Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Question of Values

Oswald Spengler, whose theory of historical cycles was discussed in last week’s post, was far from the first scholar to propose that the future of modern industrial civilization might best be understood by paying at least a little attention to what happened to other civilizations in the past.  Back in 1725, as the industrial revolution was just getting under way, an Italian philosopher named Giambattista Vico traced out "the course the nations run"—the phrase is his—in the pages of his masterpiece, Principles of a New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations (for obvious reasons, scholars these days shorten this to The New Science). Since then, it’s been rare for more than a generation to go by without some historian or philosopher pointing out to readers that every previous society has followed the familiar arc of rise and fall, and ours seems to be doing exactly the same thing.

Spengler was thus contributing to an established tradition, rather than breaking wholly new ground, and there have been important works since his time—most notably Arnold Toynbee’s sprawling A Study of History, twelve weighty volumes packed with evidence and case studies—that carried the same tradition further. Vico spent his whole career laboring in obscurity, but Spengler and Toynbee were both major public figures in their day, as well as bestselling authors whose ideas briefly became part of the common currency of thought in the Western world. They and their work, in turn, were both consigned to oblivion once it stopped being fashionable to think about the points they raised, and you can read any number of hefty studies of the philosophy of history and never find either man mentioned at all.

What makes this disappearance fascinating to me is that very few critics ever made a serious attempt to argue the facts that Spengler and his peers discussed. There was never any shortage of disagreement, to be sure, but nearly all of it remained weirdly detached from the issues the theorists of historical cycles were attempting to raise. There was a great deal of quibbling about details, a great deal of handwaving about fatalism and pessimism, and whole armies of straw men were lined up and beaten with gusto, but next to nobody tried to show that the basic concept of historical cycles doesn’t work—that the patterns traced by the history of China, let’s say, contradict those displayed by the history of ancient Egypt—and the few attempts that were made in this direction were embarrassingly weak. 

By and large, those who disputed Vico, Spengler, Toynbee, et al. either brushed aside the entire question of patterns of historical change, or conceded that, well, of course, those other civilizations of the past might have followed a shared trajectory, but ours?  Never.  That’s still the predictable response to any suggestion that the past might have anything useful to say about the future, and regular readers of this blog will have seen it deployed countless times in critiques posted by commenters here: in words made famous in any number of speculative bubbles, it’s different this time.

There’s a wry amusement to be had by thinking through the implications of this constantly repeated claim. If our society was in fact shaking off the burdens of the past and breaking new ground with every minute that goes by, as believers in progress like to claim, wouldn’t it be more likely that the theory of historical cycles would be challenged each time it appears with dazzlingly new, innovative responses that no one had ever imagined before?  Instead, in an irony Nietzsche would have relished, the claim that history can’t repeat itself endlessly repeats itself, in what amounts to an eternal return of the insistence that there is no eternal return. What’s more, those who claim that it’s different this time seem blissfully unaware that anyone has made the same claim before them, and if this is pointed out to them, they insist—often with quite some heat—that what they’re saying has nothing whatsoever to do with all the other times the same argument was used to make the same point down through the years.

There are deep patterns at work here, but it’s probably necessary to tackle the different-this-time argument on its own terms first. Of course there are differences between contemporary industrial civilization and those older societies that have already traced out the completed arc of rise and fall.  Each of those previous civilizations differed from every other human society in its own unique ways, too. Each human life, to use an analogy Spengler liked to cite, differs from every other human life in a galaxy of ways, but certain processes—birth, infancy, childhood, puberty, and so on through the life cycle to old age and death—are hardwired into the basic structure of being human, and will come to every individual who lives out a normal lifespan.  The talents, experiences, and achievements that fit into the common sequence of life will vary, often drastically, from person to person, but those differences exist within a common frame. The same thing, the theorists of historical cycles suggest, is true of human societies, and they offer ample evidence to support that claim.

Furthermore, these same scholars point out, modern industrial civilization has passed so far through all the normal stages of social existence appropriate to its age. It emerged out of a feudal setting all but indistinguishable from those that provided the cradle for past civilizations; out of that background, it developed its own unique view of the cosmos, expressed first in religious terms, and later in the form of a rationalist philosophy; it passed through the normal political, economic, and social changes in the usual order, and at the same broad time intervals, as other civilizations; its current political, economic, and cultural condition has precise parallels in older civilizations as far back as records reach. Given that the uniqueness of modern industrial civilization has so far failed to nudge it off the standard trajectory, it’s hard to find any valid reason to insist that our future won’t continue along the same track.

Claims that it’s different this time usually rest on one of three foundations. The first is that this is the first global civilization on record. A difference of scale, though, does not necessarily equal a difference of kind; the trajectory we’re discussing appears in Neolithic societies limited to a single river basin and continental empires with thriving international trade networks, as well as every scale in between. While it might be argued that the greater size of contemporary industrial society amounts to a difference in kind, that claim would have to be backed up with evidence, rather than merely asserted—as, so far, it generally has been. Furthermore, when the slower speed of earlier transportation technologies is taken into account, the "worlds" inhabited by older societies were effectively as large as ours; if your fastest means of transport is a horse-drawn chariot, for example, ancient China is a very big place.

The second foundation for claims of our uniqueness is, of course, the explosive growth of technology made possible over the last three centuries by the reckless extraction and burning of fossil fuels. It’s true that no other civilization has done that, but the differences have had remarkably little impact on the political, cultural, and social trends that shape our lives and the destinies of our communities. The corruption of mass politics in the modern industrial world, for example, is following point for point the same patterns traced out by equivalent phenomena in ancient Greece and Rome; the weapons of war have changed, similarly, but the downward spiral of a failing empire trying to cling to fractious but strategically vital borderlands is the same for America in Afghanistan as it was for the Babylonians in the Elamite hill country in 1000 BCE. Our technology has given us new means, but by and large we’ve employed them for the same ancient purposes, and reaped the same consequences.

The third foundation is newer, and appears these days mostly in those corners of the blogosphere where the apocalyptic faith discussed in an earlier post in this sequence has become standard. This is the claim that the global disasters that are about to wallop industrial civilization go so far beyond anything in the past that there’s no basis for comparison. Now of course that argument is very often based on the well-worn tactic of heaping up an assortment of worst-case scenarios, insisting that the resulting cataclysm is the only possible outcome of current trends, and using that imagined future as a measuring rod with which to dismiss what really happened in the past. This is the sort of thinking I critiqued in a recent post about claims that humanity will inevitably go extinct in the next few decades: if you cherrypick a set of extreme scenarios backed by less than five per cent of current climate change research, and treat those highly speculative hypotheses as though they’re incontrovertible facts, it’s easy to paint the end of industrial civilization in colors as extreme as you happen to like.

What tends to be missed in the resulting discussions, though, is that ecological disasters of the sort we’re actually likely to face featured repeatedly in the collapse of earlier civilizations. Clive Ponting’s excellent A Green History of the World is a helpful corrective for this myopia.  The collapse of classic Mayan civilization, for example, was triggered in large part by catastrophic droughts, caused in large part by deforestation and farming practices that wrecked the hydrologic cycles on which Mayan life depended. Anthropogenic climate change, in other words, was just as destructive to Mayan civilization as it promises to be to ours.  While climate change in Mayan times was more localized than the present equivalent, it’s worth remembering that the Mayan world was equally circumscribed by its geographical knowledge and transport technologies; from a Mayan perspective, the whole world was being ravaged by climate change, as ours will be in its turn.

The downfall of classic Mayan civilization unfolded over a century and a half, and involved the loss of irreplaceable cultural treasures and scientific knowledge, the abandonment of nearly all of the Lowland Mayan cities to the encroaching jungle, and dieoff so severe that postcollapse populations bottomed out around 5% of the Late Classic peak. It’s by no means impossible that the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization could involve losses on the same scale, and it’s a source of endless fascination to me that this suggestion—based as it is on the one source of useful evidence we’ve got, the experience of a previous society going through an equivalent process—should be dismissed by one set of disbelievers in historical cycles as too pessimistic, and by another set as too optimistic.

It’s exactly this twofold dismissal that points to the deeper, nonrational dimension underlying the whole discussion of possible futures. It bears repeating that the belief in progress, and the equal and opposite belief in apocalypse, are narratives about the unknowable. Both claim that the past has nothing to say about the future, that something is about to happen that has never happened before and that can’t be judged on the basis of any previous event. Whether the thing that’s about to happen is a shining new age of wonder, along the lines of Joachim’s Age of the Holy Spirit, or a sudden end of history, along the lines of Augustine’s version of the Second Coming, it refutes everything that has come before. This is what lies behind the endlessly repeated (and just as repeatedly disproved) insistence, on the part of believers in both narratives, that it’s different this time: if it’s not different this time, if the lessons of the past reveal the shape of the future, then both belief systems come crashing down at once.

That is to say, the belief in progress and in apocalypse are both matters of faith, not fact. The same is true of every set of beliefs about the future, however, or about anything else for that matter.  No system of logical inferences, however elaborate and exact, can prove its own presuppositions; dig down to the foundations, and you’ll find that the structure rests on assumptions about the nature of things that have to be taken on faith. It probably has to be pointed out that this is just as true of rationalist beliefs as it is of the most exotic forms of mysticism.  To say, as science does, that statements about the universe ought to be based on observation assumes, has to assume, that what we observe tells us truths about the universe—an assumption that the old Gnostics would have considered laughably naive. To claim that there are many gods, a few gods, only one god, or no gods at all is to insist on something about which human beings have no independently verifiable source of information whatsoever.

It’s tolerably common these days, outside of the surviving theist religions, to affect to despise faith, and you’ll find plenty of people who insist that they take nothing on faith at all. Of course they’re quite wrong. None of us can function in the world for five minutes without taking a galaxy of things on faith, from the solidity of the floor in front of us, through the connection between another person’s words and their thoughts, to the existence of places and times we will never experience.  Gregory Bateson pointed out, in a series of papers that have vanished as thoroughly from the literature of psychology as Spengler and Toynbee have from that of history, that an unwillingness to take anything on faith is at the core of schizophrenia; that’s what lies behind the frantic efforts of the paranoiac to find the hidden meaning in everything around him, and the catatonic’s ultimate refusal to have anything to do with the world at all.

Faith is, among other things, the normal and necessary human response to those questions that can’t be answered on the basis of any form of proof, but have to be answered in one way or another in order to live in the world. The question that deserves discussion is why different people, faced with the same unanswerable question, put their faith in different propositions. The answer is as simple to state as it is sweeping in its consequences: every act of faith rests on a set of values.

We’ll probably have to spend a good deal of time talking about the difference between facts and values one of these weeks, but that’s material for another post. The short form is that facts belong to the senses and the intellect, and they’re objective, at least to the extent that anyone with an ordinarily functioning set of senses and no reason to prevaricate can say, "yes, I see it too."  Values, by contrast, are a matter of the heart and the will, and they’re irreducibly subjective; to say "this is good" or "this is bad," or any other statement of value, does not communicate an objective fact about the thing being discussed, but always expresses a value judgment from some irreducibly individual point of view. More than half the confusions of contemporary thought result from attempts to treat personal value judgments as though they were objectively knowable facts—to say, for example, "x is better than y" without addressing such questions as "better by what criteria?" and "better for whom?"

The prejudices of modern industrial culture encourage that sort of confusion by claiming a higher status for facts than for values. Listen to atheists and Christians talking past each other, as they normally do, and you have a classic example of the result.  The real difference between the two, as the best minds on both sides have grasped, is a radical difference in values that defines equally profound differences in basic assumptions about humanity and the world.  Behind the atheist vision of humanity as a unique but wholly natural phenomenon, in the midst of a soulless universe of dead matter following natural laws, stands one set of value judgments about what counts as right and true; behind the Christian vision of humanity as the adopted child of divine omnipotence, placed temporarily in the material universe as a prologue to eternal bliss or damnation, stands a completely different set.  The difference in values is the heart of the matter, and no amount of bickering over facts can settle a debate rooted in that soil.

In the classical world, in an age when values were given at least as high a status as facts, debates of this sort were conducted on their natural ground, and systems of thought appealed to potential followers by presenting their own visions of the Good and calling into question the values presented by competing systems. Nowadays, such clarity is rare, and indeed it’s embarrassingly common to hear people insist that there’s no way to judge among competing value claims. It’s true that a value can’t be disproved in the same way as a fact, but values don’t exist in a vacuum; any statement of value has implications and consequences, and it’s by assessing these that each of us can judge whether a value is consistent with the other values we happen to hold, and with the universe of fact that we happen to experience.

We all know this, at least in practice. The reason why doctrines of racial inequality are widely and rightly dismissed by most people in the modern industrial world, for example, has little to do with the shoddy intellectual basis offered for such doctrines by their few defenders, quite a bit to do with lynch mobs, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, and other well-known consequences of value systems that deny the humanity of other ethnic groups, and at least as much to do with the conflict between the values expressed in these consequences and other values, such as fairness and compassion, that most people embrace.  This is an extreme example, but the same principle applies more generally: when a statement is made about the unprovable, it’s always wise to ask what the consequences of believing that statement have been in the past, and what other values are consistent or inconsistent with the claim.

We can thus apply the same logic to the faith in perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse. One consequence of accepting these beliefs, and embracing the values that underlie them, is clear enough: both reliably yield false predictions about the future. Believers in progress like to claim the opposite, but you have to read descriptions of the future from before 1960 or so to grasp just how few the hits have always been compared to the flops. For all its failures, though, the faith in progress has a better track record than the faith in apocalypse; across the centuries, whenever anyone has insisted that the world was about to end, he or she has always been dead wrong. Aside from speculative bubbles or the quest for perpetual motion, it’s hard to name a more reliable source of utter hogwash.

For faiths that focus on the future as intently as these do, this inability to foresee the future is not exactly encouraging. It’s possible to go further, though, by noticing the values embodied in the progressive and apocalyptic faiths. Both of them insist that the world we know must shortly be swept away, to be replaced by some better age or annihilated in some grand final judgment. Both of them anchor their entire sense of meaning and value on an imaginary future, and disparage the present by contrast.  Both faiths are thus founded on a rejection of the world as it actually exists.  To borrow one of Nietzsche’s phrases, both are Nay-sayings to life, attempts to posit an unreal "real world" (the shining future of progress, the world after apocalypse) against which life as it actually is can be judged, condemned, and sentenced to death.  The mere fact that the executioners never do their job, though it’s an inconvenience to the believers on either side, does nothing to alter the furious zeal with which, over and over again, the sentence is handed down.

The religion of progress and its antireligion of apocalypse are by no means alone in their Nay-saying to life. The same world-condemning attitude has had a pervasive role in most (though not all) branches of Christianity, the theist faith from which these secular religions covertly derive a good many of their ideas and images.  In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss the way that this attitude in its many forms has helped send contemporary industrial society slamming face first into the wall of crises that shapes today’s headlines and will be defining our history for a good many years to come.

For the time being, though, I’d like to leave my readers with this reflection: what would it mean to found a set of values, and a corresponding set of presuppositions about the world, on life exactly as it is? In the course of opening that can of worms, and getting the worms inside more comfortably situated in their proper soil, we’ll begin the process of circling in toward the question at the center of this series of posts—the quest for a philosophy of life, and perhaps even a spirituality, that can make sense of the human reality of the Long Descent.

185 comments:

Janie said...

What would it mean to found a set of values on the world as it actually is? I think the Buddha comes closest to this way of thinking - not answering questions about the unknowable but prescribing a way of living life in the moment and causing the least harm.

Thijs Goverde said...

You wrote: By and large, those who disputed Vico, Spengler, Toynbee, et al. either brushed aside the entire question of patterns of historical change, or conceded that, well, of course, those other civilizations of the past might have followed a shared trajectory, but ours? Never.

I often wonder whether Vico himself didn't really believe this last bit as well. I find it rather telling that throughout the Scienza Nuova you only find the word ricorso, the sacred 're-run' of profane history, in the singular. I've only ever read the Scienza Nuova, though. Do you know of any mention of ricorsi in his other works? Or do you think think that the notion that the 're-run' is the final one might be nothing but a facade toward the prevailing Christianty of Southern Italy?

Leo said...

First up:
http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/australia27s-oil-vunerability/4565726

It can be a bit cumbersome to say "according to value system x" every time you make a written value judgement.

Can't change the core cycle through some of the details might change. A few things could do that, through the overall picture will still be similar.

The metric system, specifically an easily reproducible measurement system based of natural constants, if kept (and I have a few projects along those lines in mind) would certainly change feudal relationships, holding the measures was a traditional feudal responsibility.
As the French Kings said "Un Roi, une Foi, un Poid" or "one king, one faith, one measure"

Guns also could have a similar effect, have some research to do before I can say more. Certainly changes the focus of defenses and power relationships.

John Michael Greer said...

Janie, depends very much on the branch of Buddhism you have in mind. The condemnation of existence in the world as compared to nirvana is a major theme in Buddhist tradition, though there are some sects in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions that moved away from that to a more nuanced approach.

Thijs, heck of a good question. To the best of my recollection, he doesn't discuss multiple ricorsi in any of his other writings; I'm not sure if he was covering his tracks, or if it simply never occurred to him that nation after nation could run the same course.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, good. Guns make a fully developed system of feudalism difficult -- a society in which a peasant with six weeks of training can drop the best warrior in the kingdom with a musket shot has a hard time enforcing the monopoly of effective violence by the warrior caste that's central to the feudal social structure -- and it would be interesting to see what kind of neofeudal arrangements a dark age society equipped with guns would manage.

Unknown said...

I am having some trouble understanding how faith in the recurrence of the decline of civilizations in a long slow spiral is very different from faith in apocalypse or in perpetual progress toward perfection.

Rita Narayanan said...

Here is a suggestion for people interested: the philosophies of Aurobindo and Teilhard Chardin may be of special interest.

This is in keeping with interest in topics like evolution, the post-industrial world from both a Christian and Eastern point of view.

JMG, thanks for your posts!

Hidden Author said...

One difference is that an all-out fall like the sack of Carthage or Constantinople would be very difficult to carry out on a well-armed nuclear power.

Joseph Nemeth said...

I'm still not getting a solid feel for the timing of the long decline. But an observation:

There's a new movie airing its first previews, Elysium, and it points out in a science-fiction way the fact that no empire comes down smoothly, or uniformly.

There will be enclaves of technologists working on improved weaponry to serve the power-elites for a long time to come, and I think they'll have plenty of oil to burn, once we stop the mass-burning of the eternal flame in our little four-wheeled movable altars dedicated to the Carbon Gods.

The US will have its Praetorian, or its Hoplites, for at least a generation or two (or three) after our world of mass-produced automobiles and iPods is gone. Maybe a century or two (or three)? That's where I don't have a feel for the timing. Eventually, of course, critical tool-chains will collapse. Something ridiculous -- the want of a nail -- will bring the last captive military microchip fabrication plant to a halt, and the last drone will be built. That entire system will unravel rapidly after that, and the Tech Legions will walk away from what's left of the empire.

During those last few decades or generations or centuries, the elites will have plenty of energy, and tech, and military might. The rabble they leave behind as they contract their borders may have guns instead of pitchforks, but the differential between a gun and a drone isn't any less than between a pitchfork and cavalry. As the central distribution channels for food and other resources break down, the rabble outside the "city walls" -- the DMZ's surrounding the elites -- are going to be too busy feeding themselves to make muskets. If they want to get rowdy, they'll buy elite weapons on the black market, but they'll be expensive, and possession will be a capital crime. They won't have the time, or the resources, or the freedom to train properly. The elites will almost certainly retain a monopoly on dealing out violence. They will certainly try.

I don't think guns will make any difference at all. It would only make a difference if the best warrior in the kingdom were limited to using a sword. He won't be.

Alice Y. said...

Great post, JMG. I love that this series is heading in the direction of the most pressing questions for me: philosophy to support living in this age.

On the topic of values, I have been interested to observe amongst what I'd call 'seasoned' Friends (Quakers) whom I've met, a shared reverence for the truth, which expresses itself in careful habits of speech, based on exact accounting of one's own observation; and a commitment to the close correspondence of one's words and deeds. I wonder if this cultural trait is what has allowed so many successful Quaker scientists to arise?

I am highly aware of the social nature of values -- as I understand it we are social creatures and depend on each other to co-operate in the use of shared resources -- water, earth to support crops, and so on. I'm delighted to have found a community amongst whom reverence for truth-telling and truth-seeking is a strong feature.

Looking forward to next week already.

wiseman said...

The inevitable reason because of which religions become disconnected from a set of values about what the world actually is that religious experiences usually appeal to people who are in need of hope, comfort, peace and solace.

This means that they adopt the lowest common denominator of values which describe these set of people, in case of Eastern mystical traditions this amounts to nihilism which can roughly be translated as "life sucks, now get on with it and do your part".

In terms of Western Abrahamic religions this means would mean
"life sucks, wait for death (through natural ways) and look for bliss on the other side"

I have taken the liberty of using some extremely broad strokes here, so please excuse me.

Shakya Indrajala said...

I imagine you're familiar with Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov.

On pages 33-34 they list characteristics of "ideology" in the four general phases they have determined societies go through:

Expansion: Positive, optimistic ideologies rule the day.

Stagflation: Growth of social pessimism; criticism of powers-that-be; ideological and social conflicts.

Crisis: Popular movements for social justice and abolishment of debts, and for land redistribution.

Depression: Pessimistic ideologies; the cult of death.


Generally speaking, it seems we're in-between stagflation and crisis. Immediately after WWII much of the west was pretty optimistic even during the Cold War. Thereafter come the 60s you end up with a lot of challenges to the status quo. Now, as Occupy Wall Street demonstrated, a lot of people are demanding debt relief as the gap between the rich and poor grows (which is another feature of this model).

A lot of the other characteristics assigned to their phases seem to reflect the west (and much of the rest of the world). We're not quite in the crisis phase yet, but we're starting to get our toes into the water.

Do you have an opinion on their work?

Tom Bannister said...

I find it ironic that doing the 'easy' thing involves making things more complicated and doing the hard thing involves doing the simple thing. Like you said, if only it were more understood that often easy and simple are not the same thing.

Another thing I'd mention in the exercise of making value judgements is how this explains peoples long standing tendency to 'demonize' those who have a different perspective to themselves. Instead of thinking deeply its easier just to say 'they are evil, and anything they say is just propaganda' (I myself have done this in the past :-()

The Primitive said...

Beautiful. Following these posts is such a joy.

In a bit of a throw back to last week, but also covered in this week, I have been questioning the "is now really different?" in a small way. I'm not questioning that we are in the long decent, but rather do we have greater knowledge this time of the process that was had in the past? And if so, what opportunities does that afford us? I will continue to ponder.

On the concept of faith in it's many forms, what I observe today is people are so dogmatic about whatever they believe in greater or lesser parts because they don't want to be wrong. Be it the ability to have the bible tell you a truth that is unassailable, or be it facts that should be, in theory, undebatable. Honestly, I don't know how different this was from the past, but it seems different to me. It seems people are more unwilling to be open to new thought and ideas because to change is somehow to lose. I'm unclear on what is lost or to whom, but boy do people not want to lose. My experience is that plays a big role in why "faith" is such an all or nothing thing for many people.

What you describe as faith seems semantically different that what that word means in todays culture. I'm quite looking forward to where this is going.

Bill Carson said...

