Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Future That Wasn't

It’s a common affectation of pundits and professional thinkers to claim for their ideas a historical importance they probably won’t have. It does happen now and then, of course, that some thinker ends up having a massive impact on the shape of history; Karl Marx relished his self-defined role as forerunner of a Communist future, though I doubt he would have welcomed the trajectory his thought actually took from the barricades and marches of the late 19th century, through the bloodsoaked debacles of the 20th century’s revolutionary dictatorships, to the slow descent into bureaucratic torpor and collapse that finally swallowed the Communist dream.

Still, it needs to be remembered that Marx was one of more than a dozen major (and scores of minor) would-be social prophets who flourished in the century or so that centered on his life and are utterly forgotten today. Charles Fourier, for example, was a massively influential figure in his time, the inspirer of hundreds of what would now probably be called lifeboat ecovillages, but I have yet to meet anyone who has read his Theory of the Four Movements or takes his theories of social change through passional attraction seriously; most people who have heard of him at all these days tend to confuse him with the mathematician Jean-Baptiste Fourier, an entirely different person whose elegant discoveries are still much used today.

The same point can be made more broadly. Most of the intellectuals who were household names in the early decades of the 20th century are forgotten now, and their ideas have dropped out of circulation so totally that canny promoters today can resurrect notions of that time and market them as the discovery of the ages. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, the hugely successful pop spirituality phenomenon of two years ago, was exactly such a rehash of forgotten commonplaces; its promoters correctly guessed that ideas that appealed to the public during the boomtime of the 1920s, no matter how dubious those ideas were, would be just as popular during the late housing bubble. No doubt they’re sorting through the rather different self-improvement literature of the 1930s in search of a bestseller for the decade ahead of us.

The interesting thing is that there were thinkers busy during these same decades whose visions ended up having a huge and enduring impact on the way the entire Western world thinks about the future. These visionaries weren’t to be found in the ivory towers of academe or any of the other prestigious places where people, then and now, expect great minds to be found; they didn’t even have the cachet of romantically starving to death in garrets. Most of them could be found in ordinary urban apartments and homes, hunched over clattering manual typewriters, as they fed a couple of dozen cheap gaudy magazines with science fiction stories.

The impact of science fiction on current visions of the future has been on my mind of late, for reasons mostly involved with two writing projects of mine unrelated to this blog. One of them is a study of the UFO phenomenon, unimaginatively titled The UFO Phenomenon, which is due out in March. One of the themes central to that book is the extraordinary way that every UFO-related belief of the last six decades surfaced in pulp science fiction many years before it showed up in reports of UFO encounters; that inevitably focused my attention on the wider impact of science fiction on contemporary images of the future.

The second is even more directly related to the SF genre, and rather more personal. Long before I started writing nonfiction about the future, or anything else, I cherished the dream of becoming a science fiction author; I wrote something like a dozen SF novels, and amassed an impressive collection of rejection slips from nearly every publisher in the field. I shelved that dream when I launched a nonfiction writing career in 1995, but a fine bit of irony awaited; one of my SF novels has finally been published by a small press. The Fires of Shalsha – that’s the title – isn’t about peak oil, though it has more than a little ecology woven into it and some of the themes discussed in these essays are part of the story.

The fact that science fiction counts as a literary genre at all these days is one measure of the wild ride it has had through the world of letters. 19th-century science fiction, what there was of it, counted as respectable literature; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which many critics consider the first true SF novel, received the same attention as other Gothic novels of the time, and Jules Verne was no less respected as a popular novelist in his time than Alexandre Dumas. At the beginning of the 20th century, such literary talents as E.M. Forster dabbled in SF, and H.G. Wells’ novels were reviewed alongside the serious literature of the day.

Enter the pulp magazines. The pulps – the name comes from the cheap paper on which they were printed – descended from the Victorian penny dreadfuls, with the same lurid topics, loud advertising, garish illustrations, and abysmal quality that made their 19th century equivalents so profitable. American pulps covered the spectrum of popular genres – Westerns, romances, mysteries, two-fisted adventure stories, you name it – but the gaudiest of the lot were devoted to science fiction. As it became a pulp genre, science fiction traded the salon for the gutter, and for several decades few authors who valued a literary reputation would touch it.

