Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reinventing America

It’s been more than a year now since my posts here on The Archdruid Report veered away from the broader theme of this blog, the decline of industrial civilization, to consider the rise and impending fall of America’s global empire.  That was a necessary detour, and the points I’ve tried to explore since last February will have no small impact on the outcome of the broader trajectory of our age.

It’s only in the imaginary worlds erected by madmen and politicians, after all, that the world is limited to one crisis at a time. In the real world, by contrast, multiple crises piling atop one another are the rule rather than the exception, and tolerably often it’s the pressure of immediate troubles that puts a solution to the major crises of an age out of reach. Here in America, at least, that’s the situation we face today.  The end of the industrial age, and the long descent toward the ecotechnic societies of the far future, defines the gravest of the predicaments of our time, but any action the United States might pursue to deal with that huge issue also has to cope with the less gargantuan but more immediate impacts of the end of America’s age of empire.

This latter issue has a great deal to say about what responses to the former predicament are and aren’t possible for us.  Among the minority of Americans who have woken up to the imminent twilight of the age of cheap energy, for example, far and away the most popular response is to hope that some grand technological project or other can be deployed in time to replace fossil fuels and keep what James Howard Kunstler calls “the paradise of happy motoring” rolling on into the foreseeable future. It’s an understandable hope, drawing on folk memories of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program.  There are solid thermodynamic reasons why no such project could replace fossil fuels, but let’s set that aside for the moment, because there’s a more immediate issue here: can a post-imperial America still afford any project on that scale?

History is a far more useful guide here than the wishful thinking and cheerleader’s rhetoric so often used to measure such possibilities. What history shows, to sum up thousands of years of examples in a few words, is that empires accomplish their biggest projects early on, when the flow of wealth in from the periphery to the imperial center—the output of those complex processes I’ve termed the imperial wealth pump—is at its height, before the periphery is stripped of its movable wealth and the center has slipped too far into the inflation that besets every imperial system sooner or later.  The longer an empire lasts and the more lavish the burden it imposes on its periphery, the harder it is to free up large sums of money (or the equivalent in nonfinancial resources) for grand projects, until finally the government has to scramble to afford even the most urgent expenditures.

We’re well along that curve in today’s America. The ongoing disintegration of our built infrastructure is only one of the many problem lights flashing bright red, warning that the wealth pump is breaking down and the profits of empire are no longer propping up a disintegrating domestic economy. Most Americans, for that matter, have seen their effective standard of living decline steadily for decades. Fifty years ago, for example, many American families supported by one full time working class income owned their own homes and lived relatively comfortable lives. Nowadays?  In many parts of the country, one full time working class income won’t even keep a family off the street.

The US government’s ongoing response to the breakdown of the imperial wealth pump has drawn a bumper crop of criticism, much of it well founded.  Under most circumstances, after all, an economic policy that focuses on the mass production of imaginary wealth via the deliberate encouragement of speculative excess is not a good idea. Still, it’s only fair to point out that there really isn’t much else any US administration could do—not and survive the next election, at least. In the abstract, most Americans believe in fiscal prudence, but when any move toward fiscal prudence risks setting off an era of economic contraction that would put an end to the extravagant lifestyles most Americans see as normal, abstract considerations quickly give way.

Thus it’s a safe bet that the federal government will keep following its present course, pumping the economy full of imaginary wealth by way of the Fed’s printing presses, artificially low rates of interest, and a dizzying array of similar gimmicks, in order to maintain the illusion of abundance a little longer, and keep the pressure groups that crowd around the government feeding trough from becoming too unruly.  In the long run, it’s a fool’s game, but nobody in Washington DC can afford to think in the long run, not when their political survival depends on what happens right now.

That’s the stumbling block in the way of the grand projects that still take up so much space in the peak oil blogosphere: the solar satellites, the massive buildout of thorium reactors, the projects to turn some substantial portion of Nevada into algal biodiesel farms, or what have you. Any such project that was commercially viable would already be under construction—with crude oil hovering around $100 a barrel on world markets, remember, there’s plenty of incentive for entrepreneurs to invest in new energy technologies. Lacking commercial viability, in turn, such a project would have to find ample funding from the federal government, and any such proposal runs into the hard fact that every dollar that rolls off the Fed’s printing presses has a pack of hungry pressure groups baying for it already.

It’s easy to insist that solar satellites are more important than, say, jet fighters, the Department of Education, or some other federal program, and in a good many cases, this insistence is probably true.  On the other hand, jet fighters, the Department of Education, and other existing federal programs have large and politically savvy constituencies backing them, which are funded by people whose livelihoods depend on those programs, and which have plenty of experience putting pressure on Congress and the presidency if their pet programs are threatened. It’s easy to insist, in turn, that politicians ought to ignore such pressures, but those who want to survive the next election don’t have that luxury—and if they did make it a habit to ignore pressure from their constituents, where would that leave the people who want to lobby for solar satellites, thorium reactors, or the like?

Meanwhile the broader economic basis that could make a buildout of alternative energy technologies possible has mostly finished trickling away. The United States is a prosperous country on paper, because the imaginary wealth manufactured by government and the financial industry alike still finds buyers who are willing to gamble that business as usual will continue for a while longer. Mind you, the government’s paper wealth is finding a dwindling supply of takers these days,  Most treasury bills are currently being bought by the Fed, and while any number of reasons have been cited for this policy, I’ve come to suspect that most of what’s behind it is the simple fact that most other potential buyers aren’t interested.

If the law of supply and demand were to come into play, interest rates on treasury bills would have to rise as the pool of buyers shrank. That’s not something any US government can afford—the double whammy of a major recession and a sharp rise in the cost of financing the national debt would almost certainly trigger the massive economic and political crisis both parties are desperately trying to avoid. Instead, the torrent of paper liquidity allows the same thing to happen more slowly and less visibly, as creditor nations take their shares of that torrent and use it to outbid the United States in the increasingly unruly global scramble for what’s left of the planet’s fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources.

A great many people are wondering these days when the resulting bubble in US paper wealth—for that’s what it is, of course—is going to pop.  That might still happen, especially as a side effect of a sufficiently sharp political or military crisis, but it’s also possible that the trillions of dollars in imaginary wealth that currently prop up America’s domestic economy could trickle away more gradually, by way of stagflation or any of the other common forms of prolonged economic dysfunction.  We could, in other words, get the kind of massive crisis that throws millions of people out of work and erases the value of trillions of dollars of paper wealth in a matter of months; we could equally well get the more lengthy  and less visible kind of crisis, in which every year that passes sees an ever larger fraction of the population driven out of the work force, an ever larger fraction of the nation’s wealth reduced to paper that would be worth plenty if only anybody were willing and able to buy it, and an ever larger part of the nation itself turning visibly into one more impoverished and misgoverned Third World nation.

Either way, the economic unraveling is bound to end in political crisis. Take a culture that assumes an endlessly rising curve of prosperity, and put it in a historical setting that puts that curve forever out of reach, and sooner or later an explosion is going to happen. A glance back at the history of Communism makes a good reminder of what happens in the political sphere when rhetoric and reality drift too far apart, and the expectations cultivated by a political system are contradicted daily by the realities its citizens have to face. As the American dream sinks into an American nightmare of metastatic poverty, disintegrating infrastructure, and spreading hopelessness, presided over by a baroque and dysfunctional bureaucratic state that prattles about freedom while loudly insisting on its alleged constitutional right to commit war crimes against its own citizens, scenes like the ones witnessed in a dozen eastern European capitals in the late 20th century are by no means unthinkable here.

Whether or not the final crisis takes that particular form or some other, it’s a safe bet that it will mark the end of what, for the last sixty years or so, has counted as business as usual here in the United States. As discussed in an earlier post in this series, this has happened many times before. It’s as old as democracy itself, having been chronicled and given a name, anacyclosis, in ancient Greece.  Three previous versions of the United States—call them Colonial America, Federal America, and Gilded Age America—each followed the same trajectory toward a crisis all too familiar from today’s perspective.  Too much political power diffusing into the hands of pressure groups with incompatible agendas, resulting in gridlock, political failure, and a collapse of legitimacy that in two cases out of three had to be reestablished the hard way, on the battlefield: we’re most of the way there this time around, too, as Imperial America follows its predecessors toward the recycle bin of history.

Our fourth trip around the track of anacyclosis may turn out to be considerably more challenging than the first three, though, partly for reasons already explored in this sequence of posts, and partly due to another factor entirely. The reasons discussed before are the twilight of America’s global empire and the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, both of which guarantee that whatever comes out of this round of anacyclosis will have to get by on much less real wealth than either of its two most recent predecessors. The reason I haven’t yet covered is a subtler thing, but in some ways even more potent.

The crises that ended Colonial America, Federal America, and Gilded Age America all happened in part because a particular vision of what America was, or could be, was fatally out of step with the times, and had to be replaced. In two of the three cases, there was another vision already in waiting: in 1776, a vision of an independent republic embodying the ideals of the Enlightenment; in 1933, a vision of a powerful central government using its abundant resources to dominate the world while, back at home, embodying the promises of social democracy. (Not, please note, socialism; socialism is state ownership of the means of production, social democracy is the extension of democratic ideals into the social sphere by means of government social welfare programs. The two are not the same, and it’s one of the more embarrassing intellectual lapses of today’s American pseudoconservatism that it so often tries to pretend otherwise.)

In the third, in 1860, there were not one but two competing visions in waiting: one that drew most of its support from the states north of the Mason-Dixon line, and one that drew most of its support from those south of it. What made the conflicts leading up to Fort Sumter so intractable was precisely that the question wasn’t simply a matter of replacing a failed ideal with one that might work, but deciding which of two new ideals would take its place. Would the United States become an aristocratic, agrarian society fully integrated with the 19th century’s global economy and culture, like the nations further south between the Rio Grande and Tierra del Fuego, or would it go its own way, isolating itself economically from Europe to protect its emerging industrial sector and decisively rejecting the trappings of European aristocratic culture?  The competing appeal of the two visions was such that it took four years of war to determine that one of them would triumph across a united nation.

Our situation in the twilight years of Imperial America is different still, because a vision that might replace the imperial foreign policy and domestic social social democracy of 1933 has yet to take shape. The image of America welded into place by Franklin Roosevelt during the traumatic years of the Great Depression and the Second World War still guides both major parties—the Republicans, for all their eagerness to criticize Roosevelt’s legacy, have proven themselves as quick to use federal funds to pursue social agendas as any Democrat, while the Democrats, for all their lip service to the ideals of world peace and national self-determination, have proven themselves as eager to throw America’s military might around the globe as any Republican.

Both sides of the vision of Imperial America depended utterly on access to the extravagant wealth that America could get in 1933, partly from its already substantial economic empire in Latin America, partly from the even more substantial "empire of time" defined by Appalachia’s coal mines and the oilfields of Pennsylvania and Texas. Both those empires are going away now, and everything that depends on them is going away with equal inevitability—and yet next to nobody in American public life has begun to grapple with the realities of a post-imperial and post-industrial America, in which debates over the fair distribution of wealth and the extension of national power overseas will have to give way to debates over the fair distribution of poverty and the retreat of national power to the borders of the United States and to those few responsibilities the constitution assigns to the federal government.

We don’t yet have the vision that could guide that process. I sometimes think that such a vision began to emerge, however awkwardly and incompletely, in the aftermath of the social convulsions of the 1960s.  During the decade of the 1970s, between the impact of the energy crisis, the blatant failure of the previous decade’s imperial agendas in Vietnam and elsewhere, and the act of collective memory that surrounded the nation’s bicentennial, it became possible for a while to talk publicly about the values of simplicity and self-sufficiency, the strengths of local tradition and memory, and the worthwhile things that were lost in the course of America’s headlong rush to empire.

I’ve talked elsewhere about the way that this nascent vision helped guide the first promising steps toward technologies and lifestyles that could have bridged the gap between the age of cheap abundant energy and a sustainable future of relative comfort and prosperity.  Still, as we know, that’s not what happened; the hopes of those years were stomped to a bloody pulp by the Reagan counterrevolution, Imperial America returned with a vengeance, and stealing from the future became the centerpiece of a bipartisan consensus that remains welded into place today.

Thus one of the central tasks before Americans today, as our nation’s imperial age stumbles blindly toward its end, is that of reinventing America: that is, of finding new ideals that can provide a sense of collective purpose and meaning in an age of deindustrialization and of economic and technological decline.  We need, if you will, a new American dream, one that doesn’t require promises of limitless material abundance, one that doesn’t depend on the profits of empire or the temporary rush of affluence we got by stripping a continent of its irreplaceable natural resources in a few short centuries.

