Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Myth of the Machine

The strategy discussed in last week’s post—that of walking away from energy-intensive lifestyles before the waning of the age of abundant energy brings them grinding to a halt—is a viable response to the crisis of our age, but it’s also a great way to poke a stick at some of the most deeply entrenched of the modern world’s dysfunctional habits of thinking. Suggest it in public, for example, and you’ll very quickly learn why all that talk about saving the planet has turned out to be empty air: everyone’s quite willing to watch someone else make sacrifices for the good of the biosphere, but ask them to make sacrifices themselves and you’ll see just how far their love of the planet extends.

In honor of the ongoing failure of global climate talks, let’s call the resulting dance the Copenhagen cha-cha—one step forward, three steps back, run in a circle making squawking noises, and then point the finger of blame at somebody else on the dance floor. Over the years to come, you can expect to see that number done on a scale that would make the ghost of Busby Berkeley turn green with envy. Yet there’s more going on here than simple hypocrisy. To make sense of the reasons why so many people who know perfectly well that their own lifestyles are dragging the world to ruin still can’t bear the thought of living any other way, it’s going to be necessary to explore some of the murkiest crawlspaces of the modern mind. We can start, once again, with the automobile.

I suggested last week that the private auto is simply one way to get people and light cargoes from one place to another. Strictly speaking, that’s true, but it’s true in much the same sense that sex is simply one way to distribute the adult population among the supply of available bedrooms. Especially but not only in America, the car has been loaded down with so much in the way of powerful cultural fantasies and emotional drives that it’s almost impossible to talk about it in purely practical terms. I dislike cars, and not just on principle—chalk it up, maybe, to a family habit of long pointless Sunday drives with the smoke from my father’s cheap cigarettes pooling like a miasma in the back seat—and I’ve never owned one, or had a driver’s license. I’ve still felt, while catching a ride with friends to some Druid gathering or the like, the lure of the open highway that plays so huge a role in America’s collective psyche.

That’s a major theme in our national character that I suspect many people elsewhere in the world simply don’t get. The vast majority of white Americans are descended from people who turned their backs on the static ways of the Old World to chase the dream of a better life on the other side of the ocean, and that pattern of seeking a new life elsewhere has repeated far more often than not with each generation. One of the many factors that make white Americans so clueless about nonwhite Americans, in turn, is that that experience isn’t shared with the other peoples of this nation. For us, that first journey beyond limitations has always defined the American experience, but for African-Americans, their encounter with this continent was a bitter exile into bondage; for the Hispanic population this side of the Rio Grande, the defining experience was dispossession—white Americans like to forget that the southwestern quarter of our country used to be the northern half of Mexico, before we stole it from them at gunpoint—and for the first inhabitants of this continent, it was not merely dispossession but very nearly annihilation. A road leading into the far distance means something very different to the descendants of pioneers on the Oregon Trail than it does to the descendants of those who survived the Trail of Tears.

Still, even among white Americans, the dream of freedom somewhere on the far side of the horizon could at least theoretically have expressed itself in many different ways. It so happens that nowadays, at least, it almost always expresses itself through the automobile. This is why Americans cling to their cars with such frantic intensity, and why Republican politicians—always a better barometer of the American mass psyche than their Democrat rivals—so reflexively treat any alternative to the private car as a threat to America’s freedom. On any rational level, of course, that’s the most vacuous sort of hogwash, but on a nonrational level—on the level of collective passions and mass fantasies where most human motivation takes shape—it’s a potent reality. If freedom consists of being able to turn the key, put the pedal to the metal, and go zooming off to a new life somewhere else, a future of buses and trains lumbering along fixed routes with somebody else driving is a future where freedom no longer exists, and a future in which nothing speeds along on wheels—in which life plods along at a walking pace—doesn’t bear thinking about at all.

The cultural processes that condensed the experience of a people into the dream of a perpetual quest to catch the receding horizon, and then bound that dream into a talisman perched on four rubber tires, are hard to discuss in any meaningful way without using words like "spell" and "enchantment." Part of the magic involved, to be sure, was the work of the sorcerers of Madison Avenue, who flogged the dream into a bloody pulp in order to sell yet another round of otherwise uninteresting products, but there’s more than that to the misplaced concreteness that confuses freedom with a machine.

Glance over at a different technology and the same misplaced concreteness appears in even sharper relief. The technology I have in mind here is television. I don’t own one of those, either; I grew up watching TV, of course, like everyone else in my generation, but got heartily bored with it in my teen years and haven’t had one in the house in my adult life. Mention this to most Americans, though, and the reaction you’ll get is considerably more violent than the one you get if you admit that you don’t use a car. There’s a defensive quality to it, the sort of brittle edge you only get when the mere fact that you don’t share somebody’s habit flicks them on the raw.

If you’ve ever walked past a suburban neighborhood at night when some much-ballyhooed show was on, and seen the blue light flickering in perfect sync in the windows of house after house, you might have caught some sense of the reason why. If the automobile is America’s talisman of freedom, the television is its talisman of community, of participation in a world of shared activities and shared meanings. Notice how often casual talk in a social setting veers at once in the direction of something that was on the television, or how hard it is to find a tavern these days that doesn’t have half a dozen big television screens blaring inanities from all sides. We stare at the screens, because that makes it easier not to notice the world around us, or each other.

For most Americans, television has come to represent the experience of collective participation, and yet the flickering lights in the suburban windows serve as a reminder that few activities are more solitary or more isolating. In precisely the same way, the freedom represented by the car moving down the open road is a pathetic illusion; from the immense government programs that build and maintain those open roads, through the gargantuan corporate systems that produce the cars, to the sprawling global network of oilfields, pipelines, refineries, and the rest of the colossal system that transforms fossil hydrocarbons into the gas that keeps the car going, there are few human activities on Earth that depend more completely on the vast and faceless bureaucracies that most Americans think they despise. Isolation packaged as participation, dependence packaged as freedom: there’s much to be learned here about the power of thaumaturgy to twist the meanings of things—but I want to go one step further here.

Americans by and large accept an extraordinary degree of dependence on a machine—the automobile—in order to invest that machine with the feelings and dreams that cluster around the concept of freedom. We accept an extraordinary degree of dependence on another machine—the television—in order to give that machine the emotional charge that other societies give to participation in collective meanings and activities. Sort through any of the narratives that play a central role in contemporary American culture, and you’ll find a machine at the center of each one. Thus it’s absolutely predictable that when Americans try to think about finding some way out from between the narrowing walls closing in on our future, nearly everything they come up has some kind of machine at its heart. A solar panel, a wind turbine, an electric car, a thorium reactor, a supercomputer, a flying saucer or a nuclear bomb, take your pick, but it’s got to be based on a machine.

A good many years ago, Lewis Mumford wrote two hefty volumes under the joint title The Myth of the Machine. It’s vintage Mumford and thus by definition well worth reading, but it’s also very much a work of its time, a well-aimed blast against the superlative technological efficiency and utter ethical failure of America’s pursuit of the Vietnam war. Since I first read it, I’ve wished that Mumford could have found time to pursue the promise of the title in a good deal more depth. There is indeed a myth of the machine in the strict sense of that much-abused word "myth," and I’ve come to see the extraordinary fixation on that myth as one of the major barriers in the way of a viable response to the crisis of our time.

Let’s start with the basics. What is a machine? There are plenty of ways to answer that deceptively simple question, but I’m going to propose a provocative one. It requires a bit of background, though, and so I’m going to have to approach it in a slightly roundabout way.

As human beings our experiences fall into two broad categories. One of these comprises what we might as well call the outer world—the world we experience in the form of sensations perceived by the five senses. The other comprises what we might correspondingly call the inner world—the world we experience in the form of thoughts and feelings perceived directly by the mind. Those two worlds overlap in the body, which we can explore as a sensory object but which we can also perceive directly as a locus of thoughts and feelings. Outside that overlap, for each of us, those two worlds are distinct; we can’t perceive our own personality, for example, as a sensory object, or experience directly what’s going on in the inner lives of the other beings we encounter.

Developmental psychologists noticed a long time ago that the process of growing up involves a curious double movement in the way each of us experiences these two worlds. It takes the infant a great deal of time and exploration to figure out the difference between the inner and outer worlds and sort out what belongs on which side of the boundary. It then takes the child quite a bit more time and experience to realize that both worlds exist on both sides of the boundary—that he or she is an object in the outer world of others as well as the subject of the inner life of his or her own, and that others have their own inner lives. Arriving at this realization is one of the core things that’s meant by the word "maturity," and entire worlds of human experience are closed to those who refuse it.

Everything we do as mature human beings thus falls along a continuum between what philosopher Martin Buber called "I-It" and "I-Thou" relationships—less obscurely, between those interactions in which the individual can simply deal with other things as objects, and those in which he or she must deal with other beings as subjects with their own inner lives and their own capacities for interpretation and choice. Getting stuck in the sort of useless binary that treats the spectrum as a total opposition and labels its ends "evil" and "good" respectively is as useless a move as it is inevitably popular, since the universe of human experience embraces the whole spectrum, and it’s entirely possible to fall into absurdity in either direction—on the one hand, for example, by treating other human beings as objects, and getting blindsided by their responses to that sort of treatment; on the other, by convincing yourself that you can ignore the laws of nature by applying to the cosmos the sort of means that induce changes in the behavior of a human subject. (The cosmos may well be a subject—there’s a long and by no means unsophisticated philosophical tradition of seeing it in such terms—but the chance that it will respond favorably to your wheedling are no better than your chances of responding to the desires of any one of the dust mites living on your skin at this moment.)

A machine, though, can never be a subject. Machines imitate the actions of persons, but they have no subjectivity, no inner world; they’re always and only objects, and so the only relationship you can have with them is an I-It relationship. That wouldn’t be a problem, except for the torrent of cheap abundant energy that transformed the world of human experience over the last three centuries. The breakthroughs that set that torrent in motion were precisely methods of using fossil carbon of various kinds to power machines. Before then, power consisted almost entirely in the ability to express the will of the individual through I-Thou relationships—the human relationship of monarch to subject, general to soldier, lord to vassal, and the like were quite simply what power meant.

With the coming of the industrial age, that equation changed. Power exerted through a machine is defined purely by I-It relationships, and that’s become the modern definition of power. I suspect that, as much as greatly improved technologies of killing, had a great deal to do with the extraordinary scale of mass murder in the 19th and 20th centuries. Tamerlane may have had his soldiers exterminate the whole population of a city now and then, but the methodical annihilation of entire peoples by national governments as an ordinary element of peacetime policy was, if not new, then at least unusual in the scale and the casualness with which it has been applied.

That’s a very specific effect; there are many broader ones. One of those is the democratization, at least in the industrial world, of the experience of domination. A modern American climbing into the driver’s seat of a large SUV has more sheer physical energy under his direct control than your average Southern plantation owner had before the Civil War. Talk of "energy slaves" isn’t simply a metaphor; the one difference between power exerted by dominating machines and power exerted by dominating human slaves is again that the machines don’t have an inner life; they won’t slack off when the overseer isn’t looking, head north on the Underground Railroad, or join Nat Turner’s rebellion and cut your throat some fine Virginia night.

So the role played by machines in the modern industrial world, in large part, is as the primary focus for the very common human craving for power. The fact that the appearance of power is purchased at the cost of total dependence simply makes the irony that much richer; people nowadays cling to their autos and their televisions all the harder because they know perfectly well that the sensation of power as the engine roars is an illusion, and that a community that goes away when you change the channel doesn’t actually meet their needs for participation. Take a hard look at any other technology that has a central role in contemporary culture, and you’ll find the same nexus between an illusion of power, a reality of dependence—and a large and increasing cost. How that nexus might be unraveled in the twilight of the industrial age will be the subject of next week’s post.

End of the World of the Week #6

The mere fact that a belief system’s proponents claim that it’s a perfectly rational scientific theory doesn’t prevent that belief system from being yet another example of our old friend, the apocalypse meme. There are plenty of examples that show this in action, but the most colorful of the last century and a half has to be Marxism.

Back before it imploded under the strains of its own internal contradictions, Marxism was among the ideologies that most loudly proclaimed the superiority of science and reason to superstition. Behind the rhetoric, though, the historical structure of Marxist theory is point for point identical to that of evangelical Protestant Christianity There’s a real point, in fact, in suggesting that Marxism was simply the furthest extension of one end of the spectrum of Christian heresy.

Follow out the historical trajectory and the parallels are easy enough to track. Primitive communism is the Garden of Eden; the invention of private property is the Fall; the period between the rise of property and the coming proletarian revolution, divided into various stages, is the period between the Fall and the Second Coming, divided into various dispensations; the peasant revolutionary movements of the feudal and early capitalist periods play the role of the Israelites; the life of Marx fills the same role as the life of Jesus, with the doings of the First International as the Acts of the Apostles; the horrors of late capitalism followed by proletarian revolution are dead ringers for the horrors of the Tribulation followed by the Second Coming; the era of socialism, finally, is the Millennium, the thousand years before the final descent of the New Jerusalem of communism.

Of course this colorful trajectory has something else in common with such offshoots of evangelical prophecy as the career of Harold Camping; its predictions turned out to be completely wrong. Marx insisted that the great proletarian revolution would break out first in the most advanced industrial nations; instead, Marxist revolutions only succeeded in nations just beginning to industrialize, where Marxism played the same role of convenience that Puritanism played in the English Civil War and Enlightenment rationalism in the French Revolution. Furthermore, and far more significantly, the first Marxist revolution wasn’t followed by the gradual overthrow of capitalism around the world; instead, Marxism reached its high-water point in the 1950s and then receded, as the golden promises of Das Kapital gave way to gray bureaucratic inefficiency and, in time, total systemic failure.

—story from Apocalypse Not


Joel Caris said...

Ahh, this is the sort of writing I eagerly come here for. You've thrown a couple new ideas at me, JMG, that are intoxicating. I'm going to have to think on the I-It/I-Thou concept for awhile, but it makes a massive amount of sense at first glance. Furthermore, the idea that a southern plantation owner had less power available to him than a modern day American with an SUV was one of those fine comparisons that really brings home the absurdity of our situation today.

The freedom of the car is very alluring, indeed. I've been thinking for years now how I would like to get rid of my car. It was a very viable option back when I lived in Portland, and I did drive it very little. Now that I live on the northern Oregon coast, though, and have a 30 mile round trip commute to one of the farms I work on, it feels much less a viable option. I'm still trying to figure out some solution to that. I don't like that the car represents one of the greatest threats to my ability to live a low-energy and low-money lifestyle. It needs a good amount of both those things. I worry about repairs.

But that's part of the work, too--figuring out how to restructure my life, how to make do, how to make the changes I know need to be made. Ever onward, that process.

Of The Hands

shiningwhiffle said...

Man, what a gloriously mixed reaction I have to this.

On the one hand, I feel vindicated in my aversion to cars and television. My parents never really got why I don't connect driving with freedom, or why I'm so selective about what TV shows I spend my time and attention on.

On the other hand, I'm forced to face up to the fact that I'm deeply dependent, emotionally, on computers. That includes video games and smartphones. That dependence is going to be hard to kick, too, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I teach computer science.

Worst of all, it reminds me of my many failed attempts to kick my Facebook habit…

Still, the more I understand the nature of that dependence the easier it will make it to give it up when I'm ready. This post is a big help in that regard. Thank you.

M said...

I've grown to dislike cars over the years, for many reasons. It is much worse these days, with cars equipped with more electronics than most living rooms. We've evidently become a bit bored with our primary machine and now festoon it with all manner of diversions, from cell phones to talking GPS to THE INTERNET on the DASHBOARD.

