Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Terrible Ambivalence

I’d meant to spend this week’s report talking about scarcity industrialism, the kind of economy that will be defined for us in the near future by the conjunction of resource scarcity with the immense mass of embodied energy we call an industrial civilization. There’s a great deal to be said about the forms such an economy will likely take, and the harsh challenges and unexpected opportunities that it will bring to a world still far too used to getting as much energy as it wants whenever it happens to want it.

Still, that necessary theme will have to wait a week or two. Last month the online edition of The Guardian, one of the leading (or at least surviving) British newspapers, featured a debate about the future of industrial society between journalist, poet and cofounder of The Dark Mountain Project Paul Kingsnorth, and the sturdy radical George Monbiot, who's most recently made a name for himself as a tireless advocate for drastic measures to counter global warming. It was refreshing to see the possibility of the collapse of our civilization debated on so public a forum, and of course it didn't hurt my feelings any to be cited as an authority of sorts by one of the participants. Still, the debate left me with a deep sense of disquiet, which has only become stronger. in the days that followed and finally made this point unavoidable.

At some risk of oversimplification, the argument between Monbiot and Kingsnorth may be summed up more or less as follows. Both agree that industrial civilization faces imminent collapse. Monbiot argues that collapse might still be prevented if we all pull together, that the only alternative is letting total collapse happen, and that this is unthinkable because billions of people will die horribly. He argues that the only alternative to preserving modern society in some improved form is a cataclysmic process of mass dieoff ending in a new dark age ruled by petty warlords, with some new earth-ravaging society likely to rise on the ruins of the old unless his preferred political solution gets put in place to control our species' ecocidal tendencies.

Kingsnorth rejects all this. He insists that collapse can't be prevented, and in any case should be allowed to happen, because industrial civilization is a "planetary weapon of mass destruction" and letting it collapse is less destructive than allowing it to continue. He cites my concept of the Long Descent to argue that the end of industrial civilization could be a lot less traumatic than Monbiot thinks it must be, insists that ecocide is inherent in our present society rather than in humanity as a whole, and suggests that whatever replaces our society is bound to be less dreadful than what we have now.

Anyone who has listened to debates about the future of industrial society at any point in the last fifty years or so will surely find both these arguments familiar. Since the limits to growth first became visible on the horizon of our civilization's future, the great majority of those who took the time to notice them either insisted that humanity can and must do something about them, and offered some plan for reaching a better future, or insisted that nothing at all could be done about them, and claimed that the arrival of those limits would bring a better future.

To be fair to Monbiot and Kingsnorth, their stances in the debate expressed moderate and nuanced versions of these common tropes. It wouldn't be hard at all to find examples much further out in either direction – out well past Monbiot, say, one of the current technofantasists or political zealots who believe that a world teetering on the edge of doom can be transformed into Utopia if only their pet project were to be adopted by all; out well past Kingsnorth, perhaps, one of the neoprimitivists who daydream about the carefree life in the bountiful lap of nature that would surely arrive if only six billion inconvenient people would hurry up and die.

The arguments in the Guardian debate are far less extreme, and far more reasonable, than these. So why do they leave me shaking my head, convinced that neither one has grasped what's most essential about the predicament before us?

The places where Monbiot misses the turning, as I see it, stand out clearly, and longtime readers of this blog will likely have no difficulty at all anticipating my disagreements with his views. To begin with, his call to arms is an epic case of locking the barn door when the horse has not only left but mailed back a forwarding address from another state. The end of industrial civilization would almost certainly have been forestalled if sensible policies had been put in place in the 1950s; there was arguably still some hope of success if all-out efforts had been launched in the 1970s; at this point, with Hubbert's peak already past, CO2 piling up in the atmosphere and the world's human population approaching seven billion, the chances of preventing collapse compare unfavorably with those of a snowball in Beelzebub's back yard.

Now it could be argued that any possibility is worth pursuing if the alternative is dire enough, and this is basically the argument Monbiot makes. Unfortunately his plan of action is simply to dust off the same toolkit of protest methods that activists have been using with diminishing returns, and governments have been brushing aside with increasing success, since the dawn of the twentieth century. The handful of successes achieved by those methods many decades ago have imposed a bizarre astigmatism of the imagination on the left; the stereotyped methods of protest have become so sacrosanct, or so automatic, that the mere fact that they have failed consistently for years never quite seems to register.

All this invites comparison with Don Quixote, even if Monbiot is fighting for windmills rather than against them. Woeful countenances aside, though, insisting on the pursuit of an unreachable goal through ineffective methods is not normally a productive way to prepare for a difficult future. There's nothing in Monbiot's proposal that hasn't been tried repeatedly since the 1950s without having the least impact on the trajectory of industrial society, and as the saying has it, if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten.

All this may seem like support for Paul Kingsnorth's side of the argument, and of course it parallels a number of the points he makes in the debate and elsewhere in his writings. It seems fair to say that my views are much more in sympathy with his than with Monbiot's, and I suspect that Kingsnorth would agree with that assessment, as he's the one who cited me to support one of his arguments. Yet there's a sour note running through his contributions to the debate, and it comes out forcefully every time he finesses the human cost of the transformation ahead of us.

Monbiot, to give him his due, calls him on this repeatedly. A deindustrial world, as Monbiot correctly points out, will be able to support maybe two billion people at most – my working guess, for what it's worth, is that this is too optimistic by a factor of four – and this means that in any future that doesn't include the survival of the industrial system, a lot of people are going to die. Now of course he goes from there to imply, more or less, that yet another round of protest marches is the only way to keep five billion human corpses from hitting the ground in a single planetwide thud, and this doesn't exactly follow. Still, the basic point is valid, and Kingsnorth's efforts to evade it are troubling.

Yet that evasion is inseparable from a central theme of Kingsnorth's argument, which is that a better world can be expected to rise out of the wreckage of the present. That Monbiot's argument also hinges on his hopes for a bright new tomorrow adds a rich irony to the debate. Both men are proclaiming the gospel of a better future; their disagreements are simply about what form that future will take and how we will get there. Both assume that we can have, and ought to have, a future that's even shinier than the present. It's a very common assumption, so common that many of those who are reading these words may share it, but it's also the place where the worm gets in and rots the apple to the core.

We are not going to have a future better than the present: not in our lifetimes, and not in those of our grandchildren's grandchildren. We collectively closed the door on that possibility decades ago, and none of the rapidly narrowing range of choices still open to us now offers any way of changing that. If this sounds like fatalism, it may be worth remembering that once a car goes skidding off a mountain road into empty air, it requires neither a crystal ball nor a faith in predestination to recognize that nothing anybody can do is going to prevent a terrific crash.

It's nonsense to claim, as some inevitably do, that this realization makes taking action pointless. Our efforts, given hard work, wisdom, and a substantial dollop of luck, may well succeed in making the future less difficult than it will otherwise be. It may be possible for us to save a few things worth saving that would otherwise be lost, to stem some little of what will be an immense tide of human suffering, to do what we can to help stabilize a damaged biosphere so Nature doesn't have to rebuild it entirely from scratch. All of these things are profoundly worth doing. None of them will change the fact that the future ahead of us will be a profoundly difficult time in which many of the things that are most meaningful to each of us will inevitably be lost.

We do no one a favor, least of all ourselves, by trying to sugarcoat that very unpalatable reality. Nor do we gain anything by playing the fox to industrial civilization's grapes, and insisting that the extraordinary gifts the recent past has given us are sour because they are about to pass out of our reach. During the age that is coming to an end, the billion or so of us who have lived in the industrial world have enjoyed comforts and opportunities that our species had never known before and almost certainly will never know again. Those could never have been anything but temporary, they were distributed no more fairly than anything else passed around by human hands, and a wiser species would likely have had more common sense than to launch itself on the trajectory we followed, but it's as distorting to dismiss the extraordinary achievements of our age as it would be to ignore the terrible cost for those achievements that will be paid by us and our descendants.

So many of us want things all one way or the other, all good or all evil, without the terrible ambivalence that pulses through all things human as inescapably as blood. So many of us want to see today's civilization as humanity's only hope or as ecocide incarnate, and long for a future that will be either the apotheosis or the final refutation of the present. It's far less popular, and arguably far more difficult, to embrace that ambivalence and accept both the wonder and the immense tragedy of our time. Still, it seems to me that if we are to face up to the challenges of the future that's bearing down on us, that difficult realization is an essential starting point.


ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,

I just finished viewing the President's speech to Congress, and I share your "deep sense of disquiet". It seems a timely and concise summary. I'll work on "embracing the terrible ambivalence". Thanks for the post. Please keep at it...

hapibeli said...

I have to say that I prefer your vision of 2 steps back and maybe a half step forward as our society's future. After my stint in Vietnam I wouldn't wish such hardship on anyone. A world of billions dying is an awful future to contemplate. All most of us can hope for is to be in a place where the sadness is held at bay by progressive thinking [Read; remembering how it was done by those who came before us ], and a spirit of co-operation within whatever area we live.
The desires of the present will surely fade as food and shelter take daily precedence over consumerism.
I was wondering this morning as I looked at items in our kitchen, what are plastics manufacturers discussing in their private meetings? Surely many of them are aware of the coming high petroleum prices and the resulting bedlam. Is it that most of those who use oil make the Saran Wrap, doorknobs, auto parts, chair arms, etc., ad nauseum, cannot see what is coming? Their nightmares must be dark.

Matthew Craft said...

The thing that strikes me the most about the dichtomy between the two is that they encapsulate the two stories you've mentioned as being the only two that dominate our civilization. On the one hand, you have Salvation Now in the form of an insistence that the present society is our only course short of extinction, and on the other you have Apocalypse Now in the insistence that modern civilization must die to make the world a better place.

The universe, in my experience - short thought it is, being a member of the purported 'Generation Y' - is never so neat and tidy; no matter the story we use to order things, the world is a thing of dynamic chaos, and always finds ways of disrupting even the simplest of story models. I count myself as lucky to have learned some of the fairy tales from earlier days, as well as discovering the 'story' of chaos theory.

The future will be a darker and harder place to live; but it also is a place that contains hope, that in the future mankind's children will find more happiness than we who live in the present era. That alone is worth fighting for, to mitigate as much of the damage as possible and attempt to make the descent as smooth and mild a slope as possible.

Llewellyn said...

Another great post JMG,
My one personal view on the amount the world can support post industrial is around 400 million.

Draco TB said...

I see no hope for industrial civilisation. I do see hope for mankind but only if we ensure that the present generation and those following know why industrial civilisation collapsed. Then, perhaps, Monbiots cataclysmic vision won't come to be.

