Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Saving Science

Last week may just find its place in the history books as the point in time when peak oil became a social fact. Combine a drastic spike in oil prices – up US$16 in two days for one widely watched benchmark grade of crude oil –with an announcement by General Motors that the Hummer, that overblown icon of an era of excess, will no longer be manufactured, and you’ve got a snapshot of the transformation now hitting an unprepared and unwilling world.

As this particular milestone takes its place in the rear view mirror of contemporary history, it’s important that we try to glimpse the upcoming milestones on the road ahead. The one I’d like to address here, as I suggested at the end of last week’s post, is the need to preserve the heritage of modern science through the challenges of the coming deindustrial age.

From today’s perspective, mind you, it may seem silly to suggest that science may need saving at all. Not only does scientific research play a huge economic role in modern society, science has become an ideology that fills most of the roles occupied by religion in older civilizations than ours. Scientific institutions have profited accordingly, expanding into an immense network of universities, research institutes, foundations, and publishers, subsidized by many billions a year in government largesse.

Yet the same thing could have been said about the priesthoods of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and his fellow gods in the glory days of the Roman Empire, or the aristocratic priest-scribes of the Lowland Maya city-states in the days before Tikal and Cop├ín were swallowed by the jungle. Civilizations direct huge resources to their intellectual elites, because they can, and because the payoff in terms of each civilization’s values are well worth the expenditure. The downside is that the intellectual heritage of each civilization becomes dependent both on the subsidies that support them and on the ideological consensus that makes those subsidies make sense. In the decline and fall of a civilization, both the subsidies and the consensus are early casualties; thereafter, the temples of Jupiter get torn apart to provide stones for churches, and the intricate planetary almanacs compiled by Mayan astrologers rot in the ruins of the temples where their authors once contemplated the heavens.

Project the same process onto our own future and the vulnerabilities of science are hard to miss. Imagine, for example, a world forty years from now in which rates of annual production of oil, coal, and natural gas have dropped so low that only countries that produce them can afford to use them at all, and then only to meet critical needs. Half the surviving population in the nations with remaining fossil fuels, and 90% in the others, labors at subsistence agriculture, and most of the remainder work in factories converting salvaged materials into needed goods with hand tools. Worldwide, dozens of nations have collapsed into violent anarchy, and whole populations are on the move as sea level rises and rain belts shift. In America, the old canal network is being reopened by men with shovels, as fuel shortages hit a rail network that never recovered from its 20th-century dilapidation. Meanwhile army units face guerrilla forces in the mountain West, while refugees from starving Japan, packed into the hulks of abandoned container ships, ride the currents en masse toward the west coast.

In such a world, what role will modern science have? Certain branches of applied science, especially those applicable to energy and the military, will get funding as long as anything still exists to fund them. Most other applied fields will have to scrabble for scraps, though, while pure research will go begging, because the resources to support them in their current style won’t exist. The facilities that make advanced research possible will be boarded up when they haven’t been looted for raw materials.

Significant science could still be done in such a future. It bears remembering, after all, that such epochal scientific discoveries as the theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics were made with equipment would be considered hopelessly inadequate for a high school science class today. The problem is that the entire mindset of today’s science militates against research on this scale. The transformation of science from a pursuit of gifted amateurs to a profession supported by government and corporate funds was complete most of a century ago; today it would be hard to find many scientists who would be able to pursue their research unassisted in a basement lab with homemade equipment, and I’m by no means sure how many of them would be willing to do it without pay, on their own time, after their day jobs.

Thus science faces the same predicament as other elements of today’s cultural heritage: it needs a constituency to carry it through the process of decline and fall, or it risks vanishing entirely. James Lovelock, one of the few scientists to glimpse this problem, has suggested creating a single large book containing scientific discoveries – “the scientific equivalent of the Bible,” in his phrase – that can be printed on durable materials and distributed widely in advance of the crash. This begs a crucial question, though: when we talk about preserving science, exactly what are we trying to save?

That word “science,” after all, includes a great many things under its umbrella. It’s common to divide them by subject into disciplines such as biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. In the present context, though, another division has more value. We need to look separately at science as product, science as profession, and science as process to make sense of our predicament and craft a strategy for its survival.

Science as product is the sort of thing Lovelock is discussing: those facts and theoretical models about the universe currently accepted as true by the majority of scientists in the relevant fields. This is in some ways the easiest part of science to save, since a single book preserved in some dusty library could preserve a huge amount, the way that Ptolemy’s Almagest preserved nearly the whole body of Greek mathematical astronomy intact. Just as the Almagest became a millstone around the neck of later astronomers, though, science as product easily fossilizes into dogma. By treating science wholly as product, Lovelock’s proposal risks reducing science to the rote repetition of doctrines accepted on the basis of blind faith.

Science as profession is the system of trained personnel and infrastructure that keeps today’s science going. This dimension of today’s science is fatally vulnerable to the impacts of decline, for reasons already discussed; the economic troubles, political chaos, and desperate exigencies of an age of decline will shred the support system for today’s science in fairly short order. In a time when the destructive legacies of technology may loom larger than its fading benefits, too, the possibility of a violent popular backlash against science cannot be dismissed out of hand

That leaves science as process: the scientific method, that elegantly simple fusion of practical logic and applied mathematics that was birthed in the 17th century and gave birth in turn to the modern world. This is the dimension that arguably deserves saving ahead of anything else, since it allows science to be done at all; ironically, it is also the most vulnerable of the three, since few people except professional scientists have any exposure to it. Lovelock’s appalling dream of scientific Holy Writ, to some extent, simply reflects current reality; science as product has eclipsed science as process, so that people outside the scientific profession are taught to accept scientific doctrines on faith, rather than being encouraged to practice science themselves. If today’s professionalized science faces extinction over the next century or so, there’s a real possibility that it could take the scientific method with it to the grave.

A number of eloquent voices have argued that this might not be a bad thing. Such writers as Theodore Roszak and Lewis Mumford have pointed out that the practical benefits of science must be weighed in the balance against the dehumanizing effects of scientific reductionism and the horrific results of technology run amok in the service of greed and the lust for power. Others have argued that scientific thinking, with its cult of objectivity and its rejection of human values, is fundamentally antihuman and antilife, and the gifts it has given us are analogous to the gewgaws Mephistopheles brought to Faust at the price of the latter’s soul.

These arguments make a strong case against the intellectual idolatry that treats science as a surrogate religion or a key to ultimate truth. I’m not convinced, though, that they make a case against the practice of science on the much more modest basis to which it is better suited, and on which it was carried on until quite recently: that of a set of very effective mental tools for making sense of material reality. As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, and the reach of our sciences and technologies scales back to fit the realities of life in a world of strict ecological limits, the overblown fantasies that encouraged people to make science carry the burden of their cravings for transcendence are, I think, likely to give way sooner rather than later.

At the same time, the survival of the scientific method will be crucial to the task of creating sustainable societies in the future ahead of us. That process will be very hard to pursue without the touchstone of quantitative measurement and experimental verification. Thus I suggest that preserving the scientific method as a living tradition belongs tolerably high on the priority list as the Long Descent begins around us.

How could this be done? With today’s institutionalized science unlikely to survive, at least two options present themselves. The first is that other social forms better suited to withstand the rigors of an age of decline might choose adopt the practice of scientific research. One example is emerging just now in the movement I know best, the modern Druid community. I don’t think it’s a secret to many people that Druids care passionately about the environment, and are interested in learning about nature; the Druid order I head, for example, requires participants in its study program to learn about the natural history of the area in which they live.

With that as foundation, we are building a framework for Druids to take part in environmental sciences as active participants. It takes very little in the way of hardware to identify pollinators visiting a backyard garden, or to track turbidity and erosion along the banks of a local stream; it takes very little more to turn the knowledge gained in these ways to the work of ecological healing – providing nesting boxes for orchard mason bees, seeding erosion-controlling plants, and many other small steps with potentially huge consequences. A grasp of scientific method will be crucial in this work, and if it proves valuable to the survival of human communities and the ecosystems in which they live – as I am convinced it will – the method will be handed down to the future.

