Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Post-American Future

One of the things I’ve learned repeatedly over six and a half years of writing Archdruid Report posts is that it’s a waste of time to try to predict which posts will appeal to my readers and which ones won’t. Last month’s narrative is a case in point. My original plan was to devote one post to a very brief scenario of American imperial collapse.  By the time I got the thing written, even after a great deal of trimming, it was the size of five regular posts; I decided to run it anyway over five weeks, since it did a good job of illustrating the themes I’ve been developing since February of this year, but I figured that it would be just another ordinary month for the blog.

Somehow that didn’t happen. Last month, The Archdruid Report had the second highest page view count of any month in its history; the first episode in the narrative is this blog’s most-viewed page ever, and the others are climbing rapidly to comparable positions. It’s interesting to reflect on the reasons why that happened, but I suspect that the most significant of those reasons is also the simplest: the narrative that I sketched out presented the decline and fall of the United States not as the end of the world, nor as an excuse for yet another wearily unthrilling Tom Clancyesque thriller, but as an ordinary historical event.

I’d like to expand on that a little, because—as regular readers of this blog already know—history is the primary resource I use to guide what’s posted on this blog.  The core hypothesis shaping my view of the future is the proposal that our time differs from the past only in the way that one past era differs from another.  The notion that the present epoch is utterly unique in history, popular as that is, fails to convince me, and the habit of using that notion as an excuse to project an assortment of utopian and apocalyptic fantasies on the inkblot patterns of the future strikes me as frankly delusional. It makes more sense, I think, to recognize that imperial overstretch is imperial overstretch no matter what technologies the empire in question happens to use, and that trying to make sense of the future on the basis of historical parallels is a more useful strategy than insisting that the future must conform to our desires, our fears, or both at once.

Thus I’d like to walk through some of the historical events I used as models for the trajectory of decline and fall in “How It Could Happen,” and talk a little about why those models are relevant.

The overall scenario of failed military adventurism leading to a crisis of legitimacy and the collapse of a government?  That was modeled on the Falklands War of 1982, though I could have used any number of other examples.  In the case of the Falklands crisis, the government of Argentina, facing a rising spiral of economic and political problems, gambled that it could improve its situation by seizing a set of bleak little islands in the south Atlantic, then as now owned by Britain and claimed by Argentina, on the assumption that Britain would be neither willing nor able to mount an effective military response.  It was a disastrous miscalculation; by the time the smoke cleared, Britain had retaken the islands by main force, the Argentine military had suffered a humiliating defeat, and the crisis of legitimacy that followed promptly toppled the Argentine government.

It’s worth noting that if the war had gone the other way—say, if Argentina had been armed with a hundred Exocet antiship missiles, rather than the five they had, and sent most of the British fleet to the bottom—Margaret Thatcher’s government would likely have fallen in short order.  The difference, of course, is that the transfer of power in Britain would have followed the normal rules of British politics; there would have been a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, somebody else would have moved into No. 10 Downing Street, and that would have been that. In Argentina, things were not so simple, because there was no straightforward way to get rid of an incompetent leadership and its policies without taking down an entire system of government and replacing it with something else.

One of the points of the narrative, in turn, is that the United States just now is a great deal closer to the Argentine situation than to the British one. Here in America, we’ve just spent a year seeing which of two interrchangeable candidates will take the presidential oath of office this coming January. Those of my readers who are Republicans, and downcast by Obama’s victory last night, should take heart; the policies we’ll see for the next four years will be exactly the same as the ones that we would have had if your candidate had won, and now you have the freedom to criticize them, while the Democrats have to put up with another four years of pretending that the man they helped put into office isn’t betraying every principle they claim their party stands for. The blustering and violent pursuit of the same failed foreign policy, the eager pursuit of national bankruptcy in the name of global security, the tacit refusal to prosecute even the most egregious financial crimes, the whittling away of civil liberties, the gargantuan giveaways to corrupt but influential industries, and the rest of it:  the whole package that’s been welded in place since the days of George W. Bush was guaranteed to continue whoever won.

Previous posts here have discussed the reasons why the policymaking machinery of the US government has jammed up, leaving this particular set of failed policies to play over and over again like a broken record. Sooner or later that process will end, if only because a government that fails often enough goes out of existence sooner or later.  The scenario I traced out in the narrative suggests one way in which the jam could be broken; there are plenty of others, but most of them involve the end, in one way or another, of the particular form of constitutional government we have in America today.

Let’s move on. The constitutional convention that spun out of control, and suddenly made the unthinkable a political fact?  That was based on the opening act of the French Revolution. The conflict between the states and the federal government in the narrative was a deliberate echo of the conflict between the French aristocracy and the king in the years before 1789. The aristocracy, struggling to reclaim its lost privileges, managed to pressure Louis XVI into calling the Estates-General, the rarely summoned national parliament of France, which had very nearly the same powers as an American constitutional convention. Once the delegates met, the crisis of legitimacy that had been been building in France for decades exploded; attempts to keep the meeting focused on its official purpose—solving the nation’s budget crisis—were overwhelmed by events, and over the weeks  that followed, a system of government that had endured for centuries came apart forever.

The rush toward extremism on the part of the American people in the months before the constitutional convention?  That was the United States of America before, during, and immediately after the 1860 presidential election.  It took not much more than a year for secession in most Southern states, and violent opposition to slavery and disunion in most Northern ones, to make their respective transitions from minority ideologies to popular causes for which hundreds of thousands of people would fight and die. “The story of 1860,” wrote historian Bruce Catton in The Coming Fury, “is the story of a great nation, marching to the wild music of bands, with flaring torches and with banners and with enthusiastic shouts, moving down a steep place into the sea.” (Catton’s book, by the way, should be required reading for all those convinced that the American political process is incapable of drastic change; for that matter, it’s one heck of a good read, and the two subsequent volumes, Terrible Swift Sword  and Never Call Retreat, are just as good.)

The dissolution of the United States via a never-used provision of the Constitution? That was inspired by the fall of the Soviet Union.  On paper, each of the republics that made up the Soviet Union had the right to secede from the union at any time. In practice—well, would you have wanted to try doing that when Stalin was in office?  Under Gorbachev, though, Boris Yeltsin could and did invoke that clause of the Soviet constitution without risking sudden removal from office via a pistol shot and an unmarked grave, and a Soviet system that was already in crisis came apart in days.

The failure of the military and of intelligence agencies to stop the collapse of the government by force? That was based on events across most of the Eastern Bloc right after the Berlin Wall came down. The Warsaw Pact nations each had, in theory, more than enough soldiers and secret police to prop up a troubled government by rounding up protesters and shooting them, say, or doing the other things that embattled governments routinely do to their people.  In practice, the final crisis of each regime saw military personnel standing aside or actively siding with the insurgents, and left commanders looking nervously at their own troops, uncomfortably aware that ordering them to attack civilians could quickly lead to civil war or, on a more personal level, to a bullet in the back of the head or a hand grenade tossed into a conference room, courtesy of their own soldiers. 

More generally, that’s the great weakness of every government.  The notion that the leaders of a nation exercise power is a convenient but misleading shorthand for a much more complex process, in which power is actually wielded by thousands of ordinary soldiers, police officers, minor officials, and the like, in obedience to dictates that come cascading down the chain of command through any number of intermediaries.  If anything happens to the willingness of those thousands to follow orders, or to the ability or willingness of the chain of command to function, the apparent power of the leadership can evaporate like frost on a sunny morning.  Whenever a government collapses, if it’s not simply thrown out by some other nation’s invading troops, that’s far more often than not the way that it goes.

Some of my readers will doubtless be objecting by this point that it would have been just as possible for me to put together a different set of historical analogies and tell a different story of the way that America’s global empire, and America itself, went to pieces. That’s exactly the point I hoped to make. The narrative presented in October’s posts, as I explained at the time, is not my idea of the way that the American empire will fall; it’s simply an account of one way that the American empire could fall, and its details were chosen to outline some of the most serious fault lines running through that empire and the society that the empire supports.

Of course the end of America’s global empire could happen in some other way. The utter failure of the political process might bring about a collapse of constitutional government at the hands of some charismatic demagogue or other; we could see a sustained insurgency break out in any of half a dozen parts of the country, shredding the economy and forcing the government to bring the troops home from overseas; a military failure of the sort I’ve outlined, instead of triggering the rush to dissolution, could usher in a long era of national retrenchment and reassessment, in which America’s once-traditional isolationism reasserts itself and George Washington’s advice about avoiding foreign entanglements once again becomes the centerpiece of the nation’s policy. I chose a relatively untraumatic option, in large part because so many people seem to find it impossible to remember that plenty of large, heavily armed nation-states down through the years have collapsed in one way or another without dissolving into civil war or assaulting the rest of the planet; still, there’s no guarantee that this will be the way that things work out. There are many options as we approach the post-American future.

The one thing that isn’t an option at this point, I would argue, is a continuation of American global dominance for more than a short time to come.  Like the British empire a century ago, the American empire is visibly cracking at the seams as the costs of maintaining a global imperial presence soar and the profits of the imperial wealth pump slump.  Funds the nation can no longer afford to spend are being poured into military technologies that presuppose a way of war that’s rapidly approaching its pull date, while rising powers less burdened by the legacies of the past circle around, waiting for the first signs of weakness.  Which of those rising powers will turn out to be the next generation of global hegemons is a good question; China certainly seems like the most likely candidate just now, but then Germany looked like the most likely candidate for Britain’s replacement in 1912, and we know what happened thereafter. 

What does a post-American future look like?  To begin with, here in America, it’s a future in which the vast majority of us will be much less wealthy than we are today.  The American standard of living has been propped up since 1945 by the systemic imbalances that gave a quarter of the world’s energy resources and a third of its raw materials and industrial product to the five per cent of humanity that lives in the United States.  Everything we consider normal in American life today is a function of that flow of imperial tribute, and as that goes away, most of what we consider normal in American life is going to change. The economic troubles that have been ongoing since 2008 are the foreshocks of that seismic shift, which will see most American incomes drop to Third World levels. 

Those of my readers who are incensed by the extreme disparity in wealth between the rich and the rest in this country should remember that most of that disparity consists of paper wealth, much of it of very questionable value.  Trillions of dollars worth of dubious derivatives, asset-backed securities backed by wholly insecure assets, loans that will never be paid back, and equally hallucinatory stores of wealth currently pad the notional net worth of America’s rich; in any imaginable post-American future, all that will be reassessed at its real value, which in most cases amounts to zero.  Just as the Great Depression saw huge income and net worth disparities in American society drop like a rock as vast amounts of paper wealth turned into mere paper, the Greater Depression that will follow the end of American empire will almost certainly see the same phenomenon on an even larger scale. One moral to this story is that any of my readers who have their wealth tied up in paper assets of any kind might be wise to think, hard, about how long they want to leave it there.

Outside the United States, circumstances will no doubt vary.  Those nations that have linked their welfare or their survival too closely to American empire will be dragged down in their turn; those who align themselves with one or another contender for America’s replacement will rise or fall with their choice, while those that have the good sense to step back into neutrality until the smoke clears, and then make arrangements with the new hegemon, will doubtless do well.  I suspect, though, that Japan and western Europe in particular will be in for a rough awakening.  For decades now, they’ve reaped the benefits of having their national defense backstopped by gargantuan US defense budgets, and the end of that cozy arrangement will force them to choose between spending a great deal more money on their own militaries, accepting a new overlord who may be a good deal less congenial than the one they have now, or accepting a position of extreme vulnerability in an epoch where that may turn out to be an exceptionally risky thing to do.

Still, all these concerns are secondary to the most crucial factor, which is that the post-American future will still have to deal with the head-on collision between a global economic system that requires perpetual growth, on the one hand, and hard planetary limits on the other.  The end of America’s empire does not mean the end of industrial civilization; nor, for that matter, will it solve the twin problems sketched out decades ago in the prescient and thus profoundly unfashionable pages of The Limits to Growth: the exhaustion of necessary but nonrenewable resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the buildup in the biosphere of ecologically and economically damaging pollutants, particularly carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Those forces are still the dominant fact of our time, and the end of America’s empire—traumatic as it may well be, and not only for Americans—is simply one more roadbump along the route of the Long Descent.

Regular readers of The Archdruid Report will be interested to know that the anthology of post-peak oil science fiction stories that came out of last year’s contest here is now available in print and e-book formats. After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum World features twelve stories set in futures of the kind we are most likely to encounter, in the largely unexplored territory off beyond today's tired fantasies of limitless progress and sudden apocalypse. Many thanks to all the contributors, and to Shaun Kilgore of Founders House Publishing, who made this project possible!

End of the World of the Week #47

If your last name is Prophet, you have certain advantages in setting up shop as a New Age teacher, and the redoubtable Elizabeth Clare Prophet took advantage of those advantages in a big way.  All through the 1970s and 1980s, her books could be found in every New Age bookstore worth the name, and her organizations—the Summit Lighthouse and the Church Universal and Triumphant—were significant presences across the New Age scene of the time, and remain active today.

A detailed account of Prophet’s writings, teachings, and activities would fill plenty of pages. Her place here in the End of the World of the Week rests, though, on one detail of her teaching—her repeated insistence that the end would come via nuclear war on April 23, 1990. She apparently received this information from the Ascended Masters, advanced spiritual beings who also dictated her many books. Still, the Masters apparently weren’t ascended enough to get their dates right, and April 23, 1990 passed without incident, like so many other purported doomsdays before and since.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Bill Pulliam said...

I was glad of your final paragraph explicitly bringing us back to the hard limits to growth. Of course that was implicit in the narrative, as the core of the conflict between the U.S. and China was controlling energy resources. But I think there is a great tendency to believe that when we decline, some other power will just expand exactly as we did over the last two centuries, and build another empire very much like ours. And so on. But the various shuffling empires of the industrial age have all been subsets of one hyper-empire (industrial civilization built by cheap fossil fuels) that envelops them all. As this envelop shrinks, the space available for a nascent empire to expand in to is reduced.

This leaves me wondering whether there really is another global empire to follow us, or whether the decline of energy resources will derail the growth of the asian empire before it really expands globally, much as a vigorous corn field falters, stunts, then whithers when a drought hits before the grain sets. In my head I also entertain a scenario of the end of American Empire in which we just gradually pull back from our global commitments because we simply can't maintain them (think Rome fading away in Britain), and domestically a federal government that is increasingly incapable of providing the functions or maintaining the control that States are accustomed to. States would have to step in, where they could, when the Feds fizzled, and when States also come up lacking it will fall to local communities or individual households to provide for themselves. Not with a bang or a collapse, just with a slow, sad fading away. There might never be a well-defined end to the federal government or the USA, just an increasing irrelevance of it. In your Learyville series, you seemed to portray something more like this; though eventually word does come of the end of the USA, it is coming from a far away land, like news of the death of a relative who has had no real presence in your life for many years, and has no tangible effect on daily life for the characters in the story.

Bill Pulliam said...

Oh, and you forgot to address we who voted for neither Obamney nor Romnama but cast our vote in some other direction. We assured that we would get to feel smug and superior (two of the world's truly great feelings) no matter what the electoral outcome was!

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, my guess is that we have room for about one more global hegemon, dominating the age of scarcity industrialism, before fossil fuel supplies drop to a level that won' support global hegemony any more and world politics devolve to a pre-1750 level. Still, a lot of variables feed into that question. As for those who didn't vote for Mittrack Obamney, by all means feel smug -- but your vote also meant that the same policies were going to stay welded into place, of course.

beetleswamp said...

Write more fiction. You are really good at it.

John Michael Greer said...

Beetleswamp, have you been to my post-peak oil novel/blog, Star's Reach? Might be worth a read if you like my fiction.

Snoqualman said...

I would agree with Bill that the age of hegemons may be ending or indeed almost over. China just doesn't seem to me to fit the part in the way that Britain and the U.S. did. It has innumerable problems, can't feed itself and has a hard enough time just controlling China, let alone much of the rest of the world. It lacks "soft power," which the U.S. still has to a large degree - no one wants to move to China, but many people will still likely want to move to the U.S. in spite of all its worsening problems.

And China is arriving just as the party is winding down. So who knows what sort of multipolar or nonpolar world is in store for us? Certainly not me. But thanks much for an entertaining vision of one of the many possible paths that may lay ahead.

Leo said...

It'll be interesting to see what the freed up resources (slightly less than 30%) of America's empire will be used for. Doubtless large amounts of it will be wasted and used for expansion and the standard imperial prestige projects, however it's likely that a couple nations (or groups within a nation) that benefit from this altered resource flow will put them towards some form of sutainability projects (railways, sailing ships, etc).

The power that takes over probably won't have the smae level of resource intakes, it'll have equalised more and allow a couple nations to challenge its hegemony locally (and maybe not so locally)

Thijs Goverde said...

Awwww, c'mon now, the two candidates aren't completely interchangeable. On economics, the military, foreign policy - in short on all the topics that will influence the lives of us who live in that quaint little country you call 'the rest of the world' - de differnece seems negligible. But if you actually live in the USA, and you belong to certain minorities (LGBT, POC), the differences might be more noteworthy.
And as the lady from 'Life of Brian said of the meek: "I'm glad they're getting something, cause they've had a hell of a time."

All of which brings up an interesting question: In what we now call the First World, gender equality and gay rights have attained standards rarely if ever met in Third World countries. What's gonna happen when we slide down to that status?

I've got the nasty feeling that none of the preparations I can make for the times ahead are as effective as my clever strategy of being born straight, white and male.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- "but your vote also meant that the same policies were going to stay welded into place, of course."

Alas, there was no button to punch on my voting machine that meant otherwise, and the electoral college system insured that my individual vote essentially did not count regardless. But, I always maintain that the choices you make outside of the voting booth (about how you live your life) are more important than the votes you cast in elections, and every single action you take in your daily life "counts" no matter how small a minority you might be a member of or what your neighbors do.

Still, I always do vote, and in a small town in a rural county every single vote definitely counts in local elections -- we had a local race for state rep in this cycle decided by 5 votes; county commission races are often selected by just a handful of votes, and those folks can make a lot of difference in a place like this.

Enough electoral politics, back to the end of the world (for the American Empire)...

Thijs Goverde said...

@ Bill, don't forget that the Spanish Empire, for one, was pretty global - and it was fueled by the eternally renewable resources of Fear, Surpise, a Ruthless Efficiency and a Fanatical Devotion to the Pope.(okay, so they weren't all that efficient, but I'm in a Monty Python mood today. I wonder what triggered my sense of absurdity? Might have been those selfsame presidential elections...)

John Michael Greer said...

Snoqualman, a lot of people dismissed the thought that the US could become a global empire in roughly the same terms that you're dismissing China's potential. Still, we'll see.

Leo, that's one of the big questions, of course.

Thijs, most of what affects the lives of America's minorities is determined at the state and local level, not the federal -- thus, for example, the state I live in just passed a measure legalizing gay marriage, and this will have an effect on the lives of gay and lesbian Marylanders far more significant than anything the president will or won't do. As for gender issues and the like, that's another big question for which we have no sure answers. My sense, and it's not much more than a gut feeling, is that something basic has changed in gender and sexual roles here in the US -- whether that's true elsewhere is a question I'm not qualified to answer -- and the end of the age of abundance may not change that as much as, say, Jim Kunstler thinks.

Bill, no argument there. Even as a purely ritual action, voting has its merits; I'll be talking more about what can be done to revive democracy in a later post.

Bruce The Druid said...

I realized the other day that when people discuss the political future of California and the SouthWest, they often neglect the one thing the rest of this country takes for granted. I apologize for not thinking about this incident earlier:

“So here's our Water 101 lesson for today: The water California takes from the Colorado River -- 4.4 million acre-feet a year -- is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and was established by a complicated and highly litigated series of agreements known collectively as the Law of the River.

The seven Colorado River states -- Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming -- share the river's flow. As much as Colorado might sometimes wish to keep all the water that bubbles up in the high Rocky Mountains, it lets most of it flow downstream to the other states.

It's true that Arizona has challenged the way California takes its water. Gov. Benjamin Moeur in 1934 sent the National Guard to the river to try to stop construction of Parker Dam, which diverts water from the river to Los Angeles. After a little saber-rattling, the Arizona Navy (really a ferry boat called the Nellie Jo, retreated, but Moeur's actions ultimately helped Arizona win other concessions on the river system.”

Kevin said...

Fantasies of limitless progress are not tired, they're wonderful! So far as I can see, their only disadvantage - once you set aside the dystopian possibilities - is that they show no compelling signs of coming to pass.

On the whole, at this time in history it seems it would be rather convenient to be Swiss.

John Michael Greer said...

Bruce, it's a crucial point, and not only in the traditionally arid parts of the country -- I trust you've noticed the harsh droughts that have been becoming more common elsewhere.

Kevin, to my mind, they're tired. It's just more of the same, only faster and with another round of high-tech glitter pasted on top.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I wanted to add a comment and ask a question about this series. The comment is that international relationships of various sorts would need to change when the good 'ol US of A fell of it's perch. Political structures like the League of Nations (between 'the great war' and the following war which forced its renaming) and the U.N. (post great war version 2) or Bretton Woods and it's successors the IMF, WTO, etc. would have to change in interesting ways. For example: China holds one of the six vetoes on the U.N. Security Council because it bet on the winning horse in WWII, but after Mao's revolution the 'Chinese government' was in a little place we call Taiwan and they held the veto power from 1949-1971.

That segues nicely to the question. If a group of states from the former union start using the original constitution and the original flag and even the original name maybe? Then what else can they expect to inherit? The U.N. veto? The global hostility to an oppressive hegemon? The popular contempt for a last ditch effort to hold on to BAU? I ask because I've heard before that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. The Holy Roman Empire chose that name to stake claims to those legacies and the implied power and grandeur therein. But the Holy Roman Empire came long after the fall of Rome and the birth of Christianity, the new USA would not have the same temporal distance from it's namesake to diminish all the negative associations. Having grown up in the American west only 35 years ago I don't have any perspective for what it means to reorganize national names and boarders.

I realize that the question is broad and poorly defined but if you have anything to say on the matter I would love to hear it.


CGP said...

When considering a post-American future it is interesting to think about all of the plans that are currently being made based on the assumption that the status quo will persist. In Australia for example the media cannot stop talking about America’s “pivot” to the Asian Pacific region in order to maintain “peace, security and prosperity” and to ensure that trade in international waters remains stable. As a part of this “pivot” the Australian government recently approved a larger presence of American marines on Australian soil (2500 additional marines). This has absolute bipartisan support.

