Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Skin In The Game

The old-fashioned school districts that provided me with a convenient example in last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report represent a mode of politics that nobody, but nobody, talks about in today’s America.  Across the whole landscape of our contemporary political life, with remarkably few exceptions, when people talk about the relationship between the political sphere and the rest of life, the political sphere they have in mind consists of existing, centralized governmental systems.

That’s as true of those who denounce political interference in the lives of individuals and communities, by and large, as it is of those who insist that such interference can be a very good thing. It’s as though, in the American collective imagination, the political sphere consists only of the established institutions of government, and the established—and distinctly limited—ways that individual citizens can have an influence on those institutions.  The idea that citizens might create their own local political structures, for purposes they themselves choose, and run them themselves, using the tools of democratic process, has vanished completely from our national conversation.

Less than a lifetime ago, however, this was a standard way of making constructive change in America.Local school districts were only one example, though they were probably the most pervasive. Most of the time, when people in a community wanted to create some public amenity or solve some community problem, they did it by creating a local, single-purpose governmental body with an elected board and strictly limited powers of taxation to pay the bills.  Sewer districts, streetcar lines, public hospitals, you name it, that’s usually how they were run.  The state government had supervision over all these bodies, which was normally taken care of by—you guessed it—state boards whose members were, once again, elected by the general public.

Was it a perfect system?  Of course not.  The interlocking checks and balances of board supervision and elections were no more foolproof than any other mode of democratic governance, and a certain fraction of these single-purpose local governmental bodies failed due to corruption or mismanagement. Still, a substantial majority of them do seem to have worked tolerably well, and they had a crucial advantage not shared by today’s more centralized ways of doing things:  if something went wrong, the people who had the power to change things were also the people most directly affected.

If the management of your local sewer district turned out to be hopelessly incompetent, for example, you didn’t have to try to get a distant and uninterested state or federal bureaucracy to stir out of its accustomed slumber and do its job, nor did you have to try to find some way to convince tens of thousands of unaffected voters in distant parts of the state to cast their votes to throw somebody out of office for reasons that didn’t matter to them in the least.  The right to vote in the next sewer board election was limited to those people who were actually served by the sewer district, who paid the bills of the district with their monthly assessments, who’d had to deal with balky sewers for the last two years, and were thus qualified to judge whether a “Throw the Rascals Out” campaign was justified. Keeping control of the system in the hands of the people most directly affected by it thus served as a preventive to the serene indifference to failure that pervades so much of American government today.

It might be worth proposing as a general rule, in fact, that democratic governance works best when the people directly affected by any function of government have direct control over those people who run that function of government, subject to appropriate oversight by those responsible for maintaining the public commons.  In the case of our imaginary sewer district, that means giving those who live within the district the sole power to choose members of the board, while placing the local board under the supervision of a state board tasked with making sure local decisions didn’t violate state public health standards and the like. In the case of the school districts described in last week’s post, it meant giving the local school boards broad powers to set policy for the schools they administered, giving citizens who lived within the school district the sole right to vote in school elections, and placing the school boards under the supervision of a state board of education that was charged with enforcing a few very broad educational standards, health and safety regulations, and so on.

As long as the roles of state and federal governments remained that of policing the commons, the system worked quite well—better, by most measures, than the failed equivalents we have today.  What put paid to it was the explosive spread of government centralization after the Second World War, and this in turn was driven by the imperial tribute economy I described earlier in this series of posts:  the set of deliberately unbalanced economic arrangements by which something like a third of the world’s wealth is channeled every year to the five per cent of humanity that live in the United States.

The linchpin of local control, as it turned out, was local funding.  Sewer districts, school districts, and all the other little local governmental bodies received all their funding directly from the people they served, by whatever arrangements the voters in the district had accepted when the district was founded. When federal and state governments gained the power to dangle million-dollar grants in front of the various local governments, most if not all of them took the bait, and only later discovered that the power to grant or withhold funding trumps every other form of political power in our society.  That was how the local single-purpose governments were stripped of their autonomy and turned into instruments of centralized government, subject to micromanagement by state and federal bureaucracies.

That process of centralization was justified in many cases by claims of efficiency.  Now of course when somebody starts prattling about efficiency, the question that needs to be asked is “efficient at what?” A screwdriver is highly efficient at turning screws but very inefficient as a means for pounding nails; the modern corporate economy, in much the same sense, is highly efficient at concentrating paper wealth in the hands of the already rich, and very inefficient at such other tasks as producing goods and services. It’s interesting to speculate about just what it is that centralized bureaucracies can do more efficiently than local single-purpose governmental bodies, but in retrospect, we can be certain that running schools, sewer districts, and other public goods do not belong in that category.

I discussed last week some of the reasons for thinking that today’s massively centralized American education system is much less effective at teaching children to read, write, calculate, and exercise the other basic skills essential to life in a modern society than the old-fashioned, locally managed, locally funded school districts of the not so distant past.  The responses I fielded to those comments intrigued me. One typical commenter insisted that she found it “incredibly hard to believe” that educational standards in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear were higher than those in school districts today. Now of course it takes only a glance at the old McGuffey’s Readers, the standard reading textbooks in those one-room schoolhouses, to show that levels of reading comprehension, grammar, and vocabulary that were considered normal at every elementary school grade level in the late 19th century were vastly greater than those achieved in today’s schools; in fact, the reading ability assumed by the first pages of the 8th grade McGuffey’s is by no means common in American college classes today.

The collapse of educational standards that can be observed here, and in a hundred similar examples, has had many causes.  Still, it’s far from irrelevant to note that a similar collapse has taken place in many other areas in which the old system of independent local governmental bodies has been replaced by micromanagement by state or federal bureaucracies.  That collapse has been discussed nearly as widely in the media as the implosion of American education, and it’s ironic to note that, just as media discussions of public education’s breakdown have gone out of their way to avoid considering the role of overcentralization in driving that collapse, the media coverage of the parallel breakdown I have in mind has been just as careful to avoid touching on this same issue.

The collapse in question?  The disintegration of America’s infrastructure in recent decades.

A great many factors, to be sure, have had a part in creating the crisis in our national infrastructure, just as a great many factors have contributed to the parallel crisis in our national public education system. In both cases, though, I’d like to suggest that overcentralization has played a crucial role in both crises. There are at least three reasons why, all other things being equal, a centralized government bureaucracy will by and large be less able to provide good schools, working sewers, and other public goods than a local governmental body of the type we’ve been discussing.

First, centralized government bureaucracies aren’t accountable for their failures.  To borrow a bit of gambler’s slang, they have no skin in the game.  No matter how disastrous the consequences of an administrative decision made in the state or national capital, the bureaucrats who made the decision will continue to draw their pay, exercise their authority, and pursue whatever fashionable agendas they picked up in college or elsewhere, even if their actions turn out to be hopelessly counterproductive in terms of the goals their bureaucracy ostensibly exists to serve.  Local single-purpose governmental bodies by and large don’t have that freedom; if the local sewer board pursues policies that fail to provide adequate sewer service to the people in the sewer district, the members of the board had better look for other jobs come the next local election.

Second, centralized government bureaucracies provide many more places for money to get lost. If you’ve got a bureaucracy at the national level—say, the federal Department of Education—another bureaucracy at each state level—say, state Departments of Education—and still another bureaucracy at the local level—say, current school districts, a good many of which have hundreds of employees filling administrative positions these days—and all of these are doing a job that used to be done by a handful of employees working for each school board, one whale of a lot of money that might otherwise go to improve schools is being siphoned off into administrative salaries and expenses.  The same thing is true of the money that might go to repair bridges and sewer pipes; how much of that goes instead to pay for administrative staff in the federal Department of Transportation and the equivalent state and county bureaucracies?  All this is aside from graft and corruption, which is also an issue; it’s a good general rule that the more hands money must pass through on its way to a project, the higher the likelihood that some of those hands will have sticky fingers. 

The third reason is subtler, and ties back into the proposal I made several weeks back, that the proper role of government is that of preserving the public commons. To make a commons work, there needs to be some system in place to monitor the state of the commons, assess how changes will impact it, and prohibit those things that will cause harm to it.  On a purely local level, as Elinor Ostrom showed, a self-regulating commons is easy to establish and easy to maintain, since it’s in the direct self-interest of everyone who benefits from the commons to prevent anyone else from abusing it. The local single-purpose governmental bodies discussed in this week’s post rely on that logic: if you depend on the local sewer board to provide you with sewage service, to return to our example, you have a very strong incentive not to permit the board to ignore its duties.

Still, for a variety of reasons, the mechanisms of local government don’t always function as they should.  It’s for this reason that the American political tradition long ago evolved the useful habit, already referred to, of making the decisions of local government subject to review at the state level, by way of the supervisory boards discussed earlier.  The state boards, like the local boards they supervised, were elected by the voters, so they remained accountable for their failures. More importantly, though, was the simple fact that the officials tasked with assessing the legality and appropriateness of policies were not the same officials that were making the policies.

This is a basic principle of cybernetics, by the way. If you’ve got one system carrying out a function, and another system monitoring how well the first system carries out its function, you need to make sure that the only input the second system receives from the first system is the input that allows the second system to carry out its monitoring function. Otherwise you get feedback loops that prevent the second system from doing what it’s supposed to do. That’s exactly the problem we have now.  When public schools are being micromanaged by regulations drafted by federal bureaucrats, who is assessing the legality and appropriateness of those regulations? The same federal bureaucrats—and whether you analyze this by way of cybernetics, politics, or plain common sense, this is a recipe for disaster.

These three factors—the lack of accountability endemic to centralized professional bureaucracies; the tendency for money to get lost as it works its way down through the myriad layers of a centralized system; and the unhelpful feedback loops that spring up when the policy-making and monitoring functions of government are confounded—go a long ways to explain the cascading failure of many of the basic systems that an older, more localized, and less centralized approach to government used to maintain in relatively good order.  The accelerating decline of American public education and the disintegration of the national infrastructure are only two examples of this effect in practice; there are plenty of others—a great deal of what’s wrong with America’s health care system, for example, can be traced to the same process of overcentralization.

I’m pleased to say, though, that help is on the way. On second thought, “pleased” is probably not the right word, since the help in question will almost certainly bring about the wholesale implosion of a great many of the basic systems that provide public goods to Americans, and its arrival will have to be followed by the slow, costly, and potentially painful rebuilding of those systems from the ground up.  The source of that unwelcome assistance, of course, is the twilight of America’s global empire.  In the absence of the torrents of unearned wealth American society currently receives from the imperial wealth pump, a great many of the centralized systems in place today—governmental, corporate, and nonprofit—will probably stop functioning altogether. Those who think they will cheer this development are invited to imagine how they will feel when their sewers stop working and nobody, anywhere, is willing or able to do anything about that fact.

As the impact of America’s imperial decline echoes through the fabric of the nation, a great many of the basic systems of everyday life will need to be repaired and replaced.  One of the very few tools that might enable that to be done effectively is the system of local single-purpose governmental bodies that I’ve discussed in this post.  As municipal services become intermittent or stop altogether, schools shut down, and infrastructure collapses, people with skin in the game—local residents, that is, who want basic services enough to tax themselves at a modest rate to pay for them—could readily use the old system to pick up the pieces from imploding government bureaucracies. 

Equally, the same process can be used to pursue any number of public goods not currently served at all by existing governmental systems. All that’s needed is for something that used to be an integral part of American community life to be rediscovered and put back to work, before the imperial structures that replaced them finish coming apart.  Mind you, the system of local single-purpose government bodies is far from the only elements of an older way of community that could use being rediscovered and restored; next week we’ll talk about another.

Those who are interested in ordering an advance copy of my forthcoming book Not The Future We Ordered: The Psychology of Peak Oil and the Myth of Eternal Progress can now get a 20% discount from the North American distributor. Visit this webpage, place your order, and enter the code NTFWO during checkout; this code will be good until the end of March. This book covers aspects of peak oil and the future of industrial society that I haven’t discussed in detail in these blog posts, focusing on the psychological and emotional impacts of peak oil on societies committed to the civil religion of progress.  Those of my readers who can handle the end of progress as an imminent fact, and are interested in what that implies, may want to have a look at it.


anon anon said...

Devolution of power: states, then localities.

(As a libertian magician - yes, there is such a beast - I love your blog. Mostly ;)

pasttense said...

So let's take a look at your example of the local sewage district. What was water quality like with that system? Filled with toxic wastes.

It was only with centralized federal involvement that started with the Environmental Protection Agency created by Nixon in 1970 that the U.S. began the path toward clean water and clear air.

Matte Gray said...

Mr. Greer, I've been reading your blog with great enjoyment since a few months after its inception, and i congratulate you on insightful analyses of the problems we face. That said, one quibble with today's post: a flaw with local funding of schools and other public services is that local areas in most states vary enormously in their wealth, so poor areas simply don't have the money to provide schools of the quality possible in wealthy areas.

godozo said...