Now it’s only fair to say that Druidry, as one small religious movement among many, has no special privilege in this regard. Any other religious tradition, or for that matter any nonreligious one with enough passion and commitment to survive the coming troubles, could make a similar choice, adopting some branch of science useful to its work. It’s a tried and true method – trace the survival of Greek logic by way of Christian and Muslim religious traditions, or the parallel survival of Indian logic in Hinduism and Buddhism, and you’ll find a similar process at work. I hope other groups rise to the challenge; in the meantime, we Druids are doing what we can.

Yet scientists themselves might explore the possibility of creating new social forms to keep science going as a living tradition once today’s lavishly funded institutions become tomorrow’s boarded-up buildings and another century’s crumbling ruins. How those new forms might take shape, and how they might best cope with the crises ahead of us, is anybody’s guess just now; my own background leads me to imagine something along the lines of Freemasonry, say, or the occult lodges that kept Renaissance esoteric traditions alive during the age of science, using the keys of narrative, symbolism and ritual to turn dry philosophies into unforgettable experiences; still, this is only one option among many.

The crucial point, it seems to me, is to recognize that no special providence guards science, or for that matter any of the opulent cultural heritage we enjoy nowadays. It has been said, and rightly, that nothing seems so permanent as an empire on the verge of collapse, or so invulnerable as an army on the eve of total defeat. Like the broken statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem, a few fragments of today’s science might someday stand in an metaphorical wasteland once filled with the cyclotrons and observatories of a vanished age. Our job, as I see it, is to salvage what seems most likely to be of value to the future while we still have the chance.


Hypatia said...

Another thoughtful post...many thanks. While you mention Druidry as a possible religious cultural preserver, it seems the environmental aspect is the main focus.

For the medical profession, perhaps Susun Weed's Wise Woman tradition? (or something similiar..)

Just my 2 cents.

Seaweed Shark said...

An interesting view. For a long time people have lamented the so-called split between science and religion, and most of the recent proposals to heal that split amount to advice that we should "study religion scientifically." You propose the alternative, to practice science religiously: and now that I think of it, that's probably been the more common approach throughout history.

Eric in Santa Clara, California said...


Another great post, especially moving to me (I am an engineer in my day job). I did want to add a point in favor of a compilation of scientific knowledge that your reference to Ptolemy's compendium might have diluted.

The Ptolemaic solar system was hopelessly wrong, and so clinging to this knowledge by rote would indeed be an obstacle to future generations. Imagine, however an updated version of the Almagest with the Copernican solar system, planetary masses, distances, orbital inclinations, periods, elemental abundances, geology, and line drawing sketches of the surface topographies, and a brief history of the solar system (4 gigayears ago to the present).

Combined with Newton's Law of Gravitation, some basic algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, and you've got astronomy "backed up" to the 19th century.

Future generations could do worse than learn by rote a more factual description of astronomy than the Ptolemaic system, and one that could be supported by observation and measurements.

Best regards, Eric in Santa Clara, CA

opportunity in crisis said...

Wow - what a thought provoking piece. I think that JMG is a little hard on James Lovelock in accusing him of seeking to record science as "holy writ". He obviously recognises the risk of the loss of scientific knowledge and above all, I think that the only thing he holds as "holy" is the scientific method itself. This can be summarised as "everything I'm telling you is open to question - it's up to you to test it with evidence and reason". I'm sure Lovelock's work would be as emphatic about this founding principle as Jesus was about "love one another". As always, it's the fukking followers that turn good reasoning into rigid dogma.
The preservation of knowledge, both scientific and practical know how is a fundemental imperative proposed in my forthcoming paper: Peak Oil: An Opportunity for Transition to a Sustainable Economy. The principles expoused by JMG have been highly influencial in formulating this work.

james said...

thanks! i am always so grateful to read your words... such insightful and compassionate perspectives....

saved by a prayer,

Sam Norton said...

Excellent post, and an area I've pondered about a lot, ever since reading MacIntyre - not least because I think the Christian churches need to explicitly teach a) the holiness of science (that underlay my 'The Holiness of Stuart Staniford' article), but also b) that scientific process needs to be embedded in a much wider understanding of wisdom as, on its own, the scientific process is ultimately toxic. I call the scientific process as it is practiced at the moment 'asophic' because, through the pursuit of objectivity, and the elimination as far as possible of emotional reactions, it also systematically excludes wisdom - which is an educated emotional reaction.

Really glad you're pursuing this theme.

J Rob said...

In the 60's, there was a conscious effort to promote science and mathematics in the public schools. Praise and awards were lavished on classroom nerds. I have personally seen this effort washed away by decades of popular culture, until the dystopian vision of Idiocracy does not seem all that extreme. Another beautiful essay, JMG.

And it reminded me of a personal story ... In 1962 I won some ribbons for a science fair project raising a brood of luna moths and documenting their progress. One of the prizes was a savings bond awarded by a local exterminator. I had mixed feelings about it, even at the time. Science has many applications, and the concept of "goodness", many interpretations.

yooper said...

Hello John!
I'm just enthusiastically applauding here! Never again, will I accuse you of dodging the "elepahant in the room"! You have addressed this, might I say, "squarely"?

Today, is graduation day, for many of the long time readers of yours, John. How many will flip their tassels to the other side? Better yet, how many will now have drawn their hood over their head? How many will have the gold on the outer edge, denoting "science"?

I have waited a very long time for this day... "Excellence" can only be rewarded to those who have put applied science into see for themselves...

Thanks, yooper

Peter said...

JMG-thanks (again)! In a "dumbed-down" world this is an oasis of sanity and joy, even if we have to spend our time addressing such "insane" issues...will be interesting to read comments to this post vis-a-vis last weeks...makes me want to go back and pull out Postman, Illich, Debord, Glenndenning, etc for a complete response, but lacking time for that, just wanted to give a strong second to your most salient point: our 'job' being to salvage what seems most likely to be of value to the future while we still have the chance.

Someday, and we don't know when, there may not be this (or any) blog to encourage us-until then, one of my most important 'time-binding' and life-preserving skills is this perspective and awareness your writings nurture in me-a very useful balancing to the gift of Advaita-this all is dream...

(Shadowfoot-yes, please contact me:

shadowfoot said...

JMG, thank you for another excellent post. I agree that retaining the ability to understand and use the scientific methods is very important.

I've noticed over the years a trend toward not thinking things through, gathering information, examining evidence, or any other type of actual application of the mind, and it's quite distressing. I'm thankful that there exist some venues where thinking and research are still encouraged, and that these are not all in the universities. I agree that we must do what we can to preserve and promote useful methods of observation, research, and the skills needed to theorize about the information gathered and determine possible outcomes and solutions.

Hypatia, speaking only as one druid and only in the AODA (there are other organizations)... While Druidy does have a strong environmental aspect (as it should), there are many subjects within the study programs - called spirals in the AODA. One of the study spirals is Healing, and this can include first aid, CPR, herbal medicines, chi gong, and various energy healing methods. I rather expect that if someone were training to be an EMT, doctor, nurse, therapist, midwife, etc., and wanted to use that experience to count towards the healing spiral, that it would be allowed.

Of course, having the environment as a main focus isn't a bad thing, because it means that folks are thinking about how to lower their environmental impact, coming up with creative ways to make their homes lower energy, possibly even building more sustainable homes like straw bale or cordwood, building passive solar collectors, biking and walking more, growing some of our own food, planting trees, etc.

In our little local group, I'm trained as a massage therapist (much more than giving a relaxing massage), my husband and I are Reiki II practitioners, we have a midwife, and an herbalist who's planning on taking a master herbalist certification course, and most (if not all) of the eight of us in our study group have either past or current first aid and CPR training. Several of us have some basic herbal medicine knowledge and will be learning about making tinctures and such in the future (the advanced person has a professional tincture press).

Which is not to say that I don't personally worry about the potential loss of medical knowledge in the future! There is much to know in just that one field, and it's quite likely we'll lose some of it over time. All we can do is our best, yes?

Heather G

Jim said...

_Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method_ by Henry H. Bauer is a fun exploration of scientific method.

