anyone else, most of whom the survivalists ardently disdain and deplore? Lastly, the abstract logical leap from survivalists saving seeds to an adequately fed post-apocalyptic rural American populace is an extreme of cornucopian optimism. Don't look to the survivalist's seeds to save anyone.

Wild foods: Honed, skilled, bred, and born of subsistence necessity, Native American peoples were tested without mercy to survive on wild foods, both plant and animal. Who in their correct senses could imagine that 21st century [mostly] European descendants could even begin to garner adequate sustenance from wild foods.

Livestock and crops from all the farms: This is your scenario - "five horrific years later" there will be no livestock and crops on those farms. Yes, the hordes will get out to most of those farms in rather short order and decimate all that is there. The farms that are actually too far out are too far out for a reason - the conditions are harsh and without oil-derived energy they will sustain little to no livestock and crops. The survivors will have to settle right where humans have previously settled, where the Native Americans settled and where the European hordes invaded, basically in the fertile valleys. All those remote farms are an industrial age anomaly.

As one who collects heirloom seeds and has practiced seed-saving [that is, the grow-your-own variety], I have pondered this question virtually incessantly over the last eight years. I have been unable to find the answer. Growing all of one’s food will be impossible for virtually all survivors. Wild game will be soon decimated. Wild plants are illusive at best. Staying fed will be singularly the most important and consuming part of life for the survivors. Success will be meager, sporadic, and inconsistent. Inadequate nourishment will be the rule. It will take at least an entire generation before most North American humans learn how to feed themselves.

This is not an issue that can be superficially brushed aside or inattentively dismissed. A fast collapse will leave little opportunity for anything but searching for one's next meal.

or so it seems to...


John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, of course you're right; the Hollywood fantasy of sudden total collapse simply doesn't work in the real world. It's not meant to; as I've suggested before, it's a religious belief with a thin layer of secular frosting on it. As for classifying knowledge, yes -- though I'd hate to see everyone making the same classification. Diversity is as important in knowledge as it is in ecology.

Mechanic, I'm delighted to see anybody calling on the memory of Pythagoras these days! Thanks for the link.

Highwindows, I'll check it out.

Yooper, I look forward to it.

Stephen, I think there's every hope that a larger body of knowledge can make it through the approaching dark age than survived previous examples of the species. Printing makes a difference; if enough people get to work on the older, sustainable printing technologies, hand-operated presses may keep working right through the dark age, which could make knowledge considerably more accessible and less likely to get lost. While I'm not a believer in the mythology of progress, I do recognize the fact that some human discoveries are cumulative, and certain changes can shift the range of human possibilities in important directions.

Micheal, yes, and at the end of the day, what have you proved? Simply that by stacking one worst case scenarios on top of another, and one extreme assumption on top of another, it's possible to imagine a future that will fit just about any Hollywood fantasy you care to name. That seems like a dubious approach to planning for the future, at least to me, but if that's what you want to do, by all means. I don't propose to debate it here -- I've covered all this at great length in previous posts, and the discussion has moved on to more interesting subjects now.

yooper said...

Hello John, Sorry, I had to step back for a bit from those chasing delusional butterflies..I suspect we'll be seeing a mad rush for the door as we start our descent down from the lofty plateau. At this point, my game plan changes (yes, I do have plan developed many years ago). I'd like to spend as much "quality" time as I can with my family.

Hmm, fast crash scenarios, survivalism and die-off, suppose this is my cue, eh?

Perception only comes to the eye of the beholder and a perspective comes to those who can assemble what they percieve. Of course, this doesn't come from a cystral ball and is something that cannot be measured, but is painfully obvious when in lack of. "Enlightenment" only comes to those who are seeking it, by those who are willing to share it.. In that respect, "Thanks, John!"

