Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Principle of Subsidiary Function

I trust my readers will recognize a hint of sarcasm if I say that the good news just keeps on rolling in. Of the smoke plumes that were rising into the industrial world’s increasingly murky skies as last week’s post went up, one – the billowing cloud of assorted mis-, mal- and nonfeasance bubbling out of Goldman Sachs – has faded from the front pages for the moment, though it will doubtless be back before long. On the other hand, the two remaining – the cratering of Greece’s borrow-and-spend economics and the spreading ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico – have more than made up the difference.

It’s a matter of chance, more than anything else, that Greece happened to become the poster child for what happens when you insist on buying off influential sectors of the electorate with money you don’t happen to have. What we are pleased to call democracy these days is a system in which factions of the political class contend for power by spending large sums of other people’s money to buy the temporary loyalty of voting blocs. There’s nothing especially novel in this system, by the way; the late Roman Republic managed (or, rather, mismanaged) its affairs in exactly the same manner, and such classical theorists as Polybius argued that this is the way democracies normally end up working (or, rather, not working).

You might think that Greece, which happens to be Polybius’ home turf, would have had the common sense to dodge this particular bullet. No such luck; recent Greek governments, like many others, made the strategic mistake of using borrowed funds to provide a good deal of that unearned largesse, and the resulting debt load eventually collided head on with the ongoing deleveraging of the global economy in the wake of the latest round of bubble economics. The result was a fiscal death spiral, as doubts about Greece’s ability to pay its debts drove up the interest rates Greece had to pay to finance those debts, increasing the doubts further; rinse and repeat until something comes unglued. The much-ballyhooed announcement of an EU bailout package stabilized the situation for a few days, but that’s about all; the death spiral has already resumed, accompanied by bloody riots in the streets of Athens and comments by the usual highly placed sources that some kind of default is becoming inevitable.

Headlines for the last few days have warned of similar head-on collisions taking shape in Spain and Portugal. What very few people in the mainstream media are willing to mention is that the most spectacular examples of borrow-and-spend economics are not little countries on the economic margins of Europe, but Britain and the United States. It’s anyone’s guess when investors will begin to realize that neither countries has any way of paying back the gargantuan sums both have borrowed of late to prop up their crippled economies; when it does become clear, the rush to the exits will likely be one for the record books.

It’s equally a matter of chance, in turn, that the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform happened to be the one to fail catastrophically. That something of the sort was going to happen was pretty much a given; drilling for oil a mile underwater is risky, complicated, technologically challenging work, and any oil well, anywhere, can undergo a blowout when it’s being drilled. It just so happened that this was the one that happened to blow, and the lax safety standards and budget-conscious corner-cutting endemic to today’s corporate world made it pretty much inevitable that when a blowout happened, it would turn into a disaster.

Bad as it is already, it may get much, much worse. According to a memo leaked to Gulf Coast newspapers, BP officials have privately admitted to the US government that the torrent of hot, high-pressure crude oil surging through the broken pipe could quite conceivably blow the remaining hardware off the top of the well. This would turn the current 5,000-barrel-a-day spill into a cataclysmic gusher of 40,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. Capping such a flow a mile under water is beyond current technology; if things go that way, there may be no other option than waiting until the flow drops to a more manageable level. If that means the death of every multicellular organism in the Gulf of Mexico, storm surges this hurricane season that leave everything for miles inland coated with black goo, and tar balls and dead birds floating ashore wherever the Gulf Stream goes – and yes, these are tolerably likely consequences if the wellhead blows – that’s what it means.

As I discussed in last week’s post, a common thread of complexity unites these crises with each other, and with others of the same magnitude that are statistically certain to happen in the months and years ahead of us. We – meaning here those of us who live in the world’s industrial nations – have allowed our societies to become more complex than any collection of human minds can effectively manage, and our only response to the problems this causes is to add additional layers of complexity. The result, of course, is that our societies become even more unmanageable, and the problems they generate even more extreme and intractable. Once again, rinse and repeat until something comes unglued.

Now the simple, logical solution to a problem caused by too much complexity is to reduce the amount of complexity. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, which has deservedly become required reading in peak oil circles, argues that societal collapse has exactly this function; when a society has backed itself into a corner by heaping up more complexity than it can manage, collapse offers the one way out. In a post on The Oil Drum a while back, Ugo Bardi made a similar point, arguing that if anyone in Roman times had tried to come up with a sustainable society to which the Roman world could transition, their best option would have looked remarkably like the Middle Ages.

Bardi pointed out, mind you, that there was precisely no chance that any such advice would have been taken by even the wisest of Roman emperors, and it’s just as true that a proposal to reduce the complexity of contemporary civilization can count on getting no more interest from the political classes of today’s industrial nations, or for that matter from the population at large. The experiment has been tried, after all; it’s worth remembering the extent to which the baby steps toward lower complexity taken in the 1970s helped to fuel the Reagan backlash of the 1980s.

Now it’s true that some of the achievements of the 1970s – the dramatic advances in organic agriculture, the birth of the modern recycling industry, the refinement of passive solar heating and solar hot water technology, and more – remained viable straight through the backlash era, and are viable today; and it’s also true that today’s economic debacle, not to mention the looming impact of peak oil, bid fair to make a good many of the legacies of the 1970s much more popular in the years right ahead of us. Still, the dream of a collective conversion to sustainable lifestyles that filled so many pages in Rain, Seriatim, and other journals of that period is further away now than it was then; so much time and so many resources have been wasted that it’s too late for such a collective conversion to work, even if the political will needed for one could be found.

Still, when you get right down to it, the hope of a mass conversion to sustainability by political means – by legislation, let’s say, backed up by the massive new bureaucracy that would be needed to enforce "green laws" affecting every detail of daily life – is yet another attempt to solve a complexity-driven problem by adding on more complexity. That’s a popular strategy, for the same reasons that any other attempt to deal with the problems of complexity through further complexity is popular these days: it makes sense to most of us, since it’s the sort of thing we’re used to doing, and it provides a larger number of economic and social niches for specialists – in this case, members of the professional activist community, who might reasonably expect to step into staff positions in that new bureaucracy – who have the job of managing the new level of complexity for the benefit – at least in theory – of those who have to live with it.

All of this is very familiar ground, echoing as it does the way that countless other efforts at reform have turned into layers of complexity in the past. To suggest, as I do, that it won’t work, doesn’t mean that it won’t be tried. It’s being tried right now, in many countries and on many different levels, with enough success that in Britain, at least, the number of Transition Town activists who have found their way onto municipal payrolls has excited grumbling from members of less successful pressure groups.

In the same way, I think it’s beyond question that every other reasonably well funded attempt to solve the problems of complexity with more complexity will get at least some funding, and be given at least a token trial. We’ve already had the corn ethanol boom here in the US; the cellulosic ethanol and algal biodiesel booms have been delayed a bit by the impact of a collapsing economy on credit markets, but somebody will doubtless find a way around that in good time; down the road a bit, a crash program to build nuclear power plants is pretty much a foregone conclusion; fusion researchers will have the opportunity to flush billions more dollars down the same rathole they’ve been exploring since the 1950s; you name it, if it’s complex and expensive, it will get funding.

Not all of that money will be entirely wasted, either. Current windpower technologies and PV panels may not be sustainable over the long term, but for the decades immediately ahead they’re an excellent investment; anything that can keep the grid supplied with power, even intermittently, as fossil fuel production drops out from under the world’s industrial economies may be able to help make the Long Descent less brutal than it might otherwise be. With any luck, there’ll be a boom in home insulation and weatherstripping, a boom in solar hot water heaters, a boom in backyard victory gardens, and the like – small booms, probably, since they aren’t complex and expensive enough to catch at the contemporary imagination, but even a small boom might help.

On the whole, though, the pursuit of complexity as a solution for the problems caused by complexity is a self-defeating strategy. It happens to be the self-defeating strategy to which we’re committed, collectively and in most cases individually as well, and it can be dizzyingly hard for many people to think of any action at all that doesn’t follow it. Take a moment, now, before reading the rest of this post, to give it a try. Can you think of a way to deal with the problems of complexity in today’s industrial nations – problems that include, but are not limited to, rapidly depleting energy supplies, ecological destruction, and accelerating economic turbulence – that doesn’t simply add another layer of complexity to the mess?

There’s at least one such way, and longtime readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that it’s a way pioneered decades ago, in a different context, by maverick economist E.F. Schumacher. That way starts with what he termed the Principle of Subsidiary Function. This rule holds that the most effective arrangement to perform any function whatsoever will always assign that function to the smallest and most local unit that can actually perform it.

It’s hard to think of any principle that flies more forcefully in the face of every presupposition of the modern world. Economies of scale and centralization of control are so heavily and unthinkingly valued that it rarely occurs to anyone that in many situation they might not actually be helpful at all. Still, Schumacher was not a pie-in-the-sky theorist; he drew his conclusions on the basis of most of a lifetime as a working economist in the business world. Like most of us, he noticed that the bigger and more centralized an economic or political system happened to be, the less effectively it could respond to the complex texture of local needs and possibilities that makes up the real world.

This rule can be applied to any aspect of the predicament of industrial society you care to name, but just now I want to focus on its application to the vexed question of how to respond to that predicament. Attempts to make such a response on the highest and least local level possible – for example, the failed climate negotiations that reached their latest pinnacle of absurdity in the recent debacle at Copenhagen – have done quite a respectable job of offering evidence for Schumacher’s contention. Attempts to do the same thing at a national level aren’t doing much better. The lower down the ladder of levels you go, and the closer you get to individuals and families confronting the challenges of their own lives, the more success stories you find.

By the same logic, the best place to start backing away from an overload of complexity is in the daily life of the individual. What sustains today’s social complexity, in the final analysis, is the extent to which individuals turn to complex systems to deal with their needs and wants. To turn away from complex systems on that individual level, in turn, is to undercut the basis for social complexity, and to begin building frameworks for meeting human needs and wants of a much simpler and thus more sustainable kind. It also has the advantage – not a small one – that it’s unnecessary to wait for international treaties, or government action, or anything else to begin having an effect on the situation; it’s possible to begin right here, right now, by identifying the complex systems on which you depend for the fulfillment of your needs and wants, and making changes in your own life to shift that dependency onto smaller or more local systems, or onto yourself, or onto nothing at all – after all, the simplest way to deal with a need or want, when doing so is biologically possible, is to stop needing or wanting it.

Such personal responses have traditionally been decried by those who favor grand collective schemes of one kind or another. I would point out in response, first, that a small step that actually happens will do more good than a grandiose plan that never gets off the drawing board, a fate suffered by nearly all of the last half century’s worth of grandiose plans for sustainability; second, that starting from personal choices and local possibilities, rather than abstract and global considerations, makes it a good deal more likely that whatever evolves out of the process might actually work; and third, that tackling the crisis of industrial society from the top down has been tried over and over again by activists for decades now, with no noticeable results, and maybe it’s time to try something else. How that "something else" might be pursued in practice will be the topic of next week’s post.


hapibeli said...

Always good, always educational, and inspiring. Thanks JMG. The understanding of the beliefs in inevitable progress and large complex solutions, makes it easy to see the simpler ones in front of me, and therefore easier to act upon them. Bravo!

LS said...

I have to agree with what you are proposing (individual, local response). As noted, top down solutions can't, won't, and haven't worked (and certainly won't be attempted until it is too late).

Today my partner and I made pies. When we counted up the cost of ingredients (let alone labour) they are more expensive than what can be bought at the supermarket. But they do have the advantage that the ingredients don't rely on a complex society to provide them, so I will still be eating pies long after the pie factory no-longer exists.

There is an additional benefit from what you are suggesting as well. That is the "multiple lifeboats" that it will inevitably create. Many people may do a little to reduce the complexity of their lives, but some will do a lot (my partner and I are working in that direction). Therefore while the whole society may still collapse, there will be many pockets of individuals and small groups who will be able to just continue on in the much simplified world that emerges.

That has to provide a good foundation for the rapid formation of new communities (they may even be based on principles of sustainability).

I have become convinced that workable communities will only emerge as they are needed (i.e. after our existing communities stop working and collapse). I hear a lot of anecdotal evidence to support this idea. "Transition towns" and community building efforts seem to cause more conflict among members than actually achieve anything.

So, taking up your suggestion that individual action is the way forward makes a lot of sense to me. At the very least you will be in a better position to help yourself, and (if they are lucky) your family, friends, and neighbours.

Most people scorn the "lifeboat" and "doom-stead" concepts, but I just see people doing those things as early adopters of "simplification".

Thanks once again for an interesting post JMG.

BrightSpark said...

Just when I think that you might have been starting to run out of material for new posts - given the huge amount of written material you have pumped out weekly over the past four years, and the diverse range of thinkers covered - then you go and throw up new surprises. Always the best part of my Thursday.

Neon said...

Very big complexity reduction lies at our daily food chain. By reducing the food manufacture - from highly ineffective processing of corn, soy, rice and other grains into the artificial food substances we eat daily. By consuming the grains and legumes directly, by learning to cook them correctly at each household, we would save enormous energy and complexity.