I think profession and process come together as culture. Scientific culture seems to have been born from the ashes of the 30 years war - see Toulmin's _Cosmopolis_. Maybe World War 1 was the end of the Treaty of Westphalia - but scientific culture seems to have been shifting then too. Science became much more linked to power. Maybe our challenge now is not so much to preserve our present scientific culture, but to revive the traditions of scholarship, collegiality, and integrity that have become very rare. Maybe they're actually about constant, but careerist science has grown up like weeds so the real thing has become hard to find.

What is deadly is to think of scienific method as some kind of mechanical process, a machine operated by dispassionate assembly line workers, that churns out knowledge like a sausage machine.

The key, I think, is to see science as a kind of dialogue. Bauer's book shows how scientific journals are like the bloodstream of science.

In terms of overshoot - one danger is how the internet has decimated print journals. I don't see the internet as being sustainable. It's not the power to keep the digital signals flowing, but the vast and deep technology involved in chip manufacture. Computers don't last forever! They'll be kept running until they break down. What then?

Science is an international literary network of mutual critique, based on theory/logic, experiment/evidence, and application/experience. I like the idea of alternate sustainable structures sprouting up alongside the old rotten structure parasitized by greed and violence. It will be a challenge, though, to find the patterns through which those alternative structurss can thrive and yield sweet fruit to benefit the planet.

John Michael Greer said...

Hypatia, no single group can preserve all of contemporary science, even if the motivation was there. My thought is that different traditions and movements will each take what seems most relevant; that way, the method is more likely to get through one way or another.

Shark, exactly. Think of the way that cultural practices in Japan have been brought into the ambit of Zen Buddhism: kenjutsu, the art of swordsmanship, becomes kendo, the spiritual way of the sword. Is "science-do" worth exploring? I think so.

Eric, what possible good would it do people in a deindustrial future to repeat by rote what, to them, would be meaningless facts about the orbital period of Neptune and the like? What's crucial about science is that it gives people the tools to create and test hypotheses as needed, and that's what needs to be preserved.

Opportunity, let me know when the paper comes out -- I'd like to see a copy.

James, thank you!

Sam, well put. Alongside pure science and applied science, there needs to be the third element, which might be called spiritual science for lack of a better term; or, in the terms I've been using, alongside ecology and ecotechnics, we need to start thinking about ecosophy.

J Rob, I came along halfway through the twilight of science in US education, but saw a lot of the dumbing down you've mentioned. All the more reason for others to pick up the torch.

Yooper, I'll hum a few bars of "Pomp and Circumstances."

Peter, definitely pull out the books you've named for a second read -- but spare a few hours someday for Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, as a reminder what a gifted amateur with a passion for nature can accomplish.

Shadowfoot, exactly. It's as though we're in a library and discover all at once that it's on fire, with no fire department around. If each of us grabs the books we think most need saving, and head for the door, as wide a selection as possible will make it to safety.

Jim, well put. I'll have some proposals for the twilight years of the internet in a few weeks. In the meantime, recognizing that science is a conversation rather than a machine for churning out facts is a crucial first step. Thanks for the book reference, too -- I'll check it out.

RAS said...

JMG, I've really enjoyed your last few posts. I've been reading along but haven't had much to say. Thank you for pointing out the "religious" aspects of scientism; its something that goes unnoticed and uncommented on in our culture.

With regards to saving science, I agree that the most important question is what science to save. I studied much of the sciences and engineering in school and I don't think that 90% of our scientific knowledge base will be useful in the decline to come. Things like advanced organic chemistry, nanotechnology, space travel, etc. Even those things could be redevloped if necessary later on. It's the other 10% that concerns me, for much of it I see as vital. Such things as ecology, biology, bridge building, basic mathematics and the like. Useful things. And especially things like the basics of medicine -sanitation, anatomy, basic surgical techniques, germ theory. How many lives have been saved by the knowledge of germ theory? It's these kind of things I would put on the "to be saved" list and approve of their inclusion in a thing like Lovelock recommended. Our descendants won't need to know the structure of an atom (much less how to split it) or the orbit of the planets -but it will be vital to know how to remove an appendix, how to recliam damaged lands, and the like. And of course, as you pointed out, the scientific method istelf is important.

One of the reasons I gave up my science/engineering major was due to the lack of any sort of spiritual/moral anchoring. We were supposed to be mindless machines, computing and churning out product without regard for what it was, what it would do, or its implications. I could neither live nor work like that.

On one final note, I recently went back and reread "Adam's Story" and was sturck again by how well it was done. I seriously thank you should consider writing some more fiction and I would love to see more set in that scenario.

jrc9596 said...


Given your 40 years scenario, I have to wonder if a slow collapse is really just balkanization ie civil war with the next recovery happening when one side "wins".

How long do you believe we have until some governor calls in the national guard to procure water supplies for a city? Phoenix, LA, Las Vegas or Austin immediately come to mind, but this could occur in alot of places, especially if rationing is in place and its not enough. In my mind, this looks like the most likely tipping point into chaos, more so than oil supplies, but with each passing day I get less sure. Sorry this is off topic.

Regarding preservation of science, is it possible we may return to the apprenticeship way of passing on knowledge rather than formal instruction? As an engineer that has always struggled in the classroom setting, this way has alot of value for me because using the knowledge daily under the supervision of a mentor, interest leads to understanding. My biggest fear of a science bible is that advanced topics such as mathmatics will wither simply because there may be noone to provide direction to the first step.

Few in our modern society have an understanding of such useful principles such as trigonometry or vectors enough to explain it. Is it possible that preserving the individuals may be more important than preserving the texts?

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
First, feel free to treat this as a personal email and not post it to the blog if you consider it too off-topic or disruptive.

You see, I’ve been watching the big picture and what I’m seeing is developments of all sizes, both positive and negative, all happening so fast that they are piling into each other with none having time to work through the system.

I mean, well, just as a very small selection:

1. Peak Oil

Peak oil seems to be happening faster than we ever imagined, yet there are very promising alternatives coming on stream all the way from solar of several kinds to new, safe (with big lovable brown eyes) forms of nuclear. There are even new technologies to extract oil from vast, previously unworkable fields such as Sugar Loaf offshore from Brazil and the Bakken Play, a USA field that stretches into Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada.

None of this of course is going to support the “ideal” USA suburban 3 SUVs, 3 and 1/2 bathroom McMansion in the suburbs lifestyle, let alone allow a couple of billion Chinese and Indians to enjoy the same lifestyle (which they are surely as entitled to as anyone). It should, however, mean that if we behave rationally (a very, very big “if”) there should be no trouble keeping essential services (agriculture, power, water, communications, trains, shipping, public transport) running and a thriving if very different economy and society going.

2. Climate Change

Climate change is a nasty. This is the one area I cannot find any realistic, positive developments that are likely to be implemented in the short to medium term.

3. Technologies Suitable for Post Peak Everything

Suddenly, technologies that replace rare or hard to manufacture inputs with readily available and/or easily produced inputs are everywhere. So too are new technologies that make previously difficult to manufacture items easier, or introduce much simpler yet even more effective medical treatments.

To give just a couple, off the top of my head, examples, the likely replacement of silicon with other materials such as special forms of carbon in electronics and the discovery that by processing cellulose more gently than in normal paper making, “super-paper” almost as strong as structural steel can be made.

I had though that the ecotechnic societies of the deep future would need to bio-engineer trees to get very strong materials to replace our current metals and composites, but it looks like we can already make such materials out of plain old natural trees.

4. Extension of Old Technology Changes

Another thing that is producing vast change is the simple extension of some, easily applicable, established technologies such as mobile phones and (soon) small, cheap portable computers to billions of people in the third world. I find it quite impossible to get any idea of the long term consequences of placing about every peasant farmer or poor worker on the planet “on line”.

The Explosive Rise of China and India

It seems that just about everyone is joining the party, including the giants China and India. In fact, really poor third world countries are starting to be the exceptions.

Even if the USA fell there is an increasing chance that lots of other powers would just pick themselves up, dust themselves off, make note of that the USA did wrong and continue on their way.

This of course would be made much easier for them as much of their populations are only ½ generation away from subsistence farming so have no expectation of the SUV, McMansion and suburbs lifestyle. They would happily fit into a more modest, public transport, grow some of your own food where possible, lifestyle.


