Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Ecology of Social Change

Last week’s Archdruid Report post was a bit of a departure from this blog’s normal fare, but it was a departure with a purpose. By turning a spotlight on the way that so many Americans have projected what amounts to a paranoid mythology of incarnate evil onto whichever side of the political spectrum they don’t inhabit, I hoped to begin a conversation about the immense gap between expectation and reality that hamstrings most attempts at constructive social change, in America as elsewhere.

I have to say that the true believers in the mythology responded to their cue with a great deal of enthusiasm. I received a bumper crop of angry screeds assailing me, in lively and in some cases unprintable language, for suggesting that people should be judged by their actions rather than the intentions imputed to them by their most bitter enemies. My favorite among these comments rounded off a thumping denunciation by demanding that I resign at once from my position as archdruid. The author never quite got around to explaining why acceptance of his extremist ideology should be so vital a part of my job description, so I didn’t take his advice.

Now it so happens that I spent much of the weekend reading Carl Jung’s memorably weird autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and so it was hard to miss the relevance of Jung’s concept of shadow projection to all this. The shadow is Jung’s name for the mental dumpster into which individuals and societies stuff the aspects of themselves they dare not face; when the dumpster gets too full, one refuge from self-knowledge lies in tipping its contents onto someone else, and claiming that the objectionable qualities belong to the scapegoat rather than oneself.

It needs to be recognized in this context that it’s only in modern morality plays that scapegoats are invariably virtuous and innocent. In the real world, it often happens that the person targeted has his own faults, sometimes grievous ones, and that these are routinely used to justify whatever other accusations are heaped on him. This process seems universal among human beings – I very much doubt any of us are entirely free of the habit of seeing our own worst qualities in the people we dislike – but its intensity varies between individuals, cultures, and historical periods, and Jung is surely right to point out that it reaches peaks when an individual or a society get caught in the gap between what the world is assumed to be and what it actually is.

Survey any of the major historic outbreaks of mass scapegoating and violence and you’ll find it in a context where socially acceptable belief systems failed to keep up with a changing world. Behind the European witch hunts, for example, lay the collapse of late medieval worldviews that hardened into dogma as they were cracking apart at the seams, just as the fatal mismatch between German fantasies of global dominion and Germany’s actual status as a little country without oil reserves or defensible borders in an age of sprawling petroleum-fueled empires played a major role in setting the stage for its catastrophic 20th-century history.

What makes the situation in contemporary America interesting, from this perspective, is the way that its mainstream culture and its self-described alternative countercultures have fallen into versions of the same double-bind. Many posts here, and of course quite a bit of excellent analysis by other authors, have outlined the way that the narratives of the cultural mainstream in contemporary America built a worldview of perpetual progress and limitless abundance on the temporary foundation of cheap fossil fuels, and have been made hopelessly irrelevant by the end of the petroleum age. Less often discussed and, I believe, less often noticed is the way that most current proposals meant to replace the current order of society with a better one also rest on beliefs about the world that hold up very poorly in the face of experience.

The mismatch here can best be traced along a specific fault line dividing future visions from present realities. Page through any recent proposal for substantive social change and odds are that the better world it envisions is usually, at least in theory, better in terms of every variable its authors consider relevant. There are rarely any tradeoffs, or any sense of the bitter choices that so often constrain the decisions of real societies in the real world; the inhabitants of the better future do not have to choose between peace and freedom, between feeding the hungry and protecting the environment, or indeed between any two values; given the right social system, the implication seems to be, you can have it all.

Consider the ways in which these same proposals hope to bring about the change they envision and the same fracture opens up. Whether they put their faith in organization, political action and the like, or expect some deus ex machina, whether cataclysmic or mystical, to sweep away the old order of things and leave the field clear for the future to be born, nearly all of them assume that the only obstacles to a Utopian society, the only factors that force hard choices on people, are the institutions, individuals, or attitudes governing today’s world.

These curious habits of thought unfold from a single assumption: that human choices and only human choices place limits on the perfection of human society. Back of this assumption lies the prestige of the Enlightenment cult of reason, with its conviction that building a better social mousetrap will cause the world to beat a path to your Utopian door. Yet it’s hard to think of an assumption that has been more thoroughly disproved by experience. Consistently, the more Utopian a new society has appeared on paper, the more disastrous it has turned out to be in practice. Proponents of social change tend to insist that their new society will be different, but at this point in history, that insistence is starting to wear very thin.

The crucial flaw in most of today’s ideas about social change, then, may just be that – even when they wrap themselves in environmental slogans – they are rooted in a fundamental denial of ecology. Imagine for a moment that instead of a human society, we are talking about some other ecosystem composed of living things. That ecosystem has evolved over many generations in relationship to other systems, animate and inanimate, and it maintains itself by complex balances that challenge any attempt at analysis. What happens when human beings set out to reengineer the ecosystem to suit their own preferences, especially if they assume as a matter of course that their new ecosystem will necessarily be stable, balanced, and healthy if it is pleasing to them?

