Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Daydreams of Destruction

Last week's post on The Archdruid Report got rather more than the usual number of responses. Most of the comment – no surprises there – focused on my suggestion that the hopes for a better future retailed so freely by all sides in today’s cultural conversations face certain disappointment. At first glance, this may not seem like a controversial statement; one of the crucial facts about the future, after all, is that the fossil fuels that prop up current lifestyles across the industrial world, and provide the basis for survival for hundreds of millions in the Third World, are depleting rapidly with no adequate replacements in sight.

That hard fact pretty much guarantees a future in which poverty, hunger, warfare, and early death will be vastly more common than their opposites, and in which a great many of the comforts and opportunities we now take for granted will no longer be available. That, in turn, would certainly seem to define the future ahead of us as worse than the present, in ways sweeping enough that any benefits to be gained from the changes in store could be considered consolation prizes at best. Still, so straightforward an assessment of our prospects is profoundly unwelcome in many circles these days.

The difficulty here is that faith in the prospect of a better future has been so deeply ingrained in all of us that trying to argue against it is a bit like trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn’t there any more. The hope that tomorrow will be, or can be, or at the very least ought to be better than today is hardwired into the collective imagination of the modern world. Behind that faith lies the immense example of three hundred years of industrial expansion, which cashed in the cheaply accessible fraction of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves for a brief interval of abundance so extreme that garbage collectors in today’s America have access to things that emperors could not get before the industrial revolution dawned.

That age of extravagance has profoundly reshaped – in terms of the realities of human life before and after our age, a better word might be “distorted” – the way people nowadays think about very nearly anything you care to name. In particular, it has blinded us to the ecological realities that provide the fundamental context to our lives. It’s made nearly all of us think, for example, that unlimited exponential growth is possible, normal, and good, and so even as the disastrous consequences of unlimited exponential growth slam into our society one after another like waves hitting a sand castle, the vast majority of people nowadays still build their visions of the future on the fantasy that problems caused by growth can be solved by still more growth.

The distorted thinking we have inherited from three centuries of unsustainable growth crops up in full force even among many of those who think they’re reacting against it. Activists at every point on the political spectrum have waxed rhetorical for generations about the horrors the future has in store, to be sure, but they always offer a way out – the adoption of whatever agenda they happen to be promoting – and it leads straight to a bright new tomorrow, in which the hard limits of the present somehow no longer seem to apply. (Take away the trope of “the only way to rescue a better future from the jaws of imminent disaster” from today’s activist rhetoric, for that matter, and in most cases there’s very little left.)

Still, the bright new tomorrow we’ve all been promised is not going to arrive. This is the bad news brought to us by the unfolding collision between industrial society and the unyielding limits of the planetary biosphere. Peak oil, global warming, and all the other crises gathering around the world are all manifestations of a single root cause: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. They are warning signals telling us that we have gone into full-blown overshoot – the state, familiar to ecologists, in which a species outruns the resource base that supports it – and they tell us also that growth is not merely going to stop; it’s going to reverse, and that reversal will continue until our population, resource use, and waste production drop to levels that can be sustained over the long term by a damaged planetary ecosystem.

That bitter outcome might have been prevented if we had collectively taken decisive action before we went into overshoot. We did not do so, and at this point the window of opportunity is firmly shut. Nearly all the proposals currently being floated to deal with the symptoms of our planetary overshoot assume, tacitly or otherwise, that this is not the case and we still have as much time as we need. Such proposals are wasted breath, and if any of them are enacted – and some of them very likely will be enacted, once today’s complacency gives way to tomorrow’s stark panic – the resources poured into them will be wasted as well.

This is one of the reasons it seems crucial to me to keep coming back to the hard facts of our predicament: our limited resources and even more limited time need to be directed toward projects that might actually do some good. Still, there’s another side to this repeated insistence on an unwelcome reality, and the best way to explore that is to glance back at one of the responses to last week’s post.

The comment in question came from a reader who signed himself “Tony.” I trust he won’t feel unduly picked on, as I’ve chosen his response as a thoughtful and eloquent expression of a common feeling that many readers of mine, and countless others as well, have expressed in their own ways. While acknowledging the ghastly human toll that will be inflicted by the ending of the industrial age, he argues that life in the modern world, while materially prosperous, is empty and meaningless, and hopes that life after industrialism will be more fulfilling. He comments:

My life is EASY now, but I do not LIKE it. My body may have ease, but not my soul. I also find no soul’s ease in the prospects for many, say, who need modern health care to live. I nonetheless find excitement in the thought that current power structures may soon crumble, finally giving those like myself, and others in my generation, a chance to really live.

Any of my readers who have been in contact with the peak oil scene, or any of the other movements that have predicted the decline and fall of our present civilization, will have heard these same feelings expressed many times. Some of my readers may have had such feelings themselves. The idea that a future of material deprivation and suffering may nonetheless be better in some psychological or spiritual sense echoes tropes deeply rooted in the narratives of our culture. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed about fleeing from the complexities and moral compromises of modern existence to some simpler and more strenuous life where, at least in our imaginations, the sources of life and meaning are closer?

It’s a very old fantasy. The Roman poet Horace, in his Second Epode, put the same sentiments in the mouth of a moneylender, who imagined himself living the simple life of a poor farmer off in the Italian hill country, then turned from such daydreams back to the work of managing his investments. No doubt there were plenty of poor farmers in Horace’s time whose daydreams fixated instead on the high life of a wealthy moneylender in Rome.

Still, there’s a crucial difference. Neither Alfius the moneylender nor the poor farmers of the Italian hinterlands, as far as we know, ever harnessed their daydreams of a better life to fantasies of global catastrophe. Nowadays, by contrast, a great many people do exactly that. From fundamentalist Christians who pin their hopes on the Rapture – “He’s tooting, and I’m scooting,” to quote a popular bumper sticker – straight through to the current crop of utopian true believers who insist that the implosion of the industrial world will be followed by the inevitable triumph of whatever ideology they favor, a great many people nowadays pin their hopes of a better life onto whatever convenient cataclysm comes to mind. Tony’s hope that the fall of current power structures will allow him “a chance to really live” is simply another variation on this theme.

The irony here would be worth savoring if it weren’t so potentially explosive. I’m normally unsympathetic to claims that our civilization is a unique case, but in this context it may just have accomplished something that no other society in all of history can match. Certainly I can’t think of another case in which people faced with the tolerably common human experience of a less than fulfilling life have had so few inner resources to hand, and so little knowledge of past thought about the same problem, that the only option a great many of them seem to be able to find is to sit around and wait for the world to end.

I try to wear my archdruid’s hat lightly in discussions in this blog, but it’s hard to think of any way to speak to this situation that doesn’t wade fairly deep into the waters of philosophy, not to mention spirituality. The fact that a life lived in material comfort can be unsatisfying does not mean that the comfort is what makes it unsatisfying. Life can be every bit as barren of meaning to someone who is starving to death in a burned-out basement, or scratching out a bare living from a few acres of mud and manure around a squalid hovel. The choices we make in response to our surroundings affect our relationship to the sources of meaning far more powerfully than the surroundings themselves, and those choices depend on the quality and content of our inner lives, not on outer factors. None of this ought to be news to anyone; it can be found in every tradition of human wisdom and spiritual teaching from the dawn of history right up to the present, and it remains as valid today as it ever was.

If Tony and his countless equivalents want “a chance to really live,” in other words, nothing is holding them back. If they feel their present comforts are obstacles to a better life, nothing prevents them from getting rid of those comforts. If they feel that danger and deprivation would make life more real for them, those can also be had easily enough by those who actually want them. Of course that’s the rub. Alfius could have gotten out of the moneylending business, donated his wealth to charity, moved to a farm and made his rural fantasy real, but of course he didn’t actually want to do that; he simply wanted to daydream about it. I admit to a strong suspicion that the same is true of Tony and his peers.

Alfius’ daydreams, mind you, were relatively harmless. I am not sure the same thing can be said of the fantasy of redemption through catastrophe that underlies Tony’s comments and the feelings of a great many other people just now. As industrial civilization begins to come apart around us in the decades ahead, the mismatch between that fantasy and the bitter realities of life in a dying civilization will stand out in increasingly stark colors, but in the meantime those who indulge in daydreams of destruction are a good deal less likely to take the practical, positive steps that could make the time of troubles ahead of us less harrowing than it could be.

Thus I think it’s crucial to come back to the hard fact that we are not heading toward a happier future in any sense that matters. We are moving into a troubled, difficult, dangerous age in which most of us stand to lose a great many of the things that matter to us. Those troubles may encourage some of us to pursue a relationship with the sources of meaning in our lives, granted, but they are at least as likely to keep others too busy scrambling for survival or grieving over their losses to find time for that challenging process. When we project our fantasies of a better life onto the inkblot patterns of catastrophe, then, we’re kidding ourselves, and the sooner we grasp that – the sooner we come to terms with the bleak predicament facing us, and turn our attention to figuring out what might still be saved and then trying to save it – the more likely we are to make a positive difference in a bitter time.


Danby said...

The feeling of a lot of people is that our current system a fixed game, where the winner is predetermined and nothing you can reasonably do will change the outcome. C.F. John Mayer's song "Waiting On The World To Change." To a great extent this is true.

While times of breakdown are times of hardship, they are also times of great possibility. Whatever else happens, the game will change, and the current winners will no longer be manipulating the game. And, while most will lose, some new faces will be among the winners. The status quo will be drastically and permanently changed.

I've been on both sides of this equation. Personally I'm looking forward to getting laid off in a few weeks. There is no official announcement, but the writing is on the wall. I can get back to farming and if I never have the opportunity to administer servers again, I could live with that. I've done it before. And despite the poverty, I genuinely enjoyed my life a lot more when I was farming.

PRiZM said...

I feel another perspective on Tony's, and my feelings frankly, is needed. It's not simply that many are failing to make a choice, but that ability to choose is facing constant bombardment. There also has never been an age in which we were so constantly persuaded from a vast variety of directions as to the meaning of our life than what the current powers are doing now. It leaves a person left with a feeling of helplessnes even when and after having searched desperately for a philosophical/spiritual direction in life. So naturally, the blame card is brought in, and as always, it is easier to blame someone else. It's easy to blame these current powers.

Rajiv said...

John, you might find Dave Pollard's latest relevant.


It's been a couple of years since I tried to provide a comprehensive answer to the question of many of my readers: "What can I do?" in light of all the suffering in this world, and the looming collapse, some time in this century, of our unsustainable, teetering civilization. Past versions of What You Can Do have been mostly checklists, and I thought this time I'd try to provide a model, a process that each individual can tailor to her or his own capacities, abilities and passions. It's illustrated above, and it's fairly ambitious, but I think it makes sense. It draws heavily on the work of Joanna Macy I wrote about last week (and I hope to attend one of her workshops later this year). It also draws on the work of Richard Moss, Otto Scharmer, and my book Finding the Sweet Spot.

Here's a walk through of the process, which to some extent I've applied in my own life. I won't pretend I did any of this in this order, or with this much focus or rigour, but if I knew then what I know now perhaps I would have.

xhmko said...

There is alot of romanticism about poverty and struggling in this world. Not to mention nostalgia for epochs like that of the pharoahs and Actecs where much was achieved but through great suffering of the people for despotic rulers. It's easy for a banker to say the slums got so much soul.

And as for the future it will have an abundance of hardships. One example in my view would be the near impossibility of stopping the plunder of the many community gardens that have popped up around the world through the permaculture movement, despite the tender and caring attitudes of their caretakers. I wholeheartedly support the movement but feel that when the people start starving they won't restrain themselves from taking their cake and eating it and the raw flour too.
We will need to become a world of gandhi's to hold ourselves back.

That said I do think that there are combinations of actions, tailored and experimented with to suit the different needs of different communities worldwide that offer at least some release vent for the fire thats gonna burn in times to come.

It'll be no apocalpse, just a series of interrelated events that will destroy our energy abundant lifestyles.

And in a future without this abundant energy, global trade links will slow down to the trickle of former generations, as opposed to the percieved neccessity of Californian oranges in Hong Kong and Australian iron ore in the Amazon.

There used to be this saying at home for when someone said something irrelevant.

"Whats that got to do with the price of eggs in China?"

Well ironically these days it seems to have a lot to do with it but, when the world has become less dependant on hyper dream economies that linger around waiting to release their accumulated anaerobic sludge on the masses, the fluctuations of egg prices in China won't have an effect on my chickens.

Thanks if you just read my rant.


dkallem said...

A beautiful, though very sad post. Sad especially in that we have had chances throughout to do what is right and good, to finally act with less selfishness and more compassion and understanding. And yet we've failed to rise to the call and now our carefully constructed delusions will crumble before our eyes like our fading infrastructure, with lingering ruins to remind us of both our dreams and our folly.

It isn't that hope is gone, but that we can now see too clearly the useful, yet awful conceit that it is. And thus having seen through it, it too begins to fade. What we have in its place may well define what being human really is about in the coming years.

This post was tough to read, but, like much of what you write, important for me to hear and consider well. Thank you for taking on the difficult job of saying these difficult truths.

Karim said...

Dear JMG,

As usual a fascinating piece. Alas, you are correct in pointing out that the future will probably be materially much harsher than what the present is for most people, especially in rich countries. Indeed, one can argue that our present modern world, which now could be called the Old World is dying and that the New World to come is not yet born, hence the transition will be difficult but NOT impossible.

You are also correct that the Myth of Continual Progress veils and clouds the understanding of the vast majority who fully expect a technological marvel to make up for the depletion of energy resources.

However, there is a dimension in the discourse of Tony that perhaps needs more analysis. For instance when he says "My life is EASY now, but I do not LIKE it. My body may have ease, but not my soul", it appears to me that Tony is also saying that the modern world has destroyed to a large part any meaning and purpose to life that people need and that the demise of the modern world will somehow recreate meaning and purpose for us. Hence the yearning for the collapse of the modern world.

If that is so, it is clear that not only do we need to address the practicalities of material survival like food, water, energy, shelter and health, but we also need to address the need to recreate a sense of meaning and purpose that will provide hope and guidance for all. It is important to acknowledge the vital necessity of re-creating meaning and purpose because from them do we derive, to a large part, our strengths, motivations and willpower to face the inevitable difficulties of a post peak oil world.

Already the task to ensure material and cultural survival is truly immense, but in addition to the above we need to recreate meaning and purpose. And that can only be done through a deeper understanding of human spirituality. Alas, this dimension is rarely addressed in peak oil discussions.

I do apologise for the length of my response.


Elizabeth M Rimmer said...

Way ahead of you on this one. I live in a supine society where people are nostalgic about the Dunkirk spirit! Or crofting. I am convinced as you are, that we have reached the point of no return on the growth front.
However, I also live in a society where we turned around smogs that were killing thousands years ago, and revived polluted rivers, so I'm not entirely convinced that a complete meltdown is a done deal.

I think it is better psychology to point out the satisfaction in developing inner resources, not material palliatives, in building community rather than fencing yourself in for fear of other people pinching your stuff, in stressing the value of what we cherish rather than the vulnerability of what we want. I have the benefit of a religious vocabulary to do this, but it works for people of all faiths and philosophies - except the ones who are using God as a security blanket.

Gavin said...

John, where is the best place/book/tract/site/blog to find out more about your druidical outlook in detail, given your reluctance to wear that hat too obtrusively here?


Bill Real said...

Well, I just want to say thanks for spelling it out. Best bit of writing I've read on the subject ... I find myself endlessly confused by the ranks of day-dreamers promoting this or that path to a starrier future, and I've found it very difficult to accept the Disney-like outcomes they predict.

I agree entirely that it makes a lot of sense to see our predicament in this light. Not that I'm a doomer - I want to be a pragmatist and make the most useful choices in a difficult situation. I believe that's impossible without a starkly realistic take on things - thanks again for yours.

The North Coast said...