Macrobiotic movement has taught me a lot about these things. And how profound the whole food topic is. How much our daily food effects our correct thinking (mind and body), because all is connected in the Universe, all is different quality of energy and our body and mind is of the quality of our daily eating habits. Actually, macrobiotic says, that the deepening crisis has direct roots in the quality of food we eat. With the lower quality, the lower the judgement of the people.
I can translate the Tainter's complexity description for myself as the case of symptom treatments - when you treat symptoms and not the cause of the problem, you are adding complexity (in general I think it's true). But I can see, how the finding of the real cause become the complex topic itself for the general population. Opinions differ and people are lost in the world of symptomatic labyrinth. And this is what macrobiotic ascribes to the judgement deterioration, caused by the poor quality of food.
I highly recommend Michio Kushi's book "One Peaceful World" for a very interesting and very challenging view on the topic of human wars, society collapses and human behaviour in general (there is only one chapter about wars, but worth reading imho).

The macrobiotic logic is very much misunderstood, but for me, it's just the typical sign of avoiding the cause treatment and being lost in another complexities. Personal addictions are hardest to cure, and our personal food addictions are manifested many times daily on our plates. The real causes are usually the nearest to us and the hardest to conquer - change yourself and you change the world. Experiment with foods and observe the effects and you will understand the "change yourself" part much more.

greatblue said...

I would add, as an argument in favor of personal response, a fourth: that even if the effort fails, it is not likely to have the disastrous consequences of a larger, more complex solution.

The amount of damage that a blown out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico can and will probably do just boggles the mind.

Kevin said...

60,000 gallons a day? That's truly a nightmare scenario. I pray it doesn't happen. I've read they'll try to cap it, but who knows if that will succeed: more matter for prayer I expect.

Some months ago I spotted a Yahoo headline touting the latest petroleum find as "The Oil Well That Changed the World Forever." That boast was too silly even for mainstream news, and quickly vanished. But this oil well might actually wind up doing that. Horrible thought.

Rob said...

Many greetings... I just wanted to pick up on one statement in your article.. you wrote;

"It’s being tried right now, in many countries and on many different levels, with enough success that in Britain, at least, the number of Transition Town activists who have found their way onto municipal payrolls has excited grumbling from members of less successful pressure groups".

I wish it were thus (the payroll bit, not the grumbling bit), but as someone very active in Transition in the UK, I confess to being puzzled by this assertion. I am unaware of anyone active in Transition who is on 'municipal payrolls'. There are, to the best of my knowledge, no Councils who employ a 'Transition person', and none that fund their local Transition initiatives, although there are occasional projects where the two might partner together.

There have been examples of Transition groups working with Councils in an unpaid capacity (such as Transition Stroud feeding (pardon the pun)into their Council's food policymaking, and also of occasional bits of paid consultancy work (such as the Bristol Peak Oil Report) being done by people who are also active in Transition, but the sweeping nature of your statement is at sharp odds with the facts, and I would like to enquire as to what that statement was based on? In terms of the grumbling, there is always grumbling about different groups and the scale of their success or otherwise, but if it is based on assertions such as this, it is rather ill-founded grumbling....
With thanks,
Rob Hopkins
Transition Network.

Claes said...

Dear Mr Greer,

I take it you know that the European Union is supposed to work according to the subsidiary principle? What this means in the real world is that even the size of strawberries and the curvature of cucumbers is decided by bureaucrats in Brussels. So much for subsidiarity!

xhmko said...

Those who expect to reap the benefits of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it. – Thomas Paine

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG, great post again (I want to fault your analysis, but haven't been able to so far. Keep up the good work).

Sustainability, living within your means and having a small eco footprint are beyond the majority of people within the industrial society. To do this plunges you pretty much immediately into the Middle Ages. It's simply because you have to work that much harder on your own and families survival than people are now used to and also rely on your immediate community which quite a lot of us have given the finger to. You also are at the whim of nature which most people seem to have lost touch with, as they're simply detached from it.

You quite rightly pointed out many weeks ago that the modern home is imbued with cultural significance. I'd like to take this further and say that it is also insular. It retards the development of a community and gives the occupants a pretence that they are immune from the vagaries of nature and/or the community. The reality though is that this is a facade and once the energy supply stops (or becomes intermittent), the facade drops straight away.

Most people simply don't care because if it involves some sort of sacrifice or cost they seem to not be interested. This is certainly the case here in Australia where we enjoy relatively cheap electricity courtesy of low quality brown coal.

There also seems to be the strange current in society that you can purchase your way through to a sustainable world (think green labelled products). This is simply business as usual with a bit of green washing.

I often wonder how many of the readers and commenter’s in this blog are taking positive steps to insulate themselves (or their communities) or do they read this blog from their McMansions just to feel good about themselves?

As a suggestion, if you do nothing else plant some fruit trees and vegies.

You are again right when you point out that current renewable technology is just a stop gap to buy time. If the grid was to fail tomorrow, then even the best PV / wind off grid systems would only have a life span of around 15 years as they are limited by the battery life. You may get power after this time, but only during the day and/or when the wind is blowing. This is certainly not what people are used to and it wouldn't be adequate enough to run a refrigerator which can run 24/7 depending on the ambient temperature.

Fear not though, as plenty of people made it through the Middle Ages without advanced medication or refrigeration. They might not have lived as long a life or as hedonistic a life, but they still made it.

Good luck!

Odin's Raven said...

A nice post, thank you. You mention the professional activist community, but more could be said about their parasitical nature. See the brilliant satire of international do-goodery at Hand Relief International

Jason said...

You've put your finger here on the reason why Alex Steffen hates Transition Towns and loves Amory Lovins. Faith in progress myths *means* faith in complexity for many people (complexity=mastery), and if you are betraying the solution you are part of the problem.

I think many people these days are like me -- instinctively hating over-complexity for its wobbliness, its untrustworthiness. I have been like that since I was a kid, wanting to remove the bloat. It never felt robust, because in my lifetime it never has been.

Mind you, I'm not sure why PV cells and "home insulation and weatherstripping, a boom in solar hot water heaters, a boom in backyard victory gardens" are all examples of increasing complexity, since they are precisely intended to replace complexity.

I love the way posts end here every week. Reminds me of Wu Ch'eng-en's Monkey --

... And if you do not know whether in the end, equipped with this name, he managed to attain enlightenment or not, listen while it is explained to you in the next chapter.

chriswaterguy said...

I don't think I agree about complexity. Nature very often manages to be efficient and complex - it seems to be the norm, in fact. Industrial ecology mimics this. Good solutions may be simple, but it's not a given.

ces said...

Learn to just live with those dandelions

Fleecenik Farm said...

Gosh, it seems lately that the world is ripping at the seams. I think that in order to cope with the overwhelming events that shape our times the only recourse is to act locally. I am encouraged by the increasing numbers of folks who are growing veggie gardens, the conservation of gas when prices increase, the growth in local agriculture.

I am fortunate to live in a state, Maine, that is embracing alternative energy systems, has a vibrant local foods culture and strong communities. But we have challenges as most states do these days. It is my worry that as this economy fails further that the resources needed to support the good work the state is doing will not be there.

Brad K. said...

OK, here is one that adds complexity.

1) Institute a fee of $10,000 to surrender the registration of a vehicle built before the smog controls newer than the catalytic converter.

2) Institute inspection of "wrecks" to certify a vehicle/frame could not be rebuilt using herculean efforts.

3) Manufacture fuel efficient replacement engines, and retrofit existing cars rather than permit them to be crushed for scrap metal.

4) Research and publish guidelines to improve or upgrade existing car and truck engines, to increase fuel efficiency by at least 50%

5) The Russians came up with a goo that helps an engine "rebuild" itself, pulling worn metal fragments from the lubricating oil into a metal-ceramic bond and rebuilding the engine surface where hottest - that is, where friction is wearing away metal. In the states the brand name is "Xado". The claim is improved fuel efficiency at idle (reduces friction during operation), adds 50,000 miles to engine life, and can re-round an egg-shaped, worn cylinder. I have seen this stuff used - but never having torn down an engine, cannot report on how much it helped. I thought I saw a couple MPG improvement in my Ford Escort wagon.

Now, for a less-complex effort. Live where you work. Employers can get involved with their community, and site locations with employee residences close by, instead of siting in business districts far removed from residences. Employers could consider commute distance when evaluating applications for employment.

OK, more complex, again. We could tax employers for the commute distance of each employee.

We could forbid building a residence more than 1 mile from a grocery, hardware store, and barber shop (i.e. post office/general store) in any community with more than 100 people in a square 2 miles on a side.

We could revere children exhibiting musical talent in our community, rather than commercially provided "entertainment". We could emphasize "made here" shoes in our community, rather than worry if they were made in a sweatshop or not, overseas.

We could respect young people for character, courtesy, and wisdom, and reserve admiration of commercial sports (including grade, middle, and high school programs) for their ability to prepare young people for military service.

We could enforce merchants to label the distance goods are transported, from manufacture to the shelf.

We could recall spendthrift politicians, instead of letting them tell us to "wait" for (and forget by) the next election. We could sue for redress of grievance, in the US, for economic harm.

We could.

The Neo-Luddite said...

I'm curious...been following your blog for the past couple years...always insightful.

What insight prompted a move from Oregon to Maryland?

John Michael Greer said...

Hapibeli, you're welcome!

LS, I doubt you could have gotten a pie of anything like the same quality and nutritional content for the same price as the ones you made at home! Still, you're right that the value of such projects can't be measured in money alone -- I'll be addressing that point in a post fairly soon.

Spark, thank you! There's quite a bit more to come, too.

Neon, food is certainly one place to start. I'm not a big fan of the macrobiotic system, or any other set of rules -- I find that close observation of the effects of food on the individual system tends to produce better guidelines for many people -- but if it works for you, good.

Greatblue, that's an excellent point.

Kevin, yes, it's pretty ghastly. I hope it won't come to that.

Rob, good to hear from you. Do you remember the much-quoted Marxist critique of the Transition Town movement from a while back? In the course of denouncing TT for selling out to the status quo, it mentioned that a number of Transition Town activists had gotten themselves hired by city governments. If that bit of sour grapes was inaccurate, that's worth knowing, but I don't recall anybody from the TT movement challenging them on that at the time.

Claes, and I bet they have a big centralized office in Brussels that's tasked with making up and enforcing regulations to ensure that every part of the EU practices subsidiarity in the same way, too.

Xhmko, good.

Raven, now that's funny.

Cherokee, exactly; the Middle Ages are where we're headed, one way or another. The question is simply how many of us make the trip in a gradual and deliberate way, bringing as much with us as we can manage, and how many of us suddenly get dumped there with no idea what to do.

Jason, insulation and victory gardens aren't complex in themselves; it's the mess of incentives and regulations meant to encourage them that add complexity. With any luck the items themselves will still be in place when they're needed.

Chris, nature's complexity is a very different thing; it evolves over very long time frames and does not attempt centralized control. It's precisely because industrial ecologies don't mimic nature that they're so vulnerable to collapse.

Ces, don't just learn to live with them -- harvest the greens for salads and dry and roast the root as a liver tonic!

Fleecenik, you've put your finger on the crucial point. As long as these changes remain dependent on state funding, they're horribly vulnerable to the kind of sudden cutoff that doomed so many promising ventures at the end of the Seventies. This is why individuals, families, and communities need to embrace this sort of thing on their own, with their own resources.

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, in theory we could. In practice?

Luddite, I covered that in an earlier post here -- by all means check it out.

Mark said...

Thank you JMG, just the sort of essay I needed to read after two days of installing an edible forest garden for a client!

I think that is one of the greatest technologies to come out of the environmental movement of the 70's that has the largest potential for providing nutrition-dense, local food in our future of descent. So much of our current agricultural knowledge is archaic and out-of-date (even a lot of organic methods). But, the techniques coming out of the permaculture movement (biodynamics, biointensive, and edible forest gardening alike)are making way for a new sort of green revolution -- based on appropriate technology and ecological methods that build soil, save energy, sequester carbon and produce gluts of food. So I see these ideas and techniques spreading like mycelium. Each new site that comes online is another hub and demonstration site. In my short time involved in this work, I've seen it spread, much like the hyphae of the mycelium spread beneath the mulch of the forest, creating a network that will sooner or later encompass the globe. I'm guessing you discuss something like this in the Ecotechnic Future?

So, I think that along with victory gardens, we need WAY more forest gardens, because there are going to be generations of humans that will undoubtedly be hungry... In more than one way.

And just an interesting tidbit. There are in Brazil, as many permaculture projects/sites in operation as the sum total of projects on every continent. Now that's inspiring...

Jason said...

A further thought: this also goes back to the GDP-as-index problem. GDP in a sense actually measures increased complexity. Less activity could never be seen as good taking GDP as your measure.

The exxon valdez fiasco increased Alaskan GDP more than the oil would have if it had reached port safely. The same may well end up being true with this new disaster.