All of the media thaumaturgy reminds me of the concept of the double bind you spoke of in your book, “The Blood of the Earth”. For readers who do not know what a double bind is (and to make sure I’m correct) this refers to a situation where what a child is allowed to discuss in a family unit is inconsistent with what he or she actually experiences. This dissociation can give rise to mental illness. This concept can be applied to societies with the idea being that if people’s experiences and intuitions are divorced from societal narratives they can develop delusional and maladaptive tendencies. Well with all this talk about the “Asian century” on the one hand (a new political slogan being hammered into the Australian public) and America’s “pivot” towards Asia as the ever present, benevolent but declining hegemon on the other hand I think we have a double bind on our hands. No wonder people are confused; plans are made and propaganda disseminated based upon faulty assumptions and then all of this is hammered into the public constantly. It is truly mind bending.

Another example of this is the notion that Australia can become richer and more prosperous by pandering to the burgeoning Asian middle class by selling them large amounts of food, resources and services without even thinking for a moment whether there is actually enough energy and ecological elasticity to support this growth. Or the other example being that there is a bipartisan rush towards proclaiming that Australia will never have to choose between America and China in the event of conflict conveniently forgetting that by allowing an increased American presence on its shores Australia has already chosen. This is one reason why people are cynical, confused and frustrated; because the media and politicians make a sport and business out of lying to the public. All of this breeds mental illness. It reminds me of Erich Fromm’s concept of the insane society. The idea is that psychology usually defines sanity as being able to adjust to a given society (i.e. the “well-adjusted individual”) with the implicit assumption being that the society is sane. However, Fromm proposes that a society can be pathological meaning that a perfectly sane person ends up psychologically and emotionally unwell under the sheer weight of societal insanity.

queeniemusic said...

Beetleswamp beat me to the punch, and he drank it, and it was probably spiked...anyway, the reason why your end of era novella brought so much traffic to your blog is because you're a very appealing fiction writer. Wanted to add a bunch of exclamation points after that but realized it would appear psychotic. I am very much going to read Star's Reach and plan on ordering the post-America anthology, YAY for ME! I was inspired to buy a 1933 Dietzgen slide rule from eBay after reading the Long Descent, now the primary issue is learning how to use it, oh dear, here come the hours of confusion for my poor tormented brain. I am a writer too except I write total crap. Any plans on releasing the post-America anthology as an eBook?

Kevin said...

I suppose it depends what you mean by "limitless progress." If that phrase entails ever more distractions and shinier toys and faster cars and trivial time-wasting video games and the ripoff of endless software "upgrades" and the pestilence of leaf blowers and brain cancer-promoting cell phones, then I agree. But what the phrase also brings to my mind, beyond the sci-fi dreams of Arthur C. Clarke - which personally I'd be up for, if I thought they were going to happen - is progress in the sense of a world where six billion people don't have to die faster than they otherwise would so that the survivors can get along all right, except that they have shorter more miserable lives because they're so much poorer: lives in large part marked by hunger, disease, loss of mobility, relative lack of education, and other things associated with civilizational collapse and the curtailment of possibility which it can be counted on to produce. Good as all this may be for other species and the biosphere generally, it's not going to be fun for many people.

I don't believe in the vision of the future that you've sketched out because it fills me with joy. It does the opposite. I believe it - or consider it much more likely than the more popular alternatives - because your arguments are more cogent than the arguments of those who would persuade us otherwise. But on the whole it leaves me feeling depressed.

What I'd like to see is a compelling vision of a desirable future which is also believable and achievable, given current global circumstances. It would cheer me up as the impending fall of the USA does not - though I expect that will come as welcome news to a lot of people around the world.

CGP said...

What's your take on the so-called “fiscal cliff”? The media all seem to agree, as far as I can tell, that this combination of tax hikes and spending cuts would devastate the American economy putting it into recession. If America cannot raise taxes and cut spending, though, how is it supposed to pay of its debt? (Please note I am aware that some argue that this debt cannot be paid off legitimately i.e. without printing the money).

phil harris said...

A very clear good essay: thank you.
I'm glad that the SF anthology found a publisher. The real Shaun Kilgore bears part of an illustrious literary name. K. Trout was a peg to hang an imagination upon.

The longer term back ground for 'road bumps' seems as you say. And as you illustrated, very high risk activities have been and are common enough responses to suddenly seeing the 'discontinuity', especially when old 'normal' no longer pays. I gather the French monarchy was warned well in advance that serfs did not pay anymore, and that productive land was not the secure investment it had always seemed.

sometulip said...

On your other fiction work I've read Your SF novel the Fires of Shalsha and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's an extremely easy to read novel about a quite complex scenario and culture. I am also thankful to the book because the blurb at the back sent me down to the local library to read Ursula Le Guin and whilst I was there I also read the Glass Bead Game that you recommended. Now when I think back about The Fires of Shalsha, the setting reminds me of the Dispossessed and the Halka of the Castalians. Anyway reading this series of posts had me riveted and it makes me sad that the Post Peak Magazine you sponsored didn't get Kickstarted.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Quote: "is that it’s a waste of time to try to predict which posts will appeal to my readers and which ones won’t"

I hear you, man! hehe! You know, I have no idea either. My most financially lucrative article was about insulation of all things! The most read article that I've written was about poo and the most commented on article was one where I let the Internet trolls wind themselves out venting their collective spleens whilst I set about squashing them one by one. I found the squashing to be a bit of a waste of time and energy and I've since learned not to engage crazy on the Internet (a useful life lesson too!). Writing on the Internet was a new activity for me at the time and having only read your blog I was a bit taken aback by the lack of civilised discourse elsewhere.

Don't be lured by the sounds of the Internet sirens into writing your last 5 posts into a full length fictional novel. The market for fiction is saturated and it is exceedingly fickle. I mean who'd have thought that "Shades of Grey" which by the way is sitting here on loan from my partners friend waiting to be read, would be a best seller (at first glance a rescue fantasy, anyone?)? A lot of authors write fiction and they are driven by the demands of their egos or as Gordon Ramsay the potty mouthed UK chef might say, it's because it makes their thingee big! hehe! Does it pay the bills though? Sometimes yes, but most times no. It's a gamble.

I'm not trying to influence you, I'm just getting a different point of view in to most of the commenters here. If you can make it work then - respect, and it'll be worth every minute that you put into it and then some. I’m outing myself also and stating that fiction writing is not my forte so I may have a skewed point of view?

As an off topic note, I kept ferreting away at the thoughts I was having last week about the news media and I think I may have come to some sort of resolution, but I don't like it at all.

The gist of it, is that we, as a society, have structured our society in a similar fashion to a factory.

I've been wondering about this for a long while now as I've been wondering why there is such strong conformity in our society. The pressures to conform are quite strong and it is only when you attempt anything outside the norm that you are even faced with those pressures. I have first-hand experience in these matters and it is a reasonably constant struggle, which I do my best to insulate myself from.

The reason I mention the analogy with the factory is because the majority of people are funnelled into well-trod paths, just like a factory line, and therein lies the source for the simplification of viewpoints and the heat which you may encounter should you ever be foolish enough to challenge societies preconceived ideas. Just like a factory line, what spits out at the other end is exceedingly homogenous and ready to accept the narrow viewpoints that are dished up to them.

Dunno, I could be wrong, but I'm troubled by the lack of diversity in lives and opinions in our society. The dominant paradigm is very strong.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi everyone,

This is a shameless plug (truly I have no shame left!) for my latest article about poly-cultures (ie. the advantages of a diverse agricultural system). It is a quick and easy read and you also get to look at a video of some of my raised vegetable beds to see what is growing! Not to make you Northern hemisphere people jealous, but it is Spring here after all Down Under.

Happy reading and viewing!

Food Forests, Part 6: Diversity, or Picking a Garden Salad



Leo said...

Just re-found this set of essays (unfinished) on strategy. Its for science fiction but it covers the basics of strategy on a national level quite well and focuses more on the economic/political/overall picture.
Seeing as we're talking on the level of nations this seemed apropriate.

JohnGoes said...

"...the profits of the imperial wealth pump slump."

I love reading people who engage in word play. I read you and Kunstler every week because you both write well. However, a major distinction between the two of you is that his writing amounts to a weekly rant specifically for engaging in word play, whereas your writing is informative and thought provoking and happens to also be delightful reading.

Your assessment of the state of "wealth" in the world matches what I've observed. I find it hard to believe that the people who are wealthy by the manipulation of derivatives-of-derivatives don't see the shallowness and lack of true value of those things they construct. In a quasi-related thought chain, my company's board met with several employees this week to find out from them what they, the board, can do to return the company to growth. As we are a victim of a LBO saddled with debt six times our earnings it's hard to envision a way to grow out of the hole we were chunked in. But, it appears, to an employee who attended that meeting I queried, that the board truely believes we CAN grow out of the hole. The employee and I agreed that these people seemed to employ a anti-reality filter. I don't think you get to being board members of large companies without some level of intellegence and the same things goes for the president and his cohort. I keep wondering if our president and those around him have a similar anti-reality filter regarding resource limitations and the eventual demise of perpetual growth. I just can't believe that President Obama doesn't have that niggling whisper rattling around that, "this perpetual growth can't go on forever."

Bill Pulliam said...

Water -- Georgia recently sued to try to relocate its border with Tennessee one mile farther north so that it could make a claim to the Tennessee River, since Atlanta is running out of water. This in the rainiest area in the lower 48 west of the Pacific Coast, where some spots receive 80-100 inches of rain in an "average" year. Even without climate change many places are hitting their water limits, and there is no culture of water conservation in most of the eastern states.

BruceH said...

There are many plausible scenarios for the end of our empire. However, there is one scenario that I almost never see mentioned for it's continuation. It may be unthinkable to most people but the type of people who rule empires usually don't become rulers of empires because they think like most people.

Granted, our resource base is declining, but our rulers are probably well aware of this. But there's still a lot left, it's just that there are too many people wanting a slice of the pie. But what if through some form of “demand destruction” you could take something like 6 billion “useless eaters” out of the equation? I know this idea is often dismissed as a paranoid conspiracy theory, but like we used to say back in the day: “just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean nobody is watching you.”

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

China has a million or so people with basic knowledge of engineering, mathematics, etc., skills which Dmitri Orlov has denominated perenially useful under almost any circumstances. Whether the population grows or drops, certain skills will be in great demand. On the other hand, a minority (now) of Americans are very resourceful and independent. One part of the story I found interesting was Africa, a huge continent with vast underexploited resources (since colonialism's fall somewhat diminished the ability to pump it out of the continent unhindered). Is this why China wants a navy? Africa can use the engineers, and China can use the raw material. Africa itself has endured horrific human suffering, and might be inclined to cash in on their ability to put up more political consolidation. It would be a tricky prospect, but dire times might breed a will to such

JP said...

"The dissolution of the United States via a never-used provision of the Constitution? That was inspired by the fall of the Soviet Union. On paper, each of the republics that made up the Soviet Union had the right to secede from the union at any time. In practice—well, would you have wanted to try doing that when Stalin was in office? Under Gorbachev, though, Boris Yeltsin could and did invoke that clause of the Soviet constitution without risking sudden removal from office via a pistol shot and an unmarked grave, and a Soviet system that was already in crisis came apart in days."

This was the only part I really didn't like because I think it's the wrong historical model for this particular situation circa 2030 USA.

I don't know what the *right* model is, but this one just sounds wrong and I'm not quite sure why.

The rest of it was much better historical match, I thought.

I *loved* everything leading up to the crisis and the convention, but that part just sounded off.

Probably because of the completely inorganic nature of the Soviet Union. The Russian Empire was much more organic, whereas the Soviet Union was some kind of fake empire united it a very non-human way and held together with weak ideological tape. Which is why it fell apart so easily.

Whereas the United States is pretty much an organic empire that's heading toward standard-issue military crisis and bankruptcy.

I'm not sure that you move from Guelphs and Ghibellines to Soviet Collapse. I think that's what I feel the problem is here.

JP said...

"the exhaustion of necessary but nonrenewable resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the buildup in the biosphere of ecologically and economically damaging pollutants, particularly carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases."

I'm more bothered by the industrial crud that's thrown everywhere. The useless products and by-products of consumer lust that lead to the landfill.

Jetfire said...

I've thought for that the US's global dominance would come to an end in the same way Britain's did, during an event like the Suez Canal Crisis.

A long, slow unwinding of capability, building up to a final attempt to recapture power, only for the new kids on the block to tell us, "Sorry, not this time," and force us to sit back down.

Justin Wade said...


I must confess to skipping much of this month. I just have no mind for fiction. I find your straight forward analysis very good.

I'm looking for a good book on basic motorcycle/small engine repair and maintenance if anyone can recommend one. The last one I picked up on recommendation sucked, the narrative kept veering off into boring tangents and barely said anything at all about turning nuts and bolts.

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG: I think one reason your last five posts were so popular was precisely because they were fiction. Fiction may not pay the bills in our system of economic resource reallocation, but it does move people. Daniel Quinn, in one of his books, commented that what makes humans human is storytelling; arguable if taken as THE definition of human, but certainly an oft-overlooked point about humanity.

On voting as a ritual act, it's the only real reason I vote any more. It sustains the illusion that this is "my" government and "my" country, as opposed to the government I happen to be living under, and the country I happen to be living in. I seriously considered not-voting this year, and wrote about it on my own blog. It was a little surprising to me how much inner and outer resistance that engendered.

This time around, it was a pure gedankenexperiment: I did vote, and only pretended to not-vote. But even the pretend not-vote shifted my unconscious beliefs quite a bit: it promoted a disconnect from the whole whoop-de-doo. Disillusionment, with its consequent sadness and grief -- no illusion leaves easily. But also a deep sense of relief.

The idea that this is "my" government means that I have to do something about everything that's wrong with it. When doing something about it is effectively impossible (another statement which incenses people) all I get is heartburn and anxiety.

I see a different kind of disconnect being taken in these comments, the disconnect of "the candidates are effectively identical."

I have to disagree with that statement. Prior to Bush II, I'd have agreed, but the Bush administration and the Republican Congress of 1996-2006 did a whole lot of damage in a big hurry. It surprised me how much, and how quickly. We may be going over the cliff, but there's a difference between paddling furiously with the current to gain suicidal speed, or paddling against the current in the hopes of finding a portage down the cliff.

Apart from this disagreement, one important effect of the "candidates are identical" statement is to disconnect from the anxiety produced by investment in the system. It externalizes it. When you don't vote, it's a choice; it could be the wrong choice. When you have no vote because the candidates are identical, it's fate.

Rashakor said...

Bruce and JMG,

BTW, remember that the law of the river involves also two mexican states. One of the largest part of the litigation about those agreement is that the federal government manage to placate Mexico. In a case where the federal governement clout falters this agreement may find itself null by a boldened Mexican Drug-warlord.
OTOH, global warming may make everything moot for the Californias if the sea of cortez rushes into Imperial Valley and the Los Angeles basin is under 10ft of ocean water.

Robert said...

As has been pointed out the Spanish Empire was global and it was based on wooden sailing ships and cannon. Tsarist Russia colonised the whole of vast Siberia all the way to the Pacific Ocean long before railways when the only means of transport was by horse. Genghiz Khan created the biggest land empire in history with nothing more than armies of mounted horseman. I don't think Peak Oil will necessariy mean the end of empire at all.

Glenn said...

If you really want to understand the California water situation, read "Cadillac Desert" by Marc Reisner, Viking 1986, ISBN 0-14-017824. I have opinions, as a native, now having emigrated; but I'd encourage any interested persons to read it and draw their own conclusions.

Marrowstone Island

Jim R said...

Yes, I noticed the absence of Clancy. You'll recall I was asking about unemployed spooks, like itinerant postindustrial Samurai ...
I can see now that they are sort of like throwing a handful of popcorn into an industrial-scale power generation furnace. You might see a few little pops here and there if you watch carefully, but their effect will be lost in the roar.

thesnakey said...

I have to say that I took away something interesting from the last five posts. I complimented on the writing, but it really did offer up an insight that I don't think a lot of people really understand...

That life goes on, even without you. That no matter how important someone thinks something is, it's a human construction that will falter and vanish with time, only valued because those who are a part of the construction give it value.

When one gets down to thinking about it, I personally think that human beings aren't that different in any age. We're still driven by base ideas of survival, looking for that power to ensure one has better resources than another and then using it to ensure that one gets their 'fifteen minutes of fame'. The United States, even if they manage to somehow avert another economic disaster, will be constrained by limited resources, as you've stated. Something will give and, eventually, that'll be that. Globalization ends messy.

Who knows though? China might not be the next empire, because of the inherent problems they have now. Their single child policy is already coming back to bite them, they own trillions in American debt and the government there is resisting change that a lot more people desperately want. There's a distinct possibility that when the US goes down, it takes China with it because of how intertwined they are. Thus, I personally believe that it'll be the countries that don't have as many ties to the States that could end up as an empire. Russia could manage despite a heavy hit from a collapsing Chinese economy. Brazil could become a power. India could do it. It's hard to tell, but I can't see China surviving the US fall very easily at all. However, such things are just guesses. Can't know the future, after all.

All the same, though, the very idea of a world without the United States as it is now is more or less impossible to think of for most Western individuals in the same way that most of us have never seen a world changing natural disaster that has killed millions, despite that it could happen later today or tomorrow and we'd never see it coming. There is an inherent ability to deny that anything is wrong and that change is this scary thing that nobody can really understand because they don't want to. People will step on each other, kill and follow blindly so long as change is made into this less scary thing.

You offered a lot of insight in five posts and I can't say enough that it was an amazing read. You managed to make a situation that would terrify people and give it a little bit of hope by its completion. Because life always goes on, even as the constructions we make and thrive on crumble around us, we can always make something new and different. said...

Well, thank you Mr Archdruid...this comes from Mexico, well on the way of the LongDescent... I liked you fiction on "How It Could Happen" very much, for the first time I understood, why my neighbours cant wait for the next edition of tjeir favorite "telenovela" - I think, stories & fictions are necessary to give life to those visions of the post petroleum & after empire visions.
In a way, Kunstlers two post-peak novels (and maybe John Seymours "Retrieved from the future") do a similar job. While I followed the discussion on the decline of empire, during the weeks before that five-part novel, this story was a much better way to explain what was behind your argumentation. Saved us (and you) from a dozen posts to explain all that in detail. ¡Felicidades!

SLClaire said...

To Joseph Nemeth: Ronald Reagan changed the political course far more than Bush the Younger did. If you aren't old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s, read histories of these years and compare them to the 1990s and 2000s. Practically everything Bush the Younger did was a continuation of policies begun in Reagan's or Clinton's administrations.

This year was the first year I didn't vote in a presidential election, and I voted for Carter in 1976 just to give you perspective on how long I've been voting age. It wasn't because I didn't want to vote this year, but rather a family emergency came up and it turned out that driving a 35 mile round trip to vote absentee (Missouri doesn't have early voting) didn't make the cut on my priority list. I feel kind of bad about it. I would have liked to register an opinion on all the questions on my ballot. But as I saw earlier in the comments, every day I vote by what I do and particularly how I choose to spend (and whenever possible, not spend) money. The sum total of those "votes" far outdoes any vote I cast on any election day.

Cougar said...

Some of the increased traffic no doubt came from ZeroHedge, where I was regularly seeding the comments section with a link here while the story was unfolding. I felt the ZH denizens could stand an alternative view of the world beyond their usual conspiratorial hoodoo. Many seemed impressed with the quality and tone of the story, a real service to the online community in my book, so -- well done.

phil harris said...

Jetfire, Joseph Nemeth & JMG
As a Brit I liked the reference to "Suez" and the British Empire. Suez was a turning point for my young self, but actually was well after the event; that is after 'the end of the empire’. Many Brits though had still 'not got it' by 1956 and the Suez Canal had long been a critical key feature of the empire. We had occupied Egypt for 70 years; temporarily it was always said, just to 'look after it'. General Eisenhower needed to administer a large dose of cold reality to correct the British continuing illusion.

Writing entirely as an outsider, I tend to agree with Joseph that the candidates were not just 'the same'. Rejecting Obama would have said lots about the balance of powers within the USA. Would he have been a 'failed black Carter’? As it is, Hispanics and Blacks seem to have defined where their future power and interest might be best served, and most young people seem to agree with them. At least they have served notice? These interests might view the value of the future Union differently? I see comment in the British press mooting a possible President Castro in 16 years. Stranger things have happened!

Best of luck

Richard Larson said...

Very well-reasoned. But being a regular reader I am not surprised at all. If one is going to click on the Archdruid Report..., leave your delusions at the click!

You used the word unthinable in this report. Unthinkable is the word just used by Governor Chris Christie in assessing the damage by the recent landfall of hurricane Sandy. So this is our situation. The people of that state voted to choose a - by all appearances, a tough guy - to be the leader. But in reality, the tough guy was only a bully that had made no plans whatsoever for disaster/decline/downfall of anything.

He is just a huge bully with no spine for the unthinkable. There is little doubt every single state has a similiar leader. Now the nation, the USA, on the otherhand, has four more years of a big tall basketball player with hope everybody can be wealthy. That is what the people have been choosing. A delusional future.

And Archdruid, you are dead on pointing at the assets of the well-off as just paper. I bet your views will drop off with that one, as most are addicted to follwing thier digits on the computer screen - and selling is "unthinkable".

Those that would heed the advice, and exchange their digits for what will keep them warm (solar heating), electrified (solar electric or wind turbines), and an acre of good built-up soil to grow food, will be people who's assts will not go to zero.

Excellent Report, I left a tip for this SIX part series.

GreenEngineer said...

The core hypothesis shaping my view of the future is the proposal that our time differs from the past only in the way that one past era differs from another. The notion that the present epoch is utterly unique in history, popular as that is, fails to convince me, and the habit of using that notion as an excuse to project an assortment of utopian and apocalyptic fantasies on the inkblot patterns of the future strikes me as frankly delusional.

I agree that the tendency to automatically gravitate to extreme scenarios is a cognitive error. However, I do not understand how you can possibly assert that the present is not, in fact, unique in history.

This era (means the last couple of centuries) is the only time in history when the majority of energy came from non-current solar income. The consequence is a per capita energy consumption in the developed world that exceeds historical precedent by at least one, often two orders of magnitude.