It's relatively easy to proclaim to the world, "Not everyone is going to die", that's the easy part. The hard part is when you're holding a child's hand while looking deeply into their eyes, and softly telling him or her, they're likely to die before their time...That's the hard part..Especially when you're that child. Suvivor? I'm almost 50 now, and I can assure you it's been a long hard road to endure. Decline? I knew this at the beginning, when starting out. I've yet to figure out "why" it matters, perhaps that's the reason why I'm here?..... I've lived in a declining enviroment most of my life.

Ok die-off. Perhaps now is as good as time as any to talk about this, when gasoline has doubled in price the last couple of years.

The size of our global society was created by cheap energy or fuel. When that energy becomes not cheap (when demand surpasses supply), it cannot support the population, it created, any longer. I'm quite sure that the Roman and Mayan societies experienced similar dynamics, what very little I've been told about them.

In the past 50 or so years our global society has doubled in size, within two generations. It only stands to reason that if we cannot find another fuel to power our society, then the very best scenario we can expect in the next 50 years of descent is a 50% decline in population. That is almost a mathematical certainy. Correct me if I'm wrong, did you not allude to this in "Adam's Story"?

If I remember correctly, you did not go into detail "how"(in pectanges in time) the population was halved BY THAT TIME. "Catabolic collapse" defines steps (which can be quite drastic) down, to be followed by periods of "recovery", to be followed by more decline, more recovery (incline), more decline(downward bend), more partcial recovery, to lead to a possible large step down(collapse; a sudden caving in), to be followed by a time of recovery and on and on and on........

Ok, following this train of thought, within that 50 year span of events to Adam's day, the population could have been halved long ago before his time and stayed consistant for decades to his day. OR (lets be drastic here, since I'm telling the story?), the population was reduced to 5% of what it once was and through migration of peoples from other lands the population grew to half what it once was, 50 years before?

Inclines and declines, collapses all happening simultaneously worldwide, can only be viewed when taken into awhole as "descent". Quite likely, "decline" and this process may last centuries, perhaps thousands or millions of years? "Modern man" will long ago have become extinct and could have evolved into an entire different being?

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

I'd like to thank everyone who sent comments challenging or supporting Micheal's assertions, but I did say we'd moved onto more interesting comments, and I'd like to formally close that thread. 'Nuf said.

Yooper, my sense is that dieoff is very much a part of the downward curve of a civilization -- ours included. Each crisis on the downward arc will likely see population declines, sometimes steep ones, and yes, a lot of us are going to have to look children in the face and tell them that they may not -- or will not -- make it.

Now imagine people having to do that every few decades for the next two hundred and fifty years and you have some sense of the predicament we're in. That's what the decline and fall of a civilization and the coming of a dark age means, in human terms. There are positive potentials as well, but the real and terrible human cost has to be kept in mind or we're in Fantasy Island territory.

dharmagaian said...

Re: die-off, I recommend the feature film Children of Men for a graphic story of decline/descent and the hope and meaning humans place in children and the continuation of the species.

Die-off is one thing, but what if women can't have babies anymore? That is what Children of Men addresses. Two sides of the dystopian coin? Somewhere in between, it seems humans have to learn to regulate both their own reproductive drives and their drives to consume in accordance with ecological requirements. The trick seems to be to consider the needs of the larger living system we depend upon and adjust our own behavior accordingly. This is how aboriginal people flourished for thousands of years. I doubt that survivors of our civilization will even have the chance to learn this long forgotten lesson unless there is a die-off of the now bloated human population, no matter how poignant we may think that is.


Isis said...

Yooper, telling a child that s/he is likely to die 'before her/his time' only makes sense if you assume that only old people are 'supposed to' die. This, unless I'm very much mistaken, is a fairly new idea (and it's likely to become an obsolete idea in a not too distant future). You hear people today say that it's not 'natural' for a child to die before his/her parents do; had you suggested something of the sort to people who'd lived their whole lives in a society with even a moderate infant mortality rate, they'd likely look at you as if you'd grown a second head.