Of course we don’t have to speculate about the answer; the catastrophic results of human mismanagement of natural ecosystems are far too well documented. Our species has learned the hard way, over and over again, that tinkering with an ecosystem needs to be done with exquisite care. It can be done – traditional societies all over the world have evolved ways of shaping their environments for human benefit that still maintain the overall integrity of the ecosystem, and today’s permaculturists and students of appropriate technology are moving in the same direction – but it can only be done in small steps, with a great deal of knowledge and an even greater supply of patience.

I am coming to suspect that exactly the same thing is true of human societies. The discipline of human ecology has shown that the same principles that shape the environmental relationships of other species and other communities also apply to our species and our communities. Like these other living things, human beings depend for their survival on natural cycles, and are subject to natural limits. Like the communities of other living things, human communities – from villages to nations – are shaped by their history, adapt to their environments, face hard choices between competing goods, and respond homeostatically in order to counter movements toward disruptive change.

Thus social change is possible, just as environmental change is possible, but it may need to be pursued in a very different spirit from the one that motivates the Utopian ideologies of the present and the recent past. If we are to take human ecology seriously, it seems to me, it’s time to start trying to understand the ecological conditions – the relationships linking human beings to each other, to other living things, and to inanimate nature – that foster desirable social changes. Then, in the manner of tribal gardeners carefully replacing noxious plants with edible ones, those who desire those changes might work to bring about those conditions, keeping an eye on the results and letting experience rather than ideology guide their efforts.

As far as I know, the art of applied human ecology or social ecotechnics suggested here exists only in the most embryonic form, and no little effort will be needed even to begin the process of evolving it. Still, the attempt to better society by remaking it according to some ideological model or other has failed so consistently that it’s high time to try something else.


Jacques de Beaufort said...

Or it could be that human ecological processes are not primarily of the self-reflexive variety, and that social change (control), however desired, occurs more as an emergent byproduct of unconscious (and other) forces acting largely on their own.

If reason and ideology have failed in their stated mission, it is precisely because they have not mapped the Jungian Shadow onto the model of causality that shapes human choices. After all, how could they ? Reason is not a method for understanding that which is unreasonable.

If a Utopia is not the necessary destination that we seek, then perhaps we can work towards a more balanced state in which the dynamic flux of nature is part of our worldview. Perhaps we will get there wether we try or not.

Christian Scientism and monotheistic ideology in particular seems to be the root source and present vessel for an attitude in which we constantly search for closure and certainty. In its zeal to carve out an existential domain for the Individual, Renaissance Humanism made men believe that they were God and could master the earth.

To the natural world its irrelevant whether or not we take a particular attitude towards our shared ecological realities, but it may lead towards a more peaceful and less volatile relationship. Time will tell.
Mostly we just need to be more Zen about the whole deal.

Robert Magill said...

Wow! Your description of Carl Jung's memoir as "memorably weird" struck home with me. In 1971 when I first read it (the recall of this still gives me pain) I was devastated. After years of wading through his incredibly dense tomes(was Alan Greenspan channeling Jung?) the sudden shock of finding my hero to be a garden variety mystic was appalling. Yes, I know people were panning his work as "too mystical" for decades but I attributed that to the Freud/Jung controversy. Not so, they were right about the mysticism.
In no way should this be taken as criticism of the singular and epic body of work he, as no other, has accomplished. It's strictly a personal reaction to one's longtime hero suddenly exposed as human and not the pure scientist I had projected him to be. (Still pissed thinking about it.)

Bill Pulliam said...

John Michael --

I was wondering a couple of things. First, can you point out some times in history when scapegoating/shadow projection was at a lull, and not such a central part of social discourse? I mean this as a simple and honest question, not an aggressive challenge. None leap to my mind right away, but you are far better read in the sociology, politics, and philosophy of the last few centuries than I am so I appeal to your expertise.

On a related note, I get bored and frustrated with the utopian /dystopian (that second word and it's faulty etymology grate on me, but we seem to be stuck with it) dichotomy of futuristic fiction. Are their some prime examples of writers who avoid this trap and imagine future worlds that are painted with a broader palette than just black and white?

Hmmm.. those sound a bit like essay questions for your written comprehensive exams; I won't be grading your answers!

Frank Gifford said...

Thanks for your post, JMG. Perhaps attempting to effect social change without ecological change is really having the horse way out in front of the cart. Reading William Catton Jr.'s brilliant ecological analysis of Homo Colossus led me to conclude we are well into ecological overshoot, and probably have been since the "Enlightenment" or before. All of the experimentation in social change you make reference to has really happened within the context of a continuation of the accelerating conversion of diverse biomass into human biomass. Can a species act without dysfunction in a context of ecological dysfunction?

Perhaps if we were able to understand our fundamental problems as resource stringency, over population, environmental degradation, and climate change (really another way of saying "ecological overshoot"), and set about correcting the imbalances, a functional human culture would follow. Maybe you are really saying the same thing? Thanks, Frank from EntropyPawsed

Matthijs said...