I think it can be done, if only because it’s been done three times already.  For that matter, the United States is far from the only nation that’s had to find a new meaning for itself in the midst of crisis, and a fair number of other nations have had to do it, as we will, in the face of decline and the failure of some extravagant dream.  Nor will the United States be the only nation facing such a challenge in the years immediately ahead:  between the tectonic shifts in geopolitics that will inevitably follow the fall of America’s empire, and the far greater transformations already being set in motion by the imminent end of the industrial age, many of the world’s nations will have to deal with a similar work of revisioning.

That said, nothing guarantees that America will find the new vision it needs, just because it happens to need one, and it’s very late in the day.  Those of us who see the potential, and hope to help fill it, will have to get a move on.


Joel Caris said...


I've been reading The Grapes of Wrath this week, burning through it. I find it a beautiful and heartbreaking novel. But man, maybe it's just my frame of mind of late, but it's resonating in many intensely melancholy ways with me. It seems to be speaking to me as a harbinger of the future, of the very hard times you've been writing of the last few posts.

I have no fleshed out vision for the future of America, but I know what personal vision I do have is rooted in the sort of agrarianism that's played a major part in America's history, within the context of a Jeffersonian ideal of governance. It seems to reverberate throughout Steinbeck's book. Self-determined people's livelihoods destroyed by a corrupt and broken economy, left at wit's end, wishing they just had a little plot of land on which they could make their living. Just wanting to work, to make their way, and not even being able to do that.

I don't know. It seems like there's a seed of something in there. It's part of our national history; that seems as good a starting place to me as anything. One of the things I've always loved about growing food is seeing the way people of different political stripes can come together over it, can both support the concept of local food and local farms. It's so rare to get people of differing political views to interact these days, and to do it over something they can agree on, to connect with. The fact that that's still in us enough to transcend the political lines that have become so harsh in our culture seems important to me.

Local food, small market economies, hard work, honest livings . . . I know there's a certain romanticization in this, but it feels like something. In a really brilliant section of Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, he talks about the way experts have come to monopolize our lives and economy, the way we outsource so much of our lives to others. He paints a picture of the helpless American citizen, at the mercy of others for his living, at the mercy of the economy for his specialized work. He concludes it by writing, "It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be--because he still has some gumption that he has not yet given up in deference to the experts. He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim."

I think most people, when they get at this issue of lack of agency within their own lives, want to have a bit more self-determination. I think a lot of people want to have the ability to make more of their own living, to have useful skills, to have good work to do and feel like their life is meaningful. But so many of us don't know how to go about doing this, to go about getting out of the system. And so many of us have forgotten how to work hard or never learned in the first place.

But the desire for self-determination is a strong thread in our culture. A strong narrative. I feel like that could be the basis for a new vision. Perhaps. Maybe I'm just broadcasting the agrarian in me.

On a different note, I want to thank everyone who provided reading suggestions in last week's comments--I've had Stud Terkel's Hard Times on my radar and will definitely be tracking down a copy now--as well as to those who made some response to my comment. Sorry I didn't get around to responding, but I appreciated all the thoughts. They were helpful and insightful.

Brian Kaller said...

Thank you, JMG.

One stumbling block in creating change in the USA, compared to most countries, is that the political field is restricted to only two options; Ireland saw presidential debates between seven parties, two of which ended up working in coalition.

I understand that third parties used to be more normal in US history, but we don’t tend to remember it much -- partly because they worked more at the local and state level, which was where much of the action was back then.

Also, they worked in coalition with the two major parties – whatever they were at the time – through co-endorsing candidates, so that candidate X would run for both the Whig and Know-Nothing parties. Federal politicians that did so are often just called “Whig” or “Democrat” – one of the main parties – in our history books, so we don’t see what a coalition they had to put together. If I may, I would like to recommend Lisa Disch’s 2002 book “The Tyranny of the Two-Party System.”

When I lived in the USA I volunteered with third parties, and know others who still do – Green Party, Tea Party, Reform and Libertarian – but they all run up against the perception of a left-right spectrum; since the middle was occupied by the major parties, people reasoned, any alternative must be extremist.

Approliving said...

(Please delete if double post)


A really good post as usual, just one quibble - I would say that there were two competing visions of America during the 1776 crisis as well, and the outcome of that crisis compelled many who held one of those visions to move to Canada.

As for the next America, I don't know what it will look like yet. However it is pretty clear that the current Imperial America has alot of systemic waste. Imperial America voluntary gives over a huge area of its most productive land to a virtually useless type of flora, and spends a great deal of effort and resources tending to that flora. Supermarkets and restuarants routinely chuck out or pre-emptively reject an enormous quantity of produce, because it doesn't meet arbitrary standards of prettiness or freshness. Imperial America is beset by 'epidemics' of lifestyle illnesses because people so often drive when they could easily walk, and because many are all too happy to spend their money on toxic indulgences even when money is tight. You can't even put a clothes line in your backyard in many places without the neighbours kicking up a stink! Let's also not forget the obscene amounts of campaign funding that politicians manage to acquire and spend election after election. Broken appliance? Don't bother repairing it, just chuck it out and buy (not make!) a whole new one. It'll have an unnecessary motor just like your old one plus some new unecessary bells and whistles, and it too will be designed to irreparably break/become obsolete after a short time!

In light of all this waste, I am cautiously optimistic that post-Imperial America and the transition towards it may not be so bad if people adopt the right attitudes and make even a modest effort towards being resourceful. Given that their is also a great deal of depression and other mental illness in Imperial America, I would also not be surprised if average levels of happiness increase as Imperial America declines and disappears. So maybe the next America will be one that values resourcefulness, personal competence and psychological maturity?

Avery said...

How curious-- Mencius Moldbug just completed a post on a very similar theme to this one. Your posts, though, always seem much more balanced.

phil harris said...

I have been trying for a while to get my head round what it will be like out here in the world without America.
In Britain we seem to think we can get by if we can stop calling ourselves Europeans. My goodness. Not realistic in my view if we have to give up being 'good' sub-Americans.

Jason said...

I was talking about the US needing a new vision with an American friend a little over a year ago. I think we agreed that living within limits could be seen as an unconquered frontier, since Americans like those.

BTW JMG, a holdover question from last week -- you mentioned a while back a plan to talk about charities, missionaries, NGOs etc. as imperial wealth extraction tools. I'd be very interested in that discussion, which I'm sure I haven't missed... is it still on the boards?

Ondra said...

Dear JMG,
"reinventing" a nation is surely difficult task. Especially when the nation in question is as big as the US of A, and it faces at least certain level of disintegration. My question is - is it useful to stick to the concept of America as one, politically integrated nation state? I know you don't take this for granted - but from today's post it seems to me that it is the default option, or at least the most desirable one.
Writing from Europe, I have in mind one practical argument against union. The US is, as well as Eurozone, a monetary union, and a big one. There have been always questions, whether the current Euro area is "optimum currency area", and many argued that it is not, given big regional variations and limited flexibility of the workforce. Critics often praised US as functioning example of currency area for the willingness of Americans to move freely (e.g. from Oregon to Maryland) over whole continent. We here are more like flowers, once planted we stay in place. However, with the disintegration and relocalization taking place, the American economic area will become "europeanized", with people less able (if not willing) to move and growing divergence between local and regional economic patterns. We can even speculate that the emergence of Rust belt was also the result of inability of individual states to manipulate with their currency. In light of these considerations, is it really useful to reinvent the idea of one politically and economically integrated nation?
Thanks for your post.

Trmist said...

" A new American dream, one that doesn’t require promises of limitless material abundance, one that doesn’t depend on the profits of empire." This simple but elegant statement sums things up rather well. Sadly if you line up the type of change needed for a new Americain dream with people's expectations, shaped by contemporary culture, you are presented with massive chasm. After 70 years of being pampered we are not ready to deal with anything, let alone a crise of this magnitude. The people of North America are some of the softest, weakest, and unhealthy specimens every to walk the earth, now we are faced with mankind's greatest challenge. Yikes.

Twilight said...

In addition to defining a new vision, getting a new vision across will run into some of the limitations in basic skills you have touched on before. Without the rhetorical skills and habits needed to articulate and comprehend ideas, any such vision would have to be disseminated via mass media, mainly TV or motion pictures. These are the only paths that are open.

Using such channels is hugely expensive, requiring the buy in of at least part of the existing power structure, and thereby providing an opportunity for veto or re-direction for other purposes. So it might have to be a stealth message, or simply seem so profitable no one cares.

Maybe a major book series turned into a major motion picture could capture public imagination? However, that mostly seems to revolve around apocalyptic fantasy and assumptions of infinite growth, perpetual progress and unlimited energy. I don't know if too many really get the underlying themes of the Lord of the Rings series among all the orc battles and such.

It is interesting that you can see a theme of collapse/decay in much of the popular media these days, from the zombie apocalypses and end of the world movies to the many console video games that are set in elaborate post-collapse worlds. The latter is so prevalent that it is almost cliché, but this theme must be back there cooking away in the unconscious mind of many young people. While you have pointed out why people are attracted to the apocalypse fantasies, their popularity at least means that there is some perception that something bad is coming. That might provide an opportunity, but getting people to focus on and adopt a new vision has got be vastly more difficult – it is far more complex than comprehending everything collapsing in one short catastrophe. And besides, it sounds like work.

The skills of a good writer with a solid knowledge of history would be very useful in such an effort. I wonder where we could find someone like that? Seriously though, we need to team you up with a wealthy/powerful movie producer with a social conscience.

Michelle said...

The vision I've always had of America is likely heavily influenced by spending an inordinate amount of time reading the "Little House" books, and later, the Lord of the Rings. Laura Ingalls Wilder described an America where every man was responsible for himself, where his word was his bond, and where taking proper care of others in need was a social and moral obligation, not something legislated by a government.

Tolkien's world was likewise informed by a pre-industrial memory - an agrarian paradise in the Shire, and utterly separate, the Hall of the Rohirrim and the City of the Gondorians. Still, honor and personal responsibility were the highest currencies. I would love to see a rather more idealistic world-view emerge here, but alas, between Big Pharm, Big Ag, and the pablum emitted by the media, I don't see much likelihood of such values taking firm hold.

YJV said...

Great Article. I have only one qualm, which is your definition of socialism as 'state ownership'. Most socialists nowadays (and the first original socialist theorists) consider socialism to be social ownership over the means of production which implies that decentralised community based ownership is also a viable economic model. That's how it's defined on Wikipedia (not the best source) but I think it's also important because it brings up a point that most socialists themselves (to their embarrassment) have forgot: that socialism doesn't have to be some giant nanny state, it can be small communes, districts of regions that work off a barter/trade system too. For examples one can look at urban gardening in Cuba or worker-owned co-operatives over South America.


Andy Brown said...

Thanks for my Thursday morning dose of perspective. A new vision. That is the challenge isn't it. And not one many people are likely to embrace very skillfully. Humans are fundamentally and enthusiastically conservative, adaptable when forced to be, aggressive or despairing when that fails, but visionary? that's the rare individual. And I suppose it's no coincidence that visions and craziness have such strong links. I think we are indeed heading into a time of visions and (next to famine) that troubles my darker dreams as much as anything. The saner, humbler vision of green wizardry is what appeals to me. Though extricating myself from the illusions and entrapments of this culture have so far been too much for me to achieve, I am at least preparing in some ways for when they are taken from me.

Steve Morgan said...

I see the deeper appeal now of the 1970s appropriate tech literature that you praised in the GW series. For me, being born in 1981, I missed that boat entirely the first time around. At first I thought it was just a nostalgia on your part, a longing for your more formative years and the heady idealism of a lot of the older texts. Now that I've read a few and compared them to more recent texts (on ecology, energy, and gardening), the tone is utterly different.

This post highlights to me what the most fundamental difference is: the 1970s lit is written by and large from the paradigm of the time, which calls on a lot of older, traditional values like thrift, frugality, self-reliance, cooperation, and seems to assume that people will take pride in their ownership and responsibility of a project or the need to pull their own weight. Much of the stuff written on similar topics in the last couple decades seems a lot heavier on blame, policy prescription, abstraction and analysis, and imperialism (i.e. this is stuff we do for poor people in third world countries because we're so noble).