Rob said...

Hi... yes, like much else in that document (which I responded to at it was based on almost no research. For the record, there are no Transition people working in local authorities (oh that there were!).
Best wishes

DC said...

JMG: You state the following:

"Such personal responses have traditionally been decried by those who favor grand collective schemes of one kind or another. I would point out in response, first, that a small step that actually happens will do more good than a grandiose plan that never gets off the drawing board, a fate suffered by nearly all of the last half century’s worth of grandiose plans for sustainability; second, that starting from personal choices and local possibilities, rather than abstract and global considerations, makes it a good deal more likely that whatever evolves out of the process might actually work; and third, that tackling the crisis of industrial society from the top down has been tried over and over again by activists for decades now, with no noticeable results, and maybe it’s time to try something else. How that "something else" might be pursued in practice will be the topic of next week’s post."

This is precisely what the TT movement is all about. It is about first taking personal responsibility for your consumption patterns and neglect of civic participation and 2) acting locally from the "grassroots" to bring about the necessary changes to mitigate the inevitability of peak energy, limits to growth and the transgressing of planetary boundaries (e.g. climate change, ocean acidification, etc.)

About the Marxist critique, well that's just the way of Marxist's-- to critique all their lives without actually doing anything. If it's not a grand theory of class struggle determinism, then it must be co-opted by the capitalist agenda. TT movement is about "doing the work" needed to brave the "Long Descent" as you describe it. We don't have time to respond to seminal critiques or engage in ridiculous dialectics. We are to busy trying to "transition" our communities!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

"What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed" is how I often think of your posts, and I find them inspirational as my family pursues its own "decomplexifying."
Every year a little more. As in more skills, more practical knowledge. And a little less. As in less consumption, less taking such things as electricity for granted.

I think individual and community changes of the sort discussed here are building momentum, at least in certain parts of the US, and doubtless around the world.

Over the past few years I seem to have gone from being that weird lady who hangs out her laundry, does her own cooking, rides a bike, and grows native "weeds" in her backyard to being seen by some as a person with useful knowledge to impart. So now, like so many, I've centered my life around learning more, practicing in my own life, and then educating others in both formal and informal situations. It's not enough to simply sit and wring one's hands while crying out "alas and woe."

If we who comment here form a kind of community of interest, besides making individual changes, what are we doing to help others in our home communities along this road? Each one of us as a stone dropped in a pond.

My summer reading? Joseph Tainter. And what would be a good place to start with Schumacher?

Walter said...

The laws of physics are on our side - us meaning sustainable farmers/community organizers. As I have done for the past three years, I am planting more grain, potatoes and dry beans than I need or can sell. This is just in case. I suggest all of you do the same.

marielar said...

Hello JMG,

As usual, what an excellent post! I am dropping you a line to thank you for the weekly inspiration your blog is. You wrote:
"I would point out in response, first, that a small step that actually happens will do more good than a grandiose plan that never gets off the drawing board."

Absolutely! I worked for many years for government agencies as an agriculture specialist and it was, for the most part, a very frustrating exercice in futility. The real solutions to the demise of the small family farms were simple, but rejected because they went for the most part against the system. So, basically, I thought than rather than cashing taxpayer money, it was better to buy a small farm and try to make it work by all means necessary. It is not easy, but it is really rewarding. Nothing grandiose, but among the setbacks, the victories, like a freezer full of meat, feel real.
One of my issues is how to approach people in their 20s in my circle of accointance, that generation that grew up connected to all the modern gadgetery. Somehow, I cant muster the courage to tell them their dreamworld is not that far from crashing all around them. For them, technology will come at their rescue. I was wondering if you had any idea about this.

miltonics said...

As I was reading I couldn't help but think about the parallels between the increasing complexity of maintaining our society and the increasing complexity of maintaining a lie. Perhaps this is because the basis for our society is untrue...

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, it's certainly one good option, and a reminder that we don't have to wait for the arrival of Utopia to put ecotechnic crafts to work.

Jason, that's an excellent point.

Rob, most interesting. Don't wish for TT people on government payrolls, though -- I can think of no better way to ensure that all the positive potentials of the movement get turned into tepid slogans backing a continuation of the status quo.

DC, well, it's certainly one way to try to go about it. As I've mentioned several times here, I have some concerns about the Transition Town movement, but time will tell whether those are justified or not.

Adrian, that's the best news I've heard all week! If people are starting to pay attention to the "weird ladies" (and gentlemen) among them as a resource for knowledge, the shift we need is happening. More on this in a future post. As for Schumacher, you should certainly start with "Small Is Beautiful."

Walter, that's good advice. My backyard garden isn't yet up to producing more than my spouse and I can eat -- that won't happen until the cold frames, the solar greenhouse, and the dwarf fruit trees are all in production -- but we're certainly planting as much as we can.

Jason said...

@Rob: For the record, there are no Transition people working in local authorities (oh that there were!).

Well Alexis Rowell, who is engaged in writing the Transition guide to working with local councils, would have counted until a short while ago. The fact that he has left the council now indicates something though! That article was rubbish of course.

RPC said...

A historical note: Schumacher's notion of subsidiarity can be traced back through the Distributists to Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum. (But you probably knew that.) A reading of that encyclical and Chesterton's "What's Wrong with the World," both freely available, is still useful this century or so later.

Keep up the thoughtful work!

vera said...

Cool post, and looking forward to its sequel. For the Europeans lurking here: since Greece cheated to get into the union, why not just boot them? One less dead albatross around EU's neck...

JMG and other knowledgeable folk: my decomplexification dilemma is this: my small town is unincorporated, and dealing at the moment with shenanigans regarding zoning games and potential (likely lied about) subdivisions, played on the level of distant country bureaucrats. Some people here are calling for incorporation... I tend to think that would overlay us with greater complexity though we would have more local say. What to do?

Robert said...

"Can you think of a way to deal with the problems of complexity in today’s industrial nations – problems that include, but are not limited to, rapidly depleting energy supplies, ecological destruction, and accelerating economic turbulence – that doesn’t simply add another layer of complexity to the mess?"

How about an end to consumerism, the practice of using resources to produce products whose only justifiable reason to exist is to give the producer something to do? How about an end to the automobile and air-centered transportation system. Of course, after making such a suggestion one typically hears that people have to get around somehow. But people don't have to get around nearly as much as they do now. No one has ever died for lack of a 2-week European vacation or a long weekend in Cancun. People having to walk 2 or 3 miles to the grocery store a couple of times a week instead of driving would probably result in reduced mortality from heart disease. If people stopped using fossil fuels so frivolously it is more likely there will be food in the store when they get there.

This would result in economic turbulence but that is a metaphor. "The economy" is an abstraction. If it collapses a hardhat won't help much. If it experiences turbulence it won't do you any good to put on a seatbelt. I'm thinking that using metaphors like this do more harm than good. They encourage dispair. Better to be more concrete, like, "People will loose their jobs." No one has every died as a direct result of loosing their job. Any misfortune that results from loosing a job is a result of how humans choose to deal with it. It is possible to think of ways to deal with unemployment in a positive way.

Human behavior is what we have to work with.

AnonymousQuaintPagan said...


I just bought your book, The Long Descent and I'm loving it! I happen to be a homesteader, using Jeavon's gardening books, and my neighbor in the very town I live happens to not only a biodynamic gardner, but the local instructor for learning biodynmaic gardening. So, guess what I'm going to be studying?

Here's a question, why is it so hard to convince even Pagans that organic/certified natural gardening is a skill we should invest as much time in as studying astrology or reading tarot? I'm introducing some friends to fresh Arugula and Asparagus, in the hopes that they will rediscover how food should taste and fall madly in love with farmer's markets. Starting with learning to cook local, seasonal foods would be an easy way to get anyone interested in both local economies and eating in a sustainable way. One would think this concept would come naturally to Pagans, why is there such resistance?


Cash Gorman said...

Regardless of what we do will entail a massive dieoff of human population. Without oil much of the growth and delivery of food will slow and then simply stop.

With our "JIT" system most centers of population ( yes, even one horse towns)will last about a week before shortages become severe.

Most of us won't make it back to "The Shire" until after Sauron has devoured most of the first world. Much of the third world will wonder why all of a sudden things got much quieter ;~)

Anne said...

The voluntary simplicity and downshifting movements are all about choosing to move away from the insane complexity of modern life. The big message is this will increase our quality of life and our ability to live sustainably. Check out Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth, an inspiring collection of essays on the multiple aspects of society & the economy and how we will be happier and healthier by living more sustainably

I feel spirituality has a big part to play in helping us move as individuals and collectively towards a more simple way of living. It certainly is helping me in that direction.

There is a shift happening in our society - lots of people are interested in growing their own food - not just veggies but I know several people who have chickens and also initiatives such as Community Supported Agriculture Schemes which involve local people in growing food collectively.

We can all do stuff that makes a difference, no matter what Government we have or are about to get here in the UK. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Tony said...


I followed your comment-to-comment conversation with Rob Hopkins just now. I'm not going to beat around the bush and just go ahead and say I find it pretty annoying that you seem to have no problem repeating the baseless assertions of others as if they were the gospel truth. Why ruin a good post with that sort of nonsense? I read your first response to Rob and thought "really? He's got to be kidding." Alas, no. I'm a regular reader, and very much enjoy the vast majority of your posts, but this sort of thing really, really irritates me. Intellectual honesty would seem to require you make sure your assertions are backed up by facts, or stated clearly as opinions. Unless you've made a political decision to excoriate the transition movement.

Having said that, I'm afraid I must half-contradict Rob Hopkins. I'm heavily involved in a transition initiative in Pennsylvania. I also happen to work as a planner for local government (but not the same government in which my initiative is based). I am quite aware of the apparent contradiction. Living amidst such a contradiction, however, has given me, I would argue, an expanded perspective. I think, if any level of government is likely to survive into the post-complex age, it's some form of local government. Local government has at least the capacity to understand its people; it can be responsive to its people; it has, in PA at least, centuries of experience within its jurisdiction (not always useful experience, admittedly); and it has useful expertise that the average person has not.

Maybe it's just that I happen to work for a relatively progressive (and fiscally conservative, so debt-free) township, one that believes in the importance of clean water and works actively to preserve farmland and its quasi-natural landscape. I'm sure, if I happened to work for some of the other municipalities in my county, those that have been raising taxes 30%+ lately, I might have a different perspective.

Finally, I see no reason to level half-baked accusations at transition towners; their (my) aims and yours seem reasonably well-aligned. We see collapse coming; we know that the time of postmodern hyper-complexity is coming to a close, and are working actively to educate and invigorate our neighbors regarding this fact. We work on a local level, with a bottom-up ethos. We are working to build resilience and break our addiction to cheap & dangerous fossil energy. We may fail. What human endeavor was ever a sure thing?

Perhaps in an upcoming post you can tell us what you're up to in the place where you live; I'll withhold baseless asides about "walking the talk" till then. Thanks,

Transition Lancaster

Óskar said...

As you've covered the complexity issue so thoroughly, leaving little for me to add, I'll indulge in a little off-topic ranting...

I agree in general terms that we're "headed for the middle ages". However I'm certain you also recognize that we're headed for a "different kind of middle ages" - the trajectory of history will take us to a similar pattern but not the exact same path. I sometimes ponder this future and try to identify how the conditions are different from, say, 500 AD Europe.

Without going into all those details, I want to bring up one question regarding organic farming / permaculture systems / etc: In the real world, where human aggression can and will happen, how stable can forest gardens hope to be?

In wars of the past, armies could pillage land and burn the fields of their enemies, potentially causing starvation... but those fields would be equally productive the next year after.

A forest garden on the other hand, must be built up over years to achieve its maximum yield. A group of people relying on such an investment appear quite vulnerable to enemies inclined to burn their forest, enslave the people and then have them plow the land the year after and grow some wheat to feed the conquerors...

Clearly not a concern for the immediate future - but I think this limitation of perennial plant systems tends by overlooked by idealists who see them as the absolute right way of the future.

For the record, I'm a fan of permaculture and edible forest gardens! But I'm also a realist who reads too much history...

pfh said...

What kills me is how people keep creating quite lofty sounding principles, like “sustainability” or the "the Principle of Subsidiary Function" and then immediately ignore their own definition when applying it. The problem with finding "the most effective arrangement to perform any function whatsoever” is not finding “the smallest and most local unit that can actually perform it”.

The problem is that you need a means of *comparison* and people mostly don't do that, or use a means of comparison that they entirely misunderstand the consequences of. People mostly use *judgment* and just pick the choice that best fits their own cultural values. They mostly don’t even know how the physical effects would accumulate if one or another rule of comparison were used .

I have a hugely long list of examples of how we are being tied in knots by ignoring the vast differences between what our cultural values tell us to do and the effects we think we are having on the physical place we live in. Take the main "rebound effect" of better healthcare. That is to assure we'll need ever more health care. For one, the profits go to multiplying the cures, and then it doesn’t reduce our total need for healthcare but actually multiplies that too. The more diseases we cure the worse diseases we get.