I'm not saying that the human cost of all of this is negligible, of course not. I am saying that if we march into the future armed with the idea that having at least 70 years to live is our birthright, this is going to be even more painful than it needs to be (and it's going to be painful whichever way you cut it). If we perceive something as 'natural' (in this case, dying at any age), that won't make it painless for us, but it will make it tolerable. If we perceive it as 'unnatural' or as 'unjust' or as 'something that just isn't supposed to happen', than we run the risk of being driven out of our minds by our sorrow. This is because, in the first case, we see the pain caused by our misfortune (the death of a child, say) as something that one is supposed to get through, and being social beings and culture-bearers, we do our best to live up to our culture's expectations; and in the second case, we see the pain that one feels at the death of a child as something that's supposed to devastate a good parent, and leave him/her badly scarred for the rest of his/her life, and of course we act accordingly.

(By the way, for the history of Western ideas about death, I suggest Philippe Aries's work; he wrote in French, but I know that he's been translated into English.)

dharmagaian said...


I'm glad you brought this up. Yes, death is natural. It is how nature made way for evolution through sex. If the old fogies didn't die, there would never be room for 'new' (old) ideas. The idea that death is natural happens to be old, but 'new' in a death-denying, adolescent, we-can-live-forever culture. One of my students declared, "We have a duty to die." In other words, stop fighting it and learn to do it gracefully and with dignity, as people in many other, older cultures do. And savor and cherish life until it's time to go. As individuals we can learn this, even if it is too late for our civilization to learn to let go.

When you have names and forms,
 know that they are provisional.
 When you have institutions,
 know where their functions should end.
 Knowing when to stop,
 you can avoid any danger. 
--- Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching, #32)

John Michael Greer said...

Suzanne, I'm not much in favor of using the mass media -- cinema very much included -- as a source of metaphors, as they tend to reflect our own preconceptions back at us. As for our ability to learn the lesson of living in harmony with nature, remember that we're coming right out of a 25-year period when energy was cheaper and more abundant than it has ever been in human history -- or will ever be again. Our culture is still burdened with the extreme distortions of perspective that caused. We're an adaptable species, and as the last extravagant blowoff of the Oil Age fades into memory, I suspect you'll see people and cultures adapt a good deal more readily than you may think.

Isis and Suzanne (again), one of the books that influenced me most was Theodore Roszak's Where the Wasteland Ends. He commented that death, rather than sex, was the great unspeakable obscenity in modern industrial culture: "We will all, every man, woman, and child of us, know fifty-seven clever ways to [copulate] before we know one humanly becoming way to die." That's an attitude that has to change.

Back a couple of decades ago, I spent some years working as a caregiver in nursing homes, and got to know the guy with the scythe fairly well; you can't hide from the reality of death very long when your job involves tending the dying and cleaning up bodies before the undertaker hauls them off. It was a useful education in the realities of existence, and one that, in one way or another, I suspect many of us will get in the decades to come.

yooper said...

Isis and Suzanne, at that (you're points), I'll "rest" my case....

Thanks, yooper

Peter said...

thanks, as always, and it's such a pleasure to read my fellow-readers' comments-we'd make a very interesting (actual)community...which brings me to my main thoughts re this weeks post, and which I'm sure next week's will expand upon: cultural conservation as a raison d'etre of an intentional community. While the idea is implicit in most communities, your thoughts John are helping me awaken to the possibilites/ necessities of uniting with like-minded friends, as we will be able to accomplish much more together,which is one of the underlying reasons religions form. Time to get back to the Pioneer Valley and get re-acquainted with the Druids, and other like-minded friends, I met there years ago.

John Michael Greer said...

Peter, I'll certainly be dealing with that point, in several ways, in more than one post to come. Just remember that "intentional community" can mean many things, and most of them have little in common with the model that has been tried so often, and usually fails so dismally, since the Sixties. More on this later.