The ground's thawed after the last couple of snows, so it's time to get out and garden. Thanks for the very interesting food for thought this week, JMG.

Yupped said...

I also have hope that a new vision will arise, and I see it already arising from many places: thought leadership and informational resources such as yours, and many others. And in the practical examples of change that some people are making in their lives.

The vision is straightforward in some ways, since we don't have a lot of options - more local, less moneyed, more practical, less energy-intense, more communal/collaborative. Much closer to nature. More contemplative. And, of course, much harder/poorer/limited/simpler (or whatever word you want to use to describe the reality of getting by with less stuff).

I think the biggest barrier to the vision arising and taking root is not so much the definition and articulation of the vision and its practical details, but more the seductive power of the alternative - that we can have all the material stuff we want, all of the time and if you're not getting it you're simply not trying hard enough. That religious belief is so embedded it takes a crisis to start to get rid of it. But that crisis can only work on a personal level, one crisis in one person's life that triggers a change, and maybe encourages that person to get real.

Like I said, I do see this happening, one person at a time. I was looking the other day at a chart of income distribution in the US, one of those scary charts that show the stacking of income gains high up on the side of the 1% and 10%, with nothing going to the majority. It looks kind of like the income tide going out, with most people getting washed up, left high and dry. That's what is going to shake people out of the progress habit. We just have to hope that some other illusory vision doesn't arise to take advantage of all the fear and anger that comes before acceptance. That's what worries me the most. But, worry never got anything done.

RPC said...

One quibble: " Any such project that was commercially viable would already be under construction" - you of all people should know that we aren't that rational. As someone who's tried to start an energy services company, I can tell you that the answer to "I can reduce your utility bills so much that you can pay me out of the savings in a year" is "no thank you, we're doing fine as we are."

ando said...

Nicely done, JMG. Are you going to give us some pointers (other than those inherent in your work and philosophy) as to worthwhile actions to take to reinvent America? Please?


GHung said...

"I think it can be done, if only because it’s been done three times already...

...Those of us who see the potential, and hope to help fill it, will have to get a move on."

Indeed. The fact that America's three previous resets occurred in an environment of increasing energy and resource abundance, an environment of being able to expand borders, in short, an environment of continuing growth providing an outlet for our psyches to latch on to, made each previous evolution orders of magnitude less daunting, IMO. How to re-invent ourselves in an era of permanent contraction is a new challenge, not unprecedented in history, but certainly new to us.

Looking forward to how we tackle a growing realization that America "will diminish and go into the West". I expect that our culture and its expectations won't handle this de-growth reality well, as we'll have little more than ourselves and our imaginations to fill the voids left by declining inputs.

It's the imagination part that has me worried. We've been telling ourselves some disturbing stories as of late.

Thanks, JMG, as always!

William Hunter Duncan said...

We are planning something very like what you imagine, over at the Doomstead Diner. Finding land, permaculture, rotational grazing, aquaculture, fungi propagation, on site electrical generation (non-high tech), living as a tribe, teaching, building relations in the local community. The biggest barrier being land, Intl. Finance having inflated land prices so grotesquely. But we will find it. Thanks for the clarity.

Villager said...

In the previous three episodes of crisis there were no computers - those frictionless logic engines who faithfully obey the whims of whoever owns the passwords - to protect the interests of the privileged class. I think there is a fair chance of a future world with a small fantastically wealthy class of plutocrats served by machines and the technical chimerical minions who program them. There is plenty to go around for a population of a few millions who control the means of production when that production is completely dominated by machinery and computers. The rest of us are not needed. This is no longer the world of Henry Ford when he needed humans to make his cars.

How many people does it take to run an offshore drilling rig? And, in a world of few good jobs, how many will compete for them? I somehow doubt that Jamie Dimon will ever want for a chauffeur no matter how much he may be hated by the majority. And the Chinese engineers will be more than willing to man the oil rigs.

I recently witnessed the construction of a new expressway here in SoCal. It was fascinating to drive by each day and see essentially no workers but the road continued to be built. Everything gets done by machine today - at least after the humans punch in the plans.

I think the likelihood is for a return to the historical norm with a small, fabulously rich, wealthy class who control the means of production and seek only to protect themselves and those who protect them. Can they be stable while living in such a Zardoz like cocoon? I don't know. Nobody knows. But its another bleak possibility from the point of view of today's middle and lower classes.

Life is not constrained to follow our wishes and what we get is liable to be quite different from anything visible in the fantasies we spin and call historical fact. There's a reason Twain said history doesn't repeat but rhymes - and it's far more cynical than the common interpretation. It is hard to find a more meaningless connection between two words than that of sharing the same ending pronunciation.

Hey diddle, the cat and the fiddle. The cow jumped over the moon. And I fell down in a swoon, consulted a rune and changed my tune.

We look in the rear view mirror and bump our behinds into the future. That's animal life.

Laura Frost said...

JMG I read your blog every week, and love it. However, the "impending energy unaffordability" narrative of yourself and the peak oil community seems weaker now than ever, especially given the US natural gas boom and the sheer sizes of the tar sands deposits. From my perspective, global warming seems a much bigger cause for concern than energy scarcity at this time. I also think that Americans will not hesitate to vote for a mass-produced thorium reactor network if energy prices get too high, although they are unlikely to do so if the only concern is global warming (that is, not until it's too late). I wonder where the strength of your convictions on incipient U.S. decline comes from. Do you ever find yourself wondering, since you, like Kunstler, are in the decline book-selling business, that your convictions are now subject to confirmation bias?

David Eggleton said...

Vision is required. I think it must be both expansive and vague, a "big tent", so to say. The vision working for me is wholeness of persons and places. All persons. All places. It involves recovery, as from addiction, and it involves restoration, as from displacement, degradation and destruction. It requires trust in persons in other places. We don't know what it is to be whole, contributing persons among whole, contributing persons. We don't know the integrated satisfactions and securities of serving as a keystone species in each biome we occupy. We can steadily find out. We do have enough from various trail-blazers to begin our approach, which promises fulfillments en route that have been downplayed and evasive during the ending era of disintegration, fragmentation and deliveries from everywhere.

Whatever the vision, projectors must be enlisted and deployed so that it becomes evident despite the empire's bright claims and loud wails.

Todd S. said...

Sadly, I don't see many such ideas that don't involve attempting to save the notion of the Westphalian nation-state; just make it kinder and gentler and more responsive. To me, that's a bit like trying to resuscitate a flat-earth hypothesis by replacing giant turtles with SUV's.

sv koho said...

Thanks JMG for a nice summary of life on the backside of Hubbert's curve and I appreciate your analysis avoiding date predictions, a trap that James Kunstler repeatedly tumbles into. Your emphasis seems to be always looking at the trend which is clearly pointing toward a future in which business will decidedly not be usual. Your reference to your blog of a year ago dealing with anacyclosis was spot on, clearly one of your best blogs. That blog which laid out a cyclical view of political history put me in mind of a book by Peter Turchin entitled "Secular Cycles" dealing with the factors influencing the rise and fall of civilizations of the past 2 millennia, using a somewhat new methodology about the repeating cycles of history which he terms cliodynamics, named after Clio, the muse of history. Turchin steers clear in his book from placing the current civilization in his cycle but a careful reading led me to my own conclusion of where we must be. Clearly we are at an inflection point which outside of a few prescient bloggers such as yourself is being missed by most of the population and all of the MSM.You repeatedly hit all the bullet points in this blog as well as in your books but if you need additional ammunition, I commend the book to you. I reviewed the book in a recent blog over at wordpress under cal48koho by the way. The difference this time is of course the globalized nature of the problem because the collapse of this model, whether stair stepping or sudden will not just involve one nation or region but many of the OECD nations who will live and die by the industrial model.

Nathan said...

JMG, I love your posts thank you for your continued work.

I've recently found a nice framing for myself in the modern mess that has helped me to be grounded and commit creating a new vision for my future:

Engaging to create "a more beautiful world my heart tells me is possible" (Eisenstien) I must make a choice of the rules I wish to play by.

The current majority rules are the rules of centralized government, large institutions and corporations. These are the rules of "my study is more scientific than your study," "my wallet is more salient than your human scale concern." These rules, as you so clearly point out are detached from reality in very tangible ways. If I choose to play by these rules I MUST acknowledge that I am playing to lose because the rules themselves have no integrity what-so-ever. The rules are mutable so that I always lose and the "house always wins." (Casinos being a timely metaphor.)
Playing by those rules has afforded us the piece-meal change so graciously handed down from on high in a world where nothing short of transformation will do. Playing by these rules an organization can spend 10 years lobbying for change, get a tiny result and have reduced their expectations so much over a decade they consider it a massive win.

I can also choose to play by a new set of rules, a set of rules that I commit to, a set of rules that have integrity. Where do I find these rules, this code, to live by? I personally found it by looking into myself and paying close attention to what touched and inspired me. Some people may find it in their holy books. Some people may have it from a powerful role-model in their lives.

Al Gore cannot be the leader to tackle Global Climate, as you've show, because he displays no integrity - he still has a monster home and take dozens of plane flights a year. Playing by the existing rules he must maintain a certain status in the game or risk not being taken seriously. This set of rules is a complete waste of time.

The point here is that America with a capital 'A' will never find it's way as long as the the people that make up America - it's citizens, the real, vibrant and complex america, with a lower-case 'a' - don't reach deep down and find a new set of rules that they can stick to with integrity.

The declaration of Independence seems to me to be a place of deep inspiration for Americans. Maybe it's time for new declarations. A declaration being a statement that creates a new possible future; a new possibility of being. If as people, as families and as small communities we can create declarations large and small we start to carve out a new future for ourselves.

For example, I've declared to be in service to a food system with integrity. That's something I commit a large portion of my time and energy to. And it is constantly shaping who I am. I'm not always true to that declaration, that fine, I make mistakes but I always come back to it, back to that future I can step into.

What I'm trying to express is that this re-imagining starts on the level of the individual and slowly makes it's way up to the level of community. When you live in a new possible future the current bull-roar of contemporary politics is just noise.

I've been wanting to post for a long while but wasn't sure what value a comment post really has. I followed through this time...hopefully it was helpful to someone in some way.

jen vogh said...

One of the difficulties of dreaming a new dream, is that as soon as someone starts, say with concepts such as Green, Sustainable, Simplicity, Local, these concepts are co-opted-by and twisted-into something that benefits business-as-usual. Resistance based concepts like Occupy and Keystone-protest resist co-option fairly well, but resistance is not the same as dreaming.
I think our efforts to dream lives we can realistically live may take root at the point in time when Marketing and Media begin to fail OR the when public is regarded as having nothing (property, money, votes) that powerful people-groups-corps want or want to control any longer.

Jonathan Williams said...

Hello John Michael-

Thank you for a very worthwhile post. I've been thinking about some of the same themes for a long time now. I remember in the 80's and 90's that the current society was going to have to change since it wasn´t paying attention to any lasting principles that societies need to continue. I do see some hope for the future though.

I tend to think that the crisis is universal this time with most nations facing similiar dilemmas. China is the obvious example of a country that is moving foward (it's made the United States an imperial wealth pump victim) but still has it's own internal problems to resolve.

I'm having some trouble with the imperial wealth pump concept as it seems to more aptly apply to China today sucking wealth from everyone else with it´s manufacturing. While at the same time other countries that produce oil (I'm in South America) are doing pretty well right now relatively speaking.

Of course everyone will be struggling and we'll have to see how bad things get while ideas that don't wrong are tried.

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, the old passion for self-reliance and self-determination might indeed be part of a way forward. We'll see.

Brian, of course you're quite correct, and third parties not uncommonly turned into second or first parties in times of national crisis -- the Republicans were a fringe party until 1860, after all. One of the ways a new vision could take shape in America over the next decade or so would be the rise of an alternative political party embodying such a vision; it's only one of the available options, but it's certainly there.

Approliving, it was actually a triple post! As I recall, we've had this conversation before; of course there's plenty of waste in today's America, which is why I don't buy into instant-collapse theories. Still, I think you're underestimating the scale of the national trauma ahead of us.

Avery, thanks for the link!

Phil, Britain's in for a very rough road once America goes down. Like Japan, it's been sitting off the shores of a much larger continent, taking pot shots at its hereditary enemies, and counting on the US military to keep that from blowing up in its face. That'll be no safer in the face of a future remilitarized Europe than it will be off the shores of China.

Jason, not sure if I'll have the chance to get to that, but I'll consider it.