In this era, the active human impact on at least the nitrogen cycle and the carbon is of the same order as the natural flows of those resources. This is unprecedented in history.

Every year, human activity moves of order as much earth (cubic yards) as natural forces do. This is unprecedented in history.

I do not claim that these facts means that we are necessarily going to collapse in way fundamentally different than historical collapses. But I do think it's a legitimate question.

To the extent that you assert that the future will resemble the pattern of the past, on the basis that the present is not unique in history, I believe you are overlooking some important (and well quantified) evidence.

Martin_B said...

I've just read all five posts one after the other. The story was well written, engaging, and thought-provoking. The military bits reminded me of The Third World War: The Untold Story by Gen. Sir John Hackett, although he had a very different scenario with the Warsaw Pact invading Western Europe.

I was hoping for a big finale where the states break open the arsenals and nuke each other, but your ending is more realistic, and also more emotionally satisfying.

Thanks for giving the historical backgrounds. My impression is that people these days know less history than ever before, and it's good to be reminded our times are not unique.

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, heck of a good question; all those details would need to be worked out later on by President Bridgeport and his equivalents in other post-American nations.

CGP, that's fascinating. The folks insisting that Oz will never have to choose between the US and China are smoking their shorts; it'll be interesting to see what happens when the inevitable clash occurs.

Queeniemusic, good for you! You can get information on how to use a slide rule here and here.

Kevin, fair enough. If we'd made the necessary changes back in the 1970s, that might just have been possible, though it would have required abandoning the idea of perpetual progress -- and of course that was the stumbling block all along. At this point, as far as I can see, there is no plausible future that doesn't involve the decline and fall of our current civilization and a long, bitter dark age. Sorry, but that's how I see it.

CGP, I see the so-called "fiscal cliff" as a first step back from the brink of national bankruptcy. We need those cuts, and many more such cuts. Yes, it'll involve some short-term hardship, which could be made a lot less onerous by any number of steps that won't be taken (such as meaningful debt relief); that hardship is going to come one way or another, though.

Phil, the disastrous state of the French royal finances was a subject of endless talk for decades before 1789, yes. The problem was that everyone knew what had to be done, and nobody was willing to see their own income hit -- so a lot of them ended up having an appointment with Madame Guillotine instead.

Sometulip, thank you! Not many people have read my one published novel; I'm glad at least one of them enjoyed it.

Cherokee, a fascinating analogy. I'd encourage you to keep on working on it -- my guess is that you can extend that analysis quite a bit further. As for fiction, well, we'll see. I've just received a tentative nibble from a publisher, with an offer of a noticeable advance, so it may happen.

Leo, that's actually quite good -- and the discussion of really bad strategy in SF movies is dead on target. Thanks for the link!

JohnGoes, I've noticed the same weird bubble logic more times than I can count: situations where any sane observer would be moving hurriedly toward the nearest exit, but the people involved are blissfully convinced that they can make it work out. I'm pretty sure that that pervades the US political system these days.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I heard about that. It's simply bizarre -- and it also makes rain barrels and cisterns seem like very good investments in that corner of the country.

Bruce, I've seen people going on about that fairly often on the internet. The problem, of course, is that the heads of other countries with weapons of mass destruction can be counted on to take offense at any attempt to implement that sort of strategy, and "taking offense" in this case could very easily involve a nuclear decapitation strike aimed at the crucial links of US political, military, and economic power. We'll be talking about that in an upcoming post.

Matthew, the Chinese are already all over Africa, precisely because it has the raw materials they need, and they have the industrial products and trained specialists that African nations want. That's one of the reasons I put the war there in my scenario.

JP, well, you're entitled to your opinion. Obviously, I disagree.

Jetfire, that's also an option, of course.

Justin, that book someone recommended to you wasn't, by any chance, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig? If so, whoever recommended it was pulling your leg!

Joseph, I didn't say that all presidential candidates are identical. I said that the two major party candidates in Tuesday's election were.

Rashakor, all quite true. The lower Colorado and Rio Grande valleys have a complex history ahead of them; one of these days, I need to talk about that.

Robert, of course not. I think it may mean the end of global empires -- the Spanish empire was a special case, since the technology that made it possible was only available to Europe at that time. If China, India, the Aztecs, etc. had had fleets equipped with equivalent cannon and the like, there would have been large regional empires rather than one big global one -- and the regional empires are what I would expect to see in the future.

Glenn, thanks for the tip!

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, that seems reasonable enough. As I think I mentioned at the time, though, there'll be a lively market for their skills, with anything up to a dozen new nations setting up their own intelligence agencies.

Thesnakey, excellent! You get today's gold star, for understanding a point that most people nowadays are desperately trying not to understand.

Tierramor, thank you! Yes, that's basically the point to such things.

Cougar, thank you for spreading the word.

Phil, it's quite likely that we'll have a Hispanic president here before long. Whatever else one can say about Obama, he's proved that a major party can put a member of an ethnic minority into the presidency, and keep him there for two terms; that'll likely open a lot of doors.

Richard, many thanks for the tip! More generally, a warm thank you to everyone who's contributed to an archdruid's upkeep.

Engineer, every historical period without exception has been able to point to some combination of factors that made it unique. So? Processes such as overshoot, imperial decline and fall, and the like have proceeded in an identical manner straight across the spectrum of geographical scales and technological bases; the process by which Neolithic city-states in the Yucatan rose and fell are structurally identical to the process by which Britain's world empire rose and fell.

That's the point I'm trying to make here: the broad processes of history are relatively scale- and technology-invariant. Yes, I'm aware that this is a hugely unpopular proposal, largely because it gets in the way of the utopian and apocalyptic fantasies I mentioned, but there it is.

Alpha Omegan said...

There’s one thing you’re not considering here in your discussions of future empires: The rise of the robots and the obsolescence of humanity. Yes, this sounds like bad science fiction, but technological trends are pointing in that direction. Economically and militarily, the machines are taking over. I envision a scenario not like Terminator, where the machines spontaneously become intelligent and start exterminating humans, but more like Lord of the Rings where Saruman built an orc army and sought power. Techno-sorcerers with self-replicating robotic armies will, in the not too distant future, be able to create wealth and conquer territory with little need for human beings. These machines will have different requirements for survival than humans, so many of the peak resource problems you talk about may be solvable. In this scenario, I expect few humans to survive, and the robots to radically transform the planet so as to optimize their efficiency and power. This would represent a evolutionary phase change for life on this planet that hasn’t happened in hundreds of millions of years, if ever.

Again, I know all of this probably sounds ridiculous to many of you, but there are exponential trends and technological arms races that are pointing in this direction. Unless civilization crashes fairly quickly, I’m not sure what will prevent this kind of “technological Singularity”.

Nathan said...

Ah! That is where Stirling got his idea for C.U.T in the 'Dies the Fire' series?! That's rich.

Jetfire said...

I think the mention of Germany and China, in your entry, was rather fortuitous, because as I thought on the subject today I considered that those two nations might step forward in tandem when the US empire breaks apart.

It's worth noting that both nations have begun to explore alternative sources of energy from fossil fuels, and have done so in earnest. Granted, most of their new infrastructure (China's nuclear plants, Germany's solar panels) still relies on a petroleum-backed transportation network, so they haven't thought things all the way through, but at least there's some acknowledgment at the upper levels of their respective leaderships that the future of global power will not be written solely in oil.

Basically, I agree that China looks like the next likely candidate for a hegemony, but I think Germany wants another crack at Great Power status as well. They've already brought most of Europe under heel without firing a shot. It will be interesting to see what they do going forward.

Joseph Nemeth said...

SLClair -- Carter was my first vote, too! :-)

I agree -- Bush II was nothing like Reagan. But the Reagan changes were more subtle. Reagan -- The Teflon President -- was himself more subtle: he could, at least, act like a president. Though some would dispute his acting skills as well. :-)

JMG -- interesting. We may simply have to disagree, but I'm curious as to your rationale that there is no difference between, specifically, Obama and Romney.

Are you saying that presidents are totally constrained by externalities? That they are mere figureheads at this point, with all the real decisions made outside the president's office?

That's a much deeper complaint.

If we exclude the external constraints, and the pure campaign horse-puckey, it seems to me that there are some important differences.

Obama pulled us out of Iraq. He didn't have to do this: Bush II would have bankrupted the country before pulling out. McCain said he'd keep us there for a century. Obama promised to pull out, and surprised me to no end by actually doing it. He's talking an Afghanistan withdrawal by 2014: we'll see, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

We can only guess what Romney would have done, but lots of sabre-rattling against Iran was certainly on the table, as was indefinite US military presence in Afghanistan. It's pretty clear that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Republicans believe in deficit spending on the military: there would have been no shortage of funds for two unwinnable wars on foreign soil.

That strikes me as a pretty huge difference. There are others.

So I'm curious why you think they are the same.

John Michael Greer said...

Alpha, why not worry instead about Earth being attacked by a giant space walrus with photon flippers? It's at least as realistic. Seriously, though, you're incorrect to say that I haven't considered the Hollywood scenario you're proposing; I've considered it and rejected it, for much the same reason I've considered and rejected claims that we can power the future on perpetual motion. As I've pointed out at some length in previous posts, robots of the kind you're discussing require vast inputs of energy and raw materials of exactly the kind our civilization is losing the ability to provide, while there are six billion or so spare human beings who can be recruited to fight for little more than three square meals a day. If you're trying to suss out the future, I'd like to recommend that you watch fewer SF movies and learn more about net energy!

Nathan, that went right over my head. Care to explain?

Jetfire, an interesting thesis. You're right that Germany's gotten every one of its war goals other than a victory parade through London, and it will be interesting to see what happens as the "soft Reich" of the EU runs into trouble. Will the gloves come off?

Joseph, Obama made a lot of promises to the left when he was running in 2008, and broke most of them. Romney made a lot of promises to the right this time around, and if he'd gotten into office, I'd have been prepared to bet that most of them -- including his saber-rattling toward Iran and a lasting presence in Afghanistan -- would have gone the way of "hope and change." So, probably, would his opposition to Obamacare, given that he presided over the creation of a nearly identical system while governor of Massachusetts. How many times do we have to watch campaign promises hit the dumpster, to be replaced by another round of the same policies, before people begin to grasp that the range of policy initiatives open to any US government is so tightly constrained by a failing political system that the personality of the guy behind the podium basically doesn't matter any more?

Ricardo Rolo said...

First of all thanks for this " Making of" . It is always good to see the underlying thought structure, even if we don't agree with some or all the points ( I still think your plot had far less ramifications than a RL situation would have, that China was very benign in the peace deal, that the convention result was received with excessive pragmatism by the bigwigs compared with historic examples.... and that the USSR constitution example was not really appliable to the US because you simply don't have a state that has the internal weight of Russia in the USSR ( like I told you before ;) ). But, alas, that is my opinion ;) ). I just wanted to muse on 2 things:

-First of all, my scenario ( in a sketchy form :D ) Being myself a portuguese and knowing my own history of imperial decline from a empire of bases situation based in a very flexible naval force, I think it is highly likely that no one will face the US frontally for a big while and that the empire of bases will crumble of simple economical stress one base at the time for a while ... that until the people around make the math and think that a local confrontation with the US ( where they would have local superiority ) outweights the status quo in terms of cost/benefit. Most likely the US will win the first couple of engagements ( at a great expense ), but sooner or later they will be caught with too much crisis at the same time to handle and something will give.

I do find interesting the handling of US war vets in that situation ( since the political angle is more flashy, thus people tend to only look at that ). I can definitely see some bases commanders going native and/or carving little kingdoms to themselves, but the vast majority will surely be repratriated. Getting back a bunch of war vets home is not a easy thing to handle even when you have the resources to "bribe" them with a state sponsored job or lands ( see Zimbabwe ), and thus I pretty much see a strong possiblity of the US developing their version of the German Freikorps, with all that brings behind ...

( end of pt 1 )

Robert said...

Agreed Alpha's SF fears are the least of our problems. All the transhumanism and Singularity fantasies of Ray Kurzweil are just that fantaises. There is not going to be the energy to fuel this Singularity of theirs. There is no alternative to fossil fuels with the same energy return on energy invested.

Ricardo Rolo said...

( pt 2 )

Second, is the point that I see a lot of americans hammering about the Europeans not wanting to pay for their defense. First of all, tht is definitely not true at popular level ( as far as I can tell, there is no Euro country where the american presence is more than tolerated by the common people. In here, atleast that is the case ) and, even at the politic arena, the general atmosphere is more the sentiment that the americans themselves do not want to leave, so better use them as they are here than anything else ( BTW I think that a lot of americans never asked themselves why the political bigwigs are so eager to push a big portion of the US Army out of the country at all costs ... )

There is also the point that in a lot of cases the Americans do not pay more than token gifts for the use of the bases ( with the coutnry where the base is pays up the majority if not all of maintenance bills without direct benefit ).

For a example, publicly the US has in Portugal 1 direct asset, the use of the Lajes airbase ( technically it is a portuguese airbase partly leased to the USAF ), and 2 NATO assets: the currently named JFC Lisbon ( a Portuguese XVII century fort that was reffited beyond recognition that has, among other things , a big underground bunker ( I live nearby and I know quite well the general underground layout from hearsay in spite of not public ) and the so-called "Radar station Nº1", a big Radar station in the SW tip of Portugal that was made to monitor the sea movements in the entry of the Med.

The maintenace of the first is paid in full by the Portuguese with the Americans obliged to give "scientifical and military cooperation" as pay ... that last time was a couple of 70´s decade destroyers that were in so bad shape that the best use our governement found to them was to sink them to create refuges for baby fish :D The Radar station is nominally under the portuguese airforce command ( and funding ), but the fact that our governement was forced to make another station a couple of km from there for it's use says it all about how much control we have of it ... and JFC Lisbon will be cut down in the next year because the "alliance" ( read: US ) funds for it were scrapped and the Portuguese can not sustain the gargantuous ( think between a quarter to a third of the Baghdad Green Zone in terms of surface size, not even counting on the underground levels ) structure by itself...

Well, sorry for the lenghty description, but this is pretty much to say that, as far as I know ( and based in my personal experience and knowledge ) the US Army does not spend much more than the army maintenance for the US forces in Europe ( thus not paying much more ( and in some cases even less ) than it would pay for the same troops stationed in the US soil ) and that the Europeans in general ( and even in political levels, but obviously not in public in most cases ) do not want the Americans troops in Europe and would most likely cheer the day they would leave, since they don't see any reason for the americans being here ( well, maybe besides the people that border Russia ... ). At best, and as the americans are here and don't seem to want to go away, the thinking heads see them as a existing asset, but that is far from the perception that a lot of americans have that we actually want american boots in here doing our "defense". We want that as much as the Americans want the Russian army "protecting" them ...

DesertedPictures said...

I think Europe (the UK not included) might abandon the USA quicker then you think. The Chinese are investing heavily in Portugal, Spain and other southern EU-nations.

And the leaders of individual European countries are far more silent on matters of human rights, then they used to be (whens they speak tot the Chinese). The general idea is 'they're not going tot change and it might cost us money).
Not to mention the fact that the EU are cosying up to Russia: building new pipelines so they can get cheap gass, even if Russia decides to punish one of it's neigbours by closing of the valts.

Militarily and culturally Europe still has strong ties to the US of course (France has gotten some mighty fine oil-contracts out of supporting the Libya-rebellion) but I wouldn't be surprised if the EU (or the individual countries) would very quickly adopt a neutral facade while in reality binding itself economically to the next rising power.

Castus said...


I'm heartened to see you take the path of historical moderation. As you've noted, just because our societies have seen exceptional growth in the last two hundred or so years, does not mean that magically we are immune to the precedent of history. On the other hand, just because America has essentially been the bellwether for the establishment of what is today considered the "industrialised norm" to strive for, does not mean that its fading enables us to ignore hard ecological limits. Unfortunately, I think that many people DO have these ideas.

On completely different note, I'm having an issue finding your link to Blood of the Earth. I'd gotten one of those "limited" editions (not the super nice leather version, alas) and it was stolen along with my suitcase in Seattle this summer. I would love to replace it, as I never got to delve at all - where would I find this?


Leo said...

Most of the narratives that deal with this sort of Grand strategy are now in the realm of Sci-fi or fantasy. Unfortunately, most of it isn’t very good at this and thus the narrative tools available to the common man (and probably quite a few leaders) aren’t up to the tasks the real world throws at them in this realm. This and others of its kind (quite a few are around) are useful in that they actually give the framework necessary.

Developing a strategic framework in Sci-fi is useful because you’ve got to ask the universal questions and sort all that out from scratch. Then you can go back to a real world situation and use those basic questions and the process you went through to figure out the frameworks in use.

This sort of skill will be useful for states as the looming trend of overshoot creates a highly variable and changing battlefield and the world around them continually shifts in response.

William Hunter Duncan said...

I was at a friends for the election, when I mentioned that a writer named John Michael Greer had written a five part fictional narrative on a scenario for the dissolution of the United States of America. This friend makes approximately ten times what I make working for the same big bank (He's in tech, I'm in Home Mortgage on the foreclosure side, a "butt's in seats" in the "meat locker".) I was surprised how readily they took to the idea. Without any commentary from me they ran with it, laughing, for awhile.

Joseph Nemeth said...

Ah. So you ARE saying the president is a figurehead.

I'll largely agree with that. OTOH, my experience in the private sector indicates that this is normal to positions of power. The CEO of a company really has very little actual power. He has to work through a series of little satrapies with entrenched satraps who have often been there much longer than the CEO. Similarly, the president has always been surrounded by the bureaucracy. He's always a short-timer, they are there for the duration.

Obama made a lot of promises to the left, and broke many of them (if not most), but he did keep a few.

Romney made a lot of promises to the right, and would doubtless have broken many of them (if not most), but he would keep -- or try to keep -- a few.

One difference is in those promises that do get kept.

Bill Pulliam said...

Interesting... uniformitarianism is generally accepted as the default principle in the natural sciences, but apparently in studies of history it is considered a radical idea! Any scientist who was constantly trying to explain his or her own favorite object of study as a unique and special case not subject to the same laws that everything else obeys would be shouted off the stage.

John Michael Greer said...

Ricardo, after our civil war, there were veterans' organizations on both sides until the last veterans died. They never quite became Freikorps, but if the postwar situation had been more unstable, they easily could have. Thus your suggestion is by no means impossible.

Robert, normally I don't even put things like that through, but I was in a wry mood. It's amazing how much cheap fantasy passes for thinking these days.

Ricardo, I don't doubt for a moment that people across much of Europe would cheer the departure of US troops. My point is that they're fooling themselves if they think that, after that happens, they can keep tiny military budgets and not fall under the control of some potentially much more demanding overlord. In the case of Portugal, with its very convenient location on the Atlantic, the choice might well be between paying for a real navy and air force, on the one hand, and becoming a Chinese client state on terms even more burdensome than the ones the US imposes, on the other. Either way, the costs would not be pretty.

Pictures, that seems quite possible. As I said earlier, the option of falling into the hands of some other overlord is always there.

Castus, sorry to hear about the suitcase theft! You can order a new copy of the book here.

Leo, very much so. In a post-American future, especially as resource constraints tighten, a lot of current military certainties are headed for the compost bin, and a clear grasp of the essentials of strategy is going to be vital.

William, that doesn't surprise me. One of the reasons I brought in that possibility was the number of times I've heard it discussed.

Joseph, that's a massive oversimplification. There are very tight constraints right now on any political leader in the US, due to the extreme diffusion of power in the hands of veto groups -- see this previous post for a discussion of that issue.

DeAnander said...

@CO: The domination of our collective cultural imagination by the factory process and metaphor is, I think, one of the big issues of our times. Illich of course wrote about this at some length. There are some processes which do lend themselves to the factory method -- such as the manufacture of completely consistent, identical objects. And there are other processes for which it seems to work very badly indeed, such as all the human tasks of caring and nurturing: agriculture (including animal husbandry), health care, education, "corrections" (prison) etc., and anything to do with living systems, which are complex and location-specific, not generic and uniform. Attempts to impose the generic and uniform onto the local and specific abound. Almost all of them become futile and/or pathogenic.

We have modelled our schools, our farms, our prisons, and our hospitals on the factory (and mining) metaphor, and they have become demonstrably dysfunctional. Actually it is hard to say quite how/when this all began: did the Pantechnicon prison concept predate the manufactory? to what extent did the disciplined and ostensibly standardised life of the monastery and/or the military (both long predating the factory) contribute to this cultural obsession? what about corvee labour, which treats people as "standard" substitutable worker-units in the implementation of huge projects, and dates back to the beginning of grain-hoarding agricultural empires?

Anyhoo... I could not agree more that the obsession with uniformity, conformity, "efficiency" and (most important of all) Control [at all costs] is a major element of the collective mental illness of our times. The most staggeringly wasteful things are done in the name of Efficiency, and the most staggeringly counterproductive (and cruel!) things in the name of Progress. Monocrop factory agriculture springs most immediately to my mind, but we could find dozens of other examples of this obsessive, dogged determination to reduce complex systems to a fantastical, highly unrealistic level of simplicity and predictability.

DeAnander said...

Is it just me, or are the Captcha texts getting more and more difficult to decipher?

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, thank you! That gets you a gold star -- I don't know why I didn't think about the uniformitarian principle in this context. That may be worth a post down the line a bit.

Bill Pulliam said...

DeAnander -- off-topic essay... The way it works, as you probably know, is that you are presented with two items. One is a "known," the other is an "unknown." If you get the "known" right, then your guess for the "unknown" is used as valid data to decode what the "unknown" actually says.

For a long time all the items were text; these are snippets from scanned documents that the auto text recognition could not decipher because they were blurred or twisted -- page shifted during scanning, paper was crinkled, etc. A few months ago they began including images of numbers from Streetview, to correlate images with street addresses. At first the text was always the "known" and the number image was always the "unknown," hence the text pieces might have been easier on average. Now it seems like sometimes the number is the "known" so we are getting the really blurry smudgy pieces of text as the "unknowns" again.

Of course, so long as you get the "known" right your input is accepted. So if the text is really illegible, it might not matter so long as you type the number right.

We are all just cogs in Google's machinery that is striving to digitize the entire planet.