This just does not look like any form of historical collapse I’ve read about. About the only thing I can think of that it looks like is the early stages of the slope down into the Singularity, Event Horizon, Human Transcendence or whatever you want to call it.

I know the Singularity enthusiasts delude themselves that the transition will/would be smooth and pleasant, just as they delude themselves that it may be as early as 2030 rather that the older, and in my opinion more realistic date, of 2050+. However, there is good reason to expect it to model well with real astronomical singularities / black holes, that is, for the region around the singularity to be almost unbelievably violent, and in its inner regions terrifyingly strange.

That does not mean that we are going to get there. If I am right we are in a mad race between collapse caused by resource depletion, misgovernance, pandemic, climate change and God known what else and the social / technological gravitational pull of the forming Singularity.

Trouble is, this means that if we miss, the collapse should be far worse than any of us imagine. If we don’t, the ride is going to be really wild and terrifying and the destination, by definition, unknowable.

What To Do

The strange thing is, I suspect the things we can do to help make our and our families and friends passage through as less unpleasant as possible is pretty much what you, Sharon Astyk and other good Peak Oil writers suggest.

Oh! And, surprisingly, preserving science may be an even bigger challenge than during a collapse. If the singularity is “narrow” we could lose about all science that was not directly applicable “scraped off against the sides”.

In other words, we could easily loose paleontology, anthropology, history, the social sciences, about all the disciplines that make science human.

Trouble is, every time I try to imagine the long term future of a civilization with post event horizon technology but weak social sciences I come up with the mythical Grays. Gray society is by all reports not very pleasant.

Maybe, the persistent “experience” of the Grays is our collective subconscious warning us of where we could all wind up.

Anyway, just my musings.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Yes, JMG is right. The central task is the conservation of the
scientific process, as opposed to the scientific product, and
that task of conservation will require the restructuring of the
scientific profession. (A motto from the Catholic Worker
movement is helpful here: we seek nothing less than the building
"of a new civilization within the shell of the old".)

Writing as I am in the walls of an observatory under threat from
condominium developers (cf my essay on that threat, hyperlinked
to, I'd like to start this
unavoidably long blog posting by remarking on process and
profession from within the specific framework of astronomy, as a
preface to my inevitable eventual remarks, later in this
posting, on Catholicism.

The main problem in an observatory's public outreach lies in
getting the amiable, and yet passive, visiting public to become
active in science. I have tried stressing in at least a few of
my minor public chats in our small auditorium the utility of
buying a cheap Tirion star atlas, of working with red flashlight
and binoculars, of keeping private relative-brightness records,
and of plotting on one's own such things as the alternating deep
and shallow minima in eclipsing binary beta Lyrae. (Of course in
taking beta Lyrae as an example, I reached on our auditorium's
small speaking platform for something that I did do on my own,
and did do with a very poor pair of binoculars, and did do in
the heart of light-polluted Toronto.)

Although within our institution we cannot claim any great
current success in stimulating "citizen science", so
encouragingly written up at the Wikipedia page Google-visible
via three-word, two-quote-mark search string ((QUOTE))"citizen
science" Wikipedia((/QUOTE)), others have achieved it. The
American Association of Variable Star Observers is the clearest
astrophysical example. I gather that we ourselves in the 1970s
in this institution did manage to have the general public help
in photomultiplier-tube photometry of variables on our auxiliary
0.40 metre scope.

It is easy to see how our local 1970s work would look if revived
successfully, in an appropriate collegial spirit free of that
careerism that, as blog reader "jim" here remarks, is a noxious
weed to the scientific process: some grad student would be
unpaid Principal Investigator, and under that student would be a
few unpaid others from within the Univ of Toronto Dept of Astron
and Astrophys, and they would in turn impart all possible
no-fees training to curious and determined and unpaid townsfolk,
in informal seminars under the aegis not of Univ of Toronto but
of something like Toronto's struggling underground "Anarchist
University" (

This line of citizen-science reflection I develop in slightly
greater length, with a bit of imaginative literary
embellishment, and in an explicitly Peak Oil context, toward the
end of the already-mentioned observatory-conservation essay
hyperlinked to

JMG's remarks on citizen-science initiatives in ecological
biology, in the paragraph in which he writes "It takes very
little in the way of hardware to identify pollinators visiting a
backyard garden..." are an ecological-biology counterpart to the
line of thought that I am offering here for astronomy. It seems
to me that JMG and I are of a single shared mind, although we
necessarily approach our joint topic from different starting
points within the far-flung scientific archipelago.

JMG, referring as he does to ecological biology rather than to
astronomy, has sketched a Druidic role in the conservation of
process. What role, it will now be asked, can the Catholic
Church play in that same conservation of process, as it relates
to astronomy?

As it is presently structured, the Church is handicapped by a
cultural contingency. Its priesthood is as a matter of
contingent academic fact overwhelmingly drawn from the Arts
Faculty side of the schools, and so is overwhelmingly more at
home in topics such as philology than in topics such as
calculus. We yearn with all passion for a movement of
"scientist-and-engineer priests", akin to the famous 1950s
movement of "Worker Priests", and on the whole we find ourselves
yearning in vain.

It must be admitted, however, that the Jesuits have since almost
the time of the persecution of Galileo proved successful
astronomers. From Victorian times, we may particularly note
that spectroscopy was first developed as a tool for astrophysics
by the Jesuit Fr Angelo Secchi in Rome.

At the moment, Jesuit efforts focus on the Vatican Observatory
Research Group, now effectively in Arizona, though with some
kind of residual presence just outside Rome. One of the VORG
astronomers I know rather well. Another, Brother Guy
Consolmagno, held a University of Toronto Newman Centre
audience in thrall a few years ago, as a pre-eminently clear
speaker, and has in addition helped form lay Catholic attitudes
in bookstores with his first-person narrative _Brother

I will now try to argue that it is not an accident - that it is,
rather, a consequence of the internal logic of Catholicism -
that the Jesuits, being among the most intellectually vigorous
of the formal Catholic orders, should also rank in the whole
family of formal Catholic orders as among the most
scienficically engaged.

At a foundational theological level, we expect and require
engagement with physical science from the Catholic Church
because such an engagement is an entailment of the Catholic
doctrine of incarnation. At the centre of Catholic theology, for
good or, as it may be, for ill (this I remarked on last week,
therewith necessarily expressing a fear for my own ability to
remain Catholic) is an empirical proposition: that the dissident
rabbi called some such thing as Jeshua, and fatally crucified
under the provincial governor Pontius Pilatus around 33 AD,
survived his internment. Closely linked with this (as I did not
say last week) is a specific understanding of the physicality of
the Mass, on which - for good or, as it may be, for ill - the
chalice and paten at the local Mass are considered to be among
the temporary local containers of the "Real Presence" of that
living dissident rabbi. As a sort of corollary of this troubling
pair of beliefs, and of a few others closely related to them -
as a sort of corollary, to put this into a slogan, of the
doctrine of Incarnation - comes a constellation of beliefs
related to the physical world. One notes, for instance, in this
constellation of Catholic positions, the belief that miracles
(in the sense of even the most atavistic - of even the most
crude - popular impoverished-community Catholic piety) are
possible, or again the belief that (here, as a celibate "gay"
male, I sidestep some nonessential, potentially even toxic and
homophobia-affirming, Catholic controversies) a special dignity
attaches to progenitive heterosexual conjugal intimacies.

Within that constellation of beliefs is a special reverence for
manual labour. While many aspects of nobly pagan Rome strike a
sympathetic chord, Cicero's remark that "there is nothing noble
in a workshop" is alien to the Catholic reader. By contrast, it
is to the Catholic reader appealing to find one of the
pre-Socratic Greek philosophers asserting (in of course a naive
and archaic way, generations before the founding of Plato's and
Aristotle's institutes-of-higher-study in Athens) that humans
have a special intellectual pre-eminence among the animals
because of their hands. This archaic, pre-Socratic, Greek idea,
to which I think astronomer Carl Sagan drew attention in one of
his popular-market books, is that human cleverness derives from,
or even consists in, the fact that humans can manipulate matter
with their fingers in ways not anatomically available to such
animals as horses, dogs, and porpoises. This archaic idea arose
from the same general Asia-Minor milieu as produced pre-Socratic
science, notably with Thales's eclipse prediction and with
Thales's proof that upon a plane every angle in a semicircle is
a right angle.