Once more, you have managed to articulate with beautiful precision the very thing that makes humans such a danger to themselves and that almost guarantees that the downslope will be much more difficult than it has to be.

You have touched on the very thing that frightens me the most about our present time, and on the darkest part of the human psyche here, which is the tendency of failing individuals who totally lack inner resources and coping abilities, to blame the larger society for their personal failings.

People who believe that a life of poverty and hardship is "simpler" and offers "spiritual" consolations unavailable to those who live in comfort and have ample rest, food, medical care, and access to education, really ought to try living such a life. Anybody who has ever been poor or lived close to poor populations and has studied crime and mental illness statistics can see that poverty doesn't exactly improve a person's spiritual state or bring personal fulfillment, but is more likely to produce opposite results. Anyone who doubts that ought to just quit his well-paid job and move into an SRO hotel in a major city and make his living begging on the streets, or try living "off the land" in a rural shanty without electricity and running water for a few months to see what spiritual peace and a sense of well-being will resent.

I read these people on the comment threads of Kunstler's blog, among others, and feel great fear to think that we have such a large number of people who hate humanity and hate civilization and all its achievements and benefits. These people will not be helpful to themselves or the rest of us as we struggle to remain human and to preserve as much of our life-giving culture as possible in the years of decline, to say the least.

We could end up regressing to the filth, brutality, and superstition of the past quickly enough without these people. But I get the feeling that there are legions of them hiding out there and that they will hasten the process greatly. Every time I read a comment from one these people, and, sadly, from some of our major pundits like Kunstler, that speaks of how wonderful it will be when all us peasants out here are forced out of our cars and comfortable homes, and are forced to work in the fields instead of enjoying some admittedly mindless leisure pursuit, I feel terror, and tremendous anger at the brainless Rousseaian mindset that would discard every beautiful, life-giving thing that our best minds have given us over thousands of years, just to see the fellow humans they so despise suffer and die in the ruins, or end up eking out their lives as rural slaves.

Oftentimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better for someone like me just to die with the civilization that has given me not only incredible material comfort and amenity, but also mental stimulation and access to knowledge that would not have been possible 150 years ago. This I know for sure- I don't want to live in a world dominated by the mindset you locate so precisely in this great post.

James Peele, Artist said...

I so agree with what you have put forth here. Espesially with your final assessment - When we project our fantasies of a better life onto the inkblot patterns of catastrophe, then, we’re kidding ourselves, and the sooner we grasp that – the sooner we come to terms with the bleak predicament facing us, and turn our attention to figuring out what might still be saved and then trying to save it – the more likely we are to make a positive difference in a bitter time.

lagedargent said...

This, Mr. Greer, imo is one of your best posts ever. It can't be stated more clearly, even bluntly, nor worded so well. Anyone claiming to know the secret of a way out of this predicament based on phantasies of further growth, is exposed as a charlatan, or a dreamer at best.
Maybe, you've read of a sudden wave of suicides at France Telecom, ascribed to high stress levels at this restructuring company. I suppose there will be more of this, when people eventually get the gist of what the future has in store. Many, who have no inner source of satisfaction, may opt for this last way out, as their hopes of betterment are fading out and life will become all but a burden and lacks 'fun'.

Ahavah Gayle said...

I think perhaps it's not so much that people WANT a catastrophe of some kind, but rather they can't see any other way to affect change. Clearly democracy does not work - the only votes that count have $$$ attached to them, at all levels of government. People feel entirely helpless to do anything - they're trapped by govt, by the moneylenders, by their community dysfunctions. Yet who wants a dictator? That pretty much only leaves anarchy as a possibility for real change - and the only way to get that is through a collapse of some sort. If the Tonys of this world felt anything they could DO would make a real difference, they might try it. But most people can't even imagine trying, much less succeeding. They see what happens to people who try and buck the system, and it isn't pretty. So the options seem to be: suffer alone and accomplish nothing, everybody suffers and a new age is born. The math doesn't look quite as hopeless with option #2. Option #1 is suicide for nothing.

John Bray said...

The North Coast:

As someone who actually has quit his well-paid job and tried living "off the land" in a rural shanty without electricity and running water for a few months perhaps I am in some way qualified to comment on your post.

It's not actually such a bad existence - have you ever tried it?

w g carr said...

LoL guys and gals... Think of a permanent camping trip.

Dan W. said...

This post was the cold bucket of water I needed to wake up and realize how great I have it right now; and how nothing in the context of my life is keeping me from finding peace, joy, and meaning.

"The choices we make in response to our surroundings affect our relationship to the sources of meaning far more powerfully than the surroundings themselves, and those choices depend on the quality and content of our inner lives, not on outer factors."

So absolutely true.

You can find meaning in your cheerios; or you can find meaning in your hoe; or you can find meaning in your mercedes; or you can find meaning in a dirt-clod sandwich...if you're willing to look for it.

There exists a history of the poor finding that meaning thru hard work and a life devoid of distraction; the mind has little to latch on to except a search for escape when faced with 12 hours of manual labor.

But that doesn't mean the minds of the wealthy, despite the 10,000 things of distraction, don't still have the same opportunity to find "it". All that is required is the looking.

Call it finding Flow. Call it giving up Attachment. Call it Samadhi in the Suburbs.

It's all the same thing...and it requires nothing more than to give up the mental laziness of an unexamined life and to give up the attachment to living in an ever advancing, but never arriving, future place of happiness.

As always, excellent food for thought JMG.

Llewellyn said...

Fantastic post to bring someone like me back to the reality of what it's really going to be like.
I'm also like Tony, which is ironic because my health depends on modern civilisation.
Thanks for another great post JMG

Tony said...

JMG et al,

Without intending (too much) sarcasm, I have to say it does my ego well to see my name repeated so often.

There's so much to say, but I'm not the blogger here and I'll try to keep my comments brief. I suppose I'm owed that, as I've been variously caricatured, lampooned, and made into a straw man for folks' pet philosophies.

I don't share JMG's vision of an unremittingly dark future. Just as modern industrialism has given us many wonderful things in addition to many awful things, like horrible environmental toxins and Britney Spears, the post-collapse future will be both good and bad. I'd give better than even odds that it will be more bad than good for most people, and there's always, as a friend recently pointed out, the possibility we could still nuke ourselves to death. So there's that.

JMG - I agree with you in at least one way: I could always change my life now. Believe me, I've been contemplating it. I'm an urban planner, recently out of graduate school (in my 20s). I chose that career path after getting a bachelor's in the sciences because I wanted to help "save the world". I saw humans as the main reason the Earth was under such stress, but rather than whine and complain about it, or march in endless rallies waving signs in the air, I thought I'd be proactive, seriously study "better ways" and learn the methods of implementing that knowledge in the real word. Problem was and is, so few people realize how imminently disaster threatens - and planning is an incremental business. Too incremental to avert collapse, but no, not worthless. Just, maybe, not for me. So I'm thinking about that.

I took some poetic license when I spoke of having an easy life that I don't like. Several people seemed to like that line! My wife and I live off my pittance of a wage - less than $30k per year, after taxes. My wife is taking courses full-time to be a teacher. However, we aren't excessive and still manage to save money. I actually just loaned a friend a couple thousand dollars to get him through hard times. What's money? If I accept it'll soon be worthless (conventionally as well as spiritually), I may as well spend it on things that matter - like relationships.

...if JMG approves, I've split this comment into two parts, because I'm just over the space limit! ...

Twilight said...

Very well said. I too find much about our modern life unfulfilling, and the constant pressure to conform to a homogeneous corporate norm make it difficult to see other paths, but there is no reason one cannot begin living right now. Why must one wait? You can turn off the TV anytime, and you can begin to examine the things you've been told at anytime too. It's good to think differently, but the real step is to try to live differently. The challenges of raising, educating, and providing for my children keep me tied to the society at large - but those ties are getting pretty lose these days.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in taking a different path, but the first steps can be difficult, and it will take a very long time to self-deprogram - I know it will take me lifetime. But at this point, I thoroughly enjoy the fact that the world I see is not the same as what the people all around me see, even if I am often very sad at what has been revealed.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

To follow a bit with what PRiZM commented, as I too find myself partial to Tony's feelings and want a new set of choices. In part I want to see things get worse enough, and forced change to start to happen, because it then will legitimize the choices many of us are trying to take. Right now, with no obvious evidence of collapse around us that everyday people will see, I still feel like a lunatic to believe what I do about what is coming. To bring it closer to home, with two kids in college and one who just graduated, it is hard to make decisions that might bring immediate hardships to them and kill their dreams when the evidence around them still suggests otherwise. It will be a relief to have enough change happening once it does occur so one does not feel questioned about contrary decisions anymore. That in itself much suggest a "rosier" future.

Also, how many face satisfaction about today's world probably stems with how they are employed, those that are still employed. I don't know what Tony and others do to earn a living, but there are many jobs that too their occupants do feel like meaningless jobs, or ones that lack true satisfaction in doing good. Those lucky to have a job that provides them with satisfaction probably have a different viewpoint than one for which the goal of the job is only to put food on the table. Yet who wants to turn down even having a job right now without a backup, even if the even goal is being better prepared for tomorrow?

Tony said...

...part two of my brief-not brief response to JMG's response to my original response to last week's post...

I'd like to tackle one thing head on, and that's the basic premise of this post. I don't doubt, JMG, that you're right, that there are many who, for their own reasons, take glee in the prospects of a collapse. Many who might even try to hurry it along. Nevertheless, when I say I look forward to it, I should say I accept it as inevitable. I'm not a psychologist and am not as familiar as some with Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief, but I think I get the concept. Personally, I vacillate between anger, depression, and acceptance. Maybe it would be more accurate to say I experience each simultaneously, but for different facets of the situation. Anger at those that got us here (I'm young, I can do that). Depression thinking about my mother, who takes a daily regimen of pills to keep herself alive. Acceptance that, no matter how I may feel about what's happening, it will happen anyway. From acceptance, I act. In my role as a planner I try to build resilience where I can in my little community. In my role as a citizen in a democracy I try to build awareness of these issues to catalyze action. In my role as a husband, I talk to my wife and we both set about preparing how we can for ourselves. In my role as a friend, I plan with friends for an uncertain future, and set about creating an intentional community.

I'm not a druid, but I've studied the martial arts. In my dojo, we've spoken of the necessity to have "no mind" in combat and in life (there are parallels to this in many of the world's religious traditions). Attachment to outcomes does not lead to better outcomes. To use an outdated metaphor which probably will inspire ridicule, a samurai in combat does not care if he dies, and that is how he survives.

A couple of other small points before I cease my tresspass on everyone's viewing space. I've lived in poor communities. I spent time in northern South Africa, just south of Zimbabwe. I've seen refugees from the strife there. I remember when the headlines read "No Bread in Zimbabwe." Zimbabwe used to be a breadbasket - now basketcase. I worked as a project manager in a very rural community in SA, 95% unemployment. Our project focused on capacity-building ("teach a man to fish" instead of "giving him a fish"). I've seen poverty. I know that it is no picnic. That didn't stop the people from smiling and laughing. But apparently reading blogs on the internet does?

I'll leave it there. I certainly failed in my attempt at brevity!

Publius said...

Great post, as usual.
I have been on "both sides" of this issue. If it's really an issue.
You are completely correct about the fact that those who believe that too much comfort and ease are bad for the soul could simply give it up and go live in the woods or something.
Some people have done this very successfully, such as the wonderful writer and artist Harlan Hubbard. He really did it for years, whereas Thoreau did a really small-scale experiment, but was mainly interested in the poetic and philosophical aspects of a simple life.

I would never accuse you of missing something, because you've no doubt thought of it already or would have a ready rejoinder. I would like to propose, however, that the spiritual malaise and disorders of our age of abundance are very real, and that the majority of suffers, like Tony, cannot find a way out.

Telling them that they could simply choose to give up their comforts and go for it is similar to the advice of rich people to the poor, when they tell them to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. Unfortunately, those suffering from spiritual poverty lack the skills and resources necessary to easily find the path to meaning, just as the real poor lack many of the skills, habits, and resources needed to make money and starts careers or businesses.

While you are correct in your assessment of the dangers of the attitudes that Tony expresses, you might have more sympathy for the very real spiritual crisis of our age. You are part of a spiritual tradition, so you know how important such a grounding is in dealing with life in both abundant and materially poor cultures. ]
Rich people commit suicide... dirt poor people often find life extremely meaningful and worth living. How can we explain this except by resort to the inner, spiritual resources of the person and culture.

I would posit that our culture, for many over-determined reasons, has monetized and undermined so much of what makes life meaningful, that I have great sympathy for those who "yearn" for collapse.
I agree with you, however, in the need to resist this easy way out, and to do the hard work of finding meaning in whatever life one is currently leading, as well as preparing ourselves, families, and communities for the hardships coming.
I disagree with the North Coast commenter about Kunstler: he may push the envelope, and he seems to enjoy the schadenfreude of what's coming a bit, but it is simply reality that more people will have to work the land. So-called "Rousseau", furthermore, don't hate humanity. They have a different vision of the nature of humanity, and a different idea of what really makes a society happy based on that reading of human nature. Who is right, Rousseau or (variously, Hobbes, Locke, Darwin, the Pope, etc.)? That is really a religious dispute.
We can all agree that those who find meaning and even joy in the work and struggles ahead will be at a great advantage over those who don't.

ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,

Thanks for the sobering reality check. It reminds me of an analysis I once read on the difference between virtual reality and stark reality. I think you do have a gift for this.

The Lorax said...

I’ve been reading the Archdruid Report weekly ever since I purchased and enjoyed “The Long Descent” this past April, and I am normally in agreement with the ideas and theories presented. Take away a man’s daydreams, though….  .
My ego (or whatever one would like to call that portion of the human consciousness that takes care of our bodies and reminds us of our own self-interest constantly) does not want to see a collapse of industrial society. I’m relatively young at 25, and so the majority of my life (should I have the strength, luck, and skills necessary to live that long) is sure to be wrought with tough challenges and increasing physical discomfort. I don’t yearn for this, and I don’t daydream about utopian peasant communities with perfect cooperation allowing hours of free time bursting forth immediately after the excrement has passed through the fan.
What I do daydream about is natural equilibrium. I’ve developed a personal spirituality by observing that I am made up of the same matter and energies that also make up the rest of the universe and, more closely, the rest of life on this planet. I believe that as “intelligent” beings, our main purpose in living should be to love – broadly defined as taking care of all life, and nourishing and maintaining the cycles of matter and energy that allow life to function on our planet for as long as it can. Sure, it is possible to pursue this life in today’s industrial society – but only within the larger context of a destructive socio-economic paradigm. Even if I were to move to any place on earth and live in absolute poverty, while this may help my feelings of guilt, it would do nothing to stop the destruction of life by the rest of my species. Thus, the part of my consciousness which encompasses a wider view of reality wholly embraces industrial collapse as a beautiful act of the energies of the Cosmos at work – reigning in a human species that has thrown so many natural systems and cycles out of whack, and moving things back toward equilibrium.
It seems to me that one’s feelings toward industrial collapse are based on the spirituality that one creates for oneself. I don’t know if this is where Tony was coming from – but with my philosophy grounded in the belief that ALL life on earth is sacred and important, I can look forward to the worst-case prospect of years of physical discomfort, toil, and suffering for myself and still know joy because a culture that destroys life is ending, and be hopeful that one which is more mindful of all life can emerge. Our coming challenges are a necessary dot in an awesome, dynamic universe. It is reasonable to take away hope of a comfortable, easy, egalitarian existence, but even if I’m starving to death because of severe food shortages and wacky weather – I will recognize the omnipotence, beauty, and goodness in the natural laws of the universe, and my true essence will be joyful. Bring on the equilibrium!

blue sun said...

Bravo! An eloquent and crystal clear post. Your genius, your grasp of the issues, and the way you do not allow yourself to be emotionally or intellectually knocked off balance (by so many approaching jousters) astounds me.