JMG -- the feeling in science is that without uniformitarianism the universe would be incomprehensible. If everything can be a special case, then nothing can be explained or understood. And in human history...?

Castus said...


Thank you very much for the link. I'll be making a purchase shortly.


Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Bill, I take it that you realise that your head-of-the-list comment contains a parallel restatement of several of Dmitry Orlov's Five Stages of Collapse? Clearly you're both observing the same process playing out, and drawing closely similar conclusions. Guess we just all have to pray that things don't proceed to the final fifth stage -- as happened to the Ik tribe in Africa during my lifetime.

It affects me too, since the state where I live -- Britain -- is a particularly dependent province of the US empire; made that way by the Atlanticist tendency amongst Britains fag-end-of-empire rulers, who became dominant after 1945-54.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

An advance, nice work and a whole different ball game! Well done, I wish you well and keep my fingers crossed for you hoping that it all pans out. Generally speaking though, hard work trumps luck in most situations and you are a consistent author.

I've put a bit more thought into the factory analogy and come up with some further parallels:

Specialisation is a common theme in factories as it promotes labour efficiency. Individuals in society have taken specialisation to such an extent that I consider it to be a pretty risky strategy. Historically, yeah people were specialised, but they were also experienced in many other facets of not just their particular trade (vertical integration if required was a possibility), but also many other general aspects of life. People nowadays tend to outsource these general aspects of life to other people (specialists) and as such they are pretty clueless about those activities - yet an economist may argue that this is an efficient use of scarce labour resources, just like in a factory.

Disconnect from inputs. I have worked in a factory (on a production line floor in my youth and later as a professional involved in an aspect of management for a few years and then in shutting down that factory). Factories are like sponges in that they tender for resources, but aren't particularly concerned about where those resources come from as long as they meet the quantity and quality requirements. It is all treated as a supply side issue (just like Reganomics) and not in the holistic sense that long term thinking (or sustainability) would require. Society is pretty much the same. I've read about fuel shortages in NY after Sandy and noted that people tended to seek more fuel rather than learn to live without it in an environment in which they chose to live in (people say it is dangerous living where I do because of natural events!).

Disconnect from nature. A factory is a simplified system, unlike the natural world which is mind-bogglingly complex. Factories are generally insulated from the natural world and have simple inputs and outputs. People in Industrial countries tend to live lives that are also insulated from the natural world when in fact we are all very much of the natural world. The disconnect means that both factories and people don't think that their actions have any consequence on the natural world, when they do.

You know, it is probably a case of chicken and egg, are factories a product of our society or is our current society a product of the Industrial Revolution? Dunno, although I do know that once you lose sight and contact with nature, you sell your soul.



Justin Wade said...

No joke, I need art and zen in my life like I need a third leg, but if I can't get a scooter or small bike fixed, I'll probably be walking.

Could literally not care less what Phaedrus is doing out there on the steppes.

Sue said...

While I agree with you that in many respects Obama and Romney are similar in how they might deal with issues of the corporate-government entanglement, I do think there are a few fundamental differences that are worth noting, and are some of the reasons I am very pleased with the outcome of the national election. I will name three that come to mind.

First, a scenario similar to the one you have outlined in this past month, in my estimation is much less likely to occur under an Obama administration. I for one, will rest much easier for the next four years having Mr. Obama as commander in chief. He has demonstrated some wisdom and savvy with regards to wielding both the soft and hard power of our nation. Last time we had a Republican in charge, some fairly poor decisions were made, and it is my sense, Romney might have been as clueless and rash in this regard as was the younger Bush.

Second is the future make up of the supreme court. Mr. Obama is not likely to nominate another Scalia or Thomas. What happens at the supreme court is often pivotal, as we have learned repeatedly, and most recently with the citizens united decision.

Third is marriage equality. When President Obama stood up and publically declared his support for gay marriage, that made a difference not just to those directly affected, but also to the cultural conversation, which impacts all of us. I am glad to have this man continue in office as a leader and to not have Romney who does not seem to share the same values on this issue.

And while the great sweep of history will continue in its own direction, regardless of the outcome of this particular election, everyday life still happens in smaller chunks of time. The next four years will still be tough, due to all the factors discussed in this blog, but I am much more optimistic in the short term, with Mr. Obama as our President.

Bill Blondeau said...

Following up on the conversation about the negligible differences between Obama and Romney: I'm pretty uncomfortable about a dog that isn't barking.

The premise that any sitting president is straitjacketed by ossified and entrenched powers is seemingly quite true.

The observation that Obama doesn't have the substance (as did Washington, Lincoln, and FDR) to disrupt those power structures through force of conviction, character, and skill is clearly also true: Obama has demonstrated his subordination to the financial class, and will presumably continue to do their bidding.

In short, yes, probably the policy differences between an Obama presidency and a Romney presidency would be confined to peripheral decisions of tertiary importance to the nation's arc in history. (Disclaimer: in my opinion the differences are certainly not tertiary to women, nonwhite people, the LGBT community, nonchristians, and so on, all of whom would be feeling a real difference - at the practical, objective level of governmental behavior - in the course of their lives had the election gone otherwise. That is, however, not my point.)

There is one important area - the silent dog in this discussion - in which Obama and Romney seem to be worlds apart: thaumaturgy.

Roughly, Obama represents a future in which existing structures of white, patriarchal, Christian, and Confederate privilege are going to crumble away. Romney's thaumaturgical message is that every effort must be made to preserve and bolster those structures. These two thaumaturgical incantations have hugely different consequence.

Yes, Obama's 2008 thaumaturgy of Hope And Change rang hollow when he began solicitously serving the financial interests first, expanding dictatorial government powers, and abdicating unearned political clout to the Republicans with both hands. But the subtext remains, and that subtext seems highly consequential.

Of course, the financial interests are adaptable and will do whatever they must in order to sustain their position and their many wealth pumps. But it does seem that with Obama's election, those financiers are somewhat restricted purely through the social force of thaumaturgy. Romney's old, authoritarian power structures, violence-prone and feeling existential threat, would make a much readier instrument for enhanced authoritarian rule. Iraq's Baath party is a real example of such a development, and history is full of others. But thaumaturgy has deligitimized them somewhat, hasn't it?

So yes, at a policy level, the sitting President of the US can't do much other than react to situations. But that president's "mandate", which gets so much attention from the policy-shapers, percolates down into all reaches of society, and casts influence over state and local governments. The mandate matters immensely.

And what is a mandate, really, except our consensus about the outcome of a thaumaturgical contest?

john said...

Probably the best thing I've read all year, thank you J.M. Greer.

Zach said...

John Michael,

Nathan is alluding to Steve Stirling's "Dies the Fire"/Emberverse series, in which all high tech tech is rendered inoperable in an instant ("The Change"). Chaos and collapse ensue, of course. I know this series has been mentioned before, and that I'm not the only fan among your readers.

In his current storyline, set a generation after the Change, Steve is using as the heavy a surviving and expansionist Church Universal and Triumphant, lead by "Sethaz" (Elizabeth Claire Prophet's youngest child Seth).

I'm pretty sure a lot of readers are not familiar with the fact that the C.U.T. is a real organization and not made up for the purpose of the story.


Ian said...

Regarding the 'but this time is different' concerns: one of the things I've noticed in discussions with folks around this sort of issue is that it results from a failure to specify the scope and scale of the observation. It tends to revolve around getting way, way ahead of facts and our capacity for understanding them, both on the part of science fanatics and their romantic rivals.

i.e., it is basically true that (at the scale of history) this tims is different because the particular causal components of this time *are* different and the exact arrangement they will form is difficult to predict in a precise way.

But it is also true that this time isn't different, in the sense that the sorts of things involved are basically of the same sort. So, while we may not be able to delineate the precise forms they will take, we can outline the general pattern of forces at play.

Which makes the 'scientific' application of history to *political* situations a not-so-smart choice. The generalities are of fairly minimal help to a politician in the welter of specifics. Knowing which way he or she is going helps, but only in a limited sort of way.

It's also why the talk of 'geoengineering' by our technocrats makes me very, very nervous. It seems like precisely the mismatch between generality and fact that defined the Soviet Marxist experiment. Except, you know, carried out directly on the ecosystem itself.

I'm with good ol' Otto Neurath on this sort of thing--best not try to rebuild the whole boat at once, unless you like drowning in the ocean.

And, then, well, there is Hegel's point about history not being one monolithic thing. A lot of history is (rightfully) not particularly scientific at all, it's just a people pulling together the stories that define them as a people.

I think some of the 'this time is different' is just people trying to lay hold of that more communal history, the sort through which they can find comraderie. The idea that history is 'really' the scientific stuff makes them feel adrift and lonely, just an atom in a process (which they also are, but not *just*). It's different this time because it is us, intimately and personally us. It may be like Rome, but I'm not, we're not, in Rome (with all apologies to Philip K. Dick).

The last round of fiction was nice in that it imagines that personal and intimate us, which may be one reason why it's been popular. It clearly shows that there is an 'us' in this.

Rediscovering a vibrant appreciation for that kind of history seems like something pretty important, though maybe we won't really see that until the contractions really drive things apart and people are forced to pull together again more tightly, to really be an us.

Well, okay, to be fair, plenty of folks still have that appreciation, but more will surely need it! And, wow, a sense for those being something you need to educate people with....anyway, I'll stop before I really get to rambling. Cheers!

Johan said...


I've really enjoyed the scenario, but I don't see how you ever thought it could have fitted into one post! :) Very well done!

After last year's series on magic, I thought you paid too little attention to those aspects of empire - Churchill's "empires of the mind" - but I'm happy to see them back in the scenario. All nations, including the US, seem to me a sort of sustained collective exercise in magic (collective being the key word - there's no single evil, or good, wizard, although of course not everyone has the same power), and when the magic dies, the nation will follow suit. This seems much closer to reality than the sort of disembodied all-powerful entitities that most people appear to talk about. I think there's a definitive connection between the latter and Cherokee Organics' factory analogy.

Somewhat off-topic, I'm happy the presidential election is over - we've had a ridiculous amount of coverage of it in Swedish media, with our local newspaper devoting some four pages EVERY DAY for the last few weeks to the circus…

Johan said...

Alpha Omegan,

JMG and others have pointed out that there are certain other trends pointing in very different directions.

Quite apart from resource constraints, there are some crucial aspects missing from the Singularity ideas, and it has to do with intelligence. We do indeed embed ever more intelligence in our machines, and we've been doing that since we first fell out of the African trees, but is there a difference between an intelligence that can impress itself onto matter, and the patterns said intelligence impresses into matter? Is there a principal difference between the intelligence encoded in a book and the intelligence encoded in a computer program?

Brother Kornhoer said...

Mr. Greer,

A couple of reflections inspired by your series. The first one is, I don't want the US to break apart! It's looking a little frayed now, in large part due to the political exploitation of regional differences for partisan purposes, plus the real internal economic exploitation that goes on. It's made me think of ways we can be sewn back up together - internal cultural exchange programs, perhaps? I'm interested in any ideas your readers might have.

Secondly, the discussion got me thinking of presidential elections that DID offer a real choice, at least in retrospect. The two that come to mind post WWII are 1980, to some extent, and 2000, as other readers have noted. Let me explain: President Carter saw dependency on Middle Eastern oil as a national security issue, and realized that continued consumption increases were unsustainable, and so tried mightily to reduce our dependence via conservation and alternatives. Even so, the revolution in Iran showed how deeply dependent we already were, and forced his hand towards a [further] militarization of US policy towards the Middle East. With the election of Reagan, though, any attempt at energy autarky was abandoned, and the military option was embraced whole-heartedly.

I see the election of 2000 as even more decisive, though, since it led to a war of choice in Iraq. Now, one thing to remember is that the no-fly zone and the hostile regime in Bhagdad was not exactly a sustainable situation, so I think even a President Gore would have done something about Iraq. But there were a bunch of other options, such as supporting a coup, a Libya-style air war, or even an invasion, arrest of Saddam, and installation of new rulers whilst keeping the Iraqi army and civil service intact - anything other than the tar baby occupation conducted by gross incompetents we found ourselves attached to.

As a side note, it seems transparent to me that the strategy of the attack was to do something so heinous that the US would be tempted to get into a quagmire of a war, a strategy that worked. The attackers took the measure of our leaders and found them wanting. It still amazes me that our leaders were so arrogant to fall for the strategy hook, line, and sinker.

Johan said...

Cherokee Organics,

Hah, November in Gothenburg is sleeting rain (sideways) one day, which freezes in the night to make the streets challenging in the morning, and low gloomy clouds and biting cold winds the next. All is grey, damp and dark (we currently have sunlight between about 8 am and 4 pm) - why should we be jealous of your spring?!

Sorry, couldn't resist! A lot of people in Sweden go Thailand during the dark half of the year, and in a way I understand them, but it saddens me that so few are capable of really enjoying this time of the year. There's a time for everything, they say, but apparently not for the grey and bleak season.

Slightly more on topic: I've been thinking along similar lines as your factory analogy. I'm currently working at a university, and all the talk about organization and structure is indistinguishable from when I worked in the car factory.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, the goal there seems to be to make history impossible to understand on its own terms, so that some emotionally appealing narrative can be imposed on it. Definitely a post there.

Castus, thank you!

Cherokee, the chicken-and-egg riddle has an easy answer: eggs came first, since the distant ancestors of birds were laying eggs long before the first chicken! Not so sure about factories and industrial society, though. It may be that Spengler's right, and what comes first is a state of mind -- once you imagine yourself free from nature, the society and the factory come out of that image.

Justin, you might consider asking over at the Green Wizards forum -- a practical question about scooter repair is more likely to get a practical answer there. I don't know a thing about scooter repair myself, so can't help!

Sue, well, you're entitled to your opinion. I modeled Jameson Weed in my scenario partly on the way Obama's blundered through four years of the secondhand foreign policy he copied from George W. Bush, drone attacks and all. As for the rest, yes, the various captive constituencies that back each party do get a few scraps from the table when their guy wins.

Bill, I think you're confusing the tail and the dog. What happened on Tuesday was a straightforward contest to see which candidate could piece together the largest assortment of veto groups and captive constituencies, and it's a contest Obama won. Both sides spent most of the election feeding the same thaumaturgical narrative about recovery, growth, jobs, limitless American power, blah blah blah, and the demographic shifts that have made the GOP's historical constituency a minority aren't changing that -- nor, I think, is there any basis for your claim that the financial industry will somehow be restrained by an Obama presidency. Exactly what has he done to restrain them for the last four years?

John, thank you.

Zach, gotcha. Thanks.

Ian, that's true -- but I'm not suggesting that history is a science, or that the scientific model should be applied to it wholesale. We do have some good examples of historical experiments, e.g., the history of Marxism, but it's interesting to watch how many people refuse to learn from them!

Johan, the magical dimension is central to most of what I write here, it just doesn't get brought out in detail very often. Yes, the "empires of the mind" are crucial, and will probably need more discussion as we finish up this set of posts.

Richard said...

Conservative philosophers and bloggers are commenting about the divide in America, saying that it has grown so bad that a civil war is likely. Blogger Bill Keezer talks about the possibility here:
and philosopher William Vallicella agrees here: William goes on to state that it is likely the red states will win because "they have all the guns." I can't help but detect a certain note of hope in their words...

Bill Pulliam said...

Several commentors have noted ideas along the lines of an Obama administration being better for some segments, such as GLBTQ(elemenopee... the acronym keeps growing and remains unpronounceable), etc. But though the president does have some influence and power, the real work there is happening at the state levels and to a lesser extent in the congress. Those are bottom up pushes, not top down pulls. Recent history shows that the President's position on these is generally set by the prevailing mood of the country, regardless of party. Bush II ended the ban on HIV+ people entering the US, a ban that stood through 8 years of Clinton. Obama ended don't-ask-don't-tell, for sure, but again that was a Clinton policy in the first place. He flipped on same-sex marriage when the public opinion polls flipped. Romney has extensively demonstrated his deeply entrenched "market-based politics," and he would go wherever the market demanded. That's a requirement for becoming president. Sure there is some symbolic value to having the Man (still, always a man...) at the Top agreeing with your position, but these fights really happen in state and local elections, not national ones. When enough States lead, the Feds will follow.

Ian said...

I'm not suggesting that history is a science, or that the scientific model should be applied to it wholesale.

Oh, I know. You're work is admirably clear-eyed and humane on those points.

I was mostly thinking aloud about the sorts of assumptions people sometimes bring to these discussions that lead them to respond in certain ways to it.

I've been trying to prune back the assumptions I bring in general, so I've been thinking, too, about the assumptions others bring. Am I responding to them or my assumptions? And vice versa. That we ever manage to communicate seems a wondrous marvel sometimes.

phil harris said...

JMG and all
I have been rather taken with Chris Cherokee’s thoughts about ‘factory consciousness” and the way it has both constructed the way we see the world and disconnected us from the “mind-boggling reality of the natural world”.
Co-incidentally I am reading, online, what for me is an extraordinary PhD Thesis. ( I am not even sure how I found it. Did somebody here mention the stories of Don DeLillo?)
The author of this thesis has studied DeLillo’s works, quote: “as expressive of the process of financialization which emerged in response to the 1970s capitalist crisis in the United States and gave rise to a specific social materiality and peculiar ‘structure of feeling’ grounded in finance capital.” This 'structure of feeling' takes Chris’ ‘factory’ sensibility a stage further. We move from the internalised ‘industrial model’ into the modern era represented in the novels, which as the PhD puts it, “depict a specifically finance-driven US hegemony”.

Certainly, peculiar is the right word for this ‘structure of feeling! The PhD thesis itself reads a bit like a SF story; written in the future and looking back to our strange times. However, the “anxiety and dread pervading DeLillo’s characters” perhaps gets closer than I like to admit to my own past struggles with the Zeitgeist and the sense of unreality I encountered in my own life.

Does anybody know DeLillo’s novels? If anybody wants a a quick look at the Thesis summary etc.,_Alessandra.pdf

Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, don't wanting to derail the comments too much to the offtopic side, but , on the US troops in Europe, I think was not so clear as possible.

My point ( that got buried in the extensive description of the fact that the US Army is proably even saving some cash in having the troops in Europe compared to having them in home, I reckon ) was that the majority of the European states at this time want to have bigger armies, even if to soak out the unemployed youth before they start to think funny things ( and if they die in faraway lands they aren't making noise in home :/ )... and they want to actually have far more leeway in those spendid little war games coutries love to play with weaker ones ( especially in Africa ... even Portugal apparently propped up a attempt of coup in Guine-Bissau a couple of weeks ago ). And you also must not forget that the military "Keyesnism" also has fans in this side of the pond ...

It is true that some decades ago there were people serious in using the Americans as meat shield for Europe ( and willing to pay for it ), but at this time I think that everyone around here is sharpening the blades in secret and just waiting for the aparently inevitable at long term American departure to solve those old feuds that everyone in Europe has with someone and maybe get a crumb of Africa back ( see how eager the French and the British were of messing up in Lybia ). So ,as you can imagine, there is a lot of people eager to see the americans go away to have free reign. I'm not saying that it will end well for anyone in here ( it won't ), but at this point it is almost certain that most of the European governements see the american presence far less as a asset than a burden and it will surely come the time that they will be fully willing to try to pay the price of having a defense that does not rely in the big bad american army boogieman. As a half-joke, I am 100% sure that the Greek goverment at this point would kill for the option of having a nice little war with Turkey :p They would definitely lose, but then they could blame the turks for all of their miseries, instead of the state ruinous management :D

On Portugal, to be honest, the Chinese moves have been extensively publicized, but there has been some very bitter bidding wars between brazilian and chinese companies for state assets and EMBRAER ( the Brazilian military planes builder ) is actually at this point hiring personnel to open a factory of military transport planes in here next year. Still, the German investements are king for the time being ( the Volkswagen factory they have here alone makes up for 3-6% of the GDP ), but Germany is not what it used to be in terms of liberal distribution of "investements" ;), so I assume that is a matter of time before someone passes them ... but anyway, I do see Portugal as being probably too far for a real Chinese lordship. OTOH I would not exclude a Brazilian future ...

Kieran O'Neill said...

I have enjoyed these posts, and this one giving context in particular.

However, something didn't sit right about your comments on European and Japanese defence spending, and a little research does seem to bear that out.

The EU, taken as an entity, spends $US 194 billion, or about 1.6% of its GDP on defence. That's second only to the US, and about 1.3 times the spending of China. For that, they get a military with the second highest number of active personnel in the world (after China and before the USA), the second most combat aircraft (after the USA and before China), and the most warships. France and the UK also have small but not insignificant nuclear arsenals. If the US were to pull all its troops out today, the EU would have no trouble standing alone.

(Wikipedia has some good information on this:

In the future, things may be somewhat different. Granted, much of the EU's military power is accounted for by the UK, France and Germany, and an EU breakup could leave poorer member states vulnerable. But while the Euro is looking shaky at the moment, the series of pacts and alliances that make up the Union go back a lot further, and are quite a bit deeper than the currency. Personally I would give the EU at least even odds of outlasting the USA, in some form or other. It might end up looking somewhat more imperial, with the UK, France and Germany becoming more obvious local hegemons, but I doubt that it would lose the ability to dissuade other major global players from projecting military power into Europe.

For the Portuguese scenario you mention to Ricardo, I could easily see China exerting political and financial influence over Portugal. But I do not see China being able to back that up with military threats from literally the other side of the globe, and within the sphere of influence of what will likely be an equal or near-equal nuclear equipped military.

Japan, although it only spends 1% of its GDP on defence, is still in the top 10 for absolute spending. Given its precarious geographical location in respect to China (and for that matter Russia), it would certainly need to up that in the event of the US disappearing, but the JSDF is nothing to sneeze at.

What I take exception to is the idea that the USA is paying for the sovereign defence of Europe. That may have been true during the Cold War, when there were Soviet troops poised for invasion, but right now there just isn't a strategic military threat for the EU to defend against. I think both that idea, and others backing the massive rise in US defence spending since 2000, are part of the Neocon mythos. What I can accept is that the US military is protecting European imperial interests, and that a Europe in a future world, standing without the US, would lose more remote proxy wars with, say China, than it would win, but I give it reasonably good odds of maintaining its local sphere of influence for at least as long as global powers continue to exist (maybe another century?).

(Barring, of course, civil wars, seismic socio-political shifts like another wave of fascism, a third world war, etc).