I stand on the edge of the universe with the Creator and He shows me world upon world of life living in harmony, where death is only from old age and nothing happens that isn't true and harmonious.
Then he shows me the Earth and humanity with its constant wars, death and destruction - and yet from this cataclysm arise arts to make you weep,
laugh, run and sing. Monuments to cause you to gasp in awe and admiration.

Yes, I say, but these humans, they can see forever...

RDatta said...

Siddartha Gautama is reported to have said "No good deed, however small, is ever wasted". Every effort made to ease the coming hardships will contribute to assisting in The Long (but inevitable) Descent.

The call to action should not be misconstrued as an assertion of the possibility of averting the inevitable, but rather one of seeking to mitigate the suffering.

pdnewton said...

motorcycle dawn
age of the ambivalence
soon to see the end

Yarra said...

"even if Monbiot is fighting for windmills rather than against them."
Quite witty.
Humour would be a terrible thing to lose (or toulose, as the case may be).

PRiZM said...

Once again a much appreciated post JMG.

Your post leaves so many ideas floating around in my head. A collapse of current conditions will no doubt happen. Observation of nature and history is a testament to this. And as is usual, to assume any of us can predict exactly what will happen is ludicrous but history and nature do provide excellent examples of what has happened and what we can likely expect.

The all too common overlook is the balance that nature provides. The dark ages allowed approximately 2 billion of the worlds population to exist, but in compliance with balance, to think this is all that the earth can support is a sad miscalculation of the inherit balance that is provided.

The lack of realizing this balance is I believe, inherit of our society, and a vast world majority, that is so near completely divided foremost by the USA political standards that is so accepted by the ignorantly influenced masses.

It is a shame and a disservice to humanity that such opposing views have been so easily divisive to governments worldwide that we have been left in the predicament that we currently are in.

A better future is possible only if humanity learns and applies lessons from this current circumstance and past circumstances. History shows otherwise, but one thing that keeps humanity progressing forward is hope. It is also the one thing that blinds us.

Ruben said...

There are two books named Radical Simplicity, and I can't remember which one I read this in...the author calculated that if each couple only had one child we would be down to one billion people on the planet within one hundred years--just by the natural death rate. So it seems reducing the human population may not be entirely grisly.

Figuring out how to run an economy with so much less cheap labour may be another thing entirely...

FB said...

I think you're missing an obvious possibility. Here's a scenario, let me know if you think it's possible:

Five billion people starve, but within the one billion who survive is a network of resilient communities that retains enough technological savvy to reboot technological progress.

For more on resilient communities, see:

Lance Michael Foster said...

JMG, there is a fantastic (IMHO) essay I came across this week that really helps focus on the hubris of any such imposed "solutions", at (a few excerpts):

"The other common argument is that "humanity has learned its lesson." I think this is on the right track, but too optimistic about how much we've learned, and about what kind of learning is necessary. Mere rebellion is as old as the first slave revolt in Ur, and you can find intellectual critiques of civilization in the Old Testament: From Ecclesiastes 5:11, "When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof?" And from Isaiah 5:8, "Woe unto those who join house to house, and field to field, until there is no place." If this level of learning were enough, we would have found utopia thousands of years ago. Instead, people whose understanding was roughly the same as ours, and whose courage was greater, kept making the same mistakes.

In Against His-story, Against Leviathan, Fredy Perlman set out to document the whole history of resistance to civilization, and inadvertently undermined his conclusion, that this Leviathan will be the last, by showing again and again that resistance movements become the new dominators. The ancient Persian empire started when Cyrus was inspired by Zoroastrianism to sweep away the machinery of previous empires. The Roman empire started as a people's movement to eradicate the Etruscans. The modern nation-state began with the Moravians forming a defensive alliance against the Franks, who fell into warlike habits themselves after centuries of resisting the Romans. And we all know what happened with Christianity.

...The really frightening thing is when people fantasize about destroying libraries and museums, as if this would prevent a complex society from ever getting started again -- just like thousands of years ago, without libraries or museums, people didn't start complex societies about fifty times. In the addiction metaphor, burning libraries is like not only throwing the drugs away, but also erasing all memory of being an addict, and then going back to the same tempting environment with the same addictive personality. It's such a perfect mistake that I can only conclude that these people subconsciously want to repeat the whole cycle of pain."

I think the realistic course of action for any of us is in your statement:

" It may be possible for us to save a few things worth saving that would otherwise be lost, to stem some little of what will be an immense tide of human suffering, to do what we can to help stabilize a damaged biosphere so Nature doesn't have to rebuild it entirely from scratch. "

"to save a few things worth saving..." --is addressed in your Cultural Conservation project (not just how to raise sheep, make beer or smelt iron from peat, but how best to preserve Shakespeare and Beethoven)

"to stem human suffering..." --not just to learn deindustrial medicine and food growing, but conserve and develop philosophies that accept things as they are, to find beauty and meaning in the Dance of Life AND Death

"help stabilize a damaged biosphere..." --not just the big visions like cutting emissions of CO2 (too dependent on cheap energy and the cooperation of uncooperative governments) but actual hands-on personal non-machine/handtool-repair of erosion using local materials as seen in practical examples as Malcolm Margolin's "The Earth Manual: How to Work on Wild Land Without Taming It" and the visionary storytelling of "The Man Who Planted Trees" by Jean Giono.

It is possible to do much as an individual, to be one of the ripples of beauty, creativity and continuity...

Tony said...

I've been reading your posts for several months, ever since I first discovered them on the website. I find them to be uniformly lucid, honest, and adult - a refreshing set of attributes in our modern don't-wanna-grow-up world.

I share your ambivalence. I think often about despair, and what is to be done about it. I'm ambivalent in my work as an urban planner, which I see as having (almost) no future, especially within the current grow-or-die paradigm (hint: death usually wins, in the end).

Nevertheless. Nevertheless. You speak of ambivalence, and I think of the ultimate contradiction of despair at the likely deaths of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of living human beings, all of whom certainly will not "deserve" the varied fates which will befall them - that on the one hand, and on the other: a life of greater meaning for all of us, even the dying, as the chaff of modern industrial civilization gets swept away. One cannot deny the despair that soaks us at the thought of the end of all things we know, including loved ones and purest strangers whom we nonetheless feel some compassion for. One can also not deny - I argue - that the life of ease which many of us in the developed world currently experience is hardly a fulfilling, neither a "becoming" existence. I can't help but think of two slogans, "Live Free or Die", now eulogized on the license plates of New Hampshirites; and "Better to die on our feet than live on our knees", uttered by Spanish rebels during the Spanish Civil War.

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.

That is the essential contradiction of our times. There is no way to resolve it.

John Michael Greer said...

Ariel, many thanks.

Hapibeli, I suspect the plastics manufacturers are as unaware of the future bearing down on us as most people are these days. Progress is the god of our society's established faith, and most people trust in it so blindly that they don't even notice the extent of their commitment to it.

Matthew, bingo. It would be nice to see something other than the same old stories rehashed, but I'm not holding my breath.

Llewellyn, I'm guessing half a billion, so we're fairly close.

Draco, I'm more optimistic. The damage that we've done is a function of access to huge amounts of cheap fossil fuel energy, and we've used those up. Even if our descendants remember nothing more about us than vague legends of a time when people flew like birds, they won't have the resources to repeat our mistakes.

RDatta, exactly. Compassion is never wasted, and it's going to be even more essential in the times ahead of us than it is now.

Newton, thank you!

Yarra, I do my best. ;-)

PRiZM, I don't think that our predicament is primarily a matter of politics. Our human ecology is catastrophically out of balance, and will balance itself back out in predictable and very unpleasant ways; politics is simply the froth on the surface of that wave.

Ruben, it's always possible to imagine a better way to do things than reality provides. Do you see the least shred of evidence that the entire human population of the planet is willing to accept that book's plan? I don't.

FB, no, I'm dismissing an obvious impossibility. I've critiqued that sort of plan repeatedly here and in my books, though, and won't rehash the point just now.

Lance, thanks for the link.

Mark said...

It seems that our current ways of thinking cannot comprehend what life in the future could be like. Heck, we are still struggling with how to live life in the present. But, I feel that's because we are conditioned or self-conditioned to think and believe in terms of all evil or all good. But nothing is entirely evil or entirely good; If the lion makes it's kill it is good for the lion and evil for the gazelle, but if the lion misses the kill it is evil for the starving lion and good for the gazelle.

I think we're a long shot from that realization, as a whole at least.

blue sun said...

Thank you JMG. A very sobering post to bring us back to the fundamentals.

My stance is that we will not see any real suffering until the baby boom generation passes away, because I believe the boomer generation will throw every remaining resource and the kitchen sink into sustaining the myth of progress (rather than face reality or help future generations). The most privileged generation ever won’t give up their golden sunset without a fight. History may prove me wrong, but if there ever was a generation with the ability to tread air, the boomers would be it. Look at how we are wining and dining Libya right now. I don’t know what Libya’s reserves are, but could it sustain another Reagan/Thatcher-type bubble?

Publius said...

Great post. I had read that debate in the Guardian, and was wondering what you might say about it.

I must say that I am not feeling optimistic today, and therefore cannot believe that the Monbiot vision will be achieved at all... among my family and friends, only a tiny minority even believe there is a problem. As one friend put it, "peak oil is bullshit." He's on unemployment right now, and is fantasizing about a new cushy corporate job that will likely never materialize. The Dark Mountain guy, though, deserve a little more credit, I think. He seems to be more focused on promoting literature and art that emphasize nature and the rest of the living world, and de-emphasizes the standard narcissism of most human art. He doesn't seem to have given the mechanics of peak oil and de-industrialization the same thought you have. So perhaps it's just a matter of emphasis... I would really love to see a debate between Monbiot and you!

I very much admire your work, but have to admit to being on the "doomer" side of things. My big effort these days is to consciously try to foster a sense of optimism about the ability of human communities to work together to survive. I am succeeding somewhat, but I have come to the conclusion that smaller to mid-size towns and villages will be far more successful than large cities.

Bigger cities, even in the Midwest, do not foster or encourage much community building (in terms of peak oil prep) at all. I posted an ad on CL the other day, and got only three responses. They were all positive responses, to be sure, but this is in a metro area of a million people!
A lot of the so-called (and negatively stereotyped) "prepper" movement actually has embraced the ambivalence you talk about, and is actively trying to preserve skills and techniques, such as blacksmithing, boatbuilding, etc. I know that the prepper movement tends to be more gun-happy and survivalist in mentality than you seem to like, but they (we?) ain't all that bad. In fact, I want to contribute to your new project...

sv koho said...