Despite taking my 2-year-old son everywhere by bicycle, he is fascinated by cars. Car was one of his first words. And why not? They utterly dominate a good portion of our landscape. Even the few who tend to realize the absurdity can quickly explain why they need to drive--if only.

I have a car that I rarely use--mainly to drive it back and forth from the repair shop these days. It sits in the driveway (which I am in the process of tearing up by sledge hammer--I've only torn up a section about 20 feet long and taken it to the asphalt recycling plant--4 tons! And there is a second driveway under that, and I've done less than a third of the drive.) in case my current job search takes me beyond a combination of bike/train distance.

Right now I am trying to gently help my community realize the benefits of cycling into town--it's an old mill town on the Hudson River, the perfect layout. I'm taking the economic tact, pointing out that a bicycle costs a few hundred a year at most to operate, while a car averages $7,000.

I've been aware of peak oil for a while now, intellectually. But it was only after reading through your entire archive that it hit me on a more visceral level.(Reading it over five years might have been a dawning realization. Cramming it into a week is decline and fall shock therapy.)

I have been out of work for a while, and our finances are precarious. I'm battling a sense of real dread about the future, and I worry for my family. I'm heading down a conservation lifestyle (though with plenty still to do) but with no money currently coming in, I'm starting to feel trapped in a coming historical tsunami. I'm coming to realize this will be the defining aspect of my life, and I'm looking for the strength of soul to stay calm and focused for my family, and not to get swept away by dark thoughts even before the storm crashes over us.

Leo said...

will this mean that the cultural constructs of freedom and such have to be remade as we revert to using machines that have humans as power sources (levers, cranes, canoes etc) instead of seperate internal ones?

Alexander Carpenter said...

For Mumford, the "machine" was a metaphor for the State, recognizing that the modern State acts mechanically in its blind impersonality. He wasn't more literal because all those actual machines are the props of the State in one way or another. Some of those actual machines are (or were) people, and some are institutions.

And the Machine can be a subject, through conditioning by bringing rigid mechanical values internal to human psyches. That internalization is one tragedy of the State and its minions, that values as practiced are resonant of the machinery and not of the heart.

This is just a larger writing of the old saw that if you think of yourself as a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Most observers fail to recognize that if one thinks of oneself as a nail, everything looks like a hammer. This is a two-way tragedy, and the failure of the modern State is one result.

bleepr said...

Ripping post, and I think that's one reason why computers are so intoxicating. They are objects with enough complexity to have a semblance of inner life, albeit in an alien format, yet they are solely devoted to serving the user. The rub being that the user is being programmed into interactions and thinking patterns that have been predetermined by teams of developers and their attendant marketing departments.

Machines (tools?) can't help but change our relationships with nature and one another.

Brad K. said...

I want to mention there is another aspect of the personal automobile, and had much to do with the American government's involvement in the Interstate Highway system. And the reason the Department of Defense was the prime designer.

WWII had just shown the vulnerability of rail lines and other transportation and economic choke points, in the face of aggression and hostilities. America's Interstate Highways were intended to widely disperse major transportation nexuses around the country, eliminating single major hubs as inviting military or economic targets.

The strategy of dispersal suited defense planning and economic planning as well. Decentralizing build in multiple redundancies for fewer single points of failure and more options to respond to opportunities and crises. Thus the highway collapse in Minneapolis/St. Paul was a regional crisis, not a stroke that paralyzed the part of America on one side of the Mississippi or both.

And, as you point out, everything was based on the WWII lessons that security, defense, and military and economic strength is measured in and derived from fossil fuels. Otherwise we would have had a dozen Hoover Dam projects and fewer oil pipelines across the country.

About a dozen years ago I spoke with the then-owners of Rural Heritage magazine, and visited their home. They lived in western Tennessee, and told me that in their mountainous area that oxen were preferred for logging; they weren't as fast as horses, but were more sure-footed on the slopes.

Rich_P said...

Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run gave me my first real understanding of the automobile's sacred place in the American psyche. "These two lanes will take us anywhere," "the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive," "with faith in your machine off you scream into the night." As a sort of flipside to these automobile-as-key-to-freedom anthems, "Racing in the Street," from his follow-up album Darkness on the Edge of Town, is narrated by a soulless, despondent racer whose girl "stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born." But for all of Springsteen's songs about the American experience, this verse from "The Price You Pay" cuts deep in light of our current predicament: "Now with their hands held high they reached out for the open skies / And in one last breath they built the roads they'd ride to their death."

Speaking of energy slaves, have you seen this beautiful thematic map by Buckminster Fuller (originator of the energy slave concept)? It succinctly shows how much energy the U.S. consumed vis-à-vis the world in 1940. If you search through old magazines and newsweeklies of that era, you'll find all sorts of great maps, charts, and infographics trumpeting the United States' unparalleled industrial might and natural resource endowment. Here's one, and here's another.

madtom said...

Not "just" the usual interesting insights this week, but some profound and compelling ways of restructuring my mental landscape.

Thank you!

Creighton said...

I mentioned in my comment last week that I didn't want to buy a car but now I grudgingly have one because of grandma. However, to be perfectly honest there is part of me that is thrilled by the development. As much as I believe in the importance of roots and participating in a community, I now have a way to sling my life up on my back and get out on that open road. It is incredibly seductive, with the promise that the next town/job/partner will be better, if you can just move on to the next one enough times.

Having lived in Japan with only a bike and public transport, I know the kind of lightness and freedom that brings--hopefully I can get to a place here in the US as well where I can more gracefully ditch the heavier machinery.

Logan said...

Take a hard look at any other technology that has a central role in contemporary culture, and you’ll find the same nexus between an illusion of power, a reality of dependence—and a large and increasing cost.

Illusion of power: "woo internet! anti-SOPA most effective protest evar!!!!" -- followed next day by Uncle Sam demonstrating he will damn well pwn websites whenever he likes, actually.

Reality of dependence: the Internet is a physical structure which is not for the most part under democratic control; the NSA dragnets everything; by year 2000 standards, much if not most of the population displays all characteristics of being addicted.

Increasing cost: young people are objectively more spazzy than ever (I say this as a young person); even basic hyperlinked text has been empirically shown to interfere with reading comprehension, let alone factoring in the jeejahs of the cutting edge web and multitasking; basic conversation, to say nothing of community, suffers throughout everyday life.

PhilJ said...

Re: EoWW#6
Communism has always invoked a paranoia amongst Americans. (More so than any other country, I believe.) I do wonder what the Cubans could have shown us, if their economy had not been killed by it's fearful neighbour. (Of course, with the relaxations of that policy, it is now turning capitalist, so we'll never know.)
Andover, UK

Christophe said...

I too was nurtured by television's eerie light until heading off to college, which opened my eyes to a world far more captivating than anything the screen could offer. So I have never owned my own TV and make efforts to avoid them in public places (airport terminals are particularly difficult.)

Television acting as a stand in for community is a very interesting idea. When people talk about some television series to illustrate a point, and I tell them that I don't watch TV, they invariably describe the premise of the series so I can be informed and included. It has always struck me that they are trying to establish common ground, to include me in their circle no matter how much of a freak I may appear to them. I take it as a compliment that they even try to reform me rather than just making the sign of the cross and dousing me with holy water. Since I have no interest in television programming and believe that any point could be better expressed without referencing a TV show, the desire to connect through a television referent is theirs.

How does the glowing box make people feel so isolated that they can think of no better way to connect with others than through the instrument of their own disconnection? That’s a very powerful tool -- like a priest nurturing one’s fear of hell and then selling indulgences to alleviate that fear. Television represents access to community about as much as a fear-baiting priest represents access to God.

K!EF said...

Great post - thank you for this weekly piece of sanity.

I don't own either a car or TV, but I am enchanted by the power of the machine I am writing on. Its a talisman of many things -freedom, community, knowledge and much more.
I wish we had the maturity as a society to use the internet wisely as a tool for the things ahead of us. Places like this site with their readers make me hopeful. Thank you to all of you.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks. So, that's where community went. I've been wondering about this for a long time now. Thanks for the explanation, I'd never considered this angle before, but you are correct, it smells right to me. I switched off the television over three years ago and haven't looked back. I'm waiting and will assist rebuilding when it is required.

It's kind of weird too, because when I built my house up in the forest, I had to rent a house in an outer suburban housing estate. With 1% vacancy rates, it was the only place I could get. This was a new experience for me having spent so many years at part time study in the inner city. At night, I used to take the dogs for a long walk which is great to unwind after a day’s hard physical labour. I always noticed that we were alone on the streets, night after night. If ever we were noticed we were treated with suspicion and fear. Sad.

Still, I've said it before and I'll say it again that the divide and conquer strategy is as old as the hills. Truly, we are all giving away our common-wealth.

As to objectification, when societies have considered that some section of that society is an object, then that is when real trouble sets in. I'm watching for this change, that's why I commented about politics last week.

As ever you are insightful.



slackjawedyokel said...

Have a look at the protests today, Australia Day in Canberra - PM and Opposition Leader bundled into cars under police protection, hectic scenes of angry indigeneous protestors shouting shame - would never have happened in the good ole USA hmmm? The Queen would not have been treated that way nor your C-in-C, not in Oz. Watch the right hand! Watch the right hand!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all,

This is a shameless plug for a new article in the continuing series I've written about food forests:

Food forests part 2 - looking for clues

Please click and have a read as it helps assist my small income from writing. It would be really nice if people left a comment too!

At the very least you can have a look at the photos which show the mountain range (mid summer) where I live in Australia.

PS: If anyone guesses correctly the location (between 1 and 8) closest to where I live, I'll donate $30AU to the Archdruid!



Unknown said...

I by and large agree with you about cars. They will be the ruin of us, I suspect. But I have seen both sides of this. In the 1970s, I lived in Stockholm for half a year. Didn't have a car, and didn't miss it at all. It was an immensely liberating experience, facilitated by Sweden's excellent public transport. Walked a lot, took the buses, ferries, commuter RRs, and other transport as needed.

Living as I do now in California, a car becomes an essential. It is possible, but very difficult, to live without one. As you say, it very much limits your life. Most jobs are not available to you. These are limits that most of us cannot live within.

It will be interesting to see how we adapt when oil prices reach $200 per barrel or more.

Kfish said...

So, the computer, another piece of significant technology, could be said to symbolise learning or information? It can be argued that increasing use of the computer leads to the decline of other information methods such as memorisation or books. It seems that in each of the three examples - car, television, computer - dependence is caused by allowing competing (skill-based) alternatives to that technology to atrophy. So you end up with one object which is infused with value, which is insufficient to carry or sustain that value, but no alternative carrier that you can see. Hmm.

Karim said...

Greetings all

JMG wrote: "Take a hard look at any other technology that has a central role in contemporary culture, and you’ll find the same nexus between an illusion of power, a reality of dependence—and a large and increasing cost."

It could well be that the cell-phone and the internet are taking the same role as the car and TV have in the past. After all, both give the impressions of power over space and time (you can communicate at will with anybody)yet both systems are totally reliant on colossal subsystems few people are even aware of and both systems will become increasingly costly with time.

One can guess that this tight nexus won't unravel by itself easily. Those who give it up sooner must accept a degree of powerlessness yet they will be better prepared than those who won't. The latter will be dragged down kicking and screaming, they might even fall in to the false promises of politicians who will swear that they can bring back these illusions of power. More illusions heaped on illusions of power.

Short of making the Archdruid's Report compulsory reading for all this cannot end up well. The transition is going to be far more rougher than I could imagine.

On a more personal note, I make it a point of having at least one day per week off the web completely, generally on Sundays. I begin to think that my habit is wiser than I initially thought!

Joanne Mudhar said...

Very many thanks for your excellent blog. In particular this, and your previous post, have brought many of the issues that I face in setting up my low-energy, community farm into perspective. I had been wondering why I felt so very “on the outside” of things, despite being surrounded by people who are involved part-time in my project. I could see that what I was doing was a rational response to the world around me (as far as I understand it) but delivering food with a bike trailer? I can feel like a freak, and it doesn’t always feel good.

Yourself, and many other US-based writers, often mention that many resource exhaustion issues are particularly amplified in the US. I’d like to offer a perspective from the UK. In the past few decades people here have sought, on some level, to emulate the US. Much of our TV was from the US, a vacation to the US was considered “better” than a vacation to Europe, and pop singers would sing with a US accent (with the notable exception of Kate Bush). We know we drive smaller cars, and movies are released in the US first… we feel inferior on some level. So perhaps the lure of the car, and the TV, also offer the UK citizen the promise of being “more American” and therefore cooler, as well as all the other phenomena you so eloquently describe.

There is an accompanying backlash, namely stereotyping Americans (read US citizens) as loud, unsubtle, and even possibly even not very bright. I hasten to add this is absolutely not our general experience when we actually meet or read Americans!!! But you know how stereotypes are.

Perhaps I’m just jealous. Americans enjoyed the upside of abundant oil better, and even now they are ahead of us in the peak oil descent (I’m joking!)

Joanne Mudhar

Jan Hendrik said...

And when i drive my bicycle through the streets of The Hague (Netherlands, EU) i can't fail to notice that there are more cars then trees in most of the streets.
Northern Europeans have - to a large extend - also fallen into the trap of the 'American dream'. Here the car equals freedom and TV equals community as well. And here a machine will solve all of our problems as well...
Machine equals Identity for many.

das monde said...

JMG, you will enjoy this fresh piece on the ultimate social machine of our times, the Facebook.

Mister Roboto said...

I think there really is something to your thesis about the way we fetishize over machines. In my own example as an individual with a history of cognitive and emotional problems, I have in the past turned to the model presented by computers in deciding how to structure my chaotic and conflicting thoughts. That was useful in shedding superfluities that were causing major mental malfunctions, but it was still no substitute for sound spiritual grounding.

CSAFarmer said...

And of course a right of passage for a young man in this society is hunting and 'bagging' that first car, whilst outwitting the wily sales manager.

Like most farmers, what I do in my spare time is write poetry, so with apologies to HW Longfellow . . .

"Of all beasts he learned the language,

How the Pinto explodes in fire

What a Cougar runs 0 to 60

Where to find the mighty Bronco

How the Jaguar ran so swiftly,

Why the Rabbit was so German

Talked about them whene’er he saw them,

Called them “Hiawatha’s Auto's”

Fortunately, I grow-it better than I poet.

Pat said...

Very thought provoking as per usual, JMG.

I was chatting with a few friends this week and suggested that the technology upon which we all are now so dependent is a "weapon" or master not a servant. We seem to trust that the technology will be there forever with no back-up system in the works.

I mentioned the cost of the internet itself as not sustainable longterm and asked what would take its place when fossil fuel supplies were severely reduced?

How many of their family, friends and grandchildren were able to use slide rules, abacus or similar these days? They agreed that previous societies created wonderful roads, buildings etc., with these simple tools but the electronic, computerized methods worked better. I asked how the internet and all the money involved in its operation would feed or shelter them?

As your post indicated, they were not in agreement at all.
I finally just smiled and let it go.

The Watchman? said...

With a heritage of evanglical fundamentalism and red-blooded Republicanism, it might be curious to some that I have come to stand where I do on many issues. It would certainly be anathema to my fellow conservative Christians that I would say that I can find more in common with the worldview of a practicing Druid than I could with them, but such is the present state of American Christianity and its unwitting acceptance of postmodern thought and consumerism. I have been following your blog for several weeks now, have read The Long Descent, and I am now beginning The Wealth of Nature... my only complaint is that I did not find (or was simply unwilling to read) material like yours and Jim Kunstler's many years ago. While it is somewhat unsettling at times to consider the difficulty that we might all face in the coming years, it is likewise incredibly exciting to think that humanity might again be able to flourish in the coming centuries as the mechanisms and ideaologies that have caused so much destruction are starved of the resources that make them possible. I truly appreciate your efforts (and the efforts of everyone paying attention to what is happening) in preparing others for the transition. Please keep up the great work.