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Cherokee: on the topic of your idea of the factory society, I've seen a similar argument in the book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I'm busy reading. The author, a think-tank director turned motorcycle mechanic, argues that the modern revolution in "knowledge work" is much akin to the advent of the assembly line. The assembly line took the skill of a single craftsman and distilled it into a process which could be carried out by cheap, unskilled, easily replaceable workers, with correspondingly disastrous effects for the manual crafts. Crawford argues that the "knowledge economy" has done much the same to the intellectual crafts, with individual creative and intellectual ability largely replaced by computerised processes set up once by a designer, making "knowledge workers" little more than clerks, and just as cheap, unskilled and replaceable as assembly line workers. At the same time, universities have moved from being centres of learning of the craft of academia into degree factories, churning out clerical workers for the cubicled assembly line.

I don't know if this is exactly what you were driving at, but I think it is related. And you should give the book a read; it's written very accessibly, but frequently delves into the deeper philosophy underlying the author's arguments.

5keptical said...

The notion of a rise of autonomous robots is very much part of the snake oil of the singularity folks.

But for many tasks adding "intelligent" computer control is far more efficient (we'd have to have a discussion on the definition of that word, for you and I may differ drastically from the people who have the money to build these things) than maintaining a sack of meat with all its foibles and support structures.

A strong possibility is the replacement of human truck drivers with autonomously driven vehicles - which can run 24/7, don't have unions, may end up with a better safety record, and if you look at the whole system, may use significantly less resources/energy.

I left AI and went into computer graphics because it was apparent, even in the early 80's, how simple it was to build a visual system on a gun that simply shot anything that moves. These now exist - guarding the Korean border.

Autonomous robots aren't going to take over, but "specialized intelligences" will be used more and more to take people out of the loop - from self checkout, to truck transport, medical diagnoses, and security.

By whom and to what end these embedded intelligences will be put to is one of the more interesting tech and cultural question of the next 25 years.

Zach said...

John Michael,

More on topic - thank you for showing the "behind the scenes" models you used for your scenario.

I tested your scenario in a discussion with a friend and got an interesting result. The idea of a future American military defeat he found plausible. The notion that the Union could dissolve without immediately yielding the American Civil War 2.0, however, he found completely unthinkable.

I find this idea (that secession / dissolution would inevitably lead to ACW-level bloodiness) to be common.

And on the other hand, in the last two days I've been sent two "humor" pieces about the breakup of the USA along our cultural fault lines, one left and one right. The idea is in the air.


Sue said...

I think if you ask friends of mine who are gay and wish to get married, having the support of the president and the change in culture this involves, is hardly a scrap.

And if you are a woman, having a supreme court that will not revoke Roe v Wade might not be described as a scrap either.

To me some of these items involve major quality of life issues.

You and I can agree to disagree on our views of Obama's foreign policy. I am no lover of drone attacks, but I do think taking out OBL was the right thing to do, for example.

Darth Imperius said...

Bill Blondeau makes a great point which I’m surprised the Archdruid didn’t mention, about the thaumaturgical difference between Obama and Romney. This election was all about thaumaturgy: Obama’s victory sends a very potent message, both to those of us who are threatened by a future in which our demographic has been further disempowered, and to those who favor that trend. I wish you, as an esotericist, would deal more honestly with this issue rather than using liberal platitudes, because this is a deep issue of power that only the far right seems willing to discuss.

Personally, I expect increasing radicalization of “angry white males” in the years ahead, as they realize that the civilization that their forefathers built and fought for has slipped away forever and a new, totalitarian multicultural state has replaced it. I would love to hear your thoughts, as a middle class white anglo-saxon male, on this black magical transformation of America, and whether you think the current thaumaturgical battles are just a prelude to real, material wars to come.

Cam from Oz said...

Hello John, really enjoyed your recent series of posts.

On another topic. I have just finished reading retired Australian Labor politician Lindsay Tanner's (former finance minister) book 'Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy.' The bulk of the book is about how the transition from news to infotainment and the 24h news cycle etc is destroying democracy. The really interesting part though was the second last chapter titled "People live in their hearts." This chapter echoed, but not anywhere near as eloquently as your writing, your posts on magic and the conscious versus unconscious mind.

Anyway, reading that book has reconfirmed to me (not that I needed it) that turning off the TV is one of the most productive things that any of us can do.

Cam from Oz

Nano said...

The key to magical workings, a state of mind/focus. Simple, no? ;)

Does spinning static dance...weee

It has proven a challenge to talk to some friends and family members after the election. No doubt a social change is taking place and that's good in my view, however that win tends to blind from the precipice at hand.

Dornier Pfeil said...

Isaac Asimov wrote a small book called(by imperfect memory), "A Simple Introduction to the Slide Rule" or something like that. It shouldn't be hard to find for someone who wants to find it.

sgage said...

This talk about slide rules makes me somewhat wistful, if not downright nostalgic. The only real material object that I inherited from my father, who died when I was 6, was his slide rule.

A beautiful piece of craftsmanship in wood and ivory, in a velvet-lined leather case, it powered me right through my undergraduate career, including several chemistry and physics courses. The rich kids were just beginning to get 'calculators', but they had nothing on me :-)

One thing... if you came along doing your calculations with the ol' slipstick, you developed a very good sense of a)orders of magnitude and b)significant digits. This seems to be lacking in the digital age...

But, nowadays I tote a classic HP 11C (which powered me through grad school), a similarly solid piece of work, but when the batteries are no longer available (though the thing goes 20 years on a set of batteries), I'll know what to do.

John Michael Greer said...

Brother K., for what it's worth, I don't think breaking up the US is a good idea, either. You're also quite correct that some presidential contests do feature a definite choice, usually between bad and worse.

Richard, sure, and the blue states would have been talking secession if Romney had won. It's going to take a while longer, and much more stress, before the meme gets so deeply implanted that it's not just a rhetorical strategy for sore losers.

Bill, precisely.

Ricardo, fascinating. I've wondered for a while whether the end of the American presence in Europe would eventually bring on the next round of European wars -- the nations of Europe always start off invading countries elsewhere, and end up invading each other. As for Portugal as a Brazilian client state, yes, that's also a very likely outcome, as Brazil approaches great power status.

Kieran, the US presence in Europe has been on the wane since the end of the cold war, to be sure, and that's one useful marker of American imperial decline. That presence, as I see it, was always as much an army of occupation as it was a matter of defending Europe -- you'll notice that the two Axis powers that mattered, and the other Allied power that mattered, all ended up occupied by very large US forces for decades after the war ended. Still, I'm far from sure that European nations can be as secure in their own homelands as you think; the EU strikes me as a very ramshackle arrangement, closer to the old Concert of Europe than to a viable supranational government, and once it gives way the major threats to each European country will be its neighbors, as in the past.

5keptical, 25 years is a good figure -- that's about how long I think we have before technological regression becomes a massive issue, because the energy and raw materials to create and maintain computer technology will no longer be readily available, and human labor will be much, much cheaper.

Zach, yes, I've seen the same assumption at work. It'll be interesting to see how things play out as we proceed.

John Michael Greer said...

Sue, Obama's support for gay marriage, especially when he's shown a propensity for making popular promises while campaigning and then ditching them once in office (Guantanamo, anyone?) is a scrap. I've also been watching politics long enough to recognize that the mainstream of the GOP isn't serious about restricting abortion -- they use that rhetoric to play to one of their captive constituencies, with exactly the same degree of cynicism that the Dems use environmental rhetoric -- and so the quadrennial yelling about the Supreme Court is also a scrap.

The real work in both cases is being done on the state and local levels -- for example, in the state where I live, which just passed legislation allowing gay marriages after a lot of hard work to which Obama contributed nothing worth mentioning.

Darth, if all you can hear in what I'm saying is liberal platitudes, you're not listening.

Cam, thanks for the book tip! I'd like to take your suggestion a little further: don't just turn off the TV, work it over with a 5 pound sledgehammer.

Nano, good. The fixation on the politics of the moment is one of the major distractions just now from the hard work that has to be done.

Pfeil, the Asimov book is surprisingly hard to find these days, though it's well worth getting if you can find it; some small publisher could do well out of a new edition for the slide rule collector market.

Sgage, sweet. I took my Pickett 990-ES to my ham radio exams, and aced all the math questions -- for most trig calculations, a slipstick is faster than a pocket calculator, and as long as you can do orders-of-magnitude in your head, it's accurate enough for radio work.

CGP said...

When you say that Germany uses the EU as a wealth pump what is your evidence? I am not saying I doubt this; it is just that although I follow politics and world events closely I have never come across this idea anywhere (not explicitly anyway) other than through your writings which indicates you have different sources. May you please point me in the direction of some sources and/or evidence for this? How exactly does Germany use the EU as a wealth pump? I know that it has something to do with the wealth disparity between Germany and southern European nations.

Also I have heard people arguing that the EU is good for European peace with the "proof" being that there have been no wars among European nations since its creation. This sounds fallacious to me as there seems to be confusion between causation and correlation i.e. the EU has coincided with a peaceful Europe but has not been the cause of this peace. May you please outline a strong rebuttal for this EU equals European peace argument?

Kurt Cagle said...


I find one of the most fascinating things to come out of the last few months is the degree to which it's seemed like there are two different realities affecting not only interpretation but what should be clearly definable facts - as if there were two universes that have, somehow become temporarily intertwined, and inhabitants of each seem mystified at the reactions from the inhabitants of the other.

Delegitimization can happen in many ways. While I enjoyed your yarn immensely, I cannot help but wonder whether these disparate narratives are in fact the leading indicators of an incipient split. Silly issues get magnified out of proportion, slights that would otherwise be shrugged off become deadly insults.

One consequence of that is that I don't believe that a foreign policy disaster will result in delegitimization, except very indirectly (and yes, I recognize that your story is only one potential route). What I do believe is that we're seeing two discordant memes playing out at an intensity that I can't remember seeing in the last forty years, and while some of this will cool off prior to the 2014 elections, it's a lot like Arctic Sea Ice - every election cycle it just becomes more polarized than the one before. Eventually you reach a stage where the legitimacy of the election becomes so highly contentious that dissolution across the fault lines will occur naturally.

CGP said...

The more I think about peak oil the more it occurs to me that it is going to save us from a far worse fate than the one we have coming. Yes, it will be difficult and there will be suffering but it could and would have been far worse if the peak had not arrived when it did, or even worse if we had found some other concentrated source of energy.

When people talk about the singularity, intelligent robots ravaging the Earth, uploading consciousness onto robotic bodies and so on I realise that these are pipedreams for numerous reasons including the lack of cheap, concentrated energy and raw materials necessary to make this happen. However, some of this could and would have happened if we had more energy. For example, given what has already been achieved and the hubris that has resulted it actually is not unreasonable to imagine a future of robotic warfare creating a civilisation very inhospitable to most humans. Think drones but on a larger and more insidious scale. It is theoretically possible to have intelligent robots that in some senses rebel against humanity causing serious problems and devastation.

Or consider the fear of a one world government. During an interview I heard you say there are not the resources to sustain this and that makes sense to me. However, imagine if we did have the energy and resources to do this. I do not doubt that it would have happened.

Or the possibility that reproduction becomes even more detached from nature than it already has. I saw a book the other day talking fondly of a future where babies are manufactured using artificial eggs and wombs making men redundant. This would be a logical extension of what has already happened and with more energy it would have happened, at least for a time.

I am not saying all of these possibilities could have happened with more energy. For example, I do not think consciousness can be uploaded onto a computer. This to me seems to take the brain as hardware, mind as software, analogy too far. However, some of these possibilities could and in my view would have happened in a world of greater energy and therefore are more than wacky science fiction.

You might say, well yes, but we live on a finite planet so why entertain these “possibilities”. True, but there are some plausible circumstances under which some of this becomes possible. For example, the planet could have been larger with more oil or we could have perfected nuclear fusion. There would still be limits and eventual collapse but imagine how much more damage would occur before then. We could conceivably have these robotic monsters mentioned above, more war not less as a result, and a much higher peak in global population before the collapse (perhaps 10 to 20 billion).

What I am saying is peak oil as it actually is may have saved us from ourselves, our own hubris and the madness of "progress" as it has been defined and operationalized over the past three centuries. Perhaps a focus on this will help to keep us sane during the coming hardships.

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG - Thank you for the link. Now I think I understand your point.

So it raises a different question. We do seem to have settled into a gridlock similar to 1860 and 1932. And we certainly recognize both Lincoln and FDR as exceptional presidents who brought us through those crises and changed the nature of the gridlock, and the direction of the nation.

To what extent were they created by their circumstance?

You outline two coming crises, but they are not, in fact, on top of us.

In the 1860 crisis we had states clamoring for secession, and armies forming to enforce it. In the 1932 crisis, we had armed insurrection forming in the rural areas and communism sweeping the cities, and Washington insiders were calling for suspension of the Constitution under martial law and a full fascist reorganization of government.

Nothing like that has yet happened in our current gridlock. We've had a foreshock in the 2008 recession. Nothing more.

In keeping with the principle of historical patterns you argue here, it seems to me that the resolution of the past crises was not so much that Lincoln and FDR were overwhelmingly superior beings, but that they were the ones who happened to be there when it all went down, and they had ENOUGH character to rise to the occasion.

That would imply that whoever is in the White House when the current crises come to a head will become the next president to stand beside Lincoln and FDR -- provided that this person is not too weak (or ideologically rigid) to rise to the occasion.

My question is whether you think this person can be smoked out in advance of the crisis.

My inclination would be to say he -- or she -- cannot. If the crisis strikes while Obama is in the White House, he may rise to the occasion and become a Great President, or he may not. In principle, the same could be said of Romney, had he been elected. Or even Sarah Palin. We won't know until the crisis comes, and we'll see how the person in the hot seat jumps.

If you disagree -- if you think the person who could rise to the occasion can be determined, or even intuited, before the crisis comes -- what would be the characteristics you believe would be essential to taking us through that crisis into the beginning of the next cycle?

Joseph Nemeth said...

5keptical - efficiency is always at odds with robustness.

That's a basic rule of this physical universe.

When you talk about "efficiency," it always implies a fixed environment. If the environment changes, "efficiency" is often a synonym for "inviability."

The day that you can throw two robots into a swamp filled with rats and alligators and mud, and in twenty years go back and find three fully-functioning full-sized robots, I'll start worrying about machine intelligence and "efficiency." Such robots would be robust, rather than merely efficient.

If they need clean rooms and purified gallium arsenide to reproduce, they're toys.

I'm fully with JMG on this one, though I've grown cautious of timelines. I can think of a couple of technological twists that could push that crisis out several generations.

But until robots can reproduce in a swamp, they remain toys.

John Michael Greer said...

CGP, I've discussed the mechanism of the wealth pump many times over the last year, and there's been a good deal of discussion in posts and comments about the ways that Germany and France have used European fiscal and economic policy to enrich themselves at the expense of other European countries. I don't propose to rehash all that here, and the other argument doesn't interest me.

Kurt, one of the things that underlies the narrative is a sense that we're not quite there yet. Your process of continued polarization is precisely what I see happening around us.

CGP, that's certainly one way to look at the situation.

Joseph, I certainly wouldn't claim the ability to guess in advance whether any given politician can rise to greatness. I'd point out, though -- as I did in that earlier post -- that Lincoln and FDR both had huge advantages that any future president in the same situation won't have, notably a very rich natural resource base that allowed many aspects of their respective crises to be mitigated.

That said, it's not too hard to imagine a variant on my scenario in which, let's say, Pete Bridgeport was Jameson Weed's vice president, and didn't make the mistakes Gurney did, which latter were wyat pushed the crisis of legitimacy to the point of explosion. In that alternate scenario, it wouldn't be too hard to see the constitutional convention fulfilling its original purpose, reining in the federal government and transferring some authority back to the states, and kickstarting the long period of national reassessment I mentioned in this week's blog post. No doubt, in that future, President Bridgeport would end up with a memorial somewhere along the Mall, or perhaps in the new capital that will have to be built once sea level starts rising in earnest.

Iodhan Silverbear said...

JMG, great series and a great debriefing. For my own part, I am hoping hoping that I can prepare my infant son for the post-american future. While I have endeavoured to adopt a healthier lifestyle it is well within the realm of possibility that I may not live long enough to enjoy my many preparations for such. There is a quote that wanders around the interwebs from time to time that kept popping up while I was reading, it's attributed as a greek proverb: "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

In a very fundamental way, much of what you suggest in your blog in general is not something that I will come to live so much as my son will. Everything I do today to help prepare him for that future is a tree whose shade he will enjoy. Perhaps we should collectively be thinking of ways that we could do that as opposed to milling about complaining about the way things are now. I believe that the future is bleak from the perspective of our present resources. My son's children might very well be playing with homemade wooden toys and the bright colorful plastics we see now will be ancient litter.

Renaissance Man said...

Wendell Barry wrote quite extensively on the problems of the tendency to apply industrial manufacturing philosophy to many aspects of life for which it is singularly ill-suited.
He made an observation that in our society we really only value something after it has been turned into something else. That is, of course, the essence of a factory: to turn raw materials into manufactured goods -- one thing into another. We have become very, very good at it, and are so impressed with our cleverness that, like the proverbial man with a hammer who sees everything as a nail, we unconsciously try and apply those ideas everywhere.
He pointed out, for example, how we treat children like machine components on an assembly-line during the course of their "education" and the diminishing return associated with higher education in that model. Thus we do not value a child entering school because he or she has not yet been turned into a 'valuable' university graduate yet.
We treat farms like factories, expecting them to run like machinery, as a means of producing food, without regard to integrated biological issues, hence monoculture, ground-killing fertilizers, pesticides, and tractors. Our market economics has no way of evaluating the "value" of healthy topsoil, air or water, even though we intuitively know it should be greater than zero, apart from evaluating the price of crops produced by that soil. Our factory mentality cannot evaluate the worth of a standing forest, even though we know it has intrinsic biological worth. We can only evaluate it after it has been turned into lumber, raw material for industry.
In the same way the news business has slowly morphed from providing information and context into a news factory, to output the largest number of facts that grab our attention, but without any discernment as to relative value ('infotainment'), and stripped of context or narrative to make sense of them. Dan Rather once remarked back in the late 1980s, that America is a nation where people know everything that happened in the last 24 hours, but cannot remember what happened last week. News is now fragmented and disconnected collection of recent events, and it is left to a diligent reader (with a good memory and a lot of time) to try and tease out which bits of information are important and thus produce a signal and which are mere background noise and then to connect those fragments together into some sort of coherent narrative about what is happening in our world. This began when corporations began to require that all divisions turn a profit, including the news bureaus, which meant that they had to entertain as much as they informed and so, here we are, 40 years later.
It is why there is so little coverage of issues like huge unemployment rates and the real significance of the "jobless recovery" and so much coverage of, say, the Kardashians and other trivia. The latter titillates, the former requires us to see the world in a way we don't like. It allows 48% of the population who actually went out to vote to choose a blatant liar like Gov. Romney because his narrative appeals to them and they like his 'facts'. Pres. Obama is not being straight, either, because he is cherry-picking his facts and weaving an equally unrealistic narrative, but at least the facts he chooses are verifiably true, if distorted. There are other reasons, of course, explored here in previous posts, but that is why this past fiction series which draws from real, disparate, but significant news events and pulls them together into a coherent, probable narrative is so powerful.

DesertedPictures said...

I just read an article in 'der spiegel' called 'the divided states of america': notes on the decline of a great nation. It's an interesting read, although it doesn't mention peak oil. (it does spend a good ammount talking about the adversity of the US to solar energy.

I don't know how you feel about links but I think you might find it an interesting read.

Susan Butler said...

I was surprised to see the fiction series written rather enthusiastically just like ordinary military history. I'm aware the history of the world thus far has been a kaleidoscopic eternal round of conflicts and wars. But humans are capable of evolution in non-material ways. I think the great significance of technology, ironically, has been the beginning of the elevation of half the human race, women, to equal status. This is an unprecedented change, of even more significance than other completely new things, like the concept of human rights, or the unprecedented connectedness of the species through the internet. It is not just in material, "Limits to Growth" ways that we face a new situation. More influential will be consciousness changes whereby the whole dominance/submission imperative need no longer be primary. I think the drama of humans killing each other for various domineering reasons will be replaced with other less primitive dramas. Of course the full half measure of evil will always obtain in human nature, alas; but that's what makes us interesting. I doubt it's going to be just more of the same. There will be a shift as profound as the Copernican one, by its nature really hard to conceptualize from within our current system, but definitely not just another shoot 'em up.

Doctor Westchester said...

There is an article in the recent edition of The Atlantic that is very germane to your latest series of posts on the end of the American empire, General Failure. It deals with the increasing difficulty our military has with replacing incompetent or non-functional officers within its ranks. Shades of the British actions with their Generals in World War I versus what they did earlier. If any more evidence is required that our empire is circling the drain, this article should supply it.

OrwellianUK said...

Hi John

Like a few others on here, I'm skeptical that there will ever be another Global Hegemon. True, China will certainly become more prominent, but I think Geography and Peak Everything will trump and we will end up with a kind of 1984 style scenario with a few major regional power blocs pushing against each other without ever really getting anywhere in terms of expansion. Perhaps with a tacit understanding between them to keep the 'war' going in order to cotnrol their respective domestic populations as Orwell may have been implying.

The obvious immediate target for Chinese regional dominance is of course Japan, who I think are pretty much owned by China already and not to mention Taiwan of course. But my view is that it would take decades for China to create the size of military that would be able to enforce a global presence and by that time it will no longer be possible in terms of resources.

It's clear that those large scale economic unions are beginning to break down. The EU has already begun collapse and the US will surely follow, first economically then actually at some point. Here in the UK, it already looks likely that Scotland will break away from the Union which will certainly have economic consequences as well as social ones.

I do have concern about those countries in the 'backyard' of the major powers however, who will become greater targets as the ability to wage war overseas diminishes.

Joseph Nemeth said...


In your alternate ending, you have to switch Bridgeport for Gurney, because the story would have fought with itself by having Gurney act so far out of character -- you'd have needed to fight an uphill narrative battle to explain Gurney's "come to Jesus" moment that opened his eyes, and required even more hand-waving to explain how Gurney outgrows a lifetime of privilege and arrogance in time to avoid the Constitutional crisis. Switch Bridgeport for Gurney, however, and the story writes itself.