Thank you JMG for a concise rebuttal of the views of two old warhorses and as you said, longtime readers of JMG could anticipate your response as indeed I did. I would like you to if possible , move beyond your global view of the issue from time to time and examine mitigating strategies, especially for different regions of the world. Global industrial decline would seem to be inevitable but the slope of the descent will certainly vary significantly among the industrialuized countries and the minimally industrialized countries, and among countries with vast debt nearing economic collapse and those countries and regions more stable. I accept that eventually there will be a convergence of all toward a deindustrial future but it appears to this observer that economic collapse may precede deindustrial collapse in some regions at a far different pace. I think it is a pity that many will hone in on the economic collapse and fail to grasp the real collapse will be waning food production ,resource extraction etc induced by waning energy availability which of course is the essence of a deindustrial future. Thanks again. I have just returned from a long ocean voyage on a sailboat and was out of touch with world developments for several months and I see nothing has changed. surprise,surprise.

walkingshadow said...

Bravo, John—a superb post. I really admire your grasp of the myriad forces at play, and your ability to incisively bring them into focus. I've just finished reading Catton's "Overshoot" and was struck by how well it stands up to recent analysis of our predicament.

Trebor Resro said...

I am happy to report that I will have not deposited any children, (grandchildren, or granchildren's grandchildren) to suffer the inevitable future decline of the human species.

A lot cheaper and less consumptive in the present, too.

Ruben said...

No, JMG, sadly I have no reason expect everyone to jump on a one-baby bandwagon. On the other hand, we are seeing a surprising increase in personal savings that never would have been predicted a year ago. So, I guess it seems plausible to me that, while many will revert to the old strategy of many children to survive times of stress, others will have fewer.

My only point was that population descent need not be grisly. And certainly, as you say, descent is local--so I imagine in some areas there will be quite an orderly natural reduction of population while others will suffer much more greatly.

Millicent Q Peabody said...

It would be immensely helpful if those who can invision small pockets of humanity surviving, would do so without the fantasy of technology.

The North Coast said...

Every time I think you couldn't possibly write more beautifully or come up with any more stunningly original and finely nuanced ideas, you show me.

I can't disagree with a word you say even though I wish things could be otherwise. I really wish what you said was not true, and I'm clinging to some slim hopes that perhaps we can retain some advanced technology.

All we can hope is that we can, as a species, apply all the rationality, intelligence, and heart we have to managing the conditions that will likely prevail in the future, even though I fear that we will do the opposite- which is to return to the brutality, irrationality, superstition and hysteria that people seem always to revert to in times of deep crisis and collapse.

At this juncture, that seems less likely than ever, though. The actions that we in the United States are taking, both jointly and severally,seem suicidal. We could at least be investing in technologies that could have a future, but we are right now busy trying to act like it's still 1965.

In the meantime, I'm profoundly glad I remained childless and can devote whatever I leave to my niece and nephews. And I hope THEY remain childless, too, and save half their incomes so they can have a more secure old age than their prodigal aunt here.

Your books are on my "must buy" list, and you perhaps ought to compile your blog posts into a book that could go the libraries and stores to reach people who don't get online (more than you'd imagine) or who never heard of your site.

wayfarer said...

I am a relative newcomer to your posts, after reading Long Descent. Your perspective helps greatly in balancing the dread of an apocalyptic future with the need to do something meaningful. "Embracing the terrible ambivalence" as I ride my bicycle to work. Making a small contribution and enjoying the beauty. Great article, Thanks!


DIYer said...

Before we can rationally discuss and evaluate making the world a "better" place, we must:

Define "good".

It seems a bit, um, trollish to phrase it so simply, as it's one of those parameters that should be obvious. But try to think about how you would program a computer to recognize goodness.

Robert said...

Thanks for another valuable essay. I read the debate in the Guardian and found myself, like you, not agreeing with either side. In spite of the fact that overall your efforts are quite positive I have a problem with the pessimism in this week's post.

I don't see a catastrophic die-off as inevitable and I don't see the point of just accepting it. We all will die and it will be sad but I see no physical constraints which make mass starvation or other catastrophic die-off unvoidable and the only biological constraints that would make it so would be the limits imposed by human nature.

No one knows the limits of human potential. I suspect it is unknowable -- for us anyway.

I take great comfort in the fact that so much of our current resource use is wasteful. That means we can eliminate it and the only suffering that would result would be the emotional trauma of the people who feel entitled to such a lifestyle.

I don't want to minimize the extent to which we need to radically change the way we live but I find myself agreeing with Ruben that population descent doesn't have to be grisly.

Pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, you know.

isochroma said...

Excellent article!

The sheer force, the obvious eloquence of your argumentation reminds me of Chomsky or even Parenti.

As for your conclusions, I think they are also as accurate as an intelligent man living today can make.

John Michael Greer said...

Tony, I'd considered half a dozen ways to respond to your comment, and none of them can be done in less than a full post. Expect an answer next week -- though I should probably warn you that you may not like it much.

Mark, excellent. Yes, we're a long way collectively from learning to see with the eyes of Nature, but it's something to strive for.

Blue Sun, at this point we're chasing scraps. Libya has fairly modest reserves at best.

Publius, I have a lot of respect for the preppers -- they're doing something themselves, rather than waiting for somebody else to save them, and some of the things they're doing (such as keeping a store of food on hand and learning useful crafts) are very sensible moves just now. For that matter, I enjoy Paul Kingsnorth's work and will probably be submitting something to his first Dark Mountain anthology -- I don't have to like all his ideas to acknowledge that writers and poets need to start speaking to the future we're facing.

Koho, I've discussed mitigation strategies at some length already and will certainly be doing more of that in the future. Mind you, getting good at deepwater sailing is not a bad place to start.

Shadow, if I could get Overshoot on the required reading list at every public school in America I'd do it. That book did more than anything else I've read to give me a clear sense of our predicament and what we can and can't do about it.

Trebor, that's certainly a valid choice.

Ruben, the "increase in personal savings" is a statistical artifact caused by the fact that people are having to pay down their credit cards and consumer loans, and can't get more because lenders have tightened up. Of course you're right that the decline and fall of our civilization will have varying impacts in different places, but it's going to be pretty hard wherever you happen to be.

Millicent, granted, but that's like expecting a medieval peasant to decide that God and all his angels and saints aren't there any more.

North Coast, thank you! As for book versions of these posts, I use this blog as the first draft for ideas for my peak oil books; those who've read the blog from early on will recognize the first year and a half in The Long Descent, and the second will be forthcoming in The Ecotechnic Future shortly.

Michael, thank you.

DIYer, well, there's that. I tend to take it, in contexts like the debate, as meaning "the one that the speaker wants."

Robert, optimism can also be a self-defeating prophecy. "Hope for the best, but plan for the worst" is still excellent advice.

Isochroma, thank you.

Jan Suzukawa said...

I find that your posts always make me stop and think. I agree with some things you say and disagree with other things, but you always leave me pondering more deeply on these issues. But the main reason I keep reading your essays week after week is that you are simply a superb writer. Your essay this week is a great example - what beautiful prose. Thank you for your posts. (And on the overpopulation point - just yesterday I heard that two couples I know are expecting. One couple is expecting twins! On the one hand, it's lovely - and on the other hand, three more American consumers are on their way... :0! Like I said... you leave me thinking.)

Joseph said...

I'd like to third the comment about Buddha and compassion.

For all we know, we live in an infinite Cosmos, so surely in one way or another, evolution as "Nature's yoga" - to use a term from Sri Aurobindo - will continue here, there and everywhere, with the efforts we make here affecting the entire Cosmos in some way.

As you can guess, I am approaching this from the standpoint of Sri Aurobindo, but I equally have a place in my heart for what in the western esoteric tradition has been called "the Great Work."

In the end, it is all Nature's yoga, or if you prefer, the Divine Lila (Play). Ones' spiritual life cannot be dependent upon what does or does not happen on this one planet at this "time."

npeters said...

Could it be a wonderful ambivalence? A question from one full of excitement about the dramas ahead like Tony (but also prepared to be disappointed next week).
Beautifully written piece as usual - why not challenge Monbiot in the Grauniad? More of the UK should hear the Archdruid.

Dru said...


I've read much of your work (including The Long Descent), and like a great deal of it. Your writing has been incredibly useful in (re)thinking the likely impacts of industrial decline.

One of my frustrations, though, is the dismissive attitude toward the left. I understand that there is much to be desired among its various practitioners, and so on.

That said, I'm frankly baffled by the lack of discussion of the structures we choose for ourselves as a society, and the impact (and compounding echo effect) that those structures will have in the coming years.

I would imagine that these would be on par with our choice of light bulbs in terms of impact, to say the least.

Now, even if we concede (which I think would be foolish) that there is no possibility for a large-scale change in the way we organize our economy and ownership structure (for starters), there remains a lot of possibility on the local level of organizing to prevent further ecological destruction and to create egalitarian models of wealth distribution. There are workable models of both: community-based environmental movements and cooperatives, both of which can be found in abundance here in Quebec.

All that's to say that once you're done with the poignant and accurate critique of how some on the left attempt to fit Peak Oil into a classic narrative that ends in redemption, how is the rest of the story not relevant? Some of the subplots I'm referring to: community organizing, economic analysis, anti-oppression, movement building...

These, it seems to me, are frequently fit into the category of "the preferred projects" that are falsely presented as solutions to the global resource crisis. Fine. But does that then mean that there's nothing of use there?

Adrynian said...


I'm curious, are you utterly committed to the idea of a completely deindustrial future? (I've been reading your writings for a while, so I'm fairly certain the answer is yes, but I ask for a reason.) I mean, do you think that we won't be able to retain any significant capture and use of exosomatic energy, either from the sun, wind, or hydro that might allow us to continue even a modicum of a manufacturing base, say for bicycles or electric motors/generators?

I can't help but feel that there ought to be a caveat to your statement that, "We are not going to have a future better than the present," reading something along the lines of: as high of a standard of living, or a [materially] better future.

Must we sacrifice all material comforts on the altar of deindustrialization, or do you believe we can hold on to some of our hard won technological gains? (As above, I personally would be content with minimal mining and ore processing to enable bicycles & electrical motors & generators, as well as radios, air compressors for tools and heat pumps, and perhaps also concrete for construction, if we can make it carbon negative by using different chemicals, like magnesium silicate).

As an additional thought: given the research by psychologists and behavioural economists into what makes us happy, it is entirely possible that we can be happier than we are now, living our atomized & alienated lifestyles in which we substitute a lack of meaningful connection to our surroundings and other human beings with various addictions (e.g. to food, tv, shopping, video games, porn, etc.), all while pursuing the materialist dream of a high-status lifestyle by working long hours in employment that is often unsatisfying.