One of the ugliest aspects of the progress/apocalypse worldview is how it completely denigrates our ancestors. Take, for example, a medieval farmer. He's a resourceful, intelligent person with a vast range of skills and knowledge very well suited to his time. He probably has a rich spiritual and civic life, and a family he loves. In short, yes he has a hard life, but he values it as much as any modern person values theirs.

We're taught to look down upon or pity this man because he had the bad luck not to be born in modern times. We view him as superstitious and filthy, not quite fully human himself, just a step on the road to true humanity. We'll usually mention something about his poor teeth or low life expectancy compared to ours - as though that was some kind of measure of the quality or value of a life.

The myth of progress ruins our ability to relate fully to our ancestors, we can never look at them eye to eye because we feel above them. This also leads to our inability to learn from them, much to our peril.

permaliv said...

"In the classical world, in an age when values were given at least as high a status as facts, debates of this sort were conducted on their natural ground, and systems of thought appealed to potential followers by presenting their own visions of the Good and calling into question the values presented by competing systems. Nowadays, such clarity is rare, and indeed it’s embarrassingly common to hear people insist that there’s no way to judge among competing value claims. It’s true that a value can’t be disproved in the same way as a fact, but values don’t exist in a vacuum; any statement of value has implications and consequences, and it’s by assessing these that each of us can judge whether a value is consistent with the other values we happen to hold, and with the universe of fact that we happen to experience."

One of the most important discussions of value for the last century was the one that took place between Eisenman and Alexander in 1982:

http://www.katarxis3.com/Alexander_Eisenman_Debate.htm

Later Alexander's values have been supported by huge amounts of provable facts:

http://www.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/UAT-description.pdf

Still, Eisenman's ideology, completely disconnected from science, has conquered the world.

"For the time being, though, I’d like to leave my readers with this reflection: what would it mean to found a set of values, and a corresponding set of presuppositions about the world, on life exactly as it is?"

Here I would like to quota Alexander's vision of A New Kind of World:

- A world in which we experience, daily, our unity with the universe
A world which is made like nature – and in which we are daily making nature.

- A world in which the daily process of making, adapting, and deepening is a vital part of our lives.

- A world in which there is something to believe in – not a religious thing – but a believable vision of God as the unity behind all things which guides us and impels us to act in certain ways. God not conceived of as a construct of any organized religion, but as a fact of nature and its wholeness.

- A social and political world which contains (and explicitly provides) the freedom for us to act in this way – something we rarely have today.

- A world in which we feel the cultural trace of human beings before us who made and loved every part.

- A world in which we value ourselves according to the beauty of the places we have carved out, and modified, and taken care of, and in which we have woven our lives together with that of other people, animals, and plants.

- A world in which buildings are shaped according to these principles, and laws governing the shaping of buildings in this way, are the laws most precious to us, and those to which we give most weight.

- A world in which we have an entirely new understanding of what it means for the world to be sustainable: not a technical matter, but a matter in which respect for the whole governs.

- Above all, there is a world in which meaning exists. The deadly and frightening state in which we do not know why we are here, is replaced by a world in which there is a natural and accurate and truthful picture — an answer to the question ‘why am I here’ – one that is not made up, but that stems from and accords with the true nature of things. - Christopher Alexander

http://www.natureoforder.com/library/a-new-kind-of-world.htm

KL Cooke said...

Of course, guns can be confiscated by those with more and bigger guns.

The gun with interchangeable parts was a big moment in history too.

Gunsmithing as a cottage industry might be ready for a comeback.


However, the consequences for getting caught doing it might be dire.

Paul said...

“what would it mean to found a set of values, and a corresponding set of presuppositions about the world, on life exactly as it is?”

The problem with this formulation is that every self-confident intellectual will likely consider his own vision as “life exactly as it is”. It is a fact that people differ. Everything will end one day is a truism, even for a “perpetual growth” believer who at the bottom of his heart there is one qualification: perpetual growth within a time frame that matters. Doomsayers in the past failed just because we are still around; but that doesn’t mean we will still be around tomorrow – meaning that one day they will have the last laugh!

In the past decades or so, historians like Susan Naquin, did a lot of research on the numerous millenarian rebellions in the last Qing Dynasty of Imperial China (aided by disclosure of imperial Qing documents both in Beijing and Taipei). The interesting thing is that despite repeated quick failures (sometimes within days), these religious leaders (usually associated with White-Lotus Buddhism) kept creating new ones (with as little as less than a thousand followers), because each believed his was the right moment. The Qing Dynasty finally collapsed in 1911, not by these rebels and not by Imperial western powers who wanted to divide China among themselves in those days. The turn of history never seemed to follow a well-defined path. The Qing Emperor wanted to keep their regime in perpetually (and the Kim family in North Korean wanted similarly nowadays). Whether or not they believed in the ideology of “perpetual growth” is quite irrelevant in the order of things.

The stock market will collapse one day, but people differ as to when. And for the stock market to fulfill its resource allocation function, people are encouraged to be different (for the sake of discussion, assuming that there is no market failure). And I believe it is similar with life itself. Perpetual growth or apocalypse beliefs may have a point sometimes, depending on a particular reality at a particular moment, or life as what is exactly is – definable only at a particular moment.

“God is dead” can also mean “we humans can live happily without any presupposition”.

Yupped said...

Wow, great post and quite a challenge at the end.

To your list of reasons why some people feel it's different this time I would consider adding the belief that America's special "optimistic/can-do" culture would not tolerate the end of industrial society, the "American people would never allow that..." line of belief. That's almost as good as "the sun will never set on the British Empire".

As regards a set of values and presuppositions about living in the world exactly as it is, two initial thoughts. One foundational challenge will be to revive the personal skills and practices to become more conscious of our own unconsciousness, to challenge our mental pre-suppositions or our ego or whatever else you want to call this bundle of automatic reactions that we live with in our heads 24/7. Of course, there are many spiritual and philosophical frameworks for doing this, several of which you've touched on in your posts, so we're not short of tools or methods. I don't think we would need to pick just one approach. But we would need to raise the priority of internal inquiry as a lifelong practice, rather than just wait for people to tumble into a meditation practice after a mid-life crisis. And part of raising the priority of this would be the need to tune out disruptions - a ban on commercial and political advertising would be fun to implement.

I see this personal contemplative practice as foundational for finding greater depth in a simpler lifestyle as well as more purposeful public debate and group decision making.

Second, rebuilding our comfort with and closeness to nature would be key. So much of what we do today seems to be to dedicated to avoiding contact with the natural world as it actually is. Nature can help with much of what ails us, but we need to change our relationship to it. Understand that we are part of it, subject to it, not in control of it.

So we could go on forever on this topic. Quite the can of anacondas.

Leo said...

First up; one potential difference about this time is that since it's a global civilization, their aren't any others external to it. Mind you China was fairly isolated, so I don't know how much that matters.

The neofeudal system would have to be communal. On the stationary defensive, a single person with a gun is just too vulnerable, since humans are evolved as predators (both eyes forward) and our ears are shaped for communal defence, that's why they can't swivel.

Also depends on what kind of guns can be manufactured. From what I understand of it, a fair few of the advances didn't require more energy/resources or a higher tech base, just having the idea. So they'll likely be of high quality compared to most historic examples (so they won't explode and will be accurate).

Gun warfare's pressures are very different than sword or bow warfare, cavalry won't have the same place. It'll also mean a difference in how raids or barbarian invasions work out, since guns are fairly powerful on the tactical defensive (so militia), so a equipped town could repel an invasion or raid fairly easily.

And so on. There is a bit to think and write about here.

repo said...

This is kind of off the cuff here, and not something I've really thought through, but it seems to me that the fact vs value opposition is precisely the reason Spengler isn't taken seriously by mainstream historians anymore. The morphological view requires an aesthetic or intuitive appreciation of your object of study, not a "fact-based", empirical method of repeatable experiments. The latter approach is not possible in the study of history, and so in a bid to stay at least ostensibly "scientific", historians have consigned themselves to a role as chroniclers of past events, who don't try to say anything about large-scale or general trends and most certainly don't claim to predict anything about the future.

And Spengler would of course say that this kind of myopic faith in facts and incapability of a more metaphysical kind of thinking is to be expected of the current stage in the life cycle of our civilization, but I'm not sure to what extent he would've foreseen the possibility of his own work being dismissed and forgotten as Faustian civilization declines. If I recall correctly, he did say that the ability to take a "Copernican" view of history would be something fairly unique to us, because of our developed sense of history and appreciation for personal fates, but I'm not sure if he thought of it as something our civilization would eventually preserve and pass on to other cultures.

Keith Hackwood said...

A quick question - what do you make of the work of Riane Eisler, she self-identifies as a 'macro-historian' in the Spengler/Toynbee/Vico/Sorokin tradition and, at least sometimes, sells a good few books; I've found her work useful myself, just wondering how you'd place her.

Phil Knight said...

I suppose it's important for a civilisation like ours not to understand its own trajectory, so that it does indeed follow its arc of decline.

Which is to say that all the progressives and apocalypsians are just performing a natural biological role - ensuring that the organism dies a natural death by not being self-aware enough to avert its fate.

Richard Larson said...

Liberating ideas. Life is much more interesting when one is not tied to a certain outcome...

Have I noticed you have separated the potential outcome of humanity from that of the industrial age?

Leo said...

just saw this, for any one interested in engineering and design.
http://metamodern.com/2013/06/06/must-read-papers-for-anyone-who-practices-manages-or-thinks-about-systems-engineering/

Phil Harris said...

JMG, this was a very rich pudding this week. I feel like Tom Thumb.

JMG wrote
“This is an extreme example, but the same principle applies more generally: when a statement is made about the unprovable, it’s always wise to ask what the consequences of believing that statement have been in the past, and what other values are consistent or inconsistent with the claim.”

History sometimes is so close – piped water came late to our Parish but those first installations now need a lot of attention, and we who live with the mistakes of original local understanding (especially with regard to handling of foul water processing), must now deal with them inter alia, in the context of present (somewhat changed realities), institutional, financial and technological and personal constraints. Last I heard most of our water supply company is owned by some billionaire outfit in Hong Kong, which may or may not matter over relevant timescales. Sounds like my life; though naively I used to think these clean water & WC matters were solved in principle long ago and needed just some priority. Like we had achieved some Progress!

A passing thought for us hominids: we understand that we probably derived our present genetic form by about 100,000 to 150,000 BP. We have seen little differentiation since we became that particular unusual primate; very long-lived long distance endurance runners and walkers with much reduced sexual dimorphism and a most unusual breeding strategy (flexible but default colonial monogamy), and one or two other distinguishing features like being wholly dependent on large culturally inherited ‘stored’ adaptive skill-sets – right from the days of our emergence. It would be nice to compare our social behaviour range with that expressed by other hominids, but that is denied us. Homo neanderthalensis is believed to have evolved a bit earlier about 200K years ago, which is about two ice ages and two inter glacials ago, but seems to have been more narrowly specialised.

Just a thought: development of feudal social systems for example seems more typically to have been absent for the first 100,000 years or so. There is some suggestion in the ethnographic literature that extant small-band foragers consciously have to work hard at social mechanisms to reject the feudal tendency – because presumably it is obviously counterproductive to their survival. (See for example Getting to know Waiwai, Campbell, 1995. As he put it: “no Lord of the Flies fantasy here”)

My own anecdotal experience of ad-hoc ‘buddy systems’ very much supports the idea that social response can ‘flip’ to default organisation with benign result. Perversely, aggressive sub-groups can borrow some of the ‘buddy’ behaviours in developing dominant institutionalised structures. Well, that is how farming became increasingly organised round here even while it was 'still horses' and 'organic', into recent times; England especially 1750 to date – a kind of ‘super-feudalism’ imposed on the older ownership and financial organisation, but with strong morphological similarity. But there we go; we are into those value judgements you are continuing to talk about!

best
Phil H

Yossi said...

Agreed that none of us can function in the world for five minutes without taking a galaxy of things on faith, from the solidity of the floor in front of us, through the connection between another person’s words and their thoughts but one can look at previous experience and come up with probabilities. If I and a thousand other people have walked on that floor and it hasn’t collapsed I’d be more prepared to believe it is solid than I would believe that Obama was your saviour.

Not so sure that values are always a matter of the heart and the will. You have set out your values on this blog in a very rational way for many months

Perhaps in the US all atheists and Christians talk past each other. I don’t know but where I reside I hear them often talking to each other and sharing values. A Christian’s vision of humanity as the adopted child of divine omnipotence doesn’t have to say much about his/her day to day values.  An atheist can have the same values as the Christian, who after all didn’t invent the Golden Rule.


Progress could mean progress in cooperation, tolerance, compassion, fulfilling needs not greed, and all that good stuff that Schumacher wrote about. Aren’t you lumping progress and techno-grandiosity together? After all you want to see a different world from the one we currently have based on all of the values that you have espoused over the years that you have written your essays. Don’t you suggest that the world we know will, admittedly not shortly but eventually, be swept away, to be replaced by some ‘better age’.

Odin's Raven said...

"Life exactly as it is... a spirituality, that can make sense of the human reality..."

Perhapa a hint may be found in the work of Peter Kingsley, particularly in his study of Parmenides and Empedocles.

Kingsley

Reality

"Peter Kingsley's work is to bring back to life, and make accessible again, the extraordinary mystical tradition that lies forgotten right at the roots of the western world.

Crafted thousands of years ago as a system capable of bringing a human being to the experience of reality, this tradition is immensely powerful in its immediacy and directness. And it matters to us now more than we can imagine because it contains inside itself the secret — the original meaning and sacred purpose — of the world we live in."

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

Do apocalyptic theories have to be disproved individually, or is there some set of fundamental reasons that disproves all of them simultaneously? After all, Homo sapiens is bound to one day go extinct (although most likely in a million years or so), because that is ultimately what happens to all species on this planet.

Personally I choose to not believe apocalyptic theories, primarily because living by such beliefs would bring out negative (according to my values) behaviour, and only secondarily because they are wrong.

The ending of this post seems to be an even bigger cliffhanger than the most cliffhangerish of your Star's Reach installments.

Camillus O'Byrne said...

The more fundamental faith-assumption of extreme rationalists as we might characterise institutional Science (which class does not include the great majority - if not all - of the greatest scientists like Newton, Einstein and many slightly lesser lights who practised a much different variety of "Science" where inspiration and intuitive insight played the most important role) is not that sensory observation has a consistent correspondence to the Truth. Rather, the base assumption without which "Science" cannot function is that the universe is rationally intelligible.This cannot be proven by employing reason itself, but must be accepted as an (very profound) act of faith. It is in fact quite a plausible indicator of the existence of God. As is also the definition given by the Stephen Hawkings of the world that the Big Bang is that about which it is invalid to ask "what came before?". The Big Bang we are told, is that event, that phenomenon, which has no cause. Sounds like God by another name. Of course, rational intelligibility cannot be proven a priori but there are modes of consciousness that provide ample empirical evidence. The problem for "Science" is that those sources are not acceptable to the institution and tend to support a numinous world view. "Science" can never look at its underlying assumptions without undermining its own authority and credibility.

Jo said...

A value system for the world that is, and the place we want to get to, that is, a liveable planet, would require a great deal more restraint, humility and currently unthinkable decisions than our current civilisation has ever yet shown itself capable of.
The Maya, the Easter Islanders and so many other societies plundered their environments and decimated themselves in the process, but other societies have survived for many millenia in environments of great scarcity.
I am thinking of Australian Aboriginals, Kalahari Bushmen, isolated Pacific islands etc. What these successful cultures had in common were very much equal societies, ritualized resource rationing, and legally sanctioned desperate measures for desperate times, such as infanticide and euthanasia.
Their knowledge of their environment: its gifts and limitations, and their kin bonds which literally kept them alive and fed, these were the values which kept their societies intact and stable for millenia.
And I am only guessing here, but I imagine these 'stone age' people developed any number of technologies over the years, which after careful consideration, were rejected by the group, because of the potential threat to limited resources, and therefore, the welfare, of the whole society.
I think our new value system would require the voluntary surrender of a number of 'inalienable rights' (like cars, and plastic, and McDonalds) for the greater good.
I am at the very beginning of this journey in my own household, and I have to say, some days I feel like a complete fool, like Noah building his ark in the middle of the desert.
But I do believe that at some point each one of us who thinks history may not be heading in quite the direction we were hoping has to say, 'No, I have to stop colluding in a lifestyle that I believe to be wrong, and harmful to humanity...'
Where this journey will end I don't know. In a cave maybe, with a well out the back, and a bicycle?

ohyes378 said...

Fascinating discussion for which I can add little but to ask: Is anyone familiar with A.T. Fomenko's weighty "History: Science or Fiction?" Depending on how valid you find his arguments bears directly on the basis of how the "cycles" of history really happened or not.

I have only read the first two volumes of seven so far but his findings could definitely throw a wrench into the works of our conception of the history of the last 2,000 years or so.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

A struggle I face in trying to embrace where you are going, which I want to do, is figuring out how to value and "honor" the accomplishments of our elders. In particular, I am thinking about the WWII "greatest generation." So much of our narrative in the U.S., and accomplishments of my parents generation, focus on WWI and the immediate post-WWII time period. One is raised to feel guilty if you do not accept and build on the legacy handed to you by the actions of the WWII generation. Granted, I am talking about the victors of this war, but also we are always reminded of those who gave their lives, so that the world could move on and up. This is definitely part of the modern progress narrative. I struggle with how to find peace with moving on beyond that while honoring those before me.

Richard Clyde said...

Having worked my way through a goodly chunk of my abridged Spengler in recent days, it seems to me that he located the source of disagreements in the act of "extension," that is, in how a culture and its persons construct the third dimension. The point is that two dimensions of visual sense data are factual and universal, but the third dimension of depth, in which objects and relations are identified, is an arbitrary act of faith or set of theories. (He also points out that the sense of Time depends on the faith of extension, too, because he describes Time as the sense that here is distant from there.)

I'm a little surprised, and I don't know why, at your choice of fact-and-value as analytic. I'm interested to see where it takes us.

My own first steps in analysing this issue are here:
http://commonbowl.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/superstition-a-prolegomena-to-any-future-iconoclasm/
http://commonbowl.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/where-shall-wisdom-be-found-atheism-and-other-superstitions/

My analysis, where you have fact-value, has belief-relation. I'm not sure yet if those are tags for the same ideas, or if we end up in different places. Perhaps I will take your current theme as an impetus to further cultivate my own (which has been mulching for a year now, after all), to engage in some friendly dissensus and see where it goes. Thank you.

Frank Chapeau said...

Every worm is sacred... even the canned ones.

Greg Knepp said...

A headline in this morning's edition of msn.com reads, "white majority gone by '43." The msn writers aren't being racist; rather, they assume that shifts in racial demographics impact our nation politically - alter our national 'values' if you will. They are, no doubt, correct. The fact is, examples of multi-racial societies in which there has been relative social, political and economic equality among the various racial populations are few and far between.

Race matters. But not strictly for cultural reasons; evolution plays a huge role. Any determination of how our values - both individual and shared - will shake-out as our industrial civilization unravels must take into account the fact that humans are, first and foremost, visual creatures. Like all arboreal descendants, we rely so heavily on our incredibly keen eyesight that we are largely unaware of its importance - like breathing and sleeping, it is simply the way things are.

This biological attribute can result in the oddest of assessments: a tiny logo printed on a sport shirt can quadruple the retail value of that shirt over the exact shirt sold sans-logo. A metal leaf pin of less than an inch in diameter, affixed to the shoulders of an otherwise visually distracting military uniform, will delineate a major from a colonel simply by the hue of its finish. A person who displays a skin tone and certain minor structural facial and bodily characteristics that are common to non-whites will be viewed with veiled suspicion (however suppressed) by even the most politically-correct white liberal. The fact that human racial variants account for only a tiny portion of DNA and are thus otherwise biologically insignificant will make no difference. We are humans; we rely on what we see. We are animals - without heavy inculturation (and often with) we react from the gut.

Not only our visual acuity, but all of our biological propensities will need to be taken into account as the construction of a new post-collapse ethos is attempted. Otherwise the hard-fought victories of high culture over our savage nature will be exposed as mere patina, to be wiped away in the fray of survival.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

"but the differential between a gun and a drone isn't any less than between a pitchfork and cavalry... ...If they want to get rowdy, they'll buy elite weapons on the black market, but they'll be expensive, and possession will be a capital crime. They won't have the time, or the resources, or the freedom to train properly. The elites will almost certainly retain a monopoly on dealing out violence."

That scenario has just about played out in / over Afghanistan, which is being left to its own devices in a year or so... No more drones, just AK-47s all round. Doesn't auger well for political/military elites in their gated communities, eh...

cheers

Mustard

Unknown said...

But...according to your own claims here and elsewhere, isn't a set of values based on "the world as it is" intrinsically impossible? I mean, yes, I agree with you - we can't help but take things on faith. As Kant pointed out, even our sensory experiences are necessarily based at least as much on the nature of the human mind (or soul, if you prefer) as on the outside world. So, what are we left with? Even "life exactly as it is" is therefore dependent on things taken on faith, which include pre-existing human values. Even a value system based on "life exactly as it is" will come with values already baked in from your mind. This new value system would be built as much on sand as reason, as Buddhism, and as industrial progressivism/apocalypticism. There's no such thing as "life exactly as it is". It's values all the way down.

This is a genuine concern of mine, Mr. Greer. I'm not trying to troll anyone, or denounce your diagnosis of a deindustrial future and your prescription for what the common man is to do. I think you're right on the money! I just don't see any way of having a non-arbitrary morality or conception of the universe. And saying "Tough. You'd better have one, or you'll turn schizophrenic!" really isn't enough. As Plato pointed out, those who know the real universe may well appear insane to those who don't. And, in general, we don't determine the truth or falsehood of an idea by looking at the consequences to the holders of an idea - even if that idea is a value system. If we did, then persecuted religions would be trivially false.

I would love - really love - to have some kind of non-arbitrary value system. Heck, I'd settle for a non-arbitrary metaphysics. Even a non-arbitrary science would be pretty nice! If anyone could show me such a thing, I'd probably immediately vote them "Greatest Philosopher in Human History". But for now, I grumblingly make do with my arbitrary ones, unsure of what else to do.

--mark

Joseph Nemeth said...

Last night was late and I was tired and not thinking straight.

The feudal period doesn't happen during the decline, does it? It's during the rise of the next cycle. Or somewhere around the bottom between the two cycles. Breakdown of large government -> local defense -> warlords -> warlord rights/responsibilities -> relative stability -> expansion -> next cycle....

So the next feudal cycle is centuries away. The tech will be gone, the Praetorian Guard disbanded and forgotten, the last drone out of fuel and scavenged for parts.

I still don't think guns will make any difference at all.

What makes feudalism work is privilege, not weapons.

When I was in college and staying in the dorms, there was some occasional grumbling about our own warrior-class, the football players. They got special privileges in the cafeteria, an entire diet of their own. They ate steak while the rest of us were making do with flavorless lasagna or tuna surprise or grilled cheese sandwiches.

Hand guns to peasants with six days of training, and the same guns to a platoon that has trained together and lived through a couple of battles, and -- apart from the fog of war -- the platoon is going to win more often than it loses. The big difference is that they are well-fed, have the time (and opportunity, and obligation) to train, have the best weaponry that money can buy, whether that's spears or ray guns, and they have experience in war.