This plunge into the depths of popular culture had immense consequences. Despite the claims of importance noted above, serious literature rarely has a major impact on society. Its readership is too small and too well educated to slip into the uncritical enthusiasm that shapes the imagination of an age. Most often it turns out to be the popular literature, the reading material of housewives, factory workers, and schoolchildren, that reaches into the crawlspaces of culture where the future takes shape. By shedding literary credentials and wrapping itself in the gaudy finery of the pulp magazines, science fiction worked its way into the collective imagination of the modern world.

In this way, drawing on the passionate modern belief in the goodness and necessity of progress, science fiction in its pulp days transformed itself from a somewhat esoteric literary genre to a folk mythology that still shapes most of our thinking about the future today. Onto the blank screen of infinite space, as a result, the modern imagination projects all the dreams, fantasies and fears other cultures assign to more obviously metaphysical realms. Many of the essays I’ve posted on this blog have focused on disputing assumptions about the future that root straight back into the science fiction of the pulp era.

What makes this all the more interesting is that the grand future shared in common by most science fiction from the pulp era straight through to the 1970s – the leap upward from Earth to the first colonies on the Moon and Mars, the expansion through the solar system, the inevitable arrival of interstellar flight, and the panorama of star federations and galactic empires to follow – has lost nearly all the conviction that once made it look like the inevitable shape of things to come. It had its day, and accomplished certain things in that time; without Jules Verne and his many successors, human footprints probably would never have been left on the Moon, but its day is over now. Those who still cling to the old hope today – I am thinking of Ray Kurzweil and the Extropians here – have been reduced to wrapping Protestant eschatology in the borrowed garments of science fiction; rapture into heaven followed by immortality is a religious concept even when the god who is expected to provide it is named Technology. It’s a measure of this loss of faith that the publication of science fiction novels in the English-speaking world, at least, has declined steadily since the late 1980s and now amounts to only a few hundred titles a year.

In this light it’s interesting to note that the impact of peak oil on the future of the industrial world has begun to be explored using the toolkit of fiction. James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand is the example most people in the peak oil scene know about, and deservedly so; it’s a rousing, readable tale that borrows from familiar genres (notably the Western) to portray the aftermath of the petroleum age in accessible terms. More experimental and, to my taste, even more interesting is Caryl Johnson’s self-published “essay-novel” After The Crash, which weaves together a tale about the writing of a narrative history of the end of the Hydrocarbon Age in post-Crash Philadelphia with social criticism directed at the present and speculation about the future.

This is not quite a new genre; its roots arguably go back to older works such as Richard Jefferies’ After London and Stephen Vincent Benet’s novella “By the Waters of Babylon,” and flowed into and then out of some of the byways of science fiction – I am thinking particularly here of Edgar Pangborn’s Davy and its sequels, alongside more straightforward SF works such as the novels of Wayland Drew’s Erthring Cycle and Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin’s The Masters of Solitude. Still, the emergence of books of this kind focused on peak oil strikes me as a hopeful sign. Just as science fiction enabled people to get their heads around such improbable realities as moon landings decades in advance, peak oil fiction could make it easier for people today to make sense of the approaching changes in our own world.

If the peak oil movement of today is going to have much effect on the future, such options probably need to be explored. Today’s intellectuals are no more immune from the future’s forgetfulness than their great-grandfathers were – I cheerfully expect my own work to be forgotten just as thoroughly as Charles Fourier’s, for example, once I’ve been dead for a century or so. The history of science fiction shows that indirect routes of influence may be the most lasting and powerful options we have, and I hope more peak oil writers and visionaries take the time to explore them.


Tully Reill said...

JMG wrote;
"The history of science fiction shows that indirect routes of influence may be the most lasting and powerful options we have, and I hope more peak oil writers and visionaries take the time to explore them."

It certainly has. From NASA's work on Ion Propulsion, cell phones that flip open like Kirk's communicator, PDA's and desktop computers, to medical readouts right at a patient's bed, have all been influenced by science fiction.

Let's certainly hope that this medium becomes well utilized as it has in the past for our current issues.

And a heartfelt congratulations on your book being published!

charles a said...

dystopian sci-fi interested me more, a kind of psychodrama, and i've wondered whether the writings of for instance Philip K. Dick prepared me for early interest in and acceptance of the implications of Peak Oil, as well as seeing absurdities in the techno-fix and non-negotiable way of life mentalities.