Thijs Goverde said...

Thank you, mr. Greer! When you said There is indeed a myth of the machine in the strict sense of that much-abused word "myth," I was rather afraid the Hero of a Thousand Faeces would make another appearance, but you focused on the machine and spoke of Buber, whose ideas I was not familiar with. Very instructive.
Funny, though, that after ending with something uncannily resembling the Hegelian dialectic of Herrschaft und Knechtschaft, you should come down so forceful on Hegels self-appointed heir, the poor, much-maligned Marx.
Of course, most of Marx' predictions were wrong, but I'm not sure that can be attributed to his being an apocalyptic prophet. I've always put it down to his being an economist.

As for the automobile: I'm not sure that idea of freedom is a specifically American thing. Here in Europe such ideas are rampant as well.
Of course, that might be because Europeans in general seem ready to cut their own heart out if they thought it would make them seem more American.
Personally, I would love to see the afterlife - so that I could have a long and stern conversation with Henry Ford, probably using a cricket bat as a conversational aid.

DaShui said...

HAHA,Don't forget the masochistic car dealer experience we have to go through.Almost as much fun as the dentist.
Coincidentally, I gotta buy a car today, because I have returned to the US from living overseas where I did not need one.
Actually I think everything is a plot to milk the populace. The problem is the zoning laws that separate work and home. This means that most people can't live at their work, so you have to buy a house, which means paying property taxes, mortgage and insurance. Have to buy a car to get to work which means insurance, gas taxes, licence plate, sales tax.......

Robo said...

Perhaps the fundamental issue here is the 'energy slavery' that makes machines go, rather than the machines themselves.

Humans have built machines for millennia, but we have only recently become addicted to the ego-amplifying and easily applied thermal power that is embodied in fossil and nuclear fuels.

You might also explore the differences between machines and tools.

nutty professor said...

Substitute "computer screen" in your post for every place you write "television" and tell us whether the implications are the same. One consequence of tech systems convergence is that the television IS BECOMING the computer, and the computer is the television, etc. etc.. Same goes for other vehicles for information/knowledge delivery, such as the book, which is no longer a physical thing (if it ever was), but now an I-It/object that is related to by way of technology, and the telephone (fast becoming a computer as well), which is simply another machine that facilitates the kinds of dependence that you write about. I see in the New York Times today that thanks to nanotechnology soon human beings will enter more fully into the I-Thou relationship with computers by becoming cyborgs of a sort. After all, human-computer physical convergence is already here, ask anyone who has an implanted hearing aid or a mechanical limb. Good thing, or bad thing? I dunno, but this has enormous implications for conceptualizing the future of power, "energy" and even consciousness itself.

Don Plummer said...

How true that the automobile is seen as a symbol of freedom here in the USA, though I never thought of it in the terms you describe here. Thank you for once again giving us some more in-depth ideas to ponder.

When I discuss the art of persuasion in my composition classes, I usually talk a little about advertising (i.e., what you call thaumaturgy). When I do, I always use this example: I ask students to describe the typical TV auto ad where an auto is actually being driven. They always recognize that the car is found navigating some quiet road with no other traffic whatsoever, and while surrounded by spectacular scenery--e.g., mountains or coastline. I then ask them how many of them drive under such conditions. Of course, none of them do. Why, then, I query, doesn't the ad portray the car being driven under more normal situations, such as in bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic where nobody is moving more than five miles per hour? What, I ask, is the advertiser really trying to sell? Normally, after a bit of prodding someone will give me the answer I'm looking for: "Freedom!" I reply, "Exactly!"

But then I ask them how much freedom auto ownership actually offers us. Most of the students, especially the younger ones, recognize the huge dependency under which owning an automobile places us, given the cost of the auto itself, plus maintenance, fuel, insurance, etc. And most students recognize that such ownership actually places restrictions on our freedom, despite the ability to go where and when one wants that auto ownership affords us and that the advertising tries to capitalize on.

I do have a TV, though I hardly ever watch it. About the only things I ever watch are sports events that I'm interested in, or maybe a presidential speech (no, I didn't watch the state of the union address this past Tuesday). Every time I turn on the TV, I'm disgusted by the advertising I see. My spouse and I have debated getting rid of it; maybe we will. We didn't have a TV at all for the first four years or so of our marriage, and I never missed it.

Betsys_Backyard said...

Dear JMG,
Enjoyed this post, it felt a bit like my first day of grad school classes though, where day one started with only the briefest reviews of the last four years of study. Glad you are pointing out the nature of internal awareness (or lack of it), thoughts and feelings with external experiences, What a useful lesson in applied developmental psych! I appreciate your ability to explain it, and relate it to how people act towards our automated life.

Your blog is a much anticipated weekly mental meal. This particular post was, to me , a double heaping helping of heavy thought and analysis. One that required an extra cup of coffee ;). But I enjoy such toothy analysis.. Pass the biscuits please!

This blog also reminds me of an article I read some 20 years ago, regarding 10 inventions that have changed human society.. I think it was in Psychology today. The inventions where, as I recall- automobile, TV, Phone- and to my initial surprise.. central heat... That author was not pointing out any of these as any cultural advancement , but rather, more akin to this post, asked us to examine how they have changed the fundamental way we understand ourselves, relate to our families, communities, societies- that these inventions can, in effect, interfered with our abilities to develope emotional/social mature relationships.
I was particularly impressed with central heating's role, likely because we were living in the country with a single propane heater in the dinning room, at the time. I enjoyed How many evenings and cold days were spent with neighbors and family near the warmth and light- dinning, studying. Even"idle time" was spent together playing boardgames, reading, storytelling, listening, whittling, mending.
Now we can run off to our bedrooms and close ourselves off with any number of E ( electronic) toys, babies can be sequestered half a block away and monitored, granny can be stuck in bed with her TV stories. Mom can be glued to her kitchen TV while cooking, Let's not miss the TV News for dinner! No wonder so many of us are resistant to the thought of intergenerational housing. Well, if it gets too frustrating, I can always hop in the car and drive to the mall.. no,wait, I'm outta gas

Final thought.. relating to stories that deal with the shift from pre-industrial to post industrial culture... I know you have no TV but it may be available free online.. Masterpiece Theater;s Cranford? have you ever seen it? I think others may enjoy this well crafted British Series. I think those of us preparing for a long decent might find this story a rich example of the reverse- a Rural town resisting accent of the new industrial England, and may have some useful glimpse into how things worked- or didn't a century plus ago.

Evan said...

Like a zen-archer this week, JMG, your words on automobiles & television hit their targets with great precision.

But I think another way to tell the story of the machine is to recognize that though it will not "run off" or "slit your throat," the automobile has to be beat into working order fairly regularly as entropy steals in on wild windy nights and like a daring coyote loosens this belt just so or stuffs this or that intake with just the right obstruction. And even beyond the spirit trapped in the automobile that tries in these leaps of decay to still those four rubber wheels of karma-samsara, sometimes a vehicle will buck like a stallion never meant for a saddle and send its driver and passengers into that other world through the windshield. How many millions have had their hearts broken in order to continue playing the overseer to the spirits of those machines, whose ancestors were once earths and ores stolen into exile by mining and refining?

The long trail of words I blaze could go on, but the game I wish to play along this path seeks also the Thou of the machines waiting beneath the veils of forgetting and It-hood that leviathan has cloaked them with. Perhaps we can invite them and ourselves back to life as we take I-It apart, salvaging the spirits into delightful You-sefulness as cars become carefree food & medicine dehydrators and televisions become quiet meditation-partners in the practice of metabolizing toxicity and turning curses into blessings.

William Zeitler said...

If the automobile is the talisman of 'freedom', and TV the talisman of 'community', I suppose standardized student test scores are the talisman of 'education'. (My wife being a 10th grade English teacher, we are up close and personal with this one!)

Larry said...

Like you I was never much into the car thing or the TV thing; it must be some odd recessive gene.

I have been truly amazed at some of our friends who will drive three blocks to visit us (apparently there is some psychological barrier above two blocks)and the eagerness with which work colleagues follow certain television programs.

Of interesting note from the IRS -- the deduction (for mileage driven) has been increased to 55.5cents per mile for the second half of 2011, up from 51 cents in the first half, so figure a theoretical $2.22 for that gallon of milk if the food mart is two miles away.

However, as about 65% to 70% of the cost of a car is owning the car while only 30% to 35% is driving it, you might as well keep the pedal to the metal until you get rid of the thing for good, at which point you can save some real money.

Julie said...

I've been reading your blog for several months now; this is my first time commenting. I am an white American female in my 5th decade of life and I grew up with autos and TV. I'm now trying to break that addiction, but it is a daily struggle. In my daily life I'm finding that the sense of community and of power can also be applied to the computer and its offspring, video games and Facebook. Video games provide a source of power and stature for many young adults and Facebook provides an online community of "friends" that you never have to deal with face to face. Weaning the next generation from this addiction is going to be difficult; the time to start is now.

Chris said...

Again, a post that stands convention on its head. Thank you so much for continuing to challenge "traditional" ways of thinking. Keeps my brain young.

Yourmindfire said...

Reminds me of Faust, in so many ways - but the German band of that name put in a song:

I've Got My Car And My TV

I've got my car and my TV
what should I care about you and your fun?
I know what to do and do so
my clean machine's dream is a colourful gun
what should I care about...
what should I care about you?
Yesterday noon at the tea time
we held three hands close to the other side
suddenly there was a red cloud
a finger come out and said
those guys are right
what would you say
if this would just happen to you

Villager said...

Great essay!

Robert Rosen in "Life Itself" tries to explain that the mathematics we use to control and design our machines is "dead" in a very real sense. He also demonstrates that "simulation" is not at all the same as "modeling" any more than the table sized simulation of a logging operation is the "same" as the "real" thing. Our mathematics can produce answers as a "limiting case" but cannot deal with the many and multi-dimensional feedback loops found in living systems. Nor can computers do more than provide a pale reflection of the "realities" they claim to model.

I think you would find a rich lode by examining just how much the computer mediated world has become the actual world most of us live in today. Television and the automobile have been somewhat replaced by this casually but not causally invisible "it." How many people can even start to describe how many or what steps occur between the time they insert their debit card in an ATM machine and the time they take out the cash? Yet the ATM machine is an assumed part of our personal "realities." We never think about it and the consequences. What does it imply abut centralized authority, for example?

William Hunter Duncan said...

I gave up the TV and the automobile some years ago. Now, when I see television, I am appalled, and extremely thankful I am no longer dependent. As to the car, driving one feels a little like when I pick up a gun, which I gave up a long time ago too. It feels very natural, very powerful, and yet it's a power I do not need, and I realize I very much do not want to be driving or holding a gun, so I avoid both. Because that power is like a drug, and I prefer to cultivate the power that emanates out from my core, and the more I do that, the more I love this Earth.

CitizenOfTheClouds said...

It seems to me that the rift between the ideal and the reality of motoring couldn't be more stark. The notion of speeding down a winding country road in a convertible sours pretty fast when you are doing an hour long commute in stop-and-go gridlock traffic driving an aging deathtrap. Personally, I prefer to walk to work and drive for pleasure. Don't get me wrong, I'm under no delusions that motoring as it is will survive. But I think that even post-collapse there will be enthusiasts saving their alcohol not to drink, but to consume for a different high, the high of speed.

Ian said...

Ah, take out the cigarette and I do believe we share a common origin for our distaste of cars.

This is a great post. The importance of understanding the mechanization of 'freedom' is oft underestimated. As machines come to mediate so much experience, our own responses have to become increasingly machinic, too, as we access the world on the machine's terms. It's a nasty entrainment cycle, like an an enormous and efficient Skinner box. Soon enough, we start to mistake the machine for nature itself.

I do find Marxism an awkward fit for the apocalypse discussion, though. It's not so much that I think you are wrong about there being an influence of apocalyptic thinking on it, but I don't think that the apocalyptic thinking is the driving force behind the shape Marxism took, whether you mean it within Marx's work and within the development of Marxist states.

Marx's driving insights (at least as I took them to heart) aren't so different from yours, for one, and his analyses, too, aren't far afield from yours. His convictions, though, definitely led him to project hopes onto the directions the processes would go in ways that deformed his analysis.

Marxist states...those were amazingly cynical things, even in the early decades. There wasn't rampant belief in Communist doctrine but rather rampant disbelief joined to an overwhelming sense of being unable to do anything about it. Alienation seemed the rule. The famed Soviet humor and corruption are part and parcel of this.

I do wonder how much more like that our situation is, right down to our tendency to reach for cynical humor (though, admittedly, ours is a different flavor than Russia's). It seems, too, like it is that situation that helps fuel apocalyptic thinking rather than the other way around. Apocalypse as one form of fleeing from this visceral, cynical, alienation.

That seems like an important distinction to maintain: between the concrete historical, material, political situations that fosters Apocalyptic thinking and the Apocalyptic thinking itself. Using Marxism as an exemplar of apocalyptic thinking conflates these to my mind.

escapefromwisconsin said...

This also seems to highlight a problem with modern economics – in order to describe the workings of an economy with abstract mathematical equations, one needs to assume humans are essentially machines – and relations between them are essentially “I-It” relationships, with relative equals acting rationally in an impersonal “market”. Of course, this is incorrect, human beings have a full spectrum of internal motivations as you correctly pointed out, including the very irrational ones you described. Thus economics tends to completely break down, and many of its conclusions are absurd. The fact this pseudo-science is used as a rationale for anything is deeply disturbing, and explains a lot of what is so messed up about the world today. I’m also thinking of a quote I saw today on Naked Capitalism linking to a story to an effort to make grief into a malady to be “cured,”: “So people are supposed to be happy robots all the time so they can work at Foxconn productivity levels. I think we had better hope the Singularity comes soon. The human race is desperately in need of new management.” In fact machines have made it easier to dominate people than ever before.

An interesting story of how our desires are manipulated to sell products is told in this story from The Economist about Erenest Dichter:

This was a big idea. Dichter understood that every product has an image, even a “soul”, and is bought not merely for the purpose it serves but for the values it seems to embody. Our possessions are extensions of our own personalities, which serve as a “kind of mirror which reflects our own image”. Dichter’s message to advertisers was: figure out the personality of a product, and you will understand how to market it. Soaps could be old or young, flirty or conservative. Ivory, Dichter inferred, had a “sombre, utilitarian, thoroughly cleansing character”. It was the mother-daughter of soaps, whereas a brand like Camay was a seductress. Such insights led to the slogans “Be smart and get a fresh start with Ivory Soap” and “Wash your troubles away”.

But the innovation that put Dichter on the marketing map involved a problem Chrysler was having with its relatively new line of Plymouth cars—which consumers were shunning. Dichter headed out to Detroit, conducted extensive interviews with a couple of hundred people, and deduced that the company’s first problem was its existing advertising, which boasted that its cars were “different from any other one you have ever tried”. This evidently triggered an unconscious fear of the unknown among buyers, for whom familiarity in a car meant safety.

He also learned from interviews that whereas convertibles made up only 2% of sales in 1939, most men, particularly middle-aged ones, dreamed of owning one. When convertibles were placed in the windows of dealerships as “bait”, more men came in. But when they returned actually to make a purchase, they typically came with their wives and chose a sensible sedan (the Plymouth line offered both).