For my part, I think what the Tonys really want is a sense of community. I think we who identify with Tony have woken up to discover we live in a mass society. The “meaning” that we seek includes not only material temperance and personal spirituality, but also a sense of community. And community is trickier because we can’t re-create it on our own. (Let me tell you, it’s not easy to convince people that local is imperative. I’ve gotten in screaming matches with family members when I suggest not driving a car!)

Feeling the frustration of being unable to create a local community within mass society, I think many Tonys really hope for a collapse of mass society, which they may mistakenly lump with industrial civilization. Yes, some may hope to get rid of the vast misallocated suburban infrastructure, but even these (I don’t think) hope for the collapse of industrial civilization.

I personally am very sensitive to the idea of what constitutes a “true” local community. I of course have my own opinions on this, and I share your skepticism of the cohesion of “transition towns.” But nevertheless, I think one critical institution that will have to be rebuilt in the coming years is our local communities. I think many people see this as a silver lining.

Shiner said...

Mr Greer, I believe there is a third set of people you left out. Two years ago my financil advisor told me to take my money. He is my moms best friends husband and did not want the responsibility anymore. He mentioned that we can't continue this way much longer without a crash and told me to invest in, for lack of a better word, "stuff". Stuff I will want in a long depression.

My garage is full of stuff now. I am pretty certain that I will be better off than most people.

I also studied Perma-culture, alternative energy, and built a pretty good how to library of both paper and didgital media.

Life in modern times is very easy for me. Maybe people like Tony and I just yearn for a challenge.

I do not for one minute think we are headed for enlightened times.

Also the worst day of my life was when my oldest kid moved out. Call me selfish but I want my kids close to me forever. If resource depletion makes it happen I am all for it.

Dan Aktivix said...

While I admire your clearheadedness, there are a few things here that give me pause. First: we may have a future with far less energy and material available to us, but there may also still be much more than was available to humans three or four hundred years ago. We consume all we do because it's cheap - that will not last. Once prices change (economically and ecologically), systems will change.

A comparison: read "your brain is (almost)perfect" - Montague outlines how the human mind evolved to exploit limited energy. He contrasts the brain to a microprocessor - vast energy consumption and burning to touch, because energy is cheap for us. The brain runs on less than a lightbulb's worth, and is merely warm, despite carrying out vastly more complex tasks. The same applies to any complex system: this may yet mean a low-energy future is a dystopian one, but *cost* (again, not just economic but ecological) will force our systems to adapt in ways we can't imagine now.

Second, have you watched Nathan Lewis cost a whole range of various energy future possibilities? I can't imagine any better outline, in terms of cost, of our chances of creating at least a reasonable proportion of sustainable energy sources.

Again - not anything like the cheapness we currently enjoy in the West. The question then is: what cost level will start to unravel the web of our social systems irrevocably? What's enough to kill people?

Which brings me to my last point: the kind of catastrophe we talk about has already happened to millions, and continues to happen. We're - anyone able to write here - an insulated elite. This doesn't quite fit into the grand narrative of either global apocalypse or global salvation-through-crisis. Crises affecting millions are happening all the time. We just privilege our own crisis narratives and find ourselves ignoring everyone else's actual daily existence.

An open mind and clear sight is vital at this time, but I'm not sure any of us can have much surety about how things are going to go. You have a clarity of sight that I, for one, deeply appreciate reading, but I wonder if there's just a little of the obverse of the "transitionista's" gleeful egging on of Peak Oil?

Mark said...

Fantastically well written. I think I've been subconsciously awaiting something like this...

I wanted to point out something along the lines of this Daydream of Destruction. Time after time I will read comments (on various blogs) from all kinds of people about how in the future more people will resort to stealing and brutalism due to the descent of abundant energy or due to a lack of food and water. I find that is a major romanticism and perhaps a daydream as well. If we look to Detroit, a city which is a decent portrait of the future of all cities, there is obviously a lot of crime and dysfunction. It was at one time a murder capital. BUT, in that same city there is some of the most forward thinking agricultural work being done, with exponential growth of community support and involvement.

I think a lot of these predictions of people resorting to some psychopathic alter-ego is more likely to happen in the more affluent sectors of society as opposed to the impoverished.

That's not to say it couldn't happen or that it won't, but it seems to me that it's part of that same daydream of destruction, where everything will be better if we have to kill our neighbors to get by.

benzon said...

I have to agree with lagedargent-- one of your best posts ever.

I have two unrelated comments.

Re: Overshoot. In nature, it is typical for a population in overshoot to crash to below a sustainable level (or "carrying capacity"). In addition, the damage caused by overshoot tends to lower the carrying capacity, at least for a time.

Re: Psycho-spiritual benefits of poverty-- The North Coast stated "Anybody who has ever been poor or lived close to poor populations and has studied crime and mental illness statistics can see that poverty doesn't exactly improve a person's spiritual state or bring personal fulfillment, but is more likely to produce opposite results."

I concur with this in the context where the poverty is embedded in an affluent culture. I've seen the poorest of the poor having access to TV and re-runs of "Dynasty". It's got to be difficult to feel fulfilled with that frame of reference. There seems to be ample evidence to suggest that primitive living with a primitive frame of reference can be highly fulfilling. Unfortunately, this leads to the painful conclusion that you and I can never really un-experience our previously affluent and comfortable lives.

ComputerChip said...

If Tony and his countless equivalents want “a chance to really live,” in other words, nothing is holding them back.

That statement is extrordinarily niave. So much so that I will say nothing further.

Joseph said...

Funny, I was just reading Sharon Astyk's Depletion and Abundance right before reading this, and she seems to lean toward the "life-can-be-better" position, though in a very realistic way.

The book was written almost a year and a half ago, so her views might have changed a bit. She also weighs in on the Monbiot-Kingnorth debate.

Carolyn Baker is certainly realistic about the future, though her book - grounded in what we might call "the feminist critique of Western Civilization" leans toward the "civilization-was-a-mistake-to-begin-with" position shared by Quinn and Derrick Jensen.

It seemed to me at times that Orlov was arguing a while back the idea that the rest of the world could "de-couple" from the collapse of the American empire - I could be mistaken - but this seems unlikely to me.

Kunstler still rails against the horrors of suburbia, but his faith in Obama is waning.

The 2012ers are still convinced that the Mayans predicted a transition to a higher level of transformed human consciousness that will usher in a new age.

There is a recent post on on "the fallacy of climate activism"

Quite a mix of ideas we have going on here.

As someone interested in Mahayana Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and Sri Aurobindo, my take on things would probably be quite different than many, and someday maybe I will write an essay on it.

However, at the very least, I am thankful for having a spiritual path that is not dependent upon what does or does not happen on this planet.

In conclusion, and in the interest of full disclosure, I cannot deny that I did at times entertain the Teilhard de Chardinian viewpoint, the latest maifestation of which is reflected in some of the 2012er views.

And also, like Astyk, I too wish the goverment would stop wasting our wealth on futile wars and instead put it into projects like - as Kunstler so often advocates - rebuilding our railroad system, but I am not holding my breath.

John Michael Greer said...

Yes, I thought this one would hit a nerve. Thanks for all your comments!

Danby, congrats on your upcoming return to farming, but couldn't you have done that any time you chose by giving two weeks' notice? Whether or not "the system" is a fixed game, our lives are not.

Prizm, the individual's capacity to choose always faces resistance, and I'm not at all convinced that the present case is any worse than usual. You're right, though, that blame is a convenient excuse.

Rajiv, thanks for the link!

Mick, thanks for getting it.

Dkallem, thank you.

Karim, people five thousand years ago were expressing the same sort of yearning for a more meaningful life that people express today. Here as elsewhere, the modern world is hardly unique -- and the answer to that predicament remains the same as it always was.

Elizabeth, if I didn't think there was a good shot at mitigating the worst effects of the crisis and avoiding a total meltdown I wouldn't be writing this blog. It's still going to be a very rough road to travel.

Gavin, thanks for asking! My book The Druidry Handbook might be one place to look. The Druid order I head, the Ancient Order of Druids in America, also has a website at that might be worth a glance.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, thank you.

North Coast, despair is no more an answer than utopian fantasy. Those of us who are alive right now are in a difficult situation, but it's one in which much good can be done by those willing to work at it. If I have an answer to the daydreamers, that's it.

James, thank you.

Lagedargent, yes, I'd heard about the suicides. I expect to see a lot more of that in the years to come.

Ahavah, notice that the only kind of change you're considering is changing the world as a whole. What about changing your own life? I've come to think that a great many people are obsessed with making the rest of the world change, so that they don't have to.

John, for what it's worth, I've lived without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. It can be quite a decent existence. I'd be a lot more disconsolate without books!

WG, sure, so long as your idea of a permanent camping trip includes no tents, no sleeping bags, no food but what you can find in the woods, and no source of clean water. The woods are full of ticks and mosquitoes, a bear wanders through your camp every night or so to steal any food it can find, and there's a biker gang in the next campsite. Are you having fun yet?

Dan, exactly. Thank you for getting it.

John Michael Greer said...

Llewellyn, thank you.

Tony, thank you for a thoughtful response! I felt a little bad about making you into a poster child for a set of attitudes I felt badly needed to be discussed and critiqued. You have to make your own choices, of course, but if your life doesn't satisfy your needs, it seems to me that you're a lot better off changing it than waiting for someone or something else to change it for you.

The martial arts metaphor is far from outdated, and can readily be applied to what I've been trying to say. If the life you live has become an enemy to meaning, act as a samurai would; dismiss all other considerations, and cut it through.

Twilight, excellent. Television is one of the best examples of what I've been trying to talk about here. I know a huge number of people who complain about all the advertising, the dumbing-down of the programs, etc., etc. -- and who still sit down in front of the thing every day. There is such a thing as an off switch.

The last television my wife and I ever owned met its end in 1984. We had been keeping it in the closet underneath the vacuum cleaner. it got pulled out at some point and turned on, and didn't work. We looked at each other; I took it out onto the second floor fire escape, and dropped it straight into the apartment dumpster. The flash as the picture tube imploded was profoundly satisfying.

Publius, poor people commit suicide at least as often as rich people, and there's no shortage of help out there for people who genuinely want to get in touch with the sources of meaning in their lives. It's easy to blame modernity for spiritual malaise, but a little reading in the classics of spirituality will show very quickly that people have been wrestling with exactly the same problems since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before that. Mind you, the malaise is real, but it can't be dealt with by changing the world, much less by waiting for something else to change the world -- it can only be dealt with by change within the individual self.

Blue Sun, if people want community, they need to roll up their sleeves and build it. Decline and fall won't do the work for them. My experience, though, is that most people who talk the communitarian line want the benefits of community without the commitments and costs.

Shiner, for heaven's sake, if you want a challenge, there are plenty out there. You don't need to wait for the world to hand you one.

Dan, of course you're right that millions of people in the world today are already experiencing what we will be experiencing in the decades to come. I'm less sure I agree with you about having more energy than people did three or four centuries ago; by the time we get to the bottom of the depletion curves, my guess is that this will not be true, as most "alternative" energy sources depend on energy subsidies from fossil fuels and are not viable without those.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, well put. I'll have to post something one of these days about the parallel fantasy of a zombie future full of mindless hordes suitable for target practice.

Benzon, I'd go a bit further. Neither poverty nor affluence determines the presence or absence of meaning in one's life. Again, it's the inner life that matters.

ComputerChip, thanks for a much needed laugh. Are you sure you could say anything further?

Joseph, that would likely be an essay worth reading. My one disagreement with Aurobindo is his tendency to get caught up in the myth of progress, by way of early 20th century fantasies about evolution, and of course neither Vedanta nor Mahayana Buddhism suffer from that particular glitch.

The North Coast said...

Yes, Mr. Bray, I tried it, albeit not exactly by choice. Twice, in fact.

Childhood camping experiences were instructive. Yeah, sure, there was the beauty of nature, yadda, yadda, but washing dishes in boiled water and drawing a bath without running water and writing by lantern light was something I was sure glad to return home from.

Then, as a young adult, I had my power shut off for a few days over an upaid light bill. Now, mind you, I still had the gas heat from the bldg. boiler and a gas stove and flashlights and a portable radio. Let me tell you that I felt like kissing the meter after I got the power turned back on!

I am one of the few people I know who had a great-grandparent clear into adulthood. My great-grandma was born in 1881 and died in 1978. She grew up on a farm in KY, and she and her husband were glad to sell it in the early 20th and open a general store. When we took her to St. Louis and cleaned out her large 1860-vintage house in Armstrong MO, a tiny hamlet, we found crates of the harsh,hand-made naptha soap she made in the 30s, in this hamlet that had no power in those days. She used that soap to wash clothes and dishes and take a bath and do whatever else had to be done. She said it was the gladdest day of her life when the house was finally wired and she acquired a wringer washing machine. She said her life before the 40s was one unremitting round of physically exhausting household chores. Doing the wash for her family of 7 took the entire day and was brutally exhausting. Boiling the water on the wood stove and then starching the crap and then hanging it to dry, which in the winter took days. Waking up in the freezing Missouri winter and cracking the ice on the washbowl in a freezing room.

Oh, yeah, how joyous and fulfilling it was!

Blindweb said...

As a student of Lao Tzu, living and working in a city, I find repetitious physical labor the easiest way to 'connect' with the Tao. On the other hand, I realize if I grew up as a 3rd world peasant I never would have been exposed to all that I know. Even if I was exposed I would be too worn down and undereducated to see the value in it. As you pointed out, today's high living standard gives me choices; to go meditate in a cave, work a farm, or live in a city. All those freedoms will be narrowing for most soon.

PBS had a quality reality show a couple years back called Colonial House. In the show volunteers tried to live as people lived in colonial days. From what I remember basically the volunteer-colonists worked themselves to the bone to survive and were sick all the time.

I've also been wondering about references for druidry, and/or the use of rituals in society. You've eluded at times to the use of rituals as a method of keeping things in check. I know you don't like to mix your philosophy into this site too much; but with a high level of philosophy and only a h.s. level of science I was brought to a quality peak oil understanding very quickly compared to my contemporaries. I've yet to convince any of the highly science-educated people I know of the direction the future is taking. (Albeit I know mostly engineer types) The more ingrained they are in the science system it seems the more they believe in the ability of humans to overcome anything.

Seaweed Shark said...

I'll come to "Tony's" defense! Some time in the 4th or 5th century the cities of Christian North Africa were rocked by violent riots triggered by disagreements over whether the sacraments were effective if bestowed by a priest who was himself in a state of mortal sin. According to their own theology of the time such disagreements were nonsense, because it is God who bestows the sacrament: the priest was only a conduit and his own spiritual state had no bearing so long as the rite was correctly performed. The truth of the matter was that Roman civilization was breaking down and these people were losing the administrative structure upon which their grain shipments and their defense depended. They knew they were going to die, but they had no economic or political vocabulary to articulate their anger and terror. They had only the language of religion, so they used it: a civilization-wide case of looking where the light is better. It seems to me that "Tony" does much the same thing. He is actually experiencing a genuine oppression: it is not imaginary as you imply, and I think it is not just a case of him being secretly too content with his own comfort to change his life. The oppression felt by the inhabitants of the modern world has no easily identifiable source. A pre-modern slave might have hated his master, but he knew who the master was. The modern predicament is more like the case laid out by the guy in "Grapes of Wrath": the bank that takes his home is a shadowy, faceless organization with no location or identity, "alive without breath" as Tolkien said. Noam Chomsky seems to have felt the same thing: he once remarked that people who wrote to him from the poorest countries always knew exactly what needed to be done, but correspondents from wealthy countries routinely told him they felt powerless and confused and unable to settle on a course of action. "Tony" doesn't really want civilization to collapse: you are right about that. I think what he really hungers for, is to know where to turn for guidance, but he doesn't know how too articulate that need, let alone how to satisfy it. Which is why religion is going to play such a resurgent role in the next few chapters of religion, as I believe Spengler said as well. Thanks for another fine essay. All the best!

