Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Reinventing Square Wheels

The issues raised in last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report cut far closer to the heart of our predicament than many of my readers may realize. It’s not just that the production of every kind of good or service in an industrial economy depends on the expectation that somebody or other can make a profit out of the deal, though of course that’s of huge importance. Every other mechanism we’ve got for circulating wealth depends directly or indirectly on the same expectation: taxes, fees, rent, interest on loans, and much else assumes that every business ought to produce enough profit that its banker, landlord, local and state governments, and so on can all be supported off a share of the proceeds without bankrupting the business.

Nowadays, that’s not necessarily a safe assumption. If you walk down the main streets in the old red brick Appalachian mill town where I live, for example, you’ll see any number of empty storefronts in excellent locations. Most of them haven’t had a tenant in forty years. Now and then a new business opens in one of these spots, or makes the attempt, but it’s very rare for one of these to be around a year after its opening. Cumberland, Maryland is a classic Rust Belt town, and the factories that were once its main employers all shut down in the early 1970s, pushing it through the same deindustrial transition that most of the rest of the United States is facing right now.

Businesses here have to survive on a very thin profit margin. The difficulty is that bankers, landlords, local and state officials, and so on still want their accustomed cut, which is substantially more than that margin will usually cover. This isn’t mere greed—they all have their own bills to pay, and an equal or larger number of people and institutions clamoring for a share of their own take.  The result, though, is that storefronts stay empty despite an abundance of unmet economic needs and an equal abundance of people who would be happy to work if they had the chance, because the businesses that could meet those needs and employ those people can’t make enough of a profit to keep their doors open. The inability of most economic activities to turn a profit in an age of contraction is already an issue at many levels, and one with which contemporary economic thought is almost completely unprepared to deal.

The one reliable way of dealing with that inability, of course, is to move productive activities into spheres that don’t depend on the profit motive. The household economy is one obvious place, and so is that expansion of the household economy—pretty much universal in dark ages—in which each family cultivates grains, legumes, and other bulk food crops for its own use on village farmland. Gift economies hardwired into the social hierarchy are also standard in such ages.  There’s a good reason why the English word “lord” comes from an  Anglo-Saxon term meaning “giver of loaves,” and it’s the same reason why generosity is always one of the most praised virtues in feudal and protofeudal societies:  from Saxon England to Vedic India to the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest coast, giving lavish gifts to all and sundry is the most important economic activity of the aristocrat.

Still, as discussed last week, religion is among other things a critically important source of motivation for unprofitable but necessary activities, and it tends to become paramount in ages of decline. There are certain complexities here, though, and the best way to grasp them is an indirect one. As so often in these essays, that route leads along unexpected byways—in this case, past two communes in rural Massachusetts, of all places, during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The first of them will be familiar only to who know the history of the Transcendentalist movement, America’s first homegrown counterculture. Its name was Brook Farm; it was founded with high hopes and much fanfare in 1841 by a bunch of Boston hippies—for all practical purposes, that’s what the Transcendentalists were—and it imploded in a series of crises in 1846 and 1847, having followed a trajectory that will be painfully familiar to anybody who watched the aftermath of the Sixties. As usual, the central conflict pitted middle-class expectations of adequate leisure, comfort, and personal independence against the hard economic realities of subsistence farming, and both sides lost; unable to support its members’ lifestyles solely from the results of their labor, the community ran through its savings and as much money as it could borrow, and when the money ran out, it went under.

One of the commune’s founding members, Nathaniel Hawthorne, set his novel The Blithedale Romance at a lightly fictionalized Brook Farm. Back when American public schools still had students read literature, you could count on getting assigned to read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables , but not The Blithedale Romance. Partly, I suspect, that was because its edgy portrayal of the psychology of the true believer, via the character of Hollingsworth the social reformer, cuts far too close to the bone; partly, though, it’s because America has long suffered from a frantic terror of all the most creative dimensions of its own past.

Brook Farm, in point of fact, was one of several hundred known communes in the United States in the 19th century, which built on a tradition going back to the late 17th; the first American commune I know of, Johannes Kelpius’ “Woman in the Wilderness” community of Rosicrucian ascetics, was founded in the trackless forests of Pennsylvania in1694. There are dozens of good books on these communities from 19th and early 20th century historians—Charles Nordhoff’s 1875 survey The Communistic Societies of the United States is a classic—and a flurry of research on them in academic circles more recently, but you’ll rarely hear about any of that in any public venue these days.

There’s a post to be written about the spectacular falsification of the American past that unfolds from our efforts to flee from our own history, but that’s a subject for another week. The point relevant now is that, during the years when Brook Farm was stumbling through its short and troubled life, there were several other communes in the neighborhood, and one that deserves special mention here was only thirty-five miles away by road.  Long before Brook Farm’s rise and long after its fall, it was a prosperous egalitarian community with around 200 members, growing all its own food and meeting all its financial needs with room to spare. The Harvard Village, as it was called, was everything Brook Farm’s founders claimed they wanted their commune to be, and it was also everything Brook Farm’s founders rejected most heatedly in practice: that is, it was a Shaker community.

Those of my readers from outside the United States may never have heard of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known then and now as the Shakers. To most Americans, for that matter, those words might at most stir some vague memory of spare but elegant handicrafts and a few notes of the classic Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” I have yet to see a discussion of the United Society find its way into the ongoing conversation about lifeboat ecovillages. That’s a pity, because the Shaker experience has important and highly relevant lessons to teach in that context.

The United Society had its start in Manchester, England, where Ann Lee—“Mother Ann” to Shakers ever after—led a tiny group that spun off from the Quakers over the course of the 1760s. In 1774, Mother Ann and eight followers came to what was about to become the United States, and found no shortage of interest in their new gospel. From 1787 on, the United Society was run by its American converts, and these latter proceeded to accomplish one of the most remarkable feats of convergent evolution in human history: starting wholly from first principles, and with apparently no knowledge of the historical parallels, they reinvented almost every detail of classic monasticism.

Like monks and nuns everywhere, Shakers were celibate—one of Mother Ann’s revelations was that sexuality is the most potent source of human sinfulness—and lived communally, owning no personal property. Men and women lived in separate dormitories in a Shaker village and led essentially separate lives; Shaker meetinghouses, where Sunday services were held, had two doors, one for Brothers and one for Sisters, and the two sexes sat on opposite sides. Despite the rule of celibacy, there were always children in Shaker villages, some of them orphans, some left by destitute or deadbeat parents, some brought into the United Society when their parents joined; they had their own dormitories, one for girls and one for boys. The children could choose to leave or stay when they reached adulthood. To stay was to give up sexuality, family, property, and a great deal of autonomy, but it was a choice many made.

There were consolations, to be sure, and not all of them were wholly spiritual. The opportunities open to women among the Shakers were much more substantial than what was available in what Shakers called “the World.” Both sexes had equal roles in each village, each regional bishopric, and the entire Society—the Central Ministry, the body of four senior Shakers who ran the organization, always consisted of two Elders and two Eldresses. Ordinary members could expect a life of of hard work, but that was common enough in 19th century America, and the lifelong support of a close-knit community provided by the Shaker system was something most people in that rough-and-tumble era did not have.

The Shakers thus had to be on the watch for freeloaders—“bread-and-butter Shakers” was the usual term—who wanted to join the Society for the sake of free meals and medical care, but had no interest in the religion or, for that matter, in putting in an honest day’s work. Still, the United Society found so many sincere converts that new Shaker communities were being founded into the 1830s, and membership declines didn’t become an issue until well after the Civil War.  Nor is the United Society quite gone even today; there are still a few members left at the last remaining Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, supporting themselves by the utterly traditional Shaker trade of drying and selling herbs.

Compare a Shaker community with a Christian or Buddhist monastery and the parallels are impossible to miss. The classic Christian monastic virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience are all present and accounted for; so is the commitment to labor as a form of religious service. For that matter, the clean, simple, spare esthetic that the Shakers made famous in their furnishings and architecture has a great deal in common with the elegant simplicity that Zen Buddhism introduced to Japanese art and design, or the close equivalents in Christian monastic traditions. The parallels aren’t accidental: set out to live on a monastic plan, and the kind of simplicity prized by Shakers, Cistercians, Zen monks, and so many of their fellow monastics, has a great many practical advantages.

Whether it takes the form of a Shaker village, a Catholic abbey, a Zen Buddhist monastery, or what have you, the monastic life is one of the few consistent success stories in the history of communal living. That’s exactly the problem, of course, because the vast majority of people who imagine themselves living in a communal setting these days aren’t willing to push their enthusiasm to the point of giving up sex, family personal property, and personal autonomy.

The result, predictably enough, has been a steady stream of projects, proposals, and actual communities launched by people who want to have their cake and eat it too: that is, to live in a self-supporting communal setting while still retaining comfortable middle-class values of ownership, autonomy, and unhindered sexual activity. Brook Farm was one of those attempts, and it lasted longer than most. Throughout American history, the average lifespan of a commune has been around two years. There are counterexamples, to be sure, but it’s remarkable how often those have ended up adopting at least some of the traditional monastic values, such as community ownership of property.

There’s a wholly pragmatic reason for those failures. The kind of lifestyle most people consider normal in industrial societies is only possible if you’re helping to burn through half a billion years of stored sunlight via a modern industrial economy. You can’t support such a lifestyle with hand labor on a rural commune. Even the much less resource-intensive lifestyles of the Brook Farm era were too costly to be met by working the land, which is why Brook Farm went broke in five years. Most of the communes of the Sixties crashed and burned sooner than that: unless there was a sugar daddy available to cover the bills, the amount and kind of work the residents were willing to do usually failed to meet the costs of the lifestyles they wanted to lead, and collapse followed promptly.

The exceptions have almost all been religious communities. In the Sixties, that usually meant that they clustered around a spiritual leader who was charismatic or convincing enough to get away with telling his followers what to do. Some religious communities launched by the Sixties counterculture thus are still around; others got past the economic problems that wrecked most of their secular counterparts, only to crash headlong into one of the other standard traps that face communal projects. You can see all these same patterns traced out  in the communes launched by earlier American countercultures, from the Transcendentalists on—and by and large, the only ones that survive their founding generation are those that conform more or less precisely to the model of classic monasticism sketched out above.

I spoke of convergent evolution earlier, and the borrowing from biology is a deliberate one. Darwin’s theory, at its core, is simply a recognition that some things work better than others, and those organisms who stumble across something that works better—in physical structure, in behavior, or what have you—are more likely to survive whatever challenges they and their less gifted counterparts face together. Why one thing works better than another may or may not be obvious, even after close study, but when one set of adaptations consistently results in survival, while a different set just as consistently results in collapse, it seems quite reasonable to draw the obvious lesson from that experience.

That inference seems reasonable to me, at least. I’m quite aware that most other people in the modern industrial world don’t seem to see things that way. I can point out that X has failed every single time it’s been tried, without a single exception, and people will insist that this doesn’t matter unless I can detail the reasons why it has to fail; then, when I do so, they try to argue with the reasons. In the opening lines of his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx commented acidly: “Hegel says somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” One of the most potent forces driving those repetitions, by turns tragic and farcical, is the endlessly repeated insistence that this time, the lessons of history don’t matter.

Thus it’s an interesting question why celibacy should be so important a factor in the long-term survival of monastic systems. Perhaps celibacy works because it prevents sexual jealousies from spinning out of control, as they so often do in the hothouse environment of communal living. Perhaps celibacy works because pair bonds between lovers are a potent source of the private loyalties that, left to run free, so often distract members of communal groups from their loyalty to the project as a whole. Perhaps celibacy works because it’s only when your followers are willing to give up sex for the cause that you can be sure they’re committed enough.  Perhaps celibacy works because all that creative energy has to go somewhere—the Shakers, like so many other monastic traditions, birthed an astonishing range of artistic and creative endeavors, from a musical corpus of more than 11,000 original hymns, through graphic arts, architecture, and a style of furniture and other crafts that’s widely considered one of the great traditions of American folk culture.

Perhaps it’s some other reason entirely. The point that needs to be kept in mind, though, is that in a monastic setting, celibacy works, and most of the other ways of managing human sexuality in that setting pretty reliably don’t. It’s possible to be utterly correct about the fact that X is the case while being just as utterly clueless about the reasons why X is the case. The fact that medieval philosophers believed that rocks fall because they’re passionately in love with the earth, and desire to be united with their beloved, thus did not prevent those same philosophers from recognizing that rocks do indeed fall when you pick them up and let go.

The value and the limitations of history as a guide to the present and the future come out of the hard fact that history tells us what happens, but not why it happens. More than three centuries of communal experiments in North America, and more than three thousand years of similar experiments elsewhere, have a lot to teach about what works and what doesn’t work when people decide to pursue a communal lifestyle. Those who are willing to learn from those experiences have a much better chance of coming up with something that works than those who insist that the past doesn’t matter and thus repeat its most common mistakes all over again. Reinventing the wheel has its uses, but if your efforts at reinvention consistently turn out square wheels, it may be helpful to look at other examples of the wheelwright’s craft and see if you can figure out what they got right and you got wrong.

Ironically, that’s an insight the Shakers could have used. I mentioned above that they managed to reinvent almost every detail of classic monasticism, but one of the few details they missed turned out to be their Achilles’ heel. Quite a few religious movements have started out wholly monastic; those that survived for more than a few generations figured out that they also needed some mode of participation for people who admired their ideals and believed in their teachings but weren’t ready to take the plunge into a celibate lifestyle. The Jain and Buddhist religions, to name only two examples, started out as wholly monastic traditions, but figured out early on that they needed to make room for laypersons as well—and discovered that the more room they made for lay involvement, the more often it happened that people got sufficiently used to the idea of monastic life to say “You know, I could live with that.” It’s by way of that process that successful monastic systems keep themselves supplied with novices.

If the Shakers had such a community of supportive lay believers as a waystation between the World and the formal Shaker life, it’s quite possible that they would be a major American denomination today. If the lack of that bridge is what finally brings the United Society’s story to an end, as seems likely just now, they won’t be the first victims of that particular trap, and doubtless won’t be the last, either. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the lessons of history, especially when there’s reason to suspect a mismatch between your expectations and the facts on the ground. The decline and fall of contemporary industrial civilization bids fair to bring a bumper crop of that sort of mismatch into play—and in such times insisting that despite all the experience of the past, wheels ought to have square corners, is not exactly a useful habit. 

I also have a couple of announcements my readers might find of interest.. First of all, my next peak oil book, Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, is now available for preordering, at 20% off the cover price. Those of you who followed last year's posts on the end of America's empire have seen the first drafts; those who haven't – well, I'll let you decide for yourself whether or not you're in for a treat. Visit the publisher's website here to place an order.

Second, the Green Wizardry forum at is up and running again, after a somewhat rocky shift to new servers. If you're already a member, you should be able to log on without difficulty. If you're not, because the forum's had all kinds of trouble with spam, you'll need to contact the forum moderators at randomsurfer200 (at) yahoo (dot) com to get an account started.