Hi John, great article as always.

Your view on things is a rarity these days of technological optimism and apocalyptic doomsters. I've began reading The Long Descent last weekend, very interesting and thought provocative work. Too bad I have to buy all the excellent books from abroad, they don't sell those here in Holland.

I noticed that you mention some books in your posts every now and then. Since I agree with your view on things, I was wondering if you might want to post a list of books that you would recommend reading or are currently reading? On topics like history, growth, permaculture and peak oil.

Thanks in advance,

Third Chimp said...

Having been interested in the general topics discussed here for a while, and by actively looking for new understandings about our predicament, I think my Jungian dumpster has managed to overflow a few less times than it might otherwise. Convenient scapegoats (for me) include those still promulgating the endless growth meme.
But having spent much of my lifetime being paid to think of ways to make stuff come out of factories quicker, it has been a journey to get where I am now, my days filled with making compost, and trying to find out if I really can, in any practical way, stop tilling.
Since I am on the hunt for first principles of how to live, not even presuming that these can remain constant for our species over time, you might see that I find more solid ground when we’re looking at things from an anthropological viewpoint.
For instance, while learning of dominant themes of thought at various times, I can’t still the little voice that wonders if, on a mass scale, we just believe whatever philosophy rationalizes behaviors that are more fundamentally determined by ecological circumstance. In much the same way as individuals seem to. We stumble upon a massive storehouse of ancient energy, and presto – we live by a paradigm of limitless growth. When we inhabit a world whose natural forces and interconnections we don’t understand too much, its clear that the gods do whatever they like, whenever they like and you better not expose yourself to trouble with them.
Did new philosophies give rise to discovery/invention - our progress ? Or did a toolmaker critter stumble upon a repeatable improvement that could be passed down culturally – together with a twist in the conventional mythology that accommodates the innovation ? This chicken_egg question could be debated, but perhaps I can step around it by accepting on evidence the idea that species adapt whether they think about it consciously or not. Why would we be any different? So I am pretty much in the camp that circumstances have primacy, and they drive normal behaviours, which drives an explanation. Corner case exceptions can likely be found, I expect. So philosophy still matters of course, since we’d rather not be stuck living by one that is simply a horrendous fit with circumstance – people tend to behave badly then.
Today’s post is exciting to me because this your line of thinking has the potential to help with a lot of all this. I will not believe that scientific knowledge is inherently evil, but clearly it has been taken and applied in the most gross fashion resulting in – well, what we see around us. It’s as if we’ve taken a bite from a second apple on the knowledge tree, and have not become any wiser after consuming the first one. The scientific mode of thought method is the very tool (we stumbled upon) that permits us to understand the webs of life more fully. It must be de-coupled from the hubris that permits us to rush out and apply our discoveries before understanding where the threads lead and the consequences of severing them. As you know, there is a growing danger that we will throw away this tool because we think only bad things can be made with it. Social ecology has the prospect of a better fit with our circumstance, since it can bridge the practical discovery of ecology with an improved “how to live” stories that we very much need. Thanks, once again.

John Michael Greer said...

Jacques, good. C. Wright Mills talks about "fate" -- by which he means the sum total of the unintended consequences of human action -- as one of the potent and unrecognized forces shaping the future.

Robert, that's ironic. When I first read Jung's autobiography I was delighted to find somebody who had the same kinds of experiences that have always shaped my life.

Bill, projecting the shadow is always a central fact of political discourse, because the shadow is the archetype of the enemy; any time you have conflict, the shadow is involved. The question is simply how many people are caught up in the extreme forms of it, and that's the thing that varies over time.

As for less dualistic visions of the future, there are quite a few of them -- Edgar Pangborn's work in particular comes to mind.

Frank, one of the points I've been trying to suggest here is that we can't fix our relationship to our environment except by tackling the dysfunctional narratives and misunderstood mythologies we project onto the biosphere.

Matthijs, thank you! A list of books -- hmm. That might be worth a post all by itself.

OneCrazyMama said...

It is probably more practical right now to think of "workable" solutions rather than daydream of utopias.

The funny thing about human thinking is that dystopias and utopias never really exist anywhere the mind. Human thought shifts the fact of what merely "is" into the categories "good" and "evil".

Take for example, disease. We think diseases are evil because they harm us and often send our loved ones into the interminable void of death. But, in reality, a disease is an organism just trying to go about its business. It simply "is". The fact your loved one was harmed is unfortunate, but is ultimately, an unintended consequence of the disease "being".

At the same time, maybe we have to categorize good and evil to reach something workable. Maybe the categorizing in itself is a necessary evil. Maybe reaching for Utopia is the only way to reach what is practicable.

We seek to live forever through better medicine, but the end result is better longevity rather than eternal life.

If society works in a similar way, maybe we have to irrationally reach beyond the realm of possibility just to find out what is really possible?