Dichter gathered that the convertible symbolised youth, freedom and the secret wish for a mistress: an idle bit of temptation. He suggested that Chrysler beef up its convertible advertising—and, in recognition of spouses’ role in the final decisions, begin marketing cars in women’s magazines. Meanwhile, a new and more reassuring campaign emphasised that it would take “only a few minutes” to feel at home with the new Plymouth.

SLClaire said...

My husband and I sold our televisions in 1994 and have been TV free since. Of all the changes we've made in our lives since we began to practice voluntary simplicity, going TV free has been the only change we've made that creates the sort of defensiveness in other people that you describe. Some people we've told say something like, I only watch public TV, as if that makes it acceptable. I suspect most people know deep down that TV is co-opting their thoughts and actions, but they don't have sufficient desire to break free of the habit. Maybe they are too scared of what they'd have to confront about their lives if they didn't have TV to distract them.

We've gone car-free for about 2 months twice, when our car was damaged in minor accidents and required repair work that took that long to complete. We live near enough to public transport to make it doable. It did require more thought and planning ahead, as well as more time, to complete everyday tasks like grocery shopping. I admit that we have a car and will continue to use it for the time being. I am looking into taking the bus or train rather than driving to the two weddings we've been invited to this summer, and we are trying to slowly reduce the miles we drive for everyday reasons. I'm also keeping in mind the damage driving does, being conscious that I am contributing to that damage.

Ceworthe said...

You remarks about how African American and Native Americans are not that enamored of going on long adventures due to being brought over here as slaves, and the Trail of Tears, respectively, reminded me of two experiences I had. One was of inviting a black classmate along on one of our hiking trips when in High School. Her father refused to allow her to come because he truly thought we were going to lynch her (this is in NYS in the early 1970's mind you). We were speechless when we found out why she couldn't come.
On a lighter note, there was a black comedienne whose name I don't recall, who said she could never see the appeal of camping because to her it was going out to the woods to be homeless. Different perspectives indeed. Verification word caned

Stu from Rutherford said...

This essay represents the first reference to Busby Berkeley that I've encountered in the Peak Oil literature.
Do you have a list of allusions that someone challenged you to include someday? How about Jerry Mathers?

Candace said...

For a time I lived in an area where I was able to commute by bus, but I stopped after a couple of incidents where drunk/high men were "flirting" with me and I was afraid to get off at my stop because I worried that they might get off at the same time and follow me home. So I agree that cars symbolize greater safety and freedom of movement (at least to me). Of course this experience was made possible by the fact that the people riding on the bus don't know each other and don't seem like reliable allies when someone is not behaving well.

I suppose that is what drives some of my wishful thinking that there will be motivation to change as a group. I'm reluctant to attempt commuting by bus again because I feel "safer" and "less alone" in my car as a single woman. I want my armor or to be surrounded by other members of the herd in order to feel safe.

Mark Angelini said...

And now, more and more, folks I know are fusing their sensations of both freedom and community into "smart phones". These self-perceived wielders of power expend the more and more money and resources to maintain hand-held distraction devices. And you're dead on: try talking about this in public, and be ready for a drawn out debate as to why the "newest" technology is so advanced and praise worthy. At leas until the battery runs out. Don't even attempt talking about the logistical and ecological quagmire of the american transportation system.

So all of this has me thinking that poverty may well be a four letter word just now.

blue sun said...

I recall a study from a few years back that found that, after watching the same actors on TV long enough to become familiar with them, people's emotional reaction to these actors was the same as to their real friends. In other words, on a non-rational level, "visiting" your favorite TV show characters was indistiguishable from seeing your real friends. It produced the same feelings (and perhaps the same brain chemistry).

I never followed up on it or even read the study, so I can't speak to it, but I can certainly see how asking some people to give up TV is like asking them to say goodbye to their friends. I'm not sure if that's also true for cartoons, but I could understand how saying goodbye to Homer Simpson could hurt at least as much as saying goodbye to the family dog. He's a lovable character, after all.

For goodness sake, they flat-out admitted the obvious in the 'Cheers' theme song: "Sometimes you wanna go......where everybody knows your name....." [Those of you who've heard the tune will be able to fill in the rest. Sorry if it gets stuck in your head the rest of the day, but I guess that's what it was designed to do.]

This deeply-implanted psychology is just one reason among many why people fiercely resist giving up their TVs.

Kevin said...

It seems to me that the most unnecessary and wasteful aspect of Americans' relationship to the automobile is that we've so arranged things that most working people feel obligated to use them to commute, or are actually physically obliged to do so. Compare the entrapment of a fuel-sqaundering, stress-inducing urban commuter traffic jam with the operation of a light rail system carrying the same number of people on the same route, and the use of the car for that purpose looks like an exercise in mass stupidity.

Sticking malls on the edge of sluburbia so that people are practically forced to drive in order to go shopping also doesn't help, especially when said malls feature stores with cheap imports that undercut and ruin local mom-and-pop stores that might provide a viable and walkable alternative. So much for domestic manufacturing.

In California at any rate, we seem hardly capable of making a public transit system that people aren't ashamed to ride. My local bus route into the nearest big town seems willfully designed and operated to make riders feel as though they're being subjected to an exercise in degradation, like being in a rolling ultracrowded welfare office with the additional risk of getting a dirk in your ribs.

I don't worry for a moment about the difficulty of breaking my computer habit. We won't have to abandon these devices. It is they that will abandon us. Indeed in my experience, the one and only thing that a computer can absolutely be relied upon to do is crash.

Justin said...

To your point about the I-it and I=thou, another synchronicity.
I was talking to a friend this week about the ideas of empathy (I-thou) and control (I-it), and how empathy requires one to identify with your environment whereas control of your environment is a much different relationship of possession and ownership.

My thought on this is that for the past few thousand years, we have exhausted the strategy of ownership and control. Science is the tool of I-it control we ended up creating. We are running into the hard limits of the control strategy. In domesticating the world, we are exhausting it.

The difference of empathy identification is that you are part of the environment you are in rather than above and in control of it. The only part of your environment you can truly control is yourself. Is it too much to say that the I-it relationship is most readily applied to oneself and oneself alone? That the all consuming empathy of self that we think is so much a part of defining ourselves in youth is a necessary stage of development, but one that should be moved on from at some point in life?

I don't know when, but I am sure that we will begin trying empathy/I-thou full stop soon, maybe not within our lifetimes, but soon. I feel confident in saying that empathy will supplant control as the dominant mindset simply as a matter of necessity and survival. If we don't begin to see ourselves as members of an ecology working within it as one piece of a whole rather than its owners who are working it to get our piece of the whole, we simply won't be around for much longer during the anthropocene age.

Computers and the internet are an interesting bridge here, although you interface with a machine, the interface is a portal to the mind of another human. There is an elephant in the (chat)room, very interested to see where you go with this.

DonP said...


I enjoy reading your column. You’re a good writer and you often expose fallacies and hypocrisy of our current conditions. But your comments on Marx and Capital make me think that you have never read it.


K!EF said...

Thanks for the piece of weekly sanity.

I don't own a car or TV, but I am enchanted by this machine I am writing with. It is a talisman of freedom, community, knowledge, connection and much more.
But it is a machine with the same illusionary and costly traps as the other machines mentioned. I wish we as a society had the maturity to the use the internet as valuable tool for the things ahead of us.
Places like this site with their followers and contributors make me hopeful. Thanks to all of you.

Steve From Virginia said...

Problems with the automobile: their purpose or reason for existence is to waste fuel.

Before the automobile and other gasoline powered vehicles, gasoline was a form of refinery excretion. It could be used to fuel refinery operations but had a tendency to blow up and burn down the refinery.

Wasting fuel is the purpose of the automobile. Everything else is (the all important) marketing which should never be believed. The car owner is required to invest a large part of every year to support the car and the fuel that is wasted, an amount of time that could be used to better purposes elsewhere.

If the car exists to waste fuel, the car business exists as a scaffold upon which credit can be erected then pyramided. Credit becomes the business owners' profit while the retirement and debt service obligations belong to the business' customers.

There is more to this car nonsense than meets the eye ...

You can call me Elle. said...

What really struck me after reading this week's post is not so much fear for myself as an individual, fear of how will I adjust to the absence or unavailability of these talismans of community and freedom, but fear of how the entire drugged up, strung out, lonely, alienated, helpless, hungry populace is going to react when we reach a tipping point and this stuff disappears. If everyone is addicted to this stuff to fulfill their human needs for such things, then what happens when the rug is pulled out? Not just "Wah my iPhone." But, psychologically? These are important psychological and spiritual needs that are being (artificially and sickeningly) satiated by technology we can't sustain. What happens mentally to this country when those crutches are taken away? What kind of weird new psychoses will be spawned? What kind of terrible things will be done by so much desperate humanity cooped up in cities and suddenly, terrifyingly forced to realize that they are alone, in a box, stacked on another box, surrounded by strangers, without having learned to interact with other humans and solve problems, or even converse? We hear all the time that humans are social animals, but what if we have begun to breed that quality out? Ugh, just gives me chills to think about it. I think it will be hard enough to wean myself off of technology, and really admire people who have done it. But how to protect yourself from the millions of screaming lunatics with no televisions to placate them?

Justin Patrick Moore said...

My wife and I have put this device, the TV-B-Gone to a lot of good use, at family gatherings, at aforementioned taverns, any place where their is a TV you want to turn off!

We consider it to be an amulet against dark side sorcery.

"Your TV-B-Gone® universal remote control resembles other TV remote controls, but is different in two important ways. First, it only has a power button that allows you to switch a TV on or off. You control when you see, rather than what you see. Second, the device is so small that it easily fits in your pocket, so that you have it handy whenever you need it wherever you go: airports, bars, restaurants, laundromats, etc."

Don Plummer said...

You mention how isolating TV is, but one thing that isn't often discussed is how isolating automobiles are, also. In the typical suburban development, people drive up to their houses, open the garage door with their remote control, drive into the garage, shut the garage door behind them, and they're never seen again until they're back behind the wheel driving out of the garage. Maybe they're seen when they're outside mowing their lawns (behind another machine, of course), but it's easy to see why people often don't even know who their neighbors are.

sealander said...

Coming from an island nation, it wasn’t until I visited the US for the first time that I really began to grasp that whole concept of the freedom of the open road and the endless frontier just over the horizon, and how embedded it is in the American psyche. Standing on a plateau in Colorado I could see the highway unfolding for hundreds of miles in front of me – there is just nowhere in my whole country where you can see that much of a single road. And as for picking up sticks and heading off somewhere else to reinvent yourself, forget about it – no matter where you go you’re going to trip over someone who knows you. Freedom here is associated with enough money for a plane ticket to somewhere else.

Our household has been car free for some years now. I’ve noticed this often elicits a peculiarly defensive reaction when this comes up in the conversation – on finding out that we don’t have a car, people immediately begin telling me why they couldn’t possibly do without theirs, even though I haven’t suggested they give it up. The car advertising here also relies heavily on open roads and beautiful scenery – one particularly improbable sequence involves the driver travelling along a road by the sea accompanied by some obviously faked leaping dolphins in the water, and stopping for an impromptu picnic on the grounds of a vineyard, which in reality would get you chased off the property 

DW said...

@ Marxism and I-Thou:

With the thematic shift of the week, I can't help but throw out a book recommendation for readers here.

"The Outsider" by Richard Wright.

In one brilliant page-turner of a novel, Wright drifts through alienation, rage, communism, existentialist angst, and all things related to the bigotted years of one Sen Joe McCarthy. Since I feel in many ways we are headed back into that same political climate, I think it's a timely read.

I also recommend Colin Wilson's "The Outsider" which is a look at Existentialist memes across the arts...from Dostoyevsky's characters to VanGogh himself. It's a great read for those who feel often like outsiders in life, looking in on a space and time occupied by others.

Those books were pivotal in my thought development over time...but I caution, they are not places to spend a lot of time. Western Existentialism has much to learn from Eastern thought models when it comes to conceptualizing a worldview that allows you to get out of bed in the morning ;)




Creepy coincidence: my word verif is "dagni" which is the first name of the English professor I had in the first class I read any Richard Wright.

Twilight said...

I am a reformed motorhead. When I was little I played with toy cars, when I was a bit older I built model cars. I could tell you the make, model and year of any car from a glimpse at the tail lights, and a good deal about the engine. I was working on them before I could drive, and a good deal of my adult life was spent thinking about, driving and working on cars. How I wish I could have back all the time and energy I wasted.

Eventually I began to see the cost, first in the damage we've done to our town and city-scapes and countryside with our roads. How ugly everything has become. Then understanding the environmental damage, and finally peak oil and climate change. I simply could not ignore the cost – it wasn't worth it. But so many have too much invested in their cars, and not just the money. Their cars are a big portion of who they are, and their confusion is evident in how they presume an “I-Thou” (to use your term) relationship with their cars. For some their cars really do seem to be the extent of their personalities!

I still drive the econobox I've had for 13 years. I've got computers and cell phones because I must still function in the present world and deal with the infrastructure available. But these things are objects, simply tools. They don't matter to me, they're temporary ties to a fading reality.

The machines themselves are not really the problem, if they were regarded as the tools they are instead of objects in which to place our hopes and dreams. People use tools, it's part of who we are, and in an age where (for example) a tradesman might have a more appropriate level of tools, they might even have a certain fondness for their tools and some considerable interest in them. They'd probably better if they want to survive. Tools and machines that require energy sources and infrastructure that cannot be maintained or create dangerous byproducts are not viable and will be discarded. How do we discard the fixation on machines and get people to see the role the human plays as primary? It's so imbedded in everything.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I could do without TV ok as long as I have the Internet. No TV or Internet would be tough. I am a Philistine. I like TV. I enjoy it. I like seeing what is happening all over the world. I could do without it, because I have, but I like it.

Now not having a car out here in Montana. Well..

If you want to know my thinking about all that, and how things will probably shake out here, I posted the rest at my blog.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I just realized the TV-B-Gone is yet another machine, even if used to turn off a more pernicious one.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

Great post, JMG!

Seventy or eighty years ago, would you be saying the same about broadcast radio as you do today about television - an isolating machine, anti-community, etc.? Many people defend radio (including myself) because one still had to think in order to imagine the visual behind the spoken words one was hearing. Yet it still controlled lives, creating a machine one had to sit around, typically in the living room away from outside noises, at fixed times of the day in order to catch particular broadcasted news or stories. Can we have degrees of machine acceptance - radio instead of television, public television and commercial-less movie channels instead of commercial television - or are machines truly an all or nothing in concept?

And what would you save about travelers? I am thinking here of both the continued existence of Gypsy and Irish travelers, but also the more modern replacement with the fuel-powered RV or caravan. On the one hand we are talking about a culture or society based on vagabond travelers, but on the other hand we are talking about a group or society dependent on some level of machine for that mobility. Granted, horse-drawn carriages, to the extent they still exist, aren't a machine to the same extent as diesel-powered RV monsters.

I've often longed for the idea of a traveler existence, despite all the ridicule it brings. John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" is a favorite book of mine, an nearly annual read. Minimal trappings of stuff and moving around as work or pleasure might dictate. But in the States, such a lifestyle, even if public property laws would suddenly change, would be very tough to do in post-oil times.

Sixbears said...

I've not only felt the lure of the open road, I've given into that mistress. My lovely wife and I would spend our winters traveling all over the south. We rarely spent more than 3 days in one place.