(Roughly speaking:)

Happiness = (or is proportional to)
+Flow (i.e. interesting, engaging activity)
+Meaning (i.e. to life, secular or religious)

Given this, is it necessarily true that life in the future must be worse than it is today? We sacrifice meaning and often love for money and sometimes flow (e.g. I know several overworked engineers whose only response when I ask them why they put in so many hours - instead of enjoying some leisure time - is, "Well, the work is interesting."); in addition, our sedentary lives and food overconsumption result in obesity and other chronic diseases, including back and neck pain; and furthermore, the inequality inherent in our socioeconomic system results in very large populations of impoverished. All of this tells me that people under the current system aren't nearly as happy as they could be, given alternatives to our current lifestyle.

John Michael Greer said...

Jan, thank you.

Joseph, of course you're quite correct. In this blog and my peak oil writings generally, I tend to say little about the spiritual dimension of things, as it adds another layer of potential misunderstanding to an already fraught subject. Still, one thing I think can be said without raising too many hackles is that the material troubles of one species on one out-of-the-way planet at one moment in the vast sweep of deep time are not actually that big a deal in the great scheme of things.

Npeters, well, as long as your idea of a wonderful ambivalence embraces the possibility of, say, having to watch your children starve to death, I suppose that's an option.

Dru, from my perspective the issues central to today's left are largely irrelevant to the issues I'm trying to raise here. They have their own relevance, though on most issues I'm frankly no more in agreement with the current thinking of the activist left than I am with that of the activist right.

Still, the relative distribution of wealth and privilege in society is not the same issue as the historic trajectory of the sources of wealth in society -- in this case, fossil fuels. A perfectly egalitarian society, if such an animal were possible, could go into overshoot just as easily and as drastically as a hierarchical one. I see very little awareness of this in today's left, and a lot of efforts to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic while the ship is already sinking.

Adrynian, good heavens. You've been reading this blog long enough to know better than that. With luck and a lot of hard work, we can certainly preserve some of the technological advances of the recent past, and benefit from them; much of my work has been focused on exactly that point.

Still, this fixation on the notion that the future must be happier needs to be faced and challenged. The last two elements in your equation -- poverty and pain -- are going to be far more prevalent in the future than they are now, and they will most likely affect you, me, and everyone else reading this blog. As for the rest -- well, I'll be addressing that in next week's post.

Vesper said...

Dear Sir,

The presentation falls far short of your demonstrated ability. I joined the AODA because of your simple, straight-forward, and clear way of explaining things in The Druidry Handbook and The Druid Magic Handbook. This is not one of your better works for simplicity or clarity (in my opinion, of course.)

Ambivalence is a binary thought form with two points opposite in nature. Seeing “things all one way or the other, all good or all evil,” is another binary thought form. The primary difference is whether we embrace both extremes or reject one. I suspect that “balance” might have been a better vehicle than “ambivalence” for clear expression here. Balance implies a third point between two extremes which offers a more distinct option to the reader, and finding that third point requires embracing the first two – which appears to be the essential point also.

The presentation is critical because the essential problem being addressed appears to be how people perceive the greater issues, not the greater issues themselves. However, this becomes confusing because the essential problem cannot be discussed without at least touching upon the greater issues behind it. If we wish to change peoples’ perceptions, then simple clarity of communication is necessary.

Remember the Bell Curve! You will change few perceptions if you focus on the ignorant or the scholars (especially the scholars because they can be a stubborn lot.) Speak simply and clearly to average people and you will find a much larger audience. However, this brings us to the one point of content that I would debate with you.

It is true on one level that “during the age that is coming to an end, the billion or so of us who have lived in the industrial world have enjoyed comforts and opportunities that our species had never known before and almost certainly will never know again.” However, this age has also converted people into worker drones to some extent. They see a simple path to this grand life and pursue it relatively mindlessly. Sugarcoating leaves them content to remain mindless, but the opposite extreme will cause them to erect mental blocks out of fear. In this lies the essential problem of changing perceptions and a middle path must be found.

The car has left the mountain road, it is airborne, and many do not seem cognizant of this. It seems the great technological machine has dehumanized people. They have been sedated with the virtual world that technology presents them. The modern industrial world is both amazing and alarming. Let’s not marvel at the machine, but rather, let’s heal the people. I believe you have a gift and may have already changed perceptions more than anyone is aware.

mattbg said...

...or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


Robert said...

"This fixation on the notion that the future must be happier needs to be faced and challenged."

You're arguing with a straw man. At least you are if you claim to be arguing with the commenters here. Some of us here are suggesting that the future doesn't have to be worse than the present. There's a difference.

"A perfectly egalitarian society, if such an animal were possible, could go into overshoot just as easily and as drastically as a hierarchical one."

True, but the more egalitarian a society is the more likely it will be able to accept the kind of voluntary reduction in its standard of living that could reduce the likelihood of catastrophic collapse.

ariel55 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gaias daughter said...

JMG, this is definitely one of your more beautifully written posts!

My first grandchild was born this past Earth Day, so I am experiencing a high degree of the ambivalence that comes with crystal ball gazing. I want so badly to have some hope for her future . . . and I'm not willing yet to concede.

It does seem inevitable that millions are going to suffer, starve, and die unpleasant deaths. I believe that the coming times will bring out the best in people as well as the worst, and I hope I will be in a position to do what I can for others and to save what I can for posterity. And I am hoping that, as bad as it may be, some will not only survive but thrive.

At present, most Americans live virtual lives. We spend our days in climate controlled environments, disconnected from the seasonal rhythms of nature. We slouch in easy chairs and watch professionals play sports, we plug our ears with earphones and listen to professionals make music, and we drive through the local McDonalds to eat food grown and prepared by industrial corporations. And it seems our lives slip away without ever being claimed.

I think the average American is bored to death, sometimes literally, and that the challenges on our horizons could herald meaningful change. I think we have within us a great deal of untapped potential -- of creativity, resourcefulness, inventiveness, and determination. Those who rise to meet the challenge could well fine new purpose and meaning.

That's my happy (sort of) ending, and I'm sticking to it for as long as I can!

Dru said...

JMG wrote:

"A perfectly egalitarian society, if such an animal were possible, could go into overshoot just as easily and as drastically as a hierarchical one."

I agree in the abstract, but things get more complex as we talk about concrete examples.

Inequality, concentration of ownership and privilege tend to insulate decisionmaking elites from the consequences of their actions and encourage a level of collective arrogance and greed.

The more egalitarian a society, as a general trend, the wider the diversity of thought and the larger the number of confident actors taking part in decisionmaking. The more power is shared, I would argue, the more the excesses of capitalism will be curbed.

In the case of a hypothetical egalitarian industrial society, I agree with you: overshoot could happen just as easily. It's not hard to imagine a collective hallucination similar to our own occurring.

But it's my understanding that we're not talking about starting history over as if the communists had won. We are, I think, talking about dealing with the post-peak decline of available resources starting now.

One example: in rural Quebec, a lot of the local economies are heavily cooperative-based. When the latest economic downturn happened, corporations simply dumped workers they didn't need. Many cooperatives, on the other hand, went about creatively finding other sources of employment for their workers and retraining. In many cases, community assemblies were called to discuss how to transition to some other economic

This sort of resilience and collective creativity, born of democratization of ownership (in the various senses of the word) will, I think, make a massive difference in our collective ability to react to changes. It's the difference between people cultivating the ability to manage their own affairs, and being completely at the mercy of an economic system run by people far away in every sense of the phrase.

And that, to perhaps belabour the point, is at least as significant as what light bulbs we use.

tristan said...


Well I just finished your blog post this Friday morning and I was going to congratulate you on finally laying out your vision of the future in a clear enough way that you could not possibly be misinterpreted. Then I read the comments.

Oh well. I felt like banging my head on my desk or laughing out loud and opted for the latter as it seemed like more fun.

I think the problem that you often run into is that people keep throwing "what ifs" at you and you are trying to answer them in a way that is accurate but not confusing.

As I understand you (and bless me I'm no genius) a lot of what people are proposing (from the more Utopian to the more apocalyptic) could or even may happen in small periods of localized time and place. A good example is Haiti last summer. They were reduced to eating mud and rioting for food in the streets. Once collapse really gets going its possible the entire population of that island may die off or (those who can) flee. That would be about as doomer as one can imagine.

On the other hand if everyone is trying everything somewhere on this planet some small group might hit the jack pot and make every right decision and lead a rather nice life for a few generations. Who knows, maybe in a couple hundred years they will be looked back upon as a sort of Camelot.

The problem is that no one can predict what will work, for how long or where. It seems like most people want a generalized future that allows them the security of "knowing" what to do. And that is the one thing that we can't really get to.

If your numbers are right we all have a 16:1 chance of dieing off (that is a gross number, I assume you don't think the whole die off will occur in one generation but for ease of argument). Now you have moved to the mid-west because you think it ups your odds ever so slightly. I'm trying to get to Portland, OR because I think it will up my odds ever so slightly. Heck maybe both of us are wrong. Who knows, maybe we will be like Lt. Col. Chamberlain at Gettysburg convinced that we are safe in the middle of the Union lines just before Lee's final charge.


John Michael Greer said...

Vesper, do you really think that life as a peasant in an agrarian society makes people any less into "worker drones"? (Your bee metaphors are getting a bit mixed here, by the way.) Here again, though, this is territory I want to discuss next week.

Matt, very funny!

Robert, I don't think I am. This whole discussion is reminiscent of the guy who jumped off the fortieth floor of a skyscraper because he was tired of waiting for the elevator down. As he was climbing over the balcony, one of the other people in line asked, "But what about when you hit the ground?" The guy answered, "Pessimist!"

Over the last three and a half years on this blog, I think I've made a very strong case that in the not too distant future, the vast majority of people are going to lead shorter, more difficult, more impoverished lives as the fossil fuels responsible for our present prosperity and comfort run short. I've noted also in that time that a very large number of people are not willing to deal with that prospect.

This week's post is an attempt to confront that. From my perspective insisting "well, but we might just possibly somehow come out with a better future anyway" is simply an evasion. It's rather as though you were insisting that since any given disease might be curable, there's a chance that you might live forever.

Ariel, thank you. I don't know that anybody has ever done a study of the relative roles of optimism and pessimism in history, but it's fair to say that those who assume that the universe will somehow bail them out from the consequences of their own bad decisions are pretty consistently disappointed.

Gaia's Daughter, there's certainly purpose and meaning to be found in times such as the ones ahead of us, but then that's true at any time.

Dru, I have to differ. All the evidence suggests that if all the people in the industrial world, let's say, were to have an equal voice in making decisions, the great majority of them would support policies that would preserve as much as possible of their own prosperity and privilege no matter what the consequences. One of the least productive habits of today's left is the insistence that selfishness and greed only exists among people who make more than $100K a year.

The cooperatives you cite are a good example of my point, as it happens. They may have saved jobs over the short term, but if cutting costs drastically turns out to be necessary for the cooperatives to survive, their unwillingness to lay off workers may well result in bankruptcy. This is the sort of hard choice we are facing, and egalitarian decision making processes are notoriously bad at managing such situations.