Just a thought, although not nearly so well articulated as your own. Thanks for the post. I know I'm not alone in saying they are both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

hapibeli said...

Yes to all of your post. Once humankind realizes that the earth was not made for us, we are always able to work with her and not try to dominate her. The earth will do as she is designed to do, and we can enjoy the ride and gain a better understanding of our reality if we will listen, observe, and act in concert with her.

Edde said...

Hi John,

I enjoy your blog.

I'm not an academic - got run out of grad school by the FBI. For real. As a consequence, I enjoy the "academic" conversations on your blog plus the civility of it all.

I'm a reader. I, too,would enjoy a comprehensive list of books, as mentioned above. Although the more I read the more ignorant I understand I am.

You use language very precisely. Is your human ecology also known as social ecology?

I'm a cherry picker, not a true believer, a worshipper at the church of what is...

Again, THANKS for many hours of thought provoking reading.


mary said...

JMG this is a wonderful essay. You say
I am coming to suspect that exactly the same thing is true of human societies. The discipline of human ecology has shown that the same principles that shape the environmental relationships of other species and other communities also apply to our species and our communities. Like these other living things, human beings depend for their survival on natural cycles, and are subject to natural limits. Like the communities of other living things, human communities – from villages to nations – are shaped by their history, adapt to their environments, face hard choices between competing goods, and respond homeostatically in order to counter movements toward disruptive change.
I am struck by the "fault line" that runs through it. You jump to a discussion of human beings outside of their ecosystem, even though you reference the study of human ecology. This is, as you have pointed out often, the flaw that got modern societies into the pickle they are in! Of course we can imagine Utopias but until each of us can set the imagination aside and live in the now even if it is only for moments of the day, we will be chasing a fantasy.

in_the_light said...

Great post. I'm finding my weekly journey to this blog to be more and more a journey of transformation than one of reconfirming my present state of consciousness. Isn't that what education really is?

A note on the shadow concept. This is precisely what happened with the founding of our country and the rest of the western hemisphere by the Europeans. Before there was oil, there was the enslavement of Africans all over the New World. What is being turned to next as those vast, yet finite, reserves dwindle and become less profitable just as the slave trade's profitability became less and less profitable?

Living in Hawaii, I have a hilarious personal experience that mirrors this process in a very literal sense. Our dumpsters, mental too but specifically our garbage dumps, our full and soon to be overflowing. Current solution? Put it on a boat that follows the tourists home. We are now shipping our garbage to Oregon, Washington, and other places. What they do with it, I have no clue. Now, from my flawless and all inclusive perspective, I can breathe a great sigh of relief: Ahhh... problem solved. I feel much better now, don't you my mainland friends?


spottedwolf said...

One of the current aboriginal theaters of change has been instrumental for some years in trying to further the cause of social unity, change, and ecology on a worldwide scale. The Nisga people of the northwest coast of British Columbia never bowed to English/American/Canadian ruling structures since the first claims to their lands were made. They chose to fight this through negotiation virtually from the first. In the long battle for some form of self-governing structure their was an enormous amount of discussion on the issues you bring to table in this blog. Many North American native cosmologies hold keys to ancient parallels with what you address as Druid. The people of "Oak knowledge" were supposed to have had the power to interrupt conflict between warring factions and offer...even insist...on solutions to those in the 'old' lands. Your discussion is be sure.

spottedwolf said...

here's one more refernce for your perusal.

If I recall correctly it was Ben Franklin who, after studying the six-nation treaty, used much of that as formative for the original US constituion.

This treaty came about from the elder women of these six tribes deciding they'd witnessed too much loss of life among their families in continuous wars. They began communicating back and forth, reaching a consensus that threatened their menfolk with no more children (no sex) unless the wars of tradition ceased. I don't know all the details but the firm resolve of the elder women succeeded and established a trade
agreement instead.

My brother, Hapibeli, mentioned the fallacy of our fixation on "individualism" with the idea that it takes precedence over community and subsequently leads to serve autocratic attitudes.......which is exactly the problem with current western ideology. To put it simply.....we are all our "brothers keepers" and need to change the individualistic belief of inalienable right to include the clan at all extension.

spottedwolf said...

Oh..........and with respect to C. Wright Mills view on "fate".........there is the experiences of Guido Von List, during his loss of sight (1902-1903), translated by Stephen Flowers, Ph.D ( The Secret of the Runes)concerning the rune 'Beork'.

This aught to be right up your 'Druid' alley.....

John Michael Greer said...

Chimp, to my mind it's as incorrect to say that environmental conditions cause cultural ideas as it is to say the opposite. The two coevolve with one another, like any two factors in a complex system. Still, I'm glad you find these ideas useful.

Crazy Mama, of course Utopian thought has a place; my point is simply that it's been massively overdone, and it might be time to give it a breather.

Beli, well put.

Edde, you're welcome. Social ecology partly overlaps with human ecology, but they're not identical -- remember that social insects such as bees, as well as many other organisms, have their own societies that can be studied ecologically, just as ours can.