I suspect that a lot of "services" presently taken for granted will be found to be done without once people realize that they will have to pay for them directly. There's a lot of "I don't want to pay for it" already, but it will change from "I want it to be free" to "I'd rather go without it than pay for it."

John Michael Greer said...

Anon, if you loved all of it, I'd question your sanity. ;-)

Pasttense, a fine bit of revisionist misdirection! I'm sure you know perfectly well that local sewer districts didn't have any control at all over the industrial polluters who were responsible for that toxic waste, and who were by and large dumping directly into waterways. The reaction, furthermore, began with local programs in the 1960s -- in the Seattle area, where I grew up, major cleanup programs were under way most of a decade before the EPA was created, and they were started and funded locally. The agitation that created the EPA drew heavily on local success stories like the restoration of Lake Washington, which proved that clean water programs could be done at a reasonable cost. I'd encourage you next time to do a little more historical research, and be a little more careful with your facts!

John Michael Greer said...

Matte, that may be true, but I'd point out that nowadays, when we theoretically have a more equal distribution of education dollars, poor areas still by and large have lousy schools with inadequate funding. I'd like to suggest that poorly funded schools with local control and less bureaucracy will by and large be better than poorly funded schools run according to the dictates of distant bureaucracies.

Godozo, that may well be true, but I hope that public education and some means of dealing with sewage aren't among those.

jean-vivien said...

Hello Mr Archdruid,
this is unrelated to the current post, but for many reasons, I believe the upheaval of our modern mythology may generate a lot of fear and anxieties. How do the various schools of spirituality you are involved into deal with these topics ?

John D. Wheeler said...

When the sewers fail, we will have to deal with our own crap.

It won't be pleasant.

It won't be comfortable.

But you know, a lot of our problems stem from an unwillingness to be uncomfortable and deal with unpleasantness.

Hal said...

Well, John Michael, I think you're going to get a lot of flack over this one. I agree with almost 100% of your assessment of what's wrong with our current centralized system. You have pretty much nailed it. I'm just afraid that the evidence for what you characterize as a tolerably-working earlier system is lacking. Your example of sewerage districts is a case in point. You will recall that in 1972 Congress passed and President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act. Well, you might be to young to remember it, but I do. I also remember that, before that, our local community dumped its untreated wastewater directly into the Yazoo River.

It seems that whatever local body controlled wastewater in these parts (I was too young to know the specifics) did a reasonably decent job of getting the wastewater removed from individual outlets, but that, beyond that, it was someone else's problem.

The result, we will recall, was that virtually all surface waters in the US were dangerously polluted. By polluted, I mean eutrophication and human disease pathogens.

The CWA was no doubt responsible for a lot of cumbersome top-heavy bureaucracy that had a lot of unintended consequences. It's also likely that the nation's ability to continue the centralized control of water quality will be difficult to impossible in the future. But I think before we put local control forward as a solution, we need to take a little closer look at what we got out of the current system and what was lacking in the older one.

The CWA didn't just provide regulation and oversight of water quality in the states and local communities. It also provided funding that built the vast majority of secondary treatment plants in the country. It was able to do that, no doubt, by taping into the wealth pump and redirecting funds from local to central control. Unfortunately, there isn't much evidence that local boards would have had access to or used the money for the purpose of protecting the greater environment without the combination of carrots (CWA grants) and sticks (CWA regs).

Again, not really disagreeing with the central point, but I think you might have been just a little too optimistic about the ability of local bodies to do the job.

Hal said...

And if I may opine on your response to Pasttense's comment, with regards to industrial wastes, I would say, "Yes, exactly." Local boards have very little power over them. So who does? Again, I'm not challenging the idea that a lot of the control we're used to is going away. Just that I really have doubts about local governments ability or will to pick up the slack.

godozo said...

Education is one that I think will survive – anything that people will make an effort to do on their own will survive, complete with appropriate levels of learning for each area.

Sewage may be more an issue. Farming societies will likely use the brown stuff with their crops (the term "night soil" comes to my mind), cities dwellers won't be so lucky....

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

The problems you've outlined here actually reflect a similar situation in universities in several western countries.

The administration becomes bloated and acquires much of the power and expands itself at the expense of both students and faculty. They introduce all manner of unnecessary staff like career counsellors, PR directors, advertising consultants, etc... and meanwhile the actual function of university becomes increasingly ignored.

Students get stuck with higher tuition to pay for services they don't need (and administrators vote to give themselves pay raises too) and faculty have their budgets slashed and hence can't offer proper positions to qualified scholars. In the old days students themselves used to manage themselves, but now well-paid admin direct everything, backed up with campus security and all the money. You can protest on campus, but it lacks teeth. The tuition paying students lost their own democratic processes.

Ruben said...

JMG, could I ask that you add a timeline of sorts to your sidebar? Just something that would say "Long Descent, such and such a date to such and such a date." Et c. for the other major topic groups like Green Wizardy, and now governance.

Thank you.

Tony said...

Originally hailing from the DC suburbs, the inadequacy of its transportation infrastructure has become an acute topic amongst my family and friends who stayed in the area. Everyone I know agrees that it's on a long slide to oblivion... You would think the imperial center would at least try to make it possible for all those government employees to reliably get to work on time, but the metro rail system keeps failing worse and worse as prices rise and rise... the road network is a lost cause too, but that's just due to the fact that you can't reliably move millions of people around a 40+ mile wide circular stain of suburbs by car.

On the topic of education... I thought this would be of interest: a measure of the reading level / complexity of the text of State of the Union speeches, back through George Washington.

To be fair, it would appear that the biggest hit in complexity and reading level came right after it transitioned form a written to spoken statement, and that there has been a slow decline all the way back since the 1820s. Still, it puts recent years into stark perspective.

Tony B.

Glyn Green said...

I'm enjoying these - it's been a good series of posts about centralisation and its problems, with interesting detail of the workings on things on your side of the pond. I’m a little disappointed though that after this post talks about the collapse of centralised sewage systems it then proposes more locally managed sewerage systems as something to be aimed for.

The whole system of flushing out wastes into sewers, though energy intensive plants and often out into the ocean is damaging for ocean life and a waste of good fertiliser (much needed if chemical alternatives become less available). Systems involving composting toilets or night soil collectors for community composting would be much better alternatives and could have deserved a mention.

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG: I'm trying to reconcile this with my own experience serving on a local homeowners' association board for a townhouse development, which had a fair amount of commons to manage compared to, say, the normal suburban "neighborhood association" that is mostly paint and shrubbery oversight.

One problem with local governments of this sort is that a surprising number of people want the sewer district to make the trains run on time.

A surprising number also think that the job of the sewer district is to unclog their toilet at three in the morning.

More than a few think it's the job of the sewer district to replace their toilets because the seat cracked.

When this doesn't work out to their satisfaction, they get themselves elected to the board to "clean things up." When several of them decide to come on board together -- one thinks of Tea Party antics on a teacup scale -- they end up looking for scapegoats. Our association went through three property management companies in as many years, trying to find a "competent" company that could make $100 worth of stuff happen on a $10 budget. And with top quality, dammit! Board meetings went from quarterly to monthly, plus "emergency sessions," all of which involved screaming and name-calling. Some of the names were pretty vile (I'm not hyperbolizing.)

We're back to some of your earlier comments about democracy: modern Americans haven't a clue how to engage in a democratic process. They've completely internalized the politics of the imperial court as they imagine it exists in Washington. External pomp and solemnity regarding the democratic process; on the inside, back-room deals and "what can I get out of this for myself?" corruption. Isn't that how democracy is supposed to work?

Nothing I saw on that board would have been tolerated by even the simplest application of Robert's Rules of Order, but we would have needed the sergeant-at-arms, and the person ejected would have roused the pitchfork-wielding populace to a fine fire over the "injustice" of being forced against their will to maintain orderly parliamentary process. It's a democracy, by God, and they have the constitutionally guaranteed right to speak out of turn. As loudly and abusively as they please.

Yours is a cogent and accurate assessment of the perils of centralization, but I think you have far too much confidence in the common sense of modern Americans when it comes to relocalization.

Richard Larson said...

More uncharted territory to consider for most. But this isn't the classic chicken or the egg choice. It is a cost versus benefits situation.

No matter at what angle this dilemma is looked at, the largest institutions always become the most inefficient, and my favorite topic, become serious users and polluters in their own right.

Still, most people are under the spell these largest institutions are for the good of the common man. Breaking this spell is not doable by anything other than collapse, in my opinion..

So being pleased may be the wrong feeling, but being aware of what is coming is a very important ingredient to the choices we all are making today. The understanding alone will give a sense of direction.

The whole US Centralized Government (which in my view is only a means to concentrate wealth into the hands of a few)(the employees of them included in the few) has grown way beyond the common man's ability to pay, and is going bankrupt. It is ending like it or not, and this event will be hardest for those businesses plus state and local government workers reliant on the mandates coming from these institutions, for their income. Because they don't know how to do anything for themselves.

They will fight to keep it going.., to no avail...

Best to prepare for this coming event like right now.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's an article about decline by a noted contemporary American historian.


'Americans bicker over entitlement spoils as the nation continues to pile up trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Enforced equality, rather than liberty, is the new national creed. The medicine of cutting back on government goodies seems far worse than the disease of borrowing trillions from the unborn to pay for them.'

Mr O. said...

I suspect one of the major blocks to a return to the localism you suggest will be that even if central government is no longer providing a service it is unlikely they will want to be stopped being paid for it. Thus they might stop repairing the local sewers but they are unlikely to reduce taxation by a commensurate amount. I suppose this will just be another factor in the forces pulling large nations apart. Could get nasty. In my reading whatever lip service they might pay to localism no government likes relinquishing power, and certainly those with a vested interest in the status quo make it very difficult.

Zach said...

John Michael,

Well done again. I'm enjoying seeing you take what a generation or two ago would have been considered good, old-fashioned common civic sense and applying it -- the irony being that it seems very radical and new!

Two Michigan examples to illustrate your point:

1. Some years ago (mid-nineties), there was a state Constitutional amendment to change the funding formula for public schools. Previously, they had been funded primarily by local millage, and the state sales tax was limited to 4%. In exchange for lowering and limiting property taxes (widely seen as too high), the state sales tax was raised to 6% and schools would receive per-pupil funding from Lansing. "Conservatives" liked it because it promised to make the state more attractive to businesses, who complained about the property tax rate, "liberals" liked it because it promised to level out funding between rich and poor districts, thereby improving the schools in poorer districts.

The one certain outcome, however, was that educational control would pass from local school boards to Lansing.

And, of course, well-off school districts are still well-off, and poor districts are still poor and struggling. Detroit Public Schools are still a basket case, while affluent outlying districts afford Olympic swimming pools and well-equipped weight training rooms reserved for the football team. (Not to mention accidentally overbuilding an extra middle school that it turned out they don't need... and yes, that's all the same school district I'm thinking of.)

2. The Herman Gardens housing project in Detroit is a sad example of lost money. In the early nineties, they were a dangerous eyesore. So, HUD to the rescue! Some hundreds of millions of dollars were allocated to tear down the old apartments, house the residents until the new buildings could be constructed, and provide for job training for the displaced.

What the neutral text in the Wikipedia article "That plan subsequently failed to come to fruition" and "After over a decade of planning..." fail to convey are these stark facts: residents were removed and the buildings razed in 1996. In 2009, the first family moved in to reconstructed housing. In between, the sign "Coming soon!" at Southfield and Joy roads weathered as nothing happened year after year. Eventually, the DOJ investigated, and discovered that those hundreds of millions of HUD dollars allocated had simply... disappeared. Shoddy record-keeping, you know. Terribly unfortunate. As far as I know, it's never been found and no one has been jailed, although some quick google-fu turns up that there have been some indictments that seem related to this in the never-ending corruption trials of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.


Ron M. said...

This discussion points toward what I call the paradox of progressive decentralism. Those of us who share JMG's critique of centralized power while also holding green/liberal/progressive values have to acknowledge that it was massive federal power, not local or state authority, that provided standards for environmental protection, along with the ending of slavery and Jim Crow, child labor laws and legal equality for women, and the civil libertarian decisions of the Warren Court. Of course we pay a price for centralized power (as libertarians and conservatives point out), and of course as the empire erodes that power will crumble-- so our challenge is to hold onto these achievements even as we promote decentralized, participatory democracy. I think JMG has identified the key to meeting the challenge: a thorough understanding of and dedication to "the commons."

Rashakor said...

Dear Teacher,

The role of federal authorities, the way I see it, and the way it was originally set up was among other things to watch over that intangible supra-state commons.
In the case of education (and eventually environment as in the examples in this post), many local factors would actually affect negatively the commons space that resides between every individual US state. For instance, American patriotism, or at least the idea of a national identity could be viewed as a commons that is worth preserving, another ones are the beauty of the land itself and final one could the american "competitiveness" in the world scale. These "commons" really arise thanks to a certain effort of homogenization in education (and other federal program such as EPA, or the national parks system) and are only possible with a certain level of forceful centralization that I guess is always part of the empire building process. Without it every state would pull in it own direction and that would be the end of the union (we may endlessly debate if that is actually desirable or not outcome), the end of world competitiveness, even the end of some of the States themselves as entities. The process of centralization is definitely intertwined in the process of growth to direct every cell in one common direction. I dont really see the process as undesirable in itself, it just that the process of feedback is not working properly.
Back to the post, How can we have local school boards (or other small scale single purpose governemental institution) that serve their local communities in the best way and reconcile it with a small federal(imperial) guideline making authority which purpose is to serve the supra-estatal commons?
Or is that just a fools errants that can only work for the short amount of time around the peak of that empire in particular?