In general, Catholic theology seeks (for good or, as it might
be, for ill) to take physicality quite literally - to take
matter quite literally - and is therefore required by its
internal logic to take a professional interest in physical

It is from a Catholic perspective rational to pray to Saint
Joseph the Worker that the Church will overcome its current
institutional weaknesses and find new ways of meeting its
logical requirement to do physical science, even (so the prayer
will run) in a "Peak Oil" cultural context destined to witness
the decline of such secular funding institutions as America's
NSF and Canada's NSERC.

Hope can even now be drawn in this work of prayer from the
existing example of the Vatican Observatory Summer Schools.
Those "Schools" bring students, especially from the poor
countries, to astrophysical seminars taught at Castel Gandolfo
by the best available (typically non-Catholic) specialists. Does
one way forward perhaps lie with further work along the lines of
those "Schools" - perhaps some day, in solidarity with Saint
Joseph the Worker, right in the hardscrabble favelas and
villages so familiar to today's courageous "Liberation


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
verbum at

(Catholic layman
intellectually anchored
in the "Catholic Worker" movement,
and part-time telescope operator
at David Dunlap Observatory,
but writing herewith
in a private capacity,
and so neither as a Church spokesperson
nor as an observatory spokesperson)

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
This is a P.S. to my previous posting. Likewise, feel free to treat this as a personal email and not post it to the blog if you consider the previous post too off-topic or disruptive.

I was reading my previous posting and realized that the ending did not sound right: It sounded as if I thought the only possible outcomes were full, violent collapse verses technological singularity.

I think they are likely outcomes if everyone, everywhere does nothing, however all it will take is a critical mass of people of good will and good sense in any area to yield quite different results for that area.

I can see some evidence of that now. The surprising thing is that the highly developed, English speaking nations, against all expectations, seem to be as yet performing quite poorly, perhaps a product of the very great accumulation of wealth into a few hands they have allowed over the last few decades and the resultant large influence that wealth has obtained over the political process and media.

On the other hand, some very odd places, China for one, seem to be really trying to get their act together.

I think about the best possible outcome would be a form of catabolic collapse so controlled and gentle that most people didn’t even recognize it as collapse. That, in fact, they saw it as a return to a more reasonable and modest lifestyle involving less work (one wage earner working a 35 hour week able to support a family) more community, more free time and more gardening..

My enthusiasm for a “gentle” catabolic collapse scenario is of course boosted by my conviction that the eventual resulting ecotechnic societies need be neither poor nor low tech. They may actually have quite high technology, but of the unobtrusive, vanished into the walls type. They should be quite capable of carrying on the great human adventure of science and even running a space program, just at a slower, more considered pace, which is a good thing in and of itself.

The technological singularity future, which you would expect me to be enthusiastic about, I’m actually rather suspicious of. To begin with, under current conditions, it has the potential to be too easily captured by the same, tiny, enormously wealthy elite that already has too much influence.

guamanian said...

Permaculture is a area of practice that started out secular and scientific, and still applies scientific method to 'ecological engineering' problems.

I think that permaculture as a movement has not quite lived up to its potential, though. I suspect that focusing on 'certifications' that are both expensive to get and (possibly... I've never been able to afford to find out!) not rigorous enough in teaching the scientific methods that support the permaculture principles of observation and adaptation may be part of the reason it has lagged behind.

However, it does seem to me like permaculture is a framework that is a secular alternative to the more spiritual options, and that it may play a larger role going forward.

It is an accessible 'religion' for those of us raised as devout secularists, it has the advantage of already incorporating the scientific method, and it even has a bit of the missionary ethic about it, as practitioners spread the word along with the sheet mulch.

Jobi Wan Shinobi said...

Hello John,

I've been the report for several months now and have found it to be interesting, insightful and thought provoking. You put a great deal of scholarship and effort into what you do here and it is appreciated.

"Saving Science" was as thought provoking as the rest. It occurred to me that I really look at science in two main ways. First, science, to me, is a body of knowledge. Second, science is a method of obtaining more knowledge through observation of phenomena, deduction of how the phenomena occur and how that might apply to some other process, testing of the hypothesis and evaluation of the results. Again, I qualify my statements with "to me."

It occurs to me that, other than certain parts of the body of knowledge, that there is little that requires preservation. My reasons for saying this are as follows. One, the body of knowledge will be "whittled" down, by necessity and chance, to what is useful in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Obviously, quantum physics, calculus and molecular biology will have little use in a subsistence economy. Two, scientific method is what we do naturally-observe, deduce and apply-and have done naturally through our evolution. It might not be in the rigid objectivist-reductionist form that is most currently in vogue and forms the primary religion of our culture here in the U.S., but it is still a study of phenomena with experimentation and application to the processes of daily life. This is really the most useful form, in my mind anyway.

John Michael Greer said...

RAS, as suggested in the post, I'm much less concerned about the preservation of scientific knowledge than about the survival of the scientific method. My guess is that if science survives at all, it'll be the more practically useful branches that make it -- and in a world with sharply diminished energy reserves, a lot of high-end technologies will not make the cut. As for fiction, I'm considering that also.

JRC, one thing to keep in mind is that a civil war would have no real winners -- the destruction of infrastructure and the waste of rapidly depleting energy reserves would be a loss for all, and not easily made up. As for apprenticeship, absolutely -- that was standard for most skilled trades a century ago and will likely become standard again.

Stephen,the Singularity is simply another rehash of the same old fantasy of apocalyptic redemption dressed up in technological drag. I see a lot of changes coming down the pike, some positive and a lot more difficult, but I suspect the challenge of maintaining existing technologies in the face of rapidly depleting resources and political, social, and economic troubles will be extreme enough that the costs of bringing the new exotic technologies online will be unaffordable.

Tom, I hope your faith does take up astronomy as a tradition to preserve, and as you mention, the Jesuits might be a good place to start.

Stephen, my guess is that catabolic collapse will be neither smooth nor gentle, though it will be prolonged, and a great deal of technology will need to be recovered by the ecotechnic societies of the future. That being said, I think you're quite correct that those future societies may be able to use quite a bit of fairly advanced technology; I have some specific suggestions, which I'll be addressing in the near future -- but that depends on getting information through the approaching troubles. Thus the theme of this post.

Guamanian, if the permaculture movement can retain something of its missionary zeal, it could preserve quite a bit -- and of course it's well worth preserving on its own account, though it may need adaptation to use successfully in a future of radical changes in climate.

Jobi, the problem with insisting that science is simply what people do naturally is that on the whole, they don't. The value of formal method is that it allows people of quite ordinary intellectual gifts and education to achieve results that only geniuses can do unaided. Logic is an example -- when you know logic, you can use it to analyze arguments and detect fallacies, and get good results. It's a tool; you can pound nails with a rock, too, but you'll get better results with a hammer.

The same thing is true of the scientific method. Of course people using other methods were able to learn things about nature, but the scientific method allows it to be done more quickly, easily, and effectively than most other methods. To say that science is a body of knowledge is like saying that carpentry is a collection of houses; that's all very well and good, but if one of your houses falls down, or if you need a house somewhere else, the process that allows you to build houses is what really counts.

Anthony said...


Two thoughts. First, although I agree that the primary focus needs to be saving the scientific method it strikes me that certain "scientific holy writ" is also worth preserving. One method of preserving them in a way that would not make them quite so likely to become dogma would be as historical narrative pointing out the ongoing scientific process. Hopefully this would allow the reader to realize that these "truths" might be as ephemeral as previously overturned truths.

Secondly, what about the idea of preserving knowledge or methodology in games. I will give a bad example. The Tarot deck has survived for many centuries. There is some reason to believe it was an attempt to preserve some form of knowledge. This was lost but if it had not been it would have been an excellent way to preserve knowledge. I can imagine creating a game that has the player making use of certain basic principles.

Just a thought.


yooper said...

Hello John! I've went back and reread your article a couple times more.I cannot agree more with your underlining thought, and the sad thoughts that might accompany such circumstances.