Mary, now you've got me puzzled. In what way do my comments refer to human societies outside of their ecosystems? I'd think the phrase "adapt to their environments" ought to cover that...

Matthew, thank you for an excellent story -- I'll doubtless use it in a book sometime. When will people grasp the fact that there is no such place as "away"?

Spotted Wolf, thank you. Of course the things that Druids teach aren't unique to us; every corner of the Earth and every human culture has its own nature spirituality. For that matter, we're still rebuilding our traditions, piecing together a circle that was blotted out a very long time ago by the Christian cross.

Yes, it was Franklin who drew on Six Nations traditions to help craft the Constitution. The original document was about half Hodenosaunee and the other half taken from the constitutions of the Freemasons -- both of them systems that had been evolved and tested by many hands over time, rather than being invented out of whole cloth in service to some particular ideology.

I'm familiar with von List's work, but very few people in the Western esoteric scene use his stuff these days, because the movement he set in motion turned very toxic after his death and became the guiding ideology of the founders of Nazism. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's The Occult Roots of Nazism is worth reading, not least as an example of the way that seemingly harmless ideas can spin out of control and unleash nightmares on the world.

Mark said...

These past two essays have had me thinking diligently about the role of my mind and it's patterns. Actually, I feel that last weeks essay allowed me to get rid of a lot of this junk stored in my brain, (the shadow as you mention) and I have been successfully performing transmutation rituals with intense releases of energy from my body.

Similarly, It seems that the way in which humans process the data of our civilization (and natures response thereof) and the mythology attached to it (dogmas, ideologies, cultural habits etc) is greatly the side effect of our disconnectedness, so-to-speak.

The western model of cognition is largely built upon this shadow junk of our mind. Many humans are sick because of this, because of the constant movement of toxic thoughts, images, memories, and emotions through one's mind. I find that in myself this is true. And I observe it in many, if not most others.

And perhaps that could be what has and is slowing down our responsiveness to ecological limits. A lot of pain is stored in the caches of our mind, and I think much of it is triggered by this sort of discourse; discourse which challenges the common assumptions of the religion of progress.

Permaculture's role is probably understated and undervalued currently, but I had an epiphany yesterday. There are a lot of people writing about apocalptyic events, doom and gloom, or the "I hate civilization, it made me sad and sick". A lot of this type of writing seems so misguided. And at times, like the pornography of political fear as you call it, has sucked me in.

But, I realized that the situation or the circumstance is not necessarily what causes the suffering or the struggle. Much of that is the lack of responsiveness to the circumstance, or as you put it, responding from behind the shadow's veil. And as we can see this method of being creates a snowball of suffering deep within our subconscious', because it pushes the problems deeper within as the circumstances grow more demanding on the outside.

So, I realized why magick could play a very important role in our future, and above all, our present. It is the permaculture of consciousness, and I feel it will become as useful as all permaculture principles have and will become. It may allow many humans to regain an occult freedom.

Thanks again JMG

evilrocks said...

I hoped to begin a conversation about the immense gap between expectation and reality that hamstrings most attempts at constructive social change, in America as elsewhere.

[I did read things in the middle of the essay, professor, I swears it!]

Bloody fascinating that you should mention the "immense gap between expectation and reality" causing pain and trauma to the political discourse. I'm currently reading Semir Zeki's Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, which has at its core the theme of how the brain creates 'synthetic ideas' (not ideals) and the failure of reality to live up to these expecations in love leads to the second half of the book's title,

So basically I bring nothing to this discussion besides a pointer to some neuroscience that's exploring tangentially related topics ;)

spottedwolf said...

yes...I'm very aware of Himmler's fascination with List and the bastardizing done to his works by the Nazi regime....List probably did the proverbial rollover. As a matter of fact there are two items in my medicine bundle....a panthers claw representing my ability to 'see' and an 'death ring' reminding me to practice humility with what I find.

Your blog does you honor John Michael.

Zach said...


A counterpoint regarding utopianism -- you write:

of course Utopian thought has a place; my point is simply that it's been massively overdone, and it might be time to give it a breather.

On the other hand, as a distributist, I see the flip side of this. In my understanding, at least, distributism doesn't promise a perfect, utopian society, just a good (and better than the present) one.

But if only I had a dollar for every time I saw proposals for substantive change denounced as "utopian"! It seems, even though so much utopian myth is sloshing about, that there's a certain allergy to it as well.

It is as if some people are, at core, committed Panglossian Optimists, believing that we already live in the best of all achievable societies. You see this in the saying, too, that "democracy [or capitalism] is the worst system, except for all the alternatives..."


Zach said...

One of the things which I appreciate about G. K. Chesterton's writings is his insistence that the distributist project, while it would benefit from some top-down steps, could and should be primarily built from the bottom up.

He didn't use the terms "ecological" or "organic growth", but I think it's very consistent with what you're saying here about societal change.


yooper said...