Bill Pulliam said...

Something has been bugging me about the tone of your recent posts, but I have not quite been sure what. Last night, after I shut down the computer for the night, I think I put my finger on it.

It feels like you are actually trying to "sell" decentralization,in the same way that political advocates try to "sell" whatever their cause is. You at times appear to be singing the praises of local control over the big faceless impersonal bureaucracies in a manner reminiscent of the way that corporate PR spokesmen or advocates for charter schools and private prisons campaign for "local control" to advance their own special interests (and bottom lines). Please don't jump all over me for stating this impression, because I know perfectly well that this is NOT what you are intending. However, the approach and style of recent posts can create a sense of that. Please take it as a critique of the structure of the text, not of the concepts.

The fact is (and I know you know this better than I), no one needs to "sell" decentralization or promote it in any way. It is going to happen. And the forces that resist it will fight it tooth and nail until their dying day, no matter what. And they will fail in the end, no matter what. No one needs to sell winter when autumn is already underway. And yes I understand that your core point is that you believe traditional local democratic systems are the "best" (okay, maybe too strong a word) means for maintaining functional and responsive local governance after the central control disintegrates. But the important point in this is NOT the contrast between local democratic government and modern-day massive centralized bureaucratic government. It is the contrast between local democratic government (as it was practiced in the U.S. in previous centuries) versus other forms of local control that might arise in its absence. Because we are going to have decentralized government, economy, society, religion, etc. in coming generations, NO. MATTER. WHAT.

Yes, I did real to the end of your post, and your final paragraphs of course address this explicitly and directly, and make it clear this is your actual intention, and you will indeed be talking about some of the other possibilities in the near future. But before you get there, as I am sure the comment thread will reveal, you have gotten many of your readers riled up with what can be (mis)interpreted as some almost reactionary visions of a lost day gone by when everything was better. I suspect this likely blocks quite a few of them from getting to your actual core message.

blue sun said...

Sewer districts? While we may admire the efficiency with which they function, it's a shame so many are already established throughout the country. They are efficient at achieving an objective we should legitimately question: taking one of our largest resources of soil nutrients and dumping it in the ocean.

But I guess even my head would explode if you were to espouse the virtues of both local politics and recycling human wastes in a single post! Thank you for presenting lucid explanations of exceedingly complex topics in manageable chunks. It may well be one of your greatest talents.

Avery said...

Thank you for the reference to the McGuffey's Readers -- one of your frequent, always interesting shout-outs to true American tradition that got tossed in the gutter in the current narrative. I recommend people check out the website of its current publisher. Think about the fact that there are about 25,000 families and schools that still use this textbook, which I certainly have never heard of before. When I start to consider these families as intelligent actors seeking out their own American tradition, my whole image of homeschooling begins to change.

Odin's Raven said...

The teachers in those one room schools in 19th c. America probably were not paid the equivalent of $160,000 p.a.

Those who attended these schools probably were not bewildered by billboards urging the illiterate to write for help!

Here's an 'instructive' article using government sources to claim that 23% of the population is illiterate.

Prose is defined as reading news stories, brochures, instructional materials - perhaps by the people who think Homer is a cartoon character.

The literary documents apparently of most concern are job applications and payroll forms. Fascinatingly, it is revealed that Washington DC is the city with the highest levels of literacy thus defined. Perhaps those most adept at completing government job applications gravitate there.

It's amazing and amusing to see what centralization has done for or to you.


Bill Pulliam said...

Now about 60s-70s era environmentalism. I was there and I remember it too (well, OK, the 70s at least). It is true there was a lot of successful local grass-roots progress, but there were also national pushes and victories as well. The DDT ban stands out as an early win that had to be accomplished at the national level to be effective. And populations of birds of prey in North America have rebounded many-fold since the ban (if anyone want to drag out the pseudoscientific arguments that DDT was harmless and the ban was a scam, knock yourself out, I won't engage).

I also remember than many of these grass-roots activists and organizations were also the same people who were pushing for federal action and involvement. Ecosystems don't follow political boundaries, and having to fight every battle at the local level de novo was extremely resource-demanding. Regardless of relative effectiveness, the institution of a centralized environmental regulatory system was in its origins as much or more a bottom-up initiative than a top-down one.

Ben said...

JMG - While local boards will largely work better in the low-energy future, the people who vote for the people serving on local boards are not always known for their enlightened self-interst. For context, our county school district served 8000 children in 1980 and serves about 4500 today. Here in Warren County, our voters have consistently votes against candidates that suggest closing under-capacity schools. This wouldn't be a big deal except that continuing to operate these under-used schools (and the bus system) costs the school district a tremendous amount of money which. In a poor, rural school district this puts the local kids at an even greater educational disadvantage. On the upside, local support for 4-H programs has kept a small number of students interested in agriculture, so there's always a silver lining, I suppose.
While I can certainly appreciate the value of local, elected bodies (I serve on the city parks and recreation board), sometimes the goals get mixed up. In this case, maintaining the commons of education gets mixed up with "I graduated from Eisenhower High School, and by God my kid will too."

gwizard43 said...

"The idea that citizens might create their own local political structures, for purposes they themselves choose, and run them themselves, using the tools of democratic process, has vanished completely from our national conversation."

Say what you will about OWS, this was precisely the intent of OWS' General Assembly - to demonstrate an alternate governance structure based on face to face, participatory democracy. In certain circles then, this remains very much a part of the conversation.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I think a lot of the problems you've identified come from trying to have some level of consistency across a federation. If you are content to have totally different standards with regard to the environment, education, human rights, etc, you can have local control that you describe. But then you will also have Jim Crow and environmental "sacrifice zones".

The kicker for me is that I don't think that we can go back to a laisse faire system with regard to environmental regulation. Even in Star's Reach Greer envisions some sort of universal church sanction against adding greehouse gases to the environment (e.g. the priestess who stands by while the blacksmith gets buried alive for having a natural gas well.)

I don't see how this sort of thing could be enforced without some sort of national standards plus some sort of method for spreading money from rich to poor constituencies, plus some sort of consistent enforcement. At that point, you have the Federal Government again.

I don't see how peak oil is going to end the need for more and more centralized government. After all, the civil war was fought over this point and it was in the time of black powder.

Andy Brown said...

I've enjoyed these posts, and the increasing focus on the local settings. 3 points spring to mind.

1. Our famous Cold War contest was ostensibly between communism and capitalism or totalitarianism and democracy - but it doesn't take too much insight to notice that all of these various ideologies lost out to centralized bureaucracy.

2. I wonder what you think of domestic colonialism. That is, during the long wind-down the wealth pump, to the degree that it survives the end of empire is likely to be directed at those places still capable of generating taxes or wealth. Do you think that this will interfere with developing more locally managed commons?

3. The American ideal of freedom is sometimes expressed pithily as something along the lines of, "the freedom to wave your arm only extends to the tip of my nose." Obviously, this still leaves a lot to be negotiated. The same thing applies to defining what is a commons (as the sewers and industrial pollution comments show). Just an interesting parallel.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

As a library worker I can assure the claim that the reading levels, habits and abilities of today's school kids are sub-par to those of even the 1950's and 60's. When I go into the stacks area for the Children's department I see firsthand that the books written for children in 40's, 50's and into the sixties pre-supposed a greater comprehension level and ability than books on similar subjects written for children over the past two decades.

A number of these older books, especially those on natural science, I've picked up second-hand to form part of the corpus of my own Gaianomicon.

The books on science and crafts from those times also pre-supposed that children would want to get their hands dirty and their minds engaged with helpful learning activities, whether it was making a terrarium or experiments in chemistry or simple electronics.

At least the resurgence of reading sparked by Harry Potter has caused growth in the YA market. A lot of it is bad, but Paolo Baciagalupi's two novels of life after what he calls "The Accelerated Age" in post-collapse america are very engaging. Those are Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities.

Speaking of Drowned Cities, I'm certainly happy to be in Cincinnati, a good rust belt town. While I don't doubt their will be plenty of trouble to contend with, this place will be a good spot to rebuild and reinvigorate some of the local government spoken of in this post. As I continue to observe changes in our own microclimate here, the rising of the Ohio river, flooding of creeks, and sewer/storm drain issues are definitely one of the things we will continue to have to contend with.

Ceworthe said...

Regarding dealing with one's own crap,I suggest people do a websearch for The Humanure Handbook and homemade composting toilets

Justin Patrick Moore said...

The legacy of Horace Mann, founder of the Common School Movement in America, which set up basic guidelines and principles for those single room schools, would be a good person to study for those who are interested in focusing the direction education might shift into in the collapse process.

He was also the first president of Antioch College -which I consider myself a drop-out-alumni of. The main reason I dropped out was fiscal, but there were other reasons. Still, Antioch's legacy of the work-study program -putting young adults into the workforce in fields they may want to enter- deserves to be emulated more broadly. Arthur Morgan, who was a later president, also had a number of good ideas, despite his utopian predilections.

With my own children in Montessori schools, and my wife who works at one, those principles are also worth being saved. As are those of Waldorf education. These different streams are informing my own explorations of continuing adult "home schooling".

Steve Morgan said...

I can see Hal's point about the likelihood of local small districts being inadequate to accomplish everything that we might expect. At the same time, I can also see how vastly preferable it will be to live in a place with inadequate services than a place with virtually non-existent centralized services.

I'll give an example. I live in a small suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of a couple small towns near a city of ~100k. Most places around us are served by large municipal water utilities, several of which rely on water pumped over the continental divide, held in large surface reservoirs behind ~80 year old dams, treated in industrial quantities, and piped dozens of miles. The sewer systems are equally large and unwieldy, with pipes you could drive a truck through, etc. The water and sewer utility aren't particularly corrupt or inefficient for a city that size, but there is a water storage tank that's been leaking hundreds of gallons a day for about 4 or 5 years now in one city park on a hillside. Nothing's been done to fix it.

My neighborhood has a small, special district to provide water service from three wells and a central treatment plant, which is very basic but does the job. Last month our plant manager notified the board (on which I serve) that there appeared to be a leak, as night system flows were ~2 gallons per minute above normal for winter. Within two weeks we'd identified the source and sealed it, with plans to replace the leaky valve in warmer weather.

Now, of course the city water dept. does fix leaks from time to time, especially main breaks. That said, in the absence of a large tribute economy, I'm willing to bet that my neighborhood has water service in somewhat better shape with less effort, as all of our wells, storage tank, and treatment system (not to mention our board members) are within a 5 minute walk of my house. That is not to say that there won't be problems, but the level of complexity and scale we'll encounter will not be nearly so daunting as the city with its far-flung systems and much greater complexity.

It seems that JMG is pretty much trying to say that since the large, imperfect, overly complex systems full of surplus office fauna are going away anyways in the absence of imperial tribute, it might be worth looking at ways to salvage some semblance of what we consider a civilized life using the tools of small districts since they're already lying around relatively unused.

Anyhow, I appreciate the sentiment of collapsing now and avoiding the rush that this governmental decomplexifying series points toward. It's been very interesting to think about.

gwizard43 said...

I'm in near full agreement with what you've written this week, or as it's also know: common sense.

That said, I think you've left out one of the primary advantages to the scheme you've outlined: opting out becomes plausible.

That is, if one disagrees with the policies of an overly centralized system which is national in nature, then to opt out, one would generally need to emigrate to another country. If the centralization occurs at the state level, then one must move out of state to escape the objectionable policy.

But if the principle of subsidiarity as you have described is the case, then in many cases opting out may involve moving only across town, into another school district, or perhaps to the next town over.

Thus, the barriers to opting out of objectionable policies are vastly reduced. And in my view, this is actually one of the more vital reasons to deploy such a system, because the practical inability to opt out of various political or social systems is tantamount to tyranny.

bryant said...

I think that pasttense and others are missing the point of local sewer districts. These districts were established to preserve human health, not the environment. The environment, in the sense you speak of, was not a well-recognized "commons" for most Americans until the second half of the twentieth century. These sewer districts were extremely effective public health institutions, and the steadily increasing lifespans America experienced over the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were a result of these sewer districts

As municipal services become intermittent or stop altogether, schools shut down, and infrastructure collapses, people with skin in the game—local residents, that is, who want basic services enough to tax themselves at a modest rate to pay for them—could readily use the old system to pick up the pieces from imploding government bureaucracies. 

My suspicion is that the only part of Federal and State government which will NOT be moribund, is the taxing and licensing branches. So in effect, local government solutions will require even more commitment than that required of our grandfathers and great grandfathers.