Trebor Resro said...

For some reason, this discussion reminds me of the following quote:

“Life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” -- Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I'm an ad-mixture of both.

John Bray said...

Perhaps it's just that those with "Daydreams of Destruction" want the decision to change the way they live taken out of their hands. That way they won't be responsible if it doesn't work out.

I got out of the system six years ago now and have a couple of acres in Spain. At the time I didn't even know about peak oil - but I was definitely uneasy about the long-term economic viability of the UK.

I rarely go back to the UK nowadays but when I do it's like Groundhog Day! The same people are sat at the same bar-stools complaining about the same things as they were before I left. I normally get comments like "it's alright for you" as If I'd won a lottery or something. The option to change is open to all as far as I am concerned - if you are really determined.

In a way I suppose I have kind of won a lottery. Today, myself and my wife have far more practical skills than we ever had before. Additionally, we are part of a community which industrialisation has pretty much bi-passed. Without cars and electricity, this area is only going back 50 years. And up until then it had supported itself for centuries.

Another possibility for "Daydreams of Destruction" types is envy. Maybe they feel that it is all so unfair that others have more power, influence, money, stuff or whatever than they do. Hoping for destruction is maybe their way of getting even with the cruel world. Personally, I'd rather spend my time enjoying what I have got and working to make things better than they otherwise might be in the future. I'm in no doubt that the future could be worse than today - but that doesn't mean I won't try to make them better than they otherwise might be.

PS: I got the water sorted after a couple of months - though the electricity took nearly a year.

RJ said...

I rather think that a great many poor farmers of the Italian hinterlands daydreamed about skinning wealthy moneylenders.

vegan_satori said...

The problem isn't careless optimism -- although it doesn't help... the problem is the real, growing scarcity of life support. A recent report indicates that now more than 1 billion human beings are in unrelieved hunger every day. Many will observe themselves die from it. JMG is right, rather than improve the situation, a crashing supply system will vastly exacerbate our miseries. It is easy to imagine Kurt Vonnegut's 'ethical suicide parlors' popping up all over. We have embedded a preference for the easy way out. While horrifically morbid, it is theoretically possible that if sufficient numbers of people choose such an 'escape', the remainder might have a better chance of survival. Will 'ethical suicide' become a mass propaganda theme?

Ahavah Gayle said...

We've made many changes - including selling our old house and moving to a place where the kids can walk to high school, bike to college, and my husband can do either to get to work. I am in the process of replacing all the wall-to-wall carpet in this place with real floors, getting rid of superfluous electric gadgetry in favor of old-fashioned kitchen and household tools, and so on. But it's a "tragedy of the commons" situation in many respects - nobody else I know is doing the same, and won't until it's pretty much too late to do so. They won't do what's necessary to save the local economy, so it won't be saved. And in the end, we lose it all of my husband loses his job - and there's nothing I can do about that. We'll be living in the car - we have nowhere else to go. So all my work and preparation is useless if everybody else doesn't participate. That's the reality most people face, I think.

Dan Treecraft said...

"BINGO!" JMG for your latest sober assessment of "Things, Future".

Bravo, Tony for your patient, defenseless clarification of your thoughts.

To borrow from Kunstler: "It's all good!"


Kevin said...

You paint a truly frightening picture in this most compelling post. I too feel uneasy about what I hear from those who seem to imagine that a post-collapse future will be in any way rosy or "refreshing," as an old friend of mine once put it.

I'm not a fan of Kunstler. I suppose he's right about many things - his prediction of piracy has certainly been vindicated - but he seems to me to delight in foretelling catastrophe, presenting a moralistic fable in which a wicked humanity receives its well-deserved punishment at the hands of nature. Moreover the tone and spirit of comments from many of the following he attracts also strike me as disturbing.

I'm presently engaging in discussion of peak oil and civilizational decline in a forum unrelated to this one. My interlocutors are currently pointing to nuclear and geothermal energy as salvational devices. I've tried to find your arguments against them in old posts of this blog, but without success. It would be a great help to me if you could point me to a good online source of that information that states the case as briefly and concisely as possible. Specifically I want to address the proposed collection of oceanic uranium and, as I mentioned, geothermal energy.
I've already gleaned what Wikipedia has to say.

This blog has altered my world view significantly. I would far rather have retained my prior belief that humanity can still attain a high level of general global prosperity provided we take the right technological and economic steps. However the evidence you present and the way you present it have made this difficult.

provo said...

I've seen a few pokes here at Jensen and Quinn -- I like both those guys! Maybe the comfort level of humans isn't the point here. Humans need to greatly reduce their numbers, and the power of their technology, simply to allow the rest of Life to survive. They've forfeited their prerogatives (if they ever had any) -- they're at their best when scarce.

The good news of Collapse is not that humans will experience some kind of renaissance -- it's that the rest of Nature won't be totally extinguished.

And BTW, I have children AND a grandchild. I love them all. This issue is not about them, it's about All of us, including the rainforest, whales, birds, et. al.

PanIdaho said...

Danby - what do you grow on your farm?

Mark from Colorado said...

Your last two posts have been sobering, and thought provoking, thank you.
I read this latest post this morning, allowing some time to think about a response. Others have said what I would have said, but much better than I could have said it. The one thing I could add is this; This is all like hospices care for a whole cultural mind set and way of life, it’s like watching someone dying. And what are the stages again, denial, blame, bargain, anger, fear, acceptance?

Richard said...

I think many of the people hoping for better futures recognise that the collapse is going to get ugly and place their hoped for future after the collapse has finished. I also think this is why sudden apocalyptic scenarios are popular among some, for it places this within reach of their lifetimes rather than a long descent in which it will be a completely different generation once the descent period is over.

There's the issue of our personal lives, which most of us are in agreement has to do with inner fulfillment. However, do you not agree that outside events can influence inner fulfillment, and one of those is watching the environment being destroyed around you constantly, and industrial chemicals contaminating our bodies. Not that there aren't people finding fulfillment despite that, and of course there have been plenty of obstacles to fulfillment in times past too. However I do think about these things a lot, partly because of chemical sensitivites I have, luckinly they are not super severe and I have made slow progress in overcoming them, but they still make many things that most in our society consider routine to be challenging to myself.

I do think there's a possibility of a better future for humanity (and the biosphere) as a whole down the line, just pretty far down the line in the descent scenario. That is defining better as more fulfilling for a greater number of people, and also in greater balance with the biosphere. However, I do accept this is in the very long term, and it's only a possibility, not an inevitability. I certainly do not propose "waiting around for the world to end" as, except for a miracle which I'm not counting on, it is only hard work by determined people that can steer things in the right direction for this outcome to take place.

I think not only for myself but for most others I know who are aware of the situation, we have a mental paradox going on, we know that when collapse starts our lives and those we love are very likely to take a turn for the worse, we also know that the longer modern civilization's destructive effects last, the worse it's going to get in the end, so we both dread it but part of us longs for it too, part which I'm fully aware I'll probably come to regret when I'm dealing with it as reality.

I am looking forward to hearing more details of your cultural conservers foundation, as I do believe there are many aspects of modern society that are worth preserving. However I think the most important aspects to conserve are natural ones, and the cultural practices that can sustain these. All the other cultural aspects are dependent on our relationship with the Earth. I have many disagreements with some conservationists however, as many see conservation as museums of what it was like before 1491 (in America). While it may be useful to have certain areas like this, with the realities of climate change, human dispersal, etc., we need to accept that "nature" will be different in the future, as it always has changed, it's just doing so much faster because of us now. We need to conserve our soil, which all other life on land is dependent, and biodiversity, which includes assisting species migrating to new refuges to adapt to climate change that might not be able to move so fast on their own, or might be blocked by destroyed habitat. For every species lost is one fewer puzzle piece for the new nature to reorganize. What would you think of a "biological conservers foundation"

P.S. Have you ever read "Permaculture: Principles and Practices Beyond Sustainability" by David Holmgren, you and he seem to share many ideas, although agriculture is a main there, he also branches out into so many other aspects of natural and human systems, that book has been my number one inspiration.

John Michael Greer said...

North Coast, these are among the reasons I'm hoping that we can preserve some of the helpful creations of the last three hundred years.

Blindweb, I've seen the same thing among scientists, though there are some splendid exceptions. As the de facto priesthood of the religion of progress, I suppose they get a double dose of our civilization's hubris.

Seaweed Shark, the comparison's forced; there was much more going on behind the riots you've mentioned than a displaced fear that the empire was falling. Still, that's a discussion for a different time. The point I'd make here is that the people who claim to be longing for the end of the current empire aren't rioting about anything. They're playing with toy soldiers and thinking that that's what war is like.

Trebor, thanks for the quote!

John, it's common for people who don't want to embrace needed change to hope that some outside factor will force the decision they're not willing to take themselves. I suspect that this is an example of the same thing.

RJ, you'd think so, but very often the poor just want to get rich themselves.

Satori, I don't expect anything so organized -- more likely, as in the former Soviet Union, a lot of people will simply drink themselves to death.

Ahavah, you're confusing two different issues. If your plans for peak oil depend on your husband's job, that's difficult. If your sense of meaning and purpose in life depends on your husband's job, that's appalling. In critiquing Tony's comments about the end of the industrial age, I was talking about the latter, not the former. Mind you, you might consider retooling your peak oil plans to focus less on having things (like a house) and more on having skills; what you know and can do can't be taken away from you, and will make you all the more likely to succeed in a community where other people haven't learned the skills they'll need.

Dan, agreed -- it's definitely a good conversation.

Kevin, I don't know that anyone has taken the time to slog through the math on oceanic uranium, as it's patently absurd -- the energy that would be needed to extract any usable quantity of U-238 from the 0.003 parts per million of uranium that's dissolved in sea water would be a good deal more than the energy that would be produced by putting it in a reactor. The problem with geothermal energy, except in those few favored spots where it's unusually accessible, is the same: net energy. I don't have references to hand at the moment but there ought to be some good sources on geothermal net energy on the web.

Provo, you'll see more pokes at Jensen and Quinn if you hang around here; I'm not a fan of theirs. If you have children and a grandchild, you've helped cause the problem you claim to be addressing; that smacks of hypocrisy.

Mark, that's an excellent metaphor. The only problem is that the patient won't go into a hospice, or accept any kind of treatment at all.

John Michael Greer said...

John (offlist), please leave out the personal jabs. That's not something I'm willing to encourage here.

Bookjunky (also offlist), if you'll prune the profanity from your post and resubmit it I'll gladly put it through. Remember that this is an all ages blog!

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, I think every age presents somewhat different challenges to those who seek what you've called fulfillment. Ours is no worse, though certainly no better, than others. There's certainly a place for efforts to conserve biological diversity, but we all have to choose the piece of the puzzle we want to tackle, and mine just now is the conservation of cultural heritage. As for Holmgren's book, I've read it, though some others have been more influential in my own work.

Matt said...

Hi John

Just wanted to send a heartfelt "thank you!" for this post and the many others that you've written. I guess I've been reading this blog every week for a couple of years and also found The Long Descent very useful.
Your ideas and writing, as well as many of the comments here have moved my life in some very positive directions. Thanks for helping me and those around me!

Pangolin said...

Well......there is a very large source of food that we don't often consider.......

Well, most of us don't often consider it. Acknowledging that there are going to be well armed paramilitaries in any future and that I'm not going to be one them. And recognizing that in a warlord state it is not good to be a peasant...

I would say that people need to consider the third path. The hill tribe. Or in the initial stages of collapse; The Cannibal Horde.

Which is why I'm starting my new blog "Cannibal Horde Recipe Book" as a sort of 'Anarchist Cookbook' for the long-pig and garlic crowd.

OK, I don't really advocate eating humans. On the other hand there are ugly possibilities that may be best explored in a semi-fictional context.

v'word: ritednes

Pangolin said...

With all due respect to those hopeful folks out there who plan on living in ecovillages and raising tasty and varied diets in their permaculture gardens.........get a clue.

I'm writing this from a cohousing community in Northern California. The solar panels are caked with dust. The landscape is overgrown anywhere it's not underwatered. The meetings generally are run with the social mores of junior high school; never mind everybody has at least a masters degree. The fruit trees get stripped in the middle of the night. I could go on.

Modern people have NO IDEA of the kind of social organization that it takes to operate on a subsistence farming level. A huge part of it involves gritting your teeth and working with people who annoy you and/or staying married to a nutcase. The reason Mexican dishwashers look relaxed is because they know they get two days off per week; an unthinkable luxury on a farm.

Permaculture teachers (is there any other kind?) will immediately show you computer presentations of swales cut with graders and drip irrigation systems. Graders? Drip? If they were really working farmers they would be comparing hoe styles, kama vs. machete and talking about fencing. Try producing 80 yards of mulch with a machete and you'll see why they need a rethink.

Lets not go into the horrors of low-tech medicine. Boiled cockroaches would be an improvement on some of the Traditional Chinese Medical brews I've downed. At least cockroaches aren't shiny, blue beetles.

If it's all the same I'll take a high-tech, low energy society if we can arrange it.


Dan Aktivix said...

"I'm less sure I agree with you about having more energy than people did three or four centuries ago; by the time we get to the bottom of the depletion curves, my guess is that this will not be true, as most "alternative" energy sources depend on energy subsidies from fossil fuels and are not viable without those."

As Schumacher points out, there's a basic economic point here: we currently treat fossil fuels as income when they're capital. The same point is in many economics 101 textbooks: will you spend your earnings on pizza and gin, or save it to invest in a college education or a house? Something that will bring returns later. If we can treat fuels as investment, there's scope for building enough renewables to - at least - avoid the scenario of grovelling in the mud to feed ourselves that you outline. Such a future might not be a decentralised utopia: imagine if our major power sources continue to be e.g. like Manapouri in New Zealand. Even if we only had these, though, I can see how they could - if their output is 'invested' - leverage further energy outputs. (I imagine some might respond, there's a basic thermodynamic law there, but that's an error in this case.)

Like having the energy to crank the handle on an old car, its a question of whether we're able to invest enough to keep a non-fossil system going, and perhaps expand it slowly over time. Nathan Lewis asks: what is required to have as much energy as we have now; that's the wrong question. Can we build systems with enough energy to keep us from a medieval life? Can we, like the human brain, evolve as a social-cognitive system to be efficient users of that energy?

Question, then: what leads you to conclude that, at the end of our fossil energy descent, we'll be back where we started (except with billions more people?) A lot rests on this question and I'm keen for as much evidence, argument and information as possible! Being a modeller, I might try and make an abstract case and see how things pan out in such a pretend world...

Matthijs said...

"The world will be better in the future, just look at the last decades" is an argument I hear a lot when discussing peak oil with my friends. They generally have not read any books in the last decade other that the usual bestsellers about how to be successful and fiction writers.

Most people have not been introduced to other visions about our future. The vision you present here is the result of many years of intensive reading and thinking about our current problems. I would argue that because most of your readers just never thought about the future in a different way they are not easily convinced your vision is most realistic.

John, you can not possibly imagine how helpful the "A Deindustrial Reading List" has been for me to really get some insight in our predicament. Especially for those that are just becoming familiar with peakoil and resource depletion it might be helpful to get some suggestions how to learn more about the essentials.

May I suggest a 2nd reading list?

Tony said...

Just so everyone knows, my name actually is Tony, so you can leave out the quotation marks ;-)

Adrian Skilling said...

I was a dreamer like Tony. Still am to a large extent, but after studying more I'm becoming more realistic. I'm making changes in my life, reducing my work to study horticulture (I'm currently stuck in an office - but its well paid, comfortable and quite interesting to be honest) but I encounter resistance from those around me don't share my view of the future - two very young children and a wife are dependent on me.