The peasants will will not have those things.

So there will always be a warrior-class armed, not with weapons, but with privilege. That's what will give them the monopoly on violence.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Mr. Mustard,

The people who stay in Afghanistan aren't the elites I'm talking about. They're the puppets abandoned by the elites as the empire withdraws.

Empires in decline lose their reach before they lose their teeth.

Joel said...

@ Leo, and others talking feudalism:

Organized crime has a lot of morphological similarity to feudalism. I'm not aware of much analysis of this similarity, but or raw information on how criminal organizations operate, Sudhir Venkatesh is the best source in writing I've found. (Living in a "bad neighborhood", and talking to people who live in such neighborhoods, is more direct but demands some care.)

Feudal systems with easy access to firearms are less like a monopoly on steel (where none can afford to enter the market), than a monopoly on garbage collection (where few would choose to remain in the market).

Interestingly, most firearms in poor neighborhoods aren't treated like an archetypal capitalist would treat capital equipment: common people have some access to weapons that are held in common, rotated among caretakers and lent as needed within a particular social group; those within the feudal power structure may own a few weapons, but tend to rent arsenals when conflicts arise.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG, here's a poorly informed, first-year-undergrad question. Why is it that you particularly commend Spengler, as a corrective to the current lack of interest in morphology-based philosophy-of-history, rather than Toynbee? A week ago, you discussed Spengler at length, Toynbee only briefly.

From what little I know of the two analysts, I suspect Spengler differs from Toynbee in positing a quasi-biological inevitability in the rise-and-decline arc of civilizations. Has this difference played some part in your thinking?



Sincerely,

Toomas (Tom) Karmo

near Toronto, Canada

<a href="http://www.metascientia.com/>www dot metascientia dot com </a>

Joel said...

@ Greg Knepp:

It's quite possible that the white majority, under its current definition, will be gone by 2043, but in the past, the definition of "white" has shifted to accommodate demographic changes.

For example, US newspapers don't publish cartoons comparing Irish people to apes any more. Several other ethnic groups that were regarded as scary and alien in periods of rapid migration are now generally regarded as white, and as part of the majority.

There will still be a lot of racist ideas and behaviors in circulation, don't get me wrong. There are currents of bigotry still flowing against groups that have been American for many generations. But I think "that mainstream" is able to co-opt its neighbors, to defend itself from marginalization. If you need current evidence, look how the Republican Party is using Rubio to reach out to other rubios.

Myriad said...

Even if it were possible, what use would a values system based on the world and life exactly as it is be? It would be like an aesthetic for painting based on the canvas exactly as it is. Perfect if your goal is to contemplate canvas, but you need more than that once you pick up a brush (or a plow, saw, sword, pen, microphone...)

Marcello said...

"Also depends on what kind of guns can be manufactured. From what I understand of it, a fair few of the advances didn't require more energy/resources or a higher tech base, just having the idea. So they'll likely be of high quality compared to most historic examples (so they won't explode and will be accurate)"

Only partially. Yes, armies did stick for decades with 1890s vintage bolt action rifles that could have probably been replaced by semi-auto, SMGs and assault rifles a lot earlier had they been asked for. But guns are underpinned by a considerable technology base which cannot be sidestepped. You cannot produce
a Lee Enfield with just the basic tools that suffice to produce a Baker rifle without risking winding up with an unsafe and underpowered weapon, just google around "Khyber pass copy".
How much of such technology base
would survive into decline, I have no idea. If the collapse is rapid enough even matchlocks might be out of reach for the survivors.

ozoner said...

JMG,
Thanks for this series of [what I'd consider] clarifying essays.

I posted my pragmatic vision of the future (after the blood has soaked into the earth and the dust has settled on this idiocy of waste and megalomania) a few weeks ago. Having carefully read your essays, I believe it holds up quite well. Respect for the smallest to largest is, of course, the most critical "value" to find expression for and practice of.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

Amazing post! I think we are beginning to come to the crux of the matter when JMG says that " circling in toward the question at the center of this series of posts—the quest for a philosophy of life, and perhaps even a spirituality"

Personally I tend to believe that to face the gradual collapse of our civilisation we would require to learn/relearn at least 3 things.
(1) To live in harmony with others
(2) To live in harmony with nature
(3) To live a quest for meaning/spirituality

Actually, for the local press (in Mauritius) I wrote a small article along those lines, however it was never published. I have posted it onto the web and although written in french, interested surfers can view it on the following link: http://iels.intnet.mu/Maurice_50ans.htm

The influence of JMG's thinking is pretty obvious in this article!

Georgi Marinov said...

I am not going to say anything new here, mostly truisms, but they do need to be pointed out.

First let me clearly state I am not a subscriber to the "antireligion of apocalypse", but nevertheless the following remain true:

1) The prophets of apocalypse need only be right once

2) All collapses in the past were local with respect to the global distribution of Homo sapiens and to the global ecosystem.

3) Some of them did end up with the complete extinction of the group of people that underwent collapse

4) The current civilization is global and is about to collapse

5) Therefore the possibility exists (made much more likely by our advanced technology) that this collapse episode will be so bad it will result in the extinction of the species.

This does not mean it WILL happen, but the possibility cannot be dismissed simply based on the way prior historical cycles of civilizational collapse played out. This is the kind of low probability/high impact event that one absolutely has to take seriously.

Thus posts like this one while generally informative, also do some harm by making people complacent and thinking that the worst case scenarios are impossible. They are very much possible and should be treated as such

Liquid Paradigm said...

@Georgi:

What would be the point? Apocalypse, like Progress, is framed ideologically as an inevitability. So really it serves no useful purpose to bother with it at all if it is coming as sure as the dawn. Eat, drink, and be merry and whatnot.

kollapsnik said...

"...if you cherrypick a set of extreme scenarios backed by less than five per cent of current climate change research, and treat those highly speculative hypotheses as though they’re incontrovertible facts..." There are all sorts of problems with this take. To start with, "100% of climate research" is not exactly a hallmark of knowledge: it ignores a whole list of nonlinear rapid positive feedbacks, some of which have already been triggered. Secondly, species extinction is another time-tested truism, along with the rise and fall of civilizations, and treating humans as immune from extinction is one of these "this time it is different" moves. No, this time is exactly the same: destroy the species' habitat (where it practices agriculture) and the species dies out. Near-term human extinction is a valuable hypothesis from a values perspective, if only for putting humans in their proper place: a part of the food chain, and not necessarily at the top of it.

Moshe Braner said...

re: drones vs. AK-47s, it's not clear cut who wins, and depends on the definition of "winning". I just saw a Danish film called "Armadillo" following their troops in Afghanistan, it shows how the powerful in their "gated community" (army outpost) are rather powerless, beyond meting out arbitrary violence.

Ian O said...

@Georgi Marinov said
"Therefore the possibility exists (made much more likely by our advanced technology) that this collapse episode will be so bad it will result in the extinction of the species.
This does not mean it WILL happen, but the possibility cannot be dismissed simply based on the way prior historical cycles of civilizational collapse played out. "
It WILL happen because we will be hit by concurrent resource depletion, over-population and wacky weather. Unlike earlier collapses this one will be permanent because it will involve global effects. There is no other valley or continent for subsequent civilizations to arise from. I doubt that it will result in the extinction of the species, like rats and cockroaches, humans are pretty resourceful, but civilization as we know it is dog-tucker. Assuming the climate doesn't go utterly berserk, the decline will probably be quite long as our descendants return to something resembling a medieval lifestyle while picking over the decaying remnants of modern life. One advantage they may have is the accumulated knowledge (if not the wisdom) of today... assuming someone remembers to produce hard copies before the last hard drives go belly up.

Hal said...

Woo hoo! Found Decline of the West at the local library today.

On the topic of values, when I saw the title of this week's post I thought you might be taking it in a slightly different direction. In the comments on Spengler that I've read there seems to be a tendency to place values on attributes he assigned to various phases. I'm thinking about some comments here and the article a couple of people linked at nationalinterest.org. It's tempting to see the characteristics of a declining, or at least past-prime, civilization as "bad" or at least causal to the decline. It will await some studious reading for me to have an opinion as to whether Spengler had that opinion.

At any rate, we have the focus on feminism in the article and the use in a lot of quarters of terms such as "decadence" to characterize those... values. But that doesn't make any more sense than it would to tell an aging human that all he needs to do is stop growing gray hairs if he wants to reverse his decline.

It would make just as much sense to say that those attributes are a sign of the acquisition of a certain amount of wisdom. I think you could make a case either way, but unfortunately, I doubt that it would make any difference on the reality of the decline.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, ask yourself this: which of these things has ever actually happened?

Rita, I'll be challenging Teilhard down the road a bit -- still, you're right that they're both worth reading.

Hidden, the sack of Carthage and Constantinople only happened after a formerly well-armed superpower had lost the capacity to maintain its military. I've argued already, in an earlier post, that maintaining a viable nuclear deterrent in an age of decline is easier said than done. More on this down the road.

Joseph, I'll respond to this further down, along with your later comment.

Alice, glad to hear it. The Friends make a good case study in the social creation of values based on immediate personal experience.

Wiseman, generalizing about why people turn to religion is a dangerous hobby, and usually involves a polemic dimension. That is to say, I'll be challenging the characterization you've offered in a later post.

Shakya, I've glanced at their work but haven't studied it in detail. My take was that it's focused on smaller cycles than the ones I'm trying to explore.

Tom, two excellent points.

Primitive, what gets called "faith"
nowadays is what ordinary faith looks like in people who live under a pervasive sense of threat and fear. That's where the shrill quality comes from -- it's not so much that they don't want to lose, it's that they know at some level that they're going to.

Bill, excellent! You get today's gold star.

Permaliv, remember that "important" is also a value judgment; what you're saying, translated into values language, is that the debate between Alexander and Eisenman is important to you, and in your judgment it would be good if other people agreed with that assessment.

KL, police states are extremely resource-intensive, and the capacity to enforce such things as a ban on gunsmiths will go early on. I suspect I'm going to have to do a post, or a series of posts, on this one of these days.

GreenEngineer said...

JMG,

Great post, and I largely agree with your point about values. But something you wrote raises a question of definitions:
The downfall of classic Mayan civilization involved ... dieoff so severe that postcollapse populations bottomed out around 5% of the Late Classic peak.

You go on to say that this estimate is dismissed as too pessimistic by some and too optimistic by others.

Too optimistic? In what universe does a 95% population loss in 150 years NOT count as a secular apocalypse?

Granted, I have met some folks who are convinced of the imminent extinction of humanity, but I have never been able to take those people seriously, and they seem very much in the minority even among doomers.

(Granted there is also an entire contingent of folks who think that some flavor of god is going to reach down and turn off the lights on us. I'm largely ignoring them because they don't really speak to what I'm trying to understand.)

I am left puzzled, because I know that you dismiss the doomer contingent as unreasonable and failing to take lessons from history. But based on my travels in those circles, I would say that relatively few of them are worried about human extinction. The majority of them seem to be worried about a failure mode roughly in line with a 95% dieoff. That's not the end of the species, but it certainly is the end of civilization and the end of all (non-salvaged) technology.

The fabricatory depth required by civilizations (even relatively primitive agrarian civilizations) mean that you need a certain level of population to sustain anything more complex than a hunter-gatherer society. While we might be able to maintain civilization with populations that low, I very much doubt that we can adapt to such a rapid change in population, while keeping any of our original social, political, economic, or infrastructural systems intact.

In my estimation, a 95% dieoff (from a high population, high tech starting place) most likely leaves us with small bands of survivors picking through the wreckage, living essentially a hunter-gatherer tribal lifestyle (which includes gathering old technology, but no maintenance or replacement of same). It's not the end of the species, but it's the end of everything else we have done in the last five millennia. The so-called Dark Ages look like (and are) high culture by comparison.

So: Do you believe that we can sustain anything that looks at all like civilization in the face of a dieoff that severe? Or do you not consider people who fear that scenario "doomers" (in the pejorative sense that they are failing to learn from history, etc)? If it's the latter, then I respectfully suggest that your positions are not so very far from those you dismiss as excessively pessimistic, because that sort of scenario is exactly what most doomers seem to worry about.

Bozack said...

A fantastic post and excellent comments!

I have a few thoughts on Spengler and the morphological approach, some that I was mulling over prior to reading the post and some that directly follow from reading it:

All humans go through a recognisable life-cycle and then die, this is something we know (let's ignore people rising from the grave for now!) We can accept that every cultural unit has a life-cycle too but making predictions about where we are in the cycle is a lot more messy when there is a smaller sample size of previous cultures to study and a great deal of uncertainty in how to categorise things.

What we really want is to get a realistic sense of where "our" culture is in its life-cycle - that is where peak oil/everything theory and study of the Mayans or Easter Islanders can help us.

The problem for prediction is that there are many wild-cards: several readers have mention one of them: nuclear weapons: we have never had the potential to destroy life on the planet like this before, and we can only wonder as to how long a civilisation can hang on for when enemy groups or breakaway units from within the civilisation can be threatened with the biggest stick ever.

Re: values for the world as it is: I prefer to think instrumentally: I want values that lead to long term sustainable human survival, with minimum suffering: this means religious indoctrination at a young age for all people into a system that:

Holds life sacred and does not kill without a serious process: e.g. even farm animals are honoured.

Encourages mindful states: group prayer, meditation, ritual dance... whatever.

Probably encourages awareness of individual mortality and ones own place in the cycle: first you are a child: you are initiated and are then an adult, you contribute to the group and have children, you are old and offer counsel and watch your grandchildren grow... you die and [insert useful myth of choice]

Takes a pantheistic view of life: trees have spirits, rivers have spirits etc. everything is in its place: thus making changes should not be done lightly.

Probably makes the extended family the central organising unit (and incorporates sacred family myths etc.): this is in harmony with our own natural tendencies to love and favour our kin and will be difficult to avoid in a chaotic world anyway....

Whatever values people come up with I think we should reflect on the way that they could actually be inculcated in the general populace: this is why I mention indoctrination at a young age: we can't wait for everyone to figure it all out in their own time, meanwhile causing further chaos...


John Michael Greer said...

Paul, nah, you're taking my words in a sense far more absolute than they were meant. For the last 2500 years or so, the standard way to create a set of values is to imagine a world that doesn't exist, define a set of values that are relevant to that world, and then denounce the real world for its failure to live up to your demands. My suggestion is simply that this has worked very, very poorly, all things considered, and we might want to try basing values on the world we actually experience -- knowing that different people will inevitably define those in different ways. The logic of dissensus is as relevant here as elsewhere!

Yupped, excellent! I see your crystal ball is in working order. Yes, we're going to have to talk about both of those as we proceed.

Leo, exactly. Most of the first round of historical civilizations had little or no contact with other civilizations -- they had, as we do, a penumbra of outside societies that paid tribute and got very little in return. As for guns and all, that's going to take a future post, or a series of posts, to sort out.

Repo, I think that's very likely part of why Spengler's been forgotten; still, the visceral revulsion of believers in progress to the concept of decline also has a lot to do with it.

Keith, I read The Chalice and the Blade when it first came out, thought it was a hamfisted polemic, and haven't read anything else by her. Is there something you'd recommend among her later works?

Phil K., you know, that had never occurred to me. You may be right.

Richard, excellent! I rarely give out two gold stars in a day, but I'm going to make an exception here. Exactly; the end of modern industrial civilization isn't the end of the world, or the end of humanity -- it's just the perfectly normal decline and fall of one more civilization, somewhat bigger than previous examples.

Leo, the papers are worth a look, and so is the jawdropping hubris of the blogger!

Phil H., like a great many of the features of high cultures, feudal systems require certain material preconditions -- agriculture, for one, and military technologies complex enough to give a massive advantage to those who can afford them, on the other. Feudal systems also aren't necessarily counterproductive -- in a time of chaos following the collapse of a civilization, which is normally when they emerge, they're very nearly the only thing that can reestablish the rule of law and restore some semblance of social peace. Of course they have their downsides, but their benefits also have to be noted.

Yossi, no, no, NO! The age that's coming isn't a "better age" -- to judge by many past examples, it's far more likely to be a time of brutal violence, universal impoverishment, imploding public health, and other highly unwelcome things, and the new civilization that rises out of its ashes -- perhaps a thousand years in the future -- will be different from ours, but almost certainly no better. That's what I've been saying all along, and it baffles me that so many people can't hear it!

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Wiseman, I would sum up the view of Judaism as, "Life sucks sometimes. Do practices that connect you with the Divine every day. Then you will appreciate what you have and life won't suck as much. The Messiah may come eventually, but don't hold your breath."

Jewish religious law governs most aspects of ordinary life. One of its objectives is an embodied mindfulness, unlike the disembodied mindfulness that is the object of some meditation practices.

Take for example the elaborate rules that define observance of the sabbath. The sabbath is a twenty-four hour period once every seven days during which it is forbidden to do the work of one's livelihood, or domestic work other than necessary child and animal care. This is not a penance but a way of making time.

The sabbath begins with prayers and a family dinner that includes wine and the best food the family can afford. Husband and wife are encouraged to have sex when they retire; they can look forward to a day of leisure. The next day is for communal prayer, taking walks, reading, conversation, time spent with children, and so forth, until the Sabbath Queen is ceremonially bid farewell at sunset.

The permitted activities are high on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. One of the explicit purposes of Sabbath observance is to give people a taste of the afterlife in the here-and-now.

Most educated people would not accept accept the way classical Judaism frames these practices, as commandments from a deity who is both lawgiver and the creator of the universe. Why would the being who created the stars care what I wear or whether I have rabbit for lunch?

However, there is a sound psychological basis to encouraging people, alone and in groups, habitually to do specific small acts, acts which cultivate gratitude and awareness of a larger whole. This technique can be adapted for a particular culture and adjusted to circumstances. Because most of the practices are part of household routine, they need to be taught but do not require a full time priesthood or an advanced material support system.

Ideas do not become sufficiently internalized to inculcate values or support a spiritual life unless they are put into action. Sometimes symbolic action is a good start.

John Michael Greer said...

Raven, I haven't read Kingsley's recent work, but Parmenides is about as far from taking the world as it is as any philosopher I can think of.

SMJ, I don't know if it would be possible to disprove all apocalyptic claims as a category, but it's probably worth trying. I treat them the same way I treat speculative bubbles and claims of perpetual motion: just one more class of popular delusion.

Camillus, good. It's possible to pursue the scientific method without embracing a worldview that can't tolerate examination of its preconceptions, but you're right that for the most part, that's not how science functions these days.

Jo, to my mind you're asking at least some of the right questions. You have your own experience of life, your own sense of where your society is headed, and your own values, which point in a different direction; then it's simply a matter of choosing to act in accordance with those values. More, much more, on this as we proceed.

Ohyes, I'm not familiar with him. I'll take a look as time permits.

Kevin, it's entirely possible to honor the virtues of a person, or a group of people, without plugging those virtues into a narrative of the "they did all this so that we can progress further" sort. Yes, we'll have to talk about virtue ethics one of these days, won't we?

Richard, I see Spengler's discussion of extension more as a convenient focus than a hard and fast sense that this is where the difference between cultures lies, but I suppose a case could be made either way. As for fact and value, that's been an issue I've wanted to address here for a good long time, and it's highly relevant to the further points I want to make; still, by all means dissense!

Frank, no argument there.

Greg, there is no such thing as the "white race," except as a social construct -- it wasn't so long ago that Italians weren't considered white in America, for example. Fairly often, when empires collapse, social constructs of that kind are among the first things chucked out the window, and in this case, I'd consider that a good thing.

Mustard, true enough.

jean-vivien said...

Hello Mr Greer,

since we are in the spiritual/mental department lately, I wanted to share my inner journey with you, for what it's worth and hoping it could be of interest. I learnt about peak oil towards the end of my student life, and it was a huge relief because somehow I felt that my own inner skills would have some value in this life instead of living the canned life of an office drone. There was a fair bit of panic too... I was a huge science fiction fan, and I did it in part to avoid comfronting the real world, but I have never been very sanguine about a future controlled by machines. So the idea of imminent civ. collapse was both a comfort and also a big anxiety, since the future became again something totally unknown.
After a few more years living in the real world, and being blessed with an economically viable professional branch, I have a lot more nuanced view of the Long Descent. And living an office drone's life has very immediate material advantages. Reading Jim Kunstler's blog I was tempted more than a few times to just watch civilization collapse comfortably from my office chair. But first the show was hardly interesting - a lot of blabla about debt, lots of isolated bombs blowing off in remote countries - and I gotta say, more than a few times your blog helped me calm down and try to take more hindsights on things. That is why I also gave a tip in the cooking jar a while back. I have come to realize that Jim Kunstler's predictions have good litterary values - and predictably fail to predict, not least because they are even more negative than reality itself, and also because they are so precise in their timing.
Now I have finally started to grasp - emotionnally, not just intellectually - what Malraux referred to as "the human condition". I watched your videos about green wizardry at The Red Room and Witchtalk. That also helped me. Nowadays in my homeland we face a strange predicament - the legacy of a once prosperous industrial nation, which has focused itself on nuclear and defense industry, aeronautics, building roads for the cars everywhere... and a hugely centralized state concentrating most of the wealth in the city of the Proud Tower (a lot more than half of high qualification jobs are there). For a young man like me, it is hard to envision a future when a decent property home is increasingly out of reach, and where most of the surviving higher class jobs will get concentrated towards a conurbation which is increasingly hard to live in (too many cars, crowded public transports, insane commutes, soaring costs of real estate).
In this context, and as part of my personal coming of age, I want you to know that the ideas you are discussing are always appreciated at a time when both the personal and the global sphere look pretty scary, even more than the prospect of global extinction. Since I live in Western Europe your posts do feel North-American, and I know they hardly apply to my own personal reality. That's life... You can't always have someone pointing out all of the way for you ! And I am impressed with the quality of the debate on the comments - I am sure we all share some comfort through the sharing of polite conversation.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, as I said to Paul, you're taking what I've said in a sense far more absolute than I meant it. The point I'm trying to make is simply that the habit of grounding values in an imaginary future may not be the best options we've got. More on this as we proceed.

Joseph, that's why I speculated on some sort of neofeudal arrangement when responding to Leo. The change brought by guns is a drastic lowering of the bar -- it takes a lot less in the way of control over resources for a group of peasants with guns to be able to compete with your platoon than it takes for an equivalent group of peasants to be able to compete with armored knights, samurai, etc. Of course there will likely be some form of warrior class, but it may be notably less exclusive. More on this down the road; I'm really going to have to do a series of posts on Dark Age America, aren't I?

Toomas, I find Spengler more congenial and more readable, but it's purely a matter of personal taste; if you prefer Toynbee, by all means.

Myriad, good. You're quite mistaken, as I intend to show as we proceed, but at least you're grappling with the seriousness of the issues I'm trying to raise.

Marcello, given the number of people in America today who know how to build, maintain, and use a flintlock -- check out your local reenactment groups sometime -- I don't see much likelihood that firearms technology will slide any further than, say, 1800. I grant that a Lee-Enfield is another matter -- but a Kentucky long rifle is a simple, robust, reliable technology well suited to local manufacture.

Ozoner, did you mean to post a link? If so, please repost -- I'd be interested in reading your piece.

Karim, excellent. Those are certainly values worth bringing into the conversation.