Janie said...

Mr Greer, thank you for the time and thought, scholarship and research that goes into your work (and to Lambert for the link). There is a paragraph in Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods" that seems appropriate. Here's a paraphrase from memory: A structure is erected around a small but effective god. The structure grows with time and becomes an end in itself. Eventually the god within dies - and nobody notices.

jen vogh said...

The transition from centralized to local could be very messy, as centralized authorities will have rules, and the authority to enforce them. People involved in implementing a centralized system may not have the resources to do their job properly, but that dose not mean they will cede power willingly and 'making an example', legally or even forcefully, of an occasional local authority could prove quite chilling to other considering similar initiatives. Any state, county or municipality that attempts to formally cede could face an overwhelming response from even a very considerably diminished central authority. I think it is more likely to see local initiatives occur well outside the political sphere, as in home schooling cooperatives, farmers markets, even various clubs. (Unfortunately, even these small organizations can be run with a tremendous amount of infighting, power struggles and other self destructive impulses.) Eventually, yes, we will have to figure out how to maintain ourselves at a local scale, but I think it will be an all around unpleasant transition without some level of buy in from the centralized powers-that-be.

Steve in Colorado said...

I'm afraid that many of the responses will be people wondering how their personal favorite federal program would be impacted by decentralization... But, okay, here's mine:

What about the national forests and parks?

Gary Snyder among others has argued that they amount to a restoration of the commons. I don't know if that's quite correct, considering how strictly one's ability to make use of them is-- In California, at least, you have to pay to enter a national forest, and you're not allowed to take anything out with you. And, of course, large timber companies are regularly given access and allowed to log for profit on federal and state lands.

But I worry that in the absence of federal agencies like the Forest Service the situation will get worse. I know that where I've lived in rural Oregon, the first response of many of the locals to a decentralization of control over the forests would be to rev the chainsaws and head on in... And likely their first targets would be the old growth. I say this not as a bigoted urban liberal, but as someone who has lived most of my life in rural areas-- in Douglas County, Oregon, for instance, where a local paper (run by a former county commissioner) proudly declares "This paper is printed on recycled newsprint. But because we support the forest-products industry, we would prefer it was printed on the pulp of old-growth trees."

Now, trying to think through the problem, it occurs to me that 1) Weyerhaeuser and other companies control millions of acres of land in this country, most of it stolen directly from the public, and that a broad decentralization and empowerment of local government could result in the redistribution of some of this; 2) The final result, after a generation or two of experience, might well be a managed commons.

But I worry that the immediate incentive is to fell every last tree. And that local hatred for the environmental movement and its association with tyrannical bureaucracy will lead to the devastation of the old forests.

It's a difficult situation, and I can't see a solution.

Doc said...

There is another subtle means of eliminating local control that is inherent to the local system. This is the idea that local people on these boards are unpaid volunteers - this leaves out all the folks who have to work for a living and do not have the time or energy to be on a board, that often meets during daytime work time.
I have served on several board for county, regional and federal govt. - all at my own expense with a lot of volunteer effort. There are only a few types of persons that are willing to do this for the public benefit - i often look around and see that over 80% ofthe people in the room are drawing govt. salaries while they are being there.
This quick sends away competent people who are not willing to deal with this over-leverage government interest. (This includes some industry folk who are also paid to be there in the interests of their emploter - working for a beneficial status quo.)
PS - Ashland misses you.

iangagn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
laughingbirdfarm said...


As a rebuttal to Matte Gray and the others who will contest that poorer areas will have worse schools than wealthier areas, let me offer my own experience as a substitute teacher.

I stopped subbing just over a year ago. I only worked for the local school district and I went to every school in the area and taught every grade and every subject. Here are some of the differences between the schools in poorer areas and those in wealthier neighborhoods:

-The well-off schools have enough teachers, so their class sizes are 15-20 students instead of 50.

-The well-off schools are actually maintained. They don't have mold on the walls and ceilings caving in.

-The well-off schools have textbooks published in the last 20 years, and enough of them to go around.

-The well-off schools are safe; they deal with problem students and send them out. I was assaulted twice by students at some of the worse schools and not allowed to file charges. The students at the better schools aren't frequently found with weapons.

-The 'extras' are more available: one well-off school teaches five foreign languages (including Latin) and has about 10 foreign language teachers. The same school has 3 dedicated music teachers, a dance teacher, and 6 full-time art teachers. The poorer schools have one Spanish class and a waiting list to get into it. They have one part-time art and one part-time music teacher.

These are schools in the same school district, drawing off the same tax base, and yet they aren't receiving the so-called benefits of centralization. I'd be willing to bet this same pattern exists across the country.

Jon said...

Mr. Greer,

Great post. As a well-compensated, senior bureaucrat in local government in Florida, I'd like to make a small contribution to your ideas.

Whatever happened to volunteers? We used to have volunteer fire departments. If you stacked all the firemen, sergeants, leuitenants, captains and chiefs on top of each other in our local fire department, the pyramid would be flamboyant by Egyptian standards.

The centralization happens when people start making careers out of what should be part-time volunteer efforts, at least on the local level.

Great comment on how the feds co-opted local government by the way. The stories I could tell...

Stu from Rutherford said...

Thanks for the post; this is a topic near to my heart and one I pushed when running for office some years back. I also thought that public ownership of at least some *infrastructure* was in order, but always as independent entities controlled by the public. (And *not* directly by the government, either local or otherwise.)
A closely related problem is boards that do exist are frequently appointed. An example is a planning board (related to zoning exceptions). These are elected in many states, but in mine (NJ) they are appointed by the mayor. All statewide officials are appointed by the governor, county-wide by the county executive and local by the mayor, so we vote on very few people in this state. (The governor also appoints his entire cabinet, including the Secretary of State).
In the private sector, it is also possible to give the public a great deal of control via what is known as a "captive corporation". The Green Bay Packers is a good example. Shares are sold only to members of some group (in this case, residents of Green Bay), and no one can own very many. There are restrictions as to how and to whom they can be sold. The result is a board of directors that would not dream of moving the team elsewhere (which was the point of the ownership structure to begin with!)

John Michael Greer said...

Jean-Vivien, that's a topic for a whole post all by itself. I'll put it in the file for discussion in the upcoming series of posts.

John, true enough! Still, if we can recover the ability to deal with problems on a community level, dealing with our own crap may not be quite as onerous.

Hal, in the 1960s, the need for secondary sewage treatment was not widely recognized. In effect, you're criticizing the sewer boards of midcentury because they didn't anticipate and act on the values of a later time; that's a popular kind of criticism, to be sure, but I'm far from sure it's useful. Similarly, we as a society are still just beginning to grapple with the need to keep corporate power from wrecking the public commons, and sewer boards were not tasked with that job; criticizing sewer boards for not doing so in the 1960s is a bit like insisting that public health departments were a failure because they didn't reduce the unemployment rate.

Godozo, there are certainly ways for households and communities to deal with both issues.

Jeffrey, yes, that's another of the examples I had in mind!

Ruben, I've given my timeline many times: the Long Descent started in 1974 and will continue until long after all of us are dead. There you have it.

Tony, transportation is another huge issue, as most of the big infrastructure there wasn't built by local governments -- and the big governments that built it rarely thought about the long term costs of maintenance.

Glyn, I didn't want to drag in the separate issues implied by the need to find a better way to deal with human wastes -- not least because I've discussed that at length in prior posts.

Joseph, that's a valid point, of course -- the rebirth of local independent governments presupposes a rebirth of the skills of democratic process, and that in turn presupposes the end of the psychology of entitlement that afflicts so many Americans these days.

Richard, I'm not at all sure that it's fair to say that a system as complex, self-referential, and ungovernable as the US government has any single purpose at all. Still, you're right that getting ready for a long process of unraveling ought to be a high priority just now.

Roger Bigod said...

It looks like some at The New Yorker is one of your lurkers. Check out the last cartoon.

John Michael Greer said...

Raven, Hanson definitely has his hobby horses, but he's worth reading.

Mr. O, exactly. That's one of the forces driving the US in particular, and a great many other nations as well, toward massive crisis.

Zach, thanks for the examples! No surprises there, but it's good to have some specifics to mention.

Ron, that's a valid point, and one that makes current fantasies about relocalization on the part of the leftward end of the green crowd more than usually detached from reality.

Rashakor, it's not a fool's errand at all. That's how the system is supposed to work. The federal government imposes only such limits as the majority of elected representatives decide are necessary to maintain the national commons, and the states and local governments take it from there.

Bill, good! I figured you'd catch that. Still, I think you're missing the point at the core of what I'm doing. Of course there's no need to "sell" relocalization; it's going to happen. What needs to be sold are the skills that could make the process much less destructive and painful than it will otherwise be -- and the best way to do that, as I see it, is to point out that there are actually some advantages to local control.

Blue Sun, exactly. I've already discussed the virtues of composting and humanure in many other posts.

Avery, homeschoolers have by and large been stereotyped on the left in very unhelpful terms. A good look at the McGuffey phenomenon is a useful corrective.

Jan Steinman said...

JMG, I think that when you say "centralized," what you really mean is "industrialized."

Let's face it: highly centralized government is a form of industrialized politics, which used to be "the art of persuasion" among peers at a local level.

I'm pleased to see the attack on industrialized education, as would be Ivan Illich, who seems to be an influence here. We can likewise attack industrialized health care, industrialized food, etc. without blaming the Big Bad Government for all that ails us.

The mention of sewage is notable. Industrialized sewage has turned one neat solution into two big problems -- we need to close the nutrient loop! The decline of fossil sunlight means the decline of chemical fertilizer and the decline of energy-driven sewage systems -- good riddance!

Rural people can easily make this happen now through humanure. (Note that humanure is composted, whereas "night soil" is not.)

Since any fool can dump any substance in a toilet, municipal sewage will continue to be a problem until we can institutionalize the proper separation, collection, and processing of humanure on a larger scale.

So let's not blame Big Government for anything besides being big. There are plenty of models outside of government where fossil sunlight has enabled industrialization of what traditionally were human-scaled solutions. Our job is to somehow get back to that scale!

Ruben said...

Sorry JMG, I meant a timeline guideline to your posts--the Long Descent was just an example of one of the major topics you have written about.

With a few digressions along the way, you tend to explore a topic for a chunk of time before addressing the next topic. It would be great to have an table of contents of sorts--a timeline for each of those chunks. So, when someone is looking for something they can narrow down the amount of archive to read.

For example, this post hits many of the topics I discussed with a friend yesterday morning, so I imagine your whole series on governance will be useful in my life. It would be great if I could tell someone to read the posts on Governance between Jan. 1 and May 17, 2013, or whatever the dates will be.

Glenn said...

This is an interesting path, beset with a structural difficulty due to Empire. Our current centralized over funded infrastructure has allowed a built environment in terms of roads, freeways and suburbs that are not sustainable (read we can't afford to pay for them) with local resources (the 80% post-Empire pay cut we as individuals and a country will take). This means we have to do more than have local municipalities pick up the slack and the control when we lose our central planning, control and funding. There are many things we will simply have to forego. One of the biggest challenges in our de-centralized future (that's _now_ in some places) will be prioritizing what to fund at all, and in what order, from local resources. In the process we will have to discard inefficient living and working arrangements. After all, civilization (cities/city-states) have been around for almost 10,000 years, it's only in the past 80 or so that we've thought automobiles essential for living in them.

And we've also been allowed a huge overshoot thanks to fossil fuels; as discussed frequently on this page we will have a population decline. I hope we can make it is gentle as possible, but fear it will be lumpy and painful for most of us.

Marrowstone Island

Ruben said...

With a few exceptions--Bill P and Steve Morgan, for example-- the comments are falling in the "But the internet is so awesome it just must last forever," camp of thought.

So, centralization will generally fail, localization will generally be all we have. There are lots of great points about the benefits of centralization, but that is meaningless without an idea of how to maintain those benefits in a shrinking world.

Come on people. There must be good examples of collaboration--school districts cooperating on their slate and chalk purchases--that could happen without adding a massive new bureaucracy.

Trying to descend as softly as possible will require being very smart about scale. Centralization as we know it is off the table--so what can we keep on the table, or what new things can we put on the table?

Unknown said...

I've been attempting to be become involved in local politics and have been attending the Republican Party's county meetings. Interestingly enough when reading the State Party rules it includes this section on what Republicans believe in the Party Principles: "That when a function is undertaken by government, it should be performed by that government closest to the people which will provide as much direct control by those affected as reason and wisdom require to assure freedom and liberty to all citizens with justice under the law."

Another nugget in the Principles: "The primary function of government is to protect the life, common liberty and property of the
governed, to prevent fraud and misinterpretation, and to invoke a common justice."
Quite similar to your recent posts about the primary function of the government in the US Constitution being the protection of the Commons (though not quite the same).

Now to the work of reminding them what beliefs/priciples they stand for and getting them to act on those beliefs.

p.s. Not so surprising, but at least the first principle (dealing with local government control) is no longer part of the "Arkansas Republican Party Platform" which has been more recently updated, but is still part of the Republican Party of Arkansas Rules (which are a few years older).

mallow said...