I think this is perhaps the nub of the important difference between presidential candidates. It's the perception of "character." Though I hate to say that -- I've always considered the "character" argument to be a rationalization for "He has good hair."

This suggests a potential way to evaluate presidential candidates for the next few election cycles. It isn't a question of who promises what, or who keeps those promises, or one ideology or another.

The question should be, who can make an unorthodox decision when the time comes? Who can buck tradition, his party, his financial backers, even his "constituency," and do something unexpected and adaptive?

I'm thinking right now, not of Obama and Romney, or even Lincoln and FDR, but of Il Magnifico: Lorenzo di Medici, and his near-legendary embassy in 1479 to renew an alliance with Naples and end the debilitating war between Rome and Florence: a journey that took considerable personal courage, as well as an enormous amount of careful political groundwork in preparation. Lorenzo was good at rising to the occasion.

As opposed to Savonarola, a typical ideological extremist who took power after Lorenzo's son fled the Republic and ended up burned and hanged in the square only four years later.

brwalse said...

After discovering your blog, I've spent the last year and a half reading every entry. Thank you for your wisdom and advice. I'm currently reading David Jacke's 'The Edible Forest Garden,' and plan on implementing permaculture next spring. Also, thanks for Alf Hornsborg's 'The Power of the Machine,' which I think is the best treatise elucidating the world state of affairs going.

I noticed Dmitry Orlov has a more aggressive version of descent than your own. I'd be interested in hearing the two of you discuss this topic on extraenvironmentalist.

Lastly, human potential for sustainability has always nagged me. While there are numerous examples of indigenous societies living within the real time inputs of solar radiation, there is evidence of aggregation and exploitation even in pre-Columbus North America. What is human nature? Good, bad, social, cirumstantially contingent? There are some evolutionary predilections - kin-based bias, correlation confused as causation, etc. I lean toward socially contingent. Diamond, Godesky and others have their views. Anthropology is an important discipline in this area. Eventually, there will no longer be enough resource stores left to support further expansion rendering the concern moot. Nevertheless, the choices many in this species have made (notably agriculture) have led to a serious deterioration of the planet. This saddens me because it's obvious that there was a tremendous abundance, enough for everyone. Future generations may very well look back and ask, "What have we done?"



John Michael Greer said...

Iodhan, your son will never have to experience the wrenching shift between our current expectations of limitless growth and the hard recognition of decline. He'll come of age in a nation and a civilization that's clearly in decline, and that condition will thus seem natural and normal for him. That alone will spare him quite a bit of the trauma that your generation and mine will have to pass through.

Renaissance, that's certainly a useful approach to the question -- as I'd expect, coming from Wendell Berry.

Pictures, links are fine. Have you read the comments to that article, by the way? The sheer volume of bluster and swagger from American readers is dizzying.

Susan, in this week's post, I said, "The notion that the present epoch is utterly unique in history, popular as that is, fails to convince me, and the habit of using that notion as an excuse to project an assortment of utopian and apocalyptic fantasies on the inkblot patterns of the future strikes me as frankly delusional." Did you read that? You probably should have, because I was talking about you.

No, not you personally, and not you alone, but the sort of future fantasy you've proposed here. Like so many people nowadays, you've bought into the mistaken notion that the word "evolution" means that whatever you don't like about the world (e.g., war) is going to go away sooner or later. I'd encourage you to read a few books about evolution by Stephen Jay Gould, or someone else who knows what the word means. Evolution is not progress, and progress is not a law of nature; it's simply an ideology used by people in the modern industrial world to one-up the rest of our species.

You might also want to look up, by the way, how many times in the last few centuries people have insisted that humanity was about to "outgrow" war. (It's a very large number.) This generally happens in the run-up to a very big war -- for example, there was a lot of that rhetoric in the US in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and even more of it in Europe in the decades right before 1914. If the prevalence of future fantasies like yours is any guide, therefore, my choice of a military framework for my narrative is likely to be right on target.

Doctor W., thank you! Definitely grist for the mill.

Orwellian, I'd remind you that Spain and Britain both built world empires at a time when high tech transportation consisted of wooden sailing ships. We have a long way to decline before that technology becomes unavailable again!

Joseph, you get tonight's gold star for a good historical comparison. This is why, as I've tried to point out, I'm not suggesting that every presidential contest is a competition between interchangeable figures -- just that this most recent one was.

Brwalse, "enough for everyone" was only true, at any point in history or prehistory, for a very low value of "everyone." That said, I wouldn't worry too much about human nature in the abstract, since nobody can demonstrate what it is or isn't.

latheChuck said...

Regarding slide rules: Asimov's book is indeed hard to get, and apparently priced like a holy relic. If anyone simply wants to learn how to calculate with a slide rule, though, there are many FREE on-line books to read in The Internet Archive ( I can't compare and contrast them, but right now I'm looking at "The slide rule; a practical manual", and it seems useful enough. Multiply/divide, trig, log, and "special" slide rules are covered. (11th edition, 1908).

Avery said...

I thought the idea that the Union could be dissolved almost on accident was a joke, considering the number of federal ties states rely on, but then I woke up this morning to thousands of people signing these petitions:

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Oh, so many posts to comment, and so little time... I'll have to see if I can do some of the ones I wish later, but for the moment, just one point:

Knowing which countries will be future hegemons (or strong regional powers) is probably more difficult then simply looking at rising powers today and extrapolating them to the future. A lot of local situations need to be examined, and also their interplay with one another. I'll talk about the case with Brazil, which I know best.

Brazil has some very good advantages. It is largely self-sufficient in food production, it has most of the resources needed to maintain viable industry in the near future and it doesn't face any serious population crisis in the near future. Due to a lack of local coal and abudant rivers, about two thirds of our energy production is from water dams, and while this means that the country faces some hard constraints to expand it's energy production, it is also in a very good position to maintain it's current level of production for the next several decades without too many problems, which might end up being VERY important if most of the world will be facing decline.

It also has a surprising amount of "soft power" and I would expect this to increase. Unlike most of today's big powers, or the projected future ones, brazilians are widely regarded as "harmless" or even a force for good in the world stage, or so I gather from the reception that brazilians usually get overseas.

OTOH, we suffer from a massive case of clay feet. There's a lack of investing capital (which atm is usually compesated by influx of external capital). The education level of the population is very low and the reform of the educational system has been very difficult. There's also a lot of problems with bureacracy and the political side of things, etc. These could be solved, granted, and also it is possible to become a regional power even with some of these problems. But there is one big issue that most people outside of here (and even most that live here) have no clue about: Brazil has almost no military to speak of.

Oh, granted, we have a semi-decent land army, with some very good units here and there (some of our "jungle infantry" is scary, specially the batallions that recruit heavily into the remaining indigenous population), but the country has no means of projecting power. The airforce is a joke. Even smallish european countries have far more efficient air-forces. We currently operate about 100 jet figthers, mostly very obsolete F-5E's (that's right), with UNGUIDED rockets and cannon as main armament. The Navy has recently sunk most of it's budget buying an old french carrier and has been toying with it, but the sheer expense of maintaing the thing means we don't even have the money to replace our current aging frigates, much less getting anything useful like, let's say, a fleet of modern diesel subs. We also have a pathetic logistic arm, which is what it's truly needed to sustain projection of power.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

There's also no coherent political platform to change this, from any of the major parties. There's a lot of talk about BECOMING a regional power, even hot air about a permanent chair at the UN security council, but no one actually wants to pay for the military means to do it. Partially, that's because south america is an unusually calm part of the world, if you don't count civil wars or insurections and coups. The last major armed conflit predates the US Civil War, and since then none of the countries has been involved in any major wars (aside from Argentina and the Falklands). Brazil is also so much bigger and richer then it's spanish-speaking neighboors that it has never needed to invest in a military force. The continent has been historically under the influence (and the business end of the wealth pump) of the leading Atlantic power. First, the iberian nations that colonized it, then Britain, and lastly the US.

The current situation, in which we are finally getting away from this situation, is totally new, and I fear that it won't last. Brazil COULD end up a regional power, if it managed to secure both shores of the south atlantic, become the major trading partner of the rest of the south american countries and exert convincing military power to cast an umbrella into the region and prevent an outside power from muscling in. Pòssibly forming some sort of NATO/Warsaw Pact with the other south american counties. I just don't think it will.

More likely, we will either end up being back under the thumb of a local atlantic hegemon (my money would be this being the rump USA-UK coalition once it is kicked out of the indian and pacific oceans, or else a german-led europe), or at best playing a regional power in the north atlantic against China for advantage, which has the downside of making us a possible ground for proxy wars.

I can see similar issues with some of the other supposed powers, so my money is actually in a very multipolar world where the main players are a german-led EU, Russia, China and whatever remains of the USA-UK. Brazil and India could surprise and run a good outside track, but their fate is more doubtful to me.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Oh, btw, also want to thank Doctor Westchester for the link. Very good article, I recommend everyone to read it.

I had no idea of how badly these wars were planned and executed. The part where he says that for about two years every division was essentially fighting it's own war in it's own turf, with very little supervision, is very telling.

Bill Pulliam said...

Susan -- you seem to be saying that because women now have a role in society we will move beyond primitive violent tendencies into a higher elevated form of conflict resolution, if I read you correctly (otherwise, why was the increased status of women the only change you chose to highlight). It is of course blatantly sexist to imply that women are inherently peaceful and (in your terminology) more evolved than men. If you think women can't wage war, I'd suggest having a chat with Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and the ghosts of Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth I. Or some of the women soldiers in the Abu Grab photos, for that matter. Been no shortage of female suicide bombers in the last decade either. By some accounts Iron-age Britons had a relatively high status for women, and had female warriors who were reported to fight more fiercely than the men (might wanna chat with the ghost of Bodicaea, too), not an absence of war.

Women, like men, come in all types and temperaments. And women moving into positions of status and power bring all these different temperaments with them.

rabtter said...

Re: Obama, Gay Marriage - GOP, Abortion

I've wondered about Obama's health care plan. The House has made a lot of noise and has done a lot of voting to repeal parts or all it. My guess is thats just performance art for their base and would abruptly stop if they suddenly became able to do it.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks for yours and everyone's feedback on the factory analogy. Interesting stuff, maybe it is a case of: what you contemplate, you imitate? I twigged to the analogy whilst writing about industrial agriculture and how it treated a complex system (nature) as a simple system (a factory).

I came across this article about US concerns at Australian defence spending cuts (something about balancing federal budgets and producing a surplus, although such things are lala land in the US. hehe!):

US alarm at defence budget cuts

Some choice quotes:

"Australia's defence budget this fiscal year is set to be 1.56% of GDP, down from 1.8% last year. US defence spending is 3.5% of GDP, down from 4.7% in 2011."


"US officials and former officials, speaking on a background basis, have said they suspect Australia is taking advantage of the US Marine deployment to Darwin (Northern Australia) to reduce its spending."


"They have said that, with the new level of assurance of US military commitment, Australia is "freeloading" on the American taxpayer."

I could be wrong, but I never understood that the 2,500 troops in Darwin were a choice thing. There was also talk recently about setting up a US naval base in Perth (Southern Western Australia) recently, although I reckon US budget cuts finished that idea off. The government here was a bit miffed because the US powers that be forgot to check with the government here first before the announcement!

By the way, did the Citizens United decision actually make any difference to the election outcome at all? It would be a fascinating PhD thesis only because the volumes of money spent on campaigning were huge! Seems to me like a case of conspicuous consumption rather than a useful investment of resources.

PS: The Africa setting in the story was a great idea, because after Australia, Africa has the highest grade accessible ore deposits left on the planet. There is quite a lot of iron ore about the planet (including in China itself), but it is of very low quality which makes it very expensive and energy intensive to turn into steel. Africa has been avoided to date because of political instability, but if I were the Chinese government and had a mountain of devaluing US$, I’d be getting rid of them there too thus paving the way for the future.



5keptical said...

JMG "25 years is a ... about how long I think we have before technological regression becomes a massive issue ... and human labor will be much, much cheaper"

Yes, your prognostications have seemed reasonable to me. As it all ratchets down, restrictions on power/energy/hydrocarbons won't happen with a uniform distribution and will be vigorously guarded as they dwindle.

So as human labour becomes cheap, do you envision energy "warlords" with economic slaves as a possibility in North America?

Joseph Nemeth: I can't decide if your arguing for or against my posting. As I stated, fully autonomous Terminator style robots are snake oil (an empty promise and a possible con), and only partially for the reasons you illustrate. However, a device the size of a cellphone with exhaustive medical knowledge and diagnostic capabilities will be seen within that 25 year span. (and could be built rugged enough to last 200 years and run off a hand-cranked generator - the likelihood of these types of devices is one of the reasons I agree with JMG's notion that the collapse will not be sudden).

We will also have quite small, semi-autonomous and very nasty devices that will not be the Terminator robot of science fiction, but will kill very selectively and efficiently when required.

phil harris said...

I noticed Susan Butler's comment, and your remarks concerning human evolution. While I agree with your reading of the common present ideology of “human progress”, it seems to me that the way the term 'evolution' is popularly used (here by Susan) confuses genetic / heritable evolution with evolving cultural forms. This was a discussion I remember in my youth, led by Julian Huxley (brother and descendent of other famous Huxleys who knew about 'evolution of the species). J. Huxley's book "Old wine in new bottles" attempted the distinction, and I see via google, influenced UNESCO among others.

The ‘thought’ experiment that transports a Palaeolithic infant for adoption in say, present Cumberland USA, would see two decades later a well-adjusted young American. Vice versa would work just as well, though the result would not be American.

Human history has recently filled up the path-dependent event-space provided by organised access to fossil fuels with complex toys and tools - and some extraordinary insights into both Nature and Human History (including an Arch Druid's archive: thank you!).

The sorrow when periods of hope and achieved tranquillity pass, is painful to contemplate, in the past as now. I think of early Christian Ireland, never part of the Roman Empire, but relatively culturally benign, especially with the Christian interpretation of fate and the world. (Try the ‘beehive’ hermitages on ‘The Skerries’). The later Viking raiding and partial occupation, however, milked Ireland and parts of coastal Britain for that most valuable and tradable commodity, slaves. I learned recently these went via the Viking trading routes into Asia etc., on a scale comparable with Africans hauled later to the New World. Much that was beautiful in human minds and relationships perished painfully. The 20thC equally provides some examples of the horrors of the collapse of what appear our best values. I appreciate your drawing on the patterns of history.
You and I still, of course, promote the cause of women and their determination for better lives for the young.

5keptical said...

JMG: "Evolution is not progress, and progress is not a law of nature"

Absolutely! Evolution is also not teleological. Humans are not the pinnacle of life or the end goal of life (nothing is), we're just another variation.

JMG "[Evolution] ... it's simply an ideology used by people in the modern industrial world to one-up the rest of our species"

I assume you're referring to naive concept of evolution as progress as being an ideology, rather than the empirical fact of evolution?

John Michael Greer said...

Chuck, I'll have to check those out! My favorite manual is Clyde Clason's Delights of the Slide Rule, which I was able to get fairly cheap via the used book market.

Avery, exactly. There's also a large and active secession movement in Vermont, so it comes from both ends of the spectrum.

Guilherme, you've just described the military condition of the United States in 1880: a small army mostly used to patrolling frontier regions, all other military branches laughably obsolete, and no interest anywhere in changing that fact. Twenty years later the US was a major world power. Brazil has a large and competent weapons industry, and Embraer makes very good planes; all it would take is the same sort of shift in the political climate that launched the US on its trajectory to global power, and Brazil could quickly follow the same track. Will it? Heck of a good question.

Rabtter, of course not. It's not primarily a health care plan, after all -- it's an indirect Federal subsidy to the already bloated medical and pharmaceutical industries, meant to force people who can't afford health insurance to buy it anyway. The House won't touch it because they want their corporate, er, donations.

Cherokee, fascinating. As for Africa, it's the last really rich source of a lot of resources, and can expect to be the pivot of a lot of bare-knuckle politics in the years to come.

5keptical, I don't expect to see slavery as such, outside of a few trades such as forced prostitution, for a good long time. Why bother with coercion, when anybody who can provide three square meals a day and a few other basic necessities will have people frantically lining up to work? Slavery as an institution only becomes viable when there's a labor shortage, and for the next century or two, until population levels finish dropping, the world is going to have an immense labor surplus.

Phil, Susan's definition of "evolution" confuses much more than the biological and sociological spheres; it also imports a not very well hidden teleology into a nonteleological phenomenon. I'd point out that neither biological evolution nor its social quasi-equivalent move in any predetermined direction or toward any predetermined goal.

5keptical, no, you've misread my statement. Not evolution, but "progress," is the ideology that's used by people in the industrial world to put down everyone else. Central to the ideology of progress is the notion that it moves in a single direction, i.e., toward us, and then through us to a future that will be like us, but even more so; that's why you hear contemporary hunter-gatherers being dismissed as "still in the Stone Age" and, say, Muslims as "still in the Middle Ages" -- the underlying fantasy is that all human societies can be put on a single linear scale that leads to today's industrial societies and beyond them, into whatever Utopian fantasy the speaker happens to be retailing at that moment.

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG -- no slavery, per se, but I spent some time developing a story plot that involved (as background) a form of government indentured servitude. The core issue driving it was not labor shortage, but labor surplus -- not enough work to go around.

As industrial society breaks down, the machine culture will die with it -- the first casualty will be repair parts for the machinery, I think, rather than oil/power. Yet the machines must keep working to sustain the high standard of living and the illusion of progress for the clueless upper class. Obvious solution: replace machinery with cheap human labor. Obvious problem: getting people to work cheaply enough.

It takes time for a culture of starvation and desperation to take hold, and the loss of machinery will be, I think, pretty sudden once the supply chain for parts starts to unravel -- meaning a brief interim period with a lot of formerly-privileged people out of work, and the standard-of-living plummeting. The obvious outcome of that is civil unrest.

In the story, this comes during another consumer debt bubble, far bigger than the one in 2007. That we'll have such bubbles seems almost certain, given that the only asset that can continue to provide exponential ROI even now is extending credit to the masses. So as our machine culture crashes, and with it most of the make-work jobs that most people do, debt-default goes through the roof: people simply stop paying their mortgages and credit-card bills. This (again) threatens banking collapse, but direct "government bailouts" have fallen out-of-favor.

The solution in the story is to rescind bankruptcy protection laws, and replace them with felonization of "excessive" debt. It works like this: the government steps in to pay off the debt, seizes and liquidates the felon's assets to partially recover costs, and the felon then serves a labor-sentence to pay back any remaining debt (plus interest, of course) at a fixed "wage."

The abuses in this system pretty much write themselves.

There are lots of historical precedents for pieces of this, ranging from government labor in the CCC and WPA in the 1930's, forced-labor camps in the Soviet Union and (of course) Germany, debtors' prisons in England, indentured servitude in the American colonies, the seizure of assets in the American witch trials and in earlier inquisitions in Europe. The "morality" of this fits very nicely with the current Republican/Libertarian ideas of Randian individualism and social Darwinism. I'd be curious if your more extensive reading has turned up actual examples of anything like this in history.

Dystopic as this is, it's definitely a short-term transition. You can view it generically as a way to effectively eliminate much of the population without the politically painful step of shooting them all, and without immediately giving up the perqs to which the well-off have become accustomed. This situation will be followed shortly by a rapid drop in actual population, and then the system will fall apart.

Joseph Nemeth said...

5keptical -- I'd say generally against. I'm not worried about the "threat of technology." It's all far too fragile.

As you say, a device the size of a cell phone with medical diagnostic capabilities and a 200-year durability could be built. But it won't be built. There is no profit-margin in building anything that will last 200 years.

Furthermore, any machine is optimized for efficient operation in a given environment. That makes it inviable in other environments.

Let's take your iDoc device. You put in the symptom of sharp, persistent pain in the lower-right abdomen, combined with fever. What will iDoc recommend? An immediate call to 911, followed by a CAT scan, to be interpreted by a qualified professional.

The "call 911" reference will be meaningless in 2112: if we still have phone technology, do you think we'll still be dialing numbers? And they want a WHAT scan?

If iDoc provides surgical advice (legal alert! legal alert!), it will recommend laparoscopic surgery to remove the appendix, Zosyn or Levaquin to suppress infection, Propofol as an anesthetic, synthetic materials to suture the wounds, ad infinitum. None of that will make any sense in 2112.

How many iDocs do you think they'd sell with an app for performing an appendectomy in a dirt-floor shack with a kitchen knife, a sewing needle, and a bottle of homemade whiskey? How many of those would get past even a cursory screening by the legal department? Answer: zero.

Your automated killing machines will be subverted by low-tech means. I don't know enough about the ones you have in mind to suggest how, specifically, but I can guarantee that if they stood between my tribe and food, we'd find a way around or through or over or under. Will the CCD it uses as eyes withstand a magnesium flash at close range? How about dropping a tree on it? Can it handle a two-ton rock hurled by a trebuchet from a distance? You don't have to hit it on the first try, you know: you've got all day to throw rocks at it.

Joseph Nemeth said...

On technology degradation -- I think it will be much faster than anyone is predicting here, because of disruption of supply chains. The initial problem won't be energy, it will be spare parts.

About ten years ago, the magnetic material used for tape and disk storage was produced in only four facilities, worldwide. Turns out that the stuff is violently explosive in bulk form, and very difficult to work with.

I don't know how many places still produce it, but because it is difficult and dangerous to produce, the "marketplace efficiencies" are only going to cut out competition, not encourage it.

A single plant explosion could put a huge dent in the
entire computer business for months, or longer: a computer without a disk drive is useless.

Even a sudden dip in demand for computers could make these highly-efficient (and not robust) magnetic material plants unprofitable, and drive one or more into bankruptcy or liquidation. You can't replace such a plant with a "Drill Baby Drill" mantra.

Oil is a relatively simple commodity to produce, and it is distributed all over the world and sold through a global distribution network on a global market. Its peak is inevitable, but it's broad and (relatively) smooth.

Supply chains for complex products are much more fragile. While manufacturing engineers do the best they can to multi-source parts, their manufacturing chains are long and fragile, and because they are all working under the rules of "marketplace efficiency," they can't afford to put much into robustness (which is inefficient.)

OrwellianUK said...

Hi John

Yes it's true that we've had world powers in the time before the petroleum age, but those empires were formed by enslaving or genociding the populations of 'undeveloped' nations and stealing their resources and beginning Colonial control and expansion, in the days before we had a 'global civilisation'.