Georgi, please reread my post on the near term extinction fad. I said in so many words, in that post, that humanity would certainly go extinct someday, and could do so quite soon. My quarrel was with those who insist that it's inevitable in the next few decades -- and it fascinates me that nearly everyone who's quarreled with me on that point has insisted that by saying that extinction's not certain, I'm claiming that it's not possible. That weird bit of paralogic is one of the things that shows me that what's going on here has much more to do with myth than with reason.

Dmitry, there are also potent sources of negative feedback in the global climate system that nobody in the extinctionist scene has even tried to address -- you might, for starters, look up the role of oceanic anoxic events in the Jurassic and Cretaceous in terminating greenhouse events (and not incidentally laying down some 70% of today's known petroleum reserves). Of course human beings will go extinct someday -- as I pointed out to Georgi above, I've been saying that all along -- but the heaping up of hypothetical worst case scenarios not supported by most of the relevant science, in order to prop up a claim of imminent, inevitable human extinction is exactly the same kind of logic that's been used to defend one failed apocalyptic fantasy after another, ever since science elbowed aside religion as a major source of apocalyptic rhetoric in the modern world.

Moshe, well put. I haven't seen the film but I'm aware of the phenomenon.

Ian, I think you've gotten confused -- what Georgi is talking about is human extinction, not the collapse of industrial society. By the way, "dog-tucker" is a good lively phrase!

Iuval Clejan said...

I find this post challenging to me personally, because I have a tendency to try to not only improve my own life, but look for patterns in history and society that suggest ways to improve it. I also have altruistic tendencies, and coming from a humanistic jewish culture, where I have been taught early on that sometimes I need to adapt to the world, but other times I need to promote change in the world. I see the spiritual value in saying yes to the world no matter what, but I also see problems with that, which become obvious in extreme scenarios of injustice such as concentration camps, but can be applied in other less extreme examples as well.

I do see philosophy and values influencing the trajectory of history. I think part of the problem with the industrial revolution is that it focused fanatically on only two values: efficiency and comfort (at least for the beneficiaries of empire). I think that was a mistake and that if we take other values into consideration, such as ecological sustainability, individual freedom, human potential, community, and the right to productive work, then small groups of people (but unfortunately not single individuals, and probably not whole nations or civilizations) could choose something different. That is what my main work is in the past 7 years, to create an alternative based on these values. I haven't made that much progress, but haven't given up either. If I had accepted the world as it is, I would have stayed an engineer at Motorola and had a comfortable, but probably miserable life. Are these values based on a non-existent world? Partially, but also on pieces that have (or still) exist(ed), such as medieval villages in europe, native villages in the new world, democratic town meetings in New England, the Possibility Alliance in Missouri.

But I am very interested in radical acceptance as a spiritual practice.

John Michael Greer said...

Hal, that's an important point. Spengler wasn't entirely immune from the tendency to make moral judgments of historical events -- very few people are -- but the habit of treating decline as a Bad Thing expressed, among other things, by that National Interest article is a dubious application of Spengler's thinking. Different people will have their own assessments of the changes that come with the later phases of the historical cycle, and those value judgments are relevant -- to the individuals who make them. On a broader scale, it seems to me, it's more useful to distinguish between facts and values, and try to grasp the facts as they are.

GreenEngineer, there are plenty of people who consider me wildly optimistic -- do a little web browsing and you can find plenty of people who've been denouncing me in spluttering tones for suggesting that humanity isn't going to be extinct by 2030. To respond to your broader question, I think a 95% dieoff is possible; I'm not sure that it's likely, though we're certainly going to have to shed a lot of population as the fossil fuels run short, and I can think of no way that's going to happen that won't involve horrific events. Taking plausible worst case scenarios as a possibility, and trying to figure out how to hedge against them, is sensible; it's when people insist that we will inevitably suffer this or that extreme future that, as I see it, they've stopped talking sense and started spinning mythology.

Bozack, granted, a morphological approach to the history of societies has to rely on a limited sample and deal with a great diversity of variables. I suggest, though, that it's still a better idea than insisting that the future will be utterly different from the past, and using that insistence to define the future in terms of pop culture fantasies that rest ultimately on medieval mythology (Augustine's or Joachim's, take your pick).

Jean-Vivien, thank you! Of course you're right that everything I say is biased in a North American direction -- that can't be helped, as I've never lived anywhere else, and like everyone else I've been shaped by my culture and upbringing. This is one of the reasons I encourage people who live elsewhere, come out of very different life experiences, or both, to address these same issues from their own perspectives.

Georgi Marinov said...

Georgi, please reread my post on the near term extinction fad. I said in so many words, in that post, that humanity would certainly go extinct someday, and could do so quite soon. My quarrel was with those who insist that it's inevitable in the next few decades -- and it fascinates me that nearly everyone who's quarreled with me on that point has insisted that by saying that extinction's not certain, I'm claiming that it's not possible. That weird bit of paralogic is one of the things that shows me that what's going on here has much more to do with myth than with reason.

I know very well you are not dismissing extinction as impossible. But in most posts that you write, the proper balance is lost and you mostly talk about how history is cyclical and this will be just another round of the same. As a result one can easily get the impression you do in fact dismiss the possibility.

That's what I was referring to.

I personally am not at all convinced we simply have to go extinct at some point. All the species on the planet (and all the organisms for which the species concept does not quite apply) reside on twigs of the tree/bush/net of life representing lineages that have not gone extinct and can be traced back at least to the last universal common ancestor and possibly even further back (depending on what philosophical point of view you adopt regarding life before that). That's billions of years. There is no biological reason why human have to go extinct any time soon. But in order to prevent that to the extent that we can, we have to take the possibility very seriously.

Also, the historical cycle point of view treatment of the current situation contains the inherent danger of overlooking the fact that any future civilization will inherit a planet on which most resources needed for the development of the knowledge base we currently posses have been depleted. And that knowledge base is our best evolutionary asset into the future. It is highly doubtful that it will be ever restored again on this planet if it gets lost as it will almost inevitably be during the collapse of the current civilization given how fragile the infrastructure on which it depends for its continued existence is. It's basically one and done for a technological civilization on each planet, if you fail, you don't get a second chance. I am personally not at all happy about that, and not because there is anything good about a technological civilization of the kind we have been running, but because the knowledge it generates is extremely valuable.

Quos Ego said...

Nah, John Michael, you can say whatever you want on NTE, you're always going to be a mystic who disparages, despises, and misunderstands science.


(Great piece this week, by the way!)

John Michael Greer said...

Iuval, yes, I thought this misunderstanding would pop up sooner or later. Basing values on the world as it is doesn't mean being passive in the face of the world as it is -- as you would have been if you'd stayed at Motorola, for example. It's not necessary to ground values in fantasies of an imagined future in order to decide that one thing is better than another, and act on that decision. More on this as we proceed.

Georgi, I've been suggesting for years now that the particular kind of technic civilization we have just now is only one kind, the crudest and most wasteful kind, of a much broader spectrum of technic societies, and that sensible action taken now can help get as much knowledge as possible through the bottleneck to help build future technic societies that will use resources less wastefully. Thus I challenge the "one and done" concept -- it seems to me that it takes far too narrow a view of the possible range of technic societies. As for the current risk of extinction and what role apocalyptic warnings might have in averting it, I may have to devote a post to that -- have you noticed, for starters, that when a movement starts claiming that the end is nigh, everyone else rolls their eyes and walks away? It's no longer a useful tactic.

John Michael Greer said...

Quos Ego, in the eyes of those who are busy dressing up medieval apocalyptic fantasies in scientific drag, no doubt!

Michael Petro said...

"For the time being, though, I’d like to leave my readers with this reflection: what would it mean to found a set of values, and a corresponding set of presuppositions about the world, on life exactly as it is?"

To me, this resonates with the question often put by my "mentor" J. Krishnamuriti (I paraphrase, of course): Can one observe the self as it is, without judgment, without the urge to move or transform into something else?

Trevor said...

This is good stuff.

Strauss and Howe propose an interesting theory of modern history in The Fourth Turning (based, in part, on the work by Spengler, Toynbee, et al.). The connections they draw between generational psychology and historical events are quite compelling (and foreboding).

By the way, thank you for all of the insights you share via this blog and your books. What began for me as a random stumble onto your blog in 2008 while researching the financial crisis turned first into a wiser understanding of ecological economics and now into a wiser understanding of psychology, spirituality, and the human condition.

Unknown said...

"The point I'm trying to make is simply that the habit of grounding values in an imaginary future may not be the best options we've got."

Well, on this point you'll certainly get no disagreements from me. I retract my objection, while reserving its use for a later date.

--mark

Bill Carson said...

Regarding a spirituality that accepts life as it is, I'd love to see a religious tradition fully embrace evolution. I don't mean some liberal denomination that's reluctantly willing to admit that it exists, I mean a full embrace and an attempt to integrate it's truths.

I know there are new age type religions that have tried to do this, but they always get stuck in the erroneous teleological view of lower forms turning into higher ones.

I think it would be beneficial if the central tenets of evolution - adaptation and resiliency to changing environmental conditions - could become part of a larger spiritual context. It's unfortunate that natural selection has been reduced to "survival of the fittest" when its actually a very complex and subtle concept, not always just "red in tooth and claw".

We might make better decisions if our religion taught us that our life situation was in constant flux and that being plyable and adaptable was a good strategy instead of clinging desperately to absolutes which may no longer work.

Evolution could benefit from the exchange as well - science could use a little poetry to illuminate its ideas. Religion could point out the sacred aspect of natural history, what a thing the story of life on this planet is! How glorious! Talk about a creation story! Perhaps a skilled monk could construct a hymn to Bluegreen Alge.

wiseman said...

JMG
That's strange because what I said is conventional wisdom here and is accepted without much polemical discussion, even among the religious.

Our elders like to say (to us atheists), when you are in trouble you'll remember god.

Chris G said...

I couldn't really come up with an answer to the question of a spirituality for the world (or life) as it really is. I suppose I believe the spirituality would be as simultaneously dynamic and unchanging as the world and life, and as simultaneously meaningful to me personally in how I affect the community and how the community affects me.

This reminds me a lot of William James - that religions are pragmatic adaptations by communities. Reading this summary of James' pragmatism, I was struck how your project is quite similar:
http://www.iep.utm.edu/james-o/#SH3a

It's worth noting that a discussion that began with the "shape of time" ends up being about values and spirituality. It would be worthwhile to more robustly define spirituality, I think, to see if we're even talking about the same thing. The immortality of my personal soul or the existence of a perfect being, seems questionable to me - yet they are quite practical questions in terms of getting people to move things together (or for finding sense in not joining in their project.)

I think at its root spirituality is about the mystery of time - about an unchangeable past and an unknowable future meeting at the infinitesimal middle point, the present. Likewise, it has been observed that Time is Consciousness, which I take to mean that we'll only know "in the future."

Georgi Marinov said...

Georgi, I've been suggesting for years now that the particular kind of technic civilization we have just now is only one kind, the crudest and most wasteful kind, of a much broader spectrum of technic societies, and that sensible action taken now can help get as much knowledge as possible through the bottleneck to help build future technic societies that will use resources less wastefully. Thus I challenge the "one and done" concept -- it seems to me that it takes far too narrow a view of the possible range of technic societies. As for the current risk of extinction and what role apocalyptic warnings might have in averting it, I may have to devote a post to that -- have you noticed, for starters, that when a movement starts claiming that the end is nigh, everyone else rolls their eyes and walks away? It's no longer a useful tactic.

I am not saying the current model is the only one, I would in fact bet my vision for the future is not as different from yours as it might seem.

But I am deeply skeptical about the successful preservation of knowledge through the bottleneck. Previous editions of the historical cycle do not give much hope - most of the intellectual legacy of the Greek/Roman world was lost and whatever survived did so because the eastern part of the Mediterranean did not collapse as badly. And that knowledge was not particularly sophisticated or difficult to preserve. This time collapse is global and the cutting edge in science is so esoteric that very few people are real experts in any given area, with some fields being in much worse position than others, and unfortunately, it is the more fundamental fields where the situation is the worst (math, theoretical physics, evolutionary biology). Mathematics is the most extreme example - it currently exists as a collection of several hundred sub-sub-fields with just a few dozen people and in some times even single individuals that really know what's going on in each, and it's often difficult even for people from nominally close sub-sub-fields to understand what those people are talking about (you may have seen the reports in the popular media about the supposed proof of the ABC conjecture, that's a perfect example). Now, you may dismiss that situation as diminishing returns on investment and an example of how science has reached its limits, but it's not that simple - a lot of the progress in theoretical physicists' quest towards understanding the foundations of space and matter depends on the advances in those esoteric sub-sub-fields of mathematics so it is vital to preserve them. But how are you going to do that in practice? You need a minimum number of people in each area of science in order to keep it viable. How is that going to be organized in the absence of concerted society-wide effort to do so? There isn't going to be such an effort for the simple reason that as you very accurately point out most people don't like to hear about these subjects.

Chris G said...

I also recalled the old discussions of language, thought, and reality in college philosophy classes. The professors always drew a triangle with one at each corner, and I thought not much of it. But now, it's quite clear, that if I only remembered the triangle, I really got it wrong. It's much better to imagine reality as an infinite space, much bigger than the chalkboard (which one might call "our world"), in which there is a bubble of thought, which intersects with a bubble of language.

The language is essentially communal, and cannot be otherwise; in language is a shared consciousness. Personally, our own language bubble is much smaller than our own thought bubble; but collectively, the language bubble is much bigger than our personal thought bubble; nevertheless, the collective thought bubble remains much larger than the collective language bubble (thankfully - I'm really glad to only hear the thoughts people wish to share).

I think all the varieties of spirituality are ways of communities, and individuals, trying to deal with time and material change - to match the inner world to the outer world. Interestingly, I would surmise that the eastern traditions are really quite better adapted to descent, and the western to ascent, of relative levels of material prosperity. As evinced by how many ecologically-driven people on average are more buddhist or hindu inclined, at least in the West, bears this out. Yoga and meditation just fit better, when the fun and games of cars and airplanes and spaceflights get played out.

What's missing so far from this account of spirituality is "others". At that point there can arise some problems because, if our approach to time (spirituality) is too pragmatic, too much about life exactly as it is, in a time of decline, that basically means, be self-reliant, independent, employ practical wisdom in the day-to-day of survival. It also very easily tips over into chaos and the dissolution of community. That's pretty common in times of decay, considered historically anyway.

But I would be concerned that a spirituality centered around the life exactly as it is, may not be much of a challenge to the entirely natural and predictable human ethic of dog-eat-dog in times of descent. People will need a shared sense of their project in the future (which is another definition of religion) to avoid descent to animality.

Despite my previous comments and its current anchorage to capitalism in the West, Christianity is really a fundamental challenge to the capitalist ethos that created this whole economic, resource and climate mess, and could be a good response to the notions of profit being more important than life, if it went back to its roots. So, despite the ass-kicking that Christianity deservedly gets by anyone who's not wholly bound up in its spell of certainty about the future, Christianity does have a lot to offer, which is important mostly because a lot of people think Christianity is important. I agree.

Last point: probably the biggest thing that could hasten a revival of Christianity closer to its roots (the roots being well summarized I think in the Beatitudes and Jesus' challenge to the money changers), is the collapse of debt. This debt now just cannot be paid back, there isn't the energy available. And Christianity has a lot to say about debts, not much of it good. The time of the collapse of debt, perhaps in the next 20 years or so, maybe sooner, will tell a lot about spirituality

Chris G said...

Also, your bad-ass writing and thinking skills are much to be commended. there are probably not a lot of people who will totally be interested right now, since the old myths are still playing out; but those myths are going to die, and it's good to be prepared.

DeAnander said...

Oddly enough, in all this discussion of "values" and "the world as it is", my weary brain suddenly flew off towards Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels. Now, there's an author who seems able to accept the eternal goodness *and* badness of human beings with a kindly and compassionate attitude. In his endless saga -- what is it, 24 books and counting, if he lives long enough to complete yet another? -- individual persons try to act in community and with honour, not to make the world perfect but to do the right thing as and when they can. There are bad-guys galore, some of whom are just plain bad, and some of whom are sometimes almost good :-) There are good-guys (and gals of course) who are cranky, irritable, eccentric, egotistical, and at the same time heroic and well-meaning and occasionally successful.

Imperfection -- human nature, social aberrations, inequality, cheating, lying, stealing, all the rest of it -- is just accepted, and lived or struggled with as necessary. It's the opposite of an apocalyptic vision *and* the opposite of a beatific vision. There's never a great big Resolution after which everyone lives happily ever after -- in fact, at times the author dishes up some rather savage mockery of such tropes. Somehow, when we talk of a philosophy that deals with the world as it is, its own messy and gorgeous self, I think of the comfort I often get from reading Terry Pratchett when the world is weighing on me a bit too heavily :-) I realise, with a moment of slight embarrassment, that in a way he's actually one of my own personal spiritual texts!

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, that's a good first question -- and of course very few people ever get that far. My training in magic leads me to the second question, which is "now that you've attained some degree of self-knowledge, what are you going to change?" Replace "self" with "world" in both questions and we're getting into the meat of things...

Trevor, thank you!

Unknown Mark, fair enough. Your objection would have been valid enough if I'd been claiming to have privileged access to what's really real, etc.!

Bill, have you by chance read my book Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth? It takes a first step in this direction, by way of using basic ecological principles as a foundation for esoteric spirituality. More generally, what you've outlined is a project I have very much in mind -- the real story of the Earth, as revealed by astronomy and the earth sciences, is at least as fascinating and meaningful as any other creation myth.

Wiseman, an interesting cultural difference! Thanks for the info.

Chris, you might be interested to know that James The Varieties of Religious Experience was required reading at a certain stage in my training as a Druid.

Georgi, granted. Most of the detailed knowledge, especially in abstract and esoteric fields such as advanced mathematics, is almost certainly going to get lost, and will have to be slowly and painfully rediscovered in future centuries. My intentions are considerably more modest -- I want to get the basic concepts and practices of the scientific method, ecology, and a handful of extremely useful practical skills such as organic gardening, low power shortwave radio, and the making and running of printing presses, through the bottleneck. No, it's not that much, but if those can get through and combine with the usual random assortment of books and artifacts, the renaissance may not be as long delayed or as difficult as it's often been in the past.

Chris, one of the things we'll be talking about down the road a bit is the way that everyday life has been redefined as dog-eat-dog savagery by comparing it with an idealized fantasy. Altruism is just as natural as violence, as any sociobiologist can tell you. More on this as we proceed. And thank you -- that's not an adjective that often gets applied to my prose style... ;-)

DeAnander, excellent. Not sure if you'll recall something I wrote a few years ago on a similar theme...

permaliv said...

@JMG, the conversation between Alexander and Eisenman is of highest importance for everyone, as architecture is shaping our physical world. And while Eisenman's design is supported by dogma and image, Alexander's design is supported by the 15 properties of life and the three laws of architecture, among other things, which all are scientific, not ideological.

Yes, Alexander's design is based on value, but a value supported by science. Here you can see images of Alexander's most known work, the Eishin Campus outside Tokyo:

http://eishin.ac/about/

Here you can see images of Eisenman's most known work, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guggenheim_Museum_Bilbao

Guggenheim is an ideological expression of nihilism, and a monument over Eisenman. It's meaning is to stick out, while the purpose of the Eishin Campus is to blend in. The first is anti-nature, the second is nature.

Nature is always unfolding through the 15 properties of wholeness:

"I believe the fifteen transformations I have discovered will turn out to be naturally occurring, and necessarily occurring in all complex systems. The laws leading to their existence, will turn out, I think, to be inevitable or necessary results of the unfolding of wholeness, under the right conditions. And I believe, too, that our 20th-century notion that mechanical effects without the guiding influence of these fifteen transformations, can create the beautiful structures we encounter in the universe, is simply wrong. In other words, it is the action of wave motion, mitigated by the fifteen transformations, that creates the beauty of the breaking wave; it is the operation of natural selection, mitigated by the action of these fifteen transformations, which generates discernible and coherent forms in the play of genetics and evolution; I believe it is the operation and unfolding of the most ordinary flower or stem of grass, mitigated by the operation of the same fifteen transformations, which generates the beauty of the flower. I believe that it is the same fifteen transformations which mitigate and channel the crumbling and heaving and bending of the geologic strata which generated the beauty of the Himalaya; and these fifteen transformations, too, which mitigate the action and swirling of the vortices on Jupiter, or the rippled piebald configurations we call a mackerel sky." – Christopher Alexander, New Concepts in Complexity Theory, page 21

http://www.livingneighborhoods.org/library/complexity.pdf

Melson said...

For anyone interested in Spengler's work: the complete Decline of the West is available in PDF format at the Internet Archive.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I had to read this essay and then re-read it and cogitate on the message for a while.

Your quote: "each of us can judge whether a value is consistent with the other values we happen to hold" is so true and so often not appreciated. However, I reckon it is understood intuitively and allows people to dismiss points of view that clash with the speakers personal values and life. The climate change scientist writing the thoughtful piece which you linked to a few weeks back was getting a glimpse of the more practical applications of this supposition and recognised that it didn't look good for them as a profession.

In the last part of your essay, I'd suggest that in working out the problem of how do I best fit in with nature here has really rammed home this key point. Large scale industrial farming looks to extracting maximum returns, whereas I'm looking for maximum resiliency. The differences are stark and nature will inevitably win that battle, guaranteed.

You know, I see this attitude with bee-keepers in that they tell me do this and do that just to get the maximum products and services from the bees here. They fail to see that their very actions may actually be stressing the colonies out and making them susceptible to disease and predators. Many of those people have had their colonies die, but they're still all too happy to beat me over the head with helpful advice. It's annoying... I’ve read books on the subject by organic apiarists and they admitted their failings on that colony stress front from a position of hindsight and I'll follow their advice.

PS: How’s your quince tree going, I hope you are getting lots of growth and blossoms? They’re very hardy trees. I’ve been so enamoured of fresh walnuts this season, so much so that I put in an additional three walnut trees today, plus some pecans and chestnuts just for good measure. There are lots of chestnut orchards around here, but whilst the established trees are very drought hardy, the young trees need lots of protection from the sun and I only learned this by killing a few of them and observing which ones survived and why. There’s great hope for the macadamia nut trees here too as a farm not too far from here had some fruit on their trees. The almonds are doing their weird thing again this year in that some are going deciduous whilst others are still in leaf. No one seems to have an answer for that either!

Regards

Chris

irishwildeye said...

Joseph Nemeth wrote

"Hand guns to peasants with six days of training, and the same guns to a platoon that has trained together and lived through a couple of battles, and -- apart from the fog of war -- the platoon is going to win more often than it loses."

The book Guerilla Days in Ireland by Tom Barry the famous and most successful IRA commander in the 1919 - 21 Irish War of Independence, demonstrates how a bunch of peasants with a few days of training can overcome highly trained troops. In the Kilmichael Ambush in 1920 small farmers with limited training and no battle experience took on and wiped out a force of elite British Auxiliaries (the elite British force made up of former officers all of whom had served in the first world war). Barry's tactics were based on long marches, getting very close to the enemy, fighting short decisive actions and avoiding long range, long drawn out fights. The British troops had all the advantages of experience, training, marksmanship and logistics. Barry famously summed up his battle tactic as "there is no such thing as a bad shot at 10 feet". In his greatest victory at Crossbarry in 1921, he took on a British force that outnumber the IRA by 13 to 1 and beat them. Barry used the terrain to maximum advantage, and the toughness and endurance of the west Cork small farmers and their intimate knowledge of the terrain to out march and out smart the British. So it can be done.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossbarry_Ambush

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Barry

John D. Wheeler said...