I think Ruben meant a timeline of your posts on the different topics on the sidebar so one can go back and find the magic posts or the green wizardry posts more easily - an arrangement by theme rather than date. It would be helpful but I suppose it might get messy to classify posts on a slightly different topic in the middle of a particular series, like the post on methane in the Arctic which I think came in the middle of the empire series.

Ana's Daughter said...

@ Hal: You said "The result, we will recall, was that virtually all surface waters in the US were dangerously polluted. By polluted, I mean eutrophication and human disease pathogens."

The correct verb tense there is "are", not "were". Take a look at government statistics on the pollutants and pathogens found in surface waters and municipal water supplies derived from them, and you'll find that the big clean-up of the 70s is a memory in terms of how long it lasted and how much permanent good it did. Sure, municipalities and water boards are required by Federal regulations to test their water annually and file a public report on what's in it (my copy gets mailed to me by the county every year), but actual, effectively enforced clean-up requirements are all but nonexistent. Try statistics on the water supplies in Louisiana, for example (the toxic stew that passes for tap water in New Orleans will make you turn blue just reading it), or look up statistics on lethal diseases carried by municipal water supplies. I'll give you a hint: it's no less ugly a picture than it was in 1972. (And yes, I am old enough to remember the situation during 1972, in a fair amount of detail.)

Iodhan Silverbear said...

When I was in High School we had a group of Russian students visit. The Russian students were amazed that we were given calculators in chemistry class. We were all pretty amazed at the Russians when they proceeded to work out complex calculations without one.

I don't know much about how the Russians were running schools 25 years ago but I can tell you that centralized bureaucracies here didn't impress me one bit then and they do so even less now. I'm going to home-school my son for the very reason that the "Standards" that people speak about today don't imbue intelligence or wisdom. Instead, they enforce a cookie-cutter, stereotypical consumer who will go get a job that they hate, make as much money as possible and either join the wealthy or be sequestered to live a life of meager servitude in which they are merely happy to have a job.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I think we should be careful about comparing literacy levels between generations. Years ago I remember the great "sifting out" in grade 9 where all the problem students got shifted to trade school. All the remaining ones who were "so so" ended up in the four year stream. All the bright ones got slotted into the 5 year stream. If you looked at what the grade 13 kids books, you'd think that us old timers were all geniuses compared to today's kids.

The problem is comparing the averages of two differently selected samples. Is called "Thompsons Paradox", I believe.

Cat Strickland said...

Sorry but I can't agree with you this week either. In a perfect world, decentralization would be wonderful. However, as someone deeply involved in township government (in a non-elected capacity), I see the pitfalls of local control.
Failure has not been a reason locally for non-relection in our area. Unless a voter is directly affected by the failure, they give it no mind when they go to the polls -- to say nothing of those who simply vote a straight ticket for the incumbents, year after year.
As for money being "appropriated" by sticky fingers when it passes through many hands, it's been my experience that more eyes on the money is a good thing. When only a few folks are handling the money, there is much less chance that it's disappearance will be noticed.
Finally, it's been my experience that local officials are elected by more of a popularity contest than based on their abilities to efficiently and honestly operate township government. On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to find someone qualified who will agree to run for election. So what to do?

Johan said...


This was a seriously intriguing post! I hadn't heard of local single-purpose governments before. To my knowledge, we never had anything like it over here. I doubt the monarchy would have approved! Sweden's always been rather centralized, though we've certainly had various forms of local government, and today, I suspect many readers here would be horrified to learn exactly how much power Stockholm has. Well, maybe not horrified - maybe it'd just reinforce all preconceptions of this socialist's paradise... and just to complicate your message, it's worked rather well, for the most part, despite being highly centralized. Of course, Sweden isn't at all comparable to the U.S. Federal level.

Do you have any pointers to good places to learn more about this? A bit of googling turned up various bits and pieces (50 million hits for "local sewer districts!), but if you have any books or other resources to share, I'd be happy to hear about them.

I've no idea how this kind of thing could be made to work here, but the idea sounds like it was made for the future we're facing!

Glenn said...

John Michael Greer said...
Avery, homeschoolers have by and large been stereotyped on the left in very unhelpful terms.

For what it's worth, here in eastern Jefferson County, WA we have a great many "left-wing" home schoolers. It's not always a case of avoiding what's in the curriculum; it's also a case of regarding it as inadequate and wishing to add to it.

Marrowstone Island

curmudgeon said...

While I am in complete agreement with you that our system is in collapse and is dysfunctional at best, I am left trying to figure out, What will all the people do with themselves if at this point we no longer need countless layers of administration and governance. If the schoolsystem were narrowed down to local administration were would all the paper pushers go? and if this trend happened across the board in every aspect of government, what then would people do? Is the government the largest american employer because people need jobs or they would stare in the street? Is there another way to ensure social stability with a population like ours? Is it too late to create another societal model that can support these people and would it be possible to transition peacefully to it?

Larry said...

An interesting example of "Skin in the Game" comes from the Land of Lincoln. In this great state, for some reason, public school teacher salaries are paid by the local districts (which of course vary significantly district by district) with pensions, based on the last four years of "salary," paid by the State.

This has had a number of interesting effects. For one, school districts will provide incentives to retire early (or provide bonuses to administrators who are part of the same system to do so)to get them off the local payroll, so they can hire new teachers at lower amounts.

However, on the State side, this has lessened the incentive to fund the pension system, and as a result, the pension system for teachers is now only about 40% funded, the lowest in the country, I believe.

Then, one more twist, within the great City of Chicago, unlike the rest of the state, the local tax payers pay for both the salaries and the pensions.

Presently both houses of the State legislature are controlled by City of Chicago democrats who, as all issus are local, have little incentive to fund the State school pensions which don't effect their constituents! The Governor recently proposed that the local districts outside the City of Chicago start paying for some of the school pensions; this of course was shot down by a large majority.

No wonder the pension issue in Illinois is a mess!

Approliving said...

Increased centralisation and consolidation of government-> Bloated bureacracies, less accountability and less power in the hands of those affected by government decisions -> More resentment for, and contempt of, "big government" -> Political pressure to minimise taxes and government spending -> Cutbacks in spending on necessary physical and institutional infrastructure by bureaucracies with limited vision and strong self-preservation instincts -> Further deterioration in the quality of government services/value for taxpayer money -> rising debt levels and falling productivity throughout the economy -> increased centralisation and consolidation of government in an attempt to address worsening problems -> cycle repeats until the whole arrangement reaches breaking point.

Would you say that this is one of the major feedback loops driving the US and others to collapse?

John Michael Greer said...

Raven, that corresponds fairly closely to the figures I've seen, which are that around a quarter of the US population is functionally illiterate. Let's not even talk about what percentage is innumerate and unable to follow a simple logical argument.

Bill, the logic I've proposed would justify national environmental laws, along the same lines as national public health laws -- in both cases, it's a matter of protecting the public commons. The point I was trying to make to Pasttense was more restricted -- that national environmental laws followed on successful regulation at the state and local level. (That's fairly common in the US -- most major legal shifts are pioneered in one or a few states, the way gay and lesbian marriage has been in recent years.)

Ben, no system of government is foolproof -- and if anyone came up with one that was, evolution would simply produce a better fool. Still, I wonder to what extent the resistance to closing schools is a matter of parents recognizing the advantages of smaller schools with historic connections to local communities.

Gwizard, and if they'd explored democratic process, which works, rather than falling into the currently fashionable rut of consensus methods, which don't, they might have accomplished something, too.

Owl, did you read my post? In particular, did you read the discussion of the role of central government in maintaining the public commons? It's really rather embarrassing to watch people fall back into the standard patterns of binary thinking -- in this case, the notion that the only alternative to centralized regulation is laissez-faire -- when I spent the whole post explaining the existence of an alternative...

Andy, the function of the wealth pump within US borders is complex enough that it'll probably need a post all to itself. I'll see what I can do.

Justin, glad to hear you've saved some of those books!

Ceworthe, granted -- and as I'm sure you'll recall, I've discussed that at length in past posts.

Steve, exactly! Thank you for getting it.

Gwizard, that's a very good point, and one that my more libertarian readers should have in mind. Another way to look at the same point is that local control maximizes diversity and dissensus.

Bryant, much depends on what kind of political crisis we get as the US empire comes to an end. There will certainly be somebody taxing and licensing, but it's by no means certain that currently existing governments will still exist to be involved. More on this in a later post.

Janie, thank you -- I'll take a Pratchett quote any time. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Jen, of course those are also factors. The question is whether a large-scale devolution of powers can be made acceptable, or even win the active support, of enough of the power centers that are around in the wake of crisis. My guess is that it's a real possibility, not least because it will allow whatever central government or governments are around then to concentrate on foreign policy and other issues central to national survival.

Steve, yes, that's an issue, and it's one that local communities need to start discussing now. Remember that the choice isn't between relocalization and the continuation of central authority; it's between relocalization carried out in an intelligent manner and relocalization that arrives in a lump, bearing a big backpack full of chaos.

Doc, in my experience, making the boards part time more often landed them in the hands of local business owners and wealthy housewives -- but things may be different where you are. Say hi to Ashland for me; if its cost of living hadn't been sky high, I might have been able to stay.

Laughing, I've seen exactly the same thing in place everywhere in the country I've been. No matter how the regulations are written, schools in rich neighborhoods get the lion's share of the wealth under the present system, just as they did when it was a matter of local school boards.

Jon, we've got volunteer fire departments all over the place here in the north central Appalachians, and quite a few other volunteer-run programs. Those of you from elsewhere might want to come visit the hill country sometime and see how it's done! ;-)

Stu, yes, it's important that the boards be elected, or they're just another set of stooges. As for captive corporations, those work -- I think also of the very successful worker-owned corporations I've dealt with from time to time.

Roger, funny! Thanks for sharing those.

Jan, no, I mean centralized. I've discussed the problems with industrial systems in previous posts; this time I'm talking specifically about the problems inherent in overcentralized governments. It's a mistake to think that all of the problems we face must come from a single source.

Ruben, my apologies! I misunderstood you. The sort of timeline you're asking for would be very difficult to draw up, as I cycle in and out of various subjects -- for example, most of the posts from February 15 of last year to now belong to the sequence on the fall of America's empire, but "most" means about three out of four, with other posts on a dizzying array of subjects all jumbled up in the middle. Your best bet is probably to pick up copies of the books I've written based on sequences of posts here -- The Long Descent, which covers the basic frame of my vision of where we're headed; The Ecotechnic Future, which puts the long descent into context and suggests some of the positive directions we may be able to go as industrial society winds down; The Wealth of Nature, which is my sequence on economics, and The Blood of the Earth, which is my sequence on magic and peak oil. (The Green Wizardry sequence will be out in book form later this year from New Society, and the current sequence will be out next year; I'll keep everyone posted.)

Leo said...

Don't forget the iron law of Bureaucracy 'Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy is that in any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control, so that those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.'
local voting is a good release valve

Americas infrastrucutre is embarassingly bad, the electricities grid efficency is only 30% while Japans is 90% and Europes 80%. So much wasted electricty.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, oh, granted -- getting by with less (or, rather, L.E.S.S.) is going to be an essential skill on the community level as well as the individual and family levels.

Ruben, thank you. You get tonight's gold star for pointing out the necessary but unmentionable.

Unknown, the GOP used to believe in that. It would be nice if they found their way back to that someday.

Mallow, got it.

Iodhan, I know of a lot of people who are homeschooling their children for exactly that reason.

Cat, once again you've simply insisted that the conventional wisdom is right, without seeming to notice that it's the conventional wisdom that's landed us in the unsustainable mess we're in now. As I commented last week, you can't just keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

Johan, I'll have to look around; I haven't seen anything useful on the subject since my high school civics classes.

Glenn, I've seen the same thing in a lot of areas.

Curmudgeon, a lot of jobs that are now done by machines will have to be done by human beings again, once the energy that powers the machines prices itself out of the market. Mind you, the human beings in question will be making a lot less money than they're making now -- that's another side effect of the end of the age of abundance.

Larry, Illinois seems to be a pretty fair basket case these days. I hope those who live there are making plans to deal with a complete collapse of the state

Breanna said...

I am having a hard time figuring out exactly what balance there ought to be - or will realistically be - between federal and local governments.

It feels like the issues in this discussion are getting a bit mixed up. Sometimes we are discussing what is bad and should be changed right now, and sometimes we are discussing what will be required in the future. I think these two perspectives get very different answers. I get the impression that JMG is trying to soften the blow of losing some of the benefits of the federal government by emphasizing the merits of more local control.

However, it seems to me that a federal government charged with preserving the national commons can't actually be that much smaller than it is now. We seem to have fairly well established that national defense, environmental protection, and civil rights are appropriately commons-protecting functions.