Years ago, I came to the realization, that perhaps we've evolved to the point, that somekind of sickness was being spread thoughout most of the populace. Which in due time would be the downfall of it. Yup, something like rabbit or hare populations and the SET dynamics their population cycle displays. When applied science has determinded over, over and yet over again, a message that this populace couldn't accept or better yet couldn't grasp, well, something is diffently amiss... Isn't this a lot like "pissing in the wind"? Damn good thing you don't seem to tire easily from being wet, John.........

At this point, maybe it's a good time to go back and reread, "Adams Story", once again. Again, this is the very best, most realistic scenario that I've came by regarding the future 50 years out.

Moving on, "Half the surviving populations in the nations with remaining fossils fuels, and 90% of the others, laborers at subsistance argiculture, and most of the remainder work in factories converting salvaged materials into needed goods with HAND tools." Ok, this is following the Olduvia Theory to the tee. I agree.

The Olduvia Theory was first introduced by Richard C. Duncan, in 1989. A full 15 years earlier, back at the old school house, the instructors had very much the same notion, in mind. Exactly, to be accurate, however they came about this in a different way other than energy per captia, (they perfered to keep this in the most simplest of terms to where a child could understand this).

One point, I'd like to drive across here,(not to you, John), is that once electrical generation has been decoupled from strong machines(machines made from uniform parts, not HAND built parts, think heavy machinery, pc's, freezers, microwave ovens, water pumps, almost EVERYTHING we have to make daily life possible today for over 300 million Americans), then at that point, it cannot support the society IT created. We're talking about a loss of technology (an applied science), that has be decoupled one way or another from resource.

Ok, thus far, anyone care to agrue this point? If not, I'll continue, with my thoughts what will be the likely course of consequences once this has happened.....Oh,rest assured this isn't some little pipe dream of thoughts of a little bit of power here and a little bit of power there, supporting 300 million either, nor loosing a little bit at a time(reversing).

Thanks, yooper

Caryl said...

Another excellent and thoughtful post, thanks JMG. Also hello to friends Sam Norton and Toomas!
I like your idea of incorporating useful aspects of scientific knowledge into the Druid (or any other) tradition - I believe this will be a necessary stage in the harnessing and "humanizing" of science.
Ultimately, though, my question comes down to a consideration of the differences - and similarities - between scientific knowledge and moral knowledge. I think advanced civilization is about to hit a reef and the issue is whether we can develop real moral forces to deal with it.
Part of this "moral knowledge" will involve a re-evaluation of science as we have come to know it. Take, for example, the Ptolemaic system - which in actual fact was about as accurate as the Copernican system.
In "physical" terms the geocentric theory may not be true (although Robert Sungenis does a great job of arguing it in his fascinating book, Galileo Was Wrong) but in historical terms - that is, in terms of history - it may well be true. Do we know of any other life-bearing planets? No. Is there any other reality where history and the development of thought and consciousness exist except our own? Not that we know of.
A direct, participatory, empirical and honest science could therefore postulate geocentrism quite honorably and in terms of the best models of science.
This is but one example - albeit an important one - of the kind of thinking that needs to be done for a "moral knowledge" or "moral science" -- "moral" being the term that expresses the mores, the mutuality of our relation to the things-that-are.

yooper said...

Hello John! After thinking about where I should continue on my thoughts of "Saving Science", perhaps it's best to turn away from the wind (in an attempt, to prevent of getting even wetter than I already am?)

A very, very bright man emailed me yesterday from Oregon. Gee, this guy even has an acute deep appreciation of dandelions...He can't be all that bad, eh? Anyway this man's deep concern was with what's happening now in the midwest, with all the rain and flooding.

"On a broader scale, the midwest weather will probably have an enormous impact on world politics. People need to have air, water, food, and shelter to survive. The bread basket isn't going to have a bumper crop this year. In fact, it looks like it will be a downright dismal harvest. With all the ethanol plants and the other demands for energy, corn for food will be a luxury that 3rd worlders can't afford. They will protest and force their governments to take action. That action will impact everyone. When people have nothing left, they have nothing to lose. Then, they attack in order to survive." Indeed.

Isn't this a lot like your thought's,"Worldwide, dozens of nations have collapsed into violent anarchy, and whole populations are on the move as sea level rises and rain belts shift."

Forgive me, but I don't see "Science Saving" us any time soon, in preventing such scenarios. Like you, I'm seriously questioning whether or not this applied science that we have created for ourselves (actually creating more of ourselves) is worth saving at all....

Perhaps, sometime in the future (many, many generations from now) our specie will better determine what science is worth saving?

Thanks, yooper

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

Just bear with me for a while please, this does have a lot of bearing on saving science.

You suggest that “the Singularity is simply another rehash of the same old fantasy of apocalyptic redemption dressed up in technological drag” and that is no doubt true for many of its enthusiasts, but it also has a respectable, main-stream science version, though in this case it should probably be called an Event Horizon.

An Event Horizon, in terms of human culture or technology, is simply a stage where conditions are so different that they could not be predicted from a given preceding period. I know that some have all sorts of transcendental expectations of the next one, with much of the excitement being stirred up by the likelihood that it will occur over a few decades rather than a few thousand years as the last one did, but in reality that is all it is.

Yes, the last one! We’ve had at least one already.

Doubt this? Well, let’s consider the wonderful cultures of Ice Age Western Europe. We’ve known for a long time from their cave paintings that they were no simple, ignorant savages and now more recent finds, such as one exquisite mammoth ivory spear thrower in the shape of a deer which looks like something out of one of the better Renaissance Italian art workshops, along with evidence of weaving, shows just how advanced they were.

Yet, there is no way any of them could have imagined the life of a Manhattan investment banker or corporate lawyer. The lives of the banker and lawyer are over an Event Horizon you see, one that probably arrived with agriculture and cities: The more educated citizens of the great ancient cities probably could imagine such lives because they were on our side of it.

Yet, yet, take a young couple from the Upper Paleolithic in your time machine to our New York, give them a little help settling in, and I have no doubt within a year or two he’ll be driving a taxi and she’ll be starting to sell her art work and establish a name. Their children will probably grow up to be bankers and lawyers.

It’s not a matter of intelligence, people can and do step across Event Horizons.

The thing a lot of the “apocalyptic redemption” type enthusiasts forget is that the whole point of an Event Horizon is that you cannot see into it from any time much before, though as you get closer you might start to get some vague impressions.

For example, back in the 70s and 80s it was seen as being a single, worldwide event though centered in the USA with by far the key technology being Strong Artificial Intelligence (AI). Resource depletion (Peak Everything) was hardly recognized.

Oh how things have changed!

It’s increasingly looking like the USA will not be the centre and that Strong AI is a “hard” problem and we may not get it till long after any Event Horizon, if ever. On the other hand, Resource Depletion is becoming a main player, not only limiting what can be done, but forcing a desperate crescendo of new technology as nations like China race to blast past simple, resource hungry industry into technologies that use far fewer resources – say, mobile phones and pocket computers rather than cheap sledge hammers (though I love the set of Chinese sledge hammers I bought).

The really big changes that make for an Event Horizon are starting to look nothing like we expected, for example, giving every poor, third world farmer or laborer (and more importantly his/her children) a mobile phone and cheap little pocket computer with access to the Internet. That seems to be coming and it’s going to change the world just as much as Strong AI would have, perhaps more.

I’m becoming convinced it isn’t going to be a choice between catabolic collapse, catastrophic collapse or technological singularity, rather it is going to be jagged combinations of all three with huge variations between the mix and details in different areas.

So John, this is the core of where I agree and disagree with you. Yes, I think catabolic collapse will be important, but I think it will be only part of a very complex and chaotic process.

If I’m right this probably does not change the micro picture much at all, the best ways to get yourself and your people through still involves things like being part of a community of friends with useful skills, not having big debts, producing some of your own food, not having to commute large distances to work and being flexible, willing and able to do what is necessary and available.

Oh! And a stock of ammo and beans just might, in some places, at some times, be useful (see, everyone gets to play).