I see with these last two posts you essentially have gotten around to wave theory, thank you. I agree that most arguments that it's different this time are specious. One from the apocalyptic camp I think is relevant is that it truly is global and that there is nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. This has nothing to do with the dynamics of the collapse, mind you, but everything to do with the recovery, as there will be no unspoiled reserves or alternate civilizations (unless they are of little green men). The other real apocalyptic difference is that our nuclear weapons truly do have the capability to destroy the world. As you have said, that threat will not be forever, and the chance of their actually being deployed is remote, but it is still possible.

But Phil K points out another way it may truly be different this time. In previous civilzations, I know there were people aware of the collapse, but was anyone like you talking about managing it in a controlled fashion? The fact that there are collapse, transition, and survivalist movements may make a difference.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Joseph,

Quote: "The peasants will will not have those things."

Those platoons will know far less about the natural world than the peasants.

How were the platoons going to feed and how are they going to know that what they are eating is not poisonous without the support of those peasants? Knowledge can be every bit as powerful as a weapon.

Most people aren't fit enough these days to walk any great distance anyway.

Back in the gold rush days of the 1850's people used to walk from the ports which were all along the south coast of the continent (the further from the goldfields the cheaper land taxes were) to the goldfields. Ask someone to do that now and they'll look at you like you're a crazy person.

Imagine a time when food supplies were a bit intermittent and I reckon most people will stay right where they are... What would you do?

Chris

Adam Funderburk said...

Hi JMG,

I have been a longtime fan (even before the Archdruid Report days) but I have only commented once, in the first year of this blog, on tool use among early hominids. I hope to join the discussion more in the future, but I just have a quick comment on one of the issues raised this week.

There have been several comments about a 95% die-off as completely apocalyptic. I have no doubt that the period of the die-off (however long that took) would be very difficult for the people living through it. However, what people may forget is that our 7 billion population is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is estimated that we only hit 1 billion at around 1850, so 99.9% of human existence has been with less than 1 billion people (about a 90-95% reduction). So ultimately, a 95% reduction in population could be less of an apocalypse, and more of a return to a sustainable number. Again, I emphasize that living through the period of population contraction would probably feel like an apocalypse, although it may be stretched out long enough to just be awful, or perhaps merely miserable, instead of apocalyptic.

Walter said...

You seem to be buying into cultural determinism, but it is just as flawed as biological determinism. Here is a paragraph from my book, "The Laws of Physics Are On My Side" (2013, pp.12-13), which I hope puts Spengler in perspective. The paragraph ends a discussion of Alfred Kroeber, who saw culture as an entity he called the Superorganic.

"Many people cherish determinism. There are plenty of high-profile researchers and authors who insist human behavior is determined by genes or organic compounds in the bloodstream. In a world of nincompoop bureaucrats, nasty drivers and incompetent salespeople, it is quite seductive to just imagine people cannot help themselves. Restraint is so much more difficult than just giving in to gratification of desire. In the first part of the twentieth century, when Kroeber was writing and doing research, nationalist myths were in the ascendant. Even the concept of culturally-determined decline was popular and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918, revised 1922) was much discussed on both sides of the Atlantic. This two-volume examination of history asserted a recognizable pattern in cultural florescence culminating in civilization and followed by decline. According to Spengler, cultures pass through recognizable cycles of rise and fall that last about a thousand years. Unlike the economic determinism of Marx, Spengler’s notion was that cultures are life-forms themselves and so must be born, develop and inevitably die. There is more than a little similarity to Kroeber here."

Greg Knepp said...

JMG,

Yes, when empires collapse - as they always do - all manner of social contracts (some good, some not so good) will be rendered null and void. And yet, many may re-emerge from the rubble in raw and disturbing ways.

The laboratory of history has shown that disintegrating societies leave a wake of populations starved for order and purpose of any sort. Ethnic, racial, sectarian and familial allegiances are almost always the formats around which more localized governing bodies (however base) emerge. The Lebanese civil war, and the Slavic civil war following the fall of the Soviet Union are two of many horrifying modern examples of the kind of mayhem that can come in on the heels of the collapse of a larger order. Even Nazi Germany serves as an example. Though it was, for a time, a comprehensive government rather than a local one, the Nazi regime emerged in an atmosphere of massive economic and political breakdown. Nazism appealed to the Teutonic tribal myths of a population desperate for a workable identity.

Genocide ruled the day in all of these conflicts, and the world stood by in shock that societies of relatively high standards could descend into raw savagery with such ease. Civilization should be made of sterner stuff...apparently it is not.

Social contracts are not arbitrary contrivances - ultimately they exist to either support or to suppress instinctual motivations within the human heart, depending on what a parent society deems useful to the larger order and to the security of its ruling class. Such contracts tend to form organically, often based on motifs borrowed from other societies. Typically, they will find their way into the parent society's law and religion. The tendency of societies, both large and small, to adopt similar social contracts dealing with like issues of basic human relationships speaks to the true origins of same. There is, most certainly, more than just 'culture' involved.

jim said...

This is a reply to
Leo said...
Just saw this, for any one interested in engineering and design.
http://metamodern.com/2013/06/06/must-read-papers-for-anyone-who-practices-manages-or-thinks-about-systems-engineering/

And JMG who said this

“Leo, the papers are worth a look, and so is the jawdropping hubris of the blogger!”

Leo, I am amazed that there is another person who reads both The Archdruid Report and Metamodern, I thought, I was the only one. The papers referenced are by Amory Lovins about why so much energy is still wasted in our economic system.

The Metamodern blog is by Eric Drexler, he is a scientist who blogs, he is also routinely called “the father of nanotechnology”. As for “jawdropping hubris” that is probably an accurate description of his life long project to “control the structure of matter from the atomic level up.”

He has just come out with a new book “Radical Abundance” which details the technical case for Atomically Precise Manufacturing, the progress that has been made sense the 90’s and the potential impacts of this technology (if it gets developed).

He is definitely a cornucopian and makes probably the best TECHNICAL case for a radically improved system for making things. (By radically improved I mean a system that uses far less energy, space, time and materials to make products.)

I read the Archdruid Report to remind me that just because something is possible in principle does not mean that it is a sure thing or even probable. That the current trajectory of modern civilization is probably towards catabolic collapse not towards becoming space faring cyborgs.

beneaththesurface said...

At the end of this week's post you mentioned of the possibility of founding a set of values, and a corresponding set of presuppositions about the world on life exactly as it is, as opposed to a set of values on an imaginary future. This made me think about values that I have, and why I have and live by them.

For example, I strive in my life to live ecologically, in part by not unnecessarily using excess resources and energy. Sometimes people argue about the importance of my lifestyle choices, by saying something along the lines of, "Does what you do and don't do really matter in the long run? What difference are you really making in the future by avoiding airplane travel? Whether or not you have a car is not going to affect the overall outcome of industrial society. At this point, an individual decision not to use air conditioning or a dryer is not going to affect the general direction society is headed, etc."

I notice that they are treating my lifestyle, not as a expression of a value system, but as a fact that they're attempting to falsify (by arguing it's not making any noticeable impact on the future). While I do do the things I do, in part, because I do care about the future (that is, a likely future of decline, not a unlikely future of continual rising industrialism or mass green revolution), much of why I make certain choices is because of my values in the world as it is. Sure, my not flying an airplane is not going to have any mass impact on the future of society. But, it is living according to my ecological values, and therefore whether or not it affects the future in any noticeable way doesn't really sway my decision to live this way. Also, it is within my power to make many lifestyle changes in the world as it is; I don't have to wait until an imaginary future to enact such changes, so why not act in such a way in the present?

People sometimes criticize lifestyle changes as not changing the world in any revolutionary way, but I look at it other ways. I'm not so much trying to change the world, but trying to live with integrity, and not let the world around me change who I am.

GreenEngineer said...

Ah, I see. Your problem with the doomers is not their predictions, it's their certainty.
Can't argue with you there. It's an n-dimensional nonlinear system - of course we can't be sure what's going to happen.

John Michael Greer said...

Permaliv, your statement that "the conversation between Alexander and Eisenman is of highest importance to everyone" is a statement of value, not a statement of fact -- and it's a statement of your personal value system. (As an attempted statement of fact, it's simply not true -- most people don't consider this conversation of great importance, even though you wish they did.) I get the impression you're missing the point of this week's post...

Melson, many thanks.

Cherokee, excellent -- the apiarists who keep on pushing advice on you probably haven't reflected on the values they're expressing through their approach to beekeeping, which is why they get results they don't want. As for the quince, it's growing -- not yet flowering or fruiting, since this is only its third year, and in this climate it'll be five or six years before it reaches maturity.

Irishwildeye, thank you! The best response to a theory about the future is almost always "well, what happened the last time?" The Irish War of Independence is a good example of one of the kinds of things we'll be facing.

John, the nearest equivalent I can think of is in China, where the rise and fall of dynasties was a known phenomenon, and philosophers used to draw on historical examples to figure out what was happening next. This may have a lot to do with the extreme resiliency of Chinese civilization! It's a good point, though, and there aren't a lot of other comparable examples.

Adam, that's a good point, of course. A 95% decline in human population would still leave the world with 350 million, or about as many people as there were on the planet at the time of the Renaissance.

Walter, you might want to take the time to find out what I'm actually suggesting -- or, for that matter, what Spengler was saying -- before posting an attempted rebuttal. As it is, you've given quite a beating to that straw man of yours.

Greg, as I mentioned in response to an earlier comment, I expect the approaching decline of global population to involve horrific events, and the division of populations along a dizzying series of lines will doubtless be part of that. That hardly justifies the claim that the culturally constructed category of "race" will play a larger role in that than any of the other fault lines that run through modern societies.

Jim, thank you for seeing the distinction between what's technically possible and what's economically, politically, and socially possible! It's a source of wry amusement to me to see how many people never manage to grasp that.

Beneath, excellent. Yes, that's exactly the distinction I'm trying to make here. You're doing the right thing because it's the right thing, not because of any specific impact it might have on the world of fact; Epictetus would have approved.

GreenEngineer, exactly -- and as a student of the history of ideas, I'm paying attention to the way that certainty derives from, and leads to, much-repeated patterns in popular culture, which leads me to see the whole thing as a collective expression of cognitive dissonance rather than a reasoned reaction to the facts on the ground.

DeAnander said...

People who criticise or diss low-carbon strivers (people trying to scale back, live lower on the hog and so on) because "your individual actions won't change anything" really puzzle me. I mean, if I refrain from slaughtering my neighbour it won't stop, e.g., a genocide in Rwanda, or change the warmongering politics of the US elite, or make all atomic weapons disappear. But still, I feel it's well worth while to refrain from slaughtering my neighbour. It would be pretty grandiose to imagine that my individual practise of virtue has some kind of world-salvational power :-)

And in the end, even if you can't stop the lynch mob -- surely you must try. And if after trying you find they are too many to overcome and too mad to listen, you can still refuse to participate. No? I think the dissing and sneering at "greenies" is largely the voice of uneasy conscience in those who are trying to justify their own continuing participation in what they know, on some level, is a doomed, suicidal and criminal enterprise (unfettered industrial civilisation and its cult of consumerism).

rakesprogress said...

Tom Bannister, way up near the top, and I'm sorry to be so late in posting this...

Where you refer to "... peoples long standing tendency to 'demonize' those who have a different perspective to themselves. Instead of thinking deeply its easier just to say 'they are evil, and anything they say is just propaganda' (I myself have done this in the past...."

I've done that too, and I think this is a bigger topic than it might seem. People tend to weigh relationships as we dispense or withhold judgments about others. It feels safer to demonize someone outside an in-group than to run the risk that one's tolerance for heresy may elicit censure from within the group. That risk assessment is pretty subjective, but people do tend to be more cautious about threats that come from nearby.

This is functional on a biological level. Whether it is on a social or civilization level is debatable. Threatening is the primary mechanism at work in advertising, and maybe that has something to do with our culture's obstinate devotion to the toxic values promoted by our retail establishment.

Of course, people vary in their application of this proximity-weighted judgment dynamic. In my experience, people who are relatively self-actualized are less likely to engage in demonizing and more likely to delve into comparisons between value systems, to look into the structure of their own values, and to deviate from dysfunctional norms.

I know the concept of self-actualization (roughly as articulated by Abraham Maslow) is itself bound to some specific value system, but that doesn't render it meaningless by dint of philosophical relativity. I believe the ideal of autonomy in mind and spirit is vital and beautiful. I also have to admit that's an article of faith, but I sure don't like calling it that.

While looking over the wikipedia article on Maslow, I note that among his list of qualities shared by most self-actualized people is "Dichotomy-transcendence". Where have we recently heard that virtue extolled?

permaliv said...

@JMG, maybe not the conversation itself, but the topic of the conversation, our built environment. The built environment shapes our lives, and as modernist typologies have become international and the only one accepted, this topic is of importance of everyone. Even if they never give it a thought.

This is about steel and hard concrete, forming our lives and the surface of the Earth. You live in a red brick stone town, lucky as you are. Too many are doomed to live in abandoned high rise concrete slums, or in sterile suburbs. Or to see the seaside of their capital destroyed by modernist icons.

Bugmethx said...

Leo said: "just saw this, for any one interested in engineering and design."

Leo. Thank you. Those papers read like they're out of a Dilbert comic. I went to the web site of the "Rocky Mountain Institute" and had a good laugh.

(And for those with gullibility problems: if someone offers you ten times the intrest rate on your savings you're getting now, don't listen to the man, don't talk to him, and walk away.)

sgage said...

@ Permaliv:

"Here you can see images of Eisenman's most known work, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao:"

I'm pretty sure the Guggenheim Bilbao was the work of Frank Gehry, who is guilty of perpetrating many nausea-inducing structures around the world.

NH Peter said...

First, I’d like to thank GreenEngineer for his comment on potential population decline from catabolic collapse. Even a modest decline in world population will be experienced as a pretty convincing version of apocalypse. Japan during World War 2 had about a 4-5% decline, the Soviet Union something around 12-15%. And I know JMG that you are well aware of this, and doing a damn fine job keeping people level headed about the future. I appreciate the difficulty of the balance you are trying to maintain and the necessity for doing so.

Second, to your cliffhanger of the week. The founding of wholly new modes and orders is a matter of fortune and virtue. Fortune presents you with a suitably biblical opportunity. Perhaps once in a thousand years do the works of man cry out so desperately for remaking. As for virtue, well here I think Zarathustra’s eagle and serpent are as good a guide as any! For of course politics and philosophy are not compatible and pride will always carry away one’s wisdom. Are not all imagined republics also a repudiation of life exactly as it is?

Finally, if you are to talk about facts and values and snuggling worms into their soil, isn’t time to discuss that soil which binds facts to values? Isn’t that soil love itself?

Steve Morgan said...

It's different this time, but not as different as it would need to be to throw the lessons of history out as a tool to use in planning for likely futures. This civilization's global reach is novel, but there are still billions of people on the planet who live largely outside its grasp. Climate change and other environmental limits will bite down hard, but even 1% to 10% of 7 billion is still quite enough for a future round of cultural flowering.

Applying the metaphor of the human life cycle to the shape of time of cultures is useful. In this context, belief in progress looks like a human in middle age expecting to become immortal as a 25 year-old, while belief in apocalypse looks like a person expecting to die next Tuesday of some horrible accident rather than grow old and slowly fall apart. Sure, in some sense both are possible, but neither is terribly useful as a foundation for a solid plan for the future. More likely is the typical pattern of old age, failing health, senility, and death, followed by the execution of the will (or, in this case, the forfeiture of assets to various creditors and the theft of most things not nailed down).

--

While I'm very much enjoying this series and your implication that it's getting to the core of your perspective, I'd like to second your suggestion to Joseph that you do a set of posts on Dark Age America some time. Given the glimpses through your online fiction, it seems likely to be an interesting and educational series.

Also, many thanks to all of the commenters this week and last. The responses to JMG's posts have provided much good food for thought.

Puzzler said...

Anyone else remember the "Church of What’s Happening Now"??

1970's comedian Flip Wilson played Reverend Leroy of said church.

Some guy named Joey Diaz is now using the CWHN name. I wonder if he pays royalties to Flip Wilson's estate.

fromorctohuman said...

"The real difference between the two, as the best minds on both sides have grasped, is a radical difference in values..."

What is the core value of an athiest? of a Christian?

What is your opinion about both, if you don't mind sharing.

Also, if you have a link to some place where this is discussed, I'd be obliged. To get some other opinions as well.


Thanks!

BTW, Stars Reach is awesome.

Leo said...

The gun posts will be interesting, you'll have to talk about power dynamics and such.

As for the blog, I haven't read it, the site was forwarded to me for the papers.

@Jim

See above, I haven't looked at the blog (metamodern) and was forwarded the paper by my course coordinator since my course is sustainable systems engineering, so their relevant.


Now on to the gun and neofeudal stuff.

@ KL Cooker

The shogunate tried the same thing, everyone simply ignored him in a face-saving fashion.

@Joseph Nemeth

The problem with that argument is that the peasants wouldn't face a platoon. In a feudal society, so before the 10th century (by then feudalism was seen as anachronistic and dying), knights often farm or are craftsmen, so some made their own armor (one even made an iron hand). A platoon (with soldiers) is a product of a centralized state that can afford people who don't contribute economically.

Also, they can surprise them when their in the fields. They don't have to fight in a battle (ambush), and since everyone's farming they have a few options.

The privileges come from the monopoly of violence, not the other way around.

@ Marcello

I was talking more along the lines of with 1800th century tech you could possibly make a gun as effective as a 19th century (for example), note not the same gun.

The percussion cap was invented by a monk (1807) with hand tools, he wanted to hunt better. And so on with quite a few inventions. And the technology base only has to survive in areas from which the guns can be traded, but for a variety of reasons I don't think the tech base will decline that badly. The technological regression we face isn't simply stepping backwards.

Besides, I understand that the settlers of the Appalachians (aren't they hillbillies) made their own guns and ammo.

Russ said...

John: Fine series of posts! You and your readers have well reasoned thoughts and ideas. When you began this series I dug out my Philosophy 101 volume and looked up St. Augustine just to make sure. He defined history as two cities (i.e., one of satan and one of god) that were (and will be) always in conflict. My margin notes indicate this as "pure hogwash" and 65 years later my life experience has not changed this thought one whit. Obviously I will never reach salvation within his definition. Further, there is no credible evidence of the existence of a god (biblical readings included) or a life hereafter. Unlike some folks though I'm quite willing to change my mind if there is a compelling argument with sufficient evidence. Before college my parents had given me a copy of Toynbee's "Civilization on Trial" and this began my inquiry into history. Now, 20 years post retirement, I have the time to read all that stuff I missed while trying to earn a living. You and your cohort are supplying me with references and ideas. Thank you. In the meantime my wife and I are preparing for the eventual collapse of this wonderful experiment called 'civilization'. A century or so from now those living humans might change our genus name from 'homo sapiens' to 'homo stupidus'. Regards, Russ

TIAA said...

We can't know precicely what happened or what will happen, only what is. It is through the now that we create time back and time forward.

This kind of knowing is for self and those whom can share, to whom can receive. I love, I care, I do not fear. Do not cling to the past, or the future, let them go and receive the moment. Then look from there and the new philosophy will emerge as a natural process. We birth it through opening that space, letting go and giving up knowing, to know.

KL Cooke said...

"As for guns and all, that's going to take a future post, or a series of posts, to sort out."

That's going to be a good one.

Walter said...

JMG - It is not I who have misread Spengler.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

One issue that's been nagging at me for a while reading this blog is illustrated by two of your quotes in this weeks comments section.

You wrote
" I've been suggesting for years now that the particular kind of
technic civilization we have just now is only one kind, the crudest
and most wasteful kind, of a much broader spectrum of technic societies, and that sensible action taken now can help get as much knowledge as possible through the bottleneck to help build future technic societies that will use resources less wastefully."

The other comment is, "the new civilization that rises out of its
ashes -- perhaps a thousand years in the future -- will be different
from ours, but almost certainly no better."

Since the word "better" is a statement of personal values, what is better is different to different people. However, I personally
consider the tremendous damage to the land that industrial society
causes to be a major negative, so I would consider a society that's
less wasteful, to be "better" in that way. Yes, the society may be
considered "worse" in other ways, but considering the sort of crisis
of the biosphere that's happening right now, I feel comfortable
personally with saying that we should work toward the betterment of the world, and see at least the possibility (although not an
inevitability) that the next society that emerges (in the long term) will be "better" in the sense of having a healthier relationship with the planet.

However, I recognize that since better is a statement of values, a
society that one person considers better could be considered worse by another.

wiseman said...

@Deborah
There are very few Jews in my country and almost none around me, so I have no idea about their habits and practices. Thanks for sharing this.

dltrammel said...

I'm more of a hands on kind of guy, so JMR recent series has not had me getting up Thursday morning like normally to read the newest, still its been good.

I thought I share this look at the Long Descent as it is happening now:

In Nothing We Trust

John Michael Greer said...

DeAnander, very well put.

NH Peter, there are various ways of talking about the soil, and I'm far from sure the one you've named will communicate to most people these days, for a range of mostly historical reasons. Still, we'll see.

Steve, exactly -- and I'll certainly take the idea of a series on Dark Age America under consideration. It might make a good sequel to "Decline and Fall," which I'm finishing up in manuscript at present.

Puzzler, I do indeed. Talk about a blast from the past!

Orc, that's a topic for a blog, or possibly an entire book, not a comment! Glad you like Star's Reach.

Russ, I've long thought we would make fewer mistakes if we stopped thinking of ourselves as "sapiens" and remembered that we've got a very thin layer of symbolic thinking over the top of a perfectly ordinary social primate nervous system!

TIAA, that's one approach, but -- dissensus rears its head again -- it's not the only game in town, or even necessarily the most useful.

KL, stay tuned.

Walter, you haven't yet offered the least evidence that you've even read him.