Its hard make radical changes, such as reducing my income to learn sustainable skills and spend money on reducing our fossil fuel dependence - though we have done so its like swimming in syrup!
It might get easier when others realize what is happening, but it could get very much harder.

My job looked very shaky recently and staring into the abyss of losing it was scary. So I don't dream about losing it but am making small steps to work off the land more, learn new skills and achieve more variety in life.

Richard Heinberg said that transitions can appear fast from the outside, but are much slower to those living through them. I feel this looking back over a couple of years. But I fear very much for my two children under 4, they will live their whole lives though this transition. I hope I can help them get through it well.

mobiaxis said...

I have been poor and don't have any romantic ideas about how it is spiritually better to be poor than experience has been exactly the opposite (see Maslow's heirarchy of needs). I agree with those who say if you think that way: "What's stopping you from doing it yourself right now?"

I admit to being one of those who thinks that the collapse of civilization as we know it will bring about, at least for many people, much needed reforms in personal values, ethics and behavior. And sometimes I can get a little carried away along those lines of thought, so thanks for bringing it back down to earth.

I am also one who tries to find meaning in the life I have in front of me, and a part of that is focusing on what I want more of and not giving much attention to that of which I want less. The outward result seeming to be that I neglect the horrors we will be facing and rejoice in a return to 'simpler times'. This is actually not the case - I am fully aware that what we are looking at will not be pretty at all, but there is not much point, aside from driving myself into a suicidal depression, to focus on all that calamity. Instead I try to look for productive enterprise I can do today to try to mitigate the coming misery, and I try to look for whatever small glimmer of hope that at least SOME aspects of life may be better. And, in fact, the efforts on my part to develop those personal qualities has already improved my life today.

I pride myself on being a "harsh realist", but even so, some things are just to awful to spend a great deal of time thinking about.

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, thank you.

Pangolin, your experience of a would-be utopian community is about the same as mine was. The daydream is one thing and the reality, once you insert real people with all their quirks and foibles, is quite another. I don't know that dining on one's less congenial neighbors is necessarily the best response, though!

Dan, of course it would be a great idea to treat fossil fuels as capital rather than income, but the entire modern world is set up to treat them as income, and the scarcer they become, the greater will be the short-term advantages to using them as income. There are plenty of solutions that make perfect sense in the abstract but have zero chance of being applied in practice in the real world, and I'm sorry to say this is one of them.

Matthijs, I'll put some thought into it. Expect something in a forthcoming post.

Tony, thanks for the clarification!

Adrian, one of the advantages we have is precisely that change moves at a slower pace than historical hindsight suggests. It's not necessary (or in most cases possible) to change everything all at once; incremental changes are what's needed, and if they're done with some sense of the wider context they can accomplish a lot.

Mobiaxis, granted, it doesn't do a lot of good to brood over dieoff all the time. There's a middle road to be walked, here as elsewhere.

juantblanco said...

I think a book of rising importance will be the _Enchiridion_ by Epictetus.

You can find a copy of it here.

The final exhortation seems to be fitting:


Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:

"Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my station."

"I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still
Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven."
--Euripides, Frag. 965

And this third:

"0 Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot."
--Plato's Crito and Apology


Or, as was said in the comments section a while ago, "Pray for saucers, but keep your shoulder to the plow."

Jeremy said...

Great post JMG,

I have been reading you for years but this is my first post

I wrote two long winded replies to this before I realized I still hadn't finished thinking about it and just what I believe, and what I am dreaming.

Thank you for the forced reflection it is most beneficial!

John Michael Greer said...

Juan, now there's a suggestion close to my heart. Epictetus did more than anything else to get me through the most difficult period of my adult life, following the death of my only child, and his teachings (and Stoicism generally) are still among the spiritual resources I turn to first. It's a good philosophy for difficult times.

Jeremy, you're most welcome! Thank you for taking up the challenge.

Cash Gorman said...

How the coming of the end of our current lifestyle will not effect everyone the same way. Tribes that have been transporting salt across the desert in exchange for goods from other tribes for as long as anyone can remember will probably wonder where all the government people in SUVs have gone. Other than that, the passing of the first world would likely go unnoticed.

For the rest of us it's likely a series of "Long Emergencies", a slow grind down with violent bumps along the way. Some countries will fare far better than others depending on their location, access to remaining resources and and infrastructure.

Myself, well I'm downsizing my energy requirements, growing an increasing amount of my own food and raising chickens, using roof water harvesting and passive solar energy for hot water and extra heating. I will lead by example NOW rather than wait for better times some think will be the result of a crash in our modern world.

juantblanco said...


I am sorry for your loss.

Stoicism gets a bad name this day and age. I blame the ascent of Puritanism and its daughter Progressivism.

I should have found this book before a certain period of my life. But, we would not be connecting over the internet in this way, nor would I have read your book _The Long Descent_. Both Epictetus and the future seem to confirm that my decision was for the best.

Recently, you have moved much closer to my area of operations, are you going to be promoting your book or giving a talk in this region soon? I hesitate to ask anything more as I am just a random Blogger account typing in a combox.

QuantumAutumn said...

It is my belief that "As above, so below". The "Industrial Revolution" which is a phrase that encompasses the leeching of the planet's resources by humanity, is the outcome of a higher problem. Let me explain.

Much of the human race, in its dense, industrialized cities and suburbs around the world is a grand picture of parasitical work in action. As Agent Smith in "The Matrix" explains:

This paints an accurate picture of how Industrialization has infected humanity, and how humanity now infects this precious Earth. Our grand cities are centers of our parasitical action. Slowly draining the life-force of this planet. Before Industrialization humanity was closer to the Earth - a part of it. Now, we view ourselves as "conquerors" of our dominion. We are "sons of God" charged to subdue the Earth, an ingrained mindset given to us from a literal view of Genesis. A view embraced by all Fundamentalist monotheistic religions.

Toxic religion (toxic spirituality) was one of the fuels which drove the Industrialization of humanity, without the thought of the consequences. Dispensationalist Christianity tells us that Jesus is coming back any moment to transform and renew the Earth. Again, no thought of the consequences for future generations since Jesus is "gonna make it all better". I know this is simplistic, but one cannot deny that monotheistic, conservative religion has been a MAJOR factor in bringing us to where we are today.

Yet this is still not the main issue. "As above, so below" is an esoteric axiom. There is a reason why humanity has traveled down the road of Nature abuse and has become the parasitical cancer of this planet - a parasitical force that now threatens all of life.

Instead of going into great detail in explaining this, let me guide you to the most insightful and well reasoned explanation of how and why humanity has transformed into a parasitical force:

Jonathan Zap of has uncovered one of the most important truths of our age and his "Mind Parasites" work is, I believe, one of the most critical works to arise in modern times. Please take the time to read his work and listen to his audio messages on the Mind Parasite Matrix (the online version above is an greatly edited version of over eight hours of lecture on the subject).

The Mind Parasite Matrix is one of (if not thee) reasons behind the Industrialization of the world and the horrible state that we now find ourselves in environmentally. We are victims, just as the Earth is victimized by us.

Isis said...


I think you're oversimplifying matters. First, two quotes of yours:

"The fact that a life lived in material comfort can be unsatisfying does not mean that the comfort is what makes it unsatisfying."

"If Tony and his countless equivalents want “a chance to really live,” in other words, nothing is holding them back. If they feel their present comforts are obstacles to a better life, nothing prevents them from getting rid of those comforts."

Now, I'd like to make two (related) points. First, 'comfort' can, in fact, be a source of major discomfort. Second, there are two different kinds of poverty: absolute poverty (where a person can hardly keep body and soul together), and relative poverty (where a person lacks the resources to fully participate in social and civic life; the more affluent the society, the wealthier one needs to be in order to be able to fully participate in it).

My favorite example for illustrating both of these points is the cell phone. I don't have one. I refuse to get one for a host of reasons (cost, annoyance, possible radiation, harm caused by cell phone towers, and so on and so forth). I do, in all honesty, believe that my life is better without a cell phone than it would be if I did have one (even if someone else were to foot the bill). This illustrates my first point.

For my second point: living without a cell phone in a society where everyone else has one carries social costs that it would not carry in a society where cell phones are a rarity (or even better: non-existent). For example, my friends generally communicate with people using these things, and that means that I get left out of a number of things because I'm 'inconvenient' to reach. If I lived in a society where nobody had a cell, this wouldn't be an issue because then I'd have the luxury of being just as reachable as everyone else, and planning in advance would be the standard, and not an inconvenience associated with dealing with cell-less eccentrics such as myself.

Now, it may be that one of these days I'll decide that, in fact, living without a cell phone in a society where such gadgets are ubiquitous is simply not worth it, and I may cave in and get one. But one way or the other, I feel very confident saying that, whether or not I had a cell, I would be better off if all cell phones suddenly vanished into thin air. My not having a cell phone in a society such as ours is _not_ equivalent to living in a society in which having a cell phone is no longer considered a norm. (And there goes my favorite daydream of destruction!)

I could do the same exercise for a number of other things, including corporate jobs and such, but I want to keep this (relatively...) brief. Ultimately, the point is that, as long as we retain access to basic necessities of life, the disappearance (at the societal level, and not merely at the personal level) of many, many (though by no means all) 'comforts' that we 'enjoy' today is likely to yield net benefits.

Of course, the fact that many people (myself possibly included) are likely to see their access to basic necessities curtailed is a whole different issue.

J Gav said...

Thank you for another thoughtful post. My comments, or rather question, will appear in the following,contextualizing paragraph.

Nate Hagens recently posted a Joseph Tainter speech (TOD, Sept 9)which was largely on the topic of societal complexity and sustainability. In it, he unequivocally states that complexity is not primarily due to surplus energy. Though I know of your appreciation of some aspects of his theory of collapse, as well as some of the differences between his and your own writings on Catabolic Collapse, it seems that this point is a major dividing line between your two points of view. That is to say that you generally position yourself among those who would say that fossil fuels did indeed enable a new level of societal development and complexity. Would you concur with my conclusion here?
As this is my first comment on this blog, please excuse the untowardness of perhaps not respecting its purpose, ie I find myself using it to ask a direct question as opposed to participating in a forum.
J Gav

Danby said...

Cash Gorman,
Howdy cousin (assuming your real name is Gorman). That's exactly what JMG is advocating.

I'm not farming currently. Due to some health issues this last spring, we didn't even plant a garden this year. When I was farming we raised vegetable starts, vegetables and sheep.

John Michael,
I'm not saying I want to get laid off....Oh wait, yes I am. Just cut me my darn severance check you corporate weasels!.

Anyway, It is not about my own happiness and hasn't been since 1980.

kabir said...

JMG, Your last two posts have stimulated a great deal of reflection on my own views of post industrial realities, thank you for this.

After a couple of failed idealistic attempts in permaculture like communities and in general the failure of my own best made idealism. I am finding my thoughts much more in line with your view of us simply muddling along through the upheavel of global industrial collapse.

I do however find myself in disagreement with your thought that history is not tending towards progress of some sort. From what I have read of the origin and evolution on life it seems that life has been exponentially increasing in complexity over the last 4 billion years. Somewhere I have heard that the human nueral cortex is itself the most complex object in the universe. That being the case isn't it somewhat tempting to assume that the humans are more complete and progressed than other organisms? Our history too as humans also doesn't seem to be aimless; language, written word, and long distance communication seem to be further extensions that allow us to probe deeper and deeper towards something yet to be defined.

I don't however put much stock in this trend and am assuming that we will see the collapse of industrialism. To prepare I'm working on a wide range of skill sets and accompaning life experiences. Yet in the back of my mind I really admit I find it hard to contemplate that the indutrial era was essentially an aimless sort of deadend that mankind walked into.

J Gav said...

Now that I've read the comments here and feel a bit more acquainted with the style of the blog's comment page, I'll come back, both on the issue I raised concerning Tainter (and which apparently didn't get through Google) and on another, perhaps only indirectly related.
Firstly, it seems fair to say (and perhaps you will) that the energy surplus vs Tainter's constant-need for-problem-solving explanation as the main causal factor in overshoot and eventual collapse may be a "faux-problème," the outlook in either case being rather similar. I would nonetheless be interested in your view. Disclosure: as a reader of energy issues since the late 1990s (yes, I started with the Die-Off site), I confess I tend to go with your reading.
Secondly, I for one would welcome your "putting on the druid's hat" more often so that it might inform your writings more thoroughly . Though not a scholar in terms of specialization, I have more than dabbled in the history of religion(s)and the realm of spirituality. Yours being one which I have unfortunately neglected more than most, though I share your enthusiasm (if that's the word here) for Stoicism. Of course it isn't a question of this or that "Truth" winning out. All spirituality is a vehicle for roughly the same truths. One of which could well be that the development of human life from childhood needs mediation. People need to be ritually introduced to the idea that they are, each one individually, the center of the universe. And, on the other hand, the need is no less pressing for them to understand how they are, individually, decidedly NOT the center of anything at all! Otherwise, they will never be prepared to accept the innumerable paradoxes and contradictions they will inevitably encounter in their lives.
What has filtered through on this subject from your articles is already enriching and I promise to check out the side-bar references and others to flesh out my knowledge of Druidism.
I'll close with a modest reference: Pierre Legendre, institutional historian and author of a series of 8 "Leçons" (yes, I live in France) among many other books, makes a very good case, by means of legal history, art history and psychology (Okay, he's a tad too strictly Freudian for me but it's powerful stuff) for the absolute (that's the right word!) necessity of social participants of all stripes to be initiated! I imagine it exists in translation. I particularly recommend volumes 3,4 and 7 of the Leçons.
Many thanks if you've been patient enough to read this.
J Gav

Joseph said...


Re: Aurobindo, yes, it has crossed my mind that he was influenced by the myth of progress. I am still interested in him in relationship to other emanationist theories and cosmogonies.

Also, it should be noted that in the 70's (and earlier), the buzzphrase was "integrating East and West", and so many saw Aurobindo as a forerunner of this project, which seems a plausible project.

At any rate, the idea was to integrate the western upward linear trajectory - the cosmos moving toward greater and greater degrees of perfection - with the eastern idea of universal cycles to yield the upward-moving spiral.

It should also be noted that many in the 2012 camp have been influenced by legitimate and intelligent investigation of entheogens.

Graham Hancock has a recent book out called "Supernatural" that investigates the idea that entheogenic shamanism involves tapping into a DNA archive, and along with Jeremy Narby, proposes the possibility that DNA is a form of biotechnology that contains a whole database of genetic evolution that can be "read" via visionary experience.

These ideas are, of course, extrapolations of theories of panspermia and directed panspermia. It was Crick who thought that the odds of DNA and complex proteins arising by chance in 100 million years on this planet, as the evidence suggests, is less probable than a hurricane blowing through a junk yard and leaving a fully constructed 707 jetliner behind in its wake.

There is, to my mind, the possibility that biological evolution is occuring elsewhere and elsewhen, with the possibility that there have been races that exceeded us in evolution, and may have created bioengineered versions of DNA, of which our evolution on this planet is but one example and outcome.

And there is evidence that this can be investigated via visionary experience.

John Michael Greer said...

Cash, this is exactly the sort of thing I've been encouraging, and doing myself, for years. Good for you.

Juan, thank you. We're still in the process of settling in, but yes, I'll be exploring events here in the Cumberland area in the not too distant future; I've already talked with a couple of bookstores. If you know of any good venues, I can be reached via info (at) aoda (dot) org.

Quantum, yes, it's simplistic. Rather too simplistic for my tastes, to be frank.

Isis, of course you'd be more comfortable, and have an easier time with certain things, if the technologies you choose not to use were to vanish. Does that make those technologies an obstacle to a meaningful life? I don't see how that works -- and I don't own a cell phone either, by the way.

Gav, you're quite correct. To be precise, I see a society's maximum attainable social complexity as a function of net energy per capita. A society may be less complex than its net energy basis will permit, for a variety of reasons, but it can't be more complex. I'm still working out the details, but I'm coming to think that decreasing net energy per capita, in a society that has already topped out at its maximum attainable complexity, is the most common cause of the decline and fall of civilizations.