The macro picture, however, changes a lot. What things are going to be like depends a lot on big picture stuff like what our local and national governments do, if they are captured by special interest groups (like the currently ascendant obscenely wealthy), what public ideology the ordinary people accept (the current one seems pretty ugly as you’d expect from it’s source).

And this goes doubly for science!

I think it is less a problem of preserving some science and more a matter or preventing science from being captured by at best narrow interest groups, and at worst by some very ugly people who do not have our interests at heart.

So, sorry folks, but I think it’s back to the 60’s and back to the barricades. A lot of the bad things that have happened over the past decades such as the replacement of the beginnings of energy and resource conservation with “hysteria of greed” consumerism, the looting of the financial and economic systems by insiders and the capture of the political process and media by the very wealthy and their sycophants in large part happened because we, the people, stopped being active in public affairs.

Saving science is going to take political pressure, real input, interest, time and effort from us. It will also involve pushing uphill against powerful, wealthy established interests who will do anything to retain their wealth and power, a realization that is gradually dawning on many across the blog sphere.

The results of not doing this could be horrific, nothing less than a new feudalism where the peasants are not only utterly unable to challenge their masters, but, unlike medieval serfs, are almost valueless to them. Any guess what happens next.

That is what science can and will do if it is captured by the wrong people.

Save science.

RAS said...

JMG, that was my point: that it will be the practical branches of science that survive, if at all. There's no sense trying to save nanotechnology, for instance -but I certainly hope we can save permaculture, herbal knowledge, and the ability to remove an appendix!

Megan said...

This is not so much a train of thought as a bunch of uncoupled boxcars of thought.

* Religions preserve knowledge as a means, not an end - astronomy and math as a means to ritual calendars, engineering and fine arts as a means to fine temples, languages and history as a means to interpreting ancient lore, botany and chemistry as a means to performing healing functions. Likewise, priestly elites (here I include monastic communities, etc) tend to preserve knowledge, not necessarily because they have the motive, but because they have the means and opportunity: a concentration of knowledge professionals, and a means of supporting them that leaves them time and resources to devote to research.

* Science as an academic discipline is designed to be as transparent as possible, because this allows for the establishment of 'public fact'. Publishing a step-by-step account of your methods and reasoning, and inviting a jury of your peers to examine your results, gives those results a certain basic credibility. (This method of creating 'public fact' is arguably the foundation of the discipline; see 'Leviathan and the Air Pump')

However, modern science is increasingly opaque to the average layperson - indistinguishable from magic, as the wise author said. Scientific journals are written for an 'insider' audience; popular press articles give the results but tend to gloss over the procedure; most advanced technology is a 'black box' which does not reward experimental tinkering. In such an environment a person may retain a keen interesting in the /results/ of science - science-as-a-product - but feel mostly excluded from the process of inquiry - science-as-a-method.

Likewise, science as it is taught in schools consists almost exclusively of familiarizing students with science-as-product, and teaching them some of the technical skills of science-as-profession. If your focus is on passing on information, doing so directly is much more efficient than coaxing students through the process of experimentally 'reinventing the wheel'; in this mindset, science-as-method is a necessary evil, needed to gather new information but happily unnecessary thereafter. It's true that this system passes on far more information than an individual could hope to gather through their own efforts, and much of this information is valuable; but the ability to gather and test information through our own efforts is far more so.

Saving science, I think, will come from giving amateurs the ability to learn something genuinely new through experience - to be the agents, rather than the audience, of science. Ironically, a post-peak world should be chock-full of opportunities to do just that, whether you like it or not. Your suggestions above about observing changing ecosystems is excellent, and important; learning the workings of simpler, more transparent technology will be another one.

* A final thought, about Stephen's singularity. Our host often expresses skepticism and frustration with the idea of a Brave New World waiting just around the corner. I think he is well justified in this, since 'new world' scenarios tend to be more about what we wish would happen than about what looks likely. However, I think this meme does draw on two ideas which /are/ important to bear in mind, though with major caveats.

One is that, in one sense, the world is ending and beginning again all the time. Some of the elderly Japanese who died at Hiroshima had grown up in the latter days of a feudal society, and raised children in a 'Victorian' one; they had seen not one but two 'worlds' end in their own lifetime. But worlds generally do not end abruptly and altogether; they run together, unless you take some significant event (the death of an emperor, the day gas hit X price) as the dividing line. When the Brave New World arrives, you won't know it at first.

Secondly, the future is never just a continuation of current trends; speculative fiction would not become laughably dated so quickly if it were. Things can, and often do, come out of left field and change the entire picture - insert your favourite 20th century example here. It's true, then, that we should expect the unexpected, and that we can't forsee what effect the unexpected will have. However, this doesn't mean we can ignore current conditions, because the world 'as we know it' will be the canvas on which these unforseeable changes make their mark. Thus the unknown future will still have much of the known present in its makeup. You never get to start with a blank slate; the Brave New World will be built from the recycled parts, not the ashes, of the old. It always has been before.

John Michael Greer said...

Anthony, a narrative of scientific history could be a very powerful tool. Science has not yet found its epic poet, which is a pity; it's a heck of a story, and deserves better than the pedestrian prose it's been given so far.

As for the Tarot deck, that's also an interesting idea. The Tarot was invented in Milan in the second decade of the 15th century, and encoded most of the worldview of the Italian Renaissance; this was then misidentified in the late 18th century as "Egyptian wisdom" and unpacked by occultists in France and Britain. The challenge of turning the basic ideas of modern science into a manageable game, though, would be a fairly steep one.

Yooper, I'm not arguing. I've been saying all along that the current population of the world is going to decline, over the next couple of centuries, to a very small fraction of its present level, and that a collapse of public health will play a major role in that.

Caryl, one thing that I've hesitated to address, but will probably have to deal with one of these days, is that the worldview of modern science is not amoral but rather antimoral -- almost psychopathically so. I think it was Richard Tarnas who pointed out that the fundamental claim of modern scientism, the belief that meaning and consciousness only exist inside human brains, is a projection of meaninglessness on the universe motivated by the will to power; only if you convince yourself that you live in a dead and meaningless universe, after all, can you then argue that the blind pursuit of cravings is the highest goal of life.

Yooper, I've heard the same claim that the recent Midwestern floods will cause mass starvation, rampaging mobs, etc. Have you noticed that for the last thirty years, every imaginable event from Comet Kohoutek to the Y2K problem was also supposed to cause mass death, rampaging mobs, etc.? None of them did so. Your friend should spend more time studying dandelions and less time getting caught up in apocalyptic fantasies.

Stephen, it's easy to imagine event horizons in retrospect, but it took fourteen thousand years to make the transition between the Magdalenian cave artists and New York City stockbrokers, and I see no evidence of any event horizon dividing them -- just millennia of slow change, any century of which would be well within the grasp of any individual. As for rushing to the barricades, people have been doing that for centuries -- complete with the same sort of overheated rhetoric of fear that drives the claims of imminent feudalism you're making here -- and the result is always simply the replacement of one set of entrenched elites with another, and usually a more brutal, one. There's a reason the word "revolution" literally means "going around in circles."

Ras, thanks for clarifying. Of course you're quite right.

Megan, loose boxcars or not, they have useful cargo. It's exactly the transformation of science as profession into an elite that deliberately excludes the general public from its debates that has, I think, played the largest role in making science as desperately vulnerable as it is today. As for the role of the unexpected in the future, of course the future won't be what we think -- which is one of the reasons I object to claims that the future will necessarily follow the apocalyptic and progressive fantasies that have stocked our science fiction bookshelves for so many decades now.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Greer: “but it took fourteen thousand years to make the transition between the Magdalenian cave artists and New York City stockbrokers, and I see no evidence of any event horizon dividing them”.

Yes John, but it took a much shorter time to go from hunter gatherers to farmers with the first sizable cities, perhaps less than 2,000 years. The breakthrough technologies were agriculture and the administration of large numbers of people (largely Kingship).

That is the Event Horizon, the transition to an utterly different way of living, one that for internal reasons had to keep changing and developing and one that contained, from the beginning, the seeds of all that followed. That development then slowly spread (some might say like a cancer) eliminating all hunter gathers with the last remnants being “cleaned up” in the Twentieth Century in places like Australia.