Shakya Indrajala said...

As a (Canadian) Buddhist monk presently in Nepal, this post really resonates with me.

One thing I'll add about Buddhist monasticism is that once the system is widespread in a given culture, personal autonomy and the freedom to travel becomes a lot more feasible.

In imperial China they used to have "public monasteries" which any monk or nun could make use of for free, thus enabling free travel. Even in ancient India the Chinese pilgrims like Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing had no problems finding free accommodation and supplies for the road.

I appreciate communal living a lot. It is like living in a college dorm minus the sex and alcohol. Your pals are always around and you always have someone watching your back.

For that reason perhaps I've never met a monk or nun who reported being depressed or suicidal. Life is simple, but rewarding.

Villager said...

This is not directly relevant to this week's post but I found it to be a most alarming article about the state of the Pacific Ocean.

If we have truly broken the ocean then we may find that discussions about the kind of religions that we might constructively embrace may be a bit academic - though very interesting.

Glenn said...

My paternal grandmother grew up in Orderville, Utah, a town which started as a Mormon commune.

This was commonly how Mormons started a new community in the second half of the 19th century. A strong religious tie in a rather hierarchical church, and common ownership of property and goods were the common threads.

Once the settlement was up and running at a profit, the land, tools, stock and goods were split into individual family ownership.

Only unmarried people were supposed to be celibate though.


Marrowstone Island

Tom Bannister said...

Hmm yes the more I read of your stuff the more I realize how far I (and we all) have to go in our gradual transition to an ecotechnic future. Just on the subject of local stores not being able to turn a profit, a similar situation is growing in my own country too. Some clearly unprofitable (or I think so anyway) stores open, yet still manage to stay around for years (such as plastic/ gift stores or a lot more Indian spice bulk stores than we need). I suspect they are economical for other reasons such as access to New Zealand citizenship or education allowances.

As for your point about celibacy, in Religion for Atheists, (which I know is already on your reading list) a medieval European festival called the festival of the fools is described. Basically its a one day a year massive sex orgy, and for the rest of the year the rules about sex are very strict. A possible alternative to complete celibacy perhaps? Cheers

Jeffrey said...

The beginning of your post mentioned this existing infrastructure perfectly functional and the unemployed willing to work. And then you went to these communities that usually had to go out to the woods and create their own boundaries and infrastructure. That made sense back in the 19th century.

So the question is how do we integrate the convergent evolution of a new chapter of communities using the existing infrastructure that is no longer viable in our current economy?

Of course the existing economic model has to further decline to allow the consequences that will perhaps open opportunities, out of desperation, for this integration.

The other thing is that increasingly difficult consequences during the upcoming decline should take care of the nagging problem of a self entitled society wanting to bring all the trappings, both physical and spiritual, into a community setting.

If this is a long slow decline then we will be having a totally new generation dealing with this integration, not all of us aging baby boomers who are so agonizing over giving up our self actualization around sexuality, personal space, stuff and all the other myriad needs that we have become accustomed to.

I can't help but sense our obsolescence already when contemplating adapting to novel living arrangements since this will be tackled by generations yet to come.

Surely not me and you! :)

Justin G said...

"giving lavish gifts to all and sundry is the most important economic activity of the aristocrat"

Yet another example of how the drug cartels seem to be ahead of the curve. Look at how the local people reacted when Cristopher "Dudus" Coke was arrested in Jamaica. To this day he is regarded as a demi-god, or at least Robinhood, because of all the programs he set up to help the poor. Police couldn't even enter his neighborhood without his permission, and in end he had to surrender to be taken into custody.

He isn't all that unusual of a character either, so it isn't hard to see where the aristocracy of the next round of feudalism will come from.

Tom Bannister said...

Just had another thought. I think the middle class fantasy of communal society is us all living like hobbits in the shire. Whether there are many actual historical examples resembling the shire, I do not know...

Kevin said...

Very instructive. It may be worth mentioning that some communes from the 1960s succumbed not to internal frictions but to hostility from local communities. For instance, the Morningstar ranch, a commune established on a rural property belonging to musician Lou Gottlieb in Sonoma County, California, was forcibly destroyed by local authorities because the neighbors didn't want a bunch of filthy, dirty naked hippies living near them. The police bulldozed many of the unpermitted buildings on the property, and would have destroyed a great many trees to get to the remaining structures had residents not chosen to burn down their own houses rather than permit this to happen.

From that time to this, mainstream society has gone out of its way to make it very difficult for groups or individuals to opt out of participating in the economic system which is currently destroying itself along with its global life support system.

Shining Hector said...

It doesn't quite add up to me. You're probably right that celibacy conveniently removes jealousy and divided loyalties from the equation. The whole lack procreation part limits the long term success, though, probably the main reason you don't see many Shakers anymore.

It seems to me there are examples of successful communal societies based on ties of kinship, though. Around the same neck of the woods, the Amish were around before the Shakers and are still puttering along successfully today. Tribes of hunter-gatherers pooling their resources aren't really a new invention, either. Do they not count for some reason?

A monastic tradition seems like it will always necessarily be something on the fringes. Without a much larger society to provide them with new recruits and buy their handcrafts and fermented beverages that seem to a recurring theme, it's by its very nature going to be a self-limiting proposition. What are the rest of the unwashed masses supposed to do?

magifungi said...

But how does the larger community of supportive lay believers survive, in a dying world?
Could indigenous tribal groups that managed to survive the industrial devastation relatively intact, provide an alternative pattern from the monastic?

KL Cooke said...

I believe Mother Ann herself conceded that their way was not for everybody. Perhaps the Shakers lack of a supportive laity was a function of being more interested in personal salvation, temporal and spiritual, than in abiding as an institution.

Communal experiments tend to peter out quickly due to a lack of elbow grease. However, we've seen some in our time that went out spectacularly badly, and they were religious, or psuedo-religious in nature. Caveat emptor.

John Michael Greer said...

Shakya, yes, I figured this one would get comments from some of my monastic readers! (That I know of, there are Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, and Pagan monastics who read this blog regularly.) The Shakers also had the ability to travel from one community to another, though the great majority of members stayed put.

Villager, now sit down and think about why it is that when I make a post suggesting a constructive response to our predicament, it so often happens that someone like you posts something claiming that we're all going to die anyway, so why bother.

Glenn, thank you for the bit of family history! The use of communal process as a temporary expedient doesn't require celibacy -- since everyone knows the organization is going to divide up into families anyway, it's easier to put up with some things.

Tom, I've read it now, and will be discussing it in due time. As for the Feast of Fools, though, de Botton hugely overstated the sexual dimension of that -- it was a general overturning of the order of things, in which sex was no more important than (say) making fun of religious doctrines. If he really wanted a Feast of Fools for modern times, it should make raucous fun of efficiency, science, and reason.

Jeffrey, true enough. I lived in more or less communal digs several times in my youth, but now that middle age has arrived I much prefer my privacy and odd hours.

Justin, drug gangs are the nascent warbands of the deindustrial dark ages. More on this in a later post.

Tom, how much do you recall of Tolkien's portrayal (not the movie's bowdlerization) of the Shire? He based it on early 20th century English rural village life -- that is to say, today's hipsters would rather shave between their legs with a sharp rock than actually embrace that lifestyle.

Kevin, a few communes got wrecked that way -- and that's nothing new, either; it happened in the 19th century as well. Most did not. It's important not to overgeneralize in a way that obscures the most common causes of communal failure.

Hector, good heavens, why the flurry of nitpicking? This week's post doesn't claim to discuss every possible arrangement in which human beings live in close proximity; it explores one set of practices that work, as a comparison to a much more popular one that generally doesn't. The Amish, by the way, live in separate family households, not in communes, so they're not exactly a viable comparison here.

As to the marginality of monastic traditions, not so. In dark ages, monasteries have very often been the core around which the wreckage of a collapsed society regroups -- it's only when things get organized again that they become less central. You might consider reading Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization as a useful intro to the way this tends to work.

John Michael Greer said...

Magifungi, you know, I've spent the last seven years talking about how others are going to survive, and if you've missed that, well, I don't feel particularly inspired to summarize it all here.

KL, oh, granted! Religious communities have their own set of traps to dodge. It's an interesting footnote of Shaker history that one of the first big Shaker villages, one that was founded by Mother Ann herself, had previously been a different brand of religious commune, whose founder insisted that when he died, he would rise from the dead three days later. They buried him after six days, when the stink became too bad, and converted en masse to the Shaker way not long thereafter...

John Michael Greer said...

Oh, and I should mention -- if your post didn't go through, it's because it contained profanity. Come on, folks, you know the rules here.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I would like to point out two other successful models for intentional communities that are secular and emphatically non celibate: kibbutzim and moshavim.

Both kinds of communities were organized by Jewish settlers in Palestine starting in the 1920s and have carried on to this day. Kibbutzim and moshavim both produce agricultural goods (and sometime industrial products or services) both for for sale to the public and for household consumption.

They are residential communities with varying degrees of communality; kibbutzim are more collectivist than moshavim. They differ from cohousing, another form of intentional residential community which does not engage in major productive activities.

Most kibbutzim were founded by political Zionists who were Socialists and not religious at all.

Kibbutzim and moshavim ran into some difficulties arising from the economic and social changes in the State of Israel after 1967, and most became dependent on outside (Arab) labor, but they are still around. They haven't died out, broken up through internal conflict, or gone bankrupt.

Considering that these institutions have been operating for nearly one hundred years, and that kibbutzim have provided a large proportion of Israel's political and military leadership, they are worth a look.

Mark Luterra said...

It may well be true that celibacy is essential to the long term survival of a commune, i.e. people living in close quarters with more loyalty to the group than to individual partners or families.

What I didn't get from your post (and maybe you will cover it next) is whether you feel that communal living is a worthy goal for humanity or simply that it is useful to have stable communes during times of crisis.

Personally I favor a looser type of community modeled on the village or the tribe, in which families retain some privacy and independence while cooperating to meet collective needs effectively. Community ownership of land, perhaps, but not true communal living. Clearly this arrangement has been viable for long periods of our history; do you foresee that it will become viable (and even necessary) in our future?

Kutamun said...

"At times the sky was barely visible, yet the great dance or drama goes on insistently, and they became accustomed to its nuance. At a time where squirreling away was necessary , they prepared to conjoin and procreate, though perhaps the wisdom of this was not immediately apparent, the seasons having being turned on their head. Three wise men march across a barren steppe , preparing for what lies ahead, and still her voice sounds clearly across the desert , a deserted Angel refusing to lie sfill."

Hmmm, yes , once a year at least, or you might end up with a commune royal commission on your hands, like we currently have going on in the land down under...
Merci Beaucoup !

magifungi said...

Yeah, ok, too much doomsday in my reading material the last few weeks.

Tom Bannister said...

"Tom, how much do you recall of Tolkien's portrayal (not the movie's bowdlerization) of the Shire? He based it on early 20th century English rural village life -- that is to say, today's hipsters would rather shave between their legs with a sharp rock than actually embrace that lifestyle."

I will admit here that I am far more familiar with the film version, but yup point well and truly taken. Imagine the outcry had the film accurately portrayed early 20th century English rural life! (I don't know much about that btw, but I know enough about the contrast between our current lifestyles and the lifestyles of the early 20th century to get an idea of the reaction that might incur!).

Another example of romanticisation of the English rural lifestyle might lie in the various Kinks songs about country life: 'house in the country' or 'animal farm' or 'village green' or 'autumn almanack'. I would however observe from these two examples (yes including the film LOTR version), that there is plenty of desire amongst the general populace for simpler lifestyles. Just, like you said, an unwillingness to face the full ramifications of less material wealth.

Compound F said...

That celibacy thing is asking a lot from the Prime Directive of Life, i.e., differential reproductive success, which I also understand is a Ponzi scheme, of sorts, but now we are really rubbing on the nub, aren't we.

An excellent piece of writing, as usual. The only times I find your writing "wanting" is when I want more, which makes it beautiful induction. It's a rare gift over which to preside.

Girlfriends and wives will be humped, until the end of days. I admit your points about selfishness, and sexual jealousy, in close, communistic quarters, but reality is not crouching tiger, hidden dragon.

Monasticism needs to loosen up a bit, simply because it riles Mother Nature to the hilt, and you stick your sword in the Queen at your peril.

thenoteswhichdonotfit said...

An interesting experiment, which might shine some light about why celibacy tends to be what works in monastic communities, would be to set up a celibate commune of low-sex-drive asexuals. Asexuals are people who experience little or no sexual attraction to anybody (just as heterosexuals generally only experience sexual attraction to people of a different gender), and while some asexuals have high sex-drives, many have low (or non-existent) sex-drives.

If the reason why celibacy works is that, say, it prevents sexual jealousy, then the celibate asexual commune would steer clear of that pitfall. If the reason why celibacy works is that it requires a high level of commitment from the vast majority of people ... well, that's not going to work for the celibate-asexual commune, since low-sex-drive asexuals who choose celibacy are not making any more of a sacrifice than, say, heterosexual men and lesbians who solemnly vow never to have sex with men.

Marcello said...

"Yet another example of how the drug cartels seem to be ahead of the curve."

I would not overstate this. Many criminal organizations do something to secure at least some local goodwill but that cannot be generalized across all organizations and activities. As far as I can read many mexican drug cartels seem to think that murdering and mutilating people at random is the way to deal with the local population. And one of the main businnesses of the italian mafia nowadays is dumping toxic industrial waste in agricultural lands, not particularly forward looking...

Phitio said...

My opinion is that monastic systems works only if there is a larger "common" civilian structure around it.
The sexuality issue is a marker: If you don't have sex, you have no children. No children, and the community will consume up with time and will end. Monks cannot exist without nearby town ans villages, they depend on them.

The monastic system is more a civilization "life support system", not the civilization itself.

Monastic system, so, cannot structurally "be" a civilization.

From this point of view, I should look to the ancient village system.

In Africa, Asia, America. Those human arrangements were the true really long-lasting, for at least 20.000-30.000 years or maybe more.

If your intent was to examine how to support a minimum level of human civilization during the next fall, I completely agree with you.
But to preserve human to an acceptable level is a completely different issue.
I fear that even the medieval system will be too costly in the future, considering that we have debased our planet carrying capacity.

Phil Knight said...

Anyone who wants a handle on pre-war English rural life should watch the film "Akenfield".

Key line: "They used to work us to death....."

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Another hat trick from the Archdruid. You know, I was reading some excerpts online from The Long Descent, and as a pitch to readers, JMG somehow manages to add even more info and interesting thoughts in the book, which is hard to imagine, than is present in the posts on-line. Time for the book.
Mithraism had a monastic movement, apparently:
"Both religions [i.e., Christianity and Mithraism] teach a distinctly ascetic morality and a orality of action. The latter is particularly true of Mithraism. Cumont says that Mithraism owed its success to the value of its morality which above all things favoured action. The followers of Mithras formed a sacred army in the fight against evil and among them were virgines (nuns) and continentes (ascetics)."