We're still going to be mortal anyway is the point, and only needing to pay ever more for it over time following a perpetual growth model of … *profitability*. Everybody’s in favor of that aren’t they?? I hope that points out the problem I’m trying to raise, that it’s a problem when you way of defining "effective arrangement to perform any function" turns out to be simply fictitious.

Another good case in point is the way resources are allocated, according to where they will produce the highest financial rate of return. That's the economic version of Schumacher's principle "effective arrangement". What that means, of course, is our resources are allocated to maximize the rate at which we use the returns to multiply our returns. {.. sounds like the same problem coming up..} So, we optimize our resource use for doubling the scale and complexity of our solutions.

We don’t notice things like how that switches to multiplying our problems at natural environmental limits, for example, just that to solve our multiplying problems we seem to need ever more efficient allocation of resources to address them. Here’s the worst part. Did you know, that same feature of economic decision-making not only 1) controls investment decisions worldwide today, but is also 2) retained as part of virtually all the alternative economy models published in the last three decades too, and in particular is 3)relied on to create the profits for reducing CO2 and implementing all other institutionally supported sustainability plans? Each and every one of those solves one thing by a method that multiplies the impacts of other things.

Once you check it out and find “Yikes! It’s true!” you have to ask how did we get in this ridiculous jam. All the easy epithets are probably deserved, of course, but the practical matter of living in a changing world and not paying attention to its changes is the basic procedural problem. What have now become a network of completely fatal survival strategies used to work simply great.

That was back when we were small and having a systematic way to multiply your control and use of your environment created an ever greater bounty. Now it doesn’t. Now our highest values applied to our trusted solution drives us irreversibly to take on ever more unachievable tasks. We should think of something else to do.

wylde otse said...

I don't rate my favorite authors (nor their blog posts for that matter) but this one hit the spot.

As I read; the bizzaredness of the world's financial/enconomic/political system struck me: an exotic exfolliation reminiscent of a species flinging itself into a paleontological tar-pit; of extinction.

The astronomical paper dollar debt nations assign one another reaches comical heights. Even mortgages on homes will one day appear absurd - to the real homo sapiens.

After the fun I had learning of Greek origins of the concept of democracy - and listening to the radio-rioting there today - once more I see Yogi Bear seeing déjà vue, "all over again".

Along with seeds and ammo, the thing most valuable to be saved from the rubble will be sanity, perhaps served at a combined potlatch/ pot-luck supper.

See you there!

(ok, I admit this comment is a hoax. It's just that I could not think of any other way to sample a piece of LS's pie)

Stella said...

"Can you think of a way to deal with the problems of complexity in today’s industrial nations – problems that include, but are not limited to, rapidly depleting energy supplies, ecological destruction, and accelerating economic turbulence – that doesn’t simply add another layer of complexity to the mess?"

Voluntary population reduction through abstinence, contraception, sterilization, and adoption-as-a-first-choice.

This, to my mind, is the ONLY real way out.

Petro said...


Be the change you want to see.

Petro said...


"As I was reading I couldn't help but think about the parallels between the increasing complexity of maintaining our society and the increasing complexity of maintaining a lie. Perhaps this is because the basis for our society is untrue..."

I think this is an excellent insight. This will be added to my narratives on this unfolding history...

quantumskunk said...

does the archdruid pay property taxes? i want to bail on the current paradigm but the town wont let me. they will send a law enforcement official to evict me from my own home.

towns or sheriffs only take money. $2000 per quarter so i have to work in a factory. my factory is a sub contractor for a sub contractor who makes stuff for "defense". yeah, it's tough. looks like i am stuck until the next dark age rolls in.

guess what? i got solar panels on the roof. yesterday they made 16.3 kw. but it's grid tied. no grid no juice. when the dark age rolls in i will have to hack the system to get my juice.

i work so hard at the factory i go home dog tired. no garden this year. i have to wait until after 2012 when the town does a tax valuation. dont want my garden upping the taxes. whit a little luck the dark age will hit after 2012.

deep water is worse than everyone thinks. the criminal elite class know the game is up, stealing all the money. us poor folks will die of hunger and lack of proper medical care. take a look a greece. expect riots in your future.

when? when you cant buy booze. when you cant get narcotic medicine, when fast food joints dont have burgers and fries, when gaz-o-leen is 5 bucks a gallon, when you cant read the archdruid report on the internet.

Ariel55 said...

Dear John, I am committed to the AR, in its debt frequently for my sanity...I also believe in a personal "Heisner Principle" the opting out of an individual from the group of systems because it is possible. I am experiencing a renewed trust in my gut instincts
as I get further removed from things such as cell phones and bad news. Shall I teach "Pollyanna's
Glad game" as a survival tool?

Joan said...

I beg to differ with you (and, I presume, Tainter) on the use of the complex/simple distinction as synonymous with sustainable/unsustainable. An old-fashioned fireplace is a simple thing, and if New England had to go back to heating its homes with fireplaces, the region would be treeless in less than a decade. A masonry heater or a 21st century wood stove is a downright complex piece of engineering but, if every home had one, we might be able to refrain from chopping the forests down faster than they can regrow. For that matter, the very notion of simplicity can hide any number of unspoken (and perhaps unconscious) assumptions. An obvious example is a phenomenon you've already pointed out: the use of the word "efficiency" by economists to mean "labor efficiency" on the assumption that labor will always be the limiting factor in economic activity. Another example: the division of societies into simple vs. complex can only be done by excluding from the definition of "society" the myriad relationships between humans and other species on which every human society must depend. Think of North America a hundred years ago, when most families farmed and therefore most people got up close and personal with plants, animals, fungi and bacteria in a deliberate, conscious way at least a dozen times a day.

I think it's more accurate to think in terms of intermediation and disintermediation. In an expanding economy, individuals specialize and consume each others' specialties, with the complexity that used to be characteristic of household and village/town/neighborhood economies being increasingly handed off to regional, national and global economies. Middlemen (of both genders) abound, which is why the process is called intermediation. In a contracting economy, it makes more sense to disintermediate, to eliminate the middleman, to take that complexity back into our lives and, in so doing, take back our power.

Bobby said...

JMG, outstanding post as usual! You are truly an inspiration. I love the points that you made in regards to the painful transition of Rome to the medieval period. As a student of history, I cannot agree with you more that this is an excellent parallel to the current predicament facing the industrialized world. Like modern society, Rome in transition was a society built upon complexities that could not be adjudicated without emperors making political decisions that would have amounted to political suicide. In our current paradigm of 24/7 news and perpetual election cycles, I too believe that we cannot expect answers from the top, and even if they do come up with something, it most certainly would not be a long-term sustainable solution.

As such, if a new era of self reliance is upon us, as I believe it is, then it becomes imperative for basic survival for people to learn to advocate and plan for themselves. We cannot expect the government to fix this, it is in our hands.

As such, equipped with this knowledge, I think that one of the best things that can be done to spread this message is the simple act of educating people. My wife and I try to live off the grid as much as possible. We eat only locally grown food, we have a large garden, we bake our own bread, we do not use a clothes dryer, etc. When I tell people about this the immediate reaction is usually disbelief, followed by keen interest. I have gotten more people thinking about energy consumption, sustainable living, and local agriculture this way than any government sponsored message could ever dream of. I love seeing the light bulb go on so to speak when i tell people of the dangers of industrialized society and the very real possibilities of concepts such as peak oil and climate change. I think it is easier to hear such an argument put forth by a friend or neighbor rather then a bureaucrat because it has a more immediate impact (not to mention the current public distrust of any large-scale institution, which certainly feeds into this as well). The message needs to come from the bottom up, not the top down.

People need to know that the possibility of the rug being pulled out from underneath of them is very real. Armed with this knowledge, communities can begin the process of breaking the complexities that govern modern society and enslave it.

mageprof said...

@ Tony, Transition Lancaster

JMG is well able to speak for himself, so I'll just speak for myself about the Transitional Town Movement. My foremost objection to it is precisely that it is a movement.

I'm far too much a curmudgeon, particularly in my old age, to ever be a part of any movement again. I've lived through too many movements, from the late '50s onward, and seen the dark side of each and every one of them grow stronger as the succeed in achieving their goals. I have no doubt that a dark side will emerge in this movement also.

This is simply because human nature has so much darkness in it, so much lust for power-over. Only small-scale action, by groups of people not much bigger than a few city blocks, can ever rein that darkness in very effectively -- and then only on a very small scale, only for a generation or two. Even a town is far too large a unit to escape the hard consequences of this.

Movements owe their staying power to the simple fact that there is strength in numbers; but that strength is always turned back against the rank and file in the end.

Where hard reality is concerned, Houseman had the last word:

To think that two and two are four,
And neither five nor three,
The heart of man has long been sore,
And long 'tis like to be.

Human lust-for-power is such a hard reality.

Brad K. said...


About your question, "why is it so hard to convince even Pagans that organic/certified natural gardening is a skill we should invest as much time in as studying astrology or reading tarot?", I can only give my thought.

Pagan, and other terms for "Not a Christian" when Christianity was for the citified and rich, and poor were barely tolerated - Pagan pretty much meant a peon or rural lifestyle, in the eyes of the rich and elite Christians. Rustics, rubes.

That isn't so today. Like so many people, there are many even among the pagan and neo-pagan faiths that feel that "caring for the earth" means "the Kyoto Protocol". Activism, rather than acting as husband to the green earth. Bumper stickers and shopping at Whole Foods instead of hoeing and getting out there in the dark of the moon to put down the wheat that will be their bread for the year, and the flax that they will wear.

Those that raise their tomatoes, and new potatoes, and sweet corn know the beauty of a bounty to share, of learning and sharing good recipes and practices to enjoy home-raised popcorn and brussels sprouts off the plant (or so I have read; I hope to try it myself this year).

I have six chickens, three of them are roosters. Two of the non-layers should have been table provender last year, yet I still find that first (and second!) butchering attempt on my own . . intimidating. Dad raised hogs - I have been there for farrowing and putting down runts and the injured. I have fed, and watered, and cleaned hog houses. But we hauled a pig to the butcher, when the time came.

Which came first, the chicken, or the egg? Which comes first, the farm-raised wheat, or a local miller? The smoke house, or meat to cure? The garden, or space and knowledge to prepare and use or store the produce?

Should a faithful group have a publication, a bulletin or newsletter, to unite them? Should it include weekly reminders of average season activities in the garden? Out of sight, out of mind. Should spiritual training ignore the mundane like hygiene, gardening, and household choices? Maybe. I practice solitary Wicca, and don't leave myself near enough notes. Seriously.

When working in software development in the early 1980's, I learned a nifty editor program on the VAX minicomputer. I learned the editor from someone that knew it, that was enthused about the editor. I was responsible for getting four or five others active and enthused. I think many of us overlook how very important it is, to know your proselyte. Learning from a class is great, some things can come from a book or blog - insights, "Ah, ha!" moments. Crafts and skills, though, seem to take deeper root from enthusiasts we are familiar with and respect.

So that is my thought. That too many people confuse social activism with cultural husbandry. And it takes enthused neighbors to awaken new interests.

epoch said...

On the topic of complexity and local solutions to real world problems, I wonder if you've read "Blessed Unrest: how the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming" by Paul Hawken. I have just finished reading it and thought it made some good points arguing against the sustainability of centralized, top down "fixes". I would be interested to hear your take on it, if you've read it.

Dan Olner said...

Seconding Joan: Initforthegold linked to your article, I commented there:

"JMG seems to be conflating complexity and 'grandoise schemes'; I'm puzzled that the solution should be as simple as de-complexifying. Many of nature's most successful species have very complex self-organised structures; complexity itself is no barrier to survival, and often offers solid survival advantages. Plus, humans are built for utilising adaptive social complexity. That's where language came from.

"And there's the localist instinctive hatred of economies of scale: something we are definitely, definitely going to need in the coming years."

(The economies of scale, that is, not the instinctive hatred!)

I think probably if you broke down what you meant by complexity, though, we'd be in agreement. I imagine you've read J.C.Scott's Seeing Like a State?

Apologies for self-links, here's three very different examples of social complexity enabling effective resource management. Compare with Elinor Ostrom's work.

So, yes, I suspect we probably agree, but don't have the same working definition of complexity.

More on economies of scale: I think they're absolutely vital for our survival, but again, I suspect I agree with what you're thinking of - which is economies of ENORMOUS scale that effectively lock out most humans from any control over their own lives. But, baby, bathwater, all that. The things localists blithely dismiss worries me intensely.

ramps said...

Another brilliant insight packaged in the finest prose. Pointing out as usual the blindingly obvious.

"the simplest way to deal with a need or want, when doing so is biologically possible, is to stop needing or wanting it".

This reminded me of a friend who was a long term smoker but stopped some 10 years ago. He maintained that the only way to give up smoking was not to smoke. Incidentally, he approached the process by never saying he had "given up", only that he hadn't had a cigarette for X amount of days. I wonder if the idea of giving something up actually hooks us deeper in?