Danby, understood. I hope the farming works out for you!

Kabir, the most complex material substance in the known universe is fertile topsoil. Pound for pound, it's much more complex than the human brain. More generally, it's a common fallacy that evolution has proceeded in the direction of greater complexity over time.

Not so; the complexity of the biosphere has increased and decreased over geological time, mostly as a function of climate change (the warmer the planet, the more complex the biosphere). Organisms show no particular progression in the direction of complexity; nor, once the effects of the brief window of fossil fuel exploitation are taken out of the picture, does human history. All that's a projection of the religion of progress onto the inkblot patterns of the evolutionary past.

Gav, an enthusiastic Stoic would be quite a sight! No, I hadn't encountered Legendre; I'll see if I can find his work. I read French tolerably well, so translations won't be necessary.

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, visionary experience -- with or without hallucinogens -- has very mixed results when applied to the world of concrete particulars where history unfolds. Each generation of visionaries convinces itself, and a lot of other people, that it's finally gotten the true history of the planet, and forgets that the last generation made exactly the same claims for totally different narratives. (Of course it doesn't help that when the claims can be tested in the world of fact, they consistently prove inaccurate.) As Henri Corbin points out in his useful essay "Mundus Imaginalis," the realm accessed by visionary experience cannot simply be mapped onto the world of concrete fact; the relationship between the two is complex, and those who miss that complexity routinely end up pursuing (and preaching) absurdities.

Isis said...


First, life isn't either 'meaningful' or 'non-meaningful'. It's a continuum, always. I suppose it's possible to lead a 'meaningful life' on the death row in a maximum security prison, but that hardly means that being on a death row in a maximum security prison does not represent an obstacle to a meaningful life. And even the most fortunate of us sometimes engage in soul-draining activities (although what activities count as soul-draining depends on the individual).

Second, it's not simply a matter of whether or not I choose to use a certain technology. It's perfectly possible to own a cell phone, use it all the time, and hate it with passion. For example, if your employer requires you to have one, and uses it to keep you on a leash 24/7. That's an obstacle to a meaningful life.

Third, consider the amount of work that you have to put in in order to obtain a minimal level of affluence required for full (or even half-full) participation in the social and civic life of a technological society. If you have to pull double shifts in order to obtain those 'comforts', and if your society requires you to have them or else excludes you from social and civic life, then yes, those 'comforts' represent an obstacle to a meaningful life.

Or take such things as electronic music. As it becomes more and more available, fewer and fewer people get together to play and sing together. Even if you personally would like to do so, it becomes hard to find company for it. (Sure, if you're quite good, you'll be able to. But if you're just a regular person with no musical training who sings off key but really enjoys it anyway, then it gets much harder.) So there's another way in which technology can be an obstacle to a meaningful life.

And I don't suppose I need to tell you about people who actually produce our 'comforts'.

The cost of all these comforts (both for those who produce them, and for those who 'enjoy' them) is the loss of free time and non-commercialized interaction among people. People who know more about this than I do claim that medieval peasants had more free time than we do. In fact, has there ever been a non-industrial society in which people had less free time on average than we do today? The price of all this technology has been the loss of free time, and yes, that counts as an obstacle to a meaningful life in my book.

None of this is to say that industrialization hasn't made life easier and more exciting in some ways. What I am saying is that the cost of this has been high indeed. And that as we deindustrialize, some of those costs (though by no means all: much permanent damage has been done) will disappear or be reduced. (And yes, of course, some costs that we don't have to pay now will reappear.)

And one more time, just in case: I'm not saying that it is impossible to have a meaningful life in a technological society (see my first paragraph). I am saying that a technological society, in some ways, drains meaning from our lives. And I would say that it does so more than do many other human societies. It remains to be seen how a deindustrialized world will compare on this front to the world we live in today.

QuantumAutumn said...


"Quantum, yes, it's simplistic. Rather too simplistic for my tastes, to be frank."

I agree. The monotheistic religions and their dogma (with regards to Industrialism) was not my point though. It was Jon Zap's work on Mind Parasites.

This is certainly not a simplistic answer and from studying it (as well as source material that he sites) it explains A LOT from an esoteric view as to why things have turned out the way they have for humanity.

If you haven't read Jonanthan Zap's work yet I HIGHLY recommend it to you, since I know you are knowledgeable in the esoteric and occult realms. Having read most of all of your books (that I can find in print) I can say you will appreciate this material and you will not be disappointed.

I was also shocked to hear of your loss of your child. I am SO SORRY.

J Gav said...


Thank you for your leniency after my first clumsy and no doubt somewhat off-topic post. I don't promise not to do it again, however.

I fully agree on the importance of net per capita energy as an indicator; that is one nasty statistic! (and easier to root out than EROEI)! Of course it doesn't seem to be moving in a direction favorable to the continuance of what Jim Kunstler calls "happy motoring," or to a myriad of other hedonic activites that we collectively have come to accept as "necessary."

Turning to what may be done in a post-whatever-discombobulation-is-in-store-for-us world, your advice to salvage what we can from our usable, collective, present and historical knowledge-base rings true to my ears. Low Tech's good! The more people there are who can use it, the better. Not to eliminate high-tech but let's try to keep those radio communications openable, that water pump operable and that old tractor engine turning over when we really need it. And, as you've pointed out in previous posts, there's much more to be done in that respect in order to ensure the perennial utility of such knowledge (may your endeavors be fruitful in that project).

Coming to the 'dream factor' discussed in your latest article, your pedagogical approach to the subject is heartening. Though driving to a restaurant 100 miles away for a steak and some potatoes might be considered flagrantly futile,of course it's another matter when it comes to finding shelter, getting any sort of food at all and defending any tidbit you might have been lucky enough to come across against jealous interlopers.This is nevertheless the condition of many millions of humans across the planet and may well, as you suggest, not be out of the equation in a not-too-distant American future.

To be sure, claiming that the future will be fun because it will most certainly be different makes little sense when the daunting challenges of just getting by without the logistics of globalization (food and energy distribution networks chief among them) are brought home.
Someone (perhaps Chris Hedges from truthdig) recently said, approximately, that illusions are something people live in but dreams are something people strive toward.I would add: as long as they're not idle dreams. Dare to dream if you're going to back it up with something. But let's get rid of those illusions. French poet Paul Valéry once wrote (my translation): "The best way to make your dreams come true is - to wake up."

J Gav

M.C.P. said...

Aloha, Michael. Very interesting.

I am still chewing on much of this piece. Though heavy and hard to swallow, so true in so many ways. My one question is around the comment that "Peak oil, global warming, and all the other crises gathering around the world are all manifestations of a single root cause: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet."

Initially I didn't agree with this statement. Then I agreed with it. And now, I don't agree again. Here's why: The American Revolution was a push for continued growth through space (infinite physical growth). The colonists at the time pushed for independence so that they may live a lifestyle that rejected the British wage labor system which was arising as a result of the oncoming period marked by the market revolution. The constitution, in turn, was a counter revolution to the American Revolution in that the framers (Federalists) recognized that a republic could not be founded on virtue, but rather that it must be founded on one's tendency to seek what is best for him/her self. This formation of liberal thinking embraced manufacturing and systematically tied the U.S. up in a system of debt and interdependency with society's most dangerous citizens: the wealthy.

At this point, in my thinking, I began to agree with you because it became clear to me that essentially the founding fathers recognized that infinite economic growth was essential for this new form of society to remain in order and to avoid anarchy. And economics, as you have so beautifully articulated, is dependent on ecology. In other words, the constitutional framers didn't really change the game, they just tweeked the rules and channeled the desire for infinite growth into another sector of human life.

However, I think there is a finer point to this that I either missed (entirely possible) or it wasn't addressed here.

We can have infinite growth, indeed, but that effort, which I believe is innate within us, must be channeled into the right realms of the human being in order to avoid plundering our resource base and creating, ultimately, collapse. If the universe is expanding, then we have a growing resource base, and I believe it will continue to expand indefinitely. Then the question is how do we tap this ever expanding resource? By connecting with the true source of the universe itself. I'll leave you and your readers to decide how to articulate that which is the source of our universe and simply say that, essentially, this need for expansion is a real need that must be addressed. It is our will to live. It is our drive. Without, we fold the cards and go home. Growth is life and without growth we die. I think it is wasteful and harmful to address this human need, however, in a physical or cultural sense. Only when channeled into the spiritual realm can meeting this need be less than devastating and even become one of our greatest achievements ever.

The roots of our problems as you mentioned are not found in an impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. They are the manifestation of a good and well meaning intention to meet a basic human need. Truly, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. And indeed, as "Tony" pointed out, materialism is at the root of this problem.


yooper said...

I've learned a great deal from you, my friend...

This article, is by far my favorite. It's shows your willingness to foresee that just about anything IS possible, especically when there might have no historical precedent of it. Very hard to forecast a speculative perspective...

"Such proposals are wasted breath, and if any of them are enacted – and some of them very likely will be enacted, once today’s complacency gives way to tomorrow’s stark panic – ..."

Indeed, if there's to be a tomorrow of "stark panic", this could in itself, change the dynamics of slow decline to rapid collapse, of this civilization.

Could it be, that for this civilization of ten thousand years worth of "better tomorrows" will end, and only decline can be expected, thereafter? As fast, as the industrial society waxed, it will wane? And the population will correlate with it?

Could Catabolic collapse, be a line drawn depicting great fall (falling off a cliff), bottom, and then a series of builds and falls, not so sharply, etc.? And could this line drawn, if examined more closely ("in the micro") show the dynamics of "catabolic collapse" all through it? Yet, "reflecting" (for those that can) resemble a more declining line when looking at the "big picture"?

Thanks, yooper

Joseph said...

Re: Corbin. Excellent point, one that floats through my mind often.

I thoroughly enjoy exploring - and I have the privilege to do so by virtue of education and the leisure time afforded by our affluent society, at least until now - that complex relationship between the imaginal realm and the conventional-consensual-sensory realm.

And part of that complexity is, of course, the debate as to which one is more “real” or primary, a debate going back (at least) to Plato and his famous “cave”.

Does disharmony in the lower reflect disharmony (or complete loss) of the higher, or vice versa? Alas, such an enquiry goes beyond the purpose of this blog, except in one area: do you think preserving esoteric spirituality should or will be a part of cultural conservation?

Anyway, thank-you for reminding me of Corbin - I think I will go back and re-read him.

Isis said...


Having given this some more thought, I think the main problem here is that the industrial/technological civilization has ceased to be a source of inspiration (at least for the best part of your readership). It's not so much a question of whether the tasks we are required to perform are boring and mundane; it's that those tasks are not seen as a part of a bigger story.

Perhaps this isn't inherent flaw of the industrial/technological civilization (after all, countless people have been inspired by the stories of 'progress', of 'conquering nature', of a 'global village', etc.), but whether anyone likes it or not, this civilization is on its way out. And dying civilizations simply do not inspire.

So I think that what 'daydreams of destruction' really amount to is a hope for a new story. And perhaps one will indeed come along, and relatively soon. (If I recall correctly, you have yourself made the claim that these are the kinds of times during which religions are born.) A person who exchanges a materially easy life that does not inspire him/her for a materially impoverished one that offers a source of inspiration is virtually guaranteed to feel that his/her lot has improved.

Theo said...

How do you all think medium-sized to large cities will fare in the coming decades of post-industrial hardship?

I think that cities will be a bad place to be as the industrial world starts falling apart...surely small towns with more homogeneous populations along with rural areas will be the best places to be?

AG said...

Dear John, there is a practical question here. In Hungary the government recently prohibited by law to farmers to slaughter their own pigs. This is based on European Union regulations. In many countries it is prohibited to get your water from your own well.
If someone want to live a self-sustaining rural life, it is not allowed by the powers of modern society. This is why many people, conscious of collapse, wait for it. It is not just a dream, it is a condition for survivial.

Jason said...

Well Cleanthes was an enthusiastic Stoic, as am I -- since I discovered the ideas in JMG's 'Encyclopedia' some years back.

Personally I'm quite clear (as would have been Cleanthes, but then he was a former wrestler or something) that hard physical work helps spiritual clarity. Having said that, I think this post is really about exiting the group-mind.

Inside each human being is a bunch of negotiations, mostly unconscious, and these days (what with the level of power we have had and the level of information available) those negotiations are going extremely sour in lots of people. That's what people like Tony are talking about.

(BTW I mentioned the modern Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy before on here -- Albert Ellis' evidentially proven techniques for help with coming to terms with life, which were based to a great extent on Socratic and Stoic philosophy. Good to check out.)

If all that's being said here is, don't think everything's going to be wonderful, well true. But if one wants to add that the civilization now departing has really been the golden age that it's still being sold as, no Stoic would agree I don't think. The point is to attain apatheia and maintain eutonia through the convulsions, whether convulsions of expansion or contraction.

But a time of decline will inspire more to attempt this and thus there may be gains of a spiritual nature, in whatever framework. So it is about exiting the common value network that holds real meaning in check.

Adrynian said...

JMG, I find myself wondering what your prescription for how to go about creating/finding meaning/purpose in one’s life is, although perhaps I already have my answer in your reference to stoicism?

Several people have attempted to contend the claim that if Tony and his countless equivalents want “a chance to really live” nothing is holding them back by pointing out respective issues that they feel are holding them back from doing what they want, while your offhand response each time seems to amount to, ‘they must not really want it or they wouldn’t let anything stop them.’ This attitude towards individual choice is as much a myth as that of perpetual progress, and both are a product of the inculcation of the ideology of capitalist markets into society’s discourse.

This myth, and your response, both bother me for a couple reasons. Firstly, this seems terribly like ends-justify-means thinking, in which the negative consequences of one’s decision for other people (e.g. friends & family), or the violation of some strongly held social norm, are considered worth it as long as it’s important enough to the person. Now - and I in no way accuse you of this but I feel compelled to point out the extreme end of this perspective - psychopaths routinely violate norms and disregard the feelings of others in the pursuit of their own desires (in fact, the incapacity to feel guilt over “moral” violations is considered one of the defining features of psychopathy). That people feel constrained by how their choices will affect those around them is evidence for their humanity, not some character defect or failure of willpower.

Secondly - and we have disagreed over this in the past - you seem to ignore the effects of context and the fact that, cetis paribus, bigger trade-offs to a decision will tend to increase a person’s reluctance to take that path; this is what Tom Slee, author of No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart, refers to as “transaction costs.” When you wrote, if they feel their present comforts are obstacles to a better life, nothing prevents them from getting rid of those comforts, Isis disagreed with you by providing an example of a transaction cost that would have to be paid for fewer cell-phone related annoyances: sacrificed access to friends and family. It is disingenuous to suggest that “nothing” stands in the way; such choices are not clear-cut (i.e. options on the pareto-frontier are “efficient” in that you can’t improve on one axis of consideration – e.g. fewer annoyances - without losses on another – e.g. fewer social opportunities) and treating them as if they are simply ignores the challenges faced when making complex decisions, and for that matter, also people’s actual cognitive processes.

Adrynian said...

Evolution has given us incredible brains, but they aren’t flawless, as the book Kluge, by Gary Marcus will attest. In fact, they display some amazing biases; for example, framing something as a potential loss tends to make people more risk-averse, whereas the exact same situation will generate risk-taking behaviours when framed according to potential gains (p. 81). People will also almost always take a “sure thing” even when the alternative option, with a slight risk of getting nothing, is still the rationally better choice (p. 73) (i.e. “a bird in the hand…”). Another one: our understanding of money is inextricably linked to food, so that people are less likely to donate to charities when hungry than when full and when put in a state of “high desire for money” people eat more M&Ms than when in a “low desire for money” (p. 75-76).