Some form of morality (sexual) is fundamental to civilization, as even marriage is a form of celibacy and chastity. Beautiful essay, BTW, sir.

I know you've emphasized that land is the least important thing (or one of) to think about. Does that mean you advise against getting any, if it's possible to do?

Chris Farmer said...

Thanks for your continuing clarity.
And thanks for your offer last January in your post "A Wish List for Krampus" to readers to offer their own suggestions for topics for the world's scientists and engineers to explore.

I am posting a link, as you requested in your post, to a blog that contains my suggestion, called Sunlit Synergy:

Thanks again.

divelly said...

Regarding the destruction of the commune in Sonoma:
that is an extreme example,
but typically a commune is not especially welcome by rural locals,who tend to be very traditional and conservative.
And it's not only rural folk.
The authoritarian state which works best in cities, doesn't like alternative arrangements either.
Remember the Philadelphia commune which was torched by the police.
This hostility,greater or lesser, is a stress added to all the others.

Yupped said...

So reducing ones appetites appropriate to ones resources seems to be one key to successful living, whether in community or individually. As I've downsized my own life, increasing production and decreasing consumption over the last few years, it's been interesting to watch the points of resistance in myself. Most are rooted in the emotional results of comparing myself to others: how will the kids feel if we don't have this, what will the neighbors think if I do that, etc. The fear of being considered different is a powerful force of course, one that makes the current world of consumption go round.

So I suppose it would be better for any communal living venture to attract people who are already very accepting of the need for conformity or consistency in basic living patterns and their spiritual underpinnings. I wonder if the religious disciplines embedded in successful monastic communities serve to recruit people already committed to conforming, or whether they just act as tools to tame peoples' varying appetites and interests over time. I'm guessing the former.

Andy Brown said...

Thanks for a fascinating post. I think your analysis is pretty convincing. It seems to be a special case of sorts - how a kind of communist bubble can persist in a larger society of ownership and unsustainability. Interesting that these communes can seem a material step down in periods of excess, but a way of preserving culture and material well-being in times of contraction and disarray. In neither case, of course are they models for a society, but rather a community within a society from which they stand apart.

Andy Brown said...

For those of us who like sex with our communism, we'll have to look to the anthropological literature, where there is evidence of plenty of sophisticated cultures that were able to manage a commons in a more or less sustainable way. Of course, as you note, none of these were ever going to manage motor cars or antibiotics - and materially and philosophically they did not really serve as attractive models for civilized utopian experimentation. Still, I'm not entirely convinced that all other wheels will turn out to have corners - especially if the wheels come off our civilization entirely. (Climate change and the the food system are still the wildcards for me in terms of how hard contraction strikes.)

Twilight said...

The early Moravian communities in early Pennsylvania (Bethlehem) are an interesting and quite successful semi-communal society. They were not really celibate either. Ultimately it appears they were assimilated into the greater society, which is another way to fail.

I do think that the monastic traditions of places like Europe may be more relevant to what is ahead than those of the early US experience, simply due to the virtually unlimited resources available in a recently depopulated North America. There isn't much empty land to run off to any more, so such things will have to be built in place, in amongst the rest of the world.

Also, like others have stated, while the concept is appealing to me on many levels, I am a product of my world. I'm not sure if I could tolerate the lifestyle after 50 years, no matter how much I might want to - although I have been surprised many times at the changes I can adapt to. But that doesn't really matter, as we must be careful to avoid always envisioning ourselves in the narratives of what may come, as most of us will not live long enough to see such things fully established. That will be for others with different life experiences. Our roles might be to help prepare the way for it.

Janet D said...

I loved this post! A year or two ago, I started looking into ecovillages, thinking that dh and I could join one or perhaps even start one. Then I found out about the failure rate....approximately 90% fail within the first few years. I don't think we as a society know how to get along with others very well; our manners stink, if you will; and so we become more and more disconnected from those around us. Many want much while giving little.

@Justin. I completely agree. When I was in college in the early 80's I heard a speaker from Latin American talk about the drug lords (and why more weren't stopped in their home countries). It had to do with hunger, and that the drug lords fed families, so the families would protect them. She remarked "when your children are starving, you only care to feed them, not who feeds them". When the Repbulicans made so much noise about cutting food stamps recently, I thought "we're opening the door to the drug lords". (which is not to make a political comment here, just that the crisis of the federal gov't shrinking or collapsing - eventually - is going to leave a lot of opportunity for some unsavory types).

Sky said...


Any chance you'd be willing to do a run of autographed copies for a few bucks more? Dmitri Orlov did a limited run of autographed pre-orders for "The Five Stages of Collapse" and my understanding is that they went like hotcakes.


Zach said...

John Michael,

Well done again. Readers who want to know more about the "bridge" between monastic and ordinary life should look into "third orders" and "confraternities" to see how this has sometimes worked with Western Christian monasticism. (Third Orders are still active today - I know a handful of people who are third order oblates affiliated with particular monasteries.)


I put those two readings together today also! And assigned them as readings for my high school economics students. :)

I think you're looking at it backwards, though. Western monasticism's pattern was set by St. Benedict of Nursia, as the rubble of Rome's collapse was practically still bouncing. If the ocean is broken, then monasticism may be highly relevant in the not-too-distant future.

Shining Hector,

The Amish, though countercultural, are not communalistic - their farms, etc. are privately owned. The Hutterites are the Anabapist group who live communally. (As families, not monastically.)


Justin Patrick Moore said...

Thanks for these historical reflections.

My spiritual and magical work have recently led me to studying the Desert Fathers of Christianity, and how those lines came to be an influence on Monasticism in the Celtic Isles. Further, I'm currently reading "The Christian Druids" by John Minahane that details how the Druids in Ireland creatively assimilated Christianity, and a lot more about how these Filid's operated from the 5th century onwards. (For an interesting Bardic comparison I was also led to start learning about the Griot's of West Africa who are still a going concern.)

As much as the OTO is growing as a magical order, I don't think it will have any monastic offshoots. Plus the heavy individualistic stance Thelemite's have may very well come down to a matter of "broken Will's" during the industrial decline. One reason the Abbey of Thelema failed as well is that some people just can't keep their trousers buttoned.

I'm glad you mentioned the way some religions have coped with the manner in which to bring people into the monastic lifestyle. I'm still thinking that guilds, in a similar way, can act as a secular way of training people in professions, while allowing them to be able to reproduce as necessary.

The idea of an ecostery is especially appealing -and one way, when the government shuts down, that our "National Parks" could still be maintained -though I'm sure as things really wind down, those places will just go really wild. Still, an ecostery on the outskirts of a village, both working together is something I could see.

Liquid Paradigm said...

Asceticism has been in my thoughts for awhile, now, so this week's offering was a good read for me.

Plus, an additional "thank you" for approaching our accumulating crises with a level head. I've had to give up on Orlov altogether; this week's offering from him made me near-suicidal. I've been having to remind myself that science's prophecies of doom tend to be, at the least, as unreliable as its prophecies of paradise have been. I re-read your "ten billion years" entry, which helped immensely in terms of perspective without showering me with nonsense about achieving immortality and trekking about the Universe. Some hiking planned for the weekend, which always ends at a pub. I'll hoist a glass or two to you. :)

Kevin said...

I wasn't trying to obscure anything, merely pointing out that there have been cases in which, when some people were willing to embrace a simpler lifestyle without middle class creature comforts, society wouldn't let them.

I suspect it may be a matter of style. Monastic communities seem to be relatively quiet, highly disciplined and self-contained, whereas the hippies really let it all hang out, upsetting the neighbors. Perhaps the lesson is that a certain amount of discretion is required to make such communities successful.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Tom -- another interesting aspect of the Shire is that it focuses on Bilbo and Frodo and to a lesser extent his extended relations, all of whom are clearly members of the local aristocracy. It's a "low" aristocracy, true, but Bilbo has the The House Under The Hill, hypenated relations, and enjoys a lot of leisure time, as does Frodo, his nephew/ward, particularly in their youth.

We don't hear as much about the tenant class, such as Sam Gamgee's grandfather, The Gaffer. Sam, himself, spends his days trimming hedges for Frodo -- very light labor in an agricultural community -- and the whole lot of them spend a lot of time "walking about" and going on "adventures" and walking trips in the local fields and woods.

What's not to like about this lifestyle?

To put such a vision into practice, however, requires a very hard-working tenant class, since their labor has to produce enough food to feed themselves, AND the aristocracy, whether the aristocracy simply taxes them at sword-point, or runs off with dwarves to bring back hoarded dragon-gold to pay for their leisure.

The way that works for the Hobbits, of course, is that the land is also magical and yields Hobbit-edibles with sufficient bounty that no one actually has to work very hard, and no one starves.

Maybe that's one of the reasons celibacy works. No sex == no children == no population growth == less demand on the soil.

Michelle said...

Re: "There’s a good reason why the English word “lord” comes from an Anglo-Saxon term meaning “giver of loaves,” and it’s the same reason why generosity is always one of the most praised virtues in feudal and protofeudal societies: from Saxon England to Vedic India to the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest coast, giving lavish gifts to all and sundry is the most important economic activity of the aristocrat." - it bears mentioning that much of the materiel that was gifted was plundered. That seems to tie in with the 'imperial wealth pump' you've discussed at such great length here in the past. (sorry if this duplicates)

magicalthyme said...

JMG, Thank you for the link to the Shaker Village. I'm just a hop, skip and jump from there, so have a place to visit next summer. I'm looking forward to reading up on medicinal herbs in their library!


Dwig said...

To the larger point of this post, about learning from history: certainly, communities motivated by and organized around an intense religious belief have proven themselves worth study, both the successes and failures. As someone pointed out here, there have been some spectacular failures as well as many successes. And as you mentioned, there are always the little details that can derail an otherwise successful community.

As an example of learning from history, I recommend Elinor Ostrom's book "Governing the Commons", a study of communities organized around managing a common pool resource. Based on considerable study of a large number of such communities, she proposed a set of principles that seemed to characterize the successful ones:
- Clearly defined boundaries
- Appropriateness of the rules for use to the nature of the particular commons
- Democratic determination of the rules
- Active monitoring of the usage of the commons
- Graduated sanctions for violations of the rules
- Conflict resolution mechanisms
- Minimal autonomy: ability to self-organize without challenge from external authorities
(I've edited and abstracted a bit.)
The book was published in 1990. These principles have held up well in subsequent research, and are revisited in her 2005 book "Understanding Institutional Diversity".

(There's another, unintended lesson in these two books. For a non-academic, they're pretty heavy going; Ostrom was a scientist, writing mostly for her fellow scientists. I fear that the valuable insights learned over a long career may not be accessible to those communities trying to manage a commons. There's a definite need for someone with a foot in both worlds, and the ability to translate effectively between them.)

Finally, a couple of contrasting references relevant to the overall theme of the "second religiosity":
- Ape and Essence: a sardonic look at the shadow of triumphal Christianity and the religion of progress.
- and for something completely different: Bill Moyers' recent interview with Wendell Berry

Don Plummer said...

I can recall reading about various religious communities during high school history classes--not just the Shakers but also immigrant religious communes and other communities, like New Harmony in Indiana, the Amana colonies in Iowa, Economy in Pennsylvania, and our own Zoar community in eastern Ohio. I remember even learning about the beliefs held by some of these communities, though I have forgotten those details. I suppose they don't teach these kinds of details anymore.

But running away and/or falsifying our history? Since I'm married to a historian part of whose job is to assure that we don't forget our history, I'm intrigued about this comment you made. In what ways are we trying to falsify our history (apart from obvious revisionist efforts like David Barton's, which seems to appeal to a slect group)?

dltrammel said...

Here is the url of the article I tried to post last week on the Tea Party.

What I took away from the article is that while the rest of the country is playing one game (baseball) the Tea Party, especially at the local level, is playing something completely different (football).

"All politics is local", I think someone once said.

As the government shut down wound on last week, I was struck at how little it effected me. I got up, made breakfast, went to work, came home. My city government continued to function. The company I work for continued to function.

So if most Tea Partists work at their local level, making sure they are big fish in a small pond it doesn't matter which party runs Washington. The checks still get sent.

The comment about drug lord Cristopher "Dudus" Coke, relates here. When you have to go visit that city council, to get approval for your new bee hive, then they are much more important to you than your Senator in DC.

Cementing that local power structure makes the actions that the Tea Party engages in perfect sense.

dltrammel said...

As JMG has posted, we at the Green Wizard site have had trouble this year with spam and servers and all the other traps of the electronic age. We have closed automatic registration which seems to be helping out.

Please feel free to email me with any problems you have registering or accessing your account.

random surfer200 (at) yahoo (dot) com (include the words Green wizard in the title please)

Most common problem seems to be that your account password isn't recognized. That I can fix very easy, just be sure to include your user name in the email.

RPC said...

Another reason celibacy may be common in this context is that bearing and raising a child takes a lot of time, effort, and resources. And at the end there's no guarantee that they'll stay in the community! If the monastery is embedded in a larger community it may be better to accept postulants that at least are toilet trained, can speak the language, and have exhibited the motivation to show up in the first place.

Moshe Braner said...

Unknown Deborah: Kibbutzim looked attractive to me in my youth (although I never actually lived in any). But from what I've heard, they've changed a lot since, to a form no longer recognizable as the communes they once were. E.g., the famous communal meals and communal childrearing are mostly gone. As for their economic survival, it has been thanks to preferential treatment by the surrounding state (on things such as access to land, water, contracts, etc), and (since 1967 as you said) more and more exploitation of hired labor from the outside - a practice that would have been abhorrent to previous generations of kibbutzniks. To me it seems that the history of the kibbutz movement shows both the promises and the pitfalls of such endeavors. Apparently the ideological fervor was diluted enough by the third generation to pretty much demolish the original intentions. It did last more than the few years most US communes managed. But it was also embedded into a larger society that was fairly socialistic (and supportive) through the 1970's or so, but swung towards all-out capitalism since, affecting the kibbutz society.

Moshe Braner said...

Something that showed up recently via is relevant here, regarding local communal efforts within an unsupportive larger society:
- this article only gives a few tidbits, leaving most questions open, but the guy has written a book about this village, perhaps worth reading?

fromorctohuman said...

I was wondering the same thing about the Amish. It does appear they will be much more resilient, and more broadly appealing, in the times that come.

They won’t be preserving culture/scholasticism/science, however.

Ironic that the monasteries, which require an even stricter separation from the world in obvious ways, end up being a vehicle for that!


Wildwood Chapel said...

I'm on to you, Mister Jay-Em-Gee. You're not fooling me for a minute. Comin' over ::here:: and saying how monasticism might just save human-kind, and then sneakin' back over ::here:: and writing books like The Gnostic Celtic Church. You and your druids are gonna try and save the world, you are! : )

Seriously, what I don't think some of your commentors quite understand is that you're not saying that society-wide celibacy is the indespensible key to the successful survival of a civilization amidst collapse, but rather that celibacy is a very valuable key to a successful commune existing *within* a civilization amidst collapse. Further, that it's perhaps communal islands such as these that, as in the oft-mentioned Dark Ages, might well preserve the knowlege, wisdom, and experience that might put civilization-at-large back on track after the rubble stops bouncing. I doubt that the Christian monks and nuns of the first few centuries of the Common Era would have successfully preserved survival skills, writing, history, music, art, story, etc. as well as they did had they been distracted by sex. Am I off the mark?