Ondra, that's one of the big questions that will have to be settled in the decade or two ahead: will there be one American vision and one nation, or several such visions and several successor states? I don't have an answer.

Trmist, it's going to be a very hard road to walk, no question.

Twilight, no, that's exactly the wrong way to go about it. The vision needs to rise out of the grassroots, not be imposed by media thaumaturgy from above. More on this as we proceed.

Michelle, here again, it's got to start from the grassroots. I see definite signs that there's a readiness for that, but we'll see.

mczilla said...

As you suggested, there was such a vision trying to take form during the 60s & 70s. As a young adult living through that period, I recall it well. Certainly, the divisiveness between the generations and ideologies was as aggravated as it is today, but at least one side had some idea of where they wanted to go, and was actively attempting to get there. I remember my sense of disappointment and foreboding as the Regan Revolution took hold, and those ideas began to fade. The project and most of the participants were successfully co-opted, and now here we are, another 40 years down the road. Apparently, "Imperial America" has decided to learn things the hardest way possible. Today the situation is even more dire, the general population even more confused.

John Michael Greer said...

YJV, that's a valid point -- state socialism is not the only kind of socialism, and I should have been clearer about that. Thank you.

Andy, for "vision" insert the word "narrative" and you may feel a little more hopeful. Creating new visions may be a job for the few, but everyone lives their lives according to the narrative structures they use to interpret the world. When one narrative fails, new ones need to be found -- and that's the work in which we're engaged right here, right now.

Steve, excellent! I appreciate your willingness to grapple with the old texts, and see the difference in tone and approach. That's the thing that, to my mind, has to be reawakened to give us much of a chance to get through this mess with some degree of grace.

Yupped, there'll be plenty of visions based on fear and anger, and I expect to see them find a sizable following in the years immediately ahead. The task just now is to envision something that can become a basis for positive values as the fear and anger burn themselves out.

RPC, your potential customers had dozens of people, many of them cheats and frauds, making the same claims you were. Their decisions were guided by a calculus that assumed that you might not be telling the truth, and they were better off not taking the risk. That's not comparable to the situation of an entrepreneur, who knows and can demonstrate the value of an energy technology, funding its further development.

Ando, stay tuned. We're going to have to go very deep, though.

Ghung, it's going to be rough, no question, and there will be no shortage of people insisting that we can have our planet and eat it too. More on this as we proceed.

William, no, a specific project of that kind presupposes resources and values that only a small number of people have. What I'm talking about is a broad vision under which many such projects can take shape.

Villager, back in the 1960s people were making exactly the same claims, and I've already discussed at length the good and sufficient reasons for seeing that dystopian fantasy as, well, a dystopian fantasy. I'll be discussing shortly why so many people feel the need to respond to something like this week's post with a narrative that says, basically, "there's nothing you can do."

Laura, if you read my blog every week, how come you managed to miss the extensive discussion two weeks back of the reasons why the fracking phenomenon needs to be recognized as a short-lived speculative bubble? For that matter, if you'd actually read the last year of posts, you wouldn't have had to ask about the sources of my analysis of America's decline, as I've laid those out in quite some detail. Confirmation bias cuts both ways; is it possible that you haven't absorbed any of the things I've said because you don't want to hear them?

Twilight said...

Twilight, no, that's exactly the wrong way to go about it. The vision needs to rise out of the grassroots, not be imposed by media thaumaturgy from above. More on this as we proceed.

Yes, I understand that is how such a thing would have to happen for it to really be successful. But given the inability to have rational, civil discussion and the difficulty most seem to have in presenting their arguments or considering those of others - basic failings in rhetoric and logic as you have described - that's going to be extremely slow going. It's certainly desirable and something to cultivate if possible, but I think it far more likely people will succumb to media thaumaturgy from other sources first. There will be no shortage of that.

John Michael Greer said...

David, the advantage that a new vision will have is that it makes sense of the world, at a time when the official vision no longer does. The vision of Imperial America no longer works for a growing number of people -- that is, the world that they experience every day is not the world that the old vision promises them. A new vision that exploits that gap won't need projectors -- it'll spread through the cracks like water.

Todd, then come up with something different.

SV Koho, I'll take a look at it as time permits.

Nathan, thank you for your comment! You've touched on some crucial issues here -- especially the need to start at the level of the individual. That's where every new vision that matters has to take shape first; it's by reshaping the lives of individuals that it becomes a reality, and begins to spread.

Devin Martin said...

About a year or so ago, I had a long conversation with a close friend of mine who is small-scale vegetable farming in the fertile soils of the Coteau Ridge in South Central Louisiana. Most likely I was inspired by one of your recent blog posts, and we were discussing peak oil, deindustrialization, and the future of America. He said something very simple but profound: "I always thought America was founded on the hope of good farming and freedom of religion. If we can keep those ideals, I'll be happy."

I think I would too.

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

the Native Americans cultures: Do you think the extent of their collapse was because they didn't manage to form a new vision of what they could become, because they couldn't "find new ideals that can provide a sense of collective purpose and meaning"?

Admittedly the mechanism of their collapse was probably much faster-acting than what today's America faces, so maybe there simply wasn't enough time for a convincing new vision of themselves to condense, but perhaps if they had managed to form a meaningful self-image they would be a stronger culture today?

Andy Brown said...

I wouldn't say I'm unhopeful about people's ability to find a satisfying narrative. It's actually what I do to pay the bills. I'm research director for a team that delves into the cognitive and cultural models that people use to think about various public policy issues - and then we help non-profit advocacy groups craft their communications and outreach with that in mind. One day it's about poverty, the next, communicating about climate change or nitrogen pollution or helping people understand what collective bargaining is.

So there is a lot of rummaging around inside people's heads looking for narratives and metaphors that can help people understand things they haven't understood. (And I always wish there was a more diverse repertoire there to work with! You are familiar with how many skills people have lost. Well, you've probably also noticed that with every practical skill also went the source domains for a huge amount of metaphorical understandings about how things work and which laid groundwork for thought and communication. But that's a subject for a whole post on its own.)

There will be new narratives, some constructive, some less so, some crazy and destructive. I for one hope people make use of the familiar, if unstylish, set about how material things don't equate happiness but that family, friends, health and satisfying work are the keys to well-being and good living. Heck, that we can do.

Todd S. said...

Todd, then come up with something different.

Like, everything that existed prior to it? Or even just "the local"? What is there but the power of the nation-state itself to stop other options? Even a network of municipalities.

MilesL said...

JMG, you did not say which vision we should have! I like the fact that you are pushing multiple people/groups to come up with a vision of their own. This is one reason I keep coming back to this blog. Though, I do keep expecting you to be like everyone else, and jump out trying to push one particular idea down everyones throat. Glad that is not part of your overall plan.

To some comments above about distributing ideas. Me and many others would love for JMG to kick down our throats one set of ideas that we can latch on to. That way I don't have to think too hard and can either jump on the bandwagon or criticize. That deep seated need is everything you need to distribute ideas. JMG has started. Word of mouth works wonders. I respect the overall work he is doing to lay out a groundwork of unfamiliar ideas to a modern audience.

Ideas roam in ways we never expect. It is an aspect of art. What you personally create, becomes something different once it is released into the world. That piece of art (or idea) is different for each person experiencing it. Reading this blog has started the process of dissemination. Don't worry. It is amazing how something that is "underground", can suddenly find itself in the mainstream. Especially since the mainstream has no new ideas and is constantly searching to steal ideas.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

As I was reading this a synchronicity occured: some library patron requested two volumes of "The Directory of Obsolete Securities" for 2010 & 2011.

It makes me wonder how much paper money I should be saving in the local credit union, and how much I should be investing in what will have long term embedded value for my family?

EBrown said...

Here's a video from one of our nation's most illustrious economic graduate schools. The speaker is a dyed-in-the-wool realist though and obviously is used to ruffling feathers. He makes a compelling case that Japan's fiscal problems are going to unravel sooner rather than later, and that means in the short term US interest rates will probably stay low (fear driven buying of US gov debt since so much else is toxic). He's placed billions of dollars worth of positions on this analysis.

As to the US government righting its course now rather than after some sort of catastrophe, he completely agrees with you JMG. It won't happen.

RPC said...

"That's not comparable to the situation of an entrepreneur..." Well, I do believe I was just insulted ! I thought I _was_ an entrepreneur, albeit at a small scale. Seriously, one of the problems with renewable energy is that it has, in many cases, better returns than BAU, but over a much greater time. For example, let's say you're an investment banker (whoops, now I insulted you - sorry) and I come to you with a plan to put wind turbines on a mountain - my scheme will result in $20 million profit over 20 years. The next guy through the door is Massey Energy, who want to rip the top off the mountain and take away the underlying coal. They can only make $7 million profit - but they can do it in two years. Given the way your bonuses are structured, to say nothing of your world-view, whose proposal is going to get funded?

Ben Simon said...

Dear John;
It is my habit to access The Archdruid Report as soon as I can on Thursday, here, in Israel. I noted that you posted your latest presentation at 11:30 P.M. Wednesday (EST). After reading and chewing on it, I like to go to see any “comments” posted. Today, I found none after a passage of 12 hours (7 PM, Israel time). I do not attribute this to any technical issue, but probably, due to a state of shock that you produced in me, for sure, and others whereby any kind of communicated response, seems futile except this reaction of mine being expressed, with this note.
In part, I just realized that I lost a very dear friend 2 days ago, in a severe traffic accident that I strongly suspect was due to poor road maintenance. This ties in directly to your pointing out the disintegrating infrastructure of the U.S. A. So, in a way, your words give some coherence to my recent personal experience.
The firm reality of the present ongoing chain of developments is painful to accept, though I believe that trying to be aware of the truth and responding accordingly is by far the best and only path to follow. I think this may be what is in the thinking of others, who have just read and absorbed your prophetic words, thereby producing the silence of one having been “stunned” into silence. I am certain that responses will begin to show up, in any event, but you should be aware of what is possibly, the situation.
All the Best
Ben Simon

Laura Frost said...

I did read those posts, but I don't count references to what one has written previously as support for one's current argument. Nor is the report of a single ex-financial consultant good enough support to overturn all other reports on the quantity of economically recoverable natural gas in the U.S. Look, for your predictions of decline to come true in our lifetimes, your predicted changes to the status quo must first occur (crippling energy limitations, financial meltdowns, political revolts). For my (and most environmentalists') prediction (i.e., civilization-threatening climate change) to occur, no changes from the status quo are required. That is, everything will be basically the same as the carbon dioxide builds, until our climate is broken. Let's call my vision the null hypothesis. You haven't given us much reason (or data), besides your sincere blog pronouncements, to reject the null hypothesis in favor of your alternative hypothesis. I'm not saying you are cynically motivated by book sales -- you probably believe everything you write -- but there is a conflict of interest. I know from your posts that you are concerned with reducing Americans' carbon footprints, and many of your proposals for relocalization may help with that too. But to maintain that fossil fuel scarcity is the real danger to the status quo, when everyone except for the PCI and a few other voices in the wilderness say that we have enough coal, tar sands, and natural gas to break the climate 5 times over, seems to me to be misguided.

jollyreaper said...

@Laura Frost

The Druid/Kunstler contention is that there won't be a tech fix for cheap energy. No beaming power from space, no safe and cheap nuclear, no renewables. I'm not entirely convinced we won't come up with "something" that could meet a significant fraction of current demand while still requiring us to scale back the size we're living our lives at.

But assuming we invented the magic black box that could give us unlimited, free energy, we'd still be up a certain creek without a paddle. Stephen Hawking pointed out the waste heat from our own industrial activity will make the planet unlivable, assuming we maintain or increase our current population.

There was a news article earlier in the week talking about the Japanese figuring out how to use methane hydrate deposits from the sea floor. If they did, that would just be trading out one horrid greenhouse energy source for another. Same problem.

And even if we were living like happy, loving children of the Earth, climate change could still ruin us, the same as it did for other prior cultures.

All of these challenges have viable solutions but our dysfunctional political process prevents us from addressing them. If the chief leading your tribe is an idiot, it doesn't really matter whether everyone starves or gets eaten by leopards, one bad decision or another will do you all in.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Todd S

I'm not quite sure I understood your last post. Did you perhaps mean that the power of the Westphalian nation-state has become so great by now that it can prevent the development of any other alternative to it?

If so, then you can still do what the weak have always done whenever the powerful become too oppressive: you do what you can to learn the arts of deception and manage to "fly under the radar" of the nation-state. Small-scale undertakings often get overlooked by the powerful and the greedy.