Tristan, thank you for getting it. Yes, that's the point, or much of it. The other part is that our cultural narratives bias us so powerfully in the direction of imagining a better future that many of us will engage in any evasion and exploit every possible bit of rhetorical wiggle room to keep from grappling with the fact that this time, those narratives have failed us.

Frank Gifford said...

Thanks for your continuing contributions neighbor (you are now just up the road from me!)

I am in the process of re-reading Robert Ornstein's "The Evolution of Consciousness". This current post made me think of my latest synthesis from Ornstein's ideas. Put simply, it is apparent from the state of human culture and the condition of Gaia (or the biosphere if you prefer), that human intelligence has proven to be non-adaptive.

We are clever, but not so smart.

Ornstein's premise is that the evolutionary jump in brain capacity in humans about 1.3 million years ago resulted from our organism's need to radiate heat efficiently. The subsequent increase in intellectual processing power was spurious. Much of human development since that time suggests it not only spurious, but again, non-adaptive.

Not an idea we can test scientifically, but it does lead to the possibility of remediation. By finely developing our capacities of intuition, and subordinating intellect, perhaps there is a way for humans to develop real intelligence, or as ISHK puts it, to "consciously evolve". If you are interested in this possibility, checkout

Adrynian said...


Regarding cooperatives, while I recognize your point that people generally want to hold on to what they have (i.e. it has been found that people hate losses ~2x as much as they like gains), I feel compelled to point out that they don't always try to hold on to their gains to the detriment of those around them:

From The Economics of Distributism V: The Practice of Distributism

"The Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (MCC). Recently, the workers in the Fagor Appliance Factory in Mondragón, Spain, received an 8% cut in pay. This is not unusual in such hard economic times. What is unusual is that the workers voted themselves this pay cut. They could do this because the workers are also the owners of the firm. Fagor is part of the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation, a collection of cooperatives in Spain founded over 50 years ago."

In other words, it is not a necessary law of the natural world that individuals of the species homo sapiens always seeks to maximize their personal gains even to the expense of others in their group/community. And what is so interesting about cooperatives as a form of organization is that they tend to promote social connection through trust-building cooperation rather than degrading it as capitalism seems to do, with its focus on self-interested behaviour.

From the same article as above:

"Another large-scale example of Distributism in action occurs in the Emilia-Romagna, the area around Bologna, which is one of 20 administrative districts in Italy... [T]he Emilian Model is based on the concept of reciprocity. Reciprocity revolves around the notion of bi-directional transfers; it is not so much a defined exchange relationship with a set price as it is an expectation that what one gets will be proportional to what one gives. The element of trust is very important, which lowers the transaction costs of contracts, lawyers, and the like, unlike modern corporations, where such expenses are a high proportion of the cost of doing business. But more than that, since reciprocity is the principle that normally obtains in healthy families and communities, the economic system reinforces both the family and civil society, rather than works against them."

Dru said...

JMG: You wrote: "...if cutting costs drastically turns out to be necessary for the cooperatives to survive, their unwillingness to lay off workers may well result in bankruptcy.."

If the take away point is that cooperatives exist to inflexibly preserve jobs, then surely you're right. But my point is that coops (and to broaden the point, democratic control of the economy) significantly broaden the scope of possible responses.

The difference between a fund manager and a relatively independent human being is not in their relative level of greed or self-interest, but in the range of possible expressions of that self-interest. If the fund manager decides they want to do something other than turn the highest short- or mid-term profit possible, they will simply be replaced.

If the relatively independent human being (or community thereof) becomes convinced that long-term planning for scarcity is desirable, they can pursue that. A publicly traded company does not have that option; in fact, their shareholders can sue them.

Think of the difference in how an initiative like transition towns could be received in a co-op town and a corporate town. In the corporate town, it simply wouldn't matter whether people bought in or not. In a co-op town, they would actually have the option of dedicating collectively-held resources towards planning for long-term scarcity. Not to say that they would take it, and probably to say that it would be hard to convince people to take significant measures, but some possibility strikes me as much better than none.

The desires of a human being are, as your writing implies, quite malleable, contingent on expectations. Why would you write constantly about our collective expectations if you didn't think we could be convinced? The "desires" of a fund manager in their professional capacity are inflexible and not affected by the individual's beliefs. I contend that it matters a great deal which one is in charge of the economy.

John Michael Greer said...

Frank, I'll take a look at Ornstein's work, but I have to say the ideas you've passed on seem dubious to me.

Adrynian, the problem with arguing via anecdotes is that you can always find at least one example to back any claim about human nature. Of course there will always be examples of altruism, but you have a hard road ahead of you if you intend to claim that they will suddenly become the rule rather than the exception.

Dru, we could go back and forth on this one for a long time and get nowhere. It's always possible to present a caricature of the people you don't like, oppose it with an appealing abstraction, and insist on this basis that your cause is just and will solve all the world's problems, and indeed the left has been using that hoary rhetorical trope for more than a century and a half now. (That's not to say the right is any better; it just uses different tropes.) Still, I don't see much point in flogging that particular dead horse just now.

Isis said...


For my part, I wouldn't say that the future will be better than the present, but I would say that a few things are likely to improve. Given that we don't get a choice in this matter (industrial civilization 2.0 vs. deindustrial future), I don't see what's so wrong about embracing those things that are at least somewhat likely to get better.

A few examples.

(1) Loneliness. I'll bet you'd have a hard time finding a society that isolates people quite so successfully as the modern industrial societies do. Combine nuclear families (with high divorce rates on top of that), with impersonal corporate jobs, and with mass media (especially television), and you get what we got. As those things start fading into background, we're likely to start spending more time interacting with people face to face.

(2) Noise. For me, this is a big one. I live at a busy street corner. Extremely loud. Does not help my chronic insomnia one bit. And as oil becomes scarcer, chances are I won't have to deal with that sort (or at least amount) of noise in the future. (You can go laugh, but trying and failing to fall asleep for hours on end is highly unpleasant, and I know from experience that reducing noise reduces the problem.)

(3) Artificial light. Related to the above.

(4) Prolonged painful death in the company of fancy medical equipment rather than human beings. To become much rarer once heroic medical interventions are no longer an option except for (possibly) the very rich.

I could come up with more, but you get the point.

Of course I realize there are downsides to all of the above. For (1), humans can be annoying as hell to say the least; for (2), well, shortages of food due to inability to truck it in is really not a pleasant prospect; for (3), I like to read at night; and for (4), this means people start dying of what are now easily treatable conditions. But the fact that there are downsides should not oblige us to ignore what positives there are, right?

Isis said...


Just wanted to add my two cents to your exchange with Dru and Adrynian. Now, you know more about this subject than I do, but what comes to mind are the commons. Haven't they generally been better managed by small-scale, close knit communities than they have been by either big business or big government?

Instinct tells me that if you experience yourself to be an unconditional member of a community, you'll agree to tighten your belt in order to protect that community and its resource base. If you feel like a cog in a machine, you'll take what you can before you're made obsolete.

Of course, the egalitarian community model falls apart when there simply isn't enough to fulfill everyone's basic needs. That's when you can pretty much count on civil war and the like.

Dru said...


I find your response a bit baffling. Who are the people I dislike? What appealing abstraction did I oppose it with? Did I ever say my cause was just? Did I ever say or even imply that it would solve the world's problems?

From what I can see, I gave two examples based on concrete situations. You replied at first with a caricature, and now you're saying I'm using a "trope" and "flogging that particular dead horse". However, nothing resembling what I've actually said appears to be referenced by what you're actually saying.

Why not engage with the examples I've given? It would take a little longer than painting me with the brush of your obviously negative understanding of "the left", but it would be a lot more interesting.

Vesper said...

Dear Sir,

You responded, “Vesper, do you really think that life as a peasant in an agrarian society makes people any less into ‘worker drones’? (Your bee metaphors are getting a bit mixed here, by the way.)”

No sir, I do not think that. I was not comparing the industrial world to any other society. I was attempting to portray an opposite aspect to this society that co-exists with your extremely positive portrayal, or that “the terrible ambivalence that pulses through all things human as inescapably as blood” is true. I used the metaphor once, concluding that “the modern industrial world is both amazing and alarming.”

I tried to stay on the topic of ambivalence. I didn’t think it was necessary to elaborate on the negative aspects of this society, and felt doing so would have been straying off topic. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading your next post.

Myrmecia said...

JMG and Llewellyn suggest a future human population of up to 500 million and 400 million respectively. I have a page on the maximum sustainable human population:
where I list other estimates and, where available, the methodologies used to arrive at these estimates.

Adrynian said...


Sorry, I realize now that I wasn't as clear as I could have been about the main point I was trying to make with the first quote. I intended the Mondragon quote to show that cooperatives are willing and able to make hard choices to ensure their viability, such as voting themselves a pay cut when the situation calls for it (at least, some of the time; I hear your point about anecdotes).

As for altruism, if the question is whether it will become the norm, you're probably correct that - at least under a capitalist system - it won't. However, I can argue from a lot more than anecdotes that altruism is alive and well in every human being on the planet (except psychopaths and, possibly, - for reasons unrelated to the former group - economics graduates). Depending on our particular definition of altruism, it can be argued that it is wired into our brains and is also inherent in mammalian neurochemistry; bear with me a moment.

First, on the notion that altruism won't become the norm in a capitalist system, the primary argument I can make for this is that capitalism is predicated on a homo economicus view of humanity; in other words, humans are seen as always and only self-interested utility maximizers, though they may or may not be rational about it - standard theory says yes but the evidence says no. From this we can expect that people will only work with others when they expect that it will benefit them, either immediately or in the near future. Thus, altruism - as seen as helping others with no expectation of reward - should never exist, period.

It is interesting to approach this particular curiosity from the perspective of Bourdieu's concept of "habitus," which can be seen generally as a kind of positive feedback system, in which the objective structural conditions of a person's positonality (e.g. class, gender, ethnicity, education, etc.) constrain their "dispositions" - or the subjectively perceived set of options available to them - in such a way that the choices they make tend to reinforce the pre-existing structures, and therefore perpetuate the dynamic.

Put more simply, capitalism's belief that all agents are always and everywhere self-interested is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It tends, especially when coming from people with authority in our society, to influence people's attitudes, beliefs, and expectations in such a way that they thereby become more self-interested (a little at a time at first, but then with increasing momentum as more and more interactions are, or are seen to be, governed by raw self-interest).