Hey John, excellent! Jung and Freud, gave me a headache too, Robert.

"If a Utopia is not the necessary destination that we seek, then perhaps we can work towards a more balanced state in which the dynamic flux of nature is part of our worldview. Perhaps we will get there wether we try or not."

You bet, Jacques and I think it's worth repeating.

Anyway John, I've finished the "Catabolic Collapse: Detroit, Michigan" series, hope it meets with your approval.

Thanks, yooper

cjryan2000 said...

I see the logic of your criticisms of Utopian movements or alternative social paradigm advocacy. I think you're pointed in a significantly valuable thread direction. But I would like to see you provide some more detail and examples of movements or organizations that fall short on your yardstick and how. This might be a great article length piece and feeds into the realm of concepts such as the New Environmental Paradigm and why we haven't seen any movement on that front for a while.

Chris R.
The Localizer Blog

mallow said...

I've been reading your blog for some time and find it very interesting. I'm an anarchist and wonder what are your thoughts on anarchism? I know there are some druids who also consider themselves anarchists.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will -- yes, I prefer Dion Fortune's definition of magic -- is indeed central to the work ahead of us. More on this down the road.

Rocks, thanks for the link!

Spotted Wolf, thank you.

Zach, it's exactly the grassroots nature of the Chesterbelloc's project that I find most appealing about it. To my mind, a central flaw of Utopian ideologies is the notion that human behavior is determined by their society, so that once a supposedly perfect social system is in place, people will be perfect, too.

Yooper, congrats on completing the series!

Chris, I've already discussed specific problems I see with some movements, notably the Transition Town movement, and with popular writers in the field such as David Korten and Thom Hartmann; the search function here will bring those up pretty promptly. I'll try to make time for others, but I also have a great many other things to cover.

Mallow, I'm more than a little dubious about anarchism; among other issues no anarchist theory I've seen has anything to keep ambitious individuals from building new hierarchies of power in place of the old, and imposing them on others by force.

HanZiBoi said...

Mr. Greer, you are a beacon of clarity and reason and your work is a gift to humanity. I am regularly astonished by your posts; some literally take my breath away; as a body of work they deeply enrich my thinking. I am very grateful!

Perhaps a mathematical perspective can help us better understand Utopian worldviews which presume that human choices alone stand between Man and Earthly perfection. For example, a careful examination the faith in progress which dominates our era reveals that it is founded on a zealously-held conviction: it is not only possible, but is, in fact, our right and our destiny to simultaneously optimize for more than one variable in affairs economic, political, and social. Of course we know at some level that this is mathematically preposterous, and thus the fallacy does not greatly impede the output or careers of scientists and engineers who are satisfied to work within their respective narrow, formally recognized areas of specialization. But venture into broader domains where passions and expectations run high, where great fortunes are at stake, and where tedious equations and realistic calculations can be dispensed with; and hope for patently unachievable optimizations flourishes. And all too often such hope is animated by pageantry, carefully orchestrated by cynical people who know better.

The asinine rhetoric of simultaneous optimization is rife in the trendy lexicology of corporate management and it's handmaiden politics: "win-win" and "both-and" solutions, the "triple bottom line", "teams" of purported equals drafted from persisting hierarchies, and, more recently, the facade of balanced power in "stakeholder" arrangements where real control is vested in but a few hands. The general principle is the same in every case: nowhere can the “players” cede the existence – much less the mathematical inevitability – of a zero-sum game. Although many who reach executive positions arrive by way of the hard sciences, such aspirants quickly learned which way to bend their minds when the doctrine of commerce did not align with the rules of mathematics.

The intrinsic clash between a ruthlessly Darwinian growth economics versus socio-political arrangements which pursue some measure of equity provides one of the most obvious and salient proofs against simultaneous optimization. The notion that highly concentrated economic power will ever suffer peaceful coexistence with widely distributed political power and social status is absurd, yet among the reigning elites in our society, public recognition of this fact is to be avoided, especially now that a financial collapse and the repudiation of unbridled greed is upon us.

And if we consider the survival of humanity rather than mere justice, the titanic struggle between Darwinian economic growth versus a finite planet portends a cataclysm which may not even leave the elite of the elites unscathed in Paraguay. The recent near-instantaneous adoption of oxymoronic terms like “sustainable growth” by corporations, politicians, Chambers of Commerce, and other economic development cheerleaders is evidence of the pervasive desperation to keep the myth of perpetual expansion alive.

Our greatest terror may be that Growth itself might not be “too big to fail”.

Hans Noeldner
Note: I may post a somewhat different version of this at my blog:

mary said...

JMG I guess I am being a bit nit picky. I had never heard of Human Ecology or Ecotechnics. Are they
"earth based" or is the human ecology held apart from the environment? I am familiar with General Systems Theory and some of the research flowing from it. There seems to be a lot of excitement in the field called Sociocybernetics. Perhaps insights from these kinds of approaches will help the planet and its inhabitants.

John Michael Greer said...