Separately, I am a bit bemused by the apparent issue of Transition members being on council payrolls. Whether or not it happens seems hardly controversial in principle -though it is obviously controversial from a point of fact! True, joining local or national government is highly likely to lead one into a working life of infinitely complex compromises and potentially wasted energy. Apart from that, so what?

yours aye

Cherokee Organics said...

Óskar. Good point about food forests being vulnerable to fire. You are spot on. Forest and fire ecology interest me because it is certainly one of the biggest vulnerabilities to where I live. Take a look at you tube under "Black Saturday" and you get an understanding.

So what do you do?
Decrease the number of plant species (in the over storey and under storey) that encourage fire and increase those that don't (think % of oil in the leaves).
Increase the quantity and depth of top soil so that it increases the water retention capacity.
Put swales into your landcape to increase the water retention of the land.
Hope that your mulch (and encourage it to) breaks down quickly and forms top soil so that it doesn't burn.
Plant far more densely than in commercial scenarios so that transpiration is reduced (even if growth is slower).
Clean up forest fuels at ground level and either chip them or burn them. It takes on average around three years here for hardwood sticks / leaves / branches to break down.
Water in dry weather.
Catch rain water into water tanks so that it is available for use during periods of dry weather (think 100,000 litres or more).
Encourage fungal growths which speed up the eco system by quickly breaking down plant matter into top soil.
Encourage the local fauna to share your excess produce and they will provide you with mowing services and scats. We have both black tail wallabies and wombats plus countless birds and reptiles all of which increase yields.
Less grass = lower fire risk.
Some weeds stay very green over summer, so keep them.
Be vigilant and join the local fire brigade as they need your services and time.

Remember though that grains and mono cultures are far more vulnerable than forest ecologies by far. Also, well established fire retardant trees (think oaks, elms, poplars, rainforest species especially our local ones) bounce back better than those trees which require an ecology based on fire.

SE Australia is pretty much the canary in the coal mine. In terms of climate we get the lot. At altitude here it can go from snowing and floods one year to drought the next. It's pretty much what the rest of the world can expect from climate wierding. It's not easy, some days over winter it gets down to -1 and over summer up to 40.

JMG. I understand about the fruit trees. Before we started this journey / adventure, I had no idea that it took so many years to produce fruit from fruit trees. There's no easy way to speed this process up though. I recommend to try some seedling fruit trees as you might just find that with the changing climate they outperform the dwarf fruit trees as their root systems are deeper and more vigorous. Dwarf fruit trees = not very vigorous. I urge you to check out the work of Jackie French as I have much respect for her wisdom and observation.

Good luck!

Al2009 said...

A solution none seem to have discussed is included below. Keep up the good work. It had to be cut the full item at my blog.
Alan Page

Essential Tenets for the Maintenance of our Common Good

By Alan Page,,

Bill Pulliam said...

Various types of simplicity and complexity, real and perceived, are being highlighted once gain here in Tennessee in the aftermath of the Great Beltane Flood of 2010. Drinking water supply is a key issue.

Just to our north, Hickman County was largely without electricity for several days, and remains almost entirely without municipal water still. Citizens are by and large flushing their toilets with buckets dipped from creeks, and getting drinking water from bottles at emergency aid centers. Even people who are on their own wells usually require electricity to run the pumps, hence when the lights go out, so does the water.

Ordinarily, if you are on city water it seems like the simplest thing on earth -- open the faucet, out comes the water. A private well with electric pump can seem almost as invisible and flawless. But once something upsets the apple cart, it all falls apart. These systems of course are 100% dependent on great networks of electrical distribution, and in the case of city water also massive water distribution infrastructure. They tumble like a house of cards when nature decides to get restless.

Here at out place we are fortunate enough to have spring water that comes out of the hill far enough upslope to power a ram pump (a magical device that uses gravity to pump water uphill, no external power source required). The ram pump feeds an elevated storage tank, which then delivers pressurized water to the house. On the face of it, to most people, this seems a lot more complicated than the more "modern" alternatives. I need to check the pump every day, it needs frequent tweeking because of small obstructions or changes in the discharge from the spring, etc. Hundreds of meters of water line need to be maintained. Overall, though, it averages out to a few minutes of my time a day, even figuring in the occasional days when I need to work on it for several hours. And when the power goes out, the water continues. In the flood, one of the water lines was broken. After a half hour and a few spare parts to rig up a patch that will serve until the floodwaters finish receding, we had our water back at somewhat reduced pressure. Because, in reality, my system is in total significantly simpler than the seemingly "effortless" supply systems most people are connected to; AND it is well within the abilities of one single person to construct, install, maintain, and repair.

Now, of course, in the bigger picture, my system is still more complex than it appears. I depend on plastic pipes and metal valves, none of which I can fabricate myself from local materials. In the long run the supply of these things will likely falter; still, I expect my system will be running long after the power grid and city water system have failed. Plus it is a simple matter to adjust it as energy-intensive materials grow scarce; eventually the folks living here (I'll be long dead by then, in all likelyhood) will probably be back to hauling water in homemade clay pots and baskets, or shunting water through hand-crafted wooden flumes. Many people will figure out how to rig windmills to their existing wells and springs to fill wooden storage tanks. And the municipal water system will have long since filled in with tree roots and rodent burrows.

As a p.s., JMG, I'm not sure if you met a young man named Joshua Landtroop when you were down here for PUF; he would have been about 18 then. Unfortunately, he was one of the first victims of the flooding in Nashville, drowned in a flash flood while trying to get home from work on Saturday.

Jennie said...

Riot 4 Austerity! Individuals learning the means of disassociating themselves from the complex systems, taking those local lessons and helping our country move forward in a local non-complex way.
Check it out!

libramoon said...

I hope you don't mind that I posted your article to the Seers and Seekers Yahoo group:

wylde otse said...

" Voluntary population reduction...¨

- of course, it is too obvious -

I tried that one on JMG many moons (posts) ago.
Still reflected in my imagery, is his ' harrrumpf ': peering down a finely drawn academic nose ( I suspect the half-glasses were for effect )... " one problem at a time..." - almost as if he had pre-considered some Gordian dilemma.

"But, but, but..." I protested psychically (but not too vigourously, as I am a self-invited guest).

War is, after all, retroactive birth-control. What other device than the advice of Four Horsemen will stop the unbridled charge of progress of homo(a) sapiens.

(btw. perhaps we can get together sometime over a cup of coffee to discuss the, umm... 'voluntary abstinence' part)

Brad K. said...

wylde otse,

The part about population reduction, or even transition, is that it produces a vacuum that invites the outside world to take advantage.

Suppose a body of those interested in local food security, in weathering the economic descent count themselves a minority, of, say, less than 10% of the population of Europe and North America and Australia. Let us suppose they determine a number that would make a sustainable population in those regions would be, oh, suppose 50% of current population levels. Just wildly supposing here. Now the wise group decides to voluntarily reduce their impact, and their total numbers are reduced by half in the next generation. Let us ignore the 8.1 per couple fertility rate among Muslims, and those other peoples currently in excess of the minimum of 2.1 live children per couple for a culture to sustain itself over 25 years, and assume world and regional populations don't increase. That would put our wise people with a 5% minority of a population now 95% of current levels. That makes the wise, not counting expectable population growths, now 1 in 19, instead of the 1 in 10 that started. As economic and food stress build, even apart from any environmental stresses, how likely is it to be that someone stands up and says, "Hey, there is food in those barns over there!" "Share and Share Alike!" will be the rational for "nationalizing" minority-held assets. I am thinking of the example of the originators of what we think of as modern farming practices (before industrial farming).

The Anabaptists in Europe were persecuted for witchcraft (despite strict reformation teachings) because their fields vastly outproduced their neighbors. The use of manure, of managing weeds and other improved practices were scoffed at - and the Anabaptists killed and driven from their homes. Their descendants split into today's Mennonite and Amish communities - that still hold themselves separate, and maintain a reverence for nurturing the ground they farm.

Voluntary population control, and even, I think, voluntary withdrawal from the highly marketed consumerist lifestyle, must be done in a way that leaves the next generation in sufficient control of their situation, and secure in their homes and lives, to hold their own regardless of those with situational ethics (those with hungry families) would do.

The US Congress has been lamenting how overspending today will be a burden to our children. We will need to be careful about what our choices today means to the next generation. Gardening, animal and land husbandry? I cannot see a downside. Become more secure in our homes, with regard to debt and food? That might or might not raise security issues, make us and our children targets of the lawless. Produce a smaller community for the next generation? Fewer people to maintain progress, propagate skills, solve problems, understand a useful philosophy. Below a sustainable population, villages and communities cease to be significant entities.

I think it is more important to choose mates wisely, to build a robust and ethical home culture, than to unilaterally decide to reduce the next generation's population. It is solely the unilateral part that concerns me.

Tony said...


You're right. If it's eternal salvation your seek, that is an end probably better sought, not in this world, but the next. There is neither surety nor permanence to be found here.

If, however, you seek merely the preservation of diversity -- of species, of cultures, of futures for the human race -- that is an end amenable to the living.

It may be that transitioners court corruption through their participation in a "movement" which, by virtue of its worldliness, can never hope to fully escape the "dark side" of human nature, as you put it. That, however, does not damn it, I think.

I will make no claims that the Transition "movement" -- to the extent it is such (everywhere a localized enterprise animated by the common belief in the inevitability of a 'Long Descent') -- should it ever succeed in its aims (a possibility at the remotest corners of my wildest dreams), will be immune from the potentially corrupting influences of power. Maybe, in one or two generations' time, our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will need to throw off the yoke of the dictatorial "Transitionistas". I wish them luck in their struggles.

In the here and now, however, I am concerned primarily with the preservation of possibilities. Many have already been lost, thanks to our historic intransigence. Many may yet be saved. I'm working to do what I can here, in my home. I'd like it if we all could say the same.

@JMG. I feel I may have been a bit too harsh in my earlier post. While I stand behind the meat of my critique, I admit I allowed myself to take your aside perhaps too personally. I look forward to hearing about what you're up to in your neck of the woods. Peace.

Danby said...

Subsidiarity, eh?
You'll turn yourself into a Distributist yet. Of course, as an unorthodox economist standing on the precipice of Catholic conversion for decades when he wrote "Small is Beautiful", Schumacher was well aware of and often in agreement with the Distributists.

Neo-pagans are no less prone to fatuity, vanity, laziness and incuriosity than anyone else.

Brad K.
Go ahead and butcher those chickens. it's not as hard as it seems and you will be glad when you've done it. There is a spiritual aspect too, that is very wise not to ignore. If you can find chicken plucker (feed stores around here rent them) it will save you a lot of work. My first experience with plucking was a dozen full-grown Pilgrim geese. They were dumped on us (still alive) when we first moved in here. After that job, I didn't want to see, think about or especially smell poultry for months.

wylde otse said...

Brad K,

Thanks for taking the time for your analysis of voluntary birth control. This is probably the most difficult problem in that category to figure out.

What you say rings true. I can work myself into the perspective of being part of everything and everything being part of me. If parts or tribes or nations of myself chose to replicate by the conquest of other more diligent parts, which may lovingly live in harmony with everything to the degree they know how .... how do I interfere and intervene ?

Reluctantly, when attacked, eventually I may have to fight back. How can I advise anyone to "turn the other cheek" when it too often encourages bullies to inflict seemingly senseless pain and suffering in the world.

I also have a painful habit of empathizing with the suffering of others. The widespread rapes in parts of the world,for instance, perhaps stopped by a philosophy of arming women so that the scum-bag killers/tortures/rapists can be dropped dead in their tracks.

Maybe to disarm the military and the police. Of course this still does not deal with the sociopaths/psychopaths in search of the Holy Grail of more efficient more powerful nuclear weapons.
(now to include biological, etc)

JMG's blog has been an oasis of reflective thought for me; that there are so many thoughtful fair-minded people still left in this crumbling world is a joy and a gift to my battered heart/mind/soul.

And yet I fight on (posting on " Say "No" to site "C" Dam!" on facebook, for stop a valley from being flooded; or to stop the flooding of the Amazon Basin, or to stop a senseless war in Afghanistan.)
I almost can hear JMG wondering at all the bailing bucket activity at the back end of the Titanic, when he has such good advice on how to stock the life-boats :o)

John Michael Greer said...

Marielar, I don't know that there's a way that they'll hear. You know the "La, la, la, I can't hear you" response I get whenever I bring up the demise of the internet? In my experience, that's how most tech addicts respond to the same sort of thing.

Miltonics, good. Very good. That's definitely one of those points that's good to just sit with for a while.

Jason, no, it wasn't rubbish. Mind you, I disagreed with most of what it said, but dismissing criticism with labels like "rubbish" instead of learning from it is not a useful habit.

RPC, thank you! I know that's one of his sources, though I think he had others; the same notion has been in circulation in alternative economics for quite a while now.

Vera, the point of the last couple of posts isn't that complexity is bad by definition. It's that when a society's problems are being caused by too much complexity, more complexity is not a good idea! I'd encourage you to judge incorporation on its own merits; if it offers a way to get control back from the county, it may be a good option.