John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all,

I've received several more comments by people -- not regular posters here, as it happens -- who simply reiterated all the usual arguments for a sudden collapse, as though nobody else had ever brought those up here. I've dealt with that issue at great length in previous posts on this blog, and in my forthcoming book The Long Descent (New Society, 2008), and it really doesn't seem like a productive use of my time and this forum to go over the same ground endlessly.

From now on, therefore, any post that simply repeats the standard fast collapse argument will not be put through. There are plenty of online forums where that sort of rehash is welcome, and I encourage those who want to argue the point to seek those out. We have more interesting things to talk about here.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Ok, this is something that relates to the conversation about reproduction, biology, the hopes we have for our children, and the false sense of entitlement we all suffer from.

It is in our biological encoding to have children, as many as we can, and to ensure their survival. We do this as best we can, and there are many strategies, cultural or personal. Leaving out morality as well, unfortunately.

I assume we all know it is almost certain for all of us that at least one of our ancestors somewhere in the mists of time was born from less than desirable circumstances, through unjust or evil circumstances forced upon our ancient mothers (rape, enslavement, incest, deception, war etc.) We are all the children of some tragedy if you go back far enough.

Now, just as we have certain things we have to live through, and our children must live through, there are other consequences to expect. There are going to be a lot of unpopular or downright offensive things involved in reproduction and raising children if there is a decline/collapse.

We have a sense of entitlement that we are all expected or have a right to have children. But some of us just don't cut it biologically; some don't have children because of physical inability, but lots also do not because of cultural or psychosocial factors.

And lots of children are born presently who will not only survive because of medical or other problems, though their parents will do all they can, but many children are born with behavioral or antisocial problems that will make things even nastier for society as they get older (lots of parents would rather be their children's "buddies" than parents).

When human brains began to get bigger millions of years ago, through natural selection, women's hips began to grow to accommodate their babies' heads (and also the human skull began to be more malleable at birth, the sutures acting as hinges and also the presence of the fontanelle).

Through genetic variability and natural selection, women had anatomical variability and some died in childbirth due to problems with anatomy and the birth canal. In general, such deaths in childbirth happened fairly frequently, even to the last century.

Caesarean births are the most common and preferable in hospitals these days, due to insurance and liability, especially for succeeding births. It is often imposed on women by their physicians, as a matter of procedure and hospital policy. That means women who are incapable of having children naturally, survive and have even more. That means even more girl children who are unsuited to have children naturally (narrow hips or other anatomical issues) will survive to have children of their own in the future, etc.

As long as our medical system survives, fine, although it is frightening to think at some point without some check, human beings might eventually not be able to be born naturally.

At some point in any possible decline or collapse, when medical care becomes difficult to get, caesarean births will become rare or impossible to perform. And then, many, many otherwise healthy women will die in childbirth during decline/collapse, because of their ancestors that survived and passed on their genes for small hips, etc. etc.

How do all the chemicals in the environment affect our reproduction process? How do all the various types of microwaves, cellphones, wireless interent etc., affect our reproduction... like honeybees we are part of nature.

It is also certain that there will be pressures to change climate (contrails anyone?) or create underground/enclosed cities to counter global climate change. How will this affect fertility?

But it seems the endpoint of the choices we are making indicates the ultimate goal is for everyone to be genetically engineered, have designer-babies, live in some sort of "Matrix"-honeycomb, microchipped virtual/second-life eating some form of soylent green. Is that really the choice that we have? Either a Decline/Collapse of eating grubs and salvaging rusty iron...or a hyper-controlled human-farm where we are the grubs being eaten?

Danby said...

true Cephalo-Pelvic disproportion, while frequently cited as the excuse for the alarming number of Caesarean births in the US, is extremely rare. In fact, it is almost never seen except where there has been; some injury to the pelvis, a hormonal imbalance during adolescence causing masculinization of the pelvis, or severe malnutrition, arthritic or other disease (i.e. rickets) that causes skeletal malformation. Instead, CPD has become a code word for "labor is taking a long time and I want to go golfing."