However, objectively, this axiom of capitalist ideology is simply false, and will always remain so no matter how pervasive self-interested behaviour becomes, unless capitalism lasts long enough to engrave itself into our evolution. I do not suggest that people cannot display self-interested behaviour; they can and frequently do. But there is an ongoing tension in each an every person - played out in the anterior prefrontal cortex - between self-interest on the one hand and self-sacrifice on the other (sacrifice is really the wrong term here; it should probably be more properly understood as something like 'giving of oneself, either for what one believes in or out of compassion and empathy').

Recent research into this (e.g. Moll, 2006. “Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation.” PNAS. 103, 42, pp. 15623-15628.) has found that altruistic behaviours, such as giving to charity, activate the subgenual region of the brain. All the major "feel-good" neurochemicals get activated in the course of behaving "altruistically"; activation of the subgenual area also 1) activates the mesolimbic reward system, which governs feelings of pleasure via dopamine release, 2) activates seritonergic pathways that can lift one's mood, and 3) can cause the release of oxytocin and vasopressin, which generate feelings of trust and cooperativeness.

Adrynian said...

Basically, people feel good when they do good, where "do good" in the case of giving to charities is determined by that person's abstract beliefs about the moral deservedness of the particular charity in question (i.e. if I believe what the charity is doing is just, I feel good by giving to it; on the flip side, punishing a charity I disagree with at a cost to myself - altruistic punishment - activates the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, a region associated with anger and disgust.) "Do good" can also be seen as simply helping someone face-to-face, in which case feeling good will be a product not only of activation of the subgenual area, but will also invoke our innate capacity for empathy (i.e. mirror neurons ensure that I tend to feel what others feel so that if I make another person feel good it will also make me feel good).

It could be argued, on the basis of what I've just said, that altruism cannot exist. If altruism requires the absence of conscious expectation of reward, then it is still possible on the condition that anticipation by the anterior prefrontal cortex is not present in our reflexive awareness. However, if anticipation of reward is entirely disallowed - both conscious and non-conscious - then we have just defined away the possibility of altruism altogether.

We are still required, though, to explain how a species has evolved in which individuals routinely make material sacrifices (including the potential loss of life in some cases) for mere psychological rewards. Reciprocal altruism and group selection both offer compelling arguments for how such behaviours can be evolutionarily egoistic, and therefore spread throughout a population (i.e. on the one hand, I give to you now and you give to me later and our reputations ensure that we are good for it; on the other hand, competition between groups favours cooperation within a given group because my sacrifice can help my group survive and my genes don't get passed down if it doesn't).

Both ideas probably apply to some degree, but the most intruiging argument comes via oxytocin and vasopressin, as they are responsible for emotional & social attachment, and therefore love. Mammals are the only species that produce oxytocin and vasopressin, and they appear to have co-evolved with homeothermy, lactation, and eventually placental birth, with all the extra requirements for the care of offspring that these features put on mothers. (I.e. love probably evolved from the care that your ancient ancestor's mother had to give her offspring as an infant in order for them to survive, then expanded to mates and kin groups, and eventually to non-kin in humans. Care for offspring on the part of fathers is present in some species but not others, and the difference shows up in different receptor sites for oxytocin and vasopressin; closely related species of ground vole offer insight into this phenomenon.)

Oxytocin and vasopressin are also related to neurochemicals that regulate sexual behaviours, egg-laying, and nest guarding in fish, lizards, and amphibians. In both us and other mammalian species, oxytocin and vasopressin regulate pair-bonding, mate-guarding, and the rearing of offspring; also, in the squirrel monkey, vasopressin regulates grooming by males (i.e. alliance building) when they are of low social rank and sexual behaviour when of high social rank. (It should be noted, for those of you who payed attention, that birds must have evolved along a parallel evolutionary course, as they have also developed mechanisms for pair-bonding, extended care of offspring, and possibly also mate-guarding, although my knowledge there is lacking.)

In other words, altruism broadly defined is written into our evolution. Narrowly defined, it may not exist, but that doesn't change the fact that we evolved to care for others and to give of ourselves 'early and often' as a consequence of being a social species evolved from other social species, all the way back to the earliest beginnings of the mammalian evolutionary branch.

John Michael Greer said...

Isis, of course it's always possible to find something that will improve in the worst circumstances. As for communities, very consistently, the more tightly knit a community is, the more its members will tend to behave altruistically toward one another, and the less altruistically they will behave toward those who don't belong to their community. That's the downside of the communitarian ideal.

Dru, no, I didn't think you'd get it. I really doubt that repeating myself will change that.

Vesper, I think you missed my point.

Myrmecia, thanks for the link.

Adrynian, yes, I'm familiar with the research on altruism. The interesting thing is that the amount of (broadly defined) altruistic behavior that occurs in a society seems to be unrelated to whether or not the society claims to believe in altruism -- thus, for example, there are plenty of examples of altruistic behavior in capitalist societies. This supports your claim that altruism is innate in human beings, but it also cuts the ground out from underneath the claim that changing one social system for another will cause an increase in altruistic behavior -- and this may help explain my lack of sympathy with the claim that efforts to replace the current system with one more to the taste of one political fringe group or another are that relevant to the subject of this blog.

Dru said...

JMG: No need to repeat yourself. Just explain how your last comment had anything to do with what I'd written, or me.

Adrynian said...

Fair enough, JMG.

However, as my final thought, just to be clear, I am not aware of any research that confirms or disconfirms the claim that:

...the amount of (broadly defined) altruistic behavior that occurs in a society seems to be unrelated to whether or not the society claims to believe in altruism [or acts to promote it instead of ideologically disdaining it].

It is my understanding that behaviours can be influenced by social structures and cultural norms, and so I'm inclined to think otherwise, that not merely the areas into which altruistic behaviour is directed can be changed - as the values and beliefs of the people involved change - but also the total amount of a given behaviour. (I generally take the view that the distribution of a behaviour will follow some curve, possibly a normal or power-law curve, or will, under the influence of positive feedback loops, undergo a transition from one dominant state to another that often follows a sigmoidal pattern.)

An example of a structural change that resulted in a change in behaviour - not related to altruism, sadly - is people's willingness to invest in stock markets following the introduction of "defined contribution pension plans" (Irrational Exuberance, by Robert Shiller, 2005). The author discusses a study by economists Benartzi and Thaler, noting that "...many people tend to spread their allocations [between investment choices] evenly over the available options, without regard to the contents of the options," (p. 48, italics in original). As a result, when the pension plan investment options provided to employees were weighted in favour of stocks people's investment decisions were subsequently also weighted in favour of stocks.

I am sympathetic to the notion that changing political systems, or other structural conditions within a particular system, offers no guarantee that behaviours will change as desired, but I can't agree that it never works. Personally, I expect that it can and does - at least sometimes - otherwise there is truly no difference between dictatorial political control by genetic inheritance, wealthy owners of capital, or party bureaucrats *grin*. I agree that any given favoured "solution" is likely to rarely ever create the utopian outcome that its respective idealists hope for, but I see no reason to ultimately conclude that the pursuit of structural changes is always and everywhere pointless. The status quo is just very good at defending itself until it can't any longer.

As it happens, we will be living through just such an event shortly. In the words of Milton Friedman, "Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function; to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Philski said...

People don't
do "ambivalence". Multitasking is the closest thing I can think of . It'll take another branching of the tree of evolution to produce a creature that can hold two (or more) mutually exclusive ideas in it's head simultaneously. Maybe this is what the crisis is leading to.

Vesper said...

Dear Sir,

You respond, “Vesper, I think you missed my point.” At last, you seem to have grasped the point of my original post: “A Terrible Ambivalence” lacks clarity. I attempted to present cause for my opinion and you chose to deflect on a minor issue, rather than clarify your point.

Ambivalence would be part of the human condition if we accept Taoist principles as portrayed by the Taijitu. “The terrible ambivalence that pulses through all things human as inescapably as blood” is not a new concept. It is because so many “want things all one way or another” that there is a purpose for teachers and leaders. We should not be surprised by ambivalence in our modern industrial society, a past agrarian society, or any future society that we choose to create. However, your remark concerning this industrial civilization lacked balance if the subject is truly ambivalence.

Perhaps the terrible ambivalence you mean is your own despair toward losing something precious which you know cannot be perpetuated? Perhaps the terrible ambivalence lies between the flattery of being cited and the frustration of being misunderstood? While readers are trying to follow your lead and suggest possibilities, you seem inclined to discourage them. This leads me to wonder if you are “one of the current technofantasists or political zealots who believe that a world teetering on the edge of doom can be transformed into Utopia if only their pet project were to be adopted by all”?

Let me ask clearly, “What is your point?” Must everyone accept doom and gloom and the resulting depression to be deemed as “understanding?” Then you drop your solution on all and the resulting elation will cause you to be received as the great savior? I respect your scholarship enough to have joined the AODA, but I am not interested in being part of a cult.

Isis said...


I guess it's somewhat believable that the more tightly knit a community is, the more altruistically its members will behave toward one another, and the less altruistically will they behave to outsiders. Still, many traditional cultures have strong hospitality traditions, so I don't know...

But your response to Adrynian on altruism has left me scratching my head. Are you saying that the sort of society one lives in has no bearing on one's altruistic behavior? Or am I misreading you?

I'm thinking of the Ultimatum Game. (I first learned of this game from the comments section of your blog, so you must be familiar with it as well. My source is _The Social Atom_ by Mark Buchanan.)

The Ultimatum Game works like this. A researcher sits two strangers, A and B, next to each other, and offers A $100. A is then required to offer a certain portion of this - however much s/he chooses - to B. If B accepts the offer, then B gets to keep his/her share, and A gets to keep the rest. If B refuses, then A has to return the entire sum to the researcher.

Apparently, most A's offer about $40 to their B's, and most B's start refusing when their A's offer less than $20. But this experiment was run around the globe, and there have been cultural differences. For example, the Ache in Paraguay and the Lamelara in Indonesia on average made offers of over $50. Other groups (unfortunately, my book doesn't specify which) were considerably stingier, with their A's offering about $25 on average.

And here's a particularly interesting twist (for me anyway). Some researchers wanted to see how graduate students across disciplines behaved. As a math graduate student, I'm pleased to report that my colleagues behaved like normal human beings. ;-) The one group that stood out were the economics graduate students, who were consistently stingier than everyone else. While I imagine that economics programs to some extent do select for selfishness in their admissions process, I have a hard time believing that students who go through intensive programs that teach uber-selfishness would come out no more selfish then they were when they walked in. The point being that altruism is not purely genetic, but depends on cultural settings as well.

And on different note (but still related)... Back home in my corner of the Balkans, my English teachers loved to warn us that, if someone in England or America invited us to lunch, this didn't mean they intended to pay for us. Useful bit of information if you come from a culture where it's a minor tradition to fight over the privilege of paying the bill in a restaurant. ;-)

johnt said...

Once again, I am impressed by the clarity and precision of the argument presented. And the maturity. You are doing good work here. Thanks for doing it.