All this time I was well aware of the huge infrastructure necessary to keep my nomadic lifestyle going. For the last ten years, I've slaked my conscience by driving old vehicles converted to run on waste veggie oil, knowing it was a limited and partial fix.

I accept the nomad in my soul. Recently I took up sailing on a small 19 foot boat. Rarely is the motor ever used. 3 -4 mph is enough movement to keep me happy. I smile the whole time. The natural world surrounds me. Passengers can easily talk and visit without the noise. It's more than a machine -it's a home. We can easily live a week or two without getting off the boat -even a boat this small. Allow for some time on land and resupply, we could travel for a long long time.

Sure, I've used marinas, but more often then not, we live at anchor, independent of those systems.

There is a long standing infrastructure for water travel, canals, coast guards, draw bridges, improved harbors and so on, but if that all goes away, the ocean, lakes and rivers are still there.

My boat is an old retrofitted fiberglass production craft, but it doesn't have to be. Wood and hemp will do the job.

The sense of freedom is more real in a small sailboat than it ever was in a private vehicle. It does what people hope a big RV camper will do -provide a mobile home that allows a person to feel free.

As for TV, pretty much gave up on it in my teens. It's more fun to meet people and do things.

The pull of travel is strong in some people. Most are tethered to real jobs and try to stuff that feeling into weekends and vacations. To keep the dream alive, they have their cars. Replace the car with something better and then change is possible.

I know no solution is perfect. Relying on public transportation doesn't make much sense to me either. Governments and businesses can change routes, fees, and services. That supplies no sense of freedom at all.

BFM said...

Your comment about television in this culture being a stand-in for a sense of community is spot on. I remember (sheepishly, mind you) meeting a few other Americans at a party in Paris when I was traveling through Europe as a college student, and bonding with them by drunkenly singing the theme songs to Three's Company, Laverne & Shirley, and the like. (Sorry to bring the names of that dreck here.) It was absolutely the quickest way we could figure out to "relate" to each other, to establish our shared identity, as depressing as that is.

Your description of car culture, and the vast government subsidies that make it possible, is also spot on, with the obvious irony that the most anti-government ranters are the ones most in love with said culture.

sofistek said...

Gosh, I wish there was a simplified translation of your posts, JMG. I'm happy to sit and concentrate on what you've written, and this was a great post. But I try to send the best posts to my family to try to wake them up. Unfortunately, I know for certain that they won't make the effort to read something like this.

It's a conundrum. Those who really need to grasp the realities of our situation just won't make the effort to do so and those who are already minded to understand our predicament are happy to make the effort. I think the masses need the message in a form that can fit neatly around the commercial breaks or in a pop song. Sadly, I don't see that happening.


Michael said...

Could it be that those clinging to tales of eternal progress might be better equipped to face the future than those who are striving for a marxist/"green" New Jerusalem ?

If you're unfazed by collapse because there's ample opportunities to be grabbed with both hands whatever the overall situation might be, you'll get back on your feet a lot quicker than someone for whom that same collapse only ever meant that "all bad - i.e. wasteful - habits are exterminated" and "evil corporations are wiped out".

M said...

Coincidentally, two weeks ago I finished reading "The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways" by Earl Swift.

It's an interesting read. The Interstate plans were laid many years before Eisenhower helped push through funding--only then was the "Defense" added to the title, in large part to justify expenses.
In terms of peak resources, some engineers doubt we still have the raw material left to again manufacture the three hundred million cubic yards of concrete used in its 47,000 miles.

Don Stewart said...

I think that the blanket statement that Americans equate cars with freedom and trains and buses with slavery is wrong. I have no doubt that there are complex reasons that many Americans don't like them.

In my teenage years, when our little town chartered a train to Kansas City to see a baseball game, it was a chance to escape the 'respectable' life and engage in some sin. And if you listen to a certain type of music, you find the driving rhythm of the steel wheels on steel rails and the theme of escape or return or lovers lost.

Even now, this song laments that all the bankers have escaped on the train.

So I think trains CAN be glamourous --in some fantasy sort of way that all the other escapes are fantasies.

Don Stewart

Unknown said...

but without my tv how will i get my fair & balanced news??
on a serious note, the internet is definitely a huge machine that happily allows me to read incredible JMG posts, so i will lament the day the we lose access - if & when that happens in my lifetime

EchosRevenge said...

I've been eyeing Mumford's books for a while now, this post makes me doubly sure I want to read them soon. Many fascinating concepts here, I'm very much looking forward to further exploration of these ideas.

@Logan, amen! I regain a bit of faith for our future each time a fellow under-30 recognizes the increasing weirdness of our peers. Non-spazzes exist, though we are few and far between sometimes.

@Karim - my partner and I lived without a cell phone for two years in rural Mexico, and loved it. When we returned to the US this summer, we opted for a prepaid "dumb" phone which we often let run out of minutes or turned off completely. Our families and friends *could not abide* such behavior! We were constantly asked "when are you fixing your phone?" as though being chained by an electronic leash 24/7 is the normal state of being, and having limited availability on the telephone an abnormal decision. It was not as though there were a dearth of ways to reach us - we work from home and are often on Skype or email - it was *specifically* the lack of a cellphone, to the point where one family member 'surprised' us for Christmas with a year's worth of cellphone service - the assumption was that we couldn't afford it, the reality, we didn't really want it. We're confounding them by not charging it or turning it on when we don't want to be reached. :)

September's Virtue

verification word: align

86 said...

The fetishisation of the car is well illustrated bt the recent hailstorm here in Melbourne. The presence of barely visible dents is considered disastrous!

I would like to know, as a numerator, the total distance travelled by the cars per annum.

I would also like to know, as a denominator, the total time the humans devote to the cars (working to buy them, making them, selling them, insuring them, driving them, repairing them, thinking about them etc)

The resulting fraction would represent the average speed of the cars. I would expect it to be well below walking pace.

Thomas Daulton said...

One of my favorite authors, Philip Slater -- I wonder has JMG read any Philip Slater? -- came at the problem from kind-of the reverse direction that JMG does here. Taking, as JMG does, white America's history as descending from a bunch of groups wanting freedom from European persecution/repression, Slater also identifies "freedom" as a major national obsession which people from other cultures don't fully understand. However, Slater postulated that the American desire for freedom has metastasized away from "freedom to achieve" and into the more negative "freedom _FROM_ my fellow human beings", so we turn towards machines and faceless bureaucracies to give us personal autonomy and power without having to negotiate same from other people and from our communities.

In other words, JMG seems to be arguing that Americans became indifferent to the environment and to the suffering of others, after being educated to use science and machines. Slater seems to be arguing the reverse, that Americans turned to rely on machines much more than past or foreign cultures, _because_ we became indifferent and inured towards our fellow man -- a pathological reaction to our ancestors' persecution.

I just bring that up because I liked Slater's quote, regarding machines and faceless bureaucracies: that "Their indifference is a reflection of our own." Works either way.

(Slater seemed like a firebrand of a writer back in the 60s and 70s, but unfortunately, in the recent past I've read his writing on the Huffington Post, and he seems today much more like a plain partisan shill.)

Andy Brown said...

I like the I-It / I-Thou axis and you can certainly plot a good deal of human confusion on it as you describe.

I think there's a 'z-axis' to be explored, however. Something like a "about me" and "nothing to do with me" axis. For example, some people don't understand the thermodynamics of energy decline, because they live in an I-Thou world where God or Gaia will weigh in on the issue. But others, who would consider themselves to be very materially-minded, nevertheless have a great deal of trouble grasping the thermodynamics of an utterly indifferent cosmos. Things just ought to work out! They just ought to. Or, this is the world teaching us a lesson! We've got it coming.

To put it in those psycho-developmental terms, another distinction that children learn (some better, some worse) is that some things are about them and many more things are not.

I think this interacts with the spectrum you describe in some interesting ways. And the fact that the energy situation at some level "isn't about us," makes it that much harder for many people to process.

I'll have to give this some thought and see if I can express it more clearly.

Castus said...

As always, Mr. Greer, your posts are filled with a wisdom lacking in most common discourse. I look forward to reading them every week. Please keep it up!


Joel Caris said...

As others here have mentioned, the internet is indeed a source of trouble for me. I am addicted and I waste far too much time on it. Sometimes I think I am doing good and productive things, such as reading this blog or even writing in my own blog. Other times, it's a pure waste. And I've spent countless hours just clicking around pointlessly, going on to the next thing simply as distraction and avoidance, rather than as research or anything close to productive.

I'm not entirely sure what to do with that. I've had periods in my life when I spent much less time on the internet, and those were good periods. Lately, however, I've been blogging a good deal and it's revived my writing, which I think is wonderful. I'm hesitant to give it up, and I dare hope that at some point I'll actually be helpful to some people with what I write. Still, it's funny to, say, put up a blog post arguing in favor of voluntary poverty, as I just did. It's a freaking blog post! Just being able to put it up indicates I'm far from in poverty myself. It just seems so contradictory.

Yet, I think attempting to balance those contradictions is good. That's part of the work, and part of the process. And considering the reality we find ourselves in, those of us attempting voluntary poverty or doing most any of the things JMG writes about here are going to be engaging in a certain amount of contradictory behavior.

Conundrums, conundrums.

Morrigan said...

Yikes, Elle. I gave up my TV a few months ago because the reception is so poor and I refused to pay for satellite. After 3+ years of frustration with the rabbit ears, I finally realized that the disappointment of missing an anticipated show because there was a cloud in the sky somewhere outweighed the pleasure of watching it.

Full disclosure: like an alcoholic hides bottles around the house, I did savor the idea of boxed sets to be purchased later....

But if I, a relatively resourceful and rational person, would be driven almost to the point of throwing dishes at the wall because I was going to miss Family Guy, even knowing I have radio and Internet to take TV's place, how will they react who are less resourceful, less well-nourished (sometimes for generations), less likely to have resourceful role models and therefore less self-disciplined react?

Between your post and the bucking stallion, I'm about in a fetal position.

Brad K. said...

@ Anonymous 3:17,

"but without my tv how will i get my fair & balanced news??"

Just curious -- why do you need broadcast or mass media news in the first place?

Shouldn't you be heeding the happenings in your community -- and shouldn't community involvement and activity be the way to stay in touch?

News, whether fair or biased, censored or misrepresented, is a paid entertainment, intended to sell products. Any central source of data is a source of manipulation and isolates you from your community.

Rich_P said...

@86: Ivan Illich performed those calculations in "Energy and Equity" (1978):

"The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour."

In light of the crazy gridlock found in contemporary metropolitan areas, I wouldn't be surprised if average speed has decreased since then.

Also, since the massive subsidies that go into the suburban/automobile complex have been brought up, it's worth mentioning another one. The amount of wear and tear a vehicle does to a well-made road can be approximated as the fourth power of the vehicle's load. The gas tax, which funds road maintenance in the U.S., is basically linear (heavier vehicles do pay more per mile). This tax structure, however, does not fairly allocate the costs of using public roads; SUVs, RVs, buses, dump trucks, and big rigs don't pay enough for the road damage they're causing. More generally, the government's unwillingness to account for this power law relationship between vehicle load and road wear in its tax/fee structure amounts to a massive subsidy for the trucking industry.

Hal said...

I have never owned a television, but there have been periods in which I have lived in proximity to one. one of those was my entire childhood, and there I'm going to have to offer a grudging defense of the medium, at least in part. I grew up in the Deep South, in a family that was very prejudiced and set in it's ways. It was the medium of television, beaming images into our living room of black and white people relating in fairly egalitarian manners, of the civil rights movement, and later of the anti-war and counterculture movements that I have to credit with my not being today a very different person than I would have been otherwise. I'm not saying it's all positive. The TV is probably at least partially responsible for my ADD and no doubt other shortcomings of character that have made me in many ways less competitive than I might have been otherwise. Well, that and a few controlled substances during my youth.

So, though I personally rejected the idiot box as a medium, it's some of the messages that came across, at least during one small window of US history that coincided with my youth, that I have to give some credit to.

As for the auto, I also spent a long period of my young adulthood completely living without one. When I hear that people conflate the auto with freedom, it almost makes me want to laugh. The auto not only represents a major ceding of power to outside entities, it is a real burden. when I left home in 1974 to express my freedom, it was with a small backpack and a blanket. I hiked to the nearest highway and stuck out my thumb. I know I was just as dependent on the auto and its infrastructure as anyone, but I was not burdened by its demands. And when I could, I also jumped trains, though I suppose that just made me dependent on a different structure.

Today I own two vehicles. How the mighty have fallen. One is a truck I justify as necessary for farming and hauling produce to market, and the other is a old economy car. I try to limit my trips to town, but there always seems to be some need. And twice a year I and the dog hit the road in the truck and drive to California to be with my kids. I guess the change in that will happens when it must.

As for the computer, well, it's 3 minutes to midnight here. WTF am I doing?

JohnMichael_H said...

Thanks again John Michael,

I have been reading your blog on energy bulletin for a couple of years now. This week's post finally moved me to comment. We bought a 40 inch TV and a surround sound system (I guess that qualifies as a home theater) for Christmas, and I've found that I am unable to read while sitting in the room with it. I had no such problem with our more reasonably sized models. So there is now a vague sense of dread in me as I stare at the screen. Am I being brainwashed?

And among the most expensively produced of the mezmerizing ads on my new home theater are the car commercials, selling the joy of cruising alone down miles of open highway. Just once I would like to see one that depicts the reality of most of the hours spent in one's car - creeping forward, stopping short, cursing the lack of parking spaces, gazing longingly at that freeway exit ramp that is so close, yet so far away...

John Michael Harrington

Red Neck Girl said...

I am such an oddball, everyone is talking about what life would be like in the after math of a hard set down. If I can swing my stable as I envision it, it would eventually end up being a way stop for travelers through the valley, breeding and training stock dogs & a few horses, as a livery stable and a small farm.

Horses would be essential here, not so much for going down to California but for livestock and between stock dogs and horses that's the best way to gather and move cattle, at least as long as the railroad lasts. And as a hub for dried fruits, wine and liquor, this being orchard country. Also once that goes it would be cattle drives either north or south and most likely south. Otherwise this area will transform back to basic wilderness as the small towns dry up and blow away and the freeway crumbles and falls into the canyon.

I was always one of those silly girls with the romantic idea of a rougher way of living. Even with the 'modern conveniences' as I was growing up there were a few times when the modern world took a holiday and the lumber camp I grew up in had to depend on stored food and electricity-absent-without-leave during particularly hard winters. It was lucky that a gas line followed the power lines and those houses with lines could use gas to heat and cook, but being a lumber camp there was always plenty of wood to burn too. I can still remember carrying buckets of hot water across the road so my horses had something to drink! When that road was bladed off what snow remained was firmly packed and almost as slick as wet glass! Oh what fun! But that's a faint taste of what life will be like without some of our toys and conveniences.

I believe we're less likely to experience an urban panic unless we lose electrical power early and unexpectedly. OTOH food riots are more likely when things start to go south which is why I want to offer garden plots to my renters prior to things falling apart. Add in canning parties in the 'snack bar' and I'll have a ready made community support network for the stable if things get 'interesting' before they fall apart completely. And having a garden space will also encourage them to keep the horse!

Wadulisi Tsaligi

Leo said...

@ 86
your right about the lower speed of a car against walking?

Lei said...