Zach said...

I'd include S.M. Stirling on that list. Stirling himself, I think (based on some arguments I've had with him and others I've witnessed) seems to be a technological optimist, and doesn't see Hubbert's Peak as necessarily implying the end of industrial/high-tech civilization.

But, his "Emberverse" series (beginning with Dies the Fire) gives a vividly imagined future without high-energy technology. It's sort of a forced ecotechnic future.

It's interesting and instructive to see how people react to that.


Colleen said...

Thanks for an excellent post!

Two books that I read 12-15 years ago and found to be personally influential are Starhawk's 'The Fifth Sacred Thing' and Octavia Butler's 'Parable of the Sower'.

Two more recent books which I enjoyed were Jean Hegland's 'Into the Forest' and Susan Beth Pfeffer's 'Life as We knew It'.

Sharon Astyk was hosting a post-apocalyptic book club. Here is a link to her archived posts.

Cheers- Colleen

Roy Smith said...

Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias series is an interesting look at possible futures for Orange County. The collapse version of the future, The Wild Shore, is set in the aftermath of nuclear war, but the background is vague enough that peak oil and climate change could just as easily set up the circumstances that make the novel work. The ecotopia version of the future, Pacific Edge, could easily be Richard Heinberg's powerdown. And The Gold Coast is the techno-dystopia that I think most of us would agree will never happen now.

Another good book that explores collapse through fiction is Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe. It particularly explores how the Mormons might respond to collapse. As collapse gets going, I think that what the Mormon church does is going to be hugely important in large parts of western North America, so they are worth paying attention to, even if one does not happen to be Mormon or even agree with anything they believe in.

yooper said...

Excellent thought John, I can't agree more. If it is indeed the masses that influence the future, and not that coming from the intelllectuals, what makes us think, that anything worth while may stem from a more awarness of the peak oil concept? Furthermore, what makes us believe that the masses will even have the capacity to read, 100 years from now?

Thanks, yooper

OneCrazyMama said...

I couldn't agree more.

I will say, that is the exciting thing about being a parent or in close contact with children. Really, you are shaping what is to come. Every story you tell to a child, every game you play with them has historical significance.

It seems funny to me, that so many think the world belongs solely to the well-known, the dusty but dignified academics, the captains of industry. Rubbish. The world belongs to ideas, to parents, to children, and all the other living thinking, breathing things out there.

A rich, well-known man owes his state of being as much to his own efforts as a leaf owes it's own height on the tree to it's own efforts. Not that great people aren't worth listening to, but there are lots of great people you never get the chance to hear. If that makes sense!

Charles A: I love PKD. Confessions of a Crap artist is my favourite book by him. Mainly, because we're all crap artists. :)

Writers get writing! I'm more than happy to read and definitely one to pass the story on to the kids.

Blackbird said...


I have always enjoyed reading SF. When I was young I liked the way the stories exercised my imagination. As a youth, it was pretty easy to suspend disbelief and just immerse myself in the stories and the imagery. Lately, I have enjoyed re-reading some old SF; especially from the 50s. SF acts as an interesting window into what the writers of a generation see as future possibilities. In many cases in the 50s, the writers assumed that going to and from planets would be easy, but often there is no mention of things such as computers or how the telecommunication field would become as powerful as it is.

I think for this generation (or maybe the one slightly before it), people like William Gibson will be viewed as visionaries much like Issac Asimov was for his vision of robots.

Of all the potential future accounts that I have recently read, I can only hope that McCarthy is very wrong with his post-apocalyptic book 'The Road'



OneCrazyMama said...

Amen to that, Blackbird. Cormac McCarthy's The Road makes Hobbes' comments on the natural condition of mankind look "cheery" and "upbeat"...

Maeve said...

"Life as we Knew It" was required reading for my son's middle school English class. So at least some of the people coming of age in these times are examining the concept of a future radically different from the present.

It's worth remembering that the youth of our times are more aware of what is happening in the world than we "adults" think they are.

Mark said...

even thou it maybe in fantacy rather than SF, Ursula K. LeGuin's "Always Coming Home". For me this was the best post-apocaliptic I ever read.

FARfetched said...