Education was a good example for local control (I plan to homeschool my own children), although not without its own problems (the dominant party in my state has an actual plank in their party platform denouncing the entire concept of critical thinking). But the Department of Education is a relatively tiny percentage of the Federal Government.

Additionally, it seems clear that only the federal government is powerful enough to impose commons-protecting limits on corporations of all sorts (of course, it has been failing miserably at that in a number of areas, most notably with financial corporations). I recall reading about several towns that have tried to outlaw fracking, only to be effectively steamrolled by the energy companies.

So, are you just arguing that there shouldn't be any more social security/medicare/safety net programs? I mean, it is clear that those things will not last forever, but I'm not sure what good it would do to pre-emptively abolish them. I expect for most people, to do something like that would only hasten the sort of suffering we want to try to avoid.

I found this breakdown of the federal budget: - but of course, the laws extend quite a bit past what the federal government actually does with its tax revenues.

So maybe I am jumping ahead, but I think I need a clearer view of what, exactly, this ought to look like.

das monde said...

Infrastructure and education are telling indicators of the ongoing collapse. But I see something different than predominant failure of centralization. The first post-WWII decades were actually good for big centralized projects in the US and everywhere else. Take the Interstate Highway System - it is the basis of the empire infrastructure ever since. The problem is that its maintenance was a decreasing priority since the 80s. Similarly, other countries were rebuilt, industrialized, paved, educated by deliberate central management. What really happened since the 80s is that the central efforts became so much less deliberate. Yeah, we are entering political waters. The broad synthetic commons of The New Deal, etc had appearance of common sense not just under Dems, but under Eisenhower, Nixon as well. That all is reversed now: the Republicans rather openly push for destruction of those commons, the Dems only pretend to take some care of them. At best, this is a peculiar (but "rational") post-Hardin panic for Tragedy of Commons. More probably, this is deliberate enclosure of infrastructure and education commons. Since Thatcher said "There is no common interest", governments' efforts are increasingly directed to welfare of People - some "real" people, shareholders of the state. All others have to compete and forget about common good. Compared to relaxed education attitudes back 50 years ago (just dropping kids by school gates), parents now are just psyched over competitive education advantage for their kids. Seeking that advantage may extend to Education Department and its money working against a boy in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had no other expectations from No Child Left Behind than the consequences we see.

Rita said...

One of the infrastructure declines in California that has drawn attention is the system of natural gas pipelines. There have been two major breaks, explosions and destruction of property in N. Calif. in the past three years due to deferred maintenance. Now I see billboards extolling the miles of pipeline that have been recently inspected. I am infuriated at the notion that this public utility/monopoly is spending money on advertising to pat themselves on the back for having been forced to do their job. And all of this from a profit-making organization that cannot plead that the taxpayers won't vote the funds to repair the public infrastructure. They also use their money to influence elections in localities that try to set up municipal systems, as Davis did recently.

I also have a friend who used to work for Southern Calif. Edison, the major electric power provider in the area. She has some frightening things to say about the vulnerability of the system. Her employment was over 15 years ago, I can only assume things are worse by now.

DMA said...

Hello Mr. Greer. I think that Hal's example with the Clean Water Act presents a wonderful problem you haven't done justice in your reply. Yes, a local board can effectively manage one instance of "commons" - sewers. But it has no skin in the game of managing the bigger common - the river it dumps sewage into. So the community with a sewer gets to benefit from polluting the river, without bearing any of the costs, just because it all goes downriver.

phil harris said...

The failure of America is undermining and will undermine previous skills and value derived during the formation of America.

It would be comic if it was not tragic that global capitalism manifests as sky-high office towers and clerks and functionaries sitting in traffic-jams, often in a smog, on their way to work in these or in other warehousing or in associated burger-flipping joints. And downstream effluent discharges into the ‘global commons’.

It is true, and will be demonstrated in fairly short order, that very few can ever become remotely like most present ‘Americans’ – there are not the resources. It is also true that it would be in the current interest of most of the world if the extraordinary level of consumption in the USA was to be dramatically reduced. Whatever the future, most of it is not going to happen in the USA.

Even here in Britain, whichever way the world goes, the fallback positions you seem to be sketching in for the USA remind us of useful value and its achievement. There was always stuff in the long history of Western culture that was always worth having – or as close as we can get to always. If it can be done that could include rescuing the better local civic arrangements of recent US (and selectively) British memory, and the personal relationships that went, and can go with them.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Figuring out the optimum size and reach of a local special purpose district isn't always simple.

I used to live in San Francisco, whose city and county boundaries are identical. SF has two law enforcement agencies (city police and county sheriffs), two park systems (city and federal) and one of almost everything else: city government, school district, fire department, public library system, water system, power company and so forth.

I moved north to the next county, which has fewer people, more land, and a great many local government agencies. Multiple school districts. A county library system and several independent municipal libraries; my town's library building was donated by Andrew Carnegie. Bunches of fire departments, police departments, water/sewer agencies, recreation departments. Why not merge all of these petty fiefdoms into single countywide agencies?

Two neighboring towns consolidated their police departments a while ago, and my town recently merged its police with them in hopes of saving money. The merge was gradual, uncontroversial, and seems to be working out as planned.

Some of the sewer districts have been hit by big fines from the feds for repeatedly discharging untreated waste into the waterways. Causes of the accidents include failure of control equipment, worn out pipes, and human error. Some of the districts are much worse than others, and it's not clear whether their problems are due to lack of funds for upkeep or some other kind of mismanagement.

Our sewer district recently had a throw-the-bums-out election because the board spent a lot of money losing lawsuits while having no realistic plan for replacing our century-old pipes faster than they rupture. It's too soon to know whether the new bums will be more effective.

There's a campaign on to merge several small sewer districts in the southern part of the county. The board and some of the citizenry of at least one of these districts hotly opposes consolidation. The districts don't want to lose local control, partly because they don't want to take on each other's deferred maintenance issues and underfunded pension plans. Of course the directors don't want to lose their jobs. Proponents of merger say rates will go down; opponents predict rates will go up.

Cherokee Organics said...


I get you. You're raising awareness of alternative governance systems that work in a low energy environment. Makes sense, I just don't understand the heat in comments at all.

You know, the most read article I ever wrote was about human wastes. True story, you can always rely on a fart joke to keep an audience entertained! There's a lot of focus on sewerage systems this week, as if it is the only service provided. To my mind that is the easy one, garbage on the other hand is difficult, which is why I generate very little. Plus not having any garbage pickup is incentive too!

Speaking of which I treat my own human wastes here in an aerobic, worm assisted, compost pile and it isn't hard and is very low tech using no energy whatsoever (other than a bit of wind energy). I'm uncertain why everyone is so hung up on high tech treatments. Beats me. I always make visitors poke their heads into the system, not only for a bit of a laugh, but also just to show them firsthand what is possible... In an aerobic system there is virtually no smell which is much better than a composting toilet, although they are very good too.

Thinking about present circumstances from a historical perspective, the current percentage of the population working in administrative (office fauna) type roles is truly quite unprecedented. Don't you think so?

We had a dry lightning storm this side of the mountain range this afternoon and it hit a tree - not on but - very near the bottom of my property. There was quite the plume of smoke. Not good, seven fire trucks plus all of the neighbours out and about and it was eventually tracked down through inaccessible forest and put out. It actually took a few hours just to find the fire as the forest is quite tall and dense at that point. Good effort and it certainly confirmed to me that local problems can be addressed by local people. However, I am seriously over summer, please someone just take it somewhere else.

Just out of interest, was the overall condition of the waterways during the early 1970's at a point in time in which something had to be done? You can only pollute waterways for so long as they are also a source of drinking water? Also it comes to mind that shipping heavy industry off shore has the benefit of allowing for a cleaner environment at home. Dunno really, just thinking aloud.



Bert L. said...

I agree with the basic point of your post and most of the examples you use, however, I think that autonomous local sewer boards are a better example of why, in some cases, centralized regulation is necessary to protect the commons. The commons in question in this case are our waterways which nearly always effect many people beyond our local or state region. From a local perspective, a sewer system can seem function efficiently, but a community located downstream, drawing drinking water from the river carring the first communities effluent, would have a much different perspective. In this case, a watershed wide governance is necessary.

Mary said...

2 sets of laws rule my community: one for "locals" and the other for "transplants." The wealthy coastal dwellers, of the 1% class, are above all laws.

I know this 1st hand; locals and their dogs can trespass, steal or destroy my property, harass my livestock, attack me, and kill my dogs with impunity. If I make too much of a fuss, I will be threatened with jail. (Happily my dogs survived the attempt by a neighbor to mow them down in my driveway.)

At the local branch of the state university I met, from various surrounding villages, "private Christian" and home-schooled students alike. Interesting to hear their smug certainty, in a pre-med biology class, that Darwin is "bunk" and so-called "Creationism" is science.

Too late, I learned that while financially ruining one set of students, the State fully subsidized another set of my classmates.

I've met local public school teachers at the big box discount stores a half hour to my north. Along with school supplies bought out of pocket, they had carts laden with children's underwear, mittens, hats, and scarves. I was told in furtive whispers they also are feeding their classes. Not one or two of thirty, but near classrooms full showing up cold, undressed and unfed. Their parents are too busy working multiple full and/or part time jobs to care for their children.

It has only been at the federal level that I have been granted enough reprieve to not lose my home to fraudulently sold student loans. It also was at the Federal level that I got assistance when my aging oil tank was starting to leak and I was flat broke and just starting back to work.

The only place I've met the stereotype you present of an uncaring, lazy or hostile bureaucracy has been at the state and local level. Corruption is rampant and the poor are too busy struggling to survive and too filled with envy and hatred of "other" to join forces against the real enemy here.

ViewFromHere said...

I could write a whole article about the sewage/septic issue and use my farm as a case study.

The model of authentic local control with state/federal elected board oversight would probably work for septic systems.

At first I worried about how the whole "everyone lives downstream" would work with sewage. Rivers, etc... are a commons- but one that runs downstream. Since I live at the very tippy top of the largest basin on the continent, not much of a worry here. But with a local board determining what is reasonable and some elected folks from upstream and downstream with oversight, that would work.

Christophe said...

As usual, I am pleasantly inspired by your ability to consistently cross-examine your thinking with the historical record. That seems to be the most clalrifying tool in your repertoire -- one so sorely lacking at this time that your following grows and grows.

Your comparison of current reading levels to a typical reader form the past defies rhetorical digression or suppression and stands as a stark reprimand of our current system.

Peter Kalmus said...

Great post! Thanks for all your writings.

I had a look at the sixth-grade McGuffey's. (I couldn't find an eighth-grade online.) Yes, it seemed about what I remember to be a high school level or so. However, the contents of the McGuffey's doesn't necessarily reflect the contents of the average student's brain at the end of the sixth grade. I personally find the Lincoln-Douglas debate transcripts even more compelling.

As for sewers, they are a cultural hand-me-down from the Romans. Composting human manure is much easier than you think (I can tell you are very likely prey to the usual cultural taboo against this, based on this blog). It has to be done right, but this isn't hard, and Joseph Jenkins' "Humanure Handbook" clearly and carefully explains how to do it. No sewers necessary, and suddenly the "waste" becomes a valuable input into food production. Good, we can move on to deal with much more important issues that will face us in the coming years, like making sure we know how to grow food!

Ceworthe said...

Enjoyed your conversation with James Howard Kunstler,on KunstlerCast

jeffinwa said...

As always thanks for the brain food.

Let the municipal water be drawn from what is now going downstream;-)

Peter Kalmus said...

JMG, my apologies. I found your post on humanure:

Poop recycling is a good feeling, isn't it?

streamfortyseven said...

Highly centralized regulation is quite vulnerable to regulatory agency "capture" by the regulated industry, and to conflict of interest with other arms of the regulating government, as in this recent example:

"In 2002 the Pentagon, defense contractors and perchlorate makers persuaded the editors of a prestigious journal to rewrite an article on the chemical’s health effects without the lead author’s knowledge or consent. Then in 2005 the White House loaded a National Academy of Science panel, which was set up to assess the health risks of perchlorate, with paid consultants of the rocket fuel industry, which, not surprisingly, recommended that exposure levels be set many times higher than the lower doses recommended by numerous independent research studies.

“Perchlorate provides a textbook example of a corrupted health protection system, where polluters, the Pentagon, the White House and the EPA have conspired to block health protections in order to pad budgets, curry political favor, and protect corporate profits,” Richard Wiles, Executive Director of the Environmental Working Group..." (see

Here's a review paper listing dozens of papers on the topic of regulatory agency capture, with annotations:

It's a difficult problem - especially if you have downwind/downstream pollution, because local and even state regulation isn't big enough to fix the problem. If you have a local water board, covering a township, what happens if you have a CAFO right outside of the township which is allowing raw sewage from its sewage lagoon to seep into groundwater? State regulation might fix this - but what if you have the same situation, but now the CAFO in on the other side of a state line, and the groundwater flows put E. Coli in your well water? You'd have to have a multistate regulatory apparatus covering the entire watershed. In the case of the Missouri River, say, that's Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana.