As a person who comes from Czech(oslovak)ia - but it essentially applies to the whole Europe -, the experience of the Americans regarding the use of cars has been always a bad dream for me, something almost unbelievable. No that automobilism is not a problem here nowadays, but still, if you do not want to have a car, you simple do not need one. Public transportation is still amazing (though under pressure and not what it used to be especially in the country), except of new suburbia, which have been bulit for a decade or two, all towns and cities have the trraditional "density" and most of the most important services are accessible by walking, or at least decent cycling, or by public transporation, and you have the infrastructure for pedestrian almost everywhere (though development of the infrastructure for city biking is a struggle here in Prague indeed; it is not that much necessary in smaller towns and people use bikes there naturally and traditionally).

Also, I have never understood the status of the car in the American culture, though similar tendencies and manifestations of the automobilist mentality can be seen here as well, especially in the last fifteen years. There are actually many sociological studies which analyze and show the patology hidden behind automobilism and the "car culture", and the externalities are so striking that you can hardly stay blind to them, it would seem (from the impacts on the air to destruction of country or fragmentation of cities, etc. etc.). Unfortunately, many of it has been already grasped in Western Europe, but is difficult to explain to the east from there, where many indeed admire the American way of life. A post-communist trauma, one would say.

As far as Marx is concerned - I too think marxism is a bit misplaced here. It has much to do with Christianity indeed, but not in this way. Moreover, it is not marxism that is described here but rather only its deplorable role in the ideological framework of the ruling class in the communist coutries. Marx himself would surely not recognize marxism in the political practice of the Soviet Union or the Soviet bloc, and as a leading intellectual and philospher of his time, he would find the inferior fairytales elaborated by these regimes, in which he played one of the main roles, silly...

Degringolade said...

I have a habit of informing the author when I write a post using him as a guide.

I do think that there may well be a place in our set of I/it relationships for our personal computers.

Thanks again for the kind work

phil harris said...

Good load of comments. The self-contradictions of our lives. Then somebody mentions having lost their job, and another has walked the edge of real mental health problems, and others are not connecting with friends and relatives.
I had a conversation face to face yesterday with somebody recently taken short with a heart artery blockage - and then later listened to another person by telephone who is helping a severely autistic but not untalented child. Note to diary, must not hide away on the internet so much, (there is a real world out there), but despite the troubles of the world there is perhaps some value in the calming effect when opening the correspondence in the morning.
(My verification tag "whiablys" ... hmmm)

Wendy said...

Ha! Ha! I never considered that my choice not to have a television could be construed as antisocial.

What I do know is that it took me four years to finally convince my husband that we didn't *need* (and then, didn't *want*) a television in our house, and I had a really hard time understanding why he was so adamantly opposed. In light of your commentary here, I guess it makes sense.

The funny part, though, is that now, he's fully embraced our TV-free life and almost wears it like a badge of pride. He started a new job recently, and we'd already jettisoned the television set from the house by that time. I guess he'd mentioned once or twice that we didn't have a television, and one day, one of his friends at work told him that another of their co-workers was talking about taking a collection so that they could buy a television for us, because the assumption was that we didn't have a television, because we oouldn't afford one. Afterall, no one would choose not to have a television.

I'm working now on convincing my husband that we don't need a car ... or at least, that we could get on with just one. It would be difficult, but not impossible, and I'm pretty convinced, that, like getting rid of the TV, the benefits of not having a second car (or any car) would be significant. My angle is the money angle - we could save THOUSANDS per year on insurance, maintenance/upkeep, and gasoline if we had only one car ... and even more if we had no car at all :).

Blackbird said...

Great post. It reminds me of a time a number of years ago when my sister got her first blackberry from her work. She proudly announced to me that this was going to make her life more efficient. I looked at her quizzically, and told her I disagreed. From the moment she got her blackberry, she was now working non-stop; weekends, evenings, holidays - all at a cost to her (she wasn't getting a raise for getting a blackberry). Now, she can't put it down as her work has come to expect to be able to contact her at any time.


MawKernewek said...

I go through phases of watching more or less TV, I didn't watch much when at uni (undergrad and postgrad), although I didn't own one then I had access to one most of the time, and would have been able to get most of interest via Internet anyway. I've been watching more in the last few months, having moved back to parents home, and staying longer than planned, due to a period of illness and unemployment.

I'm quite worried about Facebook. I think for such a large proportion of at least the younger population to rely on a single website run by a single corporation for so much of their communication needs could well unravel in time. I imagine that if hosting costs increased tracking increasing energy costs, Facebook might get increasingly desperate in marketing user's information.....knowing that direct user charging would likely drive users away, and the 'network effect' it relies on would unravel if a very significant portion of people stopped using it.

Also I think Facebook, being fairly prescriptive in some ways of the way in which it expects its users to interact, has a negative effect there too.

However there are a couple of groups of friends, notably my Cornish language group that rely on it to arrange meetings and discussions, so I feel it would be difficult to disengage.

I actually deleted my Facebook profile last summer completely, I however rejoined about a month or two later starting again.

I think I will suspend my account again for the time being.

hapibeli said...

I'm reading Amitav Ghosh's novel "Sea of poppies", the first in a trilogy. It is set in the mid 1800's with Imperial Britain and all of the horrors brought to a culture that already had its own set of castes, slavery, indentured servitude and acceptance of their Indian ways of life. It seems to have been written for an East Indian audience as much of the language used is pidgeon and terms that only those versed in Indian culture might know. Its portrayal of the beliefs and psychology of the people is fascinating and shows how humans can be led into bondage of various kinds. In the reading thereof it is a simple step to compare our culture and the way beliefs here and now are utilized to sway opinion and desires. The TV ( dancing girls and men, sumptuous banquets, harems) and the auto ( oxen, horses, carts, wagons) are only the latest forms of desire to show power and status ( caste, position). So little changes.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Hmm, if there's one machine I admit being truly attached to it's my bicycle. I traded my old one in for a new one last week - having ridden a cheap clunker that cost less than 200 dollars for the last five years.

Still, in that time it served me well as a mode of transportation - a quick back of the envelope calculation reveals I went about 25,000km on it - or the equivalent distance from London to Sydney and half way back again. That comes out at about half a cent a mile ... and I got 40% of the value back when I traded it in (although I have admittedly spent some money on repairs).

My new bike goes twice the speed, the gears work and it has leather trimmings - so hopefully the next 25,00km will be a lot more comfortable!

Jason Heppenstall said...

@MawKernewek - great to hear someone else is learning Cornish. We hope to be living there a year from now - it's been a long term plan ...

I feel a deep - dare I say it - spiritual connection with Cornwall that stems from spells of my childhood being spent there. I also reckon that the Cornish will do better than most in the coming years as the connection with the land has not been lost as it has elsewhere.

I'd be interested to hear your opinions on the matter.

Jason Heppenstall said...

JMG - I am re-reading the sci-fi classic Riddley Walker by the recently deceased Russell Hoban. What a book!

With regards to the myth of the machine, early on in the book (which is set in a post nuclear far-future Britain) Riddley's father is crushed to death trying to dig out a heavy mud-filled machine which nobody has any idea what it ever did.

Computers have passed into folklore and he says this of them:

"Counting counting they wer all the time... They had machines et numbers up. They fed them numbers and they fractiont out the power of things. They had the Nos. of the rain bow and the power of the air all workit out with counting which is how they got boats in the air and picters on the wind. Counting cleverness is what it wer."

The genius of Russell Hoban was that he recognised that the current hubris surrounding technology won't continue ad infinitum, instead it will give way to angry feelings of impotence and shame - neither of which are useful emotions. But, hey, that's humans for you.

Justin said...

I have another line of attack if you are not already using it. I know it well because I used it against myself.

Give up the car personally, but keep it around. Get a bike or some other form of transportation and figure out how to get everywhere and carry the things you need with it. It will take some time to think of everything, which is why you keep the car handy until you figure it all out. You can just start with basic transportation and work all the way to actually giving up the car completely for all but long distance travel that you are not conditioned or have the time for. Refuse to use convienance as a credible reason for using the car vs. the bike to get every day transportation tasks done. This requires a somewhat strong imagination, as you have to legitimately believe in your own pretense that you don't have a car when its raining or shining, or whether the grocery store is 5 miles or 5 minutes away.

It took me about three years to overcome my inner objections fully. As you show how various tasks such as getting groceries home with panniers and going to work everyday by pedal are feasible, your husband will have less excuses about what you two can't afford to do without using a car for as you demonstrate it can be done, even if some things require a little more preparation than a joy ride.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Remember, with television, commercial radio, and much of the internet, the medium is not the product - YOU are the product, sold to the advertisers. It helps to keep that in mind.

Playful Librarian said...

It's interesting to juxtapose your perspective—which, if I'm reading it correctly, is to understand the biases, or "enchantments", of our society by removing ourselves from them or them from us—against that of McLuhan, who attempted an immersion strategy—what he called the maelstrom, after the Poe short story.

McLuhan, for example, immersed himself in the study of advertising, questioning it, or in his word, "probing", it from within to glean its effects. His results were, of course, provocative and often controversial. The three decades since his death have also shown him to be right far more often than not.

Neither method, it seems to me, is more correct than the other. In fact, both have certain limitations. Immersion risks making one like the fish that can't perceive water or the hammer that sees nothing but nails, to use common tropes. While removal risks being left out, because as mobile phones and Facebook have taught us, to not be an adopter is to be punished by being out of the communication loop.

Of course, that raises the question: Can real friends and community form when a medium is required? Regardless, opting out can be a lonely place. It might take the forced removal of such trappings of modern life for the bulk of society to move on without them.

MawKernewek said...

@Jason Heppenstall

A lot of people subscribe to a romanticised view of Cornwall. It's often pictured as a kind of counterfoil to the industrialised British state. Not entirely true since a fair amount of industrialisation happened there with metal (mostly tin and copper) mining. It was however one of the first places to experience de-industrialisation after the Industrial Revolution, beginning in 1860s when copper prices fell due to overseas competition. Emigration resulted, and from 1861 to 1961 Cornwall's population tended to decline.

On the one hand, the costs of periperality to the 'core' of the UK (i.e an axis running from London to the Midlands - which is targeted for the High Speed 2 line - extending the commuter belt to Birmingham...) are liable to increase with energy costs.

On the other there's a decent renewable energy potential with wind and probably even bigger, wave energy which is in process of being developed.

The overall picture depends on whether the emphasis economically will be on keeping a corporatist, centralised economy going at any cost, which is likely to result in preservation of the core at expense of peripheral areas, or a refocusing to human scale economic activity.

Trouble is there are so many vested interests in the former.

hadashi said...

Yesterday, having cycled the hour distance to the Kumamoto International Building, I discovered in its library a book with "phrases you might need in an emergency". Opening a page at random, I had to laughed out loud. It was considered crucial to be able to say in Japanese: "Excuse me, but my car has been scratched. Where can I go to have it mended?"

Richard Larson said...

JMG. You should ride a horse!

Sure, marxists can only offer false hopes as a lure. Just as any large group beyond what the local ecological limit can support.

For benefit of the one percent or not.

GreenEngineer said...

My favorite energy slave example:
A fit person working near the limits of human endurance can produce about 100 watts of continuous mechanical output. Such a person can (maybe, barely) sustain that level of effort for 10 hours per day.
100 watts for 10 hours equals 1 kilowatt hour.
In other words, 1 kWh represents about the max useful output of a man-day.
In America, 1 kWh costs between $0.05 and $0.30.

Now a question: Are you aware of any civilization in the history of the world that possessed advanced culture (art, science, medicine and other products of an intellectual leisure class) that did not rely on either human slavery or fossil fuels?

I know of no counterexamples, but you're better read than I am and more knowledagble of history. So I thought I'd see if you could come up with one.

Tom said...

Ahhh the machine culture. My most interesting thought about machines is that they have significantly altered how we think about things. Having machines around and using them as analogies for lots of aspects of life we begin to think that how we build, repair and modify machines applies to life. In doing so we grossly underestimate the complexity of life and how it works. With machines you can shut them off, remove a major part, replace or significantly modify it, put it back and tinker until you get the whole thing to work again. That is not the process that evolution has been able to use in designing life or evolving ecosystems. The interconnectedness of life makes our machine view of life seem like a joke. An example for fun is to imagine changing a tire on your car while driving.

Thanks for all the thought provoking JMG.

Justin said...

I went from commuting by car over 40 miles one way to living in Los Angeles without a car in a few years. Gaining independance from having a car is something I have been pretty successful at, and here are some things I found useful.

Hal said...

I don't know a single person who owns a horse who doesn't also own a trailer and at least a 1/4 ton truck to tow it with. Just sayin...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

At the risk of coming across like a complete idiot, I'll pose you a question: What is an inner life?

I've read all of the comments to date and I'll note that most people here are displaying values. I get that, it makes sense from an human interaction point of view and is to be expected - there's no judgement in that from me.

Still, your mentioning of the term inner life, makes me feel ill at ease. I kind of feel that the current forms of magic involved in freedom and community has to be replaced by something? I dunno what though. The only time I see it arise is after a disaster and it soon dissipates as it submits to the stronger paradigm.



Rhisiart Gwilym said...

JM, don't know whether this is off-topic or not, but having just stumbled across it a short while back -- and from thence into a really intensive, fascinated study -- I suspect it may be important enough to dump into this discussion anyway.

It's Tom Campbell's idea, as contained in his 'My Big TOE' trilogy, and in his many vid and audio presentations in various places. (Warning: Tom, even in his sixties is a Castro-like marathon speaker; two and three hour non-stop presentations as standard!)

Go to or just search on YouTube for Dr. Thomas Campbell.

JM, I KNOW that you're up to your eyes in necessary work, but -- if you don't know this stuff already -- it's essential, I think, in a way that most of the very many interesting things that we have no time for just aren't.

It's my considered opinion that Tom Campbell may well be the next in a line stretching back into antiquity, and including in nearer time such game-changer luminaries as Darwin, Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein and David Bohm. Tom's an orthodox lifelong professional physicist too. But with the piquant added twist that he always had some fey apptitudes even as a child, and -- suprise, surprise! -- as a post-grad a most happy synchonicity steered him into Bob Monroe's just-opening Monroe Institute for Consciousness Studies, where in return for helping to set up Bob's laboratory for methodical scientific study of OOBEs, Bob taught him and fellow grad Dennis Mennerich to become skilled at-will travellers.

I suppose such material must be important to Druids anyway, but Tom's big Theory Of Everthing is fascinating at least, and probably a major breakthrough of human understanding in our time.

Hope this tip is useful. Hwyl fawr Archdderwydd! Rh

Guardian said...

Another interesting facet of cars and their owners is the way drivers seem to extend their sense of self (psychic skin if you like) to include their vehicle. So a knock in a traffic jam becomes an attack on the self, and being 'cut up' a personal humiliation. The rise of 'Road rage' is a clear example of this trend. Thus to try and part motorists from their cars is akin to suggesting an amputation.

Growing up in the UK in the late sixties and seventies I was only allowed to watch the BBC which (particularly in this days) shows no advertising. I've never let my children watch live telly, just DVDs and similar and strictly limited to maximum of an hour a day.

Marx is interesting in that his analysis of history seems very accurate particularly in the analysis of the contradictions inherent in capitalism. Where he falls down is his utopian thinking beyond this. The philosopher John Gray is very good on this.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for another great post. Lots of food for thought. I’d read about Buber and the I/Thou relationship, and it makes sense to apply it to Americans’ obsession with things (in fact, I often wonder if hoarding is due to being trapped in inappropriate I/Thou relationships with things). I love the point about the car being faux freedom and the tv faux community! When I see friends get slack-jawed in front of a tv, I’m appalled – very zombie-like. I don’t have a tv, and don’t miss one. My truck, OTOH, compensates for a bad back and hip that needs (and won’t get) replacement. I consider it a prosthetic. <:-}

Good point about the difference in perception of long journeys! Never thought of that, but again, that makes sense.