Actually, I think SF's decline has at least as much to do with a strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism that has always been a part of American culture as with any loss of faith. [Think of the "mad scientist" meme, the "egghead" meme, the "ivory tower" meme, they're all so deeply ingrained that we don't see how it leads us to automatic mistrust of anyone smarter than ourselves.] The anti-intellectuals really became ascendent in the late '70s, using religion as a vehicle… of course, I speak of the religious right. As you said in the comments last week, they've had their day… but the anti-intellectual types will simply find another vehicle and climb aboard. Unfortunately, that type of vehicle doesn't depend on fossil fuel.

Since you mentioned peak oil-related fiction, may I suggest some of my own? FAR Manor: 2058, three visions of life in 2058, was my first attempt. That lead to the much more ambitious FAR Future, a novel-length work consisting of weekly episodes (10-20 eps short of being completed, with 10 more in the queue). If anyone's looking for something a little shorter, The Last Drop is something I wrote one day last fall, lined up waiting for gas…

I'm looking forward to seeing other people's work as well.

gigglingwizard said...

I just finished reading World Made by Hand a few days ago. I was so strongly reminded of your Christmas/Solstice/Nawida series and your "Adam's Story" that I wondered if perhaps Kunstler's fiction was influenced by yours or vice versa. Very entertaining stuff, regardless, both yours and his.

As I read the book, I was happy--grateful, even--to see it in print, because I feel that the best way to get an idea to take root in the popular mind is to turn it into entertainment. I recall once trying to explain my pantheistic views to a Protestant fundamentalist friend of mine. What finally succeeded was when I related it to the concept of "The Force" in Star Wars. An idea that he couldn't even let himself approach near enough to wrap his mind around when presented intellectually clicked right away when related to entertainment. People get so engrossed in a good story that they frequently fail to notice that they're learning something, too. Seeing, then, useful knowledge--such as what to expect of a post-peak America--put into narrative form was really encouraging.

I wonder what it would take to get Hollywood to make an action movie embedded with lots of practical instruction in sustainable agriculture and home ec skills.

If you're ever stuck for a topic, I'd like to read your thoughts on the role of sci-fi in building a new mythos.

Rose said...

Sci-fi may have lost a lot of the conviction it once had, but it does have an heir and successor: what used to be called sci-fantasy, and now just Fantasy", is the new SF, in the sense that it has, I believe, the same ability ''to mould the collective imagination of the world". But it's not all good, - as I'll explain. As a genre, it started with Tolkein and has led to David Gemmel, Philip Pullman etc; they are strong on heroism, respect, earth spirituality, destiny and have good female characters. Then a lot of Fantasy is pulp of course, and still more is manifested in the truly enormous number of computer games played by young males. Games like Warhammer often present a Dark Age future ahead -- a world of collapse and disorder, featuring warlords and brutal, subhuman overmuscled fighters with elaborate techno weapons and "spiritual " powers. Harmless you might think, but taken as archetypical images, some aspects of this could be quite negative, both from the point of view of "how the western world sees its future", and the way in which imaginative and psychic predispositions are being developed in peoples' minds. BTY, on Fourier, he's quite well known in anarchist and libertarian circles; he's too difficult to read, but he is known through quotation and excerpt. ALSO, Mad Max or The Road Warrior(1976), had a peak oil context. "Post Crash" fiction and film will undoubtedly get bigger, and the way it develops will depend on the how it's presented: as background for fighting and killing, or as a truly human (and spiritual) predicament etc.FINALLY, I'd like to see a return of the John Ford approach: stand up against evil, and for what's right, and for the Constitution. Yeah, right.

p-roc's mom said...

I loved Caryl Johnston's book! It really is great to see great minds get to work on imagining the future...

Another specifically post-peak-oil novel I just finished (you can get it on Amazon) is "Crossing the Blue: a post-petrol, post-America road trip", by Holly Jean Buck. A thoroughly enjoyable look at this country after fossil fuels and sea-level rise. Ms. Buck covered almost every aspect possible, and somehow managed to make it entertaining as well...

Christopher said...

World-changing memes were embedded in pulp fiction during the 1930s to 1970s, but books and reading have gone the way of horses and sailing ships. Unfortunately, it takes big budgets and lots of networking to put out a movie or video game, and the same is true of a New York Times Best Seller. But it's still true that The People (even the smart ones) are heavily influenced by pop cult works. They showed us Independence Day and Wag the Dog before 9/11 and the Iraq War. When it comes to books, everyone knows about EQ and DaVinci Code (which took big shmooz with the big media, to publish), but who knows about thermal depolymerization? You could put it in a novel, but who would read it?