A huge part of the arts of deception is figuring out what things the powerful habitually do not notice -- *cannot* notice, even -- because those things do not have any place in the narratives the powerful tell themselves about the world. Then you work with and through those same unnoticeable things.

This is harder than it sounds, simply because the narratives that the powerful tell about the world tend strongly to shape how the powerless are able to perceive their world also. So you start by detaching yourself from those narratives and taking a fresh look around.

This means you have to make yourself comfortable with transgressing the most powerful norms of your nation-state's culture.

But transgression for the sake of transgression is seductive, since it gives the powerless an illusion of power. This easily corrupts every good intention. It's hard to guard against that illusion and limit one's transgressions to the very few that actually serve your purpose, whatever it might be. It's hard, but possible!

The thing that I most value about this blog is how JMG has become so skilled over the years at breaking free from the dominant narratives of our own culture. Also, he encourages us to go and do likewise, and by example shows how we might do it.

John Michael Greer said...

Jen, exactly -- resistance isn't enough because it does nothing to demonstrate a positive alternative. It's the vision of an alternative that needs to be built. There are ways to protect it from cooptation, but that's a theme for a different post.

Jonathan, the crisis may be universal but its impacts will vary drastically in different places. Latin America may do fairly well, once it's not being subjected to the US wealth pump.

Mczilla, I was barely out of high school when Reagan took office, but I remember the aftermath with painful clarity. Time to dust off the old books and get the ideas out there again!

Twilight, of course people will be influenced by thaumaturgy -- see the comments by Laura Frost on this post if you want to see the cutting edge of that in action. The point is to get some theurgy happening down at the grassroots level. More on this soon.

Devin, I'm with you on that!

SMJ, you'll want to ask Native Americans about that.

Andy, that's a start, but it has to go beyond that -- it has to weave those things into something with real emotional power. More on this as we proceed.

Todd, now shape that into a vision that appeals to people and gives them a direction in which to aim their hopes and dreams, and you're on your way.

Miles, exactly. Thanks for getting it.

Justin, that sounds like an utterly fascinating reference book! Well, to someone as geeky as I am, at least...

John Michael Greer said...

EBrown, many thanks for the link! I'm not a bit surprised; at this point we're in the phase that Galbraith called "the twilight of illusion," the point at which the crisis would be visible to all if everyone wasn't so busy trying not to see it.

RPC, no, there was no insult intended; please take the word in the context I gave it. You're also certainly right that payoff times are a major issue, but based on what you posted earlier, that wasn't an issue for your service. I get dozens of pieces of junk mail and spam email a year from people who insist they can save me all kinds of money on energy, and a very large fraction of them are known scams. Thus my comment.

Ben Simon, no, it's just that there were no comments to put through when I went to bed last night, and I took the liberty of sleeping in! I'm very sorry to hear about your friend.

Laura, if you want footnotes, buy my books; you'll find them there. If you want to discuss what I've actually said, in this blog and my books, on the subject of peak oil and the end of the industrial age, you're welcome to do so. If you're just here to insist that I have to be wrong because the fashionable activist groups disagree with me, though, please save your breath.

I have no objection to being a voice in the wilderness; that was the role I had for decades after the Reagan counterrevolution, and I never regretted it for a moment. Still, I don't think that's what's behind the increasingly frantic pushback I'm getting from people like you. Quite the contrary, I think it's because I and other peak oil writers speak for a growing movement that rejects the basic presuppositions you have in common with the corporate polluters you think you're fighting, and the existence and spread of that movement scares the bejesus out of you.

Carlo said...

Besides the inspiration that I regularly get from reading JMG's works, I also find the comments each week to be an important piece for my own understanding of what is unfolding. And I use the word unfolding for a reason.

I do see human life as following a trajectory, perhaps not one of material progress, but perhaps only to satisfy my need for meaning, one of destiny. In that sense, I feel that we didn't just happen upon billions of years of stored up sunlight - it was there for us to find ...and exploit. Now we have to figure out how to get on from here. It's all part of why we are here and not just hanging in the trees picking at our fleas.

Bubbling up inside of us is the new cultural paradigm that will carry us into the future. It will. We will. And life will put all of the pieces into play as they are needed. That doesn't mean it will be easy. The important thing to realize, as has been expressed here before, is that we are already engaged in this great work. So, if you see it as a current flowing through you and unfolding all around you, you play your part and don't sweat the details - larger forces are at play.

My donkey said...

One way to get people interested in doing something unpleasant is to present it as a game or a contest or a challenge of some sort. It's an old trick but it worked for Tom Sawyer in getting people to paint Aunt Polly's fence (and they paid him for the "honor"!), and there's no reason why the same ploy couldn't work today.

For example, in order to get people to watch a TV show that depicts hard work and unpleasant tasks and basic life skills, you might want to film a group of contestants competing against each other in a natural environment somewhere. And you might want to call the show "Survivor" or something.

And after about 20 years of successful seasons, you might want to steer the show toward mimicking life in a post-industrial setting, demonstrating to the audience how to survive and thrive in a low-energy world that provides few creature comforts. All as part of a competitive game, of course; you don't want viewers to realize they're actually learning something valuable -- that would ruin all the fun!

It doesn't have to be a TV show. It can be a local/regional contest of some sort: who can build the quickest/simplest solar oven, or grow the biggest/sweetest turnip, or produce biogas from compost the fastest, or reduce their electrical bill the most, or survive one month on nothing but wild edibles... or whatever.

Once the competitive spirit takes hold of anything, who knows what's possible? "Keeping up with the Jones's" might take on a new meaning when neighbors notice Mr. Jones planting tomatoes on his front lawn, or Mrs. Jones riding a bicycle to work, or the Jones family television sitting on the curb.

Robert said...

Fracking is a sign that Peak Oil is beginning to bite. If conventional fossil fuel was still plentiful why go in for fracking?

Perhaps the fracking bubble will also serve as a metaphor which sums up the increasing sense of desperation and stubbornness which surrounds early 21st century capitalism!

As for socialism there are other models besides state ownership of the entire means of production. Socialism was originally intended to give control of the means of production to labour, not necessarily the state.

Cooperatives such as Mondragon in Spain in my view better reflect what Marx had in mind than the USSR. The problem is not Marxism so much as Leninism. Lenin never gave all power to the Soviets, the elected councils and cooperatives of the working class. He gave all power to his Party. This established the instruments of tyranny for Stalin to pick up - the tyranny of the Party over the working class, the Central Committe over the Party and finally the autocracy of Joseph Stalin over the Central Committee and the entire country.

I don't think there's many socialists anywhere that want to repeat that experience, certainly not this one. The USSR also proves that for the state to fix prices over the entire economy is not a good idea either and that socialism need to be combined with some kind of market economy.

The real challenge is to reform the financial system not nationalise industry.

dowsergirl said...

I just finished the book "Hetty Green, the richest woman in America". She lived during the Gilded age, and the book makes many connections between then and now. What was interesting to me about her personality was how frugal she was. She wore the same boring dress and made an office out of a desk, and chided her relatives who had servants and traveled and spent their money. Her investments were in railroads and other upcoming infrastructure. She would buy when others were selling and sold when others were buying. That time period also had a much healthier ratio of rich to poor, and more potential mobility between the classes, not socially, but monetarily.

As for leadership, corruption has been with us always. I see no leadership potential anywhere in our current political system. I am becoming a cynic...sigh.

As for books, a recent article in the paper announced that librarians are the number one redundant job. Even before the iceman and travel agent. So maybe books are on their way out...but I have your titles on my Kindle :)

onething said...

The increasing acceptance in our society, America especially that women ought to work outside the home acts as a kind of ruse to mask our declining standard of living. At the same time, we are somehow more spoiled, what with more clothes shopping and eating out and junky restaurants.

Speaking of a descent into poverty of a large percentage of the population, I feel frustrated that it was not so long ago that we had sane prices on things like medical care. The medical world is constantly having expensive new rules imposed by the pencil pushers, and other factors are making medical care into a huge bubble. 9,000 dollar a month nursing homes and so on. If we end up with lots and lots of poor people, will there be a way out of this quagmire of ridiculous prices for things medical?

As to the problem of a new vision for America, I see two camps, as we had in the civil war. One, an oligarchy, basically and exaggeration of the process which has already begun, and in which there will be much ruthlessness to maintain their hold on wealth and power.
The other would be the ecotechnic future, a return to organic farming and management of land and water, and in general making a decent availability of those important aspects of civilization that make life reasonably pleasant.

Twilight said...

I've been contemplating why my gut reaction to the suggestion of building a grassroots organization and associated vision is that it is hopelessly late. I think the source of that reaction lies in the last anacyclosis episode in the 1930's.

By that time the various workers movements had been doing battle with the capitalists for decades, and there were networks of like-minded organizations, many of them quite large. Roosevelt's social democracy efforts basically appropriated the Progressive party's platform, which in turn borrowed from the worker's movements.

There is none of this now. Building effective grass roots organizations capable of defining and supporting a new vision seems almost a fantastic long shot at this point. I guess there's nothing else to do but collapse, so there's no reason not to promote such an effort, but that is why it struck me as unlikely.

S P said...

Excellent piece but I must disagree with the final assessment that America is salvageable.

Our policy has been to "invade the world, invite the world." Even if we stop invading the world out of economic and political necessity, the truth still remains that domestic America is a multiracial, multiethnic polyglot of peoples, and this fact alone likely makes effective governance impossible. Even large countries like Russia and China have more natural internal cohesion.

Remember that the white middle class of 1945-2000 that was composed of various European peoples who assimilated into a generic American whole has disappeared. There is nothing to replace it.

Instead we have added countless millions of Asians and Latin peoples, while failing to deal in any substantial way with the black underclass.

We are on the Titanic.

pansceptic said...

I would like to roll out a theory regarding the rise and decline of the counterculture in the late 60s and early 70s.

I propose that the widespread availability of high-purity LSD and decent shrooms did truly "expand consciousness" for many people, myself included. With a decent guide and good set and setting, these neurotransmitters dramatically showed me and many others the appalling ugliness, anti-life philosophy, and artificiality of the synthetic world that we had grown up in. They also resulted in a creative explosion, publicly aknowledged by folks such as Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.

Once I became aware of the unsustainability and just plain craziness of industrial culture, I was one of the folks involved in the Appropriate Technology and Back to the Land movements.

This of course had to stop! The US government did formal tests on these drugs, and decided their potential for fostering dissent outweighed any use they could find for them. Repression followed. There are persistant rumors that the CIA was involved in this research, as well as in importing other drugs that were more amenable to fostering dependence - heroine and cocaine.

Bruce The Druid said...

Two topics discussed here I would like to comment on for the benefit of your readers. One, the collapse of the Native Americans, and the idea that we have plenty of hydrocarbons to affect climate change five times over. Both illustrate the theme that has been discussed in this blog for quite some time.

The collapse of the Native Americans illustrates what you have been saying about the corporate mentality and the activists opposing them. What did in the Native Americans was a one-two punch of military action followed up by Christian idealists who attempted to mold aboriginal culture into the very model of capitalist and Christian culture. The practice of placing children in distant boarding schools run by religious orders did incredible damage to Native culture. Because of this practice many Natives were severed from Elders, and in the end became something not quite Traditional but not really Modern either. Both the Indian Fighter and the Christian Reformist failed to appreciate the Natives for what, and who, they were; both were bent on turning them into something else. It is startling to read of these Christian Reformers in their own words: how they felt they were truly helping these poor, ignorant savages (their words) "mainstream" into Christian, Anglo culture.

The other, concerning the plenty of hydrocarbons, seem to fail to understand that difficult-to-recover oil and methane gas cannot change the climate if they stay in the ground. Having just finished a fascinating book "A Forest Journey", which pointed out that even when England's forests in the 1700's were considered "decimated" due to extensive lumbering and clearing, England still had plenty of trees. What England lacked was trees near waterways, since lumber was floated downriver to the sawmills, the most economical. Before the advent of the railroad, only the trees growing a few miles from rivers could be economically exploited; the cost of hiring teams for longer transports to the river was simply too expensive.

Even after the advent of coal fired steam engines, only trees growing a few miles from the rail lines could be economically exploited. Oil and natural gas are no different in this regard, I would think.

Approliving said...