I might also mention that those of us who have struggled with what many call sexual addiction (not everyone likes the term, but I'll use it for familiarity's sake) can personally attest that sexual jealousy and divided loyalties were/are at the core of the problems that have stood in the way of our leading what would otherwise be happy and productive lives. Furthermore, a good case can be made that general sexual obsession is a hallmark of societies that are headed toward the peak of collapse.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

@Wildwood Chapel (&JMG): Thanks for the tip about "The Gnostic Celtic Church" by JMG -that seems to be a stream I'm swimming in right now with or w/out any formal associations. Though, reading the intro to this book on amazon, has some familiar connections arleady, re: John Plummer. It's interesting when these streams converge. I'll be ordering the book, for sure.

John D. Wheeler said...

But, square wheels work just fine on inverted caternary roads: In particular, this could be useful for going up steep slopes. My point being, yes, it is very important to understand what has been tried what has been done in the past, but that doesn't mean it is always doomed to failure, you may just need a different way of looking at things.

The other part I find amusing is that many of the elements you describe for the monastic lifestyle (celibacy, minimal private ownership, material simplicity, a chance for participation by the wider world) are found in Mars One's plans to set up an off-world colony.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, what I've read corresponds closely to Moshe's comments further down -- the kibbutzim and moshavim are a good deal less communal than they once were, and are being propped up by government policies for what amount to publicity purposes: a kind of Potemkin Village version of the Israeli experience, very popular with visitors from abroad. A lot of American communal groups followed a similar path, shedding more and more of their communal ethos until eventually they were indistinguishable from the society around them.

Mark, good heavens, you should know the answer to that one! There is no single "worthy goal for humanity" -- there are many options, many possibilities, which lead in many different directions. If communal living inspires you, pursue it; if not, find something else.

Kutamun, it's an occupational hazard.

Magifungi, that's also an occupational hazard. I may have to do another post on that soon.

Tom, exactly. It's not that most middle class people actually want simple lifestyles, you understand -- they want to daydream about their notion of what a simpler lifestyle would be like, and then go back to living their cozy and privileged lives.

Compound F, life has no prime directive, which is why celibate monastic systems so often flourish despite your claim that they shouldn't. It's a lot more useful to start from documented facts and work from there to abstract principles, you know, than it is to start from abstract principles (such as your hypothetical "prime directive of life") and try to work back to facts on the ground.

Notes, I suspect that most celibate communities end up with a large contingent of asexuals anyway.

Marcello, extreme violence is just as much a part of the feudal mindset as extreme generosity; the two in no way contradict each other, you know.

Phitio, of course a monastery needs a surrounding noncelibate population -- I discussed that in my post. As for the medieval level being reachable or otherwise, I'll be talking about that at quite some length as we proceed; a lot of people forget just how catastrophically things came apart in western Europe in the wake of the Roman collapse. More on this soon.

Phil K, thanks for the reference!

Matthew, I wouldn't recommend getting land at this stage of the game unless you're prepared to work it, live on it, and pay for it for the rest of your life.

Chris, many thanks! There have been very few entries to the Krampus contest, I'm sorry to say -- not enough to make a book -- but I'm more than willing to see people post links to anything they've done along those lines.

Bike Trog said...

On the Seventh Day, the Virgins of Farmtown congregated in the Game Room and played Advanced Basements.

John Michael Greer said...

Divelly, every alternative scene in American history has had to contend with trouble from the neighbors -- the first Shaker missionaries were routinely beaten by mobs. What set the hippies apart, to my mind, was how quickly they crumpled when they encountered that normal rite of passage.

Yupped, my guess is that it's both.

Andy, of course it's not a model for society as a whole -- it's one piece of the patchwork, not the whole quilt. As for sustaining commons, it's actually quite easy, as I pointed out in a previous series of posts: all you have to do is make sure that the people who get the benefits also have to pay an equal share of all the costs, and you're home free. It's our unwillingness to do that in modern America that's dragging us down.

Twilight, my take is that all we can do is lay foundations, which those who come after us may or may not build on, and save things that they may or may not use. That still seems worth doing to me, but there are no guarantees.

Janet, exactly. If planners of ecovillages would just take the time to learn a little bit about what mistakes doomed previous communal projects, they might do better -- but that kind of historical vision is utterly taboo in our society.

Sky, I'd have to come up with all the money up front to buy the books, then arrange to have them sold and mailed out -- and I barely have enough time to keep up with current projects as it is. (Nor am I exactly rolling in spare cash; a writer's income depends to some extent on the state of the economy as a whole.) Thanks, but your best bet is probably to pick up a copy at your local full service bookstore and have me sign it at a peak oil event.

Zach, third or tertiary orders are a very useful model indeed, and I also know people who are involved in a couple of them.

Justin, if Thelema's going to make it over the long term, I'd suggest, it's going to have to grapple with the tough question of differentiating between the True Will and the yammering crowd of moment by moment wants. I've known way too many Thelemites who can't tell the difference between those. Unravel that knot, and you've got a basis for Thelemite monasticism: a group of people whose True Wills are in alignment with a given monastic rule, and who therefore submit those yammering wants to its discipline.

Paradigm, you're welcome and I'm glad it helped. The wallowing in despair that's become so large and unappealing a feature of some parts of the peak oil scene is a waste of everyone's time; I'm probably going to have to address that again, soon.

Kevin, it's always tempting to engage in reasoning by anecdote: here's an example of X, therefore X is a general rule. I'd encourage you to reflect on why it's appealing to insist that it's society, rather than the internal flaws of communal projects, that prevents communal projects from thriving.

Michelle, a very broad and unhelpful overgeneralization. I'll be discussing that when we get to the sequence on Dark Age America.

Magicalthyme, excellent! I hope to get there one of these days; it sounds like a place worth visiting.

Patrick Cappa said...

Thank you, JMG, for another thought provoking post. I would suspect, pulling from more successful societies than the shakers, that strict rules regarding sex, marriage and children are more important than celibacy itself. Although celibacy represents the most "pure" form of those religions' sexual views, it would be an evolutionary dead end if they didn't come up with a way around it to get new members.

My experience with the Quakers, for me, confirms your overall assertions, although they hew less to a monastic life, it is still much closer than anything else in my otherwise American childhood. I wouldn't know a lick about farming or cooking or canning or fermentation or living communally, or even how to just sit quietly and listen contemplatively, if I hadn't lived in a Quaker commune for a portion of my youth.

In some ways, that life does resemble the Shire, in that it is a small, simple, happy life, less concerned with outside news, and obsessed with nature and the seasons, and a humble devotion to a personal god.

I was a punky, atheist, anarchist at the time (still am, a little), and didn't see the beautiful little truths they were showing me because of the religious overtones (the whole religious thing still sticks in my craw), but I came back to it reading this post from a new light, of the value of the life lived and the value of living simply, rather than the little fibs and fables of Sunday morning service... thanks for letting me see a bit of my past in a new light!

I hope, down the line, we can find some common ground between living a simple, sustainable life, and believing in a mythos that is not demonstrably false, patriarchal, and classist!

brian said...

JMG: Excellent post as always. I've been considering the upcoming collapse a lot lately, and I just ordered Green Wizardry via Ogden Publications. The question I have, what would be the first action you'd recommend, of any type: learning a specific skill, brewing beer (as I've heard you extol), or what have you.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello JMG and all:


1. Thoreau, more monastic than any of the Brook-ites, turned down their invitation to reside at the farm, sensibly understanding how the venture would go. He had a good grasp of systems and human nature, that one.

2. The Shakers had overseers to ensure that no one indulged in sex--no secret trysts! One wonders about the politics of such places--(I once briefly taught in a strict Catholic school and you wouldn't believe the skirting of rules. One theory is that under the monastic rule one is equally friendly to everyone--no special friends. The no-sex rule might help reinforce that principle.

3. Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage has been a going concern since 1997. Not that long, but not collapsing either. They hire out to do building projects--my Yearly Meeting has hired them to deconstruct a couple of decrepit structures so we could reuse the wood.

Anna said...

I'm a long-time lurker and a big fan. Thank you for your continued willingness to share thoughts in such a public way!

Ummm . . . I'm going to barge in with a nitpick, but an interesting one: the origin of the word "lord" actually isn't "loaf giver," but "loaf protector" (hlaf = loaf; hweard = warden). It was, as far as I've been able to determine, a job description more than a title, though for obvious reasons the title developed. I also like the fact that the origin for "lady" seems to have been something close to "loaf maker."

On another note, your illustration of the Shakers made me think (as it has others here) of that other rather successful communal model, also based around a strict social contract involving shared religious doctrine: the Amish. It's not a direct parallel, but I'd love to have your thoughts on how and why that community works so well--unless you've done this already and I missed it!

Marcello said...

"Marcello, extreme violence is just as much a part of the feudal mindset as extreme generosity; the two in no way contradict each other, you know."

Thing is, a feudal lord needed his peasants to support him and eventually his son. This placed some constraints on the amount of abuse he could mete out with impunity. Modern criminal organizations making money selling drugs to distant markets may not have the same constraints in regards to the local population.

Brazenraddish said...


Thank you for everything you've been writing about these last years; it has had a pretty enormous effect on me.

I would just like to ask RE: your response to Matthew:

"I wouldn't recommend getting land at this stage of the game unless you're prepared to work it, live on it, and pay for it for the rest of your life. "

...if you could briefly clarify what you mean by "this stage of the game" in relation to having land, or point me to where you've discussed that previously?

My partner and I are hopefully just about to take possession of a 100 metres squared city allotment reasonably close to us. Neither of us have grown so much as a houseplant before, but, in large part spurred on by your posts, are determined to make as good a go of it as we can.
I ask the question above because we (sometimes) envisage this project as a dry run of several years with a view to maybe buying a small piece of land here in Scotland if the opportunity is there.
We would find it helpful to have an outline of your view of the dangers and general nature of such a commitment at "this stage".
I hope this is not too far off topic.

SLClaire said...

Just wanted to say thanks for this and all the other articles in the recent series. I'm finishing up my Krampus post and should have it ready in time to post the link in next week's comments, if not this week's. Since I've included tables and don't yet know how Blogger reacts to those, it may take me a few days to figure out how to get it to post correctly.

Cherokee Organics said...


The name "transcendentalism" is a dead giveaway. I cracked out the trusty "Concise Oxford Dictionary" (hardback 1952 edition) to look up the definition of the word "transcend":

"Be beyond the range or domain or grasp of (human experience, reason, description, belief, etc.)".

Bit arrogant really.

Interestingly the book also defined the word “transcendentalism”.

I may have mentioned a couple of years back that as a very young adult someone took me to see the play "Hair". It is an unpopular view, but I loathed the play.

Even as a less cynical version of myself, I realised that the nude scene with the parachute near the end of the play was actually an advertisement. Beautiful to look at, but the content was disturbing.

Yes, come join us - is what it was saying - and look what beautiful things you may get access to.

It was a bit sad, because the reality was that without the hard work of subsistence existence, that was all they had left to sell. It was a ponzi scheme after all.

I've a bit more to add, but have to go out and dig - all day - with my trusty mattock (I've had this tool for over 25 years now and it was old when I got it). There'll be tears the day that the steel eventually tears.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and everyone,

haha! This is a truly shameless plug for a new video I put together showing 50 days growth in some of the pears and apples here in 2 minutes:

Temperate food forest growth video project

It is my intention to record the entire season which should be quite interesting. For those that have the farm plan, it is viewed from the shady food forest, near the chook enclosure looking towards the south / south-east.



Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG,

Two topics mentioned here that I care about:
1. The institution of rent on land (or anything else) which is much more parasitic than productive, if you look at some measure of the landlord's value added, e.g. money made per hours of labor put in, or per money spent. The profit is mostly from the mere fact that the landlord owns a necessary-for-life resource and the tenant doesn't. Are you saying there is less egregious (but socially acceptable, and rationalized in a similar manner to slavery) exploitation in "dark" ages of decline?

2. Intentional communnities: I actually had a whole blog about Brooke Farm a while ago and also read the Blithedale Romance. You neglected to mention that they (in analogy with startup businesses) were promised support from some venture capitalists and philanthropists (e.g. Emerson) who withdrew their support, that after they built their workshop to support 3 cottage industries and hadn't insured it yet, the building burnt down (within a week of being built), that they all got a nasty flu right around then, and then Nathaniel Hawthorne sued them for not being able to repay him the money he lent them.

You also neglected to mention the role of the anglo-saxon and transcendentalist culture of rugged individualism. Israeli communes have had an easier time of it, as people seem to have an easier time cooperating coming from jewish culture. Monogamous marriage seems to be the norm there...

But I agree that the factors you mentioned were also important. It is very difficult to start a new society in the midst of the old and there are both internal and external obstacles to it. Oneida, where a complex form of polyamory was thriving would have made it if it wasn't for external foes, in my opinion. Twin Oaks, Dancing Rabbit and a few others seem to be doing OK. There are general principles of systems theory and evolutionary biology at work which I've talked about on my blog, but I agree that it pays to see what actually works regardless of the reasons. It would be great to come up with a theory of what are the necessary and sufficient ingredients for a successful intentional community. I have tried to do that to some extent on my blog and youtube video, but it is hard to test it in a predictive manner. After 8 years of trying to either find or create an intentional community I have not been successful (I did start one where other people live, who will hopefully thrive).

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, Ostrom's well worth reading, but you're right -- somebody needs to translate her insights into language that a nonspecialist can grasp.

Don, I'm impressed to hear that you learned about historical communes in high school. Despite the fact that the Puget Sound area, where I grew up, was crawling with communal experiments all through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, no mention of that was included in my high school history classes, and that whole end of history has received vanishingly little attention in any context available to the general American public.

That's part of a broader trend. Your spouse the historian doubtless knows of the cooperative movement of the late 19th century, the extraordinary history of American religious innovation, and all the other expressions of this country's once-famous radical rejection of the conventional. How many people outside her profession are acquainted with any of that? In my experience, very, very few.

For decades now, both sides in the ongoing culture wars in this country have pretended that America was hopelessly square until 1965 or so -- the pseudoconservatives so they could project their imaginary golden age onto the past, the pseudoliberals so that they could always have something to pretend to rebel against. They've dominated the collective conversation to such an extent that very few people realize just how toothless current American dissent is compared to its predecessors, or for that matter how little today's "conservatives" actually conserve.

Dltrammel, true enough. The fact that the Right understands the local nature of politics, and the Left by and large doesn't, has contributed mightily to the Left's failure to achieve much in the political sphere in recent decades.