Before disseminating new-age pop cult memes in novel form, you'll need to teach reading to a whole generation of kids, whose older siblings are already lost to the magnificence of libraries. Teaching the joy of reading, and teaching real history, are the two most radical professions I can think of, if taken seriously (other than, perhaps, top level hacking).

I suggest, in the meantime, that good memes might be disseminated through comic books and youtubes, anyway. I found some interesting youtubes by entering "neurosoup" for instance. Also try "making fire" or "alternative living" for some interesting suggestions. As for cartooning, Matt Groenig seems to have done pretty well for himself.

MarcosLagoSalado said...

Dear Archdruid and savvy commentators--i have been following your blog for awhile--excellent!...also your book.
As for books I am reminded of an posting on post-peak fiction....they mention there a novel by john Seymour called "retrieved from the future: which unfortunately seems to be OP and unavailable in the USA...alos mentioned was Andreas Eschbach's Ausgebrannt 9burnt out0 which i am hoping will be translated into English or Spanish soon. lastly a great novel (global warming) by a brazilian writer appeared in bantam paperback translation in the 80's--it's called "and still the earth" by ignacio de loyola brandao
best regards from salt lake city

holly jean said...

As the author of a post-oil novel, I struggled a bit with trying to blend entertainment with the topic-- sometimes I felt like I was trying to immerse being didactic in cinema. What saved me (and the book) was just letting the novel be character-driven, instead of setting-driven (like so many post-oil books) or idea-driven (that's when you end up having an essay masked in fiction).

Lately I've been trying to tag my post-oil novel as "speculative fiction" just to get it to appeal to a wider audience: sad but true, science fiction is a bit ghettoized.

Two other relatively good recent books that fall into this category are Sarah Hall's Daughters of the North and Jim Crace's The Pesthouse...

But the issue I have with a lot of post-petrol fiction is the same issue that I have with a lot of political art: it is easy to nail the critique of where society is going, but not so easy to imagine solutions. Bluntly, what good does a book like The Road do in the world? It is technically very adept, even beautiful (perhaps that's its entire function), but I think we can all imagine horrific scenarios. I don't think people need dystopian novels that are going to provoke them to fear, because fear isn't doing much good. (On the other hand, a novel like 1984 was extremely useful in getting us to imagine what we don't want and giving us a shared language to talk about it with-- "Big Brother" has become part of common speak.)

What we do have is a crisis of the imagination as to what could come next, and we really need artists & cultural workers imagining that vision with such clarity, beauty, and compulsion that it makes the reader/viewer/listener/watcher want to create it. Or to at least believe that it could be created. As poet Diane DiPrima said-- the only war that matters is the war on the imagination. When the public ceases to believe that there are other alternative paths, well... you can imagine the dangers inherent in that. Cultural workers and artists, despite being kind of relegated to the margins of society, have a huge amount of work to do right now.

kind regards,
Holly Jean
author of Crossing the Blue

John Michael Greer said...

Thanks to all for your comments! Tully, you can go back a good deal further than that; tanks and strategic bombing, for example, were both invented by H.G. Wells.

Charles, to each their own -- I find Dick nearly unreadable.

Zach, Roy, Maeve, Mark, P-Roc's Mom, and Marcos, I'll check them out.

Colleen, many thanks for the link.

Yooper, literacy rates in the US were as high a century ago as they are today, and effective literacy was higher -- it's only from within the myth of progress that literacy has anything to do with advanced technology.

Crazy Mama, it does indeed make sense.

Blackbird, The Road strikes me as one of those pointless literary exercises in seeing just how grim and hopeless a story you can tell. I don't find it even remotely plausible.

Farfetched, SF was considered anti-intellectual back in the day! There are complex issues, deeply rooted in questions of social class and geography, behind the trends you've mentioned.

Wizard, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Hollywood. Still, your example of the Force is a good one.

Rose, I basically stopped reading fantasy two decades ago because it had turned into a masturbatory rehash of themes that Tolkien and a very few others invented a long time ago. (How many stories where a cardboard-cutout Dark Lord is the plot engine do we really need?) But things may have improved; I'll take another look as time permits.