Hans, thank you! You're getting ahead of me here; one of the things I've been meaning to bring up for some time now is precisely the basic rule of game theory that points out that it's impossible to maximize more than one variable at a time.

Mary, it's not surprising that you haven't heard of ecotechnics -- I came up with the word myself not that long ago. As I conceptualized it, it relates to ecology the way that engineering relates to physics; it's the practical craft of applying ecological principles.

Human ecology, though, is well enough established that I took university classes in it in the early 1980s, and there's a substantial literature on the subject, along with peer reviewed journals such as Human Ecology Review. It focuses on the entire range of ecological relationships linking human beings with each other, other living things, and the broader environment. So neither of these holds humanity apart from its environment -- in fact, that's the point I was trying to make.

galacticsurfer said...

Interesting last couple of posts. Regarding ideology and human ecology as compared to nonhuman ecology. Humans are different since they can articulate and hold complicated ideologies or thought patterns, especially since writing.

These form an independent thought ecology, i.e. take on a life of their own, battling for attention and taking over a lot of mind-space in human culture, preventing or causing change. After reading last week's post I thought that well obviously the right wing could have done all that evil stuff they were accused of wanting to do if the left wing had not constantly yelled about it bing likely to happen and about conspiracies of evil. So I think a balance of ideas was acheived, i.e. the result was a boring or balanced end result, a handshake from Obama to Bush. This was by no means inevitable. This ideological fight was crucial to the stable outcome. The left wing were not being crazy. Evil acts could be done easily without constant control. "Trust but check" said Lenin.

Human history is likewise a history of ideological ecology, i.e. like a fight of various animals in a jungle to survive a Darwinian battle. Thought processes throw up general ideologies which then fight out on the stage of history for domination. Dawkins Memes in Darwin's survival of the fittest.

We are just the pawns of things long thought outby long dead men, you said yourself a few weeks ago.

We can only escape this inevitability by becoming nonhuman, either pure dumb animal or pure spirit. I believe that this is human fate in general, the spiral evolution of ideas, much as other species of plants and animals have their own cological niches. We are the the cross section of angels and animals as much of our mythology suggests.

The concept of modern Reason trying to make us again equal to the Gods or the opposite view suggesting that we are simple beasts reacting purely chemically can neither one nor the other succeed. Our niche of mental development is special but our responsibility is enormous. Right now we are in a "Noah moment" in history. with the Gods' wrath bearing down upon us for our sins as a species. Maybe God's experiment with such a creature was a failure?

DIYer said...

I think that the problem with any [u|dys]topian ideology whose principles will fit in a sound bite or on a bumper sticker, is that said ideology will propose an unsupportably simple ecosystem. We know from mathematical modeling as well as some natural examples that a diverse and complex ecosystem may be "stable", while an overly simple ecosystem always devolves to Lotka-Volterra dynamics and crashes.

The hard part will be to attain a sustainable level of complexity from the midst of our current system, which is arguably already in mid-crash. We need diversity but with a unifying philosophy.

Thank you for your hard work on that philosophy.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

I'm finally getting around to a second pass of "The Long Descent" and am particularly examining the chapter "The Stories We Tell Ourselves" -section Progress and Apocalypse.

In many peoples minds, the notion of a cyclic history in which civilizations rise and fall IS seen as apocalyptic, especially now as we enter from a growth phase to a contraction phase. It's telling to me how quickly media commentary has switched from irrational exuberance to hysterical panic. The collective conscious seems only to be able to digest bi-polar bifurcations- false dichotomies in which we are only winners or losers, largely because of the emotional resonance that these narratives offer to believers.

I have to admit that I've been re-examining the role of eschatological immanence in my own thinking and seeing the way in which my thoughts have been shaped by these non-rational narratives. The problem is, as you've suggested, human consensus is not a rational phenomenon. We believe what we wan't to believe, or what others around us believe. The cognitive biases that shape our lens of the world are many, and most have some sort of social agenda.

I only wonder how cyclic theories can ever enter into the public discussion if they are represent a non-narrative and relativistic way of understanding social determined reality ? To many, the resignation to fate seems nihilistic or anti-humanist. My hyper-individuated self struggles to imagine a new reality paradigm in which human desires are essentially without expectation of fulfillment. This is the "apocalyptic" part of the decline model, there is a sort of thanatos of the self, and it is difficult to come to terms with that.

The Western mind is particularly bad at integrating its own limitations into its consciousness.

Any suggestions ?

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer:” It needs to be recognized in this context that it’s only in modern morality plays that scapegoats are invariably virtuous and innocent. In the real world, it often happens that the person targeted has his own faults, sometimes grievous ones, and that these are routinely used to justify whatever other accusations are heaped on him.”

And I though I was the only person to “get” that very un-PC little fact that was sort of lost in the 60s Flower Power revolution. My admiration for John Greer increases considerably.

Mind you, I only “got it” because of decades of involvement to different degrees with various causes and disadvantaged groups. Eventually, I had to admit to myself that often the persecuted were not that much morally better than their oppressors: It was just a matter of historical accident who finished up being the oppressor and who the oppressed.