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational is full of other such cognitive biases that affect people’s choices. The “decoy effect” (p. 8) , aka “non-independence of irrelevant alternatives,” means that if you add an option (a2) that isn’t on the pareto-frontier, but is clustered near an option that is (a1), people will tend to choose (a1) rather than some other alternative that is also on the pareto-frontier (b1), so you can affect people’s choices by including an “irrelevant alternative” or “decoy.” Or, consider that people operate with both market norms and social norms (p. 71), and that introducing market norms tends to block any social norms that might otherwise apply to a situation – so don’t offer to pay the in-laws for a delicious meal, although you can bring a gift of wine. Furthermore, people have a “need for uniqueness” (p. 237) in individualistic societies - and its inverse in collective ones – meaning that when people express their preferences publicly and in sequence (e.g. ordering at a restaurant) they tend to choose something other than what they actually want if someone else has - or has not - ordered it before them.

A big one is “arbitrary coherence” (p. 32), where our willingness to pay various prices for something is basically determined by an arbitrary “anchor price,” or the price we initially encountered for similar items. Add this to herding - and self-herding - (p. 36), which describe how we look to others - or our own past - as a guide to how to behave, and one can see that preferences are largely relative and social. An even bigger one is how being in a state of emotional/sexual arousal generates completely different preferences (generally, we are less “moral” and more willing to take risks) than when in a non-aroused state, and people are largely unable to predict the preferences of one while in the other (p. 96). A last example, is how swearing on a bible – even if you’re atheist – or on MIT’s “Honour Code” – even though they don’t have one, but you didn’t know that – will make a person less likely to cheat or behave dishonestly on a task that immediately follows (p. 198). Okay, one more: people are much less likely to steal actual cash than non-monetary goods (p. 217), even non-monetary currencies (e.g. tokens immediately substitutable for cash).

What I’m getting at is that people’s choices are largely non-conscious, subject to an array of cognitive distortions and biases, and heavily influenced by contextual factors. So much so, in fact, that Ariely’s one main lesson from his research is that, “…we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend… we usually think of ourselves as [in] ultimate control over the decisions we make… but, alas, this perception has more to do with… how we want to view ourselves… than with reality,” (p. 243). In other words, it’s really not so simple as to just “choose” what you “really” want regardless of anyone or anything else. And, while awareness of such biases may assist with reducing some of the effect they have, they permeate our cognition and decision-making and can never be completely eliminated.

das monde said...

Indeed, the upcoming crash assessment is very straightforward, yet it looks very unwelcome. But how much uncertainty is there, when was the last chance to turn things around, what can be done politically, how violent people will come? How many of ecological overshoots did ecologists really observe? How much daydream theorizing is in these "sure" predictions?

I suspect that we know very little of how natural or even anthropogenic overshoots play out. The natural worlds had seen millions of boom-and-bust cycles through the evolution, and probably those cycles evolved to absorb information of long-term scenarios as well. The famous tragedy-of-commons story is more a theory than actuality in the natural world - as the most remarkable wonder appears to be richness of natural commons, at least until humans come along.

There is surely enough evidence of disastrous invasions of Homo Sapiens - but on the other hand, there must have been plenty of less exploitative or wiser cultures in the world. Yep, the virus of greed swept societies very dramatically in the last centuries or decades. But it is reasonable to suspect that this virus was rather adequately contained here and there and for much longer times. We just don't want to know how by now.

The drama of the decisive 20th century "progress" is not only the exponential impact of technology and population growth. It is also a runaway asymmetrical cultural selection for material and monetary success, no matter communal costs. Concerned minds were increasingly less respected and more isolated, especially since the 1970s or 80s. Counter-reaction to collapse concerns had really won the day. There might be some method behind today's ignorant madness, I dare to say.

das monde said...

When trying to guess the trajectory of the upcoming collapse, the following question is interesting: Can crises be manipulated just as easily as a Space Shuttle? There is at least one book out there, The Shock Doctrine, arguing that crisis operation is already industrious. Add know the "unpredicted" financial crisis, doesn't it fit? Some dear elites might already have a "good" idea for some New World Order, with a plan to go through predictable collapses. Why else there would be so strong selection for destructive competitiveness, and no political action whatsoever to prepare? How confident and smart this kind of plan could be? Would it fail in everything (i.e., loosing all technology and ipods for everyone) except in concentrating ruling power? Or will the whole system of money lending and property renting collapse, and some Christian post-apocalypse without parasitic financial control would emerge? How can we tell?

sagesmoke said...

This is one of the best essays I’ve read anywhere on the coming dark times, Thank you! I admit that I, too, used to imagine that a “better”, (simpler, poorer) life would be much richer in ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Soul’.
As I grew older, (66) I actually did acquire, through perseverance and hard personal experience, a modicum of, if not wisdom, common sense.
Living in poverty, with a disability, has taken the tarnish off many of my fantasies..the result being, everyone I interact with accuses me of being a cynic, depressive, hatefull crank! So, I’m really glad to be as old as I am. I think Steven Levine said it pretty well. “Hope is the Last Illusion.”
For those who are truly looking for practical ideas and ways to change their lives now...I have found Dmitry Orlov’s Book; “Reinventing Collapse”, and his blog site, “ClubOrlov” to be very helpful,
Very thankful for these wonderful sources on the web...Sage

John Michael Greer said...

Isis, I do understand what you're saying when you claim that life in an industrial society drains meaning from our lives. Still, it's necessary to note that people were writing about their feelings of meaninglessness back in the days when oxcarts were high-tech. From my perspective, you're blaming industrialism for something that's inherent in the human condition.

Quantum, thank you, but I don't find Zap's claims plausible or useful. It's always tempting to blame the unwanted contents of our own minds on some outside force, whether it's "mind parasites" or microwaves beamed in by the CIA, but that's a road that leads nowhere constructive.

Gav, I love the Valery quote! many thanks.

MCP, the fact that the universe is apparently expanding only means that the supply of empty space is increasing. It does not mean that the supply of cheap concentrated energy here on Earth, available to human beings, is increasing. We live on a finite planet with finite resources, and growing beyond the carrying capacity of those resources -- which we've done -- is a recipe for disaster. Unlimited growth, it's been pointed out many times, is the ideology of the cancer cell; maybe it's time for us to abandon the fantasy of growth and try something else.

Yooper, my guess all along has been that we'll see some intervals of severe crisis, in which certain parts of the world will face very harsh times. History is full of examples. Thus the reference to panic.

Joseph, I'm personally involved in efforts to preserve esoteric spirituality for the future, so my answer to that question would be a strong yes.

Isis, good. That's quite another matter, of course. Dying civilizations can be a source of inspiration, but only for those who find them inspiring, and the schism in society Toynbee discussed so trenchantly is a potent barrier that keeps many people nowadays from seeing anything worth preserving in our current civilization. Still, I wonder how many of the Romans who embraced Christianity with such enthusiasm would have reacted to a glimpse of the approaching Dark Ages.

John Michael Greer said...

Theo, depends on the city. Local and regional factors will have a huge impact on how well larger communities do -- and smaller ones as well, of course.

AG, if the only life you consider meaningful is a self-sufficient rural life, and you're not willing to emigrate to a place where those rules don't apply, well, yes, you're stuck.

Jason, granted, but I think Cleanthes would also suggest that you can leave behind the group mind now, rather than sitting around and waiting for it to be destroyed and saving yourself the effort!

Adrynian, Stoicism isn't exactly my prescription, but it's close enough that most people get it. Of course you can argue that we're powerless puppets of circumstance, biological forces, or what have you; that's always popular, and it's also a self-fulfilling prophecy, since those who don't believe they can change their lives are usually right. What's the line? "Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours."

Each of us has the power to change our inner lives. Most of us have at least some power to express those changes in our outer lives. Most of us don't use those powers. That's always been the core paradox that inner traditions of spirituality try to confront and resolve. Their answer is always some version of the point I'm trying to make here: meaning is not given to you by your circumstances, nor can it be attained by waiting for your circumstances to be changed for you. That's always unwelcome news, just as it has been here.

Das Monde, I suggest you do some reading in the scientific literature on overshoot. It's extensive, detailed, and thorough. In terms of human overshoot, well, that comprises a lot of what we call "history," so there again, it's by no means as speculative as you suggest. As for your suggestion that it's all a conspiracy, well, that's always a popular fantasy in times like these, and of course the complete lack of evidence to support it just shows how clever the conspirators are. Sigh.

Sage, thank you. I'm also a fan of Orlov's work -- it helps that he's been through the experience he talks about, and has a lot fewer illusions about it than many of those who haven't.

Adrynian said...

Meaning is not given to you by your circumstances, nor can it be attained by waiting for your circumstances to be changed for you.

Okay, I agree with you there. People need to find meaning in their lives that makes sense to them. I just think it’s disingenuous to suggest that feeling conflicted about the effects that your choices will have on others shouldn’t be a factor.

It clearly is a factor for most people most of the time and ignoring it ignores how our cognitive systems actually work. And as a result, prescriptions that rely on it will tend not to work for most people most of the time, just as - in the vein of what Publius wrote - telling the poor to lift themselves up by their bootstraps won’t work for most poor people most of the time because it ignores the structural factors that keep pushing them down.

Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours.

My point was that it doesn’t matter whether you recognize, or argue for, the cognitive limitations I mentioned or not because they are with you regardless. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away; if anything, the only way to gain even a modicum of control over them is to become aware of them, but even that doesn’t make them vanish.

Yes, if you rationalize something, you will come to believe it. Actually, this is another interesting cognitive bias: you can get anyone to believe just about anything simply by having them come up with a few of their own reasons why it would be true (p. 64, Kluge). Even if you later tell them the evidence shows the exact opposite, the act of rationalizing the belief makes it extremely resistant to subsequent change.

I’m not trying to use this evidence of bias as an excuse to avoid the search for meaning. I’m trying to point out that “choice” is not the simple, clear-cut phenomenon that the individualism of the Enlightenment made it seem. It is not rational; it is heavily - and subconsciously - dependent on social cues, contextual factors, framing, priming, expectations, and other evolved biases.

Arguing that one can overcome these cognitive distortions by denying or ignoring them is simply an astounding piece of mental gymnastics! They don’t go away just because one refuses to acknowledge them, and they don’t stop affecting how one perceives their options or make choices, even when they are consciously aware of them.

I believe it was Kahneman – although I can’t find the quote at the moment – who, upon realizing the framing effect, said that even though he knew it was irrational he still couldn’t imagine choosing any other way.

Ruben said...

JMG, I find your concept of maximum complexity being capped by per capita energy to be very interesting. It strikes me the first detractor will say we must simply reduce the energy intensity per unit of complexity--get more efficient. But, since we know nothing can be infinitely efficient, we should see this map onto a standard marginal returns graph....

Bill Pulliam said...

Joining this discussion very late, I will probably just be echoing points already made but overlooked by me while attempting to take in 92 previous comments!

Some corollary to JMG's statement that "The choices we make in response to our surroundings affect our relationship to the sources of meaning far more powerfully than the surroundings themselves, and those choices depend on the quality and content of our inner lives, not on outer factors." It has been widely demonstrated, that with the exception of situations of severe deprivation and abuse, happiness and contentment are not well correlated with external circumstances. A sad echoing of JMG's observation in his most recent comment that "meaning is not given to you by your circumstances" was tragically in evidence when we moved to Colorado in the 1990s. Those were the boom times, and Colorado was one of the boomtown utopias where the Good Life was to be found. Yet, suicide rates were alarmingly high, especially among single men. It appeared that these men had moved to utopia, only to find that their emptiness and despair had moved with them.

In the U.S., becoming a rural peasant is exceedingly easy. Disused homesteads with collapsed property values litter the landscape over vast areas, many of which have almost no building codes or zoning restrictions. There are very few barriers to this lifestyle choice, economic, legal, or societal, if it is truly your path. If you really think a world without TV or cell phone reception, broadband internet, effective law enforcement, actual wage-paying jobs, or minimally passable public schools would bring you inner peace, you could be living in that world by the end of next month. Very little stands in your way.

Having said that, I do think that deindustrialization will inevitably reverse the steady trends in western society of increasing isolation, virtualization of experience, and loss of comprehension of our essential biological nature. Speaking metaphysically and judgmentally for a moment, I do consider these trends to be among the core disfunctions of contemporary society. Hence I will not shed a tear over their passing. However, I recognize this shift is more likely to be manifested through such things as disease and hardship than through revelation and illuminated thought. Such is the way of history.

AG said...

John, I don't care about "meaningful life", i think about, how to get fed, when the big groceries will be empty. Self sufficient "rural" life on the countryside, or in the present towns and cities will be necessary to survive. Te present system makes it more and mor impossible every day, by regulations and decisions based on fantasies of perpetual growth. Without a kind of collapse of the European Union for instance, we don't have the right to rebuild our regional economies.
Partial collaps of many of today's institutions is very desirable from the perspective of sustainability.

John Michael Greer said...

Adrynian, I'm not suggesting that the cognitive distortions you've listed should be denied or ignored; I'm suggesting that they can be overcome, and that it's not as hard to do so as you seem to think. In the absence of a reflective and purposeful inner life, granted, they tend to play a large role, and it's for this precise reason that so many philosophical and spiritual traditions include detailed instruction in methods to overcome them.

These methods aren't secret -- in fact, there's probably never been a time in the history of the world when they have been as thoroughly publicized as they are now -- and there are plenty of people who have figured them out all by themselves without reference to older traditions. Any practice that fosters reflection, trains the will, and disciplines the imagination will do the trick.

I'm aware that there are plenty of people, including you, who disagree with the above. As I mentioned earlier, believing in one's own powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy; so is believing in one's own power. Whichever one you choose, you can count on having plenty of experiences that support it, and can find any number of authorities to back your claims. So it comes down to which choice you yourself choose to make.

Ruben, exactly! One way to look at catabolic collapse is as a series of improvements in the efficiency of energy use, following marginal return curves, in the face of an uneven decline in net energy per capita.

Bill, well put.

AG, it won't take a collapse of civilization to bring down the European Union; my guess is that its implosion is a foregone conclusion at this point. While it's still around, I'd encourage you to look at the example of the Soviet Union's last years to see what can be done in the face of a dysfunctional bureaucratic state. I'd be amazed if there aren't already plenty of people dodging the regulations and forming an underground economy -- there certainly are on this side of the water, and in other countries known to me.

Dan Treecraft said...

Dear JMG,

I got up and checked in on TAdR this morning, first thing, to read your answer to my question about Provo being tarred with the "hypocrisy brush". I am somewhat surprised to find neither your reply, nor my own question and comments. Other, newer comments have posted, but mine seems to have been skipped. This seems odd to me. I'm regularly amazed at how thoroughly you seem to read and reply to your reader's comments.

May I presume that you are mulling over my questions and comments, and that some reply will issue?

I await your words, with acute interest.

Dan Treecraft

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, your comment didn't show up in the moderation queue -- Blogger may have hiccupped. If you can repost it I'll put it through promptly.

Dan Treecraft said...


Thanks for the re-try.

Having enjoyed and appreciated so much of what I've read at TAdR since "discovering" it a year or two ago, I was startled to read your reply to "Provo" last week.

My digital skills do not extend past my fingertips, so I'll not copy and paste his/her, or your own, exact words, now, but will try to recall them as fairly as I can.

After Provo admitted a fondness for the ideas of Dan Quinn and Derrick Jensen, he/she also admitted to an attachment to his/her own children and grand-children and their welfare, but not before stating his/her concern for the welfare and survival of so many other species still left on the planet.

In your subsequent reply you ended by saying that his/her words "smacked of hypocrisy". I presumed that you meant that his/her feelings for his/her own spawn were hypocritically contradictory to those he/she felt for the rest of life on the planet (in some languages they do not have separate pronouns for each gender!). I was, as I said, startled by what seemed to be an un-warranted rebuke.