The unravelling of Imperial America is the unravelling of the biggest resource misallocation machine in history. It's also the unravelling of an elaborate bubbleworld in which people are relentlessly brainwashed into thinking they’re less capable and resourceful than they really are. As such there is a lot of scope for reductions in resource consumption to actually improve people’s quality of life – particularly if enough people rediscover the resilience, adaptability and pro-activeness which (despite said brainwashing) remains deeply ingrained in America’s cultural DNA. If this happens, then I believe both the perceived and actual trauma ahead will be substantially mitigated.

Liquid Paradigm said...

"Laura, if you want footnotes, buy my books..."

In the interests of sparing us an "a-HA!" and further adventures in tautology, I put forth that she might also check them out from the library. Or borrow them from a friend or colleague.

Or read works by other peak oil writers who also provide copious footnotes and bibliographies.

RPC said...

JMG: my goodness, no insult was taken - it didn't help that Blogger ate my emoticon! I still think decision makers are less rational than you do; perhaps it's partially that the equivalents of e-mail and spam offers are, shall we say, scale invariant?

Rita said...

I have been reading a collection of George Orwell's essays. Orwell was a socialist, but was very critical of the socialist parties in England, as well as of the Soviet Union. One of his main criticisms in the period before WWII was that the Socialists would not face up to the consequences of their theoretical opposition to the British Empire. Their rhetoric implied that all of the world's working class would have a higher standard of living under a socialist system. Orwell pointed out that if India and other colonies improved their living standards the British working class would have less, rather than more since a large part of Englan's prosperity was based on Indians working for pennies a day. Reading these remarks reminded me of the Archdruid's similar statements about America's situation. As JMG points out; we are enjoying more than our fair share and will have to make do with less as our power to enforce unequal exchanges with the rest of the world decreases.

@SMJ--not only did the Native Americans have less time to forge a new vision, they were actively discouraged from doing so. American policy was to force Western civilization on them. Their leaders were killed, they were starved and destroyed by disease (sometimes incidentally, other times deliberately), children were taken from families and sent to govt. boarding school where they were punished for using their own languages, and religious practices, such as the Lakota Sun Dance, were made crimes. The tribes that fared best were the farming pueblos of the southwest, who had already been somewhat Europeanized by the Spanish. Since they were thoroughly conquered already they were less likely to be cast as threatening savages thirsting for white blood.

As for third parties: I don't know about other states, but California has adapted open primaries that put great obstacles in the way of minor party candidates. I suspect this is part of a strategy to keep power in the hands of the two major parties.

John Michael Greer said...

Carlo, I suspect that some such belief as the one you've expressed here -- however well or ill founded it happens to be -- will be part of the vision that gets people through the hard years ahead.

Donkey, an excellent point, for which you get tonight's hotly contested gold star!

Robert, fair enough -- as I said in response to YJV earlier, I should have clarified that I was talking about state socialism. Of course there are other varieties, and there are other ways of getting the means of production into as many hands as possible -- maybe the Distributists will pop up and join the conversation.

Dowsergirl, if somebody would just give me a billion dollars or so, I'd found a couple of private lending libraries like the one Ben Franklin started, and staff them with peak oil-aware librarians. If you know any billionaires, let 'em know, and I'll get you an application. ;-)

Onething, I think you're missing the point. Fixating on an evil oligarchy is an excuse for a vision -- it's so much easier to be against something than to be for something -- and the alternative you offer is part of the raw material of a vision, not a vision in itself. What's needed is something that will fire the imagination the way the dream of American independence did in 1776, the competing music of "Dixie" and "John Brown's Body" did in 1861, and the Four Freedoms did in 1933.

Twilight, the alternative is to sit on our hands and let things go to pot. That doesn't seem helpful to me -- and a long shot is better than no shot at all. Still, you'll notice that I've put a lot of effort into talking about steps that will help even on an individual level.

SP, it's always easy to insist that there's no chance, and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy -- if you sit on your hands and do nothing, sure, nothing you hope for will come to pass. Is that a useful strategy?

Pansceptic, well, all I can say is that the people I knew in the late 1970s and early 1980s who were deep into psychedelics were pretty much basket cases, and contributed little if anything to the appropriate tech movement. I may not have met the right people, of course.

Bruce the Druid, excellent! Thank you for a first-rate analogy.

Approliving, well, we'll see.

Liquid, by all means! It's just that there aren't that many libraries carrying my peak oil books just at the moment.

RPC, fair enough!

Rita, Orwell's always worth reading -- one of the sharpest minds of his generation. I have always admired his discussion about the way that the word "fascism" was watered down to mean no more than "something of which one should disapprove" -- and this from an inveterate foe of actual fascism.

backyardfeast said...

In oblique response to the questions of vision and to Laura Frost's not particularly tactfully presented fear that climate change is going to bring us down before we need to worry about peak oil, perhaps I can share a story.

I'm teaching a first-year uni course on Transition and Resilience. In a first class, we read a scientific chapter that shows the absolute dire urgency that the climate crisis presents. At our current rate of CO2 emissions, we will have wiped out all life on earth by 2100, and by 2030, when most of my students are in their prime, major parts of the globe will be unihabitable, with all of the political and social devastation and conflict that that would produce. The students are shell-shocked (as should we all be) and overwhelmed. The chapter concludes, we need to cut emissions by 90% by 2020 to avoid this--yes, in less than 10 years. The students, overwhelmed and cynical, tell me, "That will never happen." I don't comment or try to convince them otherwise.

The next week, I teach JMG's chapter, "The End of the Industrial Age," from The Long Descent. The students contemplate the realities of peak oil and the coming economic collapses (the repeat of 2008, if nothing else). We consider the current race to extract every last bit of fossil fuel from the earth, no matter how small the energy return. We are in Canada, and we look at the absurdity of the oil sands extraction (for instance, in BC, our provincial hydro utility is currently desperate to expand. The demand is coming from the Natural Gas industry in the northeast, which is booming. The natural gas is being bought by the oil sands developers who use it to extract dirty bitumen. Yes, we're using clean hydro power to extract dirty oil. Only under peak oil conditions could this take place; indeed, the oil sands were deliberately not developed until these economics made sense).

Once the students have grasped all of this, I ask them to think about what their lives might look like in a world with oil so expensive and scarce that it might as well not be there at all. They come back with exactly the response you might imagine: local living, salvage and careful use of all resources, learning to make things by hand, relying on others, etc.

I ask them to imagine that they know life will look like this in say 20 years. When would they like to begin transitioning to this new way of life? They state loudly and unanimously, "NOW."

Lastly, I ask them to consider the vision from the week before, a life producing 90% fewer carbon emissions. How does it compare to this vision? Why, it's basically the same! Imagine that! Now how do you feel about making that transition? Hmmmm.

@ Laura Frost: I am terrified by the realities of the climate crisis. But in my experience, the paradigm shift away from fossil fuel dependence is too great for people to make when they think nothing is forcing them to change, that it's only an abstract moral imperative. On the other hand, convincing them that our dependence on fossil fuels is finite and insecure and threatens collapse any minute, that our safety net of energy today is not as strong as it looks, really gets our reptilian brains to start coming up with solutions. The narratives are completely compatible; no competition for which crisis is more important is necessary. The life we're transitioning to either way is likely the same.

Red Neck Girl said...

I'm such a bad girl since I'm responding to many of the comments I've read lamenting the ability to reach a general audience in regard to disseminating the ideas of dissensus, democracy, LESS and critical back to the land skills are forgetting one modern vice that can be used to advantage in necessary educational efforts. It can be summed up in three words, Public Access Television. In vintage cinematic crisis tradition, "Smoke 'em if you got em!"

With proper advance advertisement Public Access TV could be the best way to seed the idea in the general public and a good way to contact people in the viewing area that are particularly interested in forming associations there.

Also in the Pagan Community here on the west coast I was told Starhawk raised the money via a crowd funding web site to film a movie about collapse. That may be a boost for a more generously funded movie by 'mainstream media.' Although it might be an action movie using self sufficient farmers and crafts people as a back drop for heroics.


Stonymeadow said...

re: back to land movements
Back to the land – a 140-year trend

brief summaries of several books, including a link to a free electronic version of "Ten Acres Enough: The Small Farm Dream is Possible" from 1864.

also, Cato's On Farming, from ancient roman days, might fit into the same category.

a free source for cato's book, plus other old classics such as fukuoka, is available for free downloads from the soil and health library

phil harris said...

'America withdrawn'.
I very much agree with your reply: “Britain’s in for a very rough road once America goes down.”

It is not just a military matter it seems to me. The City of London clearly poses a threat to our continental partners. (I happen to think our top-heavy financial sector and its agendas pose a security threat to our home nation as well, even when large part nationalised.) Much of the fight just now seems to be between German finance and London finance.

On the energy front I see our government is trying to negotiate a 30 or 40 year with the (mostly) State-owned French utility EDF to build some new nuclear reactors now other consortia have withdrawn from the bidding. The UK consumer is guaranteed to pay what it takes for generations by the look of it. I guess there will be plenty of other 'rent-seeking' schemes; there are already plenty, to keep the ordinary Brit in her place.

Militarily it is already interesting. Britain with France seems to take the lead in controlling North African resources, though Germany stands well back. Of course these opportunistic initiatives need US approval, which I guess must be highly conditional.

We will see what deals Germany later does with Russia I suppose. Britain will need to make itself useful to Germany (whatever sub-deals we do with France) and emphatically we must not cost too much!



BlueTemplar said...

"How I stopped eating food :"
It's probably more sustainable than your average diet coming from intensive agriculture, but could those ingredients still be procured in a deindustrialized future?

Liquid Paradigm said...

But we can still have our plastic Nirvana and techno-delusions with green energy! We don't have to change our thinking or our lifestyles!


Odin's Raven said...

Here's a writer on similar themes who mentions your work favorably:

Robert said...

@JMG Thanks. Agree about Distribution. There's an interesting discussion of it here

@Phil I think that more or less nails it. Relations between Germany and Russia will be decisive I think. A strategic trinity of Germany Russia and France would have the potential to be extremely powerful possibly even a superpower.

If I was Chancellor in Berlin the key demand I would make of the British would be to establish automatic information exchange between the British offshore network and the financial authorities in London and require that London share that data with every EU jurisdiction. This wouldn't end tax arbitrage between national jurisdictions but it would make both tax evasion adn the more aggressive forms of tax avoidance by the corporations and the super rich significantly more difficult.

Interestingly the Isle of Man has just signed up to an information exchange agreement between Douglas and London. Nobody else has - yet.

I would also demand full cooperation from the British in using their influence to lobby for a change in the rules of global accounting to country by country reporting.

Fortunately for the City the likes of me have very little influence over anything. Nor is there much chance of more progress on these issues as long as the Tories are in power.

A progressive administration in the White House might be onside for both provided information exchange also applied to the US.

If and when London complied I would then be very generous about assisting the British with our dire economic problems and investing in the UK.

Cathy McGuire said...

I'm finally back online again after the hip replacement operation (well, the two operations, and 3 hospitalizations... nightmare, but seems to be over and I'm moving on) - thanks for the great post! After spending most of this past month deep in the realms of Denial, among family, friends and strangers who have not a care in the world about any of the ominous cracks in the ice, I was finding it harder to keep the reality firmly in mind. I am grateful to be past the worst and having energy (mental and physical) to read this blog and get myself re-centered again. I am so sad for all these good-hearted people who simply don't want to see - but I quickly learned there was absolutely no "telling" them... so I will wait until if/when I see any signs the denial is cracking, then share what I can. At least I now have two strong legs (well, getting stronger) to use on my own practice and preparations. :-}

Mark Rice said...

On the subject of artificially pumped up paper wealth:

I suspect that problem is easier than the ever increasing cost of fossil fuel, or the impending climate change.

I realise our fractional reserve banking does not work well in a a shrinking or static economy. I see much of the world wide debt crisis is a result of this phenomena. Perhaps the quantitative easing is a band-aid on our monetary system to keep it functioning under these conditions.

This is nothing wrong with "artificial" paper wealth resulting in people working ,making real things, real infrastructure, and growing real food. Some real wealth comes about as a result. In a way all money is artificial paper wealth.

That said, I have not idea how to create a finance and monetary system that can handle contraction. I am not even sure I know what money is. But I have read a couple of book to try to figure this out. ( , and This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly

Cherokee Organics said...


A small band of rain drifted through from the south today - 1mm (1/25th of an inch). It was pretty spectacular because just ahead of the rain flew a wedge tail eagle soaring high in the thermals just before the clouds closed in and its opportunity for spotting prey ended for a time.