RPC, also a plausible theory.

Moshe, thanks for the suggestion!

Orc, true enough. Maybe it's that getting some distance between you and the world is a good way to figure out what aspects of the world most need saving!

Chapel, thank you for getting it. Of course I'm not trying to say that everybody ought to become a Shaker, or any other kind of monastic; my point, as you've noted, is that the monastic system is one very potent way that religions can keep things going during a dark age like tghe one we're facing, and that anyone who wants to try doing the same thing might want to pay attention to the last three thousand years of experience.

Justin, do you know John Plummer? Small world. Yes, he was one of my consecrators -- a fascinating man, and one of the most sincere Christians I've ever met. As for the book cited, that's the handbook for one of the branches of AODA; we've been busy unpacking some of the teachings and traditions we inherited, and getting them up and running again.

John, a different way of looking at things is rarely enough; what's needed, most of the time, are carefully chosen changes to structure and context -- for example, if you want to use square wheels, you're going to have to invest the time and resources to build at least one inverted catenary road. That said, I have no objection to people trying one more time; I'd just like to see them respond to the failure of the last umpty-dozen identical attempts with some less vacuous response than "Oh, but it's different this time."

Trog, I'm still trying to parse that.

Travis Marshall said...

I just relocated to Bath Maine roughly 20 miles from the last shaker commune you speak of. One of the main reasons for our relocation was the seemingly large percentage of folks in Maine to produce and not just merely consume. There a quite a few small sustainable farms here in Maine. It would be interesting to know what influence if any that colony has had on the area. On a totally differnent subject there is a closed nuclear plant here where the waste is held in dry storage containers. Try as I may I cannot come to a conclusion as to the likely future of these units, any thoughts?

John Michael Greer said...

Patrick, thanks for sharing your experience! Sometime soon, though, I'm going to have to do a post on the blind spot in rationalist critiques of religious mythology. The very short form? Having grasped that the stories don't necessarily make sense when interpreted in the most pigheadedly literal of senses, it seems never to occur to rationalists to ask, "In that case, is there another sense in which these stories do, in fact, make sense?" More on this as we proceed.

Brian, there is no one size fits all response. Your best starting point will depend entirely on your situation, your resources, and your interests and passions, among other things. I suppose you could say that the best place to start is by thinking hard about what the best place to start would be!

Adrian, there are a number of communes from the Sixties that are still around -- Dancing Rabbit is one of 'em, and no doubt my readers could name others. It would be interesting to see a good comparative study on what kept them going when so many hundreds of others crashed and burned.

Anna, hmm! Thank you for the correction; I must have misremembered.

Marcello, and yet several people have commented already on how many Latin American drug lords have realized that a little noblesse oblige toward the local poor gets them loyalty and support that can really come in handy.

Brazenraddish, a hundred square meter allotment is an entirely different matter! By all means see what you can do with it, and use it as a learning experience -- that's exactly the kind of small but helpful step that's worth pursuing at this time. Here in the US, a great many people in the green scene like to talk longingly about buying hundreds or thousands of acres off somewhere rural or even wilderness, very often without the least thought of the commitment they're making or the challenges they're likely to face. If they were all planning to start a hundred square meter garden instead, I wouldn't raise the least objection.

SLClaire, I'll look forward to it.

Cherokee, I enjoyed Hair, but I took it purely as a cultural artifact -- a time capsule of the hopes, dreams, obsessions, and delusions of a bygone era. A good mattock is much more useful.

Kevin said...

I'm not generalizing about the whole from one instance. I'm sure that the great majority of communes have disintegrated from internal causes, as you say. But this doesn't mean that such communities can't suffer at the hands of external enemies, as medieval Irish monasteries did at the hands of the vikings.

I know I'm not cut out for the monastic life, so I have no personal commitment to believing one thing or another concerning its strengths or vulnerabilities. I doubt that I'd enjoy it in any case.

I'm aware that in the same geographic area as the commune I've referred to - in the very same county - is another intentional community dating from the same period that persists to this day. It has survived because of a secure economic foundation - it operates as a popular clothing-optional hot springs resort - and because the founder is apparently a canny individual who has wisely refrained from developing a personality cult around himself as a spiritual leader: although, when you read between the lines, that's exactly what he is, in a quiet, unassuming sort of way. This latter community is geographically isolated from the nearest town, keeping pretty much to itself except insofar as is necessary to maintain good relations, and I fancy that probably has also contributed to its long-term survival.

My beef with the way the commune I've mentioned was destroyed is that I feel that it symbolizes the way in which the agenda of the counterculture was for the most part suppressed and destroyed, a phenomenon which was concomitant with the some very bad choices that American society made around 35 or 40 years ago, leading us to the situation in which we now find ourselves. Had certain elements of that agenda succeeded (environmentalism, anti-materialism, energy conservation), we would not now be facing the dire consequences of two more generations of runaway debt-based consumerism and environmental degradation. I suppose than in my mind, Morningstar represents some kind of ideal, a radical transfiguration of society that might not have worked out anyway and that people just weren't having. But it also reminds me that at a critical moment in history, America said NO to some very good ideas that might have saved it from a dismal fate. We blew it. And that makes me PO'd.

John Michael Greer said...

Iuval, I don't know that the modes of exploitation in dark ages are any less egregious, but they're different, to be sure -- and since continued economic contraction makes it impossible to support a huge superstructure on the backs of those who actually produce real wealth, things are much simpler in dark ages. As for Brook Farm et al., I'm glad to hear that you've done the research! Of course they had bad luck; every community does. It's the ones that have the strength to survive ordinary bad luck that are the examples worth following.

Travis, for tens of thousands of years from now, the ruins of that nuclear reactor are going to be the center of a dead zone, into which nobody can go without facing sickness or death. Exactly how far the dead zone will extend in any given direction depends on subtle details of topography, water flow, and which way the wind happens to be blowing when the pumps finally shut down and the waste catches fire. Nasty, but that's part of the future the stunning selfishness of our collective choices is bringing on.

Travis Marshall said...

Sorry for being off topic and revisiting I completely understand if you choose to skip a reply. I agree with your long term prognosis on a nuclear plant still in operation with cold storage units and pumps to cool the unit but the closed Maine yankee site only contains 6 dry storage units of waste that has somewhat began to cool. supposedly the units are designed to last 60 years and are passivly cooled once these fail what seems to be the likely ramifications? Surely it must be less dangerous than active plants.

Moshe Braner said...

I sent a link to this thread to a friend of mine (who has not been reading TADR) and he had this to say:

"I am familiar with the communal movements in the US and have read somewhat in primary documents to see the facts as close to first hand as possible. Here is a story for you: One community believed that marriage separated the community too much and therefore it was healthier to live in a group marriage with the children raised by all adults. They spent much of their time and resources fighting the charges continually being brought against them by irate neighbors. When they ran out of money the SHAKERS sent money to help them fight on. The celibate shakers said that while they disagreed with their strategy, they believed it was a sincere attempt to lead a more spiritual life and that it was wrong for others to interfere. I have always been impressed by the celibate group taking up a collection for a free love society"

Cathy McGuire said...

I enjoyed reading this week, JMG - had ideas about joining a cloister when young, but didn't; tried cohousing for 5 years and it was disasterous - I think I might make a better anchorite! (except I love my own cooking ;-)). Seriously, monasteries definitely have been the backbone of many a troubled time period... the big question would be: what "religion" would these future monks cleave to, in the downward times? I'd totally love for it to be awareness of Gaia, but I probably won't live to find out.

@Tom (I don't know much about that btw, but I know enough about the contrast between our current lifestyles and the lifestyles of the early 20th century to get an idea of the reaction that might incur!).
I've been watching some interesting BBC series - one on 1940's war farms and one on 16th cent. farms - both series have historian/archeologists trying to live "authentically" for a year in that given situation.
Wartime England Farm
16th century farm

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Monasticism in the traditional European sense, and therefore in the central English (and also French, Latin, ... ) sense of the word, is centred on religious contemplation.

The contemplation need not be specifically Christian. We have no difficulty, under the normal usages of English and its culturally related languages such as French and Latin, in terming Buddhist contemplative communities monastic - exotic though those saffron robes may initially appear to European eyes.

The Essenes who conserved the Dead Sea Scrolls near 1st-century Jerusalem likewise count as a monastic movement, in the ordinary English sense of the word - culturally, geographically, and temporally distant though those ancient Essenes are from modern Europe.

A group of people founding an ascetic rule-governed community may or may not be monastic. The prayer-centred Shakers were, and are. The 1840s Massachusetts Brook Farm, on the other hand, seems to me to have been secular, i.e., seems to me not to have been monastic.

If the community founders are Christians or Jewish, and perhaps also if they are Muslim, or indeed of various other confessions (Baha'i?), the question "Is religious contemplation at the centre of their communal life?" can be phrased a little more tightly: "Is prayer at the centre?"

A few weeks ago, JMG offered some religious art, in connection with the concept of ascension. I would today like also to cite some art. Following the 2006 book Sister Wendy on Prayer, I suggest that the essence of religious contemplation, and therefore the essence of the monastic, is captured by Albert Herbert's 1991 painting The Mountain (easily found through Google Images).

Here we see a stylized, childlike Moses close to, but not quite at, the summit of a mountain at the base of which are other people and a few beasts.

Sr Wendy Beckett writes: "He [the stylized Moses] is terrifyingly high, planted as solidly as he can manage, with feet set apart and body tense with desire. He has reached this height by ways we cannot fathom - the mountain is precipitous, right-angled in its rejection of the easy ascent, and we realize that Moses has clambered to the meeting place with immense difficulty. No wonder he is stripped to his shirt, and his face is dark with fatigue. /.../ It is a beautiful mountain, alive with so much color and fascination, yet Moses has to labor on through it all, leaving everything behind, if he is to be present before his God. /.../ Herbert takes such loving artistic pains to show us the sweetness of the innocent and material world that we cannot but feel that Moses, too, related tenderly to it. But nothing can go up with him except his bare self. Humbly, he does not press on to the uppermost peak, but stops on a convenient plateau, where God can address him and he can listen. /.../ Mystic after mystic has written of this solitary ascent and the need to labor along the way, the need to strip the heart of all that is a distraction..."


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Catholic layman near Toronto, Canada

www punkt metascientia punkt com

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Continuing with the line of thought I developed a moment ago in a previous posting to this blog, I spell out a couple of points, seeking merely to dot i's and cross t's.

(1) Sex takes people out of themselves, uniting them with something external (the lover-companion's soul) in a way liable to crowd out the core task of religious contemplation. It is likely for this reason that monasticism, in the West and even in (e.g.) Bangkok, tends to prescribe celibacy.

(2) The labour of religious contemplation is immense, all-consuming, exhausting, unending, like research mathematics. Some attempt it, whether from choice or from harsh necessity, as hermits. Benedict of Nursia is probably right, however, in remarking that the religious work becomes easier when attempted within the supporting liturgical and material structures of a monastic community.

(3) The specific modes of religious contemplation developed in Christianity, and perhaps in other modes of theological contemplation also, find prayer to be most authentic when incarnated in a life rule that incorporates physical labour. Such labour is performed in a love which seeks to benefit also the world outside the monastery walls.

A modern expression of the connection with prayer and manual labour was in the medical (village-clinic) outreach of the martyred Trappists at Tibhirine, in 1990s Algeria, as documented in the film Gods and Men.

The same idea is expressed in the ministries of ecological remediation exercised at the formerly Byzantine monastery of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi near Damascus (in recent years a centre of Christian-Muslim dialogue), under its now-abducted Jesuit refurbisher Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio.

(3) The authenticity of the Shaker charism emerges from the Sabbathday Lake site, Here is prayer made incarnate through, among other things, a humble, home-improving, tradition in the making of furniture.

(4) If we promote monasticism with the objective of conserving elements of civilization, we forsake the contemplation-centred purity of the monastic vocation. If, on the other hand, we pursue the vocation for its proper purpose, making the religious contemplation central, we may find that as a byproduct we also are succeeding in some tasks of cultural conservation. It is a bit like happiness: aim for it directly, and you sully the soul, perhaps even becoming outright unhappy; aim, on the other hand, for love of God (including love of neighbour, as an incarnation of love for God) and the happiness supervenes, unsought and almost unexpectedly.

(5) It may be the Dmitry Orlov's new blog posting "The Sixth Stage of Collapse" is right in portraying humanity as dying. In that case, monasticism still has a role, as the terminal-care physician has a role in the hospice. The role of monasticism in this contingency will be to help humanity die worthily and in dignity, in a Tibhirine condition of moral clarity.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Catholic layman near Toronto, Canada

www punkt metascientia punkt com

Bike Trog said...

Today's gamers could be tomorrow's monks, although their choices of culture to preserve may confuse historians.

Matt Heins said...

Hello to the Archdruid and company.

Really interesting stuff! I would just like to chime into say that I think one of the key upshots of organizing a community though religion (historically in post-Roman Europe) was the fairly rigid schedule imposed, both in the calendar with feast days etc., and in each day through the Rule imposing worship times and monk's schedule of tasks. These are community building activities.

These and a strict hierarchy seem to be part of what Brook Farm lacked but the Shaker communities had.

Fascinating discussion as usual. Thanks.

Ventriloquist said...

The difficulty is that bankers, landlords, local and state officials, and so on still want their accustomed cut, which is substantially more than that margin will usually cover. This isn’t mere greed—they all have their own bills to pay, and an equal or larger number of people and institutions clamoring for a share of their own take.

There is your problem, Who gives these hangers-on the right to deprive honest, hard-working small business-people the right to make a living because of their parasitic sickness?

xhmko said...

On Darwin, that's why I like to refer to his process of natural selection as the "survival of the most fitting" which I think, not to brag, is a more accurate description.

Mary said...

Travis, welcome to Maine. I moved about 45 minutes to your northeast some 10 years ago. :)

JMG, I believe Travis is referring to the Maine Yankee nuclear plant in Wiscassett, Maine, about 15-20 miles to my south, which was closed back in 2003 or so. The fuel rods have several years since been removed from cooling pools into cold, dry storage and are awaiting removal. Maine/Central Maine Power successfully sued the US government for not removing them per contractual agreement, and received a large chunk of change which is being paid back to CMP users through lower electricity costs, IIRC. In the meantime, according to a local co-worker of mine, the Wiscassett high school has at least one cancer patient in every class. I've seen a couple in the hospital lab where we work. If Yucca Mountain opens, or if they decide to go for storage under the salt lakes area (I vaguely remember reading a couple years back that would be a safe area), then the rods will eventually be removed. Otherwise, at least at this point they do not present the sort of danger that an active nuclear plant, not to mention Fukushima, does. Finally, the last time I was in Wiscassett, I noticed the dome had disappeared. Not sure of the significance...


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Patrick Cappo,

Speaking as a Quaker, I am very happy to hear that you had such a worthwhile experience with Friends in your youth.

You then say you hope "we can find some common ground between living a simple, sustainable life, and believing in a mythos that is not demonstrably false, patriarchal, and classist!"