Notice that I don’t see the Industrial Revolution as an Event Horizon, though many would argue that it was. This is because I see it as just a natural continuation of the development of agriculture and administration, in fact, one that happened rather late: There were a couple of near misses before 18th century England and it easily could have happened, say, in China much earlier.

John Greer::” As for rushing to the barricades, people have been doing that for centuries -- complete with the same sort of overheated rhetoric of fear that drives the claims of imminent feudalism you're making here -- and the result is always simply the replacement of one set of entrenched elites with another, and usually a more brutal, one. There's a reason the word "revolution" literally means "going around in circles.”

You might really want to rethink that statement John. Sometimes you get Stalin and sometimes George Washington. Do nothing and you are stuck under the heel of the nobility, dictator or whatever forever, a heel that is usually getting unbearably heavy which is when revolutions tend to happen..

Of course, what we normally mean by “rushing to the barricades” these days is political involvement. We tried it in the 70s and, as I’ll be the first to say, made some mistakes. Then we tried not doing it in the 90s and that turned out to be an even bigger mistake.

By the way, the same thing applies to elected representatives: Very often once in office they turn out to be very different to what was promised while they were campaigning. Here in Australia we’ve had two in a row like that, though it may have had the good effect of making the current ruling party, Labor (slightly left centrist) much less enthusiastic about Presidential style prime ministers and more willing to pull the current one into line.

As for “overheated rhetoric of fear that drives the claims of imminent feudalism you're making here”, well, a lot of very well qualified and pretty mainstream authorities think things really are different this time, in short because they expect the utility/economic value of the common man to decrease. And, of course, technology is providing some lovely toys if what you want to do is control large numbers of people.

Stephen Heyer said...

megan: “Likewise, priestly elites (here I include monastic communities, etc) tend to preserve knowledge, not necessarily because they have the motive, but because they have the means and opportunity: a concentration of knowledge professionals, and a means of supporting them that leaves them time and resources to devote to research.”

Thanks megan. I hadn’t thought of that but it explains a number of things that have puzzled me about the preservation of not only Classical knowledge, but also vast amounts of other knowledge, such as histories of Saxon England, that would seem to be of little practical interest to later administrations.

I also think megan’s comments on science are pretty much spot on.

If the coming decades are more severe than I expect I think megan is right about amateurs having an important role to play.

Ditto for the stuff on the singularity, except I’d say that what megan is talking about is event horizons rather than singularities. On a personal bases the world does begin and end for people all the time and personal event horizons are rather common, I’ve had two major ones in my long life.

Isis said...

Just a quick note. JMG, you said:

"Caryl, one thing that I've hesitated to address, but will probably have to deal with one of these days, is that the worldview of modern science is not amoral but rather antimoral -- almost psychopathically so. I think it was Richard Tarnas who pointed out that the fundamental claim of modern scientism, the belief that meaning and consciousness only exist inside human brains, is a projection of meaninglessness on the universe motivated by the will to power; only if you convince yourself that you live in a dead and meaningless universe, after all, can you then argue that the blind pursuit of cravings is the highest goal of life."

Well, I for one hope you do treat this question in depth in one of your future posts; I'd be very, very interested in reading your views on the subject. And if you have any ideas about how this sorry state of affairs could be fixed, that would be even better.

Bill Pulliam said...

I'm imagining a mystery initiation, wondering where it would be held and what sacred objects would be revealed. A temple constructed in the ruins of the Smithsonian, perhaps? A graphical proof of the Pythagorean theorem, a peek through a microscope, a peek through a telescope, and a t-test? And for the highest level initiates, a passion play demonstrating the fundamentals of relativity culminating with the derivation of the equivalence of matter and energy?

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John

Could I also vote with isis that you explore your statement that the “worldview of modern science is not amoral but rather antimoral -- almost psychopathically” further in a later article.


John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, I don't know what books on the origins of agriculture you've been reading, but the ones I read suggest that deliberate planting and harvesting of edible plants may well go back as far as 40,000 BCE; field agriculture was in existence in the Middle East by 9,000 BCE; while kingship in its historic form is a creation of the Bronze Age, and thus dates from around 4000 BCE at the very earliest. Heck of a lot more than 2000 years -- and even so, 2000 years is orders of magnitude more time than the historical eyeblink that singularity theory allows.

As for my comment on revolutions, I stand by it. The American Revolution transferred power to a homegrown aristocracy -- the majority of white male Americans couldn't vote in the elections that put Washington into the White House, for example. The reforms that made American democracy what it once was emerged gradually thereafter.

Finally, yes, I'm aware that there are plenty of people using the bogeyman of incipient feudalism as part of the rhetoric of fear current on the left these days (the right has its own collection of scary sock puppets, of course). Mind you, the rich are getting clobbered as the economy comes apart -- who do you think owns all those hedge funds? -- and historically, the upper classes of a declining civilization have roughly the chance of survival of the proverbial snowball in Beelzebub's back yard, but in the meantime, they make great scapegoats.

Bill, the technology of one age is the mystery cult of the next, so your speculations may not be so far off.

Isis (and Stephen), I'll certainly consider it.

Sam Norton said...

Isis, Stephen - my two pennies on why science, in our society, can tend to the pathological. (I'm sure John's reasons are different, and probably more cogent!)

Science has customarily been described as an ‘objective’ discipline. I would argue that the scientific method is better characterised as an emotional disengagement from the material being studied. This emotional distancing is at heart a spiritual discipline, one with roots in Christian and Stoic thinking about controlling the emotions: apatheia (apathism – the structured denial of emotion, apathist, apathistic). I therefore think that the most precise description of scientific investigation comes from talking about the apathistic stance underlying all such enquiry.

However, when this is seen as the concluding means for obtaining truth, all the most important elements of human existence are excluded. If we consider recent research and thinking in the philosophy of mind and related fields (the ones I'm familiar with are principally Antonio Damasio and Martha Nussbaum) then to put science to good use we require wisdom and judgement – emotional intelligence – which necessitates an emotional engagement, and which is therefore, of necessity, non-scientific. This has historically been supplied by religious traditions such as Christianity (or Druidism presumably), and a central part of such wisdom traditions is precisely their ability to inculcate and develop emotional intelligence.

However, as a result of particular historical circumstances, our culture has hugely developed the capacity for apatheia but lost the capacity to integrate the insights generated into a larger spiritual discipline. Put simply, apatheia – science - is unable to supply any answers to questions of meaning, to guide us as to what is considered important – it is blind to ‘the seriousness of life’.

This pathological feature I summarise in a neologism – asophic, adj. meaning not connected with wisdom. I believe that contemporary Western society is built upon asophic foundations, and the effects are well known, especially amongst people who read this blog!

It seems to me that the spiritual roots of scientific endeavour need to be acknowledged and affirmed; in so doing the re-integration of science within the broader framework of Christian (or other wisdom tradition) understandings can proceed, with profound benefits to both forms of enquiry.

Sam Norton said...

And I've just read this post which seems relevant!

Heteromeles said...

I just discovered this blog, and I'm enjoying reading it.

Two comments. One is that I'm an OBOD druid, and also a professional ecologist. It's nice to see that other druids practice the same type of science that I like, and it's worth repeating ad nauseum that you can do good, publishable science with a measuring tape, notebook and a pair of eyes (and yes, I have). The social structure of most institutions requires us to use the most expensive machinery available (because of the benefits of taking 40% overhead towards running the institution). However, science itself doesn't need expensive tools, and there's plenty of cheap research done in the natural sciences.

The second comment is that I think the critique of "Lovelock's Bible" is overly harsh. While I don't remember the fantasy novel I saw it in, a modern character was transfered to a standard medievalloid fantasy universe, and when he was trying to make workable guns, he said he'd kill for a copy of the CRC handbook. I'd say that the old CRC handbook of Chemistry and Physics is quite close to Lovelock's Bible already. It includes not only the laws, but also hundreds of tables of the properties of all elements for instance, as well as data on the planets and many other things. Obviously such information can be recompiled empirically, but only at the cost of millions of dollars. I hope CRC starts printing those handbooks on archival paper, because it's too useful to lose, whether you're an astrophysicist or a post-collapse village recycling smith working with a slide rule.

My 0.02 cents,