Now that the 'civilisation' fostered by that period has spread worldwide, there are no places left to 'discover' and exploit by technologically and militarily advanced nations. Wherever a predatory national force might travel looking for resources and conquest, they are likely to find that forces with equivalent power are there waiting for them - either from the nation itself or from the local regional power.

It's the same problem of reaching the Limits to Growth on a finite planet - we've also reached the Limits to Empire, and without the abundant resources that created the current one and it's immediate predecessors, it's unlikely we'll get another in any form.

Of course, in a few centuries when everything we currently know has long since fallen into ruin, It's reasonable that a new cycle of Empire building may begin. Whatever form it takes though, it will have to be without the copious amounts of energy our modern military machines take for granted.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

JMG - Yeah, that analogy didn't escape me either, I just didn't wrote it down. That's basically why I said I could see a little brazilian imperialism in the south atlantic, I just doubted it. Mainly because if we were to turn it around, I think the timeframe needed to come up with an effective armed force would need to begin ASAP, and we aren't doing that. See China's case, for example, they have been rapidly rearming themselves for the last decade or so, which is when this talk of a future chinese super-power began to take off in earnest.

One way I could see it happening is, let's say, a hot war like you described happening in the near future, involving the USA. If the US is knocked down seriously enough so it can't even rule the atlantic anymore, and Europe doesn't step in ASAP, there's going to be a lot of chaos and probably enough time for us to go into a crash-program of military build up and seize whatever we can get our hands on before someone else comes sniffing for valuable stuff in the region.

Frankly, I don't know if I would be happy about that. I'm a bit old for that, but I can see a future child of mine being drafted to put down "insurections" in, let's say, Bolivia or something. Or trying to seize the nigerian oil fields in the other side of the ocean. Figthing proxy wars against the chinese and europeans for african resources? Not so fun... Probably better to try and score the best deal possible from the next big kid on the block.

Oh, btw, a suggestion. There's a few concepts that are badly used by people today, and I think it would be profitable if you were to do a series on those, too, exploring what they are, what they are not and how people misuse the terms. I know there's a lot of that spread around yours posts, but a concentrated aproach would perhaps be interesting. Stuff like "evolution", "progress", "efficiency", "sustainable", "precision", "rugged" and stuff like that. Even basic stuff like "science" and "industry".

Don't know if that's on your plans or not, but I think it would be cool :)

GreenEngineer said...

Engineer, every historical period without exception has been able to point to some combination of factors that made it unique. So?
the process by which Neolithic city-states in the Yucatan rose and fell are structurally identical to the process by which Britain's world empire rose and fell.


You are either missing the point, or dismissing it far too easily.

My point is not that the modern era is unique in some way, woohoo. My point is that the modern era is unique specifically in terms of (1) intensity of energy use and (2) human impact on the biosphere and its associated cycles and processes.

And the modern era's impact is cannot be compared to historical impacts in terms of a multiplicative factor. The difference is one of orders of magnitude. With respect to the things I am talking about, the British Empire has more in common with the neolithic city state than it does with the modern era (specifically, the post-WWII era) despite the BE's much closer proximity in time.

You understand better than most people the dependencies between human society and the fabric of the living world, and the centrality of energy. So it's hard for me to understand how you can blithely dismiss this. Your model treats the modern era as a linear extrapolation from the past, but it is not - demonstrably not.

Something New Under the Sun is a scholarly history of resource use. It lays out exactly this thesis at length and in detail, with extensive footnotes and references.

Joeln said...

Thanks John for your ongoing contributions to this blog!

I just stumbled across your interview with Chris Martenson,

It's great to hear your voice and get such a cogent summary of your thinking.


John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, I still don't see any reason why a society would go to all that trouble when cheap willing labor can be had for next to nothing.

Orwellian, while that was the way things happened, I'm far from convinced that a global maritime empire would have been impossible without it.

Guilherme, interesting. A kind of Green Wizards dictionary, in effect? I'll consider it.

Engineer, no, I'm not claiming that the present should be understood on the basis of a linear extrapolation from the past. I'm saying that some of the core system properties that can be observed in history are scale-invariant, and as evidence for this thesis, I've pointed out in previous posts how precisely the rise and fall of the contemporary American empire has paralleled the rise and fall of previous empires operating on many different geographical scales and levels of energy intensity. I'll take a look at the book you've recommended as time permits, and many thanks for the recommendation, but what I've seen along these lines in the past has been unconvincing, between the pervasive power of the myth of progress and repeated confusions between differences of scale and differences in kind.

Joel, glad you enjoyed it.

5keptical said...

JMG: Yes, hence my term "economic slaves"

Joseph: I don't quite understand the chest-thumping. Guns are toys (tech) as well. Your scenario about subverting automated killing machines is just as applicable if those killing machines happen to be human.

Tech simply changes the scenario by providing different tools and alters how you have to go around them. (Note that I'm agreeing with you - you're not talking to some nerd who hasn't changed the treads on an excavator, dug out a backhoe from a bog, or performed field surgery - okay I am a nerd and the field surgery was on a cow... )

Again, I don't envision automated killing machines, but AI will be used to augment and enhance military operations, and it will change the scenario.

You description of "standing between my tribe and food" makes it look like have some emotional attachment to the notion of catastrophic societal failure. Are you ex-military or survivalist? In either case you know that if somebody competent wants you dead, you won't even see it coming.

As for the iDoc, the military would be a likely source of the first rugged version - potentially a cheaper way of increasing survivability without extensive training. Such a device would deal with the appendectomy in a farmhouse with whiskey as well as being able to query you about local and suggest other substitutes. This is the power of huge databases. We may also see the devices for remote or rural areas for pre-screening and diagnostics when local doctors and equipment is unavailable.

As the infrastructure crumbles, it won't happen uniformly or overnight, so there will be an increasing market for such devices (just read the EULA - you use at your own risk) first with third world countries and survivalists, then the first world as everything scales back.

Anyways, there are no technical breakthroughs needed to build an iDoc in the next 25 years (probably sooner). I was just using it to illustrate an embedded intelligence that wasn't military.

I would lay no claim to much else in the way of future predictions - to much chaos (in a simulationist terms the systems are non-homogeneous, anisotropic, non-linear, non-compliant and dense - all of which makes accurate predictions a nightmare), which I why I'm attracted to JMG's approach which (if I'm interpreting it correctly) based pretty much on the energy and the characteristics of the energy available to the system.

Gone on too long, and this is derailing the thread somewhat!

GreenEngineer said...


Regarding Something New Under the Sun, it's worth noting that the author does have a thesis - the current era needs to be understood as qualitatively different, due to the enormous relative differences from historical precedent - but he is neither a "myth of progress" type nor a doomer. He maintains a remarkably judgment-free (in the moral sense) attitude throughout the book which I think you will appreciate.

Regarding the model of the collapse relative to the American Empire, I'd say that we're at far too early a stage to predict much about the later game. That the early stages of collapse are similar is not surprising, but we're still very much eating the fat from our economic/energy system.

GreenEngineer said...


Let me make another effort to explain why I think that the modern collapse may be different than historical precedent leads one to expect.

Let me emphasize first of all that it's definitely a "maybe". The historical pattern may hold, but it may not, and I think it's probably too early to tell how it's going to play out.

The basis of my argument is simple. The function of technology, as it has been applied thus far, has been to push back the natural limits that would otherwise constrain our numbers and activities. (This leads to the myth of progress, as people believe that these limits have in fact been overcome; in reality, they have simply been pushed into the temporal and geographic distance.) In other words, technology enables overshoot. Nothing new there.

My assertion is that the dynamics of collapse are going to be very much a function of how far in overshoot we are when we hit various ecological and logistical limits. If you're thrown into the ocean and told to swim, it makes a big difference whether you are 1 mile from shore, or 10, or 100.

The punctuated, stairstep collapse model that you seem to favor is certainly one way for this to play out: We hit a limit, the system contracts, pain is experienced, and our level of overshoot decreases a bit (i.e. we move "closer to shore").

The thing that worries me is that both society in general and our elites are in such deep denial about the situation, that we are (at the moment, at least) committed to doing everything we can to ignore and mask the effects of the collapse limits. This means that, rather than responding to limits by contracting, we push harder on the ecological limits - putting ourselves further into overshoot.
You can see this happening now in the oil and gas industry: fracking, "enhanced recovery", oil sands and efforts to develop kerogen shales, are all examples of this denial mechanism at work.

It is entirely plausible that we will continue this trend until, for example, we're making all our gasoline out of coal. (The EROEI sucks, but it's high enough to keep things ticking over, as long as the majority of the population believes that "it's the only way".) It's also plausible that people will at some point rebel, say "enough", and start dealing with the reality of fossil energy decline before we actually dig up all the coal.

To me, these look like qualitatively different collapse scenarios. In one case, you've got a difficult but manageably semi-hard landing. In the other case, you've got a society that is so overextended that it's got nothing to fall back on.

There's a range of severity here: does collapse look like the British Empire, the Roman Empire, or Easter Island? I'd say that we could wind up landing anywhere along that spectrum, depending on the decisions we make in the next ~2 decades. And I would argue that an Eastern Island-style collapse should be seen as qualitatively different from a British Empire-style collapse.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Hey, if Ambrose Bierce could do the Devil's Dictionary, why not a Green Wizard's one, eh?

I just think there's a lot of misconceptions that could be more easily dealt with if people were speaking on the same language, really. Right now, you may something with the word "evolve" in it and a lot of people will drive all sorts of conclusions that have nothing to do with the word as you MEANT to be used, because "evolution" and "evolved" are concepts that, as you rightly pointed out, have acquired a popular meaning that's quite different then the original, biological term.

This doesn't just goes for the kind of terms that are misused by the dominant worldview of progress, too. I read some commenters here that have an what I consider a misunderstanding of certain word and concepts on the other direction, as well. Too enamored with the past, perhaps.

For example, precision does not necessarily equate with efficiency. With reliability. Or even with unreliability, for that matter. And not necessarily with "fragile" too. There's this concept that any "advanced" technology (meaning here something done with precision) will also be fragile. I contend that one of the things that we should strive very badly to conserve as the energy budget decreases is a way to make precision parts with less energy input, or with inputs (such as human labor, a micrometer and slide rules) that are more sustainable, because I think that will be a key component if we hope to salvage some of the good stuff that came out of the last three centuries or so, and there ARE things worth salvaging, radio and electric lighting being ones that I know you agree, based on Star Reach. I would add that good metal shafts, bearing and gearing, some building methods, refrigeration (for food, not air-con, of course) and many others are too. I would hope that the ability to fly, work with semi-conductors and send stuff into space was somehow maintaned, but I don't expect it will.

And, yes, I'm trying to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Currently studying engineering. Abandoned my humanities background for an engineering background, not with the delusional hope of "fixing" the future, but trying to make the best of what's going to happen forward. Doesn't hurt that I think fixing things and making things run will be a career with a LOT of demand. Money for humanities programs in college, not so much.

John Michael Greer said...

Engineer, okay, I see where you're getting confused. The end of the American empire is not the end of industrial civilization. What I've been talking about for most of this year is the former, not the latter, and the processes involved are emphatically not the same.

It happens now and again that the fall of an empire is also the fall of a civilization -- Rome's the obvious example -- but that's far from normal; more than a dozen previous empires rose and fell in what became the Roman world before the civilization of the classical Mediterranean went down. In the same way, there have been quite a few empires of various sizes since the first stirrings of industrial society, and America's is simply one of those; to my way of thinking, it's not likely to be the last, though we don't have that many more before industrial society comes apart.

If I had to suggest my idea of a close historical comparison, it would be the situation in, say, Tikal on the brink of what archeologists call the Terminal Classic period of Mayan civilization. Tikal was one of the great powers of the Mayan world, and it underwent an imperial decline and fall; meanwhile the entire Mayan civilization was also running headlong into a crisis with close parallels to ours. Tikal could fall without ending the Mayan civilization -- Copal or Palenque could just as well have replaced it -- and the historical processes that ended Tikal's ascendancy were not the same as those which, not long thereafter, ended Mayan civilization as a whole. Does that clarify things a little?

Guilherme, that's very good to hear. You're right about gearing -- the specific form of gears invented by medieval clockmakers turned out to have possibilities that the older Greco-Roman version did not, and preserving that technology would be a major gift to the future.

Susan Butler said...

Appreciate Phil's support for women's perspective, a rare impulse. Agree there's a teleological implication in my use of the word "evolution" as regards societal consciousness; but the outcome is not specifically predetermined, only going towards a general broadening of horizons. Thomas Kuhn covers this in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." Once a genie is out of a bottle, hard to get it back in. Although we can forget a social inheritance, like Roman technology was forgotten. But the consciousness, the Greco-Roman-Judaic mind-set of authoritarian dominance stayed. Yes, occasionally privileged women engaged in war, participating in the general dominance/submission cultural ethos. I think we can grow out of that impulse. Agree the idea of "progress" can be delusional and manipulated. See Ken Wilber on "the paradox of progress," whereby hard-won spiritual "enlightenment" only leads to more sophisticated forms of evil. Still what makes us unique is our ability to learn. We accumulate knowledge over many generations; and frames of reference change. Humans can transcend biology --this is what frees women from perpetual child-rearing. Crossing swords is an awful lot like ungulates crossing horns --another biological "imperative" that can also be transcended?

CGP said...

I read your book "Atlantis" recently and came across the Catastrophism vs. Uniformitarianism distinction. My understanding is that the former is the theory that some of the Earth’s landforms were shaped through major catastrophes. The latter, on the other hand, is the theory that the same gradual processes that are at work today have shaped this planet’s landforms and that catastrophes played no role. Uniformitarianism was the dominant idea in the natural sciences until evidence of major catastrophes like the meteor that drove the dinosaurs into extinction was discovered. This evidence gave rise to the "New Catastrophism" which looks like an amalgamation between catastrophism and uniformitarianism i.e. the idea that landforms were shaped both by gradual processes and, in some cases, major catastrophes.

If you want to transpose the thinking underpinning the natural sciences onto history then I assume you would have to think in terms of the New Catastrophism. Is this correct? If that is the case then history should be understood primarily in terms of processes that are common across different periods but at the same time “major catastrophes” need to be taken into account. A broader interpretation leads me to conclude that this would mean historical periods can be understood in terms of common factors but the possibility that certain periods also have additional factors that are distinct and idiosyncratic in significant ways cannot be ruled out. Hence, if one wants to think in terms of the natural sciences and the New Catastrophism it is entirely possible for a given historical period (and the collapse of the civilisation defining that period) to give rise to something unprecedented. Does this thinking not support arguments that industrial civilisation might be different from all past civilisations in some (not all and not most) respects making it precarious to extrapolate from past historical periods when making predictions about the future without also considering what is qualitatively distinct about the current period?

phil harris said...

I do not understand it, but the economics of slavery seems more complicated than at first sight. Plenty of it around in the globalized world; Middle East etc. Slaves are regularly found in UK, and use by the prosperous here of servants with zilch bargaining power and freedom is a commonplace. This is without counting the very large UK 'economy' of 'gangmasters'. See
Human trafficking is not it seems restricted to trade in prostitutes. See

Joseph Nemeth said...

5keptical: agreed, we're drifting a bit. My only point is that high tech enhancements are almost invariably efficient at the expense of robustness, and use of them is a bonus only while the game board is stable. Change the game board, and the tools usually become a liability.

Susan Butler said...

Guilherme and others wanting to engineer post industrial technology might check out Open Source Ecology or All Power Labs, which are spreading fairly sophisticated garage-made open source hardware globally. OSE claims we can build anything using merely dirt, sun and the scrap metals our age has conveniently spread fairly evenly over the planet. The internet is the thing I'm most worried about. There is an open source design for a laser-based digital system, but it requires line of sight. This could enable independent, local communications, with low power requirements, which could eventually become interlinked. BTW, many thanks to JMG for creating an environment for such heartfelt, civil, and high level discourse.

John Samuelson said...

In light of your recent fiction, I thought you'd appreciate this article from the very real-life Washington Post: "Secession Petitions Filed on White House Website".

Bill Pulliam said...

Re war and history and women and such: History shows a general trend towards inclusiveness and expansion of the concept of human rights to more and more categories, including women. It has been uneven and unsteady, as are most trends in society, but it has been consistent in the long term and the large scale across many cultures. I am hopeful that this trend will not be reversed wholesale by the end of industrial civilization.

In contrast, the grand arc of history shows not one trace of a trend towards decrease in inclinations towards war. Thinking this will suddenly begin in the future is a wish; it does not have support based on the way human societies have acted up until now. So by believing this will happen you are believing in a fundamental and unprecedented shift in the nature of collective human behavior. Other changes comparable in magnitude to full personhood for women (e.g. the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, etc.) have failed to bring this about.

Bill Pulliam said...

As a p.s. (I fear we are getting too far off-topic) theories that blame the ills of society on men and suggest that a society with empowered women would be free of these problems grow ever more irrelevant as we watch women steadily becoming more empowered while the ills of society continue unabated. These theories also do not serve to advance feminism; if anything they are useful as fodder for discrediting it.

phil harris said...

@Susan Butler
Yes - human females continue to carry their genetic inheritance (motivation) despite some of our cultural inheritance.

I have just had a very swift look at Ken Wilber, but I do not think I can go with his take on biological evolution. I think it was James Clerk Maxwell 'wrestling' with his thermodynamic 'demon', and entropy that posed what appeared a fundamental question about the emergence of 'life'. It turns out though that life does not trump entropy. Where that leaves human ‘intention’ riding on our complex bag of motivations, both individual and collective, I am none too sure. I see no fundamental change though from our hunter gatherer evolved form, except a regression perhaps when cornered in our civilised predicaments, which have not often served women (or slaves) very well.

Agree with your welcome of JMG’s forum.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

@ Guilherme de Baskerville

Re Brazil's future
History is a funny old place.

When everything is uncertain, you can never know what a little desenrascanço (or is it gambiarra?) applied at just the right time could achieve...

Joseph Nemeth said...

greenengineer - I tend to agree with you.

Our population growth has been roughly exponential over a very long time, and one feature of exponential growth is the the issue of incremental scale -- it's something that Chris Martenson didn't get quite right in his explanation of the "hockey-stick" shape of exponential curves.

In reality, exponential curves are self-similar. You can take any exponential curve, adjust the scale, and lay the expanded (or contracted) curve directly on top of the old one. They are qualitatively identical at any point in the curve. What changes -- and it's a dramatic change -- is when the incremental change reaches the "scale of importance."

Martenson uses the example of filling a baseball stadium with water, starting with one drop on the pitcher's mound, then two, then four, then eight. The geometric progression never changes, only the scale of it. What makes the dramatic difference to us -- as humans, who exist on the "you are here" scale of gallons, not micromilliliters or cubic miles -- is when the scale gets large enough that the incremental changes are noticeable. As Martenson correctly points out, once the incremental changes become noticeable, your goose is already well and truly cooked.

What's happening now is that the scale of exponential (human) population growth has become noticeable at the global level -- as has the scale of resource depletion, carbon emissions, etc.

Apart from the overshoot question, which is separate, there is a qualitative dividing line that occurs when incremental change approaches the scale of importance. It applies to any scale-invariant process, but with continued exponential growth, you're guaranteed that the incremental changes will eventually reach the scale of importance.

We've reached certain qualitative dividing lines in the past in isolated communities -- island nations, the aforementioned Mayan territories, the Anasazi -- such as when population exceeded resources. We can draw analogies to the current situation, but it isn't exactly the same, because the scale of the incremental changes is vastly larger relative to the human scale. It's now become noticeable on the global scale, which was never true of the Anasazi or the Mayans.

In perhaps more evocative terms, the Mayans could pray for rain, but the matter was never in their hands. We have actually stopped up the heavens. It isn't the same thing.

John Michael Greer said...

Susan, no, that's not what Thomas Kuhn was saying. He explicitly argues that each stage of science is asking different questions -- not better, not larger, not moving in any particular direction, just different -- and that science therefore does not progress. The same thing is true of evolution, which is simply adaptation to changing circumstances; some organisms evolve in ways that expand their possibilities, some evolve in ways that specialize them and therefore narrow their possibilities.

A thorough response to the sort of thinking you've proposed here would require more than a comment -- in fact, more than a single post, and it may be worth developing into a series of posts down the road a bit. Just as an appetizer, I'd point out that alongside teleology -- the notion that evolution moves toward a specific end -- stands teleonomy -- the notion that evolution moves in a particular direction, and both are fundamentally flawed, in ways that can be shown relatively easily.

Here's an example. You've argued that war is "primitive" and "biological" and therefore can and will be outgrown. It would be at least as easy to argue that war is in fact not primitive, but a sign of evolutionary progress, and therefore further evolution will make us more warlike, not less. After all, most animals do not engage in war, that is, in organized intraspecific violence; the few that do, such as chimpanzees, are at the upper end of animal social complexity. Among humans, war becomes more pervasive and complex as societies develop in complexity and richness, and technological development leads to increasing investment in war. QED!

CGP, the great difference between the New Catastrophism and the old version is that the catastrophes being discussed now are not interventions of God; they're the workings of ordinary, natural phenomena, that on occasion yield spectacular results. The theory of catabolic collapse I've been proposing all along is closely parallel to the New Catastrophism; it argues that there are going to be a lot of relatively sudden discontinuities as we proceed, but that an understanding of the past remains a key resource for understanding the future.

Phil, interesting. Thanks for the resource.

Susan, you're welcome.

John, I saw that!

Bill, I'd suggest rather that recent history shows a trend of increasing civil rights. Go back more than a few centuries and that trend vanishes. Before then, as far as I can see, things tended to cycle between something like feudalism -- where everyone has legally defined rights, but there is no equality -- and something like centralized autocracy -- where equality is common, but nobody has any rights that can be enforced against the holders of absolute power.

John Michael Greer said...

Mathias (offlist), the best way to get a question to me that's off topic for this blog is to post a comment, mark it "not for posting," and include your email address; I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Here's another article on secession that John Samuelson mentioned ....

Well, a lot of it is just post election blowing off steam. As in, "I'm going to move to Canada!" Lots of people claim they are going to, but very few do. There were a couple of articles floating around about that reaction.