Perhaps I understand the term "hypocrite" too negatively. Your application of the term to Provo's thoughts seemed quite misplaced amid the sort of fair-minded, sensible dialogue I've come to expect at your blog. While I read and enjoy the likes of Jim Kunstler's Clusterfuck Nation, and his own snarky writing style, it seems to unleash, all too often, a degeneration of sophomoric "verbal food fighting" from his commentoriat - which turns me off. I haven't seen that sort of thing here. Count me as one who appreciates the respectful adult tone that dominates your blog.

To put this in some personal terms, my wife's daughter chose to conceive and bear a child several years ago. Her son, Ezzy, is now three & a half years old. I was quite perplexed and annoyed with her decision to have a child, believing that, neither, she was prepared to raise a child, nor that the planet needed any more humans added to it's rolls for the time being. It seemed, all-over-all, bad timing to me. I bit my tongue as quietly as I could.

I often think of myself as an "extra" person on the planet, much as I do most of our kind. I'm 60 years old and have had, by historic and prehistoric standards, a long and privileged life. I'm sort of "ready to go". I was somehow prescient enough to see the folly of bringing children into this overloaded world on my own gene line, and took steps to preclude that possibility (..if I DO have any children - they never call or write).

I care about the survival and welfare of my wife's grandson, and wish him well. At the same time, I worry about the survival and welfare of so much of the rest of life on Earth. Do such competing affections brand me a hypocrite? Maybe? I do like to occasionally boast: "I am a hypocrite, therefore, I am". But, if you or anyone else launched such an epithet at me, I think the blood would automatically rise up my neck. (did I just now demonstrate my capacity for hypocrisy?)

Among my friends, no one is more likely to be so outspokenly "pro-abortion" as I am, but if you're here now, I don't see why your continued attendance should be questioned or challenged by me, nor do I understand why you would go to the trouble to effectively assault someone else's integrity because they fretted over the welfare of most of Earth's creatures, including their own offspring.

Am I the only person here who was taken aback by your reply to Provo? Did I read you wrong? I won't speculate on your feelings for your own late child, but I'm inclined toward sympathy at my end.

Do you have anything more to say about this ?

No angel here - just one more extra waiting for the call.


J Gav said...

JMG and Ruben,

Yes, the energy per capita question does appear to be an interesting starting point. Particularly since it seems to have pretty much levelled off over the last few years ... a bit of bouncing around here and there but mainly stable or perhaps now slightly in decline. Peak energy per capita? It's a possibility. That needs some consideration, doesn't it? If the average citizen in the world is still attempting to use ever more widgets in their already widget-ridden environment, how can that continue when the energy available for them doesn't want to budge?

Efficiency, as you say, JMG, can do a lot. But, as I'm sure you're aware, the sundry ratchet effects, Jevon's Paradoxes etc can also UNDO a lot if policy is not wisely implemented. I'll wait for the book JMG but, if you have any sharable thoughts at this point, I'd be glad to hear them.

Adrynian said...

I'm suggesting that they can be overcome, and that it's not as hard to do so as you seem to think

I suppose I'll just have to wait for more evidence, since I'm not aware of any studies where people who practice a "reflective and purposeful inner life" have been subjected to the tests I've mentioned. However, my guess is that, for the most part, their brains will display largely the same biases as everyone else.

Any practice that fosters reflection, trains the will, and disciplines the imagination will do the trick.

It's a "convenient fiction," as you like to say, that humans can overcome any challenge, but when that challenge is the evolved structures of their own brain they might as well try to grow themselves a third arm. Yes the brain is plastic, and given time and the right reinforcement it can be altered in some amazing ways, but no that doesn't mean one can alter it to process information in any manner one would like.

Tell me, since I can't ask you to come into the lab, would you be willing to try a couple quick tests?

-Do you experience the Stroop Effect? (Which set of colour words are easier to say?)

-How about the visual search "pop out" effect? (Is the B in the first image easier to find than the O in the third image?)

-Or the Muller-Lyer Illusion? (Which line appears longer?)

-Or this shading illusion? (Scroll down; which square in the picture, A or B, appears darker?)

And be honest because every link also describes the effect, and thus also gives the "right" answer.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, Provo didn't just express concern for other species; he insisted that human beings needed to reduce their numbers drastically. He then talked about his children, plural, and grandchild. There's a bit of a problem in the conjunction of those two statements -- and of course the habit of demanding radical changes in society that one is not willing to make in one's own life is common enough.

Gav, that's a subject too big for a comment here -- and also something I've discussed at length in prior posts. Expect discussion of it in The Ecotechnic Future, which will be out later this fall.

Adrynian, for heaven's sake, you're either missing or dodging my point. I'll try it one more time: any self-aware person can readily learn to recognize perceptual problems and correct for them. "I know one of these lines looks longer than another, but let's see what the ruler says." Equally, "Look at how he's framing the discussion; what does the issue look like if I frame it mentally in a different way?" Still, if you're not going to hear it, you're not going to hear it.

Adrynian said...

Still, if you're not going to hear it, you're not going to hear it.

I feel exactly the same way, so I will try one last time, too.

Any self-aware person can readily learn to recognize perceptual problems and correct for them.

Re: framing. The situation involves two identical scenarios that are framed differently. People tend to inconsistently make a different choice depending on the frame.

My point: asking what someone's "true preference" is simply makes no sense! The preference is different depending on how it's framed. You can choose to frame it differently, but that doesn't get you any closer to a "true preference" because there isn't one. It depends on the context.

Tell me, please, how does one correct for framing in the following case? (And that's not rhetorical, I really would like to know.)

The problem offers two alternative solutions for 600 people affected by a hypothetical deadly disease:

* treatment A saves 200 peoples’ lives
* treatment B has a 33% chance of saving all 600 people and a 66% possibility of saving no one.

Although these decisions are mathematically identical, 72% of participants chose option A, whereas only 28% of participants chose option B (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Another group of participants were given the same scenario with different statistics:

* option C in which 400 people die
* option D has a 33% chance that no people will die but a 66% probability that all 600 will die.

In this set of choices, participants preferred the treatment D to treatment C by 78% to 22% (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981).

Adrynian said...

For that matter, how does one correct for the Stroop Effect, which I noticed you conveniently ignored.

And the pop-out effect is not something that can be corrected for, period. I guarantee that, because it is a function of how our brains do feature detection.

Self-awareness helps, but it isn't the universal cure-all for every cognitive bias. And that is the point I'm trying to make that you seem so unwilling to either understand or acknowledge. Denying the evidence doesn't make you right.

das monde said...

JMG, I am keen on scientific literature on overshoots, but so far I find examples of non-anthropogenic overshoots wanting. The remarkable thing about natural overshoots appears to be their relative absence. Ecological transitions seem to me much less chaotic or stochastic than modeled.

On conspiracies: I would not give an overreaching one a chance of 10%, but... I see it worth to consider that possibility seriously. Heck, today I stumbled upon yet another announcement of a new world order. Just as tribes in the ancient past were efficiently manipulated by cabals of war leaders, priests and shamans, so the modern global tribe might be similarly managed by high priests of Federal Reserve Banks, Davos or G20 stars, and TV talking head shamans. Especially when everyone is that busy in "making a living" and has no time to think what is going on.

As Naomi Klein explains in "The Shock Doctrine", they key effect of of a shock therapy (either of physical torture, or of a social-economic crisis) is wild disorientation, confusion. When nothing familiar seems to be working, a physical or social mind takes upon any suggestion offered. Manipulation is no that hard then, if you are one of the few who knows what is actually going on.

Being born is Eastern Europe, and having lived in the West and the Far East, I'm noticing a picture of strange political turnarounds. Economic "reforms" are pushed with routine blind zeal. The left politicians are growing their expertize in demonstrating how straightforward things do not work, or loosing elections with minuscule margins. Right-wing politicos are getting away with any insanity they cause.

It is easy to reason that nothing new under the Sun, that people should take responsibility for themselves. But some things are newer than others, and we are capable to investigate scale differences in "usual" insanities. How much responsibility is there for you majority of your peers, if 50-80% of your income is taken away by payments to banks and taxes to governments "of the people"? Even Tchengis Khan took no more than 10% tithe from his vassals. Now not only "dumb" African, Latin or Asian countries have to be indebted up to manure ground, but even some Nordic countries are in line.

The tuna fish does not take responsibility for its survival, does it?

Adrynian said...

Also, for the record, I don't think I've been dodging your point. Rather, I have been explicitly disagreeing with it; there's a difference.

If anything, I could accuse you of dodging my point by conveniently ignoring any evidence I present that doesn't conform to your belief and can't be brusquely disregarded with a one sentence quip.

I agree with you that awareness of a bias is the necessary first step to having any shot at all of overcoming it. However, I must explicitly disagree with you that all cognitive distortions, illusions, and biases can be overcome.

I am trying to recognize that your point has merit, even if I can't agree that it is universally applicable, so let me finish my part in this exchange - and then let the chips fall where they may - with the following quotes from Kluge:

As a rough guide, our thinking can be divided into two streams, one that is fast, automatic, and largely unconscious, and another that is slow, deliberate, and judicious. As best we can tell, the two systems rely on fairly different neural substrates.

Even though the deliberative system is more sophisticated, the latest in evolutionary technology, it has never really gained proper control because it bases its decisions on almost invariably secondhand information, courtesy of the less-than-objective ancestral system. We can reason as carefully as we like, but, as they say in computer science jargon, "garbage in, garbage out." There's no guarantee that the ancestral system will pass along a balanced set of data
(p. 51-52).

Our ancestral system seems to be the default option... We eschew our deliberative system not just during a time crunch, but also when we are tired, distracted, or just plain lazy; using the deliberative system seems to require an act of will (p. 86).

As you can see, this generally supports your position: reflection and willpower allow us to engage the deliberative system to overcome the biases of the ancestral one, assuming we recognize when we're getting "garbage in," so as to compensate for it. However, this is simply not always possible, no matter how badly you might desire - or believe - otherwise.

Awareness suffers from resource limitations, the same as everything else; I seriously doubt that even someone as capable as yourself can keep every possibly-applicable bias in mind at all times in order to be ready to correct for them, and worse, when we are stressed, tired, or distracted, our deliberative system tends to be the first thing to go (p. 52).

The unconscious influence of our ancestral system is so strong that when our conscious mind tries to get control of the situation, the effort sometimes backfires. For example, in one study, people were put under time pressure and asked to make rapid judgments. Those who were told to (deliberately) suppress sexist thoughts (themselves presumably the product of the ancestral reflexive system) actually became more likely than control subjects to have sexist thoughts.

Even more pernicious is the fact that as evolution layered reason on top of contextually driven memory, it left us with the illusion of objectivity. Evolution gave us the tools to deliberate and reason, but it didn't give us any guarantee that we'd be able to use them without interference. We feel as if our beliefs are based on cold, hard facts, but often they are shaped by our ancestral system in subtle ways that we are not even aware of
(p. 53).

John Michael Greer said...

Adrynian, I think we're basically at a standstill. You've hammered on the point that human perception has its limitations, or more specifically, that in the highly artificial environment of a laboratory, it's possible to manufacture evidence of such limitations in relation to a certain limited subset of arbitrary choices. I'm not arguing with that; I'm disagreeing with the sweeping generalization you seem to be making from that limited data set, which is that human beings lack the capacity to overcome the influence of their circumstances.

It's interesting to note that much of the debate has taken the form of conflicting attempts to frame the issue. You've tried to frame it in scientific terms: here are some specific effects observed under laboratory conditions, we can generalize from there to universals. I've tried to frame it in philosophical terms, starting from universals and moving from there to particulars. The fact that neither of us has been willing to accept the other's frame may offer some evidence that framing effects in real-world situations -- as opposed to the artificial setting of a laboratory -- may be less omnipotent than studies suggest.

But I don't see any likelihood that further discussion is going to get anywhere, and there's only so much time available to me to respond to comments. For this reason among others I think it's time to draw a line under this debate.

Das Monde, I'm not claiming that people aren't engaging in plots of one kind or another; for example, I think it's fairly well known these days that the "color revolutions" of the last decade or so were manufactured by the US intelligence community, working through a set of "nongovernmental organizations" that are nothing of the kind. Still, all the evidence suggests to me that there's no one uber-plot -- simply the usual struggles of competing power centers trying to claw their way to the top of a very unstable heap.

As for overshoot, I haven't had a chance to unpack the relevant books yet, but the examples that come to mind are deer populations near the Grand Canyon and a Great Lakes island whose name escapes me; both populations found themselves in a niche free of predators, and went through a classic boom and dieoff sequence. I don't know if that will be of any help.

Ruben said...

@das Monde

Overshoots were one of the first pieces of the puzzle that fell into place for me...the deer examples JMG mentioned, though I remembered them on an island, as well as bacteria in a jar. Both experienced 95% dieoff. Overshoot is also the classic rabbit/coyote mix. The whole freaking bioshpere is in a state of overshoot if you look close enough. A clump of grass exhausts its nutrients and is replaced by a different plant that can use what is left. Some bears starve every winter. It is not a system or species wide overshoot, but the dynamic of surpassing the carrying capacity of their nutrient base is the same.

And the nice thing about that is it shows how overshoot can be very local, which JMG often mentions.

RudolfC said...

Re. overshoot in non-human populations: some references at
and (Whew!) It might be worth noting that both of these cases of overshoot were directly due to human interference with the ecosystem...

J Gav said...

Normally, I'm a good speller.
Dearth is of course spelled 'ea' and not 'ir' as I blunderingly put it in my latest contribution, though there might be an argument for it. Must be the red wine I indulge in of an evening sometimes. Apart from that, looking forward to your next installment, Archdruid.
Things are getting critical, I won't say irreversible (but I just did, didn't I?) and not only in the U.S., aren't they?
J Gav

rsuusa said...

I struggle with how to respond to the nearly obvious fact that U.S. economy, of which I am still very much a part, is decaying and changing in ways that are going to make all of us a lot less wealthy in conventional terms. Clearly our problems could be ameliorated, although certainly not entirely solved, by concerted human effort but I no longer believe that this is likely to happen on any level larger than a local neighborhood or small town; there simply isn't enough time to educate and train ourselves for the new reality in time to avoid the results of the crisis (oil, environment, and economic) in which we find ourselves. Too many people also inaccurately perceive the current state of affairs as beneficial and will actively resist meaningful change.

My response has been to start learning to live with less of everything and to engage in a participative way with my environment. I read in article in Backpacker magazine that said the average through hiker on a major U.S. trail spends $500 per month to meet all his or her needs on the trail. I'm never more happy than when I am on a long hike so why do I spend so much more to maintain my day to day work life and yet feel so much less happy about it? I'm not sure but my goal is to simplify my life so that I can live at the same level of cost and consumption that I achieve as a long distance hiker. So far it hasn't actually been all that simple I've had to learn to gather wild foods, fish, hunt, garden without much in the way of fertilizer or protection from pests and begin traveling by foot without high technology gear like gortex fabrics and tents to protect me from the environment. For weeks after my decision I sat around trying to think of what I would need to live this life style and made and remade lists and compared costs etc, then I realized that I just need to engage with my plan and my environment and get about doing what I intended to do. We are so trained to expect someone to tell us what to do or a device to assist us in doing something that we forget how to engage with our environment and just start doing what needs to be done. I'm still struggling with it. I have no illusion that life will be more meaningful if I live at a simpler level but I also know that I will not be any less happy with my life either.

John Bray said...

@rsuusa: good for you - go for it!

I fear that if you wait for the experts/authorities or society in general to come up with the solutions to what YOU want out of life you'll be disappointed.

Best of luck,


Ahavah Gayle said...

Apparently you think having a house in a good location is important, or you wouldn't have moved across the country to obtain one.

Ana's Daughter said...

@Adrynian: this exemplifies why the way people or animals behave in a laboratory is only evidence for the way people or animals behave in a laboratory; it's not evidence for the world outside the laboratory walls.

Lived experience trumps artificial lab conditions.