Dwig said...

the terrible ambivalence that pulses through all things human as inescapably as blood.... It's far less popular, and arguably far more difficult, to embrace that ambivalence and accept both the wonder and the immense tragedy of our time.

Bravo, John Michael! I find this to be one of your best paragraphs, and in a way, it seems to me a neat statement of an important part of the outlook that underlies your work. Also to me, it resonates with the theme I've started on Paradoxes of Community; I could be comfortable with the idea that the "paradoxical stance" that Smith and Berg identify, and that I find in Community, are exemplars of that "terrible ambivalence". Maybe an important part of human evolution will be to integrate and transcend the terror in the ambivalence, and learn to deal with it as a source of power.

Dwig said...

On another part of the post: Some reactions to A deindustrial world, as Monbiot correctly points out, will be able to support maybe two billion people at most – my working guess, for what it's worth, is that this is too optimistic by a factor of four

To get a sense of this: imagine a population 2/3 greater than that of the current U.S., spread out unevenly across the world.

One thought: I know there's a minimum number for a human breeding population -- I think somewhere in the 200-300 range -- to have the genertic variability to assure viability over many generations. (Of course, a smaller population might "luck out", but the chances recede as the population diminishes.) I'm wondering it there is a similar minimum size for a "communicating population" to maintain any sort of "cultural superstructure" above the subsistence level (ecotechnic or otherwise); if so, my own completely uneducated guess is that 1/2 billion worldwide would be perilously close, unless it were concentrated in various places.

As to "massive dieoff": for computational convenience, let's say that the current world population is an even six bilion. If, starting today, it were to decline at a steady 3.5% rate per year, it would be down to 750 million in 60 years (using the Rule of 70); within hailing distance of JMG's and some commenters' guesses. 3.5% per year means that for every 1000 people, deaths for each year would exceed births by 35 people; certainly a significant decline, but to me at least, it falls short of the horrific image connoted by "dieoff". For reference, Russia had a population decline rate of 7% for the first several years after the fall of the Soviet Union. (Anyone have figures for the decline rate of the U.S. "rust belt" since the rusting started?)

I'm not trying to make light of the challenges and potential tragedies of deindustrialization, only to indicate that what we're faced with has precedents that we can learn to think clearly about and take lessons from.

npeters said...

""It's far less popular, and arguably far more difficult, to embrace that ambivalence and accept both the wonder and the immense tragedy of our time.""

If there is both wonder and tragedy ahead then the ambivalence can still be a wonderful one. I choose to see it as wonderful because to see ahead only the tragedy of my children starving would indeed be terrible.

John Michael Greer said...

Dru, certainly, if you insist. Your caricature? That was the "fund manager" you invoked in your example. You know perfectly well that fund managers don't make substantive policy decisions, but they make a great whipping boy just now in the aftermath of the recent bubble, and allow you to flatten out the complex nature of decisionmaking in today's industrial societies into a simplistic model that fits the needs of your rhetoric.

The appealing abstraction? That's the "relatively independent human being," of course. It's long intrigued me that both the left and the right constantly invoke the imagery of independence and freedom, since both the left and the right pursue programs that minimize individual independence and freedom; the right acts to transfer power from individuals to businesses, the left acts to transfer power from individuals to bureaucrats. (It's been pointed out, and rightly, that a professional activist is simply a bureaucrat who hasn't finished creating his next job yet, just as an unpaid activist is a tool with which a professional activist creates his next job.)

Will your cause solve the world's problems? You certainly claimed that it would help solve the problems of peak oil. Tell me this: can you name a problem currently faced by humanity that will be made significantly worse if people worldwide embrace whatever agenda you personally favor? if you can't, I rest my case; it's a useful rule that if you can't think of three ways that using a tool will cause damage, you don't yet understand the tool.

As for beating a dead horse, that's a reference to the fact that you're far from the first person to come wading in here insisting that I ought to buy into one or another of the ideologies of the left. It's rarely proven useful to respond, as the discussion quickly moves away from the topic of the post, as this one has done.

Adrynian, I do think there are times and places where changing a system of government or economics is a good idea, but it's not a solution to every problem, and those who claim that imposing some ideologically based system on society will make people more virtuous may find it useful to consider the total failure of every large-scale attempt to do this in recorded history.

John Michael Greer said...

Philski, it needn't wait on evolution; it can be done with appropriate study and practice, but only when the motivation is there.

Vesper, thanks for a good laugh. It astonishes me that I can make my point as clearly as possible and still have people do their level best to force it into the Procrustean bed of some unrelated set of beliefs.

No, I do not have a solution to offer that will whisk away the threat of an awful future and make everyone grovel at my feet. Where on earth did you get the idea that I did? What I am saying is that the future is going to be very difficult, and nothing anybody can do -- myself included -- will change that fact. That seems like a fairly straightforward statement to me; I'm not sure why you find it so incomprehensible.

Ambivalence is another relatively simple concept which seems to have confused you. My point here is that a lot of people want to believe that modern industrial civilization is either good or it's bad. I am suggesting instead that all human creations without exception, including industrial society, are both good and bad, creative and destructive, blessings and curses. All embody the same moral ambivalence we find if we look honestly at our own hearts.

Isis, soldiers in every army sacrifice their lives for their comrades, and mothers in every nation do without food so their children can have enough to eat. My point was a bit more focused, though: you can't generate altruistic behavior on order by replacing one, allegedly selfish political system with another, allegedly unselfish one. That's been tried over and over again through the centuries, and it consistently fails.

As for the grad students, it's just as possible that people who go for a graduate degree in economics are by that very fact self-selected for an altruism deficiency. Ms. Chicken, meet Mr. Egg...

John, thank you.

Dwig, I don't think evolution will take care of the ambivalence; it's up to each of us, and each human being in the long future ahead of us.

As far as population decline, if you survey the historical examples you'll find that it's very rare for population to contract at an even rate. It almost always lurches downward in a series of crisis periods interspersed with periods of stability. That's not the same as the sudden total dieoff so many people seem to imagine, of course, but it tends to be a good deal more traumatic than a nice even 3.5% a year.

Isis said...


Well... I'm starting to think that it's pretty much impossible to generate any kind of positive human behavior on order. (I do, however, believe that it's possible to deliberately generate monstrous behavior. The logic essentially being that it's much easier to burn down a house than to build one.)

But. This most definitely doesn't mean that some cultures don't successfully encourage more altruism (and other sorts of behavior generally considered positive) than other cultures do, and I do hope that this is not what you're saying; for example, it appears that sociopathic behavior is a lot more prevalent in the West than in East Asia (see It just means you can't design these cultures, but must let them evolve, with perhaps a few gentle nudges in the (hopefully) right direction.

There's a quote that I'm fond of to that effect. It's by David Plante (from Suzi Gablik's _Conversations Before the End of Time_):

"Of course things have to be changed; otherwise it's total devastation. But the problem is - and this is where I become a total pessimist - whenever an intention, or an idea, is imposed upon reality, it never, never results in what the intention hoped to realize. Most often, it ends in chaos and greater destruction. We've learned the lessons over and over again of the attempt to realize ideologies. These are ideas, and the imposition of the ideas is beyond anyone's control. I become a total pessimist when I see it's impossible to realize a vision of the way things should be."

Tony said...

I just got back from a weekend Transition Training from the co-founders of Transition Colorado. It was very interesting, and we discussed the issues addressed in JMG's post (and some of the comments also), as well as many others.

First, and I write this with some laughter, I put on my math hat and note that "a nice even 3.5% a year" population decline would amount to over 200 million people leaving this Earth (alien abductions, perhaps?) every year. Our population would halve in only about 20 years. That's pretty horrifying, but nearly in line with Dr. James Lovelock's prediction of a 90% decline in human population by 2100, due to climate change.

Second, I want to amend my earlier comment. I feel both more positive and more certain of fairly imminent national (if not global) catastrophe.

On the one hand, I keep finding myself reminded of human ingenuity. I agree with you, JMG, that there is both good and bad in modern industrial civilization. One of those goods is the expression of all that amazing creativity that got us here. Should we expect that to evaporate as we descend the slope? On the practical side, I think of the example of Cuba, which experienced its Peak Oil Moment after the USSR collapsed. People went hungry, but they have since radically overhauled their food system. The WWF has declared Cuba the world's only sustainable nation. I know Cuba isn't exactly comparable to the USA, but it's a sign of hope.

On the other hand, my certainty of something immanent in the air has grown considerably over the weekend. Nothing specific happened in the news, but I suppose being among 30 other like-minded souls gave me the courage to really think about this issue. Someone else posted a comment about the "prepper" movement. I guess I find myself now in that camp, yet still, somewhat uncomfortably, with a hand and a foot in the Transition movement. My friends and I, identifying geographically with the Susquehanna Valley, have decided to engage in real, honest disaster planning. We're thinking about our resources, in terms of physical property, skills, and still-valuable dollars that can be converted into real wealth (food, etc.). We see ourselves beginning an effort to set up a "safety net" for ourselves and our loved ones; such an effort will run concurrent with our other activities (many of us are already engaged in local sustainability/resilience-building activities.) I personally feel that our "disaster plan", as it approaches further and further time horizons, will begin again to approach the ideas explicit in the Transition movement.

Now I'm rambling. Peace!

Zach said...

Dear JMG,

My point was a bit more focused, though: you can't generate altruistic behavior on order by replacing one, allegedly selfish political system with another, allegedly unselfish one. That's been tried over and over again through the centuries, and it consistently fails.

I agree with this, although it seems to me that a more modest approach is reasonable.

That is, while you can't generate altruism on demand ("love your neighbor" at gunpoint isn't really love), one can have political systems which reward virtue and punish vice better than others. Or put another way, why can't we expect that if a society leaves room and encouragement for the practice of altruism, people will be likelier (not assured, but likelier) to practice it -- and conversely, if altruism is essentially punished, less people will practice it.

... but it also cuts the ground out from underneath the claim that changing one social system for another will cause an increase in altruistic behavior

Are you really intending to maintain that the rate of altruistic behavior is invariant over social systems? That seems... dogmatic. :)


Evan said...

"The handful of successes achieved by those methods many decades ago have imposed a bizarre astigmatism of the imagination on the left; the stereotyped methods of protest have become so sacrosanct, or so automatic, that the mere fact that they have failed consistently for years never quite seems to register. "

This is something that frustrated me so with activism that I just gave up on that kind of response to the present predicament. March, hold signs, get a few media hits (and maybe a few hits on the head from the police) and then retell the story in a way to make it sound like it really was worth all the planning and organizing and arrests and legal wranglings.

"It's far less popular, and arguably far more difficult, to embrace that ambivalence and accept both the wonder and the immense tragedy of our time."