If you're a large corporation running feedlots, a source of bacterial as well as nitrate pollution, it might be in your interest to control water quality standards in the watershed so you can maximize your profit. It all depends on how decentralized things get - we'd have to get back to the point where such corporations were no longer feasible, perhaps back to the point where any sort of national transportation network - including rail - ceases to exist - so that only that produce which could be sold locally would be economical to grow.

Doctor Westchester said...


I believe that formally what you are talking about in this post is one form of Socialism. I mean this in the technical sense, not in the cold prickly sense used by one end of our political spectrum or in the warm fuzzy sense used by the other end. Please correct me on this if you think this is mistaken.

View in this light, the tragedy of our binary thinking becomes obvious. The right/pseudo-conservative end of our political spectrum avoids like the plague anything that appears to have the tiniest relationship to the dreaded S-word. Thus a huge percentage of their (basically amber-coated) good ideas, like the importance of individual responsibility, would become hollow fantasies if followed without the sort of things you are proposing. Meanwhile, the left/liberal end is steadfast in their support of SOCIALISM, but almost always done on a scale so elephantine that it is not simply a case of diminishing returns but increasingly of negative ones.

Of course the reality of the situation is far more complex than this, but I think this model might make a decent first approximation of important aspects our political situation.

I would like to second Andy Brown’s request for more information on the intra-USA wealth pump. I’ve been hoping for a post on this for a while.

Ian Stewart said...

A couple of comments caught my attention this week, and I figured my experience with local governments in my area might add something to the discussion. I come from a town called Tracy, 60 miles east of San Francisco and south of Sacramento, which has descended slightly from a peak population of about 80,000 since the recession set in.

Now, similarly to how Stu from Rutherford described New Jersey, Tracy's planning commission is appointed by the city council. They are primarily concerned with the minutiae of zoning ordinances that would otherwise bog down the elected officials and city manager, but this means that if one wants to get a full picture of the city government's decision making, one must attend both council and planning commission meetings. This has the effect of centralizing such information, since typically the only people who show up to both are one of the recently-bankrupt local newspaper's few reporters and executives of local development companies. The development companies themselves are interesting, as they are run by families who were already large landholders due to ranching, farming, etc. However, they tend to partner with firms from Sacramento, the Bay Area, or southern California to do the work of planning new subdivisions. And those subdivisions that were planned for the area in the 2000-2010 timeframe were far larger than any before; thousands of homes at a time, practically the size of the old city before it started its growth boom. The shaking-out of the smaller landholders as they developed all their land has created an effective centralization, and the remaining developers try to take advantage of that by building a larger volume of bigger houses on smaller lots.

This brings me to Bill Pulliam's distaste for "selling" the idea of decentralization and re-localization. In a town like Tracy, which probably needs the ideas the most, I'm afraid that they will have to be sold, and rather hard. Case in point, in 2000, a local attorney with some influence placed a growth-restriction ordinance on the local ballot, which imposed a hard upper limit on the number of residential growth allotments the city could issue per year. His coalition sold it successfully, albeit on the basis of maintaining a small-town lifestyle rather than any incipient concerns about energy descent or national financial stability. The city government didn't like the prospect of a slowly-growing tax base one bit, so they took it to court. As I remember it, the judge who ultimately ruled in favor of the measure a few years later also ruled that the city had, in the intervening timeframe, burned up years' worth of RGAs under the measure; and thus could permit no new residential growth for a few years afterward. Once this restriction was up, the writing was on the wall with regards to the housing bubble.

But even before that particular restriction expired, the local developers and their partner firms were in front of the public with ballot measures trying to ensure their respective developments would come first, in exchange for amenities like a swim center or a rebuilt high school. This kept a large chunk of the local electorate turned against the growth-restriction coalition and its leader, and made it much more difficult to discuss the idea that maybe all these unsustainably dense, consumption-oriented McMansion neighborhoods weren't such a good idea in the first place, hard growth limits or not.

My point here is that, when it comes time to refocus exurban local governments like Tracy, JMG's approach of elaborating the benefits of re-localization will probably be more effective than asserting the inevitability of hard limits, no matter how much truth that assertion may carry. Some places have already experienced the rhetoric of limits, and been left with a bad taste in their mouths.

Cherokee Organics said...


Maybe the sticking point for some is that when re-establishing effective local government and process, it involves both giving something up and also taking more responsibility as individuals and a community?



John Michael Greer said...

Approliving, a nice summary.

Leo, another way to say the same thing is that, in any organization, the survival and expansion of the organization normally takes precedence over whatever purpose the organization is supposedly there to serve.

Breanna, a federal government charged with preserving the commons doesn't need to spend more on the military than all the other nations on Earth put together, which is what the US spends now. It also can get rid of hundreds of functions that are in the business of micromanagement -- for example among many, the 160 pages of regulations the FDA just handed down governing what snacks schools are allowed to put in vending machines.

Das Monde, oh, unquestionably politics also had a lot to do with it as well. I pointed out in so many words, in both last week's post and this one, that the mess we're in has multiple causes.

Rita, when public relations becomes a substitute for routine maintenance, trouble is very, very close!

DMA, now go back and read my post, noting the places where I talked about the responsibility of state or federal governments to monitor local board actions with an eye toward the public commons.

Phil, I disagree -- given that the future is about contraction and deindustrialization, at least for the next few centuries, quite a bit of it is going to happen in the USA!

Unknown Deborah, of course it's difficult. Democracy isn't a cure-all; it's just the least bad system we've got.

Cherokee, the heat's easy enough to explain. I'm stomping on the conventional wisdom of both sides of our current political squabbles. Central to US political rhetoric today is the delusion that the only alternative to massive centralized government is pure laissez-faire and the devil take the hindmost. To point out a third alternative is to guarantee anguished yells from both sides.

Bert L., now go back and read my post, noting the places where I talked about the responsibility of state or federal governments to monitor local board actions with an eye toward the public commons. Honestly, do I have to put together an online class on basic reading comprehension?

John Michael Greer said...

Mary, er, I'm having a hard time figuring out what most of these angry anecdotes have to do with the point of my post.

View, exactly. Thank you.

Christophe, thank you also. You'll notice how many efforts get made to brush aside the collapse in reading levels anyway.

Peter, glad you corrected your error. I've talked about humanure and composting toilets several times already on this blog, and will be installing composting toilets here at home once funds permit. I learned how they work, and how to use them, back in the early 1980s, for heaven's sake!

Ceworthe, glad to hear it.

Jeffinwa, and of course that's also an incentive!

Stream, that's another reason why you want to keep policy-making and monitoring as separate functions, at separate levels, and as far as possible limit the national and state bureaucracies to carrying out laws passed out there in public by the national and state legislatures. It doesn't prevent all problems, but it makes it a lot less easy for bureaucrats to mess things up behind closed doors.

Doctor W., no, not without stretching the word beyond its meaning. Socialism, last I heard, can be defined as public ownership of the means of production. That's by no means presupposed by what I've been discussing here.

Isis said...

This may have been more relevant to last week's post than to this one, but here we go anyway. It seems to me that Americans in general don't value education very much, and that this is the main cause of the deterioration of the educational system. Centralization may or may not have made the matter worse, but the main problem seems to be one of what the culture as a whole values. And please note that I said "education," and not "credentials." Credentials are indeed highly valued, which goes to explain why young people are willing to spend increasingly long periods of time as students, and pay (and borrow) increasingly large amounts of money in order to obtain whatever credential they see as necessary, all the while putting in less effort per unit time into their studies than young people of generations past.

In some of your previous posts, you quoted Vico as saying that civilizations move from concrete to abstract over time, and that this is one of the factors that lead to their demise. I think this may be what happened to education as well. People used to send their children to school so that the children would learn things of value. Nowadays, children are increasingly sent to school, not so that they would learn things of value, but so that they would earn a credential of value. Never mind that a high school diploma won't read, write, or compute for you!

I can no longer find the source, but I recently ran into an article that cited a disturbing fact that 55% (or maybe it was 65%) of the functionally illiterate adults lack a high school diploma. One would think it would be a lot more disturbing that the remaining 45% (or maybe it was 35%) are in possession of one!

Doctor Westchester said...


Good. Thanks. One of the problems with the S-word is that it has been often stretched beyond any meaning. I often wonder if the same is being done to a certain P-word.

Bill Pulliam said...

Ian -- I think you did not quite get my point. I say that decentralization doesn't need to be "sold" NOT because local planning councils will accept it on their own. I say it because it does not matter what local, state, or national governments do, decentralization will happen anyway. If the contracting economy cannot support more residents there, then the residential units will no longer be built and existing ones will be abandoned. This will happen regardless of what the local planners decide.

Chris Gunderson said...

I just started reading your blog a couple of months ago, and I love it. Keep up the good work!

Joel Caris said...


Fascinating to read the comments this week. I've noticed both here and in my own writing that when examples are used to illustrate principles, whatever specific example is used tends to get far more attention than the illuminated principles that are the actual focus of the writing. I'm not trying to cast stones in that observation--I've been guilty of doing it myself numerous times. Perhaps it's another symptom of the loss of critical thinking skills in our society?

Anyway, today I spent a good chunk of the morning mulling over your original post and many of the comments here while tending to chickens and cleaning buckets and the like over at one of the farms I work for. At some point, the actual principles you're arguing for snapped into place and I started to understand what you were advocating (I think, anyway!)

Going back to the focused-upon example of sewerage, it seems to me that the point some here are missing is that the local sewer board probably shouldn't have as its focus the maintenance of clean and healthy waterways. Its job is to take care of sewage. The key isn't to also give it the job of keeping waterways healthy, but having other governmental bodies that help impose restrictions that will take care of that. The sewer board's job is to take care of sewage; the water board's job--organized perhaps at the state or, ideally, regional level--is to care for the watershed. As such, the water board crafts regulations to protect the watershed, which the sewer board must then follow in carrying out its task. Both boards run on the principles you've elucidated here, both boards serve out their stated purpose, and together the two (hopefully!) create a system of dealing with sewage without polluting the waterways.

Of course, I'm just restating your own words. You wrote that, in different phrasing, right here: "In the case of our imaginary sewer district, that means giving those who live within the district the sole power to choose members of the board, while placing the local board under the supervision of a state board tasked with making sure local decisions didn’t violate state public health standards and the like."

Taking it further, a sane future would probably also bring in a Soil Health and Fertility Board, which would craft regulations encouraging or requiring the return of nutrients to the soil. Therefore, the future local sewer board might actually not at all run a complicated sewage system that we've come to see as standard today--vacating our bowels into the ocean via a labyrinthine series of toilets, pipes, and treatment plants--but might instead craft regulations and provide both education and oversight in the creation of humanure systems that serve to return human sewage to local soils while keeping it out of the waterways.

All of this could be done within the sort of local government framework you've suggested here. Just because that wasn't the form of it in the past doesn't mean the principles you're advocating couldn't achieve that in a future with different realities and necessities.

jean-vivien said...

Hi John,

thank you for taking note of my question.
This comment is again related to spirituality and not the topic of your current post. I shall risk that it is not a problem to this extent.

I think that spirituality is one of the things that could be relocalized first, since the community building around that would help relocalize all the rest.
I can hardly imagine all the implications, other people like you would be much better equipped than I am to work it out.

This need is particularly blatant in the case of Catholicism in my homeland. The Pope's resignation may be incidental, however the institutions of Catholicism are aging here. The same is not true of some other European countries, I am thinking of Spain for example where religious practice has remained more lively.

One example that could be interesting is Judaïsm, where there is no big central institution. Comes with the territory I guess... And the religious food practices help keep some jobs inside the community, so they seem like a working practical framework. If we were to do like the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert's Dune, and design a new religion with relocalization in mind, food taboos that keep production and trade within a local scale could be a working idea.

One thing that is funny here is that the NeoPaganist movements are usually associated with the far right, on the same line as Satanism... I have no idea why it is like this.

In any case, I want to assume that we will not need spiritual taboos in order to relocalize most of our activities. I like to think that freedom is more empowering than taboo.

Dwig said...

Re a "timeline" of this blog, and John Michael's response: "The sort of timeline you're asking for would be very difficult to draw up, as I cycle in and out of various subjects..."

Blogger offers a good alternative to a timeline: labels on posts. As the page shows, you could add multiple labels to a post, and have a list of labels in the sidebar that would allow picking out desired pages. I can't tell from the description whether you could go back and label previous posts, and even if you could, it might not be the best use of your time. It might be worth doing for future posts, though.

Sam McKinley said...

While I wouldn't really argue against any of your points, I think you miss an important angle of centralization. To use your logic, it's part of the commons.

The evolution of the US into an imperial state was in a lot of ways like a bull becoming master of a china shop, but at the same time centralization enabled very real and important advances. I agree that a lot of decentralization is inevitable, and we need to keep these advances in mind.