Robert, er, and how do you propose to make that happen? It's easy to propose ideal solutions when you don't have to worry about finding a way to get everyone else to agree with you!

Dove, every religion, without exception, has an ample supply of people who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. The modern Pagan faiths are no different in that respect from anybody else.

Cash, that's a Hollywood fantasy, as I've pointed out dozens of times before.

Anne, very true. It's usually up to spirituality to help people make their way out of whatever dead end their civilization has backed itself into.

Tony, that's quite the ringing denunciation! I'll respond to your less overheated comment below.

John Michael Greer said...

Oskar, this is one of the reasons why I've put my own efforts into learning more conventional forms of organic gardening. Forest gardens are a great idea in areas that can more or less count on being out of the way of armies and mass migrations, but they're not the only game in town, and other methods may be better suited to more precarious areas.

Pfh, I think you're missing Schumacher's point -- of course he developed it in a lot more detail, and in much richer ways, than I've done in this brief post!

Otse, if you can serve up sanity at a potluck supper, more power to you!

Stella, this has been being proposed since Malthus' time. It hasn't had the least effect. Do you have any other ideas?

Petro, exactly. Where you are, with what you have, right now, as Ernest Thompson Seton used to say.

Skunk, you don't need to work full time at the factory to make $8000 a year. Make your transition a step at a time, like the rest of us.

Ariel, yes, you should!

Joan, I think you've missed both my point and Tainter's. It's not that complexity is bad by definition; it's that when a society's problems come from too much complexity, adding further layers of complexity aren't going to solve those problems! As for disintermediation, it's a good option in many cases but a mistake in others; for example, the rebuilding of local economies requires additional layers of intermediation, as local businesses interface between resources and purchasers.

Bobby, no argument there; the most radical thing most of us can do is live the change we want to see in the world, and show people (and teach them) that it can be done in a humanly becoming manner.

Mageprof, granted, that's a worry. My main concerns about the Transition Town movement are different, but I've talked about those repeatedly already.

Brad, good. A survey a while back found that the single largest job category for Neopagans was "computer programmer." We're not talking about a bunch of pagani in the original sense of the term, but a movement that's mostly white, urban, and middle class, with only very abstract ties to the natural world.

Epoch, I haven't read it yet. Have to put it on the list!

John Michael Greer said...

Ramps, good. I was wondering if anybody was going to catch that.

Dan, again, the issue I'm trying to raise is more subtle than simply denouncing complexity as such!

Cherokee, we don't have space for full-sized fruit trees. One result of not owning a car is that we live in town, and garden in what used to be a conventional front and back yard. That sort of urban homesteading is an approach that's going to be vital in the years to come, so I don't feel it's wasted effort at all -- but it does require very different approaches than the ones used by folks who have acres to work with.

Alan, thanks for the link.

Bill, yes, I met Joshua. That's really sad news.

Jennie, I'll definitely check it out. Do you have a link to suggest?

Libra, I don't mind at all!

Otse, it wasn't a matter of one problem at a time, but simply that when a proposed solution has failed, repeating the proposal isn't that useful. As the proverbial saying has it, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results.

Brad, since only a tiny minority of people listen to pleas for voluntary population reduction, the difficulty never arises.

Tony, one of the things that troubles me most about the Transition Town movement here in America is the extent to which people involved in it fly off the handle at any suggestion of criticism. This isn't the first example here, as I'm sure you know.
At this point the question is a matter of "he said, she said" -- Rob insists nobody from the TT movement is on local government payrolls; a widely discussed critique of TT says the opposite; I don't have the funds to have somebody go knocking on doors in another country to find out who's right, so it will have to remain there until somebody presents me with concrete evidence of one kind or another.

As for what I do, well, if you've read this blog you have a fair idea. I don't own or use a car, a TV, or a good many of the other technologies most people in the industrial world consider essential; my carbon footprint is modest even by European standards; I'm actively involved in keeping an old community group, the local Masonic lodge, alive and kicking; the organic garden out back is coming along very nicely, and my spouse and I have a long list of green projects and retrofits lined up to put into action as money and time permit. I learned a lot of things in the 70s and early 80s, during the heyday of the appropriate tech movement, and if you're familiar with The Integral Urban House and books of the same kind, you'll have a pretty good idea of what we're doing with the 1920 brick bungalow we now own. Stay tuned for more in later posts here.

Danby, I'm the one who keeps on suggesting that Distributists need to get their ideas out into the wider collective conversation of our time, and not just preach to the already converted!

John Michael Greer said...

Otse, if frantic bailing buys enough time for a few more people to get to the lifeboats, it's a good thing. I agree with you about rape, by the way; I've long thought that school curriculums should be amended so that all girls get six or seven years of solid martial arts training -- wing chun kung fu, which was invented by a Buddhist nun, btw, might be a good place to start. That way your common or garden variety rapist, when he goes looking for a target, would have to consider the very real possibility that he was about to have his genitalia kicked out through the top of his skull.

Wordek said...

Hi Mageprof

“I've lived through too many movements, from the late '50s onward, and seen the dark side of each and every one of them grow stronger as the succeed in achieving their goals. I have no doubt that a dark side will emerge in this movement also.”

This is such an incredibly important observation and one that is usually so difficult to make without having the discussion become entangled in the politics of the immediate situation.

Good and Evil, Left and Right, Capitalist and Socialist, Leisure and productive classes, Christianity and --bad guy of the month--. This pattern shows itself throughout history. Somebody somewhere proposes a solution to an pressing set of problems, but over time the solution never quite manifests itself as described. Soon, no matter whether we think ourselves on the side of “right” we find ourselves seemingly magically on the side of “wrong” with no real idea of how we got there.

I describe this as proceeding from the manifestation of a type of mind. Calling it opportunistic or separatist or predatory or sociopathic or carnivorous may help to define its type of “structure”. However naming and defining and studying any aspect of it hides the multiplicity of outward forms that it can (and has) assumed. So for your own good ignore this paragraph.

All you can be sure of is that if a group of people come together with a goal or goals in common, eventually this type of mind will manifest itself and begin to subvert the group towards other goals. Ponerology might on the face of it sound like it offers a method of understanding the phenomena. Maybe so, but remember that ponerologists are also a group with a goal. As indeed in a broader sense is a civilisation.

Over the centuries many forests have died to provide the paper required to capture the thoughts of people who have noticed this phenomena in action. However since I'm inclined to believe that E.H Carr is correct in proposing that what we call history is more an interpretation of the perceiving eyes of the historian and of the reader, than a description of actual events, I suggest we go easy on thinking that any record from the past will provide adequate responses in the present.

I'll offer three (preventative) suggestions of my own that I hope wont do any harm:
Be aware of the universality of this phenomenon, but not in a paranoid or fearful way (since paranoia is one of its universal “hooks”).
Broaden your own mind (since this broadens your perceptions and range of potential responses) and:
(This may be a tricky one to understand) Excessive seriousness and self importance is dangerous. Spontaneous good humour and laughter at the right moment can be “salt to the snail”.

If prevention fails then “cure” will eventually be applied in one way or another. Try not to be around when this happens as things tend to get broken and people to get hurt.

Reading back over this it seems a weak response to a very important point, however I'm going to post it anyway, simply because the phenomena is so pervasive. Thanx mageprof

Bootstrapper said...

Hi John,

You wrote "In the same way, I think it’s beyond question that every other reasonably well funded attempt to solve the problems of complexity with more complexity will get at least some funding, and be given at least a token trial. "

For an insight into why this is so, I recommend Alvin Toffler's [i]The Third Wave[/i] - the most complete, succinct description of Indistrial civilisation and it's inner workings that I've read. Toffler reveals six guiding principles that run through every facet of Industrialism, like a repeated design - standardisation, specialisation, synchronisation, concentration, maximisation and centralisation. (The Second Wave, Part 4)

I've found these to be accurate predictors when assessing whether the powers-that-be will support an initiative or oppose it. An Industrialist (or the movers-and-shakers of an Industrial society) will support proposals that adhere to these principles even if they're impractical. If an initiative doesn't conform to these six principles, the PTB will ignore or oppose it, regardless of merit.

Almost every initiative that has some merit in solving the dilema now faced by Industrial civilisation runs counter to Toffler's six principles. Even if the PTB can be made to see this wisdom, the 'operating system' of industrialism itself won't permit the initiatives to be applied. It's like dealing with a forest-fire or a cancerous tumour.


Wordek said...

Hi Ramps
“This reminded me of a friend who was a long term smoker but stopped some 10 years ago. He maintained that the only way to give up smoking was not to smoke. Incidentally, he approached the process by never saying he had "given up", only that he hadn't had a cigarette for X amount of days. I wonder if the idea of giving something up actually hooks us deeper in?”

Reminds me of my dad: he said the only way to stop was to “Stop!”, It was the emphatic way he said stop that impressed me, not like turning down a tap, more like running into a tree. But he also had not given up, just hadnt smoked for X# of years.

Hi Dan Olner
“But, baby, bathwater, all that. The things localists blithely dismiss worries me intensely.”

I've met “Blithe Dismissalists” of many shapes over the years. My guess is that (one of) the emotional secondary gains provided by “Blithe Dismissalism” is surprise. A life that has been filled with pleasant surprises will experience never ending delight as it contemplates the brave, mysterious and wonderful universe that never fails to amaze it.
--eye roll--

Hi Stella
“Voluntary population reduction through abstinence, contraception, sterilization, and adoption-as-a-first-choice.”

Unless every human being on the planet subscribes to this idea for the rest of time it will die.
Its one of those crazy paradoxes that demonstrate how often we can be wrong by being right.(or is that right by being wrong?)

Hi Cherokee
“Forest and fire ecology interest me because it is certainly one of the biggest vulnerabilities to where I live”

I have occasionally wondered if the climate in the southeastern states could be engineered towards greater rainfall by digging a big trench from SA to Lake Eyre to keep it permanently flooded .
Maybe the rainforest would then have a chance of pushing back against the eucalyptus.

Dont worry about this actually happening though.. I dont live anywhere near Canberra. ;)

das monde said...

Not only problem solution, but also problem raising should be local! So many modern problems arose from too smart pursuits of problems. Just forget about managing problems for everyone, more or less. There is enough irony in enforced locality of problem solution.

I am less sarcastic towards Greece. With all that talk about profligate spending, there is little perspective how exceptional (or not) that spending is compared with the usual European social-democratic spending before the 1990s, or the American pre-Reagan social spending. How huge are the latest Keynessian measures compared with the military spending, or open-door bailouts of financial monsters? The problem is more on state income part. By now it looks natural that all services must be provided commercially, and taxes for the creative rich must be low. But just 20-30 years ago most services of energy supply, public transportation or communication i the West were state-owned - and somehow the world was turning fine. There was less difference between the West (then) and the Soviet Union than between the West then and now. By now the states have privatized themselves to bare bones (and that process kept their incomes respectable, temporarily obviously), and taxes are that low that all governments are close to broken. We are bailing out irresponsible bankers so that we could borrow from them!

The states now exist not for citizen, but for old investor wolfs, so that they would have places where to invest their wealth, collect dividends continuously and live nicely. That is the kind of unproductive economy that classical economists (with Adam Smith) tried to resolve. This is particularly clear in Eastern Europe now, where the function of governments is more to oversee debt collection from bubbled out citizen. It's a very drastic global experiment - how much people will bear? The US federal government is an exception for investors, because its military power is basically needed for more violent forms of debt collection. But did you check dire straits of local US governments?

Whether we want it or not, we have people in big power that will keep making problems and their global solutions.

Jason said...

JMG: Jason, no, it wasn't rubbish. Mind you, I disagreed with most of what it said, but dismissing criticism with labels like "rubbish" instead of learning from it is not a useful habit.

I guess you're right -- a one-word dismissal of 'Rocky Road' isn't fair.

But under the guise of making common cause with TT, it completely failed to understand it -- as well as being factually incorrect on a number of points, including the one at issue here. It had seen TT only from the outside and shallowly (had not even read the Transition Handbook) and tried to co-opt it to an ideology wholesale in what seemed an extremely thoughtless manner.

I thought Chatterton's detailed response to the debate, which paid only lip service to what TT is actually about and to the points Hopkins raised, again ignored the effectiveness not only of the TT approach but also of an approach like yours, which BTW TT is perfectly well-placed to spread.

Here in the UK people read the Druid. I have many problems with TT; that document was a million miles from helping with any of them, to my mind. But you're right, it wasn't simply rubbish.

Anne said...

Regarding the discussion around whether Pagans are actually walking their earth-centred talk. I do know of groups whose connection to the seasons is the colour of candles they have on their altar and who are more interested in Tarot than gardening.

However the majority of Pagans I know are trying to walk their talk. I go to Druid Camps several times a year at which we live together on the land and do everything that is needed to make that work from erecting structures such as yurts, to chopping wood, to cooking, to discussing things as a community, to providing support and healing to each other when needed, to sharing songs, poetry and music, to doing deep and powerful magical and spiritual work together that genuinely changes people's lives.