Two thoughts on this:

1) Have you ever read Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities"? I have found myself consistently frustrated with a lack of good fiction that recognizes the paradox of the present time, but this work -- a surreal imagining of Marco Polo sitting in Kublai Khan's garden describing the cities of his empire -- beautifully captures the melancholy of our time.

2) While I hope that the future will find humans engaged in more meaningful, though more difficult lives, than now, I'm coming to the conclusion that that's not for me to decide. It seems that we get cast a lot in this life, and that we have to make the best of it we can within the limitations put on us. I do not lack in material and creature comforts -- automatic heat in the winter, electric range, etc. -- but I lack in many of the skills of hard-earned community-sufficiency. My grandchildren may be rich in the latter and lacking in the former, but I like to think that both of us can live good lives, each to our time.

Walter said...

So . . . We don't know what is going to happen. I guess I will get up in the morning and do something positive. When that is done, I will do something else positive. So it goes throughout the day.

Dru said...

Dear John Michael,

You have dealt your left wing opponent several decisive rhetorical blows, from which I fear they may never recover. Your mastery of their hopelessly myopic and self-serving arguments is complete.

Just so we're clear on one point about your interlocutor: he or she is not me.

I do agree, though, that they, and their arguments, are distasteful in the extreme. Claiming to discuss freedom while secretly plotting to transfer power to bureaucrats. Telling anyone who will listen that they and only they can solve the world's problems. Grotesque.

I have been attempting to make a series of much smaller points, with the purpose of learning what critiques or perspectives someone like yourself--an original and insightful thinker from what I can tell--might offer.

In summary, I have tried to suggest that the transition to a long decline in energy resources might be somewhat ameliorated by extending democracy into places that are, by tradition and ideology, off-limits for it: the management, starting at the community level, of economic affairs and the use of the available resources. I gave the example of a town where co-ops dominate the economy, and the versatility of their response. The abstraction of the fund manager can very quickly be made concrete. The same point apply to, for example, an executive at Abitibi-Bowater, which is currently closing down mills and forestry operations all over rural Quebec.

I understand that you are hostile to any ideas about minimizing the damage of resource decline that involve the word "left," so I take invoking the aforementioned word to be my chief mistake. I don't, however, have any particular stake in convincing you of anything. I'm in it for my own improved understanding of the world, to which you have contributed in a tangible way, though not so much in this exchange.

Having said that by way of background, I have a question: do you believe that how we organize ourselves on a collective level -- whether neighbourhood, workplace, community, city or otherwise -- will have any impact on the quality of our collective response to civilizational decline?



John Michael Greer said...

Isis, thanks for the David Plante quote! He's quite correct, of course. I'm not at all sure I agree with you that different societies have different levels of altruism -- my guess is that social forces mostly determine who is more likely to benefit from it -- but it's certainly the case that trying to make an altruistic society is a one-way ticket to failure.

Tony, I'm a firm believer in human ingenuity. That's one of the reasons why I think we'll see a long, ragged decline rather than a sudden, cataclysmic collapse.

Zach, well, in theory you can have political systems that reward virtue and punish vice better than others. In practice -- well, it's been tried repeatedly for 5000 years or so, and every attempt has ended up falling flat on its nose. If recognizing that is dogmatism, well, then so be it.

Evan, I haven't read Calvino -- obviously I need to remedy that some time soon.

Walter, that's as good a response as any, and better than most.

Dru, heavy-handed sarcasm doesn't improve your case any. Still, that last question of yours is reasonable enough. I do think, as it happens, that different organizational systems will likely have differing rates of success or failure in responding to the twilight of our civilization. Unfortunately the system that seems to do best in such situations is dictatorship.

Cuba is a good example; it was able to deal with the equivalent of peak oil because it's an authoritarian state. Castro didn't have to win the approval of a diffuse collection of power centers to get his policies in place, as (say) Obama has to; he could simply impose them, and those who disagreed were welcome to spend the next ten years discussing the matter with their fellow political prisoners.

By contrast, democracies labor under a disadvantage in responding to crises, and anything less centralized than representative democracy tends to fall apart completely, which is why attempts to establish radically egalitarian systems don't get far or last long. Mind you, there are plenty of good reasons for trying to preserve democratic institutions despite their difficulties in crisis management (and other things), and I see that as one of the major tasks of the time ahead of us.

Adrynian said...

I can't help but feel that Dru and JMG have been talking past each other in some respects; I see a difference between democratic political institutions on the one hand and economic ones on the other.

Dru has, I think, been arguing for a democratization of our economic structures (i.e. corporations) perhaps through the devolution of wealth and managerial decision-making power to the workers. I had attempted to support this position with quotes regarding cooperatives, where the workers are the owners and decisions are made one-person-one-vote, rather than one-share-one-vote. There are many examples of the success and benefits of this model, so it is not something that exists purely as - and whose proponents argue from - an abstract theory.

For example, from The Distributist Review:

The cooperative movement has grown to an organization that employs over 100,000 people in Spain, has extensive international holdings, has, as of 2007, €33 billion in assets (approximately US$43 billion), and revenues of €17 billion. 80% of their Spanish workers are also owners, and the Cooperative is working to extend the cooperative ideal to their foreign subsidiaries. 53% of the profits are placed in employee-owner accounts... But aside from being a vast business and industrial enterprise, the corporation is also a social enterprise. It operates social insurance programs, training institutes, research centers, its own school system, and a university, and it does it all without government support.

JMG, I would have expected you to be more supportive of such a model, if only for the reason that they have instituted a variety of social support systems all on their own without the intervention of governments. If I've been reading you correctly, in contrast to Dru's comments about economic reform you seem to have been arguing against constantly seeking to change political institutions in seeking a "better" society. I hear that; particularly when there are no real-world examples of the theories that one can look at to see the consequences of their implementation.

However, I make a distinction between political and economic democratization. We may have ostensibly democratic governance, but we have little of this in our economic institutions. Corporations are one of the last bastions of dictatorial power in our society; if you own a company, your word is as unto God's for everyone who wants to keep their job (and let's not forget Stanley Milgrim's research on people's ability to question or contradict authority). This is hardly democracy; in fact, the corporation is the very essence of a hierarchical organization.

Furthermore, of the largest 100 economies in the world, over 50 of them are corporations, which means that more of the largest economies of the world are organized as command-economies than market-systems. Democratization of the corporation - perhaps, but not necessarily, along the lines of a successful cooperative model - could, I think, go a long way towards improving our societies. At the very least, people would be more personally invested in all that effort they exert 40-60 hours per week, 50 weeks a year for ~45 years of their lives.

As a final thought, consider that people are more tolerant of a loss when they feel they have at least some control over it than when they feel it is being imposed on them. Thus, I suspect that the workers in that cooperative who voted themselves a paycut, while maybe not very happy about it, probably feel better about it than if management had just imposed the cut on them from above - or alternatively just fired a bunch of people - and then given themselves bonuses for restoring the company's profitability.

Isis said...


Concerning altruism... Well... I guess we've reached the point where we'll just have to agree to disagree. ;-)

Looking forward to reading you tomorrow night.

BrightSpark said...

Dear John

I think a lot of the effectiveness or otherwise of democracies depends on the size of the population that they are governing. For small to medium sized democracies this is arguably easier than large continental places such as the United States. Furthermore, democracies have in the past mobilised against external threats, notably in World War II. I still live in hope that positive change could happen given the right leadership response to a crisis, even if that change can only slows the descent somewhat.

That's certainly the approach I take to my own political activism and peak oil awareness stuff that I undertake here in New Zealand, which is a fairly small and well-connected democracy (4 million people with a lot of land at their disposal) by world standards.

Of interest also is the degree to which people are willing to accept collective, community solutions and the language that goes with them. I suspect that countries that have a history of providing collective social institutions will do a lot better during the crises to come.

Otherwise, whilst democracy might not be preserved at a nation/state level, it may very well sputter along at a more local level.

Community said...

It was a little surprising to have our popular work “The Power of Community” tied together with Nick Griffin, the head of Britain’s neo-fascist British Nationalist Party and David Korten, whose book The Great Turning, John characterizes as “among the most antidemocratic books of recent years’. I know nothing about Griffin and a great deal about Korten, who has written widely over the years and who has certainly been a leader in trying to find a path through the complex morass in which we find ourselves.

John notes that the film is a worthwhile case study of how a society can weather an extreme energy shortage. But he notes that this apparent success was because Cuba is a dictatorship and gives Castro credit for imposing the “draconian restrictions on energy that got his country through its ‘Special Period’”. Castro did not impost restrictions on energy – that was done by the Soviet Union when they simply stopped shipping oil to Cuba. And this was exacerbated by the “draconian” restrictions of the US that used this opportunity to try to cripple Cuba more by the vicious Torricelli Act which strengthened the economic embargo on Cuba. This was one time Russia and the US cooperated in causing great suffering to a small poor nation.

Of course we have our own version of dictatorial powers relative to energy. In the first energy crisis in the US, one could only buy gasoline every other day and in limited quantities. The speed limit was lowered and other measures taken. It was an emergency and the government used its emergency power to deal with immediate problems.

John’s knowledge of Cuba is quite limited and denigrates the Cuban people (who were the ones going hungry) and their own efforts to survive without killing each other. To assume Castro managed this situation by top down decrees is naïve.

John notes that “A great deal of the American left seems to have seen nothing wrong in this curious definition of “community.” In my book Plan C: Community Survival Strategie for Peak Oil and Climate Change”, I offered some definitions of community (page 258) that did not include anything suggesting dictatorial powers or neofasicism. These included definitions from people like Wendell Berry, Robert Bellah, James Kunstler and our founder Arthur Morgan. Berry’s definition is “By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people local culture, local economy, and local nature.”

Linking the word community to neo-fascism and anti-democracy may make good copy but the tradition is deep in our souls and I assume most thoughtful people will simply reject this journalistic connection.

Pat Murphy, Community Solutions

Julio César Fernández said...

Very good post. I agree with what you say. Only in a crisis of humanity reflect on his future and what happened and it will need pasar.No forecasts and other things to realize where we are going and to realize how we got here.

Gemma said...

I am very interested in this analysis, and your thoughts on taking action 50 years ago meet my thoughts of "we should have been doing this in the 60s" (when I was still a tot ... )

In between that time and this, I have grown up (a little) and wonder about things on a slightly deeper level.

I was wondering if you would be able to cast a shadow in the shape of Ahriman across your ideas.

As far as I am aware, his coming is close. As a Druid this is something that should not be news to you, and has been in the public domain since Rudolf Steiner's lecture of 1909.

I have only just found your blog, and will be studying it further, but as there is no search function, I cannot quickly see if you have made mention of these matters elsewhere already.

Thankyou for expressing your thoughts, which I will happily peruse at my leisure.