In general, our culture has really fallen for the myth of independence, rather than seeing our interdependence. Ran Prieur commented on this post on his blog: “I've written before that America is a nation of mad kings. Machines make this possible by giving us something to rule without ruling each other.” Most of us have shifted to power relationships, preferring things that can “submit” to relating with other people, who have to be asked.

But the other part of the defensiveness about cars is the fact that most people could not live the life they now lead without one, and they know it, and they can’t even imagine the disruption they would have to endure to switch away from it. That’s a huge aspect of modern life: we expect to be “efficient” and “effective” and speed and large transport ability is part of that. I spent years in various cities where I could take bus or walk, and still it was impossible to carry home what was needed except in small batches and multiple trips (true, once I carried an entire encyclopedia home from Barnes & Noble on 25th to my East Village apt on 6th, but that was a NYC exception). There were definitely times that I had to choose to drop several activities in a day because I couldn’t do them all by bus. Most people won’t choose that, unless they have to. I am appalled at the number of friends and family who have commented to me that they don’t even look at the gas price – they just fill up “because they have to”. So money, even, isn’t the controlling issue – it’s speed, efficiency, and the ability to do what they feel they need to do in a day. Until we drop our expectations, I doubt this will change. And part of the trap is that this “efficiency” and speed keep people from having the time for introspection that would help them see the insanity of it all.

Ekkar said...

I can't thank you enough for the sharing of your writings. What you are doing is a true form of community, and I thank you for it.
To piggy back onto your comments about the illusion of community participation that one feels while engaged in a television program (very well put by the way) I would say that it is also very dangerous in that it creates an apathy, and the feeling that someone somewhere is taking care of the problems of the world, or at least working for solutions. Especially the feeling that an institution or government agency somewhere has their best men inching ever closer to the final solutions.
Being a bee keeper. I can tell you that what is going to save the bees is not large commercial beekeepers, or government agencies (by any will of their own anyhow. Also considering that they are in fact the problem.) it will be amateur, and small scale commercial beekeepers. The difference between the former and the later being that the former operates under the illusion that others somewhere are working for solutions, and the later is me connecting with the real people around me in my neighborhood and city. Increasing my own knowledge and acting on the problems directly with heart and a fluidity that an institution or an agency just can not achieve.

Ichabod said...

JMG: I'll recommend a book and an author for you if you don't know if it. Robert Romanyshyn's "Technology as Symptom and Dream". You might also find J H Van den Berg's "Divided Existence in a Complex Society" interesting if you haven't read it.

Mumford was also using the metaphor to describe society - the regimentation of industrial and (now) post-industrial society, and the related dehumanization of the efficient social machine - and so forth.

Jennifer D Riley said...

Kudos to JMG for the comment people who ride on buses lose their power and machismo. One of the most startling comments a friend of mine made was an auto is just a platform with four wheels. All the rest is psychology, sex symbol, and debt enslavement. We do have screens in our lives: tv, computer, GPS, so perhaps we need a movement to eradicate screens.

Liked the comment about interstates as distributed network; however, I can think of two interstate bridges, one in Kentucky over the Kentucky River and another 2 miles from where I live. If they were taken out, the alternate is a two lane road and the reinstatement of a ferry.

I have finished one month of my organic farming course and have realized I cannot afford the 60-mile round trip to the leased farmland, and am working on having a garden closer to home: one at a location within biking distance, the other on a former parking lot that will require an auto, but they're both closer.

Slorisb said...

I received this in an email today - talk about serendipity! I sometimes wish I were bright enough to come up with stuff like this...

Last night, my kids and I were sitting in the living room
and I said to them , 'I never want to live in a vegetative state, dependent on some machine and fluids from a
bottle. If that ever happens, just pull the plug.'
They got up, unplugged the Computer, and threw out my wine.
They are SO on my ---- list ..."

Kind of says something relevant about computers

Steve Bowman

Laura said...

So having more machines around, and attaching more meaning to them, encourages people to have lots of I-It relationships, and therefore many people have a tendency to default to I-It relations? This could explain why so many people assume that giving someone power automatically means that person is going to (or should) wield that power like a jerk. Power corrupts, but power over machines corrupts one's human relationships. And this confusion is exacerbated by people's tendency to anthropomorphize complex machines.

What other things do we assign Deep Meaning to? Hmm... apart from the computer, which so many people have mentioned, someone mentioned central heat... I can also see central air as something people cling to; perhaps a symbol of being "civilized" or not slowed down by nature? Heck, the single-family house is a symbol. Look at the reactions people get if they claim to prefer renting an apartment (no maintenance costs! no yard to maintain! no debt!). It's even more severe than when I tell people I don't have a TV.

I guess this is the answer to my question a few weeks ago, on the narrative that steampunk embodies. In steampunk stories, the heroes are mostly people who make machines. Some of them make machines that have inner lives of their own, yet are bound to their creators as if they didn't. Some, like Dr. Frankenstein, use machines to make people and then are surprised when those people have inner lives. And these machines are what give the steampunk societies their shape. Does this scan? Can anyone add to my analysis?

Hmph, for narratives, maybe we're better off with Little House on the Prairie.

Betsys_Backyard said...

@Hal, regarding, not knowing a single person who owns a horse without also owning a truck and trailer ,while I agree, the great deal of horses in the us are for pleasure, you may wish to visit Amish/old order Mennonite country. (PA and OH come to mind)I had the rare opportunity to attend an Amish horse auction in central pa - ( not far from where i grew up) it was a "working" horse auction of at least 400 horses. Road, buggy and plow horses,mules and donkeys. It was primarily managed by and supported by Amish and/or old order Mennonites. There were a few "english" (non deutch americans with English as first language) types with trailers to move horses to modern farms , a few more owned or leased by more modern deutch orders to get the horses home, but otherwise, life goes on without supplemental trucks or trailers. The rural roads there often have buggy lanes, the shopping centers have horse hitches, etc. It is a fairly bustling, though local and small scale economy .. at least in the central PA rural land that I grew up in. I think a fairly interesting model for a post industrial future. I spent a while at a local mennonite supermarket examining how far the food was transported.. I think it was safe to estimate that more than 50% of all the food- was produced withing 100 miles..fresh eggs,produce, meat ( that is common in farmer markets across the us) but ALSO- preserved, frozen and canned products - everyday essentials like flour, cornmeal, canned veggetables, sauces, soups, broth, milk, a great variety of delicatesent cheeses and cold cuts, dried noodles, pickled goods, dried fruits, nuts, home made pies,,, "processed" Delights like ice cream, candy, bread, corn chips, pretzels, pototoe chips. Frozen convenience foods like piroges, french fries, chicken, beef, pork,sausage ( even farm raised buffalo and elk). ALL of these items made with in PA..Other items....Though not sold in PA Deutch stores one can easily find breweries and wineries and tobbaco producing products locally. I think we can learn from all kinds of places but what a delight to know places or systems that have thrived for a few centuries in a low industrial economy still exist.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Betsy, Ozark and Joel,

Thanks for taking the time to read my article on landscape observation and posting comments. Hope you enjoyed the photos too.

The correct answer was location 1 which was picked by Ozark. Nice deduction work! Not a bad location for a food forest, still location 7 would be nice, but out of my price range.

The article is quite relevant to the discussions here because last week (and this week to a lesser extent) so many people were commenting about horses as a replacement for a vehicle. I can't speak for other countries, but over here, only certain locations can actually sustain horses, let alone other cattle. They are heavy feeders and the soil in most parts of the country just isn't good enough to run them intensively.

The point is, if you are bringing in water, food, minerals and nutrients to supplement locally sourced feed, then you can't really sustainably run horses. Just something to think about that wasn't addressed in all of the comments regarding horses.



GS said...

People have to keep something in mind with regards to TV, computers, and cars.

TVs and desktop computers are the opposite of cars: you burn coal or gas or uranium, and end up staying at home. Even with laptops and smartphones you are doing this, just somewhere else.

In the car, you burn oil, and end up going somewhere.

Given that we are at peak oil, the TV and the internet should just about tread water, while the cars become stranded.

Just something to think about.

Kieran O'Neill said...

This post, and some of the vegetable gardening books I'm reading, remind me of that other talisman of the unsustainable version of the American Dream -- the lawn.

I'm trying to figure out what it might be a talisman of. Prosperity, perhaps? ("Look at my lawn! I'm not one of those poor folks who need to grow my own vegetables! And doesn't it show you that my house is worth every penny I paid for it?")

I think it's also interesting to look at such talismans as symbols of middle class-dom. With the middle class shrinking, I suspect that many of its ex-members are pouring much of their money and effort into outer appearances, at great personal cost (often in the form of debt).

John Wheeler said...

@PhilJ - Are you kidding? Cuba has been a wonderful proving ground for adaptation to a sudden loss of energy. We have learned a lot from it already. I just watched an excellent DVD about this: The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

Lance Michael Foster said...

Bicycles also are machines, as are horse-drawn buggies, mule-drawn wagons, etc. So if you really want to get to brass tacks, consider walking. The real poor are people on foot. We evolved as bipeds, to walk.

I was an okay walker in my 20s, and could make around 25 miles in a day on a mountain trail without too much problem. I did not own a car until I was 25, and though I had a bicycle, I enjoyed walking more in most cases. I was never much of a runner, but I could walk, and my little brother was way better than me. No way can I do that now, in my 50s, and with 15 years of desk cubicle life, etc. But I am trying to work back into it.

Humanity spread over the globe on two feet. The San people of Africa, the Hopi here in the U.S., and the Tarahumara of Mexico are all examples of how well a trained human being can make a hundred miles in a day, and even wear down game animals like deer in a patient, relentless human pace. My own tribe the Ioway are recorded by the French in 1680, before we got the horse, as having run alongside buffalo to shoot them with arrows.

I have a bike, and it is the easiest and most fun way for modern people to cover long distances in a fairly short time with little effort. Yes, in some ways it is much more efficient than an auto or even walking for many people. And bikes can be transformed into light cargo transport of people of goods. I see them pulling trailers here in town with recycle bins.

Using one's reason to choose transport, while we still have it is the key. In some instances, across town or commuting, bikes are probably best. When transporting a sick person, a number of small children, or going to a remote ranch in reasonable amount of time, nothing can beat an auto (people who turn up their noses at cars and swell up in pride, while mooching rides with others who have cars, make me laugh). Yes, autos will go away some day, but they have their place now, if one uses reason and thought.

But bikes, their manufacture, parts, tires, and lubricants are all dependent on oil. People steal bikes. You have to park them and they depend on decent roads and trails. Cars try to run you over. Ice and snow are issues as are steep grades and wind. You do have to spend money on them too.

Our two feet are our ancient mode. And if you become your own cobbler, learning how to make mukluks and moccasins and repair them as you go (scavenged materials from upholstery, old auto tires, or tanning/curing hides), or you live in warmer climes and toughen your feet or learn to make sandals from the same kinds of materials, you are set to go.

I am learning to make my own footwear from available materials as my own legacy to pass down to the next generation, should a person not be able to afford shoes. Take care of your feet and they will take care of you.

siddrudge said...

I recently picked up an interesting book at a yard sale for 50 cents: "The Machine In The Garden-- Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America" by Leo Marx.1964; Oxford University Press.

Very enlightening! I especially liked the observations of Nathaniel Hawthorne on how the steam engine interrupted his meditation in the woods of Sleepy Hollow.


parus said...

I wonder how much further this line of reasoning could be taken. Pornography as a distorted representation of intimacy and the virtual worlds of videogames as representations of adventure, exploration and discovery (though the I-it/I-thou duality might not seem obvious here, depending on how much subjectivity you want to credit the natural world with..) come to mind. The way Facebook and the like have distorted the idea of friendship was already brought up.

I'd be interested to hear thoughts (from anyone who might read this) on how detaching from the machine might not only be a good idea in the face of its likely breakdown, but also as a path to a somehow more authentic (whatever that may mean) life. Moral judgments are always iffy, of course, but I doubt anyone, deep down, actually considers life under the spell of the machine a Good Thing.

Jennifer D Riley said...

I think it was JMG who stated the green lawn is a status symbol, in one of his books.

My organic farming course and the organic farmers/guest speakers have sung the praises of drip tape (made from petroleum) sourced from a water supply such as a pond or pumped with a pump. When I asked about rain barrels, the drip tape guru said NO, rain barrels don't provide the needed pressure to force the water at 10 lbs, IIRC, and black row covers (guess). I mean row upon row off black row cover.

For drip irrigation, you can put a pinhole in a jug and just lay in on top of the ground, under the mulch, or even dig it into the ground. Leave the lid off and re-fill with a hose. Instead of black row covers, just mulch, I suppose, which makes me think long, long rows may be obsolete and intensive gardening in a small space is the ultimate mastery. The drip tape guru also sells and entire cover, like a white robe or overcoat, in which only the plants poke through. Weird.

Matt Mc said...

A great video on the general theme of how easy it is to misunderstand growth of populations and energy usage:

GreenEngineer said...

@Kieran O'Neill

The antecedent for the modern American lawn is the lawn of the english country estate. These estates were originally the creation of the enclosure process, and represented wealth because they were used to graze sheep. (Sheep are what the lords switched to growing when maintaining peasant farmers became less lucrative.)

Thus, my favorite bumper sticker which I've never actually seen:
Lawns Are For Sheep!

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I tried posting this yesterday but it didn't show up.

I didn't own a car until about the age of thirty. During most of my twenties I lived in a metropolitan area with a good bus system and depended on that and my two feet to get around. I left home in the morning with a knapsack containing a jacket, a book and one or two meals. I always got home well after dark, because the amount of travel time required to get everything done from work to errands to recreation was three or four hours.

This was before bike lanes, and light rail was just beginning to be restored. Visiting friends or an event more than fifteen miles away wasn't possible unless I begged a ride from someone. Getting out of town to the country also was dependent on rides from others. I eventually got tired of this and bought a cheap car.

Betsys_Backyard said...

Chris @ Cherokee Organics, enjoy the very important points you make regarding sustainable horse populations,,, I think most of us, even in general agriculture endevors, fail to appreciate how parent soil fertility, soil neutral pH and natural abundant water sources are critical in determining the type of farming and human population it can support. Horses are not sustainable everywhere, and much of what we have in modern agriculture would never be in place but for irrigation, machines or fossil fuels. It is the productive, highly rich soils
of central PA that make me wish to move back to my homeland. It is also ironic that Pennyslvania is where the first oil well was drilled, has natual deposits of anthracite coal and now,, to my great concern.. Natural gas being

Zach said...


That's a very nice analysis - well done. I think your use of Buber and noting the talismanic nature of certain of our machines is spot-on.

However, I have one disappointment. You said "Let’s start with the basics. What is a machine? There are plenty of ways to answer that deceptively simple question, but I’m going to propose a provocative one..."

I've reread looking for it, and I'm missing your promised definition of what a machine is. That's not the same thing as discussing the role and function of (some) machines.

Is my reading comprehension failing, or will that be part of an upcoming post?


Verification word: wainese. Heh.

Rita said...