I am a bit puzzled, by your characterizing in those terms the religious testimonies put in practice by Quakers. They are not terms that would occur to me to use regarding that religion. Some other religions, perhaps.

It is through reflecting on and living according our testimonies that Friends are led to live simpler lives than many in the world. At least the un-programmed Friends that I know. Adhering to simplicity, etc. is not always a comfortable way to live. It helps if it is spiritually driven.

Don't mean to be off-topic, JMG.

Hal said...

John Michael,

All I would add to Wildwood Chapel's excellent post (I was about to scream loudly enough that your readers could have heard me from Mississippi) is that it seems to me that our effort now cannot be to try to save, or reform our civilization, or even our culture. Nor can anyone offer any particular strategy to the population in general.

Monasticism will not save us, but it just might be a strategy for a few people interested in preserving some of the more useful bits of knowledge and skills as we head into the unknown.

And I'm the sort of person for whom this approach might have some appeal. A natural introvert, I'm at a stage in life at which I'm pretty sure if I haven't gotten the relationship thing right, I'm probably not going to. I've begat all of the issue I want to, and material wealth means very little to me. Obedience, now there's the hard part. Who does one give one's trust to in this world, enough to pledge obedience?

Buddhist? Nah, food animals are a big part of my strategy here.

Christian? I've looked into it, and the tradition is still part of my church, but I'm not sure if my faith is strong enough. It seems one's motivation ought to be deeper than using it as a strategy for accomplishing a tangential goal.

Besides, going somewhere else to join a group seems silly when I'm already sitting on a mighty nice piece of farmland. So the place I always end up contemplating is either trying to recruit like-minded fellow travelers or something like the Desert Fathers of the early Church. For the former, see the part above about "introvert." For the latter, the question is, if one pursues a more eremitic form of monasticism, how does that help in preserving knowledge for anyone else?

OK, long post, and I appologize, but I'm finally getting to the meat of it. How do you see the idea of monasticism meshing with the idea for Green Wizards? I saw GW's as people living in, and integral to, normal community life. Do you have an idea for joining the ideas?

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, I figure communal projects suffer from trouble with the neighbors about as often as any other form of human habitation does, and generally for the same reasons. With regard to your anger, though, my question is this: what are you going to do with it? Anger, once it passes through the filter of reflection and self-knowledge, can become a powerful motivating force for constructive change; it can also be left to fester, or get vented in useless displays of indignation. Which will you choose -- and if you choose the way of change, what are you going to do about it all?

Travis, in that case you'll have to discuss the matter with somebody who knows the fine details of nuclear engineering.

Moshe, that's classic Shaker behavior, and an example of one of the things I find very appealing in the United Society.

Cathy, anybody's guess at this point. I don't know that anybody can predict in advance which religion will seize the collective imagination of the next few centuries -- how many Romans would have thought that Christianity would still be around in a century or two?

Toomas, that's a valid point. I'm not promoting monasticism as a tool for preserving science and culture; I'm noting that this is one of the things monasticism often does, and that monasticism itself is a common response to the conditions of decline and fall, partly because it's relevant to a broad view of history and partly to encourage people who are daydreaming about ecovillages to take the time to think through the implications of what they're imagining.

Trog, next time you see any sign of asceticism and religious faith among gamers, please do let me know.

Matt, exactly. What the Shakers had and Brook Farm lacked was discipline, and without that, a communal enterprise is pretty much guaranteed to crash and burn.

Ventriloquist, rights are the result of agreements among people, and nothing more; they don't exist somewhere off there in an eternal realm, you know. What gives bankers, et al., the right to profit off other people is the same thing that gives you the right to own property or run a business, that is, the collective agreements among people that structure how we hold and exchange wealth. If you dislike those agreements, they can be changed -- but if you want to change them, you have a lot of hard work ahead of you.

Xhmko, that's good.

Mary, thanks for the clarification. You'd have to talk to a nuclear engineer to know exactly how much danger those rods present -- but I wouldn't want them sitting there over the long term.

onething said...

What about The Farm in Tennessee?

As for monastic communities, no question that not engaging in the pair bond and children is its main strength. Raising children and providing for them quite simply takes most all one's energy and time. Not only that, but it takes one's attention. Without a mate and children, the group of productive adults are free to engage with one another, and should be able to produce a surplus, since all are providers and none are dependents. This gives leisure time to a few who then contribute in intellectual ways. There would be a few old people, of course, but without modern medicine their time of being unable to contribute would generally be short.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Re: High school history classes around the Puget Sound. I went to a rural high school down in SW Washington circa 1965. It was required that we take a half a year of Washington State history and a half a year of driver's training.

For the state history part of the class, we had to write a paper. Generally, anything referred to in the standard State history textbook.

There were two or three lines mentioning the communes around Puget Sound. At this late date, I can't even remember why that so caught my interest. Or, even what my final paper was like.

Being the precocious little sod that I was, it was probably the "free love" component of a couple of the communes that attracted my notice.

Kyoto Motors said...

One of the major trends of course in our secular modern global industrial civilisation is that of sexual entitlement; whether celebrated as liberation, fulfillment or self expression, it is often used as a marketing tool. As a result, the degree to which we are exposed to titillation on a daily basis is, like so many things nowadays, amplified by the drives of the petro-powered economy. If you are plugged into the urban environment, there is no escape. If you watch television, follow pop music, and take in mainstream movies you expose yourself further to the idea that you’re just not gettin’ enough, no matter how much you’re getting’. How immune to these notions comes down to psychological fortitude and personal (religious?) discipline. It can be challenging to separate one’s natural desires and biological needs from artificially stimulated sexuality. Kids especially are terribly vulnerable to these pressures.
I don’t know if what you’re getting at is motivated by a perceived need to address such matters, but the need is clearly there for those who care to perceive it. The most obvious benefit, I’d say, is that of not being distracted from the more significant narratives of our times (such as peak oil). Of course sex is just one of the tools in the toolkit that service the spectacle of distraction. Anyone committed to business as usual, and especially those who profit greatly from mass participation in it, will embrace whatever gimmicks and sideshows that are at their disposal, including the most obvious trance-inducing one we know…
So clearly, as you point out, there are advantages to divesting from a sex-obsessed, distracted society and shifting the collective focus away from particular ego-centric habits that go with it. But getting from “here to there” so to speak, is a huge challenge. Where is the incentive for the average citizen? And where are the religious institutions that have the wherewithal to embrace and nourish the monastic traditions and update them with the needs of the post-industrial, but otherwise modern mindset? Or are we talking about something for a truly select few?

Kevin said...

I should have mentioned that it's not just anger that afflicts me when I consider the direction the United States has taken, it's also depression. I feel the USA is a hopeless case. Certain regions of it may have a future of sorts, but the part of it where I happen to dwell seems likely to develop in very nasty directions. The best outlet for anger in my case is probably artistic expression. I can just see myself as a Hermetic monk, making images devoted to the ineffable One. As for more useful or utilitarian activities, I'll be discussing those on the Green Wizards forums. In this regard, it's a good thing I live on a bay.

Dmitry Orlov's latest post and the discussion appertaining thereto has brought to my attention that it would be a very good thing if all 438 nuclear power plants in the world were to start being decommissioned en masse right now, but I have no idea how a lone individual like insignif me could meaningfully contribute to bringing that about.

On a more upbeat note, I've recently noticed that the cover article in the current edition of San Francisco magazine assures us that the current tech boom will not go bust like the last one, but will just keep expanding indefinitely like a giant balloon that can only get bigger, possibly studded with little tiny silicon galaxies. I'm sure you'll agree this is wonderfully reassuring news!

Tom Bannister said...

Trog- I've had many thoughts myself about spiritual religious movements coming out of today's gamers. (they do spend a lot of time practicing 'magic' (yes JMG I'm aware this isn't what magic really is)). At this stage however, gamers will quite simply become an extinct species as energy prices gradually bring down the infrastructure of the internet and all the fancy bits and bobs that come with that.

Computer games are though in my experience, a really fun imaginative tool. Perhaps there is a means of harnessing the popularity of the fantasy pop culture genre (such as computer games) to prepare for a post industrial world...

Dwig said...

Marcello's comment, about the feudal lord needing to consider his (and his son's) future, triggered a thought: it's probably a lot easier for a commune to fail when everyone knows they can go back to more or less where they were.

If a commune were started as a "lifeboat", with no comfortable fallback position, there might be considerably more effort put in to make sure it succeeded, at least to the point of remaining viable and tolerable.

Another thought, triggered by the dialogue here on celibacy/sexuality: imagine a commune based on a matrifocal religion; would celibacy still be an important element? If not, what forms might sexuality take?

Matthew and Brazenraddish: in an earlier comment, I mentioned an interview with Wendell Berry. If getting land (or living on the land you have) is a concern, I recommend Berry's essay "People, Land, and Community" in his book "Standing by Words". Here's a teaser:

Berry draws parallels between marriage and farming:
"I have talked of marriage as a way of talking about farming because marriage, as a human artifact, has been more carefully understood than farming. The analogy between them is so close, for one thing, because they join us to time in nearly the same way."

He says of both:
"I take it as an axiom that one cannot know enough to get married, any more than one can predict a surprise. The only people who possess information sufficient to their vows are widows and widowers." "Marriage is ... a not entirely possible solution to a not entirely soluble problem. ... We can commit ourselves to anything -- a place, a discipline, a life's work, a community, a faith, a friend -- only in the same poverty of knowledge, the same ignorance of result, the same self-subordination, the same final forsaking of other possibilities."
"But our decisions can also be informed -- our loves both limited and strengthened -- by those patterns of value and restraint, principle and expectation, memory, familiarity, and understanding that, inwardly, add up to character and, outwardly, to culture."
"These patterns constitute a knowledge far different from the kind I have been talking about. ... Indeed, if we study the paramount documents of our culture, we will see that this second kind of knowledge invariably implies, and often imposes, limits on the first kind: some possibilities must not be explored, some things must not be learned."

From here, he begins to talk about time as relevant to serious, life-work enterprises like a committed marriage, or a commitment to lifelong farming of a plot of land. "During the last seventeen years, for example, I have been working at the restoration of a once exhausted hillside. Its scars are now healed over, though still visible, and this year it has provided abundant pasture, more than in any year since we have owned it. But to make it as good as it is now has taken seventeen years. It can be better than it now is, but that will take longer. For it to live fully in its own possibility, as it did before bad use ran it down, may take hundreds of years."

By the way, the phrase "the shape of time" kept running through my head as I read his essays; in a rather different sense than in John Michael's earlier posts. I hope to have more to say about this later.

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, what about it? As I said, there are still some communes around from the Sixties; I don't know much about the Farm's current status, but I gather it's still very much a going concern.

Lewis, by the time I took the same classes in a south Seattle suburb, those lines were long gone.

Kyoto, we're talking about laying foundations for the future. The religious institutions that will address those needs probably don't exist yet, and will have to be built.

Kevin, anger and depression usually run together -- I've known very few depressive people who weren't seething with anger a quarter inch under the skin. That's a harsh path to walk, though a hermit's path -- Hermetic or otherwise -- is a very traditional way of doing it!

As for nuclear power plants, that's a hard nut to crack. My guess is that most Americans will happily condemn their own grandchildren to radiation sickness and death by cancer in order to keep the lights on a few more years, and so those plants won't be decommissioned -- just abandoned when decline proceeds far enough. There are many things, that is, that we can't change. The crucial skill here is figuring out what we can change, and getting to work on it.

Øyvind Holmstad said...

Some kind of analysis of Dancing Rabbit can be found here:

Space Seeder said...

(It's been a busy day. I read the comments in the early morning, and now I'm up past bedtime to make a point, without benefit of reading the comments that have appeared in the meantime. I apologize if I happen to be re-making someone else's point.)

I read the Orlov post that Liquid Paradigm is referencing as well. For those that haven't, the 30 second sound bite is that the base of the food chain will choke to death on plastic, or that the whole animal kingdom will be killed off by radiation from spent nuclear fuel rods.

I'd like to suggest a possible way for those of us that see Orlov's analysis as correct to respond to that unfortunate truth in a better way than to become depressed, to wallow in despair, or to say, "Oh well, nothing to be done, to heck with it."

There's been considerable emphasis here lately about a new (?) religious sensibility, that for those who have it gives comfort about our personal fate, since we are a part of a wonderous nature that will continue. Can we not take the context in which we regard the fate of I-singular in that sensiblity and apply it towards We-plural, "We" being the people who are lost to the disaster, even if it's all of us? Just as each individual is a small part of wonderous nature, so is our species.

The nature that will exist after we are gone, whether that be in 500 years or 500 million, will be as wonderous and worthy of caring as that which we have now. For however much damage we've inflicted on our environment in the form of greenhouse gases and a sea full of plastic pseudo-plankton -and it is considerable- it always makes sense to avoid doing yet more. Even if it be that we've sealed our own fate, we haven't yet sealed the fate of all complex life. The more such life that we avoid destroying, the more that natural selection will have to work with in establishing a new biodiversity, as rich as the one we wrecked, in the new climate.

So as dire a future in which we may believe, there is still that reason to care enought to tread as lightly on the Earth as we can.

(I know that's not very on-topic for the current post, but the idea of the new religious sensibility fit really well with what I wanted to say.)

Anselmo said...

The social organization has always been based on the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Feudal lords lived by exploitation of their vassals and serfs. The vassals and serfs didn´t lived thanks to the gifts of the feudal lords

Is a good idea to study examples of the passed times, whose economies were of stationary grow

An interesting example of monastical life would be the Spartans (1) with the differences of that they didn´t practiced celibate, they had family, prívate property, they needed very little imports of the neighbour societies, and they have their deffensive necessities admirably coverted.
Probably Socrates was inspired in them when he imagined his Republic.
The monasteries only can be suported in a little proportion by the economy of a country, because they parasitize the economy of the society that hosts them and they depend of his benevolence and military protectión. An example can be seen in the Spain of the XVIII were the King confiscated many states to the Church, in most cases improductive, trying to impulse the economy of the country.
Another type of monacal life were the military orders; templars, etc. who were a mix of monk and Knight and that were of transcendental importance till the XV century .

I think that celibate is a desirable condition only for a very small number of people, but can be interesting to encourage it because it helps to reduce the population growth, a thing very necessary in a economy with stationary grow.

KL Cooke said...

"The Shakers had overseers to ensure that no one indulged in sex--no secret trysts! One wonders about the politics of such places"

Celibacy as renunciation of desire, in the belief that desire is the cause of all suffering, makes a viable argument. Particularly at age 68. In my 20s it would have been a tougher sell.

However, as our host pointed out, Mother Ann viewed sex as evil. The way I heard it, she was inspired by a dream in which she saw Adam and Eve engaged in sexual intercourse, and concluded it was a vision to inform her that sex was Original Sin.

This kind of psychological morbidity must have been exhibited in other Shaker affairs as well. Perhaps it played a part in the dwindling of the movement, since initially they seemed to have little trouble in attracting sufficient converts to keep it going.