The actions of the plants, insects, birds and animals tell me that we live in a state of dynamic equilibrium. In the spirit of dissensus I submit this as an alternative vision for the future which was unexpectedly gifted from nature.

Kangaroos are generally pack creatures, although in the past month or two a very large (6ft) bull has taken up residence in the orchard here. Occasionally he has his harem of ladies, but oft times he is alone, which is unusual. He is big enough and healthy enough that he can comfortably ignore me and the dogs with impunity. I'm sure there is a story behind why he isn't in his pack but I'll never know it. I simply accept that he is part of the place for a while.

He - and there is no mistaking this fact (I've nicknamed him "balls" by the way!) - performs a useful function here in the orchard, in that he keeps the wallabies in check. The kangaroos are grazing animals, whilst the smaller solitary wallabies are opportunistic browsing animals.

This gets me back to the concept of dynamic equilibrium. All of the life forms here are maximising their particular niches. Sometimes, a particular life-form may get an advantage every now and then due to prevailing conditions, but the general level of chaos means that their advance is soon checked by other life-forms. At this point in time a new equilibrium is established.

This is what I reckon fossil fuels are insulating us from experiencing.

As an interesting side note, the tentative forays into the local community groups are starting to yield some positive results of plant material and vegetables. Slowly, slowly, as they say.

PS: As I finish writing this, the rain is increasing! Yay! Autumn is here and the farm has survived the summer.



morenewyorknews said...

another excellent post JMG
While i try to understand your way of analysis and apply to my country,India,i see it has already failed as a nation.
Just recently,Indian govt allowed two Italian sailors to go home from prison.They were arrested for killing two Indian fishermen in Indian waters.As if a small dingy was going to destroy aircraft carrier.As usual our placid PM spoke strongly through state media(every news outlet in india is state media ,like USA) about not allowing Italian envoy to leave the country ,if Italian prisoners will not return to Indian prisons.Fat chance of it happening.Our nation adores Italian widow of slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi,she is the boss women over here.The Gandhi family is royal family of india.
There is another dimension to this.Indian govt was going to purchase some helicopters from MV Augusta and Italian bribed Indian bureaucrats n politicians.Now the investigation has been started in Italy and Indian govt don't want to scuttle the deal(after-all bribes have been paid).I know what will happen next.
Indians are always afraid of punishing foreign prisoners.The Italian quatrochi guy who paid bribes in bofors deal was allowed to go free,Union carbide chief was allowed to go free after Bhopal disaster,The guy Niels Holck who dropped illegal weapons(purulia arms drop case) in Indian state of West Bengal was given pardon and allowed to go free.

morenewyorknews said...

You are talking of secession movements and India have several of them:Kashmir,Southern states(surprising isn't it.South always want to secede. But here are 4 very different southern states),northeastern states( 7 states,people of mongoloid origin,tribal and christian.There are more than 200 separatist groups in this region alone.You might read a book called "christian al qaeda",Maoist(naxals) movements( in jharkhand,bihar,west bengal,andhra pradesh,maharashtra),Muslim separatist movements(will be major flare up in next 10 yrs).
While indian govt has completely failed in providing basic necessities like drinking water,toilets,roads,bridges,basic cleanliness,food,electricity,medicines,housing,jobs,law and order,justice in courts,social harmony.There are parts in country where people really die because of food shortage (melghat maharashtra,Karnatak,southern Andhrapradesh,,Assam),while India is top Beef and grains exporter in world.
They have been successful in making nuclear weapons,satellite launching vehicles,national highways.
They are also successful in writing millions of pages of laws,rules,regulations in last 65 yrs and pace has accelerated. The volume of central govt laws have grown exponentially after year 2000.All this will be imposed on British,soviet laws which are already on books.
JMG,USA has set a bad example for nation like india and they are actually trying to copy USA govt's dictatorial model.The police and judicial brutality is worst here.If they throw you in jail and you are poor,forget about getting out.The bureaucrats are so corrupt,you have to pay bribes at every step to the agents.Cops,Muni workers collect bribes from shopkeepers,buyers and send daily collection to top echelon in bureaucracies.Do you believe this?
I have to show my identification to access internet.I can't take propane gas cylinder from one place of city to other place but terrorists from pakistan can come to mumbai with bombs ,take jobs in five star hotels,kill a score of indians and they are not great threat.
I wrote this so that you can understand how failed nations actually survive.
It might be a model if what you say about USA ever becomes true.

bcwoodcarver said...


Sepp Holzer exemplifies the way of the future in farming. My brotherinlaw has farmed like this for years with great results.

Nathan said...

@JMG - Just so you know, your books are widely distributed in the Cleveland Public Library system. Rust Belt cities love you :-)

Glenn said...

Not specific to this week, but generally applicable to this blog.

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the musical version of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" lately. It strikes a chord with a great many people here in the U.S.

I see it as a general symptom of cynicism and dissatisfaction. Now I wonder if anyone will figure out a good, or at least functional, way forward from this that doesn't involve "now we all die".

Marrowstone Island

Odin's Raven said...

Your influence is still spreading.

Joseph Nemeth said...


We don't have to go to exotic locations to find functional socialist models here in the US. We have a large, immensely profitable, and socially conscious socialist enterprise going here in Fort Collins -- it's called New Belgium Brewery. You've heard of Fat Tire Ale? Or 1554 Black Ale?

quantumskunk said...

100 year star the works right now. asteroid mining in the works. titan a moon of saturn has a planet wide ocean of HYDROCARBONS. all we need is a big bucket on a tether or some sort of hose to suck it up into gigantic space ships shaped like 55 gallon oil drums.
in the mean time i go to my manufacturing job in metro ny/nj area without supplied hot water and no medical insurance. i'm doing my part to live without entitlements!
i may live to see myself buried in a mass grave...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Laura,

You are a brave soul for posting the comment. Respect.

I have to ask you though, what do you mean by the term environmentalist?

There was a conversation here many weeks ago about warm fuzzies vs. cold pricklies and I suspect that the term "environmentalist" falls into the warm fuzzy category.

I used to think I knew what was meant by this term, now I am not so sure.

I believe it projects an image which you can borrow and put on and see how it fits. You can then show your friends and watch whilst they marvel at your new clothes. Still, times moves on and realities are otherwise.

In relation to activism about global warming, I'd reckon the time has since past now for the sorts of solutions that activists are promoting and only individual actions may or may not be successful.

Did you know that Down Under, we have had 6 of the 10 hottest years in recorded history within the past decade? The temperature records here stretch back to 1853.

The average maximum temperature for March to today was 31.3 degrees (88.34 Fahrenheit). The long term average is 23.9 (75.02 Fahrenheit). Night time tells a similar story where the average minimum temperature this month to today was 19.1 degrees (66.38 Fahrenheit). The long term average is 13.2 (55.76 Fahrenheit).

Sure, it’s not conclusive and there is great variability in the climate here, but still…

I’ll point out that it is only the well-established trees here that have not shown stress because of the temperatures. It was the new fruit trees that suffered greatly. Is this not a good metaphor for our society? The ability to withstand and adapt to systemic shocks are what will be the defining strategies.

The only problem is that I don’t see environmentalists campaigning for this objective. Neither do they actively seek this sort of life out for themselves.

Anyway, it something for you to think about.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi bcwoodcarver,

Yeah Sepp is an excellent farmer, however, some of his techniques may not be applicable to very hot or very well drained areas. I wouldn't want to try and replicate his farm in say Central Texas or the hills of Southern California for example. You'll probably end up telling me that your brother in law farms in one of these two areas!

The other thing I reckon is that Sepp probably doesn't get much predation from local wildlife on his farm just because the area has been settled for such a long period of time. Humans have a nasty habit of exterminating other species that are in competition (or even perceived to be a threat).

The Tasmanian Tiger is a good example of this extermination.

Dunno. Even here, I was talking with someone yesterday about tomatoes. Their tomato plants have now finished for the season, but my lot only started ripening about a week ago.

The differences in farming techniques are massive and I reckon it is best to approach problems with a toolkit of options and then see what works. But it takes a long time to do this.



Joseph Nemeth said...


A couple of unrelated tidbits, based on experiences during a business trip these last two weeks.


The fellow sitting almost-in-my-lap during the flight out was an airline pilot dead-heading back to Minneapolis, and (unfortunately) I didn't fall into conversation with him until the end of the flight. He was not only familiar with the entire issue of exponential return in a finite system, he said that he's personally finding it difficult to trade in US dollars in international ports-of-call: people won't accept the money, so he has to exchange it for local currency. He also said that "out there," people are starting to refer to the US as a "second world" nation rather than a "first world" nation. I'd have loved to pick his brains on that, but then we debarked and parted ways.

Perhaps a fluke, but what are the odds? Perhaps an indication of a growing public awareness of these issues.


There is a flood of MSM in the travel sphere, particularly wherever travelers need to wait. The hotel had Fox News running throughout their "free" breakfast, there are television screens running Fox continuously throughout the air terminals, etc. So I got inundated with unwanted propaganda.

Waiting for my flight home, the brittle-coiffed blonde in a professional suit was singing the praises of the current Bull Stock Market in that slightly-breathless tone-of-wonder that all the female talking heads adopt (as opposed to the reassuring father-tones the male talking heads adopt.) She gushed about how the rising market had made something like ten thousand "new millionaires" in the past year. Then her "balance partner" chimed in, in an edgy, angry, on-the-edge-of-a whine Evil Jezebel voice, to point out that not EVERYONE was doing well. They bounced this back and forth a few times, and concluded that the problem was that the losers just weren't making enough money to play the markets.

This kind of propaganda is going to slow the transition to the post-industrial society. Change can happen rapidly when large numbers of people start to believe they have nothing to gain by playing the game (and even faster if they believe they have nothing to lose by opting out.) Narratives like this -- blasted at people with mind-numbing repetition when they are waiting for the next thing to happen, thus bored and receptive -- tell people they need to stay in the game. After all, THERE ARE TEN THOUSAND NEW MILLIONAIRES OUT THERE! Why weren't YOU one of them? Because you didn't play the game. You're one of those OTHER people. Loser.

You won't see big changes happen until people start to turn off this noise.

Joseph Nemeth said...


I think it's useful to break this into two different problems.

Problem one for US Americans is the decline of empire. This has nothing at all to do with energy or the environment. Following the traditional Trail of Empires, we've been dealing ourselves self-inflicted wounds for decades, and they've been escalating. That isn't going to change until the whole nation suffers a major wake-up call, on the order of the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the Great Depression. Odds are it will be much worse, because the US wasn't a world-girdling empire in 1776, or 1850, or 1930: it was a pretty low-to-earth, self-reliant, agri-centric place. Now, it's seriously off-balance, and has a long way to fall.

No other nation on the earth currently faces this particular crisis, though many have in the past, and many will in the future. At the moment, it's unique to us.

Problem two is population. This problem shows up in hundreds of different guises, including peak oil, energy shortages, fresh water shortages, famine, global warming, timber depletion, de-speciation, rapid adaptation of pathogens to the monocultures (plant and animal) that humans prefer, etc. The list is endless.

The US doesn't face the population problem directly. Our population density is low compared to places like India, China, or Africa. We have an over-reliance on cheap energy, wasteful resource exploitation, and global tribute, and we're deeply invested in a global economic system that's off the rails, but there is at least a possibility of cultural adaptation to a lower-energy future without massive die-offs of the US population. I think that's JMG's central point with re-visioning an American future: it doesn't have to end in a Zombie Apocalypse. (Though it still might.)

Enter your magic energy box. Thorium reactors, cold fusion, crystal magic, whatever.

In the spirit of dissensus, I personally posit that there will in fact be a silver energy bullet, and that we'll have more and cheaper energy in the next few centuries than we've had in the whole history of humankind. A "game changer" will arise.

The question is, how much difference will this make?

Very little.

It isn't going to touch the collapse of the US empire, because we're AT peak oil production -- meaning oil is as cheap (adjusted for inflation) and plentiful as it has ever been or ever will be -- yet we've been crumbling as an empire for several decades. That collapse obviously has nothing to do with energy shortage, which hasn't yet begun.

It isn't going to touch the population problem, either, because every "solution" to symptoms -- water, food, disease -- is implicitly directed at increasing the human population and allowing individuals to live longer. Or, in other words, more energy = more population. It's gasoline thrown on the fire.

I think that dissenting about the inevitability of energy decline is valuable in pointing out that our real problem isn't about energy. It's about our addiction to growth.