Lots to think about in this week’s post. One thought that occurred to me is that some people seem to resist an I/it relationship with their machines. It is not uncommon to give names to automobiles or even computers, and talking to the things is just a given, sometimes coaxing, sometimes cursing, sometimes praising. On the other hand, we have the tendency to treat other people as objects. I wonder how frequently these tendencies are seen in the same person. We certainly have historic precedent—heroes who use their named sword to hack down enemies who are seen as interchangeable units of evil. Goodness we are a muddled up species.
I have increasingly noticed that, even for those who drive, the areas fitted up for cars are hostile territory once you leave the car. Drive to the mall and once you exit your car you are on your own to dodge vehicles that are seeking a parking space, entering or exiting a space, or entering or leaving the parking lot. Only handicapped spaces are given marked pathways to the buildings. The situation is particularly hazardous for people with small children in tow. I don’t know how many times I have repeated the phrase, “This is a parking lot, you have to hold my hand.” You would think that shop owners would want customers to reach their premises intact and in a good mood, but apparently the idea of surrendering a few feet of potential parking space in favor of walkways is unsupportable.
There have been two recent articles about mass transit in Slate online magazine. The first “What’s the Best Way to Get Users to Embrace Mass-Transit” by Tom Vanderbilt, posted 1/19/12, discusses planning transit systems to attract passengers. Interesting ideas and commentary. But I believe I have a simple three part answer. Mass transit has to go WHERE people need to go, WHEN they need to go there, RELIABLY. We don’t need cute names like Oahu’s “TheRIde”, or cute vehicles like trolley cars, or high concept vehicles like monorails. We just need to be sure when we set out that a bus or train will go get us to our destination and home again in a reasonable time and with reasonable reliability. Years ago I read an interview with the director of Bay Area Rapid Transit in which he excused his failure to use public transit on the grounds that he had important meetings to attend. I wish the reporter had followed up with some comment like “So what you are saying is that mass transit is for the masses, not for important people like yourself?”
The second Slate article, “Train in Vain” by Matthew Yglesias, posted 1/27/12, tells of an expected change in the federal regulations controlling the type of transit projects that are approved. Currently the rules require that a project show promise of reducing commute time. Since trains making frequent stops cannot compete with autos the type of projects approved usually parallel a heavily traveled route that cannot be expanded and features stations relatively far apart with large parking lots. Bay Area Rapid Transit is an example: neither the tunnel between the eastern suburbs and the Bay, nor the Bay Bridge could be widened, so the BART trains could realistically be expected to speed commuters on their way. The new rules will allow the number of riders who will be served to be considered as part of the cost/benefit analysis. I was not surprised that most of the comments on these two articles lambasted the authors for the very idea that mass transit should be considered an important part of America’s transportation plans. Obviously the American public has internalized the BART manager’s attitude that trains and buses are not convenient or reliable enough for important people to use.

Morrigan said...

In the old English estates, a nice orderly lawn also symbolized the conquest of messy old Nature with its bushes, trees and weeds all over the place. No doubt it also showed you could afford an army of groundskeepers to keep the monoculture bright green and perfectly graded too.

If you ask me, the only place turfgrass is justified now is on golf courses. Its unsustainable upkeep, gateway to monoculture and ensuing loss of wild fauna, and toxic inputs can't be justified any longer, if they ever could.

hadashi said...

@Lance Michael Foster
I enjoyed what you had to say about horses, bicycles and pedestrianism and concur that walking is what we're born to do. Since 1998 I've been going barefoot (which is what 'Hadashi' means in Japanese) and have run marathons that way as well as journeys of a thousand or more kilometres (and at 50 years plus). The best of luck with reclaiming your own fitness.

phil harris said...

Lance M F says he is going to get back on his feet.
Good news Lance. You should be able to do most of what you did in your 20s if you build up over a year. I started when I was 49 after a heart attack and I can still go up mountains and run half marathons at 71. Diet and exercise help recover pleasure and enjoyment as well. Take a few tips from Mr Singh - eat like Mr Singh - who finished the Ottawa marathon last year aged 100. (He had completed one in under 5 hours when he was 94.)

Footware project sounds interesting. When I was young I met people who had been brought up to do that as a normal part of family life. (And there are always the 'Ho-chi-min 500 milers', if you remember those?)

Don't write off bikes. Made the old-fashioned way they could last a couple of lifetimes with a bit of blacksmithing. My dad's first bike ran on solid tires (not comfortable but a good load carrier).

very best wishes for your projects.

Zach said...

@Jason Heppenstal and Lance Michael Foster -

Ah, but a key question is whether that bicycle of yours is a machine or a tool. Those have different dynamics. I'll be surprised if JMG doesn't have something to say about that distinction shortly.


Alphonse Houner said...

You have chosen a home location very well. The railway in your town connects to nearly all major population centers in one way or another. It will be interesting to see what happens to it in the event our conservative friends win in total this autumn.

In the Midwest most of the feeder railways are gone and in some few locations, such as our village, it never arrived. Our future lies with the rivers defining both sides of our County. Both now have extensive commercial barge traffic but no passenger cartahge. I suspect sometime in a surprisingly near future some level of simpler transport systme will develop along it. Then we will travel to the land beyond the great bend by boat instead of our Ranger truck.

This is a good series and very thought provoking.

Ash said...


Very courageous to "go after" Marxism as a failed apocalyptic prophecy, especially in a post about "the myth of the machine", since automation as an internal contradiction of capitalism that displaces labor/consumption and leads to its demise is a central part of Marxian theory. I think you raise some valid points, because the traditional Marxist analysts are, in many ways, just as dogmatic as anyone preaching The Second Coming, or what have you.

They especially cling to the Labor Theory of Value, which is simply not accurate. I'd rather not get into some protracted debate with anyone here about the value of modern Marxist theory, but just wanted to point out one thing - a group of Japanese Marxists, through handwriting analysis, discovered that almost everything written about "historical materialism" (the rather deterministic and "apocalyptic" part of Marxist theory) was done by the hand of Engels, not Marx.

charlo49 said...

The use and obsession with automobiles is all caused by our inability to live together in groups. We are all "atomized." We have no connection to anyone around us. So we live here, work over there, shop there, go to gym here, and so on. Everybody's rushing hither and yon like Brownian motion. And none of this has any effect on our happiness. If anything, it decreases happiness.

So what to do about it? To my mind, we need to recreate small self-contained, autonomous villages where all the needs of the inhabitants are met by the people themselves. There would be no unemployment in such a community.

I think the best model is the Roman "gens."

"In theory, each gens functioned as a state within a state, governed by its own elders and assemblies, following its own customs, and carrying out its own religious rites. Certain cults were traditionally associated with specific gentes. The gentile assemblies had the responsibility of adoption and guardianship for their members. If a member of a gens died intestate and without immediate family, his property was distributed to the rest of the gens."

I would suggest we resurrect this legal entity so that groups of people, maybe 100, 500, 5,000, could link themselves together legally to form modern-day tribes. These "tribes" should take over tracts of land and establish self-sufficient autonomous rural farming communities. This would solve all our problems in one fell swoop.

Leo said...

so how does the i-it or i-thou relationship work when its applied from a controller of a highly organised group of people, those that "like a well oiled-machine" applies to. as well as from the group to the controller and how does this change our myths of machines?

carlosbenari said...

Started reading Sacred Economics,by Charles Eisenstein, after a comment on the AODA list. Recommended for all readers here, IMHO.

MawKernewek said...

Private motoring is partly driven by a desire to carve out of the public space of the highway, ones own personal space in the interior of a vehicle, in a way that cycling or using public transport does not.

Perhaps this is some kind of response to the fact that an indivual household, or any human scale community, is so far from economic self-suffiency, that to maintain a sense of indivualism, the motorcar provides a way to call a small space your own.

Likewise TV, allowing home entertainment, but the paradox here is it is used in the service of a mass culture.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@M: Thanks -- I was just thinking of those figures for the economy of a car vs economy of a bicycle. Over here in Vancouver, you can add in public transit as an intermediate option, but it's helpful to compare the annual costs in a table:

Car: ~&7,000
Transit pass: $850-$1000
Bicycle: $100-$200

As for your situation, stay strong, keep conserving, and try to find a supportive community.

@Lance Michael Foster: Sage words. I believe it's helpful to consider, however, that bicycles, horse carts, and other example of low-tech machinery are significantly easier to build and maintain than a motorcar. Of course, flat non-flooding roads to run them on are another matter entirely...

phil harris said...

For those who mentioned 'lawns' it is possible to think of them as a resource.
An ancient and necessary method of restoring soil fertility was 'fallow' or resting the ground. Later, grass and clover swards in temperate agriculture provided a sustainable basis for more intensive farming. Even if you do not graze animals on your lawn it is possible to transfer sustainably some of the fertility (grass clippings by hand-mowing?) to your compost heap. Meanwhile your sward is building some useful nitrogen and carbon, and if you need to suddenly extend your cultivation for vegetables there is a fertile soil waiting. Also in the meanwhile, many birds can feed off your lawn. The princples can be adjusted to your area.

Talking about using water in a dry environment in America, I found ths example to be very beautful.

John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all! As I mentioned around this time last week, I've been on the road -- had a three day workshop in Minneapolis to teach, and that and the train trip there and back ate most of a week. I'm sorry to say that I won't be responding individually to 140 comments!

One comment, though. I found it interesting, and wryly amusing, that several people here and others elsewhere on the net got very hot under the collar about my comments on Marxism. Yes, I have read Marx's Das Kapital, including the two later volumes edited by Engels -- it was to the latter that I was referring, of course, when I mentioned the shining promises that have been such a central part of Marxist apocalyptic rhetoric. (I hadn't heard about the handwriting analysis, as mentioned by Ash -- that does cast an intriguing light on the genesis of the Marxist theory of history.)

Those who feel that I've treated Marx roughly, though, should take heart. I'm convinced that the next few years will see a serious attempt to revive Marxism as a major political movement here in the United States, and for the thirty years or so that'll follow -- that's about how long a popular cultural movement in the US generally lasts -- they will have plenty of people agreeing with them. I really doubt they'll get any further than the last big Marxist movement in the US did, but in the interval, it should be a very exciting time to be a Marxist.

dewitt425 said...

With regard to your brief commentary on Developmental Psychologists...sounds like the classic struggle of self and subject, objectivity and subjectivity, and structure and post-structure, etc.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Comrade JMG,

A leading contemporary US Marxist (rebranded 'Marxian' these days) is Prof Rick Wolff Interesting website and well presented lectures. Not sure if he's Peak Oil aware, but his main argument is that we need collective ownership of the means of production, which he argues wasn't achieved under Stalin et al, where the State took over.

Meanwhile, there is a backlash against the bourgeousie going on over here in Merrie England - one of our nouveau rich failed bankers just got scapegoated and stripped of his knighthood in a token gesture from the Establishment, but keeps the ill-gotten mega pension, while his sucessor declined a patently undeserved £1M bonus when it started to look a bit awkward, what with it being sourced from declining public funds and all.

Up the Workers!


Jim Brewster said...

This post and the comments about lawns have me musing on longer historical arcs going back to the Crusades. From there we can already see the rise of the middle class, the lure of the open road, and the incentive to build labor-saving machines and favor sheep-grazing over peasant farming as trends to watch.

Follow this with the Black Death, and labor shortages became critical, while the remaining peasants understandably began to assert their rights to better treatment and compensation.

By the time European population was restored to the point where the old feudal system might once again be viable, there was no turning back. But there was a new place to send all those uppity peasants: America!

John Wheeler said...

@charlo49 I came to the conclusion long ago that Local Economic Self-Sufficiency was the solution to most of the problems facing us. I think a better example is Mennonite communities. As to the size, there are several arguments why 150-200 is optimal.

@Kieran I do think road maintenance is going to be a problem very soon. I think the best off-the-shelf solution are mountain bikes. Another little-known solution is Chinese wheelbarrows.

@PhilHarris IMHO the most sustainable "lawn" management is using a scythe. Once the grass gets 1 - 2 feet tall, I've found a scythe actually is the easiest way to cut it.

alabaster said...


The difference between a tool and a machine is indeed an interesting one. Following Richard Heinberg in 'The Party's Over', we can distinguish four categories of tools, roughly corresponding to four major watersheds of social evolution:

1. Tools that require only human energy for their manufacture and use.
2. Tools that require an external power source for their manufacture, but human power for their use.
3. Tools that require only human energy for their manufacture, but harness an external energy source.
4. Tools that require an external energy source for their manufacture and use.

The boundary between machine and non-machine is unclear, but one can state that category one and two tools are not 'machines', while category four tools certainly are. Category three tools are harder to classify. I would argue that a wooden plough and a sailboat (both category three tools) are not machines, while a windmill (also a category three tool) probably is. It depends, it seems to me, on the level of mechanical complexity of the category three tool in question. There may also be some time dependence here: in the medieval period, a windmill would certainly have been considered 'a machine' - in the 21st century, not so much, because the mechanical complexity is much more widely understood.

Anyway, in the case of the bicycle, category 3 classifications are academic, because a bicycle is clearly a category 2 tool. Ergo, a bicycle is not a 'machine'.

Another useful way of thinking about this is that 'machines' were unknown before the holocene era, and will doubtless be in short supply again when the fossil fuel era has ended.

Unknown said...

@alabaster--where would clockwork mechanisms powered by gravity (weights) or hand-wound springs fit on the continuum of tools/machine?

John Muir designed and constructed a clockwork device made of wooden cogs to tip himself out of bed in the morning. That doesn't seem to be a tool.

(Deborah Bender)

Jennifer D Riley said...

My thought is a bicycle is both a tool and a machine. Tool because use depends on hands that have opposable thumbs, at least to start. I'm certain some lucky people can balance their entire lives and never need a handlebar, but most need the handlebar. You have to be able to grip the handlebar to balance and to turn, to point the front wheel or to back up. To park and lock the chain. To hold the handlebar while you put the kickstand down. If your bike has gear shifts and handlebar brakes, voila, another demand you have opposable thumbs.

The machine parts are pedal, the gear(s) and the sprocket chain that meshes. You could sit on a bicycle and push yourself along with both feet. But the pedal, single gear and sprocket chain allows your feet to pedal and then transfers your downward circular motion into a conversion factor that allows you to go forward.

You can tie baskets or build a come-along cart or a rickshaw. I've seen soup kitchen bicycles towing insulated containers to hold soup.

Brad K. said...

@ unknown 8:43,

"where would clockwork mechanisms powered by gravity ... fit on the continuum of ools/machine?"

Elementary school science teaches there are six 'simple' machines, of which all complex machines are made. These are: Lever, Inclined Plane, Wheel and Axle, Screw, Wedge, Pulley. I might contend that the screw and wedge are forms of an inclined plane, and that the wheel and axle is a form of lever.

The dictionary claims a tool is
A device or implement, esp. one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.
and a machine is
An apparatus using or applying mechanical power to perform a particular task.

From this, my take is that a machine transforms energy from one form to another, to perform a task.

Thus the bicycle transform leg muscle changes into forward motion, the windmill applies wind energy to various processes from pumping water to grinding grain and sawing wood.

Most tools will be a machine of some kind.

As for the Heinberg class of "tools", this appears to be contrived to identify risks that particular tools and processes might not be available in the future. In that light, I would restate the "external energy" as "industrial era energy source".

Many common hand tools, from woodworking chisels and planes to hammers, saws, garden hand tools, cooking utensils, and more, have been and can be made using scrap iron or steel or iron ore, and charcoal, coal, or industrial gases. (I am not sure methane will reach the heat density needed to work steel; there is still brass and bronze, though, at wood fire temperatures.)

When looking at the list, though, keep in mind the premise -- that the retreat from the industrial era is likely already underway. And that the pace of decline may or may not increase noticeably in any particular decade. That is, adapting early avoids the last minute rush, when the realization that the last truck into town has already arrived and departed. Or that with *this* particular power outage, we can no longer depend on electricity being available for any particular use or event. The 'crash' will take decades or more; look at the centuries it took for the Romans to decline.