Christopher, all I can say is that you apparently know different kids than I do. Most of the teenagers I know are nuts about one book series or another -- all of them grew up reading Harry Potter, after all.

Holly, thank you for posting! (And anyone who quotes Diane DiPrima is definitely welcome on this blog...) I hadn't heard of Crossing the Blue yet, but will certainly check it out. I think you're quite right that we need positive visions of a postpeak future, and fiction's the place to launch them -- there's enough despair and inertia already, no need for more books like The Road to add to them.

Charles said...

I too have found PKD unreadable every time I have returned to him in the past twenty years. My point was different. I wasn't recommending PKD or stating a preference for him; I used him as a "for instance" because I have wondered whether the ideas he presented, however I was able to digest them, had an impact on me that predisposed me to interest in and acceptance of, for instance, Peak Oil, the compounding absurdities of each new techno-fix.

We stumble upon or are led to ideas that influence us. The leading in industrial society has been less often by elders, more often by media. Stumbling can be liberating in this environment.

Here's hoping that the idea of elders reemerges in what ever comes next.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Per tanks and strategic bombing, Da Vinci had drawings of both long before Wells (he actually was more of a weapons designer in his youth, until pacifism took him as he got older...a typical pattern eh?)...he had also invented cannonballs that released multiple incendiary devices on impact that then exploded separately. And of course the ancient Greeks had invented a substance called "Greek Fire" which they used in naval engagements...a gelatinous substance that burned and could not be extinguished by water. Truly we stand on the shoulders of giants.

I particularly enjoyed and agree with Holly's is the critical time for artists, writers, poets to come up with alternative futures that are hopeful and have potential...not Utopian, because at best, that is just a pipe dream, and at worst, you get "Big Brother" and "The Matrix." But a human future that works...not didacticism, but a beautiful possibility that is story and character driven.

RAS said...

JMG, this was a great post. I intend to try my hand at writing some post-peak fiction eventually. When and if I ever get my current work done.
Fantasy is a genre that varies tremendously. You still have the Tolkein rehashes (some of which, if I may say, actually outdo Tolkein in some ways) but you also have some other really great stuff. It just depends on what authors you read. (And sometimes what book by what author; Mercedes Lackey, for instance, has some really good and some really bad books.)

yooper said...


btw, John, just what are we declining from? Your point is well taken, however.

Thanks, yooper

Fed up completely said...

I've always thought that science fiction -- heck all fiction -- is nothing more and nothing less than an act of magic. It's the foam on the wave.

FARfetched said...

RAS, if you wait to finish your work before taking up your pen, the pen will lie untouched. I write in odd free moments, say during lunch or that last hour before bed. If you have a story to tell, write!

Weaseldog said...

John Brunner had a big impact on me. Though he didn't write about Peak Oil he did show us what the alternative was likely to look like. I found his writing to be disturbing, unsettling, relentless and addictive.

And lets not forget Harry Harrison and 'Make Room! Make Room!' which was made into a major motion picture where we learned that "Soylent green is people!"

And finally, the man that taught my subconscious the meaning of Peak Oil before I was ready to accept it, was Carl Sagan. In the series 'Cosmos', he repeatedly argues that a planet has at best one chance to use it's fossel resources (if it has any), to leave their planet and colonize the greater universe. If the deplete those resources without accomplishing that feat, then they will never leave their planet.

We missed our shot at leaving planet Earth. I think it's clear it never was our destiny. We aren't made to accomplish such lofty adventures.

There will never be another chance after the end of the oil age to colonize more of solar system. They'll never be such an abundant source of energy collected again. Our technology has progressed to the point that any discovered pockets of fossil energy that may be exposed later, will just get burned up to make plows or swords.

Jonathan said...

I am a major fan of the Archdruid blog, which is why I want permission to reprint a previous blog - The Specialisation Trap - in a reader I am co-editing to accompany a radical economic curriculum (that has been welcomed by UNESCO as part of its UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development). But I need to get hold of the man to get his permission...........
Jonathan Dawson, Findhorn, Scotland

iuval said...