That was in a time before
modern medicine and contraception, for which reason Shaker theology may have been particularly appealing to women. I understand that established families joined and were subsequently separated. Yet, one wonders how women convinced their husbands it was a good idea.

Was it an effect of the Second Great Awakening, combined with the incipient Puritanism that has been part of American culture from the beginning?

Seb Ze Frog said...

Dear all,

flipping through the (very interesting) commentaries, a thought occurred to me. It sprouted from the last paragraph of the post and probably also from the fact that I live in a rural part of France that went through the Middle Ages under the quite stable model of one medium size town, its net of small villages and farm, and several monasteries.

While I haven't researched the matter thoroughly, I would at least suggest that small pre-industrial villages are as long lived community models as monasteries. Yet, my point here is not to start a fight between these two community models along the secular/regular binary. On the contrary, I would suggest that the two models are, in fact, symbiotic.
If I look at the cistercian monasteries that existed around where I live, they needed the surrounding villages for commerce and for a supply of new members (since we abandoned mitosis, members of celibate orders don't reproduce). It can be (at least to me) a bit more challenging to understand why the villages around needed the monasteries.
I have started to think that in addition to the secular benefits like the occasional tending to the orphans and sicks, some technical prowess here and there, and the consistent biassing of the literacy average towards a larger value, monasteries didn't also play the spiritual role that bones play in our body. It would be hard to argue that religion was not a fundamental part of people lives in the Middle Ages. In that context I don't find it all that challenging to see how monasteries could provide a spiritual "North" that would remain fixed even when the more regular parts of the clergy strayed a bit. I would even argue that this point is supported by the consistent re-emergence of poor orders when the older ones tended towards more complacent ways.

On a very secular level, I also got thinking about monasteries as an implicit birth control mean. It takes away the loaded problem of telling people how many children they could have, leaving the procreative powers to play their role unhindered. It then redirects the outcome in ways that seem very profitable to all in the end. And all this happening by itself, based on peoples inner callings, instead of by the force of law. Of course that would need much research and work to get further than the nice little narrative stage.


Atilio Baroni Filho said...


The conversation shifted a bit, but maybe there's still time to talk about this. Reading this sequence of posts made me remind of a powerful experience that, looking back, put me on track to the many changes that happened in my life and, I think, explains a lot of why your ideas resonate with me.

One day almost 10 years ago, on the process of writing a few ideas while talking to a friend online, trying to explain them to him, I had this sudden clarity, one single idea that shone new light over everything: the fact that when you focus your attention on relations, on the broadest meaning possible, you have a whole new way of looking at the world. Relations of every kind, people, politics, living things, matter, energy, etc. It was not only intellectual clarity, it was cathartic, with powerful emotions coming from within.

In my studies I know of at least one religion that tries to have this kind of religious experience, Vedanta, so I came to think that it was one. Maybe trying to find ways for people to experience this could be a good foundation for an ecological view of the world?

Cheers and thank you for the constant inspiration!

Compound F said...

" has no prime directive, which is why celibate monastic systems so often flourish despite your claim that they shouldn't. It's a lot more useful to start from documented facts and work from there to abstract principles, you know, than it is to start from abstract principles (such as your hypothetical "prime directive of life") and try to work back to facts on the ground."

I seriously doubt that you misapprehend Natural Selection, which is perhaps the most powerful idea in human history (Dennett's "universal acid"). Yes, it's an abstraction, built upon observations; one that has become the central dogma of biology: DNA --> RNA --> protein.

As for my reference to the "prime directive" of life, the "purpose" of life, according to this theory, is built directly into the logic of replication and selection. Purpose is inseparable from ontogeny, phlyogeny, proximate mechanisms and ultimate causes. It's all one big elephant. Or rather the entire herd of ungulates. Or rather...the entire Kingdom of Life, wherein energy is the coin of the realm, and Kings Play Cards on Fine-Grained Sand.

Gravity, too, is an abstraction culled from various falling objects.

As data-driven abstractions go, physics and biology do pretty well. Interpretations of history (especially in the absence of experimental evidence) are a different matter entirely.

I respect those who try to analyze the past, given what they've got to work with, but to refer to certain central dogmas of the experimental variety as mere abstractions lacking data is more than a bridge too far for me.

Andy Brown said...

I remember studying these 19th century communities in High School. In fact the first research paper I ever did (in 10th grade) was on these utopian experiments. But maybe that was because I grew up in Pennsylvania which was home to more than its share. In any case, I consider that research paper my first step to becoming an anthropologist. The questions of culture, human nature, and the limitations it implied about what we could and couldn't do were absolutely fascinating to me.

Jon said...

There are some theories in anthropology concerning the role of sex in shaping large societies. Sex, or to be precise, the control of sex, is key to allowing large groups of people (larger than the clan of 60 or 70 individuals and approaching the village of about 150-200) to work together somewhat smoothly. Unfortunately, the best way to control sex is to control women. So many social rules dictate who we can have sex with and when, with established rituals for brides, a virgin’s purity, separation of the sexes, penalties and ostracizing for offenders, etc. And, of course, there are lots of hypocritical exceptions and ingenious ways to cheat. It appears that advanced civilization requires quarantining sex in a box of specially designed rules or eliminating it altogether. I wrote an essay about the restrictive rules required by societies. Please see

Concerning drug lords as protectors of their tenants the way feudal lords were, I’m reminded of the God Father, who was the Don of his territory which ran on the exchange of favors. I’ve often thought that Roman Senators were just Mafia Dons that agreed to meet and negotiate running the patchwork of clans that actually made up the empire. This might be why all politics are local. People can’t identify with anything larger than their clan or village. What made the Senator/Dons legitimate or not was simply a matter of how you define ‘legitimate.’ A legal empire, like Rome, has a legal Senate. Take away the legality and you have territorial power lords (power, through the business of drugs, prostitution, smuggling, etc.) but with an honor code within.) Sometimes the best strategy is to cooperate with the adjoining village, sometimes it is to rob from them. Either way, take care of your own.


Robert Mathiesen said...

About 30 years ago we visited the Shaker village at Canterbury, NH, and was part of a conversation at some length with one of the three old women who were its last Shaker residents. She had chosen to come to the village as an orphan in the early 1900s, since the Shakers were known to take orphans in and treat them generously and honestly. She said that when an orphan reached adulthood, the Shakers would offer a choice: become a Shaker yourself and join the community, or go back to the world. In the later case, the Shakers would finance your return to the world and be available for help, advice and counsel as you made the transition to your new life. She, like many others, chose to stay.

Of course, back then orphans were very many indeed, as were children whose parents could not afford to keep them in the family. And in New England it was the family first of all, and then the village or town, who decided what would become of its orphans -- not the county or the state. These conditions made it easy for any celibate community to continue its existence.

Moshe Braner said...

Here in Vermont, after fighting the state for years to keep the 41-years-old nuclear plant operating, the out-of-state owners have recently announced that they will shut it down next year for economic reasons. Their plan is to mothball it for up to 60 years, while the too-small decomissioning fund will magically (through "investment") grow larger. This is of course a delusion, in this post-growth period of history. In a sense, this is an example of catabolic collapse, as we've borrowed from the future to have cheap electricity in the near past.

Meanwhile, at this facility, which is of the same design as Fukushima's, there are 10 times more used fuel rods than at Fukushima, since none have ever been removed from the site. Most of them are "stored" in the penthouse "pool", requiring endless cooling with pumped water. I'm glad I live at the opposite corner of the state. :-(

avalterra said...

JMG said: Trog, next time you see any sign of asceticism and religious faith among gamers, please do let me know.

Religious Faith - well lots of Pagans

Asceticism - well... not voluntary

@Justin - There are still plenty of gamers that do it the old fashion way - dice, boards, cards, tiles. Hours and hours of entertainment for a very small up front cost.

onething said...

Regarding the issue of a prime directive of life to reproduce, I am reminded of a family I have known most of my life, a poor family with many children, one of whom is homosexual. This latter, due to not having a family and children of his own, has always visited his aging parents more often, sent them a small bit of money every month as they got old, and assisted at least one of his siblings in a big way financially over the years. He was also in many ways the glue that organized family get-togethers and helped keep them all close. Had he had children, this money and much of this devotion would have gone to them. So there is no question that the entire family benefited by his being born as he was, including enhancing their survival value. Quite simply, a blessing to his family.

Evolutionary writers often exaggerate the need for every individual to reproduce to the maximum possible. That only holds true under certain conditions of stress. Most of the time, life forms are very able to reproduce far beyond need.

I don't know why someone would say that monastic communities are parasitic on society. Symbiotic, yes.

William Hunter Duncan said...

The Indian tribes of America were basically communal. I think they had sex though.:)


rabtter said...

onething, what you refer to has a name, Kin Selection. Sometimes ensuring the welfare of close relatives is better hedge than reproducing yourself. If you have plenty of siblings chances are your genes don't have anything special relative to theirs.

Richard Larson said...

I would think a religion without children would have problems with low membership.

In an extreme environment of population crash, this would be near fatal for a sexless religion to be dominant.

Perhaps limiting sex to some type of proved methods would be more reasonable.

divelly said...

AND furthermore!
Who started calling Red Indians "First Peoples"?
My Relatives prefer to be known as Mahka or Skagit,not some missionary BS!


Jim R said...


I saw the discssion of a closed nuclear plant in Maine, and was thinking about a reply. I have been following the Japanese nuclear disaster and it piqued my interest, which has inspired me to read a lot of Wikipedia pages on isotopes and chemistry. If I had written everything I was thinking, this comment would be longer than any of your essays.

After a bit more thought, I decided to pare it down a bit.

The Maine Yankee plant is as close as you will ever see to a happy ending for a nuclear plant. The fuel rods are 'cool' enough that they won't catch fire, though still radioactive enough to promptly kill anyone nearby if not shielded by a goodly thickness of concrete and/or metal.

All you have to do now is watch the "dry casks" for 500 or 600 years, and then bury the contents (spread out so they don't start reacting again, as there will still be quite a lot of fissionable material in them), bury the contents somewhere permanent. I have no idea how to instruct the inhabitants of Maine to perform that function at that later date, nor do I know how to prevent the monkeys who run this planet from opening the casks in the interim.

That's the happy ending. Fukushima is the not-so-happy one. There will be a swath of land in the middle of Honshu island which will be off limits for ?? millenia. Since the powers that be do not seem to have learned anything from Fukushima, I expect several more loss-of-cooling incidents to happen at random intervals among the still-operating fission plants around the planet.

Betsy Megalos said...

I am enjoying the direction of posts! your comments on celebacy and creativity is very interesting.. Do you think it has anything to do , in part with sublimation? The way we can redirect our emotions and human condition... be that which it, or anger, or jealousy or what have you.. towards something else.. creative? This is something I was taught and wonder if it applies in part to the monastic life you discuss?

dltrammel said...

Brian said "I've been considering the upcoming collapse a lot lately, and I just ordered Green Wizardry via Ogden Publications. The question I have, what would be the first action you'd recommend, of any type: learning a specific skill, brewing beer (as I've heard you extol), or what have you."

I'm not JMG, but let suggest, please come and join the Green Wizard Community and post to the website as a first step. Perhaps one of the many threads will spark your interest in a new skill you can use in the Long Descent.

Hal said: "How do you see the idea of monasticism meshing with the idea for Green Wizards? I saw GW's as people living in, and integral to, normal community life. Do you have an idea for joining the ideas?"

Again, not JMG but as someone who is working hard on the whole GW idea, I personally see Green Wizardy evolving into a fraternal structure rather than a monastic one.

You are quite right, Green Wizards live "in" their community.

The GW skill set is one that can be practiced personally, or with your family and even better is one that actively encourages sharing of information in your community.

There is a reason I put "Critical Thinking and Community Building" as the final of the eleven "circles" of GW skills.

I hope Green Wizards can be there as the voice of "common sense" when things start to go really bad in the years of the Long Descent. A common sense which is practical, pragmatic, and above all sensible. Grounded in what is both possible and appropriate for the situation.

While you may see monasteries practicing GW skills, which are really just appropriate tech and sustainability, I for one hope the culture of GW never adopts the mind set of the librarian who is the guardian of knowledge we all associate with monks studying their books, but instead embraces the idea that its something to be share.

So while the Green Wizard Community many years from now will no doubt evolve their secret handshakes:

"Nice garden you have, are you a friend of the Archdruid?"

And their rituals:

"Let us now share on the Winter Solstice a bowl of Stone Soup..."

And their traditions:

"We sit down now in this circle of seats around this open fire to discuss today's problems, in hope we can find common ground in which all can grow..."

I hope it never becomes a religious profession.

BTW Symbology is powerful magic and there's a good reason I choose "circles" for the different areas of GW skills.

Mazes are often circular, yet the GW maze of knowledge would have a clear path that walks straight to the center as well as meandering pathways around the boundaries of each set of skills.

But more over, like King Arthur's choose of a round table for his knights, a circle brings equality. No one sits at the head.

I hope that the future "Circles of Green Wizards" is alot like the Mason, the Lions Clubs and other fraternal organizations in communities. That you would be first a baker, a farmer, a weaver, and secondly a Green Wizard.

But then that's just me lol.

No doubt hundreds of years from now as civilization comes out the other side of the next Dark Age, Green Wizardry will be something quite unexpected by JMG or I. Still as someone who believes in reincarnation, I look forward to the times I get to come back and help with its evolution.

Cherokee Organics said...


hehe! The subtleties of "Hair" were completely lost on me. Perhaps I was interpreting it as a literal sort of thing? What did you write a few weeks ago about my choice of music? Oh that's right: "grumble, grumble, grumble". hehe! We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Too funny!

As to the mattock, there is no finer hand digging tool to be had for love or money. Many years ago when the soil here was like concrete, the mattock was the only tool that would break it up - a small chunk at a time. It still is hard work digging, but nothing like those days. Nowadays, the worms, fungi and bacteria do the job for me.

I've been spending quite a bit of the last year finessing the systems here so that they are both passive and also idiot proof. Bushfires are a good example: A lot of people up here have sprinkler systems, but it requires someone to activate them, have power/fuel to run them and water to maintain them. There are too many uncertainties in those systems for my liking.

I haven't read the comments yet, but the - well advertised, I’m sure - policy of monasteries being celibate was a successful strategy because it simply takes a whole lot of resources to raise a child. Plus add to that, avoiding the difficulties of divided loyalties between family, society and ideals and you have a recipe for success. Plus, you also avoid the messy problem of sexual predators. There is a Royal Commission going on here at the moment into such matters and it doesn’t look good for many groups. Shame on them.

People in the industrial world simply forget the unseen advantages of riding on the coat tails of a fossil fuel bonanza. They simply forget that whilst family is a strong bond, for long term sustainability humans require more diverse genetic inputs than family. I find it staggering that they forget this and can’t see past their noses.