YJV said...

Hi Joseph,
No I haven't heard of those examples, thanks for mentioning them.

Since I'm a Kiwi currently living in Australia I don't have much knowledge about the US apart from what I hear from a fellow student from Idaho. Naturally I gave the examples I knew from the general knowledge I've gathered reading and such. It's hard to find examples of socialist production models in NZ and my personal experience would take me to India with the farmed owned dairy co-operatives in my home state.


Joseph Nemeth said...


It's been interesting to watch New Belgium. What makes them a socialist company is that they are worker-owned: when you hire on, you get a piece of the company. They have some process by which they all contribute to the corporate decision-making, and that has resulted in some interesting decisions, from large to small. Exactly how they do this would be germane to this discussion -- I've been wanting to do some research on this for a while, anyway...

At the large end, they claim 98% full recycling of their waste products, and keep pushing to get rid of that last two percent. They decided to go off-grid for their power using windmills they had built near the Wyoming border, and they redesigned their mash boilers for efficiency and for recycling the waste heat for other purposes, like heating the facility. These are all major capital expenditures that save them a lot of money in the long run, but which would never get past the quarterly budget process in most American corporations.

At the small end, they have (for example) the "parking spot of shame," located at the far, far end of the parking lot, which is awarded to the biggest gas-guzzler that dares to park in the lot. Most employees bicycle to work (weather permitting, though some are nuts who will bicycle in a blizzard) and host the annual Tour de Fat in Fort Collins. This, in turn, puts pressure on the city to build safe and attractive bike paths, paint bike lanes on the streets, and set up "parking hitches" where you can tie up your two-wheeled horse.

What strikes me here is that the employee input into the corporate system through shared ownership seems to promote longer-term thinking. The employees want to settle down, raise families, make a good working wage at a job that's going to be there for a few decades, and feel like they are contributing to the company, the local community, and the global environment. This leads to good long-term decision making for the company, the community, and the world.

The contrast was the cement plant north of town in the 1990's, which started burning toxic waste (most of which by volume is organic solvent of one sort or another, which is flammable) to fuel their clinker furnaces. Owners of the corporation didn't live here, so they could care less about the umbrella of toxic fly ash -- some of it radioactive -- they were creating to fall on towns for miles around, and settle into the watercourses. It took legislative action to force them to stop burning toxic waste in their ovens.

And just as a side-note on the insanity of politics, they did this by declaring the cement clinker ovens to be (legally) toxic waste disposal sites: as such, they could be regulated. Prior to that, they could burn pretty much anything they wanted, and could not legally be touched.

Worker-owned corporations are one more item to throw into the re-inventing America stew.

Richard Larson said...

Two new very counter events have caught my attention. Senator Rand Paul's acceptance at the CPAC Conference, and the ten percent confiscation of all deposits in the banks based in Cyprus.

We are entering the age of radical thinking...

Lance Michael Foster said...

Are you going to do a post showing some examples of how cultures/states have reinvented themselves in a time of contraction? I imagine there is some good info from various collapsed societies, including the Maya and Easter Islanders.

Mark Angelini said...

We're rather busy here constructing and prototyping new visions in my community. The past two weeks we've been joining together to produce our own maple syrup. What a joy and a lot of hard work.

For me, I see the greatest challenge for the majority of Americans is in abandoning failed paradigms and habits of thought. Lots of rude awakenings in store for the masses here. Perhaps some will cause the jolts necessary to make something useful of life...

Another thing I'm observing: there seems to be a small but quickly growing movement of folks yearning to purposefully shift their paradigms, adapt to new (old) ways of living, and learn the skills necessary to live more reslient lives. I find great hope in that.

YJV said...


Thanks for the info! I hadn't heard of such an operation and it was good to know that such ventures are successful in America as well.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Richard,

I don't know anything about what you commented in relation to Cyprus. But I read this reference to Cyprus banks a couple of days ago.

Europe's debt shaded by cost of managing it

Quote: "The markets would for a time look for other leads, including moves to rescue Cyprus. That deal is small in financial terms at about €17 billion, but complicated by the role banks in Cyprus have played as a shelter for deposits from Russian oligarchs."

Hi Lance,

That is a big ask of our host. How about you read Jared Diamonds book Collapse which covers those issues in detail?



AgentGenev said...

Dear JMG,
I like your writing and I agree with a lot of your concepts. However I believe you make certain fundamental mistakes. The main ones namely are that you foresee an inevitable economic and technological decline for the US. This is not only far from inevitable, but actually quite unlikely if you consider the global situation. What you describe as inevitable decline, is simply the need for rebalancing which happens cyclically all the time and does not necessarily spell THE END. While the USA truly has to go through this rebalancing - consuming less and producing more, overhauling its infrastructure and becoming more efficient, it will only end up in the situation you describe, if it fails and it doesn't have to. Indeed if you look at the global situation, Europe, Asia and Africa have many more challenges - depletion, overpopulation, political disunity, regional tensions etc. which they are failing to overcome and their decline is much more severe. Why do you in such a case think the USA will be eclipsed?
As far as reinventing the vision for America goes, I entirely agree we need to. And am all on board, I just think that our problems are so much less severe than those of other regions and our well being and power in relation may actually grow in the next few decades.

Richard Larson said...

Cherokee, type Cyprus Savings Tax into a search engine. Lots of developing stories ongoing. The implications are interesting and the response will be measured with the goal of more such wealth transfers from savers to governments and bankers.

Quite natural for governments to take what they need and bankers to want more...

Lance Michael Foster said...

Chris/Cherokee Organics-

Yep, I've read it and have used 'Collapse' in the classes I've taught in archaeology for the past five years. I just wondered if JMG was going to post his thoughts on retooling culture sometime.

As a Native American tribal member myself (Ioway), I am well-aware of what happens when a culture once strong and self-confident, able to see its own future and self-determine it, goes through mass wasting, death and collapse...then, to come out on the other side, something different, something else entirely.

This culture is in for a treat.

Richard Green said...

John Michael,

I'm guessing you've seen this, but in case you haven't, it is the piece entitled "Dark Ecology" by Paul Kingsnorth, published in Orion magazine:

I find it to be a stunning piece of work. I've been reading you for years, as well as Arthur Silber and Chris Floyd, plus Sharon Astyk and others. This piece by Paul captures so much of my thoughts/emotions/sense of self in one fell swoop that it simply overwhelmed me upon my first reading. I attribute a large part of that feeling of being stunned to the education you've provided to me over these past few years. Much obliged. Richard

Glenn said...

@ Richard Green


Marrowstone Island

sgage said...

@ Richard Green,

Paul Kingsnorth's essay had a very similar effect on me. I've been dealing with these issues and questions for some 40 years now, at least, and boy did he nail some of the feeling of turmoil, despair, and inner conflict. A fantastic piece of writing, IMO.

jodancingtree said...

"...can be counted neatly on the fingers of one foot."
Picking myself up off the floor - Archdruid, I've been reading your blog for 2 years at least, I look forward to Thursday mornings as "oh goody, the Archdruid Report is out!" And I've never commented before (too shy) and probably never will again - but I have to say, just once, that your wonderful, wry, turn of phrase is right up there with your humane wisdom, in making you my hands-down favorite blogger. Thank you for brightening my Thursdays and informing my thinking in these challenging times.

shadowheart said...

You're a brilliant writer and social analyst and I've been reading your posts for months now, but have responded only once.
I'm responding now because of your comment:
"...(Not, please note, socialism; socialism is state ownership of the means of production,..)
If my long-ago reading of Marx and Engels serves me correctly, their vision of socialism was for the workers to own and control all the means of production, not the state. That being the case, you labor under the same misapprehension as most Americans---confusing the false and failed model of Soviet socialism with actual socialism.
To my understanding, as informed by the likes of Marx, Engels, Zinn, Chomsky, et al. the state ownership of the means of production is merely state-run capitalism. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state-run capitalism put into place when Josef Stalin crushed the Bolshevik revolutionaries, but, retained the moniker of "socialism" for propaganda purposes.
If memory serves me correctly, in Marx's vision, the only purpose of the state was to be for the implementation of socialism until the workers took over and the state would then retreat.
The only problem with that model---and what actually happened---is that power never yields anything without a fight. Once in place, the powers that be will do anything to stay in power.
Marx predicted that socialism would be a spontaneous uprising occurring in a capitalist state in decline, with growing massive inequality forcing the workers to revolt.
Russia in the early twentieth century, however, was a feudal society of peasant serfs---hardly the declining capitalist dynamo Marx had predicted would launch socialism, which made it easy prey for a brutal opportunist like Stalin to crush whatever revolt was underway. So that, actual socialism lasted only a little over a year in Russia.
Over the ensuing decades, the brutality of those state-run capitalist regimes posing as socialist states were fodder for capitalist propagandists in the West who used their brutality to discredit socialism. And the propaganda was so successful that even intelligent, enlightened citizens such as yourself still labor under a false impression of socialism. But, many are waking up to the lie and are making the distinction between socialism-in-name-only and actual socialism.
Sorry for the long response. I love your writing, which has enlightened me greatly and has resonated with many of my own observations, but, which I could never express as eloquently or as precisely.

Bruno Bolzon said...

Dear Mr. Greer,
First of all, I am sorry to submit this e-mail through a comment in your blog. I did so because I failed to find your e-mail address.

What i would like to say is that I found your blog two weeks ago. I could not stop reading your entries from the first to the most recent, usually up to until late at night. At first, I focused on the entries about more technical subjects, such as your theory on catabolic collapse. Afterwards, I moved to the more politically related ones, such as those concerning the imminent demise of the American Empire. Later, I turned to the fictions, such as 2050-2100-2150. Finally, I read your posts concerning the nature of magic (which is a subject I was not entirely clueless about.

Your thoughts changed my way of looking at the world. Although I have to admit I was already suffering a kind of unease, its origins were unknown to me and for years I failed to clarify them, having studied many different analysis of the current state of our civilization and society. I am not saying that all my doubts and questions have been answered, far from it, but something new entered my mind, thanks to you: I am aware of the fact that our civilization will soon suffer the effects of Peak Oil, and, to make sense of many social illnesses and phenomenons, I will have to take that into account.

There is also more to it than that. On a personal level, being aware of Peak Oil has changed a few things. I am not aware of how many things, and neither of how much did changed. I will tell you this: suddenly, I no longer like cars. Mind you, I learn to read by making efforts to read by myself a car magazine when I was five, because my father was too tired already of reading it all to me. The first thing I did when I turned eighteen was to go get my drivers license. I once told one of the few non-drivers I know, a professor of mine, that one of the reasons I loved to drive was that I really enjoyed the feeling of having a few hundred horsepower under my control. I used to drive fourteen hours a week without feeling tired, just for the thrill of it. And now I no longer enjoy cars. I might just sell mine.

My apologies for the long e-mail. And further apologies for any grammatical or syntax errors I might have committed - English is not my native language (I am Brazilian).

Kind regards,
Bruno Bolzon

John Michael Greer said...

Bruno, thank you. It's good to hear that what I'm saying is finding those who can hear it.

Chris Travers said...

I don't think it is quite true that there is no ideology waiting to replace the current empire. In fact I see two. This may be a somewhat long post, but I figure it is worth saying all at once. Interestingly both of these ideologies are spreading first in the right, perhaps because of the general opposition to social democracy and the realization that empire is breaking down. Moreover the two ideologies share a lot in common.

The first is libertarianism, the less said about which the better. I actually think most libertarians are reaching for the second (Distributism) but have not quite made it yet.

The second, Distributism, is the one I find far more interesting. While the roots of Distributism lie in the social teachings of the Catholic Church through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I have met plenty of heathens who consider Distributism to be the primary way to reverse the damage done by the conversion to Christianity. Much like Tolkein, Chesterton and Belloc have become beloved by some areas of the pagan and heathen world for their insights into the Middle Ages and the economic order of the past and future.

The basic idea of Distributism is that small-scale community and business is the way of the future. Distributism rejects that there should be lines drawn between spheres of life, and suggests that family, work, religion, etc. should all be integrated to the extent possible. Distributism also suggests that the smaller a business is, and the more workers themselves own the business, the better off the workers are. The same goes for government where the primary role of central authorities is to solve problems local authorities can't, but more often is merely to enable local solutions.

I would argue that open source software is an example of how distributism can work in knowledge industries today, but some parts of Italy have similar networks doing heavy manufacturing.

This is the one I would watch.