Ozark, that's a valid point. My response to Yossi was more an outburst driven by frustration than anything else -- it makes me want to tear my hair out when, as happens over and over again, people insist on imposing the weary narratives of progress and apocalypse over the top of what I'm saying. Still, is an ecotechnic society better than an industrial one? Depends on the meaning you give to the word "better;" those for whom, say, space travel is a valued goal would find an ecotechnic society much the worse.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Feudalism?
It is not worth nit-picking but I went looking at scholarly disputes. Richard Abels sounded sufficiently even-handed and knowledgeable.
Quote: “It is telling that the most “feudalized” societies of the twelfth century were Norman England, Norman Sicily, and the Crusader principalities, all polities established through conquest. William the Conqueror’s distribution of lands to his followers was on the basis of fiefs. Domesday Book describes the lands of England’s tenants-in-chief in 1087 as held de rege (“from the king”), and Henry II’s Cartae Baronum of 1166 enumerates the military obligations attached to them fifty years later. Whether Normandy (or Anglo-Saxon England) was “feudal” or not in 1066, it is indisputable that William structured the Norman settlement of his newly acquired kingdom upon the principle of dependent military tenures.”
To some extent Britain might have been an anomaly. Those parts of Britain that were previously a prosperous part of the Roman Empire went through Dark Ages having become dominated by pagan Germanic tribes who to an extent replaced previous inhabitants. These folk had little use for Roman ways, including pottery, and devoted themselves to their kind of farming and to highly developed metallurgy and high arts. The country could not support anything like the population that had peaked during the Roman period. My point though is that these Dark Ages were essentially over, and Britain was Christianised again before Britain got feudalism. Last week I happened to be reading again an account (WG Hoskyns, 1966) of the great assessment of 1334 of personal property across English counties shortly before the Black Death. Population in England was back to ‘Roman levels’. This assessment for the purpose of taxation superseded tax levies of the previous 13th C and was said at the time to deal with corruption in the immediately previous 1332 assessment. Using your comparative morphological methodology, I sense that I am looking at modern Britain, or at least the Britain I knew as a child; pragmatic and elastic application of law using existing property rules, but negotiable with local wealth structures, in those days essentially agricultural wealth, and recorded in detail.
My sense of recognition prompted me last week to coin the term ‘super-feudalism’ for the kind of big farming I am looking at outside my window now (post Agricultural Revolution, Britain 1750 to date). Within living memory this same big farming was done using horses, and only a century ago was mostly ‘organic’; needs must. (USA got a different version).
best
Phil
PS I am trying to hold onto the differences between civilisation and empire. Though the rise and fall of both can be co-incident, trading empires seem generally to have shorter lives than generic knowledge bases and other assumptions accumulated by a civilisation? Though of course much of value is lost with the dross when history or accident tears out a page or two from the story, meta-structures remain necessary for larger settled societies, as is an agreed basis for trading and some degree of ensured continuity and security, even if it is just to get the planting done and the harvest in and stored. Military security can trump everything else, but is a tricky balance, and military advantage a dangerous card to play especially in agrarian societies? I am thinking of our modern versions as they globalise and butt up against and transform other societies?

Russ said...

John - of course, 'sapiens' means recent (man) as opposed to fossil (man). Many have concluded that it means sapient, or intelligent, but history has proven that false. Russ

gwizard43 said...

As always, your reasoning is compelling, your arguments cogent.

However, in regard to the 'apocalypse' scenario, I would point out that, for every species that has ever gone extinct, and that's an awful lot, there came a point at which it truly was different that time. So the notion that humans are subject to the same laws and forces that have brought innumerable other species to extinction is not an assumption based on faith - it's plain fact.

We can posit some future time, perhaps near term, perhaps millions of years off, where the human species may well become extinct, and this certainly could come about through our own actions. The same arguments you're making here could be brought out then, in essence insisting that it's not different this time (you are careful not to put it that way - but that's nonetheless the upshot, if I understand you correctly) - but in that time, it would in fact be different. And we have no way of knowing which time would be the final, 'yes, this time it is in fact different.' It could be this time.

That is, isn't it just as dogmatic to insist that 'it's never different' as it is to insist 'it's different this time'?

The advantage of your argument is that it will be correct (n - 1) times, where n = all the times it's used against those who claim the end is nigh. :)

Kevin May said...

"the quest for a philosophy of life, and perhaps even a spirituality"

JMG, Thank you for another wonderful post.

My experience is that philosophy can be a major factor in leading one away from spirituality, at least the inherited kind of spirituality that we receive unquestioningly. But I often wonder if philosophy can ever lead me to a new spirituality and spiritual practice. 'Practice' is what I'm most interested in. How can we turn all this lovely philosophy into practice, something that's lived?

Further up in the comments BeneathTheSurface wrote something which I've read on your blog before; how we live our lives is an expression of our value system. A simple and a lovely idea and when I first read the same thought as expressed by you on your blog some time ago it marked a real lynchpin moment for me in my journey from marrying understanding to practice again.

But there are many more miles to go. Ritual and a spiritual community are two beautiful aspects of spiritual practice that I have yet to welcome back into my life… but I'd like to.

I suppose I could invent my own religion and rituals and then go find like minded individuals to practice with me.

Or I could keep investigating the religions that are out there in the hope of finding one that speaks to me and then join it.

Or I could pick a religion that is close enough and, as the god of victory has been shouting at us these past few decades, just do it. She's probably right as I'm pretty sure that I could stand here in the yellow woods indefinitely considering all my options and never actually pick a path.

I understand 'spirituality' is a term that means many things to many people. It's a deeply personal thing. I look forward to where your future posts may take us and thank you for venturing into these waters.

Finally… many of your readers compliment your use of cliffhangers at the end of your posts. Because of the deeply personal nature of spirituality, and as you continue to reveal more of your own core values… perhaps 'striptease' is a better metaphor :)

wiseman said...

@DeAnander
For me the biggest reason to adopt a low carbon lifestyle is peace of mind, I feel that the more stuff I accumulate the more I have to take care of them, every morning I get up and I have to see if my tablet has run out of charge or my phone has run out of charge, then I have to run around to find a USB cable and a charger.

And now you have to worry about whether your phone has been hacked so you need to buy
an antivirus, more complexity, more headache.

After a few years of this nonsense I threw them out and went back to an old Nokia B&W model. Runs a week on a single charge and I don't have to worry about any hacks. Same goes for every consumer item, the simpler it is the more peace of mind I get.

Barry Schwartz has a beautiful TED video about why he wants to go 40 years back when they only had one pair of ill fitting jeans and you had no other choice. Seems like the more consumer choices you have in life, the worse it gets.

team10tim said...

Hey hey everybody,

Since there has been some talk of decline, dieoff, and dark age I want to share an observation about the math of the long descent and some of the implications. If JMG is right that the bottom of the descent is around 300 years away and the next high culture is around 1,000 years away then we are 12 and 40 generations removed from those events. A child born at the bottom of the curve in 300 years would have 2^12 ancestors (2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents... ~4,000 ancestors) to trace there genealogy back to the present. Although, some of those ancestors would probably appear more than once i.e. her great great great grandfather on her mother's side is also her great great great great grandfather on her father's side. And for 1,000 years out she would have 2^40 ancestors (just over a trillion) to trace back to our time. Although, most of those ancestors would, of necessity, be double counted many times.

Also, the difference in minimum population between a drop to a billion people and a minimum of 5% of the current population is a 1% decline per year and a 5/8% decline per year. Of course it will not be a smooth decline but a jagged stair step down. The large number of ancestors serves to dilute the influence of any one ancestor, especially the older generations. The stair step decline with its long grinding hardships and sharp discontinuities is not a fertile environment for investing time and energy in anything that doesn't pay its own way. There will be a relentless triage on the way down and the only things that will survive it are the ones that have resources allocated to them in a demanding environment.

The challenge of getting knowledge to the future is more daunting than it seems. I know almost nothing about my family from 12 generations ago much less 40 generations ago. There are very few intact institutions that have survived that long with some degree of continuity. And there are a vanishingly small number of original written documents that have made it 40 generations. If you go back further, say 80 generations, to Rome's heyday we have only two sources. One, what was kept by the church (Catholic and Orthodox) and the Muslims. And two, what archaeologists have found digging in the ground. For Ancient Egypt we have very limited accounts of late Egypt from the Greeks that survived through the Roman church channel and archeology. For the Indus Valley civilization we have essentially nothing. No records, no second hand accounts, and archaeologist can't decipher their language (which was sparse, never more that 15 characters long on an engraving).

It may seem that we know a great deal about the Romans and the Egyptians but as an exercise compare what we know about them against what we know about our own civilization. Can we fill a Library of Congress with their culture? Could we rebuild a Pyramid? We can't even figure out how Greek fire was made and we have chemistry. If you run the thought exercise the other way where a future civilization knows only as much about us as we do about the Romans of Egyptians what would be missing?

John Michael Greer said...

Phil H., feudalism appears in many forms, most of them adapted to one extent or another to fit local conditions. Norman England was indeed an anomaly of sorts, since the 1066 conquest allowed something much closer to pure feudalism to be imposed all at once; elsewhere (for example, France and Germany), it evolved over generations, and thus adapted to the situation on the ground. Still, I'd encourage you to widen the scope of your reading a bit, and consider Japanese feudalism of the sengoku jidai period, Homeric and post-Homeric Greek feudalism, etc. -- it's a very common pattern, though it takes a great many forms based on local conditions and cultural themes.

Russ, oh, granted, but it might be a nod in the direction of truth in advertising laws to change the species name to one that literally means something a little less hubristic!

Gwizard, very logical. Now let's take it the next step. There have been at least 100,000 predictions that the end is nigh over the last three millennia or so -- that's probably understating the case by an order of magnitude or more, but we'll take it as a conservative estimate. So any given prediction has less than one chance in 100,000 of being correct, and the statement "it's not different this time" is so close to always true that the difference isn't statistically significant. ;-)

Kevin, stay tuned -- I'll be addressing the issues you've raised in upcoming posts. As for "striptease," er, trust me, that would not be an edifying spectacle!

Tim, you get today's gold star for relentless realism. Thank you.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Wiseman--You are most welcome.

I wanted to address the topic of what a useful spiritual practice of the future might look like. Judaism is a very old religion that has been carried to most parts of the world, and its practices have been field-tested in many environments, some of them very severe.

I also wanted to suggest that broad statements about "the Judeo-Christian tradition" or "the Abrahamic religions" require equal familiarity with Judaism, Islam and Christianity, or adding the kind of qualification that you did.

Sabbath observance as I described it is not common today outside the State of Israel, where laws and business practices support it. The majority of the world's Jews are either partially observant of religious law or not observant at all. However, the values and outlook that these practices inculcate are in Jewish culture and have a residual effect for generations.

oneotaBill said...

JMG,
as a retired "elementary particle" theoretical physicist and a practicing very small scale organic farmer and grazier (Dexter cattle), I take issue with [someone's] concern that the loss of sub-sub fields of modern math OR modern physics would be a consequence to anyone except their disappearning priesthoods.

Indeed, I loved (I notice the past tense) mathematics and modern (quantum mechanics and quantume field theory) physics, and I mourned their likely loss in a long ago post here. I repeat: it will not be a significant loss to civiliazation any more than the loss of the speeches of an arbitrrary politician.

These are my values, but they are, I believe, rooted in an accurate assessment of the impact of that knowledge on the quality of life.
cheers

laughingbirdfarm said...

JMG,

I'm really enjoying this series of posts on the cyclical nature of civilizations.

I know you don't have a TV, so you've probably never seen it, but about 10 years ago the old sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica was remade. The series was actually quite good, and used a cyclical Augustian view of time as the basis for the mythology of the society. In other words, their view of human history proceeded from Eden to the Fall to the Apocalypse, then back to a new Eden, rinse and repeat. The details might be different, but the cycle stayed the same.

Anyway, the show came out while I was in college and was my introduction to this sort of thinking. One of the show's taglines comes back to me whenever I start thinking about the rise and fall of civilizations. "All this has happened before. All this will happen again."

The last few posts keep bringing that quote to mind.

I hope this makes sense. I have a newborn in the house, and barely make sense to myself!

goingnowhereslowly said...

I am a long-time reader and am especially enjoying this series of posts. Thank you!


Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA bring to mind your earlier discussion about the risk to the elite from defections among the troops in the national security state. It would appear that they can't actually run the thing without a very large workforce, which--from a purely statistical perspective--will include the occasional reckless young person of principle willing to risk all for the freedoms of his fellow citizens.


In this context, Nafeez Ahmed has an illuminating blog in the Guardian's environment section. While the story he tells of US domestic military planning and surveillance is not entirely new to those of us paying attention, it, like Snowden's revelations, is quite chilling. The blog entry is well worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote some highlights here:


Just last month, unilateral changes to US military laws formally granted the Pentagon extraordinary powers to intervene in a domestic "emergency" or "civil disturbance":

"Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances."



After then discussing how those emergencies and disturbances are explicitly related to environmental catastrophe, food shortages, or economic stress, he then quotes a senior defense contractor as saying:


"An increased focus on domestic activities might be a way of justifying whatever Army force structure the country can still afford."



Which, of course, begs the question of who he thinks is paying for that structure! Presumably the increasingly oppressed masses--but, I guess, it has always been thus.


Anyway, I've become quite a fan of Ahmed's because his blog synthesizes current events in a way that is philosophically very similar to the Archdruid Report. This particular entry is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/earth-insight/2013/jun/14/climate-change-energy-shocks-nsa-prism

--Paula

irishwildeye said...

The ultimate lesson of the Irish War of Independence is that peasants with guns when well lead make ferocious warriors, who can over come even the best professional troops. Peasants have a physical and mental toughness that make them formidable fighters.

If a peasant army has the support of the people, every movement of the occupying power is observed and noted and the peasant army always have the edge in the intelligence war. In County Cork during the War of Independence less than 1000 IRA fighters (mostly small farmers and farm laborers), tied down 12,500 British troops and several thousand police. And still County Cork was ungovernable. British forces withdrew from large parts of West Cork leaving large areas under the control of the IRA. The greatest tribute to how effective Cork IRA were was that by the end of the war the British Army were copying their tactics, organising their own "Flying Columns".

In the more recent war in Northern Ireland a very small number of Provisional IRA fighters in South Armagh (perhaps 25 to 30) were so successful that the British Army didn't dare move on the ground, all movement was by helicopter. Large numbers of troops, watch towers on every mountain top and the best electronic surveillance equipment that money could buy could not stop a small number of IRA fighters (mostly small farmers) from operating at will. At the Narrow Water Ambush in 1979 South Armagh IRA killed 18 elite British Paratroopers in one day, the regiments worst day since Operation Market Garden in 1944. A good book on the war between the IRA and British Army in South Armagh is "Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh" by Toby Harnden.

The Vietnam War and the current quagmire in Afganistan are also good examples of the formidable nature of peasant fighters with guns.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warrenpoint_ambush
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bandit-Country-The-South-Armagh/dp/034071736X

Ing said...

After reading your post and some of the comments, I'm aware of just how many people I know who will deny that they are discussing what's of value to them and insist instead that what they are really discussing are objective facts. I suppose if we're discussing what's of value to each of us then we have to make room for the other in conversation as much as we want them to make room for us. If we can claim objective fact then perhaps we can trump the other, or just beat them over the head with it. Values are so highly touted in words, but I rarely see them honored in practice. Mostly they just get lumped with emotionalism by people who hold opposing or conflicting values. Maybe it's just too much vulnerability to claim a value, or too much risk of not getting our way, or both.

fromorctohuman said...

I'll give you a hand on the Christian side...

(Actually, I can't speak for all Christians, and I can't even speak for myself ALL of the time, but...)

The core value of Christianity is love. Love is so important, and so "valuable" that it actually exists as a person.

For myself, because I value love above all else, it is easy for me to assent to this.

Love exists as a person.

Of course it's not that simple. Besides this I value a lot of other things as well (my life, for example, I can't help it : -) ) but none of those make me Christian. And, some of those values may result in my acting in direct conflict with what I claim to be the most important value to me.

My life is a never ending process of attempting to supplant all other values to the value of love, by choice.

I'm not good at it, but that's the way it is...

FWIW.

The reason this is relevant to your very fine blog...

This value is transcendent or timeless, that is, not subject to the cycle you've laid out.

People who profess Christianity may do so for any number of reasons, and it might even be that none of those reasons are because they value love, so I grant that the popularity of "Christianity may be subject to something cyclical - but love is the core of Christianity and as such it isn't appropriate to label it simply as a phase of a cyclical decline/fall narrative.

IMHO

: -)

Thanks,

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

One time tested means empires use to forestall popular resistance is to uproot the entire population of a nation and relocate them far enough away that they can't get home.

The Babylonians did it to the Israelites and other conquered nations. They deported the Israelites in two stages, first the elites, then most of the commoners a couple of years later, which was clever of the Babylonians. The Israelites griped about it but weren't able to do anything, and most of them assimilated into the Babylonian population and lost their national identity (the famous Ten Lost Tribes). The remnant got a chance to go home centuries later when the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians. Most stayed put, because it was easier to make a living between the Tigris and Euphrates.

The Romans chucked all the Jews out of Judea after they got fed up with repeated revolts that required large armies to put down. The outnumbered rebels in all these revolts hoped for other provincial uprisings to distract the Roman forces, but their hopes were in vain.

The United States government used forced relocation to great effect against many Indian tribes. Stalin relocated the Chechens and other nationalities he didn't trust.

Another strategy that can work is to leave the native population in place but overwhelm them with immigrants from the dominant nation. The U.S. did this in the territories taken from Mexico (among other places), Stalin attempted it in the Baltic nations, and the Chinese are doing it in Tibet.

Fighting guerrillas on their home territory is much more difficult, though it sometimes succeeds. At the turn of the last century, the US captured Spain's colonies by war and decided to keep the Philippines for a naval base. The Filipinos mounted a resistance very like the Vietnam War minus the helicopters (Mark Twain wrote some scathing editorials). Unfortunately for the Filipino nationalists, they didn't have the backing of a friendly power like Russia, and they lost.



SLClaire said...

Ing - I think the easiest way to see what someone actually values, as opposed to what he/she claims to value, is to observe what he/she does over a period of time. If what JMG says about values is correct (values based on faith are how we answer the unprovable questions that need answering to keep on getting up in the morning), then it follows that our values have a lot to do with our actions.

Captcha: whatemo shall. Seems appropriate somehow ...

casamurphy said...

As a Buddhist (Sokagakkai Nichiren Sect), I was taught that faith is exactly as you have described it. We practice faith in the same way one practices the piano...in order to strengthen an intrinsic and necessary confidence necessary to lead an active life…which, IF directed towards a correct proposition…will lead to the creation of value*. Such a view of faith means that one needs to experience the creation of value in order to confirm that the proposition or object of one’s faith was correct. This is a positive feedback loop...with value creation leading to stronger faith. This is why Buddhism emphasizes practice over belief. It is natural that in the beginning of one's practice the only faith present is that intrinsic confidence that enables us to lead sane lives (trusting that the floor will not collapse, etc)...just enough curiosity to experiment. It is actual proof that one subjectively views as a result of practice that leads to stronger faith.

Above, the poster name Primitive, said “What you describe as faith seems semantically different that what that word means in today’s culture.”

I think religions that emphasize the benefits of practice in the here and now tend to define faith in the JMG and Buddhist way, whereas religions that emphasize the benefits of practice in the hereafter tend to define faith as a belief which is a prerequisite to obtaining benefits. The second definition of faith is what I think Primitive is referring to a “semantically different” from the JMG definition.

This difference concerning the definition of faith, in my opinion, is another reason atheists and theist seem to talk past one another. I have found it helpful when discussing religion to first spend ample time arriving at a common definition of faith. If a common definition of faith cannot be achieved then at least both parties have been put on notice that they will have to be very good listeners in order to achieve anything resembling a dialogue.

*Value as either Beauty, an esthetic value that enhances specific aspects of the individual's life; Gain, anything that concretely enhances the entirety of an individual's existence; or Good, being that which enhances the life of an entire community or society.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I'm sorry to hear that, though I can't say I'm surprised.

Laughing, I watched the original series back in the day, and was unimpressed. Glad to hear they made something interesting of it. Congrats on the new arrival!

Slowly, what's going on here in the US is very simple, though next to nobody's talking about it. For decades now the US and its allies, using "non-governmental organizations" owned and operated by US interests, have been manufacturing revolutions in countries whose governments do things we don't like -- the current business in Syria is simply the latest example. Those same techniques have already been borrowed by some of the nations that don't think much of the US claim to world dominion, and it's pretty clear that the groundwork is being laid for a "color revolution" here in the US, paid for by foreign money, to embarrass, cripple, and if possible overthrow the current US governmental system. Our government is aware of that, and is preparing to oppose such a revolution with force, in exactly the same way that Assad is doing in Syria. That's my take, at least, and I'd be amazed to see this decade end before that particular balloon goes up.

Wildeye, thanks for the further data. All grist for the mill; my previous knowledge of the Irish War of Independence was mostly limited to Yeats' comments and a little overall history.

Ing, exactly! You get tonight's gold star for a good crisp summary.

Orc, as I see it, values endure even though their popularity rises and falls, so we're in agreement there. Mind you, your saying that "love is a person" makes about as much sense to me as "colorless green ideas sleep furiously;" to say that a principle is a person is rather like claiming that love is eighteen inches long and is bright orange! On the other hand, if you want to say that the person in question, being divine, embodies the principle of love in its fullness, we'll at least be talking a common philosophical language -- or you can always go back to Tertullian's credo quia absurdum, which is also an answer.

Casamurphy, am I guessing correctly that the definition of value you've appended is from Daisaku Ikeda's writings?

casamurphy said...

Answering JMG's question...actually Makaguchi.

Leo said...

I'm getting more books and noticed Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows.

Do you have any recommendations for books on systems theory and application.

Juhana said...

Very interesting series of posts going on, JMG! Philosophy of history has been quite untreated wilderness for me, and these posts have served as useful guide. Finding areas of knowledge new for oneself is always humbling experience, and much needed through entire lifespan of human being.

All I have read here just confirms my belief that after civilization has grown into sophisticated and interconnected Moloch of current size, it cannot change its predestined course. Pressure groups and interest lobbies are just too influential.

When there is contradiction between map and terrain surrounding map reader, wise thing to do is to notice that map is wrong one, and start to make observations based on current environment. Leadership and also general public of industrial world has decided otherwise; if map does not describe current surroundings, it is obligation of terrain to metamorphose into what is described by the map...

To admit mistakes and change habits accordingly is rare quality among individuals and totally unknown quality among civilizations.

As democratic make-up hiding faces of industrial oligarchies wears of, panem et circenses spectacles are offered instead. But in Syria conditions are dangerously analogous to those in Balkans during early 20th century.

Russians are right now very upset about current Obama plans towards Syria. There is no understanding whatsoever for this current imperial muscle flexing of US. So it is just possible that cake is too big to swallow this time, like it was in the Balkan region almost exactly hundred years ago. There is lots of resentment and open hatred sloshing around because this bonding between US and Sunni rebels. SCO, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, is not entity to be ignored or played around if you ask me, but none is asking of course :). It is just interesting to observe as impartial bystander how other side's black turns into other side's white and vice versa. It is always somewhat surreal experience, to witness total and uncompromising paradigm shift between two mighty camps.

JMG, is Fior di Battaglia familiar manuscript for you? If it is, how does Academie de l'Espee relate to it, excluding obvious fact that latter is Baroque era tradition? Flower of the Battle describes rough-and-ready martial style, and I have always thought Baroque era schools were weaker and lesser descendants of once mighty fighting systems of Middle Ages, like modern wrestling is weaker and less manly version of catch wrestling. Any recommendations?

jason clark said...

This comment more properly belongs to last week's thread on the Decline of The West, but as I was late to that thread, here goes...

As always, a very thoughtful treatment of your topic. I grew up on Spengler back in the 70's when he was even less well known than he is today. However, I suspect your veneration for Spengler may have inclined you to mitigate some of his more deterministic and categorical pronouncements.

Re: the former, if you look in the back of Volume 1 of the Decline, you will see tables of civilizations, including our own, laid out 'contemporaneously'. It is clear that Spengler foresaw our descent into the latter forms of 'Civilization' (Caesarism, Second Religiousness) occurring shortly after the year 2000--not 2100, as you wrote. Spengler termed the 19th century the death throes of the Western culture, and predicted that Democracy--i.e., the reign of money, would prevail until the coming of the caesars in the 21st century. He was quite deterministic about this, and it was doubtless both a selling point (the horror) and the cause of most of the visceral criticism the book earned. Indeed, many readers of the time misunderstood Spengler and thought his warnings of decline were imminent.