The Aboriginals used to have ceremonial inter tribe people swaps / celebrations spanning huge distances. There really is no other alternative and it truly disappoints me that people can't see that.

The wallabies from the surrounding forest have been gathering here on the farm of late for feeding and mating time. Just saying...

Plus, big daddy roo (he well and truly surpasses 6 foot in height and I'm respectful of his business) now has a harem of two ladies up here with a joey. It is a good paddock.



Phil Harris said...

This has been an interesting discussion of monasteries and their association with the continuity of ‘institutional memory’ while empires and civilisations ebb and flow. The integration of ‘social norms’ with practical life and its necessary technologies has often been accompanied by ‘monastic’ arrangements across cultures and religions. Something fundamental seems to keep them fired-up!

I have been keeping an eye open for practical historical agricultural and social arrangements suited to more austere conditions. It must be more than 30 years ago that I went to a lecture sponsored I think by Scotland’s Association for Mental Health. The lecture was about “Mental Health in Ladakh”. Ladakh seemed to have better mental health than our western societies.

Later I came across a useful set of geographical studies of traditional Ladakh in one book (see below). Tibetan Monasteries on the central plateau had been huge and dominated their agrarian populations, much as the great Abbey of Tours took a hub position in Europe emerging from the post-Roman Dark Ages. In the feudal governance of Europe, subsistence farming became legally bonded to the land (apparently there were 20,000 serfs at Tours forming the monastic estate). In Ladakh a more ‘horizontal’ form was integrated with village and family life, and it has to be said with ‘breeding strategies’ relevant to the constrained agricultural land area.

I wrote the following as part of a comment on another forum in 2012.

"... Rather than the more grand ‘civilizations’, for the longer term I look for knowledge from agrarian systems and cultures, which successfully adapted to long term to meagre conditions without [incurring] gross population overload and without benefit of modern industrially based methods. The Buddhist villages of the Himalayas are just one example. I can just imagine perhaps some of John Michael Greer’s science/eco-tech ‘monasticism’ grafted on to the dual village/monastery systems used in that Buddhist culture. (See Crook & Osmaston Eds. book on human geography ‘Himalayan Buddhist Villages’ on Amazon. ...)"


Marcello said...

All you have to do now is watch the "dry casks" for 500 or 600 years, and then bury the contents (spread out so they don't start reacting again, as there will still be quite a lot of fissionable material in them), bury the contents somewhere permanent.

Getting a chain reaction going with civilian grade exhausted fuel isn't that easy, you will need the right geometry, materials etc. In a pinch once active cooling isn't needed burial will do, preferably in non agricultural area of course. There will be contamination as they leak out but survivable in the great scheme of things. Realistically the nuclear issue won't be as big as people make it out to be, unless things go so bad that nuclear plants are abandoned abruptly in numbers they will remain a mostly local problem. Some additional cancers and malformations are trivial compared to the normal levels of infant mortality in pre-industrial societies or the losses caused by famines, epidemies and so on.

"Since the powers that be do not seem to have learned anything from Fukushima"

The powers that be know all too well that the near totality of the population wants to keep industrial lifestyle going for as long as possible. Pre-industrial life in most places and for most people entailed a life of back-breaking work,scarce food, no comforts and what we would regard now as horrifiyng levels of crime,abuse and so on. Any member of the èlite not onboard with the policy of keeping the train chugging along for as long as possible will be lynched.

morenewyorknews said...

I think rules of sanyasa/monks were first written in manusmriti and mahabharata(read shantiparva).Copies of both ancient books are available on net in English/sanskrit.
There is also magnificent book called ascetics of Europe, the name of author I forgot. If somebody requests, I will go and search in local library.
A monk/sanyasi is not allowed to stay more than 3 days in a place, strict rules for asking alms.Shankarcharya improved the rules in 11 th century and they are final.
In budhhism,gautam buddha wrote rules for his bhikhu sangha.They still exist. Although Buddhist monasteries disappeared from India due to Muslim invasions some Tibetan monasteries still exist. I met few of Indian Buddhist monks while traveling.
The Jain monks are slightly different. Unmarried celibate Jain monks are voluntarily supported by other married -rich Jain disciples. A man /women can become monk after raising children, marrying them off and renouncing wealth.
The Muslim monks/Sufis were supported by Muslim king and other rich people. The surrounding Muslim populace also offered alms to Muslim monks/sufis. Although, meeting Sufis is getting difficult now a days.
One can still get glimpse of Buddhist, Hindu, Jain monks in India.
The existence of these monasteries strongly depended on nature of economy/king.
A monastery also existed to fulfill one purpose which people seem to forget here. The early Greek-Christian monks were devoted to their religion.
Buddhist monks reflected on ashaswat /temporary nature of universe and tried to free of it by achieving nibbana.
The hindu sanyasi focused on understanding nature of universe and were more successful philosophically. Some philosophies like vedanta,upnishads,sankhya,yog,advaita arose out of their contemplation. The monks were also excellent astrologers, scientists, doctors, consultants.
A lot have been discussed of celibacy over here. Our texts say celibacy is to be ordered by guru/master to disciple only when he is ready. It can never be forced. Only when a devotee is tired of sex, he will gladly accept celibacy. Again main question is not celibacy but desire itself. Many gurus sent back their disciples to get married after finding their craving for sex.
As far as Buddha is concerned, he was strictly against allowing women monks in his bhikhu sangha.He was traditionalist in that sense. While Mahavir allowed women to become sanyasi even in younger age.I still see many women Jain monks in India.The earlier religions were more concerned about children. So they kept women away from monasteries.

Alison Russell said...

I found this article some time last week. It touches on the change in religious sensibility, how established religions might adapt to that change, and monastic communities. Very apropos!

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG,
I am confused though about why you chose this detour about communal history. How is it related to failing political and economic modes of organization, and the usefulness of religion as a mode of organizing human activity? Is it simply to discuss what hasn't worked as a preliminary to a discussion of what might work?

I think the communal vision is pretty basic in the human psyche, a kind of racial memory or Jungian archetype that won't go away based on reason. It does explain the popularity of movies like Fiddler on the Roof and LOTR (and the books of Tolkien). But it doesn't have to manifest as a commune. It could also manifest as a rural, craft based village or monastery. People (and the natural world) who are connected economically through local production and consumption of goods and services (instead of through the intermediate of a global industrial or other imperial variants economy) may have more of that communal need met, and it also synergizes with religious and social needs.

I am going to play fiddle at the local farmers' market now, though my hands hurt from moving dirt yesterday. Here's to hard physical labor, meticulous craft labor, scholarship and music/dance! I do think we can have it all, at the expense of some comfort and privilege (many of my friends make a living from the mere fact of owning housing, i.e. landlording). But I haven't found a potential wife who thinks similarly so far.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Tom Banister,

Funny you should mention computer games as a means of planning for a post-industrial world. That is part of my Luddite Manhattan Project: Get in touch with me if you can help with the programming or know anyone who can.

Darren Urquhart said...

A nice bit of synchronicity today. Comedian Russell Brand writing in the New Statesman covers some of the ground JMG has been exploring this year.

Brand, at least for me, is an unexpected source of this type of thinking. Always a mistake to get taken in by the cover.

soundsurround said...

"Thus it’s an interesting question why celibacy should be so important a factor in the long-term survival of monastic systems." Yes! I feel a lightbulb happening. ... A thought occurs: You have already introduced Darwin to the discussion; maybe he and his scions can help shed some light on it! I'm not sure I can do much more than you have above. But consider: While the monastic life is about shared property and the like, from an evolutionary perspective, what is a finer currency than surety of mating and good conditions for child-rearing, etc. Sex is serious wealth! Evolutionary analysis often devolves (ironically) into just-so-stories, a pattern which I feel compelled to follow here, for lack of data: Imagine being a felllow or gal unable to find a mate in an otherwise egalitarian society. Why is that? Well, perhaps your face is overly asymmetrical, or you have a difficult odor or something: In short, you are sensed not to carry adaptive genes. Perhaps in another sort of society, you could bring to be bear certain resources which would tend to rebalance the evolutionary calculus in your favor, despite offering a fairly defective package as your half of the bargain. That is, further material resources might aid in creating a scenario for prospective mates in which 50% of their genes are assured of being carried forward to the next generation, albeit paired with a kind of crapshoot for the other half of the genotype. It may be adaptive to make this sort of bet, you see, instead of sticking with the genetically superior but by some unlucky circumstance materially less-endowed partner. On a behavioral level, this may be manifested as a sense of anxiety on the part of those who sense that the game has been tipped out of their favor. Now, how in the world monastic conditions which include celibacy can come into being from an evolutionary perspective is another question. Probably, it would inevitably have to be viewed as an evolutionary accident, unless some sort of systematic cheating also exists. Well, perhaps there could be adaptive reasons for it. But it is not so very obvious. A just-so-story would fail to satisfy, there, and so I am placed out of my abilities.

steve pearson said...

I haven't researched this personally & can't quote the source, but have heard that the main reason for celibacy of catholic priests, nuns & monks was to keep the money from the wealthy ones within the church & not going to their offspring.
Who knows?

Tom Bannister said...

luval- Not good with computer programming myself soz, and the ppl I know that can aren't in on the peak oil stuff as far as I know. I'll keep the thought in mind tho ;-)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Deborah,

I read about Kibbutzim a few years ago and they were having internal troubles because some members were trying to privatise some of the more profitable industries. Apparently some of the members were quoted in the article as saying they worked harder than other members and so felt that they deserved to be rewarded for that additional contribution and thus were pushing the privatisation route.

The whole thing sounded like a case of trouble brewing in paradise, but I'm no expert.



Cherokee Organics said...


I feel that some commenters do not understand the timeline that you are discussing. You've given them one long term answer, but they have not been trained to think that far into the future? I could be wrong, but that is what I'm seeing.

People also seem to miss the point of finite resources over a number of consecutive generations. A farm succession within a large and growing family over a number of generations is clearly unsustainable, but a good example of the predicament. It may help some people to think of it in those terms. How do you divide up the family farm, and what is then left?

The Chinese have a saying that wealth rarely lasts three generations!

Also, I don't suspect that some of the commenters have ever known serious hunger. If a quiet life of hard work living celibate in a monastery is the alternative to true hunger and the recurring threat of violence, then a monastery is not really such a bad option as some may think.

Clearly, a number of commenters see the future exactly as it is today! Just saying...

Enforced celibacy, is probably a very useful contraceptive in times when such things are unavailable, chancy and large families are a real burden. It probably also improved their life expectancy too.



ed boyle said...

I'm reading a five volume history of technology and the second book goes into the middle ages. for example the cistercians:

It is interesting to see a historical take on monasteries as economy and technological experiments which stabilized the society and encouraged copying by others eventually eliminating their own initial importance as towns and cities grew dwarfing the monasteries which initially strted the populaiton centers.

Monks wanting to get away from it all find an isolated place and after some generations of hard work have got all the trappings of the good life and the head monks are doing artistic work and all the others are specialized int heri work and harvesting and planting was always done by farmers non monks for the monastery anyway.

In middle ages this was all a development from ground zero to build up rural northern Europe into a developed civilization, like all backwood areas(Alaska, Siberia).

Reading such an account I cannot imagine a static permanent society of monks without cumulative wealth and technology and attracting civilian population.

Fascinating is at any rate the story of technological development. If the authors had written this book in the middle of this century instead of in the early 1990s the attitude would have been different. They remark the growing lack of wood and higher prices of it for making needed steel, salt, glass production, etc. as motivating in finally using "stinking coal" in greater amounts. Of course to get down to the depths where it was at they needed to pump out water and all the tricks they used were not enough so the development of the steam engine

was the bassis innovation which allowed the industrial revolution but all the basic nneeds and the mentality of work division and our whole culture had developed by then so that monastic dependence was long since over.

What sort of collapse can bring us back to such a state of dependence on monstic life for redevelopment of society? Communes are hobby things when unserious but otherwise potentially important technological and cultural motors for renewal of our society as the cistericans were or the shakers. Permanence is impossible and unimportant as everything is cyclical and death and decline of institutions (the moidern state) is preprogrammed.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I haven't caught up with the comments, but I would like to continue the thread on kibbutzim and moshavim.

I agree with JMG's and Moshe's observations on the current state of kibbutzim. Kibbutzniks were ideological and their collectivist arrangements were founded upon socialism as a secular religion. The loss of interest in communal child rearing and the dependence on hired labor on the kibbutz arose in the context of an expanding Israeli economy after the Six Day War.

The kibbutz I visited in 1971, before the social and economic outcomes of the Six Day War had taken hold, still had communal meals and child rearing and used no hired labor. (In 1971, the mayor of Jerusalem was a liberal and a bareheaded young woman in blue jeans could walk right up to the Western Wall and be bothered by nobody.)

The current conditions don't tell us how kibbutzim or moshavim will fare in a contracting low fossil fuel economy.

The economy of the State of Israel was once dependent on handicrafts, agricultural exports (still important) and donations from abroad but now it is knowledge based, exporting software, pharmaceuticals, armaments and medical research.

I don't know anything about contemporary moshav cooperative farms. Moshavim were developed by a different group of Jews and always allowed a good deal of familial autonomy. My guess is that they joined together for the practical reasons of mutual defense and pooling resources.

I would also like to observe that although Judaism has had various traditions of holy men and mystics, starting with the Biblical Nazarites, it only had one brief foray into monasticism during the Roman period. Mainstream Rabbinic Judaism opposes celibacy. Possibly this attitude came about when the Jews and Christians were separating from each other with a good deal of mutual animus. The Jews have managed to hold together their culture in many circumstances, some of them very adverse, without any asexual intentional communities separated from ordinary family life.

Carl said...

Hi JMG and Chris, Since you were discussing mattocks, I thought I'd put a plug-in for my favorite new tool the broadfork. I got a 14 lb one (they sell heavier and lighter ones) from Meadow Creature co. and love it. It is so easy to break-up ground with and to mix-up the compost pile.It is faster and than with a pitch fork. Look into one if you haven't tried one. I only have a suburban lot, but find lots of uses for it. It is solid steel and will last more than my lifetime. Carl
p.s. I don't work for them ;-)

Cherokee Organics said...


Monastery's would also have been a good source of well educated (relative to the population) people who did not wish to take the vows at adulthood.

I finally finished reading all of the comments this morning and I am overwhelmed at the serious lack of the display of tenacity in some of the comments this week. That was intended as a criticism to those people too.

Comfort and trinkets makes people weak.

Has Orlov fallen prey to the apocalypse meme? There is only a single reactor on this entire continent and it is a long way from here. Not everywhere pursues nuclear power generation - we can't afford it!


Matt Heins said...

To ed boyle,

What is the title of that history of technology? Sounds interesting.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

On the general topic of the relationship of monasteries to villages, I heard a program on the radio about monasteries in the Himalayas helping to protect snow leopards.

Some researchers noticed that the biggest populations of snow leopards were on monastery lands, where hunting was not allowed. The villagers were not hunting the leopards for sport or trade, but they killed leopards which were predating their