Another class of philosophers whose theories were either shown to be false, irrelevant or forgotten is the metaphysicians and ontologists. The problem with all of these, including the social philosophers is two-fold, as far as I can tell. First, there is a disconnect between theory and practice. This problem was solved by the advent of science, where theory was balanced and encouraged or discouraged by experiment. One might argue that the death of modern science (as exemplified by String Theory) is due precisely to this divorce of theorists and experimentalists, whose union marked the beginnings of science. The second problem with punditism of any sort is the conceit that we are smart enough to understand complex systems and predict their behavior for more than just a bit into the future. This was also (partially?) solved by the scientific method of coming up with simply stated and simply testable hypotheses before stringing them into complex theories and working their consequences theoretically (there are exceptions, like the general theory of relativity).

I don't know for sure, as I haven't investigated this, but I suspect that Fourier was a pure theorist. Many others tested his theories and as far as I know, none of his theories have been confirmed. If he had bothered to do experimental testing himself on a hypothesis by hypothesis basis, he may have saved many experiments and many disappointed people. The experiment I am most familiar with is Brooke Farm. With social experiments it is hard to have conclusive results since there are no good controls, but it becomes increasingly hard to blame the failure of the experiments to bear out the predictions on other factors with increasing numbers of experiments.

One might be tempted to use the same reasoning to the failure of secular intentional communities and conclude that secular intentional communities are by some intrinsic reason, short-lived (and this applies as well to the apparently few long-lived communities such as Twin Oaks if by "life" one means that individuals are happy at the community and choose to stay there long and that the community persists over many generations--there is a high turnover at TO and the other exisiting secular ICs and children don't usually stay).

I am not ready to come to that conclusion until factor X is precisely identified (and experimentally tested). My tendency right now is to partially blame the pundits and intellectuals which are satisfied with critique, literature, blogging etc and who don't get down in the dirty trenches to test their hypotheses. I hold a special grudge towards Emerson who could have made a difference if he had moved to Brooke Farm--both financially and by lending more credence to the endeavor with his stature. Fourierism was certainly part of the collapse of Brooke Farm, but could have been recovered from, as Ripley was a very flexible, pragmatic thinker and (more importanly) doer.

iuval said...

Dear JMG, could you please correct my spelling of Brook Farm by removing the e at the end of it.

Flanagan said...


I used to read quite a lot of fantasy and sci-fi as a pre-teen and teenager, and your post has inspired me to revisit these genres (I've been reading non-fiction exclusively for over 15 years).

Here are the titles that I've read (and enjoyed) so far:

Edgar Pangborn's
The Company of Glory
A Mirror For Observers
H.G. Wells
The Island of Dr Moreau
The Masters of Solitude
and The Fires of Shalsha by one John Michael Greer.

Thanks for keeping me entertained. :)

Halka na,

Baron Moontrap XXIII said...

I thought I'd share some other interesting end-time fiction that you may care to chew over in a brightly dark moment; the ponderous 1955 work 'Earth Abides' by George R. Stewart, that I have previously described as;

"A sensitive, deep, albeit slightly anachronistic, male meditation on what is valuable in life and the relativity of our concept of civilisation. In parallel it could be seen as presciently unintended perspective on our local potential future, albeit without the mass murdering, e-number and hydrogenated-fat-starved-hoards, and the groovy Mad-Max-mobiles that run on blendered old people."

(I included this quote not just because of the Mad Max reference but because after the fact of writing it, I saw a satirical film called 'Blood-car', and was appalled to see my gag appropriated by someone else in Universe. Och well, such is synchronicity and universalism.)

Also the book 'the Road' by Cormac McCarthy, a real sharp dark kick, but beautiful in its way. The film 'The Time of the Wolf' was also similar in this respect.

Nods also to the remembrance of 'The Quiet Earth' a subtle and unknown masterpiece.

What all these particular works have in common is the analysis of the effect of such collapses and breakdowns on individuals and the way in which group relationships renew and attempt to grow again together. Rather than speculating on actual scenarios, most of the catastrophe events in this works are essentially Deus Ex Machina or simply unspoken.

Importantly, the questions they typically pose are, do one and all decline eventually, through their necessary scavenging on the remnants of the extant past, or do they forge something new, and what indeed was truely valuable about the lost culture in the first place.

O' Ballard's 'Drowned Earth' is a good one too, as is Margaret Atwood's 'Oryx and Crake'.

Peace to all thinkers and speculators. I know I'm late and probably won't get read but whathey, enjoyed the sharing.