The sort of evolution you're talking about takes millenia, not decades.

Colorado Jack said...

Your post makes an excellent point, and I'd take it one step further. Everyone who is worried about peak oil seems to assume that the crisis will cause collapse in every country in the world at the same time.

This is not realistic, Take France: France gets 79% of its power from nuclear energy and another 13% from hydroelectric. So in the case of a peak oil catastrophe, France would be able to keep the lights on and a lot of wheels turning over while it was opening old coal mines, building windmills, etc. Similarly, Norway get 99% of its electric power from hydroelectric. Countries like Venezuela, Iran and Bahrein have oil surpluses. Does anyone seriously think the govermnents of these countries would allow export if the result would be social collapse?

There's a further point: just as some countries are pretty well protected against peak oil, some countries are highly vulnerable. China comes to mind. If such countries collapse, they will no longer import oil. That will reduce worldwide demand for oil, which in turn will reduce the price of oil. (Pity about China, etc.)

These points seem to me obvious, yet I haven't seen them anywhere. Is there a flaw in my reasoning?

FARfetched said...

Lance, I have to disagree that it's an either/or proposition. Several of the Mesoamerican cultures had advanced surgical techniques, better than the Euro conquerors in fact. C-sections have been around since Roman days (what's the root of "Caesarian"?). It requires only a sterile environment, painkillers, and some simple equipment. As long as medical training is available, there will be surgical tools. We might not have all the fancy non-invasive scanners we do today — but then again, as long as water falls downhill and the wind blows and the sun shines, there could be power to run those toys too.]

Again, the preservation of knowledge (and know-how, related but not identical) is going to be paramount.

Arachne said...

I think we'll keep a lot alive, as much as we can. People will improvise. There are a lot of people alive right now who really love the amount of data available and will make their own efforts at preserving it. To these people, information and its dissemination *is* a religion. ;-)

Initially, I think we're going to see communities putting together their own networks, libraries, etc. It won't be like the Great Library of Alexandra, but a bunch of ham-operated, casual distributed networks. The stuff we currently store information on is pretty delicate, but when we're forced to conserve it long-term, we'll come up with something.

There will be parts of the world that will have more of the data than others, just like now, just like at all times through history. Only this time I think that enterprising types might be found everywhere on the planet, seeding offsite archival storage, in its adapting changing forms, everywhere they go.

A lot of people seem to believe that we'll regress, to some agrarian or feudal or even neolithic dystopia (or secret desire), but on some level I don't think that this will happen at this time in our history.

Changing climate will likely force us to be *more* mobile, not less. Times of relative climate stability may be punctuated by abrupt variable destabilizing effects. We'll get places a lot slower, maybe, and with a lot less convenience, but I believe that many of us will move around, as dictated by changing circumstance. Just IMHO. :-)

Anthony said...


I post this link right after JMG states his disdain for modern cultural imagery. But that said this is the *only* good part of this movie and it does dovetail very well with the conversation about modern people and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and who has might have a Darwinian edge.


Dwig said...

On death: above, I suggested "future perfect thinking" to identify things that we could conserve that might serve to prevent or mitigate a collapse for our descendants. Among these will be things that aren't necessarily "mainstream" or widely discussed elements of our dominant culture, but which will undoubtedly be valuable. "Humanly becoming ways to die" certainly fits here.

I'm less cynical than Roszak about this. Certainly a mature attitude toward death is taboo in our public discourse, but I've seen evidence of it in many private instances, and even institutions such as hospice care and the turbulent birth of the "death with dignity" movement speak to an emerging cultural change. (It wouldn't suprise me to see Oprah Winfrey tackle the subject in the next year or so, although I wouldn't bet on it.)