Re: the second, Spengler wrote that all music since Wagner was "impotence and falsehood"; he would hardly have accorded much importance or respect to the African-influenced musics of Jazz and Rock, though I believe by the time he wrote Hour Of Decision in 1936 that he respected Jazz's ability to reconnect to our corporal lives. But the idea that Spengler would have welcomed the primitivism of Rock is pretty dubious, I think.

Now, as for the African-influenced, or at least folkloric music you might have mentioned (and didn't) which Spengler in time would probably have appreciated, there are, most famously Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but more subtly his Histoire Du Soldat and Symphony of Psalms, Bartok's 4th and 5th quartets, Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste, and Concerto For Orchestra (Bartok's works have a strong Magyar flavor, while combining influences of the greatest western composers, Bach and Beethoven), Ives' two piano sonatas (with their ragtime influence). I don't think Spengler would have appreciated Schoenberg's and Hindemith's over-intellectualism--let alone Webern's or Varese's or John Cage's abstraction. But Stravinsky and Bartok--and Ives and perhaps Copland on a smaller scale-managed to reconnect with nationalist or folkloric currents which had sprouted in the 19th century, as well as wrote many works in the approved sonata forms of Haydn and Beethoven, and so attempted to fit into the western canon, of which Spengler approved.

While you might feel that Spengler was at heart a conservative on artistic matters--and his characterization of Expressionism and Cubism was far from complimentary--I think my scenario (his welcoming Bartok and Stravinsky to the canon) is at least as likely as your scenario (his welcoming Jazz and Rock as replacements for Berlioz and Wagner). In any event, Spengler would have seen through the commercial aspect of modern music, which has been evident since Tin Pan Alley. In a private moment he might have liked a Gershwin song more than a modern atonal piece of music, but would probably have recognized that the latter was still aiming for more...

Mansoor H. Khan said...

JMG,

you said:

"This is one of the reasons I encourage people who live elsewhere, come out of very different life experiences, or both, to address these same issues from their own perspectives."

Here is my contribution. Please read:

http://mansoorkhan114.blogspot.com/2013/03/why-islam-last-update-31-2013-this.html

Mansoor H. KHan

onething said...

Great post.

1. I do think that there is some objective, common values possible. One that even unites atheists and theists is, What is good is that which promotes life and health, including emotional health and resilience.
Unfortunately though, if you dig a bit deeper into this value, there is a huge difference, in that morality for the atheist evolved as what promotes life for the group via the individual (speaking of humans) and thus we have altruism and compassion and so forth, but there is no real need to truly internalize the golden rule in a more universal way; from an evolutionary standpoint, genocide makes sense and that is why Darwin predicted it.

2. As regards one god, many gods and no god/s, it may not be objectively verifiable, but logic goes to one God. The reason has to do with the source of existence. Existence itself is quite a puzzle. The most basic definition of God, and therefore a necessary one to qualify, is that being or element capable of being the cause of existence. That there could be more than one independent and different cause to existence seems silly on its face, and indicates that you have not hit bottom. That existence is utterly uncaused, though many people profess to believe it, is also silly.

That there can only be one TYPE of cause, and therefore all things that arise ultimately unfold out of that cause gives a logical foundation to the common mystical realization that all is one.

One doesn't have to do any anthropomorphizing beyond that.

3. Accept life as it is??? Nooooooooooooooooo!!!

Although today is pretty good...

Edward said...

A good exercise in seeing the world exactly as it is (as JMG said), and changing our relationship to nature (as Yupped said): Growing a garden.

casamurphy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Michael Greer said...

Casamurphy, many thanks.

Leo, I'd suggest Gerald Weinberg's An Introduction to General Systems Thinking and Ervin Laszlo's A Systems View of the World as resources.

Juhana, yes, I'm familiar with it. Thibault's work is far more specialized -- it's a manual of rapier combat, not a general martial arts treatise like the Fior de Battaglia. The best work in traditional Western martial arts I know of these days is mostly focused on the late medieval German systems, which cover everything from wrestling up to Lichtenauer's longsword methods and a variety of polearms; if that's of interest, though, a competent teacher is essential, and I have no idea what might be available in your part of the world.

Jason, I didn't say that Spengler would have approved of rock and jazz, merely that he predicted -- accurately -- that the only artistic traditions that would have any remaining vitality in the West would draw their inspiration from other cultures. Your classical examples are other examples of the same process. As for 2100, of course you're correct -- a typo on my part; it's merely the conclusion of the descent into Caesarism that takes more time, and that we haven't quite completed yet.

Mansoor Khan, fair enough. Obviously I disagree with your claims, but that's the nature of dissensus.

Onething, a consensus of subjective opinion, about values or anything else, does not make the topic of that consensus into objective fact. The logic of monotheism is considerably less solid than it looks -- have you taken a look at my book A World Full of Gods, which argues this point? It must have occurred to most people by now that the universe looks like something designed by a committee... As for accepting the world as it is, your response is absolutely standard; I'll be discussing that further as we proceed.

John Michael Greer said...

Walter (offlist), if personal insults are the best you can manage, you can do it somewhere else. Go away.

Sky McCain said...

What would it mean to found a set of values, and a corresponding set of presuppositions about the world, on life exactly as it is?
It would mean a life lived more in harmony with all other beings. We would start with, I am an Earthling and I share the Earth’s surface with a host of other Earthlings. I and all other Earthlings ARE the earth just like a leaf, a root, the bark IS the tree. I will love the Earth when I realize that the greater dimension of my existence, Gaia, is loveable.

Edward said...

beneaththesurface said:
"I strive in my life to live ecologically, in part by not unnecessarily using excess resources and energy...At this point, an individual decision not to use air conditioning or a dryer is not going to affect the general direction society is headed, etc.

JMG said:
"You're doing the right thing because it's the right thing, not because of any specific impact it might have on the world of fact"

An immediate benefit is that you're likely going to save some money. Energy is expensive and is getting more so.

Mansoor H. Khan said...

JMG,

Thanks for reviewing my blogpost (http://mansoorkhan114.blogspot.com/2013/03/why-islam-last-update-31-2013-this.html).

You said:

"the universe looks like something designed by a committee."

I have thought of that. But my conclusion is that the universe is about competing worldviews (i.e., religions) as opposed to competing races.

In a sense it is the survival of the fittest. The fittest religion (a way of thinking about nature and reality, a worldview) which will eventually win the hearts and minds of most people on earth (post collapse). I think it will be Islam for the reasons I have on my blog.

I see Islam as a worldview destroyer. It ravages indigenous worldviews where ever it goes and plants itself firmly rarely being overcome by another worldview for the it adoptees.

Islam has only failed/unplanted itself two places on earth (Spain and the Balkans). Everywhere it went it has been a resilient worldview for the inhabitants who adopted it (Persia, India, Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, Central Asia, etc.)

Also, I believe that belief (faith) in afterlife and ultimate accounting/judgement and justice is a survival advantage against collapses in a Darwinian sense.

Salaam (Peace!)

Mansoor H. Khan

casamurphy said...

@Onething said above, “As regards one god, many gods and no god/s, it may not be objectively verifiable, but logic goes to one God. The reason has to do with the source of existence. Existence itself is quite a puzzle. The most basic definition of God, and therefore a necessary one to qualify, is that being or element capable of being the cause of existence. That there could be more than one independent and different cause to existence seems silly on its face, and indicates that you have not hit bottom. That existence is utterly uncaused, though many people profess to believe it, is also silly.”

Casamurphy’s reply:

Aristotle is generally considered to have been quite logical and serious (not silly) and he is often attributed with the “invention” of the unmoved mover concept which you claim must be the singular cause of existence. But aren't you aware that Aristotle himself believed that the universe was eternal, “Let this conclude what we have to say in support of our contention that there never was a time when there was not motion, and never will be a time when there will not be motion.” Aristotle; (trans. Hardie,R.P. & Gaye,R.K.) (7 January 2009). "VIII, 2". Physics. The Internet Classics Archive.

He also believed in multiple unmoved movers, “It is clear then that there is neither place, nor void, nor time, outside the heaven. Hence whatever is there, is of such a nature as not to occupy any place, nor does time age it; nor is there any change in any of the things which lie beyond the outermost motion; they continue through their entire duration unalterable and unmodified, living the best and most self sufficient of lives… From [the filament of the whole heaven] derive the being and life which other things, some more or less articulately but other feebly, enjoy.” Aristotle (J.L. Stocks trans.) (7 January 2009). "De Caelo" [On the Heavens] I. The Internet Classics Archive. I.9, 279 a17–30. Notice he said “they” when referring to the unmoved movers.

Existence is indeed mystical, but can be understood through experience. For example when you are not angry, does your anger nature exist or not? While in its state of potentiality, some would say it does not exist, while others would say it still exists. All kinds of potentialities manifest and then recede into dormancy all the time. Yet we can see a consistency underlying all that change. These consistencies, I believe, are what Aristotle would have called the unmoved movers and the forms. In Buddhism together they are called the law and the essential identity of phenomena.

Therefore I must say that un-caused existence isn't “silly”, indeed the opposite appears to be true: that the need for a cause for existence is silly. And in the spirit of silliness, I have composed a poem touching on this theme and of course, love (what else is poetry for if not for expressing love).

If Aristotle Had Loved Women*

Aristotle, though wrong, is not to blame
for suggesting an endless series to be insane**.
He never had the pleasure of your acquaintance
nor the metaphors of modern science.

If He had known that your every molecule
dies and is reborn in seven yearly intervals.
He’d rejoice with me as we proceeded
to imagine your body caressed and heeded.

And to notice the wondrous insufficiency
as seven years passed much to quickly.
With so many points of beauty left untouched
I’m sure he would gladly concede as much:

That an endless series can hold comfort
eternal past and future but a moment
captured when lovers gaze intently
and the universe collapses gently.



* Perhaps he did, but when stereotypes can be played, poets will play them…and certain strains of Greek culture are definitely misogynistic.
**of course he never suggested such a thing, but Christian theologians like to con us into thinking he did.

John Michael Greer said...

Sky, that's certainly one approach, and I'll be talking about it down the road a bit.

Edward, true enough.

Mansoor, well, we'll see. Obviously I disagree with a number of your basic assumptions, but again, that's the nature of dissensus.

John Michael Greer said...

Heraclitus and Stephen, er, if you want to repost your latest comments without the profanity, I'd be happy to put them through. I've been a little lax of late on that topic, and unfortunately -- as always seems to happen -- the result is a flurry of attempted posts that break the no-profanity rule in ever more enthusiastic ways. You're both capable writers, you don't have to rely on the least useful words in the language!

Darren Urquhart said...

JMG,

I think it's pretty rare you put a date to any specific predictions so was interested to read this in your reply to a comment:

" it's pretty clear that the groundwork is being laid for a "color revolution" here in the US, paid for by foreign money, to embarrass, cripple, and if possible overthrow the current US governmental system. Our government is aware of that, and is preparing to oppose such a revolution with force, in exactly the same way that Assad is doing in Syria. That's my take, at least, and I'd be amazed to see this decade end before that particular balloon goes up"

Can you elaborate?

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
It occurs to me that we come from very different cultures so might in all good faith disagree over what is a profanity.

Any time you see anything I have written that you see as a profanity, please feel free to delete it from the posting.

Australia is one of the most multicultural nations on earth so we are used to being careful of other's feelings even if we don't understand why.

Stephen Heyer

KL Cooke said...


onething

"...logic goes to one God..."

Indeed, but the Gnostic idea of a transcendent God and a lesser god overseeing physical reality has a certain logical appeal when one contemplates the state of the world.

KL Cooke said...

Mansoor

I read your blog, and you make a good case for Islam, although I take exception to Adam and Eve as literal versus parable. However, it seems to me that a theocracy automatically produces a hierarchy, and I give the current state of Iran as an example.

jason clark said...

JMG: I didn't say that Spengler would have approved of rock and jazz, merely that he predicted -- accurately -- that the only artistic traditions that would have any remaining vitality in the West would draw their inspiration from other cultures.
~~~~~~

It is easy enough to say this 95 years after TDOW Vol. 1, but 50 years ago most composers were touting Schoenberg's and Webern's 12 tone music; that was what seemed to have the most vitality at the time. This music is not influenced by African, or even folk forms. (Schoenberg, who developed the 12 tone approach to composition, claimed to have been influenced mainly by Bach and Mozart). Bartok and Stravinsky were admired, and Jazz had finally come of age and had earned some respect, while Rock was still the rebellious music of adolescence...and hadn't earned much respect among the cultural commentators.

I believe that Spengler was conservative even for his time, and rather unique in thinking that music written after his own birth was decadent (Spengler was born in 1880 and his hero, Wagner died in 1883). Spengler placed great emphasis on "being in form", and quickly denounced not only artistic forms but politics and science for not being "in form"--adhering to convention. Hence, it is possible he might have approved of a classic 12 bar blues more than a more ambitious but formless classical piece; the former he might think had more vitality. But this is impossible to prove, as nowhere did he comment on popular music.

JMG:
Your classical examples are other examples of the same process. As for 2100, of course you're correct -- a typo on my part; it's merely the conclusion of the descent into Caesarism that takes more time, and that we haven't quite completed yet.

~~~~~~~
Using a Spenglerian analysis, could you venture to guess how far along we are in the process of abandoning the outworn forms of democracy and adopting caesarism? Could you predict that by mid-century (2050) we will have definitely completed the transition?

The reason I ask is because I suspect that while early readers of TDOW made the mistake of thinking the transition, or descent into caesarism was imminent, contemporary readers might commit the opposite error and think we have more time than we do. This is borne out by the fact that the formless of which Spengler warned--which can be seen in the arts, jurisprudence, politics, literature and media--has become quite evident. Even science--to the extent that it is money-driven and has become political--is not immune. The Second Religiousness has become quite evident in America, if not in Europe, if you compare today with 50 years ago.

Wayne A. Shingler said...

John Michael, how is the Long Descent not simply a slower version of apocalypse? Like other apocalyptic narratives, it finds fault in the way the world is now (the Industrial Age), promises an end to that (with no small measure of hellfire and brimstone moralizing about blind greed, irresponsible squandering of resources, and faith in perpetual improvement), and promises a future that is different than the present (no more airliners, no more space exploration, no more internet, no more anything that depends on complex supply chains).

The principle difference that stands out for me is that the few other apocalypse stories I can call to mind at the moment predict a future that never existed before, whereas the Long Descent is a story of a future that becomes very much like the pre-industrial past. That doesn't indicate a truly cyclical form, though, since it's a fair certainty that we're not going to repeatedly have fossil-fueled industrial empires rising and falling once the fossil fuel era is done and over with. We're truly talking about THE END of the fossil fuel era, as permanent an end as any other apocalypse.

Nonetheless, you have as unfavorable a view of belief in apocalypse as you have of belief in progress, so there must be something huge I'm missing that, for you, sets apart the Long Descent from other tales of big, final, righteous endings of an evil age. What is it? Could you explain, or perhaps point me toward a link where you may have done so previously?

Ing said...

SLClaire, I agree that we can see more about people and their values than they may realize, and the same is true for us, we can be viewed more deeply than we may know or admit. As an aside, I happen to think that the most clever people I know are that observant and the most powerful people I know are compassionate to boot.

What I'm interested in at the moment is our individual and collective relationship to values and fact. I wonder about the motivation to dismiss values and attempts to fit those values through a back door into a seemingly fact-based argument, whether that motivation is conscious or unconscious, and from what source this patterns springs. It's odd, too, because sometimes the most compelling part of an argument lies within values that are well expressed. With the facts we may then have data or even knowledge but are missing, at least to my mind, some important imagery and wisdom that could be had if we led with our values in an honest and forthright way. Values and fact together seem like they would create the most resilient thinking, or maybe it's that the most resilient thinking allows for both.

Ramaraj said...

One thing I noticed in common with several faith systems is that they are about how the world around us will behave or supposed to behave.

Even though historical cycles can be seen accurately in hindsight, it is impossible to predict future events beyond a certain broad pattern. A value system that focuses inwards to one's self, rather than relying on the external world to satisfy human needs and desires would be very useful. After all, we can't control pretty much anything except ourselves.

I think magic would be very useful here.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@casamurphy--I like the definition of value that you quote. It is easy to understand and seems to cover all the ground.

Judaism values practice over belief and emphasizes the benefits of practice in the here-and-now. Therefore Judaism falls on the Buddhist side of your faith typology even though even though it espouses a number of beliefs that cannot be verified or tested. This is one of the ways that Judaism differs from Christianity.

onething said...

Well, JMG, when I said that the value of promoting life can be agreed upon, I did not mean it to be therefore subjective. After all, what more basic value can there be? I came up with it as a defense for atheists against the charge that they have no basis for morality.

Your book is on my do list. Did you want me to buy it from Amazon?

The physical world may have been made by committee, but the members of such a committee are not the ultimate reality.
It may very well be that it is more practically useful to acquaint oneself with certain entities who are benevolent and accessible.

Roger said...

What a historian or a psychologist would consider "evidence" would probably get laughed out of a physics lab. Scholars accept that Julius Caesar existed. Yet none of them ever set eyes on him. How do they know who actually wrote Commentarii de Bello Gallico?

You're right, there's a lot of people talking past one another. Scientists bristle with scorn for religious types because science, you see, is based on evidence. But religion isn't. So what about "thou shalt not kill"? Because it seems to me that "thou shalt not kill" comes from a truth that's not based in evidence and therefore a truth that science has little or nothing to say about, mainly that each human life is unique and therefore invaluable and irreplaceable.

Having said that, it doesn't sound to me that writers of religious scripture were consumed by worry over verifiable historical or scientific fact. It just wasn't their thing. But is religion only a matter of values? Is religious faith based solely on, er, faith?

Did Jesus exist? What about St Paul? Are the written accounts all fabrication?

Isn't it so that law courts consider as evidence the testimony of witnesses to an event?

So what did Saul see and hear on the road to Damascus? We have the biblical account. Is it all fictional? On the other hand, what basis is there to say that it was all a howling lie? Is the biblical account of Paul bullet-proof? Maybe not. It may not pass muster in a physics lab but it's still evidence.

How can we know what Moses actually saw on the mountain? The biblical account talks about a burning bush and a voice. Is this irrefutable evidence of a deity? Maybe not. Is it an accurate recounting of what someone saw and heard or what they said they saw and heard? It possibly is. I would say it's at least some evidence of an unusual occurance. And so is the story of Saul on the road to Damascus.

So you have narratives from religious texts. It seems to me that some of them aren't in the slightest meant to be a recounting of actual events. Like the biblical story of creation. As for the rest, whether or not you accept them as true isn't so much a matter of "faith" as it is of "trust". What did Moses see and hear? What did Saul see and hear? Do you trust the writers? Do you trust the surviving accounts?

John Michael Greer said...

Darren, I may do a post on that one of these days -- still, I'm not sure that the basic comment needs any particular elaboration. The US is potentially vulnerable to violent regime change, funded by a foreign power, by way of a manufactured mass movement of the sort that the US has been manufacturing and funding in other countries for decades now; the torrent of antigovernment propaganda that's all over the internet these days strikes me as potentially the first stage of that process.

Stephen, I can't edit posts; all I can do is approve or reject them. As for profanity, yes, there are cultural differences -- references to Beelzebub's current whereabouts, for example, are okay only in discussions of theology.

Jason, I've read your first point three times now and am completely at a loss as to how it relates to anything I said. As for the second, that's a matter of what Spengler called "incident," so can't be predicted exactly in advance; still, the very nearly messianic rhetoric that got splashed all over Obama in his first presidential campaign suggests that it may not be far off.

Wayne of the many aliases, yes, you're missing the point. The big, final, righteous ending of an evil age is exactly what I'm not discussing; our age is no more evil than any other, and what's coming down is simply the ordinary processes of history as usual. It's not a big deal, except for those people who happen to be caught in it -- and their situation, all things considered, is no worse than that of people caught up in the decline and fall of other civilizations.

Ramaraj, excellent. You get this morning's gold star, for summing up a couple of the key points I've been trying to make.

Onething, "promoting life" may be your value and the value of those who agree with you; that doesn't make it an objective reality, and there have been any number of people and traditions down through the centuries who wouldn't have agreed with you. Equally, while you're perfectly within your rights to claim that the committee that created the world isn't the ultimate reality, can you prove that? Of course not; it's simply a statement of faith on your part, and as such, unfolds from your personal values.

Roger, you've got one set of scriptures, Mansoor has another, and so do any number of other readers -- and all of them contradict one another in many ways. Which one do you trust? The one that speaks to your values. That's what I'm talking about when I refer to faith as a reflection of personal values.

Kenneth Lloyd Anderson said...

Try This: http://civilizingthebeast.blogspot.com/2012/01/purpose-of-evolutionary-christian.html

SLClaire said...

Ing, I was much too quick with my comment; I probably should sit on my hands when I am reading JMG's posts and the comments and wait at least 24 hours before I comment [insert rueful smile here].

I get frustrated with the same thing you mentioned; that's why I do more observing of what people do than listening to what they say as indicative of their values, thus attempting to avoid the confusion of fact and value you discussed. You did an excellent job in clearly pointing out the issue.

JMG, you cleared up a big point of confusion I had around what faith is. As a scientist I was inculcated in the atheistic value system you described, one in which faith is not looked on with any favor. To me the word "faith" was always followed by "in (the Christian) God." I didn't have faith in that deity, yet I had a notion that I had faith in *something* though I wasn't sure what I had faith in or what exactly faith meant. I'm using your post, starting with the definition of faith, as a source of meditation themes. Already I've learned a lot and it will provide a source of themes for quite a few days as I work up to the reflection you used to end the post.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

It's curious to see some very well respected contemporary historians acknowledging the existence of the cycles identified by Vico, Spengler, Toynbee etc. while at the same time denying that they apply to industrial civilization. I am reminded of Karen Armstrong's book on Islam, which she published just before the 9/11 attacks—at the peak of American imperial predominance and prosperity.

Armstrong is here writing the history of an entire cultural project, so she is forced to paint with much broader strokes than most academic historians are now accustomed to wielding, and (not surprisingly) is struck by the pattern of expansion and contraction, consolidation and fragmentation that marked the Persian, Mongol and Ottoman polities. She acknowledges this pattern as inevitable, but only—and here is the kicker—in "pre-modern agricultural societies" that did not base their civilization, as we do, "on technology that enables us to reproduce our resources indefinitely."

(She repeats the wording here if you would like to source me: http://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm/author_number/423/karen-armstrong)

I respect Ms. Armstrong very much, so I was genuinely shocked to find her making a claim that could only be validated by the recent invention of a perpetual motion machine, a magical cold fusion reactor, or molecular level nano-engineering.

I'm perfectly open to the claim that somehow—this time—it's different: that we are fast approaching a post-scarcity society. But it wrinkles my nose that all I ever seem to get is promissory notes, and vague claims that "because human ingenuity has solved lots of problems and overcome many physical constraints it will eventually solve every problem and abolish all physical constraints", or, as in Ms. Armstrong's case, the bland pronouncement of an open absurdity.