School desegregation is a good example. When local preference had absolute sway, we had a lot of segregated school systems. It took not only a lot of local agitation, but also a ruling by the Supreme Court at the national level to begin ending that injustice. Sure it's not really accomplished yet and did a lot to hollow out core cities, but access to education that's not based on race is a value I for one would like to try to preserve as the radius of governance gets closer and closer to the local level. There are plenty of other examples too, where progress towards the promise of a just, fair and even healthy society required a mandate at the federal level.

Looking at desegregated schools a little closer, a process mirrored in pursuit of a lot of other important values, not only would desegregation happen everywhere at the local level, but it likely could not have happened. A single school district in Alabama, say, would have had a hard time paying to provide really equivalent schools for everyone. The State of Alabama would have had a hard time doing it for all its districts. It was only with funding from the entire nation that this would be realistic.

So yes it's inevitable that the important part of governance will get closer and closer to home, but how do we keep important values during that process? Moving to an area with more desirable governance is probably not that viable an option. Pretty much by definition, as long-distance governance gets less and less tenable, so will long-distance commuting. So the cost of moving to an area with more acceptable governance will always remain high. Of course it's not impossible, but it certainly changes the equation when one has to change jobs, change the kids' schools and one's own and family's friends to live in a place that doesn't force one race into inferior schools, doesn't force people of one race to sit in the back of the bus, doesn't permit rivers to become flammable, etc. Similarly, right now I haven't moved to an area that really works towards equality of opportunity for all regardless of their parents' wealth, that refrains from assassinating people without due process, that takes care of its sick regardless of where or whether they work, doesn't destroy its and the entire planet's environment for a little perceived convenience.

Again, this does not mean I'm among those who will fight tooth and claw to maintain the status quo. I'm just asking how to maintain the widespread availability of certain commons.

Alexander Barron said...

I like this perspective on the folly of our government. But as a future national government worker, I feel like we would see a fascist (do not jump to conclusions) dictator before the central command implodes. As a matter of fact, it could be said that the central command of this nation is doing that. I am not going to say it is a bad thing. The Romans knew when the needed a dictator; American's don't!!

In peace and great respect for all parties,

A Future Politician

Ron Broberg said...

A couple of links that JMG and like-minded might enjoy:

The US as 50 city-states

Investing in a low growth world

Dennis D said...

The other thing that is not explicitly stated here is the effect on real estate values (real and perceived) that schools have. Many people perceive the value of the house based on the quality and distance to the nearest school. This can be a negative in that it is the driving force behind a lot of the inequality within school districts. I do not have a solution to this, but bring it up so that light can be shed on it.

phil harris said...

Can you delete please my comment of a few minutes ago and post my 2nd version below? Sorry about that. Thanks
I wrote:
“Whatever the future, most of it is not going to happen in the USA.”

You replied:
“Phil, I disagree -- given that the future is about contraction and deindustrialization, at least for the next few centuries, quite a bit of it is going to happen in the USA!”
I don’t think I disagree with your disagreement when you put it like that!
Contraction and deindustrialisation will indeed be felt keenly in the USA – I fully agree - especially if early on there is a sudden turning off presently favourable wealth-pumps. Although I failed to express myself earlier, I was trying to say that although America has recently been the prime driver for the fast developing fate of the globe, it will be reduced in future to its own small fraction of the global population coping with its own decline and on the receiving end of many very significant shifts and developments elsewhere. What follows then, as the global decline evolves, will in my view depend much more on how the rest of the world handles that lengthy ongoing predicament, rather than what happens in America. Who knows what surprises the rest of the world could spring, and what knowledge or innovations will survive, and where?

Ceworthe said...

I just discovered this a couple of days ago, but the search capability at the very top of the blog next to the blogger "B" will search the particular blog you are at. I never used it before, as I thought it was to search for another blog. Putting in humanure for example will show you all posts with that topic in it. So you don't have to go through all the posts to find a topic. That's why I mentioned humanure in my previous post, as I thought you would have to look at each and every post to find a particular topic. Captcha fPrivid, reminiscent of privy ;-)

Annette Simard said...

Hi john michael.

Off topic.

Im reading The Blood of the Earth and am feeling irritated with an editorial decision to print it in type too small for my post menopausal past fifty year old eyes.

It has to be an easy day for me to tackle your words of wisdom.

Great stuff when I can read it.

Not irritated here. More frustrated.

A fan


mallow said...

Annette, there are page magnifiers you can get for small print - would those be any help to you? I won't add a link but if you google for it you'll see the ones I mean. I'm guessing publishers won't be taking into account the needs of people with sight problems like that any time soon as it would cost more to print more pages.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thank you for your insights.

Quote: "To point out a third alternative is to guarantee anguished yells from both sides."

Hmmm, I find the level of disconnect in politics to be strangely unsettling as the paths they champion are not the paths they walk.

I've had firsthand experience as a student at government schools, far out hippy-dippy schools, private schools and universities and one thing has always struck me as being odd. (you can tell I moved around a bit!)

A one room school is actually a better representation of society than schools as we see them today. Where else in society is age segregation so rigorously enforced? Not in a family unit, not in the workforce, not at university, not in a village. It just doesn't happen and no one seems to notice or even question it? A school environment is a very unlikely, artificial and unrealistic representation of society at large. Well, anyway that's my observation at least.

I was only thinking about this because I introduced 3 new 20 week old silky chooks a couple of days ago to the "chook collective" here and the interactions are fascinating to watch. Two of the older chooks have taken them under their wing (no pun intended) and are guiding them through the learning process. They had their first run in the orchard this evening and there was lots of “cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeps” of excitement.

Despite the extreme weather conditions here, life must go on. I posted some more photos here (scroll to the bottom of the page):

More fires

Also and I'm putting this question out there to the commenters: with regards to home schooling, how do people ensure that their children receive adequate socialisation skills?



John Michael Greer said...

Ian, exactly. As I pointed out to Bill, relocalization is going to happen whether anybody sells it or not, but useful responses to relocalization -- as opposed to desperately clinging to centralized forms long after they've stopped working -- does have to be sold.

Cherokee, exactly.

Isis, good. Yes, the movement toward abstraction that Vico outlined is involved here, as credentials are simply an abstract representation of education. I think, though, that one of the reasons so many people no longer value education is that what's been given to them under the name of education no longer has much value.

Doctor W, it has indeed. That's why I don't use the P-word I think you're discussing these days.

Chris, thank you!

Joel, exactly. Thank you for paying attention to the point I was trying to make! Of course there could as well be a humanure board; in The Humanure Handbook, Joseph Jenkins suggests that a sane society would send around a truck to every house in town once a week, say, to pump out the humanure and take it to the local composting plant, which turns out fertilizer for the farms of the region. That activity would need to be monitored, to make sure that health and safety regs were being followed, and the county Humanure Board -- elected by the citizens -- and their employees would take care of that.

Jean-Vivien, a lot of people in the Seventies used to talk about designing an ecological religion. The point they missed is a manufactured religion compares to a real, living one the way that a plastic Christmas tree compares to a real, living tree: the former may be pretty to look at, but it can't grow or reproduce itself and doesn't age well. More on this down the road a bit.

Dwig, thank you for the suggestion! I'll consider that.

Sam, now go back and read my post, noting the places where I talked about the responsibility of state or federal governments to monitor local board actions with an eye toward the public commons. It's really getting tiring to repeat the same point...

Alexander, I'll be discussing this in an upcoming post. Before grooming yourself too eagerly for the position of dictator, though, you might think about how much you would enjoy being strung up with piano wire, say, or subjected to any of the other common fates of dictators or would-be dictators. It's not a safe career track.

Michelle said...

To Chris/Cherokee Organics: You asked, "Also and I'm putting this question out there to the commenters: with regards to home schooling, how do people ensure that their children receive adequate socialisation skills?"

In my area, there are groups of homeschoolers. They get together usually weekly for shared lessons in certain subjects (history, I know, is one) while doing independent work at home on other subjects. They also coordinate physical activities - there's a fabulous Friday morning ice skating period at the University's ice rink - provides the U some income at an otherwise idle time, lets the children get lots of good exercise. Also, there are programs at local environment centers which while costing some, are excellent teaching and fun-outdoor times.

Or, to quote a girlfriend of mine, "Why would I WANT my children socialized the way they do in schools? Cliques, bullying, teasing, bad behavior..." She has nine children, and appreciates how homeschooling smooths out the age segregation you describe.

Josh said...

"NTFWO" ordered....thanks JMG, looking forward to reading it.


Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@jean-vivien--You wrote,
"One example that could be interesting is Judaism, where there is no big central institution. Comes with the territory I guess..."

Actually, it came with the loss of the territory.

You also observed,
"One thing that is funny here is that the NeoPaganist movements are usually associated with the far right, on the same line as Satanism... I have no idea why it is like this."

In parts of continental Europe, forms of neopaganism and reconstructionist pagan religions have been adopted by ultranationalists with racist agendas. Their idea is that the ancestral pagan religion of a particular region or nation is the true cultural expression of its people and national soul, unlike the world religions espoused by cosmopolitan foreigners. A religion doesn't have to be neopagan to be put to such political uses; there are ultranationalist Hindus in India and ultranationalist Orthodox Russians in Russia.

In the United States, these arguments don't have the same appeal. 1. The native pagan religions of this land are the tribal religions of the indigenous inhabitants, not of white people who arrived later. 2. Most Americans are descended from immigrants whose children forgot their mother tongues, moved around a lot and intermarried with immigrants from other places. They identify thenselves as Americans first. Here most neopagan groups either draw on several cultures for inspiration, or if they are focused on the culture and religion of a particular European group, accept adherents regardless of their ancestry. There are some Heathen groups that are race-based, but they are the exception even among Heathens.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Alexander Barron: Thanks for the heads up on the fascism thing - let us know when we need a dictator.

Seriously, the reputation of dictators for making the trains run on time is seriously overblown, IMHO. They're far more effective for enabling vast cronyism, ensuring a double/triple standard of justice, driving out the most intelligent and capable of the population to other countries, and launching disastrous wars, with the end result ranging from a complete loss of government legitimacy to a ruined, defeated, occupied country.

It's funny to read the impressions people have of the US EPA here, when the reality is that the EPA actively tries to turn it's regulatory power under federal law over to the states. Programs such as the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which defines what is a hazardous waste) are generally delegated to state regulatory agencies, with the EPA establishing minimum standards, providing limited funding through grants, and occasionally butting heads in court with, or taking direct regulator control in, a state that doesn't meet the requirements of the law. Typically such states either have politically powerful polluters or have come under the thrall of anti-regulation ideologies - the (puzzling to me) idea that allowing polluted water and air will attract long-term industries with associated good jobs.

The other role of the EPA is to perform emergency cleanups of (generally bankrupt) industries - socialization of the losses after the privatization of the profits, if you will. The main point is, though, that the EPA, despite it's mythical status as federal environmental super cops, actually currently operates in a fashion close to what Mr. Greer suggests should be our goal moving forward.

jean-vivien said...

Thank you Deborah, that seems to me a pretty solid and coherent view.

Ing said...

to Cherokee, our daughter is a teenager and we've only recently begun homeschooling, so she has been socialized in the public school system for better or for worse. Frankly, if I had known how much better our lives would be for having made the switch we'd have done it sooner. I'm seeing now that school is canned and I would much rather she be socialized among our friends and associates and in situations that we experience already in our daily, real, not-pre-packaged lives. She still gets to see her friends, but there is a definite difference between spending time with her friends outside of school and at school.

Zach said...

@Cherokee Organics

Also and I'm putting this question out there to the commenters: with regards to home schooling, how do people ensure that their children receive adequate socialisation skills?

Ah, the dreaded "S"-word! :)

As you noted yourself, the age-segregated school environment is extremely artificial, and I would argue that socialization to that artificial society is... often counterproductive.

In its place, we have the family unit itself, a little mini-society of its own. Beyond that, we are active members of a church. We've had the good fortune for most of their lives to live in neighborhoods with other families having children of compatible ages. We live in an area with a high enough concentration of homeschooling families that there are several co-ops formed, where families meet together and organize classes one day a week (this helps share expertise and gives the kids a taste of the classroom -- most are not hungry for more). We're not cloistered; we walk our neighborhood, meet the neighbors, and the kids regularly work for some of our elderly neighbors - yard work, pet sitting, snow shoveling, etc.

As for activities, there is no end. Township soccer, Little League baseball, theatrical productions, homeschool league basketball (we are preparing for the State tournament this weekend) -- I could go on, but it is already an excessive list. (Not really sustainable or Green Wizardly, either, I know, but there it is.)

I am confident that my children are better socialized as homeschoolers than I was as a shy, bookish public school student at their ages!

Other families have other approaches, but this should give you some insight as to how it has worked for us.


P.S.: One semi-serious answer I like: "How will your children become socialized?" "Well, what if I don't want them to become socialists?" :)

John B McLemore said...

Besides McGuffie Reader, my Aunt Pearl studied Spherical Trigonometry and Celestial Navigation in her High School Trigonometry book...Spherical trigonometry was not even mentioned in my College book let alone Stereographic Projection, etc. etc. Of course, you can Google Cavalerris Postulate all day and come up with nothing.