Doing this provides a strong antidote to being seduced by materialism and the mass media. One of the biggest issues in making changes to your lifestyle is that if no-one else is doing the same it is very difficult to go it alone, whereas if other people share our ideas and provide support it is much easier. I really don't care if I don't fit into the usual social model for 'success' in life ie the big house, rising up the ladder at work etc, it is meaningless to me. Being part of a community of like-minded people has given me a different drum to dance to.

That is the importance of my druid community and also the importance of community initiatives such as Transition Towns.

Óskar said...

Cherokee Organics, the threat I was discussing wasn't so much natural fire as outright human aggression. You can plan for natural disasters because those threats will not adapt to your defense and act to break it down. Human aggression is intelligent and will work around your defenses, if the intent is to destroy your property.

Historically, sedentary farmers have always been vulnerable to aggressors threatening to pillage the land. This would repeatedly happen both within societies and between them: warlike nomadic cultures would form parasitic / predatory relationships with nearby agrarian cultures (think Mongols vs China); likewise, within societies, feudal knights taxing peasant farmers is the same phenomenon only more integrated and permanent.

My point was that growing annual cereals is more resilient and less risky in this situation than growing a perennial forest garden. This cannot be ignored when considering what type of farming will dominate in our "eco-dreams" of the future... yes I refuse to count on the abolition of violence!

JMG, you seem to agree and rightly point out that it's a matter of place and situation. Forest gardens definitely have a place, it may be a matter of recognizing where they will succeed and where they will not. And that many places will be somewhere in between, so that it may be worth mixing forest gardening with annual fields in some semi-resilient system. I guess that just brings us to what farmers always did anyway!

I expect sheltered islands, valleys guarded by mountains as well as hilly regions in general, will favor forest gardening (assuming the climate is right). This could apply to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Norway, Northern Spain, Switzerland, many parts of the Balkans... just to name some parts of Europe. My own beloved home island, Iceland, is favorable too except for a challenging (but not unworkable) climate.

Jose said...

Comments are too Eurocentric, too small scale veggie growing. What about the manufacture of vaccines, or the sterilization of baby food, or do you want to go back to the mortality of most newborns before the twentieth century? The point of social criticism should not be how to live without Bruckner or Dante or Shakespeare but how to collaborate as faithfully as possible with the system within which we live, knowing full well that because the system has been created it will disappear. Some Stoicism in these matters may help. Some Epicureanism in the sense of the swerving atom where something utterly new happens by chance should also be understood. Witness the latest "glitch" in the stock market.
Regarding population, depopulation has been tried successfully in places. Venice had a system by which only the youngest sons married so the family property was preserved together with an enormous necessary prostitution, and the Serenissima as you well know went into awful decline and swallowed by Napoleon.
There are also the Chinese and the Indians and the Persians and the innumerable Africans. They may have a key for the further progress of mankind. The end of European thinking may not be the end of the world.

Brad K. said...

JMG, Yeah, I know. I recall the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the ZPG (Zero Population Growth) advocates, back when they were lamenting the US population approaching 200 million.

My concern is that the fertility rate seems to favor keeping people with the best intentions for building a sustainable, viable world into the future, in the minority.

It almost seems like the way to fix overpopulation is to "improve" everyone else's life. Huh. Now, wouldn't that be some experiment to try?

Danby said...

The problem with popularizing Distributism is that it doesn't propose to answer the question of "How do I become a member of the idle rich in 5 years or less?" Instead it addresses the question of "What are the principles and goals by which an economy should be organized?", or, if you will, "How then, should we live?"

The answer of "hard work and frugality, for the rest of your life, in solidarity with your fellow workers", and discouraging the creation of the idle rich, well, it doesn't have that shopping channel appeal, if you see what I mean.

John Michael Greer said...

Wordek, the one thing I'd add is that anyone on the lookout for the sort of thinking you describe needs to watch first and foremost for its presence in himself or herself. We all do it to one extent or another.

Bootstrapper, good. This is one of the reasons why I focus on things that individuals, families, and communities can do themselves, instead of waiting for the political class to do things for them.

Das Monde, I certainly don't mean to suggest that Greece has done anything out of the ordinary. They're simply the first to be caught with their trousers around their knees. Plenty of other nations -- the US above all -- have engaged in equally foolhardy fiscal stunts.

Jason, the essay raised some very solid points that, to my mind, might have received more attention from within the TT movement. The most important was the extent to which TT's almost dogmatic optimism and its reliance on consensus make it likely to duck the more difficult issues we face just now, and do things that make everybody happy rather than doing the things that need to be done. Now of course they covered that point and others in a thick and indigestible coating of Marxist cant, which didn't help the matter, but some of the issues they raised deserved more dialogue than I think they got.

Anne, you obviously run with some very cool Pagans! Over here, from what I've seen, things are a very mixed bag; there are some very thoughtful and serious people in the Pagan scene, but there are also a lot of "social Pagans" who are pretty much following fashion and nothing more. But then you get that sort of thing in every faith.

Oskar, I do indeed agree! History suggests that different areas will have dramatically different experiences during the approaching volkerwanderung, and what works in one area may not work at all in another. Traditionally, most peasant cultures put in at least a few tree crops whenever they could, and other perennials are popular as well -- we've got rhubarb and asparagus in our garden, for example.

So it's always going to be a mix. I wonder how many forest gardeners have given a thought to creating forest gardens that aren't recognizable as such; mixing camouflaged forest gardens into a natural forest might be a very successful strategy in the right area.

Jose, if what you want is to successfully collaborate with the system in which we live, you're probably reading the wrong blog. The subject I'm discussing is how to deal with the decline and fall of that system.

Brad, in a sharply finite world inhabited by human beings rather than angels, that's not an experiment that will ever be put to the test.

Danby, I'm not suggesting trying to publicize Distributism among the legions of get-rich-quick groupies! There are many thousands of people these days interested in alternative ways of thinking about economics, and the vast majority of them have never heard of Distributism -- for that matter, I had no idea there were still people promoting it until you mentioned it here a while back, and I'm pretty well informed on alternative ideas! If Distributists would put some energy into getting their ideas out into the alternative scene, I think you might find more interest than you expect.

Kevin said...

Re the subject Oskar has raised about external aggression historically experienced by various locales: I've given some thought lately to the long-term future of the region in which I live, the San Francisco bay area. Economically I think it has one, because it possesses an excellent harbor as well as waterway access to California's fertile Central Valley. But like all ports it's vulnerable to invasion. I suppose that a century or more down the line this could lead to serious trouble. It seems that to a very considerable extent geography is destiny.

Brad K. said...


My apologies. I didn't mean to criticize you or anyone, with my glib comment about cherishing the earth.

When you view life from the perspective of a row of cabbages, or parsnips, or kale greens, those that haven't expressed their caretaking in personal terms are more visible. I responded to a question about why people that supposedly cherish the earth don't share the values of any given observer. What I meant to say, was that the group had mixed experiences. I had not intended to judge either perspective, neither the nature caretaking nor the activism. At some levels, and at various times, each are needed, as well as a variety of other life experiences and perspectives.

I tend to honor more those that have chosen their position as a considered act. Taking the effort to learn enough about one's self, and about the world, to deliberately choose a life's path is very honorable. It is honorable even if I don't particularly like what you choose, or how your choice affects me.

Wordek said...

Hi Kevin

"paper from wood pulp began in Europe in 1840 and in this country in 1865"

According to Connections episode 8 (eat drink and be merry) Nicolas Robert in 1799 invented a paper making machine for a labour strapped paper mill owner in Esson France. Might be a good machine to re-invent (I'm sure its patent has expired by now)

“but it seems likely that written text transmitted through wires or wireless through the air will remain the cheapest complication in many situations.”

Theres that internet rearing its ugly head again ;)... Maybe Alexander Bain's “Chemical Telegraph” is another one to put on the “re-invent me” list.

Cherokee Organics said...

Oskar and JMG,

You've both hit the nail on the head. Make a forest garden seem to be natural forest and keep it well hidden. Otherwise it's an extremely risky strategy. In the mid 1800's bushrangers roamed freely through this area, pretty much at will. Before this, the Aboriginals used to flush game out of the hills through the use of fire. I'm not excited to be thought of as game to be flushed out myself.

Incidentally, a natural eucalypt forest if left un-torched will eventually turn into rain forest as the quality of the soil slowly improves and the shade increases. Unfortunately most large scale bush fires here are started by the hand of man (whether it be accidental or otherwise), few are started by nature. The eucalypts have taken advantage of this situation in a big way over the past 40,000+ years.


I remember reading something along these lines in that the US engineers stationed here during and after WWII proposed this exact thing with a canal. I think Lake Eyre is below sea level too (I could be wrong though). Maybe with rising sea levels nature will take care of this engineering feat for the benefit of everyone (unless of course you happen to live in the path of the flood waters!). It's happened in the past when sea levels were much higher anyway.

With the filling of the Lake (not quite full but very substantially so), I've noticed that it's been wet, cloudy and humid here this year. How are things your way?

Good luck!

Edde said...

Greetings JMG,

Good post. We await your view of “what's to be done.”

Brad K (on wylde otse's response to Stella's voluntary population reduction suggestion): “The part about population reduction, or even transition, is that it produces a vacuum that invites the outside world to take advantage...”

I would imagine any depopulating yet food sufficient community in an over populated world would have little trouble finding willing recruits to help with self defense and other tasks.

JMG gave us his take on community recruitment some time ago in one of his fictional speculative history posts on this blog.

I live in a 35 year old intentional community. 35% of households are childless or have one child, a fairly high proportion. My wife and I are among the childless.

Our population is aging. There are barely enough youngsters to staff the VFD, maintain roads or attend construction work parties. We now somewhat successfully recruit young people to join (buy into) our community.

My guess is that as younger people are acculturated into the community, some will opt not to have children, particularly if that notion is encouraged.

And we will continue to recruit as necessary. And pass on our legacy via culture rather than genetics.

Best regards, edde

Jason said...

JMG: Jason, the essay raised some very solid points that, to my mind, might have received more attention from within the TT movement.

Very true, and I don't want a Polyanna TT any more than you! The problem was, it raised them in such a way as practically to guarantee that they would not receive that attention.

One interesting upshot: a couple of TTs, Chatterton tells us, took that document on board to the extent of revising their goals. Many other TTs didn't like the fact. But that shows only the power of localizing.

TT is building not concensus, in other words, but as you would say dissensus. Furthermore, by making such Druidish points within TT I think we will be able to counteract some of the necessarily over-vanilla aspects as more societal difficulty emerges. Not that this is perfect, but a bodged and improvised solution is precisely what you often prefer yourself! And it's a lot better than class warfare.

Don Plummer said...

Re: movements. Wordek and Mageprof (and others): Wendell Berry's essay "In Distrust of Movements" is well worth your reading. It's found in his book "Citizenship Papers," published in 2003. It might even be available online.

mageprof said...

@ Wordek

Thank you for your kind words. Like you, I would emphasize the danger of seriousness and self-importance, and the value of good humor and of finding just the right moment to interject laughter into any discussion as a corrective to those dangers.

Paradoxically, survival is far too important to be taken all that seriously.

And like JMG, I would very much emphasize that each one of us has to take as much care as possible to avoid falling into all the traps you and I have mentioned. It is so easy to do just that, and so hard to see when one is doing it. We all have a natural tendency to do it, and we all *will* do it when we aren't watching out.

Ariel55 said...

Dear John, I have no need to compliment you, except for the obvious. Sometimes I forget: IMHO you seem amazing in your abilities to attract fine minds to this blog. You write well, think deep, and resonate with an integrity to walking your talk. And I appreciate your personal asides to the posters where this talent is manifest. Thank you!!

SustainHumanity said...

Brilliant post Mr Greer.

I agree with you completely on the urgent need to de-complexify our civilization ASAP - if we do not, it makes a hard crash rather than a slow decline all the more likely.

In fact, probably the best we can hope for now is a 'long descent' (slow decline) instead of a sharp and sudden crash - though unfortunately the vast majority of the population has no other alternative but to participate in the mass-industrial system just to eat and have a roof over their heads, so I'm not sure how we even begin to change these ingrained human habits.

As much as I dislike wallowing in pessimism, all I can think to myself these days about the ultimate fate of mass-industrial society is..."Nothing good can come from this." But perhaps it isn't pessimism, but rather "depressive realism"? -

Loveandlight said...

Have you considered doing a post on the various sovereign debt crises riddling the global economy like pimples on a teenage boy's face? I would be very interested to hear your take on it.

Tony said...

@ Don Plummer

It's worth noting that this essay In Distrust of Movements is "in distrust" of them for the exact same reason I am -- they are neither holistic nor radical enough. And this is the exact reason I'm involved in the Transition Towns (TT) "movement": it is (for me, at least) a holistic response to an insanely unsustainable world system. I begin my TT talks now with a discussion of eco-footprints and how modern civilization has exceeded the biologic capacity of the Earth, and then move on to specific aspects of the problem, such as peak oil and climate change.