I guess if you believe in one of the forms of reincarnation it all makes sense: We just keep taking turns at being oppressed and oppressor until we finally learn the uselessness of this kind of behavior.

Doesn’t of course reduces the necessity of working for justice and human rights, increases it in fact if you think there is any possibility of reincarnation. After all, next time you could be born poor, a woman, a member of a unpopular minority and in some God-forsaken third world hell hole.

wylde otse said...

I feel a sense of excitement here, as if some great event is about to happen.

We are witnessing the birth of a new world. Ready or not - here - it - comes; and like some human births; it might be a bit painful and messy.

John Michael Greer said...

Surfer, given that the people who claimed that a fascist takeover was imminent never got around to offering evidence to back up their heated rhetoric, it's a bit much to claim that the heated rhetoric prevented the fascist takeover. I'd also suggest that the ecology of ideas is never separate from the wider ecology of which it's a part -- and we don't have the choice to stop being human. Might as well get good at it.

DIYer, exactly! The world is always too complex for simple explanations.

Jacques, good. You're wrestling with the core issues of our cultural narratives. The one thing I'd point out is that human desires need not fixate on things that require perpetual economic expansion -- many of the things that make human life most livable and meaningful don't -- and so what we may need most right now is what the old Stoics called the education of the desires.

Stephen, thank you! Mind you, the false equation works both ways; you have the insistence that people who are subject to scapegoating are by that fact virtuous, and you have the insistence that people who aren't virtuous can't possibly be the subject of scapegoating. Both fallacies, both significant factors in the collapse of our collective discourse into fingerpointing.

Otse, as Beckett said, we are between a death and a difficult birth -- but yes, there are some extraordinary possibilities opening up, most of them in unexpected places.

Edde said...

John Michael,

What fun jargon yall speak here. I need to pull out my dictionary regularly!

I'm a 40 year social activist. I'm also a multi-tasker. I love keeping several balls in the air at once. Not optimizing any, I dare say;-)

But it sure 'nuff gets nice results occasionally.

There are many doors that open onto our common human project. All results are constrained or augmented by our environment.

If we do nothing more than deal with the worst failures of the current paradigm, it is possible to move the project in a more positive direction (imho).

For instance, a group of us just headed off 5 new coal plants in Florida. We lost and lost, and then we won. We're now working to limit other poor energy choices and adopt fair-share-conservation.

That said, I usually don't work at other than local issues. In fact, one pulverized coal plant we averted (my focus)was local.

As a bike mechanic by profession, I also work the bike/ped crowd making cycling and walking more fun and safer. We made significant motion on this front, too.

And the anti-democratic police state empire, too. Cheney sure made our work easier, eh;-)

Did I mention I live in an "alternative" community?

The Social Ecology I was thinking about is a splinter of Sociology that joined political & social activism with environmental action. There is an institute in Vermont. Murray Bookchin among others, was big among this crowd.

I admit I'm an idea thief. I grab what looks like the good stuff and move on.

Anyway, GREAT conversation! THANKS!


Matt said...

As some of the commentators have pointed out, there is a place for organized self defense. If the government or a corporation proposes to build a coal or nuclear power plant near your home and community, you will need to stand and fight, and organizing is the only effective way to do that. I suppose that one must resist the attempt to demonize and dehumanize your opponent. Its hard to do when "they" have much more power, money, and influence than you.

After many years as an advocate for low income folks, I find that anger and emotional confrontation towards your adversary is much less effective than trying to find a common humanity in those individuals and approaching them in the spirit of mutual respect.

It does not always yield results, but by and large it does, and coming on nice is a great way to gauge your opponents weaknesses. Many arrows for the quiver, if your good will and hospitality is not reciprocated.



eyeballs said...

An interesting contribution to the whole relocalization thing:

Transition Primer
available free, online, offers 50 pages of useful information on preparing a community for post-industrial civilization.

eyeballs said...

oops... link should work now Transition Primer available free, online

decent manual, taken with others...

iuval said...

This post inspired an entry in my blog which I hope to get some feedback on (and the older post on gradual vs quick speciation is also relevant) regarding game theory and optimization of functions (I have a bit of knowledge in this field, and last I checked the only published paper on finding saddle points (as opposed to minima or maxima) of functions numerically). I like most of what you say--agree completely on the shadow stuff, disagree that all engineers of social change neglect tradeoffs--perhaps we are getting better with time.

I agree that too much planning is detrimental, but I disagree that small changes in a "path of least resistance" manner are beneficial.

As always, due to my intermittent internet access, I seem to have missed the boat on the discussion here, as you already posted a new entry.

gaiasdaughter said...

Ahhh, this is the blog I've been looking for! Most of what I read on peak oil and climate change is written from the perspective of science alone. I've been looking for something that addresses the coming challenges with the added dimension of spirituality, and it seems I have found it here!