Lance: It is in our biological encoding to have children, as many as we can, and to ensure their survival. There's at least some evidence that that's contingent on the environment, and that it's also in our biological encoding to voluntarily limit our population through a pattern of behavior by large numbers of women. At least, that's how I tend to interpret the ongoing decline in population in most of the industrialized countries.

I have it in mind to devote a page on my Wiki to collecting the various culture conservation topics that have been brought up in the last few posts, by JMG and others, and that will no doubt arise in the next few. I'm thinking that it might help make the dialogue more productive to have the "residue" of our evolving conversation be available in a more convenient form than Blogspot provides for. John, I don't want to encroach on your turf here, but to create something like a group resource. So, if I do this, everyone here will be invited to contribute, in the usual wiki style of collaborative authoring.

What do "all y'all" think of this? Would/could it be useful?

Panidaho said...

Jan, followed the links you gave and I wanted to tell you that I'm jealous! I wish you and the rest of your group the very best as you get moved and resettled.

I have a much smaller library (about 3,000 volumes) but apparently some of the same goals, as I've been collecting informational CDs as well as books to help us muddle through whatever is coming our way. The Mother Earth News and Backwoods Home CDs are worth far, far more than what you have to pay for them, imo.

My main concern is getting the info back out if the electrical grid becomes unreliable. In the short term, I'm looking at perhaps a couple of EEEPCs - they are inexpensive, lightweight, solid state and have moderate power usage. With those and a solar panel or two, and a way to hook them up to a battery and inverter to charge, it might be a low-input off the grid solution to keeping easy access to the info on the CDs - for a while, anyway.

I think the ultimate solution is for some people to decide to become "information bards" - honing their memory skills and basically turning themselves into a sort of "living library" and then passing that along to others of like mind later. I think that's probably something close to what JMG is hinting at, but I guess we'll all find out in a couple of days. ;-)


hapibeli said...

MSNBC online has a piece on airline cutbacks that will debut in USA Today on Thursday. It looks like the decline discussed here is starting as quickly as this month due to fuel costs. My youngest daughter may be returning to the Portland, Oregon area this summer with her beau from the Ohio super suburban wastelands north of Cincinatti. Thus both of my daughters will be on the west coast. I will be pleased. The quick flights to visit family, not to mention vacations abroad, are likely going the way of the dodo. Disruption can be the only result as Americans and anyone in the industrialized world begins to understand the implications for their families, their careers, and their supply of goods and services. I can hear the howls of protest at government and industry in the coming months. Gas to expensive to drive, to fly, to use the boat, to power the BBQ. The chinese curse of "living an interesting life" is upon us.

John Michael Greer said...

Lance, this is another reason why I don't recommend science fiction as a guide to the future; neither of the choices you've proposed seem even remotely possible to me. We'll get into some of the reasons in future posts.

Dan, no argument there. It's worth noting that despite (or because of) the high rate of medical intervention in birth and early childhood, the US has a rate of childhood mortality right now lower than any other industrial nation, and roughly equal to that of Indonesia.

Jack, there's no flaw in your reasoning. This is something I've been suggesting for years -- the decline of industrial society will be a complex phenomenon, with sharp variations over space and time. In particular, I suspect that Europe will play Byzantium to America's Rome -- but we'll see.

Farfetched, good point. Given the knowledge base, a great many things can be done in ways much simpler than they're being done now. More on this later.

Arachne, you're quite right that mobility doesn't require high tech -- the Mongols were very mobile, and so were my Lakota ancestors. Still, I think you're underestimating the challenge of preserving more than a small portion of today's knowledge base in the absence of current data storage technology -- and most of this will be going away soon as the energy costs mount up.

Anthony, I'll take your word for it -- my internet connection is too slow for YouTube.

Dwig, I think it's an excellent idea.

Teresa, good. Wait and see!

Beli, welcome to the new reality. It's been interesting to watch people begin wake up and realize that the world has changed and yesterday's rules don't work any more. As that awareness spreads, things may get weird.

Off to work on today's post...