But it's interesting that the meme is out there ... the idea is floating around (and, not for the first time). As in your story, if conditions are right, it will probably happen ... sometime.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- it may depend on how one views "recent," I was mostly thinking about, for example, the progression from Greek to Roman to Carolingian to Renaissance to industrial Britain to the U.S., each at their epitome, and I think I see the trend applying there of broader definitions of "personhood" applying to a larger fraction of society. But maybe that just applies to the last three in that sequence. And indeed, wars have gotten bigger and bigger along that sequence, too, even when it included mass slaughter of those who were currently considered full persons.

And of course in Star's Reach your hypothetical mini-post-collapse-renaissance does contain pretty traditional gender divisions of labor, but ethnicity no longer exists and women seem to be no more restricted in their lives than men, and predominate in the highest levels.

mallow said...


Sorry hope this doesn't go through twice! You mentioned that you don't expect to see slavery for a long time, except for forced prostitution. Just wondering why is that an exception? Because it's already here?

GreenEngineer said...


Thank you, yes, that does clarify things. I was in fact failing to make that distinction.

I don't think this is because I'm an American - though I am. I think this is because I'm making the assumption that our imperial overlords will hang onto power until catabolic limits force them to give it up, and that the American population will allow them to do so, rather than face the monumental task of taking power away from them (and the consequent upheaval).

Writing it down, I realize that my perspective on this is actually substantially more pessimistic than yours. You describe a realistic scenario by which the USA could cease to exist, without a concomitant collapse of industrial/technological civilization. But in the end, that scenario does require that the American public actively and willingly embrace an enormous shift and upheaval in the status quo. I would like to believe that we as a nation still have that kind of moral courage, but I have a hard time convincing myself based on people's behavior.

dltrammel said...

On a matter of the breakup of the US, I had to chuckle when I read this:

"White House may respond to Texas secession petition"

Seems the petition has garnered the stated amount of signatures which the WH has said they will reply to.

CGP said...

Maybe you have counted America out too soon. According to a report commissioned by the International Energy Agency (IEA) (see link to story below) America will be the world's top oil producer by 2017 and almost energy independent by 2035. It would be interesting to examine how many assumptions actually underpin the IEA report. For example, the article alludes to the fact that assumptions have been made about shale gas reserves that may not pan out. Funnily enough, though, this is not emphasized.

Kevin said...

I find Yahoo is mostly full baloney and propaganda. But this article does seem a propos:

gigglingwizard said...

Careful, JMG. It looks like you've got an awful lot of mighty impressionable readers out there. ;)

Have you seen this? 23,000 Texans have signed a petition to secede:

Andrew H said...

CGP - "... According to a report commissioned by the International Energy Agency (IEA) (see link to story below) America will be the world's top oil producer by 2017 and almost energy independent by 2035...."

Before anyone takes this too seriously they should go and read a few articles at the Oil Drum where such statements are regularly deconstructed and shown to be a poor reflection of reality


Bill Pulliam said...

secession -- Oh yeah, and as soon as the population of these states realize that this will mean giving up their food stamps, disability checks, medicare, medicaid, social security, government-provided scooters, highway funds, and all the money coming in to all their military bases, they'll squash this in a heartbeat. In general the more a state is dependent on federal subsidies, the more anti-government its people seem to be.

Susan Butler said...

Ken Wilber's remarks were about not biological but spiritual progress. He says such "progress," by for example meditation adepts, is paradoxical because they only develop more sophisticated forms of evil, deceit, hatred and the like; they don't transcend or rise above it, as they expect. This leads me to the idea that cultural evolution (and biological too --we are more than an amoeba) is an amoral teleology, leading not to better things but merely to higher and higher levels of organization, a tendency which is the opposite of entropy. Life and entropy are in dynamic equilibrium. Neither can permanently trump the other, or we wouldn't be here. Nor will we be here forever. My point about the strange need to suppress half the human race is not about individual gender biology --technology can make that pretty much irrelevant. The point is about what I see as a species-wide pathology. Once the weird need to dominate women fades, as the species gains maturity (which is not "better" as an an adult is not "better" than a child), so will the imperative for the dominance/submission meme in general fade, which is the basis for war. See Dorothy Dinnerstein's "The Mermaid and the Minitaur" if you feel adventurous.
No one wants nuclear war, yet we have thousands of nuclear weapons. This is crazy.

John Michael Greer said...

Lewis, exactly. At this point it's just a way of venting; I doubt anybody's even begun to grapple with the challenges that an actual dissolution of the Union would involve. That is to say, the country is in roughly the same place it was in the 1850s, when a handful of firebrands on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line were talking secession, and everyone else was rolling their eyes. Watch this space...

Bill, my sense is that here in America, at least, gender relations have shifted in a way that's not merely ephemeral, but likely to last; that intuition shapes my account of the Merigan social order in Star's Reach, in which men and women have sharply defined gender roles but a much more balanced distribution of power between the genders. Of course I could be utterly wrong, and it is, after all, a work of speculative fiction.

Mallow, exactly. There's a lot of slavery currently in the prostitution business, and I see no reason to think that won't continue.

Engineer, the rush toward secession I sketched out in my scenario wasn't a reasoned act; it was the product of crowd psychology in a time of extreme social stress. I'll have to make that more evident in the expanded version of the story.

Dltrammel, funny.

CGP, you're quite right. One should never ignore the power of American ingenuity to come up with an endless supply of codswallop! Oil, now that's another matter...

Kevin and Wizard, yes, I saw that.

Andrew, or simply remember how spectacularly wrong the IEA has been in its energy predictions year after year after weary year.

Bill, that's why I made sure that the federal government was all but bankrupt, and the government subsidies still going out weren't worth the paper they were printed on, before the secession movement in my scenario caught fire.

GreenEngineer said...

Engineer, the rush toward secession I sketched out in my scenario wasn't a reasoned act; it was the product of crowd psychology in a time of extreme social stress. I'll have to make that more evident in the expanded version of the story.

Oh, that was pretty clear. My issue is whether people, when confronted with high stress circumstances and an uncertain future, would take such a bold step. I would instead expect them to cling to the familiar and the perceived-as-safe, even as those things recede in the distance.

Bill Pulliam said...

There's a difference between secession as it happened in 1861 and constitutional dissolution as it ultimately happened in JMG's narrative. Once the Union was dissolved by fully legal means, there was nothing to secede from and no legitimate Federal government to fight back. There can also be negotiated breakups, agreed to by all parties. Plus, of course, the "fade away" scenario in which the central government gradually loses its ability to provide services or enforce laws, and ceases to make much difference even if it still exists. All are very different things. Just a reminder that there are many ways that a Union can breakup or cease to exist, and we have seen pretty much all of them happen in the last 100 years around the globe.

Ian said...

I'm surprised to see so much interest in the secession talk. It isn't really that serious or broad and is mostly a symbolic protest action. Sheesh, 25,000 in texas? That is a drop in the bucket!

Re: Kuhn...poor Kuhn. I can't think of a figure whose work has been more over-cited, under-read, and thereby placed all out of context. Kuhn's work is one voice in a very interesting field, and he surely meant for it to be understood within that community of fellow historian-philosophers of science.

Fwiw, Susan is right about Kuhn saying that science tends toward broader horizons, though wrong in her application of that. He meant that to be one of the proper qualities of scientific thought and theory *within* a research paradigm, not a general property of society (definitely not of an individual's cognitive process, yeesh!).

I.e., a scientific paradigm achieves its paradigmatic status by extending its predictions ever more broadly, finding more and more phenomena to which they apply.

It's worth emphasizing: a paradigm doesn't evolve, it develops and improves in reference to a set of concerns contained in its research agenda. The crisis of a paradigm is the crisis of a *research agenda*, not necessarily the crisis of its results.

i.e., ptolemaic astronomy's predictions about well-studied bodies like planets and constellations often held up just fine (sometimes even better than early Galilean astronomy's rival models), just as Newton's physics still gets applied every day in the modern world despite having no real influence on, say, quantum physicists' research agendas.

The crisis is that the models fail to predict *new* phenomena that interest researchers. If what you deal with isn't deeply bound up with those new phenomena, 'old' paradigms will often serve you just fine (and sometimes even better than 'new' paradigms).

I know, these are fine distinctions, but I think they're important. A less fine distinction misrepresents what is going with Kuhn's work and contributes to the general misunderstanding of his work and field.

phil harris said...

@Joseph Nemeth
Thanks for the useful description of exponential growth curves - best I have seen.

I would only add the '70 rule'. Thus China's GDP economic growth is believed to have been 10% per year for the last decade or more. That has meant it has doubled in the recent 7 years (10 x 7 =70). Even if growth is now dropped to 7% per year, GDP would be due to double again by the time of the change in leadership 10 years from now. I understand the 1400M population now has an economy about the size of the 400M EU. However, it seems very unlikely to me that we will actually see double the present Chinese economy. Resource implications will be approaching twice what we have seen this last 10 years.

On the other hand, China saw the exponential population problem decades ago and reduced the fertility rate to below the replacement rate. Even then, 'momentum' has keept the population rising, which illustrates your point that by the time you 'see' an exponential curve you are still going to end up with a vast actual number. (In an historical example, leaving out more complicated stories of the rest of the British Isles, England's population went from 6M to more than 30M before there was a significant tapering off of the rise. We still had a way to go, even then, of course.)

Thanks again

artinnature said...

JMG: Would you consider writing a post on exactly what the US constitution says and doesn't say, and describe specifically how it is now being ignored?

Your point of view always sheds new light on old papers.

John Michael Greer said...

Susan, there you go again. There is no teleology in evolution, moral or otherwise; some organisms move toward higher levels of organization as they evolve, others head the other direction. In social evolution, as per White's law, the level of organization is an exact consequence of the amount of energy per capita flowing through the system; the end of the age of cheap abundant energy thus means a sharp decline in levels of organization.

As for nuclear weapons, funny you should mention those; we'll be talking about them this week.

Engineer, I'd encourage you to read some good historical accounts of the French and Russian revolutions, for starters.

Bill, exactly!

Ian, you're quite right, of course, that Kuhn has been twisted wildly out of context since about five seconds after The Structure of Scientific Revolutions saw print. The point I was trying to make is precisely that paradigms don't progress, and neither does science as a whole. Science does evolve, in the strict sense of the word -- that is, it adapts to changing conditions -- but it doesn't progress.

Art, I'll consider it, but I've got a good long stack of things to talk about first.

--Karen H said...

@Joseph Nemeth:
"JMG -- no slavery, per se, but I spent some time developing a story plot that involved (as background) a form of government indentured servitude. The core issue driving it was not labor shortage, but labor surplus -- not enough work to go around.

...The obvious outcome of that is civil unrest."

A certain amount of that is happening now. Current rural infrastructure (deteriorating) makes it extremely difficult to support a year-round workforce to harvests that require hand-picking (fruit crops, for instance). This year, despite a bumper crop of apples, Eastern WA state farmers couldn't get enough workers, even though they were willing to pay upwards of $800 per week. Time was, rural towns were well populated to have part time workers in the form of teens and college students, but no more. Migrant workers aren't even as available, and ads for seasonal jobs are largely not allowed in unemployment offices.

One solution suggested by the urban areas is that prison labor can be used, rather than help make rural areas more sustainable year-round. Many in cities see this as a solution to their ever-increasing prison population. Let's say that the rural folks are not too thrilled with this, but their opinions generally don't count, as their numbers are shinking and thus they are outvoted by the urban folks who know much better about how agriculture should be run than those stupid hicks anyway, right? <--sarcasm

Which makes me think that the rural riots/rebellion you spoke of earlier may well have its form today in the Tea Partiers, whose demographic has a higher number of rural folks in it than any other political group. I have noticed that the poorest rural areas in WA (which generally vote Republican) get a much smaller per capita federal money than the rich urban centers of the state. The state has also been Democrat-dominant for decades. And though I'm a registered Democrat, this worries me something fierce.

CGP said...

I understand what you are saying about Kuhn's theory of scientific paradigms. However, thinking outside of that framework is it not correct to say that science does progress through the sheer accumulation of facts and the improvement of existing theories or the creation of new theories that better suit the latest empirical findings? If you look at science since the beginning of the industrial revolution we know more now than we did then, and our theories seem better suited to explaining the physical world (at least on average), so this to me seems like the very definition of progress and improvement rather than just evolving to suit different circumstances.

Going back to Kuhn, one paradigm might not be "better" than another but surely there is progress within a given paradigm as more research is done?

John Michael Greer said...

CGP, within a paradigm, sure, things progress. The point I'd make is that modern science is itself a paradigm, the master paradigm under which all other scientific paradigms fit. What went on before 1650 or so wasn't a matter of people trying to practice modern science and failing; they were trying to do some things that were very different, with the same mix of success and failure you get in any human intellectual adventure. We don't value their achievements nowadays because, again, the paradigm has changed.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I'm beginning to think that we've all accidentally dropped through a spacetime warp into a parallel dimension. Glenn Beck -- yes, that Glenn Beck -- just quoted me favorably in a recent radio show, and agreed that we've got limited energy and resources to work with. You can read the details here. Now I'm going to go see if the moon has turned blue...

Stephen said...

Here is someone who almost became the Republican presidential nominee for this recent election. Talking about Secession favorably.

CGP said...

Apparently the secession petitions on the White House website have increased to at least 10 states with Texas secession up to 84,114 signatures. I will provide a link below to a video of a "progressive" online news program condemning the secessionists as being treasonous, traitorous and parasitic. The argument is that these people are disgruntled Republicans who would never think to demand secession under a Republican president. The host also talks about how much money these states get back from the federal government compared to what they contribute and deems most of these states "takers" as they receive a federal subsidy. The idea seems to be that if these states seceded they would end up worse off but the country as a whole would actually be better off. If you read some of the comments there are people (presumably "liberal" or "progressive") who say they would be happy to see these red states secede. John, if you watch the video please let us know what you think.

Stephen, I had a look at the video you posted. Ron Paul was arguing that secession is not treasonous and is rather an American constitutional principle. Interestingly, he also argues that it is when the dollar crashes and the federal government can no longer deliver that secession will really start to be seriously considered, consistent with John's fictional narrative. Regarding Ron Paul, he does have a following but he was never close to winning the Republican nomination. He is too far away from the establishment to have received the party support required to win. His ideas may become more palatable to the mainstream in the future though. Only time will tell.

PS: How do you embed links into a comment so they appear as blue hyperlinks with a description of your choice?

phil harris said...

Glen Beck mentions you?
Signs and portents indeed, with or without a blue moon!
Could be you have gotten big enough to be in his well-resourced thaumaturgy?

dltrammel said...

As for the iDoc, it may well get created to deal with the shortage of doctors going into general practice.

Doctors Shortage Could Crash Healthcare"

Such a device would let say a nurse practitioner in a rural town to have a semi robotic database in hand to consult, then perhaps for cases that aren't covered by the iDoc, then an online webchat/cam with a doctor in another city.

Of course as the Internet becomes spottier, there will be cases of "I'm sorry but I can't find anything on Google about that bleeding sore on your back. You're out of luck."

jollyreaper said...

Whoa. Glenn Beck's the kind of person where if he agrees with me or I agree with him, I'm wondering if I got something terribly wrong. Same sort of conflict I felt when Newt Gingrich spoke favorably about space exploration. "Everything I ever loved was a lie!" George W. Bush thinks ice cream is delicious. Maybe it isn't?!

Hanshishiro said...

I think that this is relevant.

phil harris said...

Teleporting could be about right. I too know nothing about Glen Beck and his agenda, except that he seems well-resourced by organized money. My guess is though that if he quotes you it is because he sees you as useful to his manipulation of public opinion. Your name has come upfront for some reason or other.

Here in GB I feel the same breath of alien air. Here is a comment from Martin Kettle of the Guardian (left of centre, but one of their more gently contrarian writers.)

OK took 4 years to hear the "austerity is here to stay" message, but here we are.


brazza said...

Absolutely captivating piece of writing ... I had been looking forward for a touch of global socio-political futurology from you, and it was worth the wait. I found the last paragraphs of particular interest. If there is a critique is that you do take a long time to get to the punch-line ;-)

And now ... don't tease ... " I'll be talking more about what can be done to revive democracy in a later post." Give us the bacon. Here in Italy the political class is struggling to reconnect with an electorate that is torn between fear (of change and loss of privilege), and total disillusion with the system/s (corruption, and a dismal lack of efficiency). The void seems to have been filled by a past comic-turned-populist progressive who advocates doing away with the old systems, replacing parliament with direct democracy through the internet, environmental rigor, and departure from the Euro. He has climbed to almost 20% of public support, making M5S the second largest likely faction after April elections ... Mmmm gets interestinger and interestinger ...

I'm making beer for the 4 horsemen ... ;-)

Chris Travers said...

This is a great blog and it echoes much of what I have been saying as well. But there are some additional points regarding a post-America world and the fault lines here which I think I should mention just briefly.

The first is that one major aspect of American prosperity was caused not only by the post-WWII hegemony by the US, but also by the fact that WWII and the GI bill created a huge downward transfer of wealth, creating the modern Middle Class as we know it today. As traditionalist approaches to life and to the family have been eroded, more and more of family wealth has moved into paper forms, housing bubble prices and the like. I would suggest googling Elizabeth Warren's lecture "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class." This is also true in the UK where medical costs have been better contained than they are here, but housing prices have picked up whatever those savings were.

Housing prices in the US are not sustainable and I think we are seeing a hidden deflation there. In the 8 years we have had our adjustable rate mortgage we have seen rates drop by about 30%. While most people probably welcome the extra money in their pockets, that scares me because it suggests that in terms of monthly housing payments, we are in outright deflation currently. People don't decide what they can afford as far as a sticker price on the house. They decide what they can pay monthly, and a steady drop in that rate since 2004 is an indication that we are merely masking deflation by dropping interest rates.

Our economy is teetering on the edge, and the Great Depression Jr that we have been going through is just the beginning. By the most important metric, namely supply vs demand, we are already past peak oil (we passed peak production vs demand in the early 1970's, and we passed peak reserves in 1982), and so we can look forward to continuing rises in energy prices, and continuing talk of recovery without a lot of benefit for the little guy.

I also don't think that most Americans have any clue as to how much our illusion of a rule of law, how much our complex system of government, etc. is propped up by the energy surplus.

Finally, brief question for JMG: Have you listened to Joseph Tainter speak or read his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies?" I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

zhongdi said...

Dear Mr. Greer,
I'm Jordi Solé from Barcelona, I'm a scientist in CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) and university assistant professor in Autonomous University of Barcelona. In the last decade I become interested in the Peak Oil and Oil Crash subject, and more recently (four years ago) a group of colleagues and myself started to do outreach about the Peak Oil problem and the future related to it. We founded and association: the Oil Crash Observatory ( I also started to write a blog in Catalan, focused in the local problems related to the Oil Crisis, to allow the people of my country be more aware of the real problem that we are facing. In all these years I read some of your books in the different subjects you write and I found all of them very interesting and inspiring. Now I'm writing you after reading your very interesting october posts about the possible collapse of US. Here, in Catalonia, we started a political movement of secessionism from Spain and, related to that, I wrote two posts on this subject concentrating in the energy crisis and the independentist growing phenomena in Catalonia ( and ). My main hypotheses is that this new movement is caused mainly by two reasons that, together, group a lot of people: economy and national feeling, which curiosly, you give as a possible causes for the secession of southern states in US.
Then, after thinking about the coincidences of the movement I explained before and your posts, I was wondering if you feel that I can republish your october posts (translated to catalan and rigorously acknowledged and referenced) in my blog: I think that your posts are extremely interesting, but here (in Catalonia and Spain) most part of the people have problems to understand english. Because of such tongue limitations I hope that translating your recent posts will help a little to give more visibility in my country to the precious work that you are doing. Thank you for your attention.
Sincerely yours,
Jordi Solé

John Michael Greer said...

Jordi, you may certainly translate and post any of my posts, so long as there's a link back to the original blog post. I'll be pleased to see any of my work in the language of Ramon Llull! (BTW, if you'd like to contact me in a slightly less roundabout way, post a comment including your email and label it "please do not post" -- I'll respond as promptly as time permits.

Loch Wade said...

Dear DMG- you should read my waterwheel blog post about the same topic-

Anyway, I am afraid democracy is dead, and for straightforward thermodynamic reasons. It simply takes more energy to run a free political system than it does to run a despotic one.

As energy gets harder and harder to obtain, this is what the Elites will do to maintain power:

1. They will use debt to enslave the masses. It's tried and true- this was how the denizens of the Roman Empire went from Citizens of Rome to feudal medieval serfs.

2. They will use technology. Microprocessor technology takes less energy than almost any other industrial sector, to manufacture and to maintain. Sure, some heavy industry must be maintained to make computer stuff, but not all that much. Take sulfuric acid. China is the big producer today, and the US is way down the list. We don't have to.

Anyway, tracking and control, key aspects of the burgeoning totalitarian state, will be buttressed with microprocessor technology, even as the rest of the industrial machine grinds to a halt.

3. Straight up totalitarian central command and control of the economy. Did I mention we will all be slaves? Did I mention that slavery will be maintained by a surveillance and control grid that will tell you how much you can eat, where you can live, Whether or not you can travel, etc, etc.

It's already in place. It just doesn't have to be put into lockdown mode yet.

Of course, all this is mere prelude to the ultimate collapse- such a fascist system obviously can't last forever. But I suspect it can last long enough.

Now's the time to dust off those spiritual resistance skills, and start to create an attitude of welcoming the challenges of whatever form of misrule comes our way.

Thanks for getting the thoughts out there! Loch

Susan Butler said...

I think Loch's scenario is plausible, possibly along with population reduction, as suggested in Susan George's "The Lugano Report." The masses of people are already getting higher mortality from the bad food and all kinds of pollution. He's correct in saying a lot of the systems are already in place --things like employee drug testing, zoning laws, and passports. Legislation is all that's needed to turn these type of things into a police state. They already want to spy on drivers with a black box in all new cars and trucks recording speed, times of use, mileage, seat belt use, your radio choices, where you go, that type of thing. A nice tool for more than just driver safety, as advertised. Yes, get ready to accept the necessity of resistance, as least inwardly. Maybe won't be as fun as conscientious objection, and making the "revolution" was back in the day. Heh, heh. But some kind of revolution is inevitable because of changing conditions on earth. The internet allows radical, low energy democracy. Think Arab Spring. Check out So long as we can retain access to the web, or set up independent systems...