The one sense in which one might say that TTs are anti-holistic is that they are entirely local. But I see that as a strength, insofar as it is based on a recognition that, for most of us, we cannot have meaningful impacts on the world at large -- but we can contribute positively to our little corner of the world.

I have to share this quick story, as that wonderful Wendell Berry essay really struck a chord with me. Where I live, there are a number of other "environmental"-type groups, including a Buy Fresh, Buy Local organization. They resolutely refuse to work with us on anything unless it explicitly has to do with local farming. Now, I can understand not wanting to spread one's energy too thinly, but that's as far as my sympathy extends. And they're not the only such organization to refuse to partner if it was outside their little (yet important) jurisdiction. I've tried to explain my understanding, which is that "all these things are organically connected; one quickly finds that if one pulls on the food system, it pulls on issues of energy, waste, water, etc.", but that gets me nowhere. It's really frustrating. Actually, it's really absurd.

@ JMG,

I hope you don't mind if I continue the conversation. As far as TT's "dogmatic optimism," I find myself in moderate agreement with you. Fortunately, since I take orders from no one (vis-à-vis Transition), it's been easy for me to mix optimism with realism. One phrase I like now I got from an essay by Herman Daly, which goes something like this: "I have to talk about the darkness, because unless I do so you'll have no way to see the small candles of hope I light before the false dawn of fantasy 'solutions.' " So I take people down a path into what's wrong and then back to where we might conceivably go. It's a dim light of hope, to be sure, but it's light nonetheless.

...having said that, I don't actually think TT is "dogmatically optimistic." TT is trying to make use of an understanding of human psychology that people don't respond well to incessant negativism and need positive alternatives to work towards, not simply horrific apocalypses to run from.

To your other point about our general "touchiness" (not your words), I simply shrug. You have to expect that passionate people will be passionately defensive. It's not always pretty, but good things often come from conflict.

Alright, I've abused your comment form enough for one day!

Karen said...

I have not posted much but I am always reading and acquiring the books that you and others reference.

I live in Germany having moved from the U.S. many moons ago. I consciously took the decision to relocate based on the signs of change I saw coming. I am from the Ohio area and spent a few years in the Southwest before moving to New England and then to Europe. I saw even then when I was in the Southwest (speaking now of over 30 years ago) that these sprawling communities where you had to have a car to get anywhere made one by default vulnerable.

We are in a small community here and thankfully there are still many craftsmen and farmers here (farmers markets, etc.). We have a fruit/vegetable garden. Each year we are refining it and learning along the way.

We support localization in that we purchase local produce and local goods whenever possible (either made in Germany or Europe).

We also use stealth to spread this message to our friends and acquaintances to support localization. Using the "what if" scenarios of when energy costs make it no longer viable to have goods imported from afar.

Here, it is still very much the ritual to come together for Saturday dinners (no distractions such as tv, cell phones, etc.) and just enjoy a good meal and conversation.

Therefore, I thank you for your continued analysis of current events along with your thought-provoking essays. It allows me to utilize what I learn here as the basis of "dinner conversations" to spread the message.

Kevin said...

This is a bit off-topic for the week's post, but I think of great import. We've been consistently told that the oil leakage from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is about 50,000 gallons per day. However I've just read that it's actually more on the order of 210,000 gallons per day. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday 9 May 2010, page A10.

denisaf said...

This post raises the question of proposing worthwhile measures to cope with the inevitable powering down without introducing more complexity. The IPP group 'Senescence of civilization' has the objective of developing the G&SC (Growth and Senescence of Civilization) spreadsheet to provide a powerful, transparent tool to help concerned people to come up with sound proposals. It provides a holistic view of the scenario built on the estimates provided by specialists in the wide range of fields covered.

Óskar said...

Cherokee Organics,

I think a lot of what I've been saying is inappropriate to Australia. Since the continent hasn't had historical urban civilizations, there's little to tell us how the future might play out there. Australia might simply be unable to support long-term civilizations! Due to the lack of nutrients in the soil, that is. It might just stay a rather peaceful place, if the human cultures there turn out to be too ecologically limited to invest any surplus in fighting each other.


Obviously I swear by the influence of geography too, no point denying that!

I would disagree with your evaluation of the San Francisco area. A forested coastal region sheltered by a significant mountain range, such as the US West Coast, makes for a stable and peaceful place rather than not. It may see a period of invasions and migrations for a while, even from the other side of the Pacific as JMG once suggested in a story. But in the long term I'd expect it to be a safe and prosperous region.

My rough guess at the cultural landscape of the US 800 years from now: I imagine the Mid-West inhabited by warlike horse-riding nomads herding cattle. They frequently raid urban civilizations to the south - populous and advanced cities of Mexico - and to the east - towns and cities in a trading network running from the Great Lakes down the Mississippi to the Mexican Gulf. Both the west and east coasts are connected to the inland cultures but are sheltered from the aggression and prosper.

The description above is to some extent what North America probably looked like before Europeans came. There will be fundamental differences however - future America will have horses, which will make the Great Plains cultures a much greater threat to nearby sedentary cultures. Which again forces those cultures to organize themselves better to defend their land, promoting more sophisticated states. Under those circumstances, Mississippians are in a similar geographic situation as medieval Russians were, and might develop similarly autocratic, fortified city states to cope.

Future America will also inherit better sailing technology, which can make for much greater interaction within the Caribbean and the coasts of the Pacific and Atlantic, compared to ancient pre-Columbian America.

mageprof said...

@ Don Plummer

Thank you for the reference to "In Distrust of Movements," which I have finally found time to read this morning. Wendell Berry's view of human nature and humankind's capacity for collective wisdom and benevolence is a far, far sunnier one than mine. Despite that, he does make some excellent points about the sources of corruption in any movement.

@ Tony

I think you may have misunderstood me. I certainly don't seek eternal salvation, and I agree that there is no surety or permanence to be found here. Nor do I mean to criticize your goal of preserving diversity, or most of your other goals and aims.

Wherein we differ is probably something much more basic: trust, or faith. You seem to me to trust, or believe, that people working together across the globe can bring about significant changes for the better. I think that they can't, no matter how great the need, except on the tiniest of scales, no larger than a small neighborhood.

Also, you seem to be an optimist, a hopeful, passionate and enthusiastic person. I deeply mistrust hope, passion and enthusiasm, having seen (1) that they cloud my own ability to assess whatever situation I find myself in and (2) that I do not need them to motivate my own actions in response to that situation.

So it seems important to me to caution others against the damage that optimism, hope, passion and enthusiasm can do. Among other things, they can easily lead to too much seriousness and self-importance. Humor, joy and empathy are safer guides, I think, than hope and passion.

And I took away a different lesson than you from Berry's essay, if you think that he distrusts movements mostly because "they are neither holistic nor radical enough." Those are important points, but his distrust seems to cut significantly deeper than that, touching the extent to which humans are even capable of working together on a large scale to improve their lot.

fourpie said...

UK BBC Radio 4, Tiger vs Dragon prog this eve says the Chinese are now thinking the One Child per Family policy was a mistake and they are unofficially dismantling it. There is no hope for the planet while we cannot/will not control our numbers. I thought China was showing the way, but I guess not.

Cherokee Organics said...


You are spot on. There simply isn't enough nutrients here to support any large scale aggressive cultures. Tim Flannery's book "The Future Eaters" covered this issue from a historical and ecological perspective. It is not for no reason that we have no large carnivores on the continent at all.

Good luck.

Brad K. said...


I thought China was showing the way, but I guess not.

Their one-child policy was in place for a generation, maybe two. Grandparents may remember the large families, but the next generation's parents won't.

The One Child policy bought China a generation's time, perhaps two or even three. The process was brutal, and possible only under a brutal regime, but it did add time to a hypothetical countdown clock.

Perhaps it was China leading the way, and the rest of the world worrying about the (imaginative) Kyoto protocol instead of actually doing something constructive. I mean, besides figuring out how to put the masses out of work with taxes and regulations. Certainly, I find the prolific fertility rates among Muslims to be daunting, from a culture willing to tolerate or even support terrorists and jihadists.

Kevin said...

Thanks Oskar for your response. I find it reassuring, at any rate for the long run, even though I presumably won't be around for most of that. Clearly you've given the matter much study and thought.

I have to correct an arithmetical error on my part about the amount of oil being leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently 5,000 barrels a day are being reported, which does come to 210,000 gallons - if each barrel contains 42 gallons (though I thought it was 55 gallons per oil drum?). It still wouldn't surprise me to learn that the true amount is considerably larger, but I don't want to bungle my facts.

Wordek said...

Hi pfh
“ It's that normal human awareness treats reality as being our information, and not as being the physical subjects of our information.”

Yes indeed. This observation has been around for a while and people keep rediscovering it and describing it in different ways. The model I use to remind myself that we have a “flawed” reality-information interface is based on the idea of translation. For instance “out there” is “stuff”, light hits stuff and bounces into my eyes – one translation- the receptors at the back of my eyes catch the light and turn it into electrical impulses in my optic nerves – two translations- these impulses register in the wibbly-wobbly thing I use to stop my hat falling on the ground – three translations – my wibbly-wobbly thing animates the jiggly-wiggly things on the end of my arms to create little marks on a screen – four translations- etc etc until the information reaches the wibbly-wobbly thing under your hat.

The way to mark the point at which a translation occurs is to check that the format that carries the information changes (transforming the information) in one way or another. So thought to voice to ear to thought has three translations. Generally with every transformation some information is lost and some noise is introduced to the signal.

“So I like your idea of letting the garden “have it’s say”, to take the lead from time to time.”

Good approach: While important as carriers of information, words are not the source of wisdom.
The closer we can get to reality (minimal transformations of information) the better chance we have of discovering something useful. I am however yet to come across a scenario which does not have at least one transform

Hi mageprof
“Thank you for your kind words.”

Praise ? For me?.... I'll have to buy a bigger hat!
[Aside] Hmmm “The Big Hat Movement”.... That has a ring to it...

Hi Cherokee
“How are things your way?”
Sunny, with a chance of budget fallout.

Tony said...

@ mageprof,

Fair enough.

Too bad you're only part of my "internet community", whatever that means -- I think we could have a great conversation over a couple homebrews.

I'd also like to say I don't think enthusiasm and a sense of humor are mutually exclusive, but that's a conversation for another time.


Coyote said...

JMG and Danby, John Médaille is probably one of the nets more sophisticated Distrubist voices. Unfortunately, he get gets wrapped up in whole bunch of other Catholic crap...err...things which decrease his audience. If you are interested:

Joan said...

I guess I didn't make myself clear. What I was trying to get across was that much of what we call increasing complexity in society is really complexity moved around through intermediation. North American households of a hundred years ago were far more complex than those of today because they performed a far more complex set of functions. These included producing food (even most houses in towns had kitchen gardens and flocks of chickens), employing the poor (the U.S. Census of 1900 defined a lower middle class household as one with fewer than three full time live-in domestic servants), manufacturing clothing from purchased cloth, providing entertainment and caring for elderly and disabled family members. These functions were vital to the economy but they were not measurable through the daily and yearly flow of money but only through clumsy tools such as the Census if at all. In that sense, they were invisible to people trying to look at the whole picture. The absorbtion of these functions into the money economy through intermediation simplified household life to the point where the comedian George Carlin could get a laugh of recognition by saying "You don't live in your house; your stuff lives in your house." Once monetized, the complexity became far easier to measure and thus came to the attention of policymakers and researchers, who thought they were seeing something new.

This sort of "invisible" complexity is the reason I don't see the choice "to abandon business as usual and accept a degree of austerity and limitation very few people find congenial these days" as "the simpler option" compared with, say, trying to keep a national economy afloat on bubbles or drilling for oil 5000 feet under the famously turbulent Gulf of Mexico. Changing a culture so that its members will accept the necessary degree of austerity and limitation is an extremely complex task. Not impossible; if you can find one of the few surviving WWII-era "Rosie the Riveter" type female defense workers, she might be able to tell you about the cultural changes, deliberately brought about by government and industry leaders, that made their work acceptable during the war and then unacceptable once it was over and there were returning soldiers to employ. However, the U.S. culture of those times was a model of top-down control compared to what we have today. Further, these cultural changes might have repercussions, most obviously in the area of consumer demand, that would ripple out through the economy in unpredictable ways. To those whose task is the management of an entire civilization, economic bubbles and oil wells in mile-deep seawater might well look like the simpler option.

Al2009 said...

I believe that you have described the situation correctly and that the propaganda machine of the drivers of the current push to move all people into urban centers and out of rural sustainable settings is a very well funded and conscious set of decisions by those who benefit most from the destruction of the ability of individual families and communities to be moderately selfsufficient. So the argument about complexity is a non-starter for me. In fact I believe that we need to reward everyone for attempts to understand the complexity of their environment and to make decisions that minimize the impact of their lives on that environment. It does not matter if that set of activities makes things more complex for that individual - so be it.
Alan Page