Whenever I try to get into the nitty gritty, I am diverted by one well meaning optimist or another down some sweet-smelling but irrelevant garden path: "look here" they say, "consider Moore's Law, consider the raising of battleships after Pearl Harbor, consider the Marshall Plan, consider the Panama Canal". I'm willing to acknowledge that they are all impressive feats of engineering, but they are also curiously distant from the claims I am interested in evaluating, namely: "does technology yet have an answer to the fact that our planet is running out of STUFF very very fast? Are we really ever going to be able to indefinitely reproduce our own resources?" I'd love to sign on for Dyson Spheres and cryo-sleep—I was raised on those images. But no one ever wants to talk hard data and realistic projections, and boy does that smell of rat.

Interesting that the question of polytheism is starting to be tabled. While I am eager to avoid any normative and ontological bogs surrounding this question, I am continually struck by what an excellent model polytheism provides for the human condition in a purely descriptive sense.

My recent posts have been dedicated to recovering the cosmic architecture of Greco-Roman polytheism as a model for describing human reality—defined as the condition of a biological organism that seems compelled to dedicate itself to something beyond biological homeostasis.

http://thesacrificinganimal.blogspot.com/

Divine Life in Human History

In which I raid the pantries of Kant, Cicero, and Gregory of Nyssa, Gordon Ramsey finds himself unsatisfied, I continue to propound a pompous and overblown theory in the history of philosophy, and David Foster Wallace proves once again that he is always right about everything—curse him.

Stephen Heyer said...

Joseph Nemeth: “will bring the last captive military microchip fabrication plant to a halt”

I suspect not, at least not under anything but the worst “apocalypse now” collapse. You see, the things that even very modest microchips make possible are just too useful and microchip fabrication plants, so long as you stick to fairly modest microchips, not the current leading edge monsters, are just too easy to build.

We’ve even built them out on the edge of the world here in Australia.

That’s right, easy to build, and getting easier all the time. In fact, this getting easier across many scientific and technological fields over the last decade or so is something that has not yet been noticed yet by most people.

This, and a number of other areas, is where I will disagree to some extent with John Greer. It’s sort of like if the late Western Roman empire had have acquired printing, simple guns and decent ocean going vessels, all things well within their ability to make, use and even improve once they got the basic idea (as, for that matter, was a simple spark-gap, Morse key radio transceiver, now that would have really been fun).

Would that have prevented the fall of Rome? I doubt it, for the very reasons John has been discussing in his latest, brilliant, articles, but it certainly would have changed what came after.

As for the drones, they and the guided weapons they deploy have a key weakness, even a great (though fading) industrial power like the USA finds them ridiculously expensive to deploy against peasant troops armed with AK47s (another item I expect to still be manufactured in a thousand years).

A hold-out, hi-tech enclave hand building a few drones and their weapons a year is just not going to be able to afford to deploy them in meaningful numbers.

No, what I think the microchips will be mostly used in is telecommunications. Simple mobile phones are utterly changing the lives of huge numbers of people in the poorest parts of the world and being deployed at astonishing speed.

It just makes so much economic and social sense! I expect at least simple telecommunications to be a permanent part of the kind of future society John Greer envisages. I expect it may even be running a very cut down but still astonishingly useful form of the internet.

russell1200 said...

There were so many interesting comments.

Per your comment to Raven, I have not read Kingsley, but I thought it was interesting in looking him up that he has a book that goes by the name "Reality." Maybe he could go the Disney route and put a Trademark on it. Then at least in one sense he could say he owns at least a piece of reality.

I appreciate your reply to Wayne, I had somewhat wondered about the distinction you were making.

On gunpowder, John Lander's "The Field and the Forge: Population, Production, and Power in the Pre-industrial West" has a very energy centric approach to pre-industrial society. His first energy revolution is the gunpowder revolution.

You made a comment back to (I think) Dmitry about along the lines of what is technically possible, may or may not be socially possible. I am an electrician, and have started working in and generally paying close attention to the various solar applications. It seems to have been swept into the same good-bad political dialog that our modern media loves so well. The oddest meme is the idea that oil does not have any subsidies: Remind me again why we regularly park aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf? But in fairness, a lot of talk on the pro-side seems to be a willingness to spend other people's money. As a technician interested in the area, it all makes me a bit nervous as to any great future hopes.

russell1200 said...

Sorry, I forgot Sing Chew's "The Recurring Dark Ages" with regards to your comment on Ponting's Green History. He tends to stick with Eur-Asia, but has a much broader spectrum of collapses than is usual, and they also tend to be deep time examples. His is the clearest discussion that I have seen that indicates the Copper Age (Old Europe) collapse indicated by pollen sampling.

Although he is somewhat at odds with Chew, David W. Anthony's "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World" is also interesting because it brings out the waxing and waning of civilizations in a deep time way that has the Egyptians and such being very much the late comers to the stage.

Iuval Clejan said...

As far as the values espoused by Chrisianity, interesting topic. Jesus seems to be espousing love, forgiveness, justice and resistance to oppression with love and direct action. But some of this got diluted with the gospel of John (who was probably a greek guy, probably not one of the apostles) and Paul, and later further degraded by the joining of forces with the roman empire. For an interesting placing of Christianity in a historical context, see "Those Incredible Christians" by Hugh Schonfield, himself a messianic Jew.

John Michael Greer said...

Kenneth, I'll pass. Do we really need one more ideology that confuses evolution with progress, and blinds its followers to the reality of the present by dangling a fantasy of eventual godhood before their eyes?

SLClaire, glad to hear it. It's unfortunate that a good word like "faith" has been misused so often.

Heraclitus, I hadn't seen Armstrong's plunge into absurdity, but I've seen close equivalents in any number of otherwise intelligent people. That's the power of the myth of progress -- it causes even keen minds to switch off.

Russell, exactly. The difference between what's technically possible and what's economically viable is something that gets missed remarkably often. The technology to maintain Roman roads and pottery factories existed straight through the Dark Ages, a fact that didn't keep the roads from going to ruin and wheel-thrown pottery from becoming a lost art in some parts of the post-Roman West. In the same way, while integrated circuits (for example) might be modestly useful in telecommunications in a deindustrial age -- though you can get nearly all of the same things done with much simpler radio gear and trained human operators -- the economics of maintaining the supply chains, manufacturing technologies, and application technologies are most unlikely to work out, not least because it will be so much cheaper to make the simpler gear and train radio operators to run it.

Iuval, Christianity's an extremely diverse group of religious movements, and the outline of its early development you've suggested -- a standard Protestant outline, interestingly -- really doesn't do justice to the complexity of the thing. I've read Schonfield, yes -- an interesting book but very much subject to its author's biases.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thank you. Winter has kicked in here and it has delivered over 160mm (6.3 inches) so far this month with more promised. The climate has become so strongly Mediterranean that I'm a bit worried about the upcoming summer...

The reserve water tanks have now filled! Woo hoo! Unfortunately the very heavy cloud and fog (very high humidity, most days it is 99%) has meant that the batteries are draining rapidly - despite the miserly usage.

Plans are afoot though to rectify this issue and are shortly to be implemented (tomorrow actually). Winter is just not windy here, so the wind turbine has been a dud. Who'd have thought it?

Actually, unless I'd taken the time to test the conditions, I'd never have known.

Nice to hear about your quince tree. I wish it well. The citrus here are slowly bouncing back from the recent predation from the friendly house wallabies.

I'm looking forward to 22nd June!

Hi Deboarah,

Thank you for the excellent cultural description. Planned spontaneity is an outstanding thing. Most people that I know could use it and suffer from its lack.

Regards

Chris

RPC said...

One "belief system" that fascinates me is the blending of monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism proposed by e.g. C. S. Lewis (Narnia, the Ransom trilogy) and J. R. R. Tolkien (Iluvatar and the Ainur in (if memory serves) "The Silmarillion"). It seems to provide the universe with a prime mover, an assortment of "gods" to create the world itself "by committee" (I like that!), and a plethora of local spirits to re-enchant the experienced world.
BTW, thanks for noting the diversity of Christianity - too many of its critics seem to think that by "disproving" e.g. Calvinism, they've discredited the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, that's the thing about renewable energy -- it depends utterly on local conditions. I think that's why the people who are insisting that solar, wind, etc. can power an industrial civilization are by and large people who have never spent any time relying on solar, wind, etc.

RPC, Lewis and Tolkien didn't create that way of thinking. It's called Christian Neoplatonism, and it was one of the standard forms of Christian belief for many centuries; Lewis drew much of the raw material for his space trilogy from Bernard Sylvester, an important 12th-century Christian Neoplatonist. If you find it appealing, you can find a whale of a lot of resources on the subject in any decently stocked university library.

Roger said...

To JGW

That's what I'm talking about when I refer to faith as a reflection of personal values. - JGW

I understand.

Values often have a long historical pedigree. Over the ages since their inception they acquire broad societal acceptance, partly because people are by nature herd animals and do what everyone else is doing and partly because these values work to our collective and individual advantage.

We say and do and think things without, well, thinking, so deeply inscribed are these values (and because we're busy and have things to do). And religious scriptures had a hand in shaping them. No wonder then that we have such an easy time accepting as "true" scriptural narratives that helped shape those values in the first place. As an aside: interesting that so many people that sniffily describe themselves as "secular" (and that disdain religion) deny that the values that they subscribe to, like compassion, mercy, forgiveness, respect for human life, had their origins in religious thought. Why not just be honest and accept it?

You're also right that values don't exist in a vacuum. As you said they have implications and consequences. After all, values, to be of any use to us, have to translate into action and so by necessity have to live within historical and social and economic conditions. Or within a universe of "facts" as you put it.

We are, behaviourally and cognitively, very flexible and adaptible creatures. Just look at the broad range of cultures existent in the world. Our minds are not made of concrete and so we judge whether a value is consistent, as you said, with a universe of fact as we experience it. So that when a set of values grind up against that universe of fact and stop working for us, they come into question. If push comes to shove we ditch them.

For example, at the present moment we accept the value that medicine is there to extend human life and to relieve suffering. But boomers are aging and getting sick and putting a strain on social security and socialized medical systems.

We'll see if there's a broad shift in values from helping to extend human life to "mercifully" helping to end human life (and in so doing relieving "suffering" depending on how you define "suffering") especially as money gets short and collective patience wears thin. No doubt that a quick end via needle or cup of poison will find support in the ever developing field of medical ethics. There no doubt will be long, learned tracts on the issue and then thickets of legislation and jurisprudence. Maybe there will be new strains of thought in the religious sphere that get behind it too. In the end people will do what they figure they have to do and they will find reasoning to justify it.

We'll see how we modify "thou shalt not kill". Thou shalt not kill, except maybe old people, if they or their families or their doctors sign the required forms. For now. And later, depending on the state of things, maybe even if the forms aren't quite signed. And then maybe we'll see off younger people (and especially infants) if they're sick or disabled and maybe with or without their or their parents' consent. We'll play it by ear.

Leo said...

On the subject of color revolutions.

I remember that a while ago Russia put in place some legislation that banned NGO that are involved in politics to have any foreign funding, or something like this.

It probably won't take long for most nations to put in similar legislation if a color revolution happens in the USA or other high-profile target.

DeAnander said...

Re: the Armstrong whopper... yes, I ran across a phrase like that recently -- it is failing short-term memory more than tact that makes me unable to provide the author's name -- which ran something like this: "Societies in the agrarian/feudal stage relied entirely on sun, weather and soil for their success."

Ummm. Like ours doesn't. Snort. Seems like no one's pointed out to some of these authors that food still comes from soil (and the worse the soil, the poorer the food quality). Or that those mighty fossil fuels are just a bonanza of stored sunlight, thanks to the amazing chlorophyll economy. Or that our "unsinkable Titanic" of a global civilisation is just as dependent on predictable weather for its food supply and many other essential functions, as any previous group of humans in history. Sure, we can throw cheap energy at problems and paper them over for a while, but...

When I come across phrases like this I have a brief intellectual and emotional frisson as I realise that the author and I are not, conceptually, on the same planet. One of us is a loony. I don't think it's me. And yet the rest of the book, essay, or speech will be scintillatingly intelligent. As JMG says, such is the grip of a compelling mythos on even the best-trained scholarly minds!

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Stephen Heyer -- the nub of the question is, useful to whom, and for what? That comes back to values, the topic of this post.

I think it has been discussed here before: the long descent is more about a change in values than anything else.

Buggy whips are currently of no value outside specialty sex shops. A century ago, they were very practical, far too valuable to lose the technology. A century from now, they'll probably be valuable again.

I doubt they were ever of any value in the Andes.

I don't know why the Roman roads fell apart as the Roman Empire declined, but I'd bet a round of beers in a crowded bar that it wasn't that people forgot how to maintain them, but that they lost the desire to use them. Why waste effort maintaining something you aren't going to use?

Their values changed.

People will continue to make microchips so long as they value them as useful, but a lot of what makes them useful is our current industrial economy and values. As the industrial economy winds down and values change, I just don't see a lot of point to microchips.

Maybe I'm simply wrong about that. Time will tell.

KAV said...

Long time reader and first time poster. I am also a Nichiren buddhist of the SGI flavor. Much of the reality that you speak does encourage a belief of a simple anthemic type that would be “closed off” - meaning it would discard or oppose anything that was outside of its vision. Over longer amounts of time it would become a foundational structure for a more complex expression of human truths but it would take centuries.
As an aside I think you will have more SGI folks checking you out. A lot of your teachings seem to boil down to a simple question - knowing what you know what is the most wise action (Right Action) you can take, and does that action place you on a path of difficulties and challenges that can bring out the best most inspirational aspects of yourself? An ongoing moral process that we call “Human Revolution”.

And yes casamurphy is right, that is from Tsunesaburo Makiguchi our founder. Its part of his take on Kant.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

hehe! It would be an interesting experiment to force them to live with it exclusively for a full year prior to making any comments or grandiose plans.

No need to reply, this is just for your interest as a real world experiment and some feedback on the results.

3.8kW of PV panels here provides a reliable 2.5kWh/day for the 3 weeks either side of the winter solstice (much more outside of this time). There are some site specific issues here that reduce generation during this time, but under best case conditions it would be unlikely to be better than double that result on average.

For those that are interested, 2.5kWh is about the energy required to run a typical fan heater for about an hour. I have to stretch that across 24 hours and the system itself takes 0.5kWh of that!

One day about a week ago, the system generated only 0.375kWh for the entire day so it is a matter of navigating the peaks and troughs.

I can't even imagine how this system would work at your latitudes whilst transmission losses from sunny far away places are an unmentionable topic in such grandiose plans.

Yep, large grid tied (disclaimer: I'm not attached to the grid) solar power systems look great on a roof, but haven't a dingo's kidney's chance of powering the average western household over winter!

The winter solstice is on 21st June 2013 in the southern hemisphere just in case anyone was wondering.

Regards

Chris

Caryl said...

JMG--Bravo for an interesting series of posts.
I'd be interested in following up the reference to Gregory Bateson-- can
you cite any of those works you mentioned that disappeared?
The fact-value dichotomy goes deep. But there is also a sense that values, that is, morality, is objective. The subjective-objective thing can be oversimplified. But this is a complex topic and I look forward to future posts.
Thanks again-- from Caryl, author of "After the Crash"

hapibeli said...

Interesting. The proliferation of the weaponized public will make a difference for any future "devolvement" in North American society.
There may be a great difficulty for future warlords in subduing ALL of the locals in a given area, allowing egalitarian cultures to exist alongside subjugated ones?

Roger said...

To JMG

In my post I referred to you as JGW. Good grief. My apologies. Age really is catching up to me.

hapibeli said...

Yupped said,
"I see this personal contemplative practice as foundational for finding greater depth in a simpler lifestyle as well as more purposeful public debate and group decision making.

Second, rebuilding our comfort with and closeness to nature would be key. So much of what we do today seems to be to dedicated to avoiding contact with the natural world as it actually is. Nature can help with much of what ails us, but we need to change our relationship to it. Understand that we are part of it, subject to it, not in control of it. "
and I agree completely. That's why we are organic gardeners, why I was a whitewater boater instead of a fast car or motorcyclist,why we live rurally, why we try to practice loving kindness, compassion, generosity, humor, and maybe most of all, gratefulness.
Though we fail at times,our actions try to follow our intentions.
Our world will do as it may. We can only practice what virtues possible and let nature, and man's nature, do as it will.

DeAnander said...

One of my favourite post-collapse books, "The Great Bay", posits just such a diversification of cultures following the Fall, with rigidly patriarchal (maybe Dominionist) authoritarian townships existing just a few miles away from relatively laid-back semi-anarchist villages. Travel is -- as it used to be -- unusual and dangerous, and travellers experience a lot of exotic and different cultures before they have gone a hundred miles :-) TGB is not very novelistic, but it has ambitious scope and since it deals with an area very familiar to me (the greater SF Bay Area) it held my attention.

Stephen Heyer said...

Joseph Nemeth: “ @Stephen Heyer -- the nub of the question is, useful to whom, and for what? That comes back to values, the topic of this post.”

“I think it has been discussed here before: the long descent is more about a change in values than anything else.”

“Buggy whips are currently of no value outside specialty sex shops. A century ago, they were very practical, far too valuable to lose the technology. A century from now, they'll probably be valuable again.”

My answer is YouTube, Facebook and most of all Twitter, which should scale down to a very, very cut down version of the Internet beautifully.

And that is exactly it! I’ve never used any of them, but I know many people value them as a major part of their life. During the Long descent they’ll choose to provide the resources to keep them up rather than things I would regard as much more important.

It’s all a matter of values. It’s all a matter of what people want!

But, on the bright side, as what is left of the wealthy Western populations struggle to keep their Facebook up, they will also be keeping up the market, weather and other information billions of poor farmers have come to depend on getting from their mobile phones.

See! Justice, Truth and Charity can win through from the strangest sources.

Stephen Heyer

Matt Mc said...

@steve - don't think Facebook et al will survive long in a decline scenario such as those discussed by JMG. In fact I'd be watching them as a canary in the mine.

Have a look at what actually runs these "simple websites". A Facebook datacenter (of which several are required) is a huge undertaking which would have power requirements of 10s to 100s of MW. (About the same as a medium sized town) - you can also find articles about Prineville having to upgrade the local power infrastructure to 1GW.

In a facility of this scale you would expect hundreds or thousands of component failures a day simply due to the law of averages (e.g. hard drives, power supplies, memory chips, processors etc). So they may be better thought of as a flow of hardware configurations as components flow in and out, with complete turn over within 3-4 years.

This is the tip of the global techno-industrial complex. I expect Prineville will want to keep the heating on in the hospitals and schools in the winter before ensuring we can post photos of our cats if it comes to a crunch. At least, for the sake of human dignity, I hope they will.

M

Searles O'Dubhain said...

JMG -- Is there a critical mass to the foxhole one should select to survive these inevitabilities? If so, what are its characteristics? Is it the one that you have chosen for yourself? I'd love to see a blog posting on that topic. It might help the rest of us.

My apologies if you've already blogged about this as I am an infrequent reader here.

Patrick Cappa said...

Another absolutely brilliant post, JMG, thank you for your insight. I don't find myself in the Augustinian camp often, but your description of the Mayan collapse brought something to my mind: All previous social collapses have included a fair bit of emmigration. In the Mayan example, while the lowland was decimated by climate change, the uplands surrounding the Yucatan saw a uptick in immigrants and a relatively stable population, in comparison. The fall of the USSR saw the same exodus, and I'm sure other examples exist. In terms of a global ecological and climatological disaster, however, there's not really anywhere to emmigrate to, exluding other planets, as you wisely have done. This, by it's nature, makes it much worse, and closer to the extreme examples of the die-hard Augustinians. It just means we can't walk away from the consequences of our actions as many in previous societies have. There's no lush rainforest highland for us to flee to. It's a depressing thought.

Parchment Anon said...

Hello JMG,

I am very happy to have discovered your excellent blog and reader feedback. Two points about your post this week:


1. “It’s uncomfortably easy to imagine an America … in which half the sharply reduced population lives in squalid shantytowns without electricity or running water, tuberculosis and bacterial infections are the leading causes of death,”

I question this negative description: isn’t this again according to a certain view of how life ought to be? Living as I do in a country where a large part of the population lives in what would be considered as squalid conditions, I interact with these people as vendors, in public transport or work on a daily basis: they are just as human as you and me, coping with the given conditions.

It’s also that if you have a low standard of living and everyone around you has too, you are not an outcast as you would be in a richer society. You belong, which is need number one for us humans.

2. “..: the Royal Secret of equilibrium governs all things and all beings”: What’s your take on a narrative such as Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story which tells how life on earth went through a series of quasi extinctions and new starts, including one provoked by blue green bacteria whose oxygen-releasing metabolism led to their own downfall and to the advent of those oxygen-using cells we are composed of?

Greg Knepp said...

Regarding the comment of Robert Mathiesen on Hitler's oratory:

I agree fully; it was the music of Hitler's speech - not the content. The repetition of key phrases and words, the tenor and cadence, and the gesture and movements of the body wrapped snugly in austere grey. It was also the grand setting [I spent some time in the Nuremberg stadium before it was razed - an arena both chilling and powerful].

It was the graphics and the brass band and thousands of uniformed marchers. It was about Wagner and his Teutonic pantheon. Hitler was reported to have said, "understand Wagner and you will understand National Socialism."

Nazism was never really a political movement; I'm not aware of a Nazi Manifesto as such. It was pure aesthetics, and it was brilliantly executed. Remember, Hitler's background was art - not politics. Like all artists, he knew the power of pattern recognition within the human psyche. Strong patterns foster cohesive groups. He screamed, "Ein Wille, Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer"

Looking back, we can see that most great leaders were performance artists. Jesus was an exception. He wasn't particularly popular during his lifetime; he was too much the minimalist egghead. But after his death the literary boys stepped in, and his influence soared! Luke's biographical novel and John's Greek tragedy were masterworks. And the writing skills and marketing genius of Saul of Tarsus helped embed the Jesus saga into the Roman world forever.

Though Jesus and Hitler were quite different in most respects, they agreed on one critical point - the gullibility of the masses. ...

Hitler: "Tell the people the biggest lie; they will believe the big lie over the small one."

Jesus: "The people swallow a camel but choke on a gnat."

russell1200 said...

Re: nuclear war.

Yes, the data set is small. But I was trying to follow your stated directive:

"Thus I’d like to suggest that from now on, any claim about the future needs to be confronted up front by the two hard questions proposed above. What happened at other times when people made the same prediction, or one that’s closely akin to it? What happened in other situations that are comparable to the one the prediction attempts to address?"

In the past, people have suggested that the horror of war had made WW1, the "War to End All Wars" and yet the next war was much, much worse. And in comparable situations, empires with world wide logistical capabilities, there were world wars in which all the weapons at hand were used.

Your arguments to the contrary are plausible, but do not fit the (limited) historical pattern. It should be noted that there are enough nuclear weapons on hand that the war need not start as some combination of direct U.S., Russia, or China conflict as the starting point. A major power nuking an ally of a major power (Israel, India, Pakistan, N. Korea, Japan, etc.) would be sufficient to get the ball rolling.

wiseman said...

@Matt
Depends on your timeline, 100 yrs down the line, yes Facebook will disappear but 20 years down the line some version of it will be there.

I fully expect the surveillance state and techno-sedatives (Facebook) to rise and peak as the decline gets underway, why ? because that's what history teaches us. As far as data centers go they consume a miniscule amount of energy compared to the total consumption but their benefits outweigh the costs for TPTB. Even in a declining world you can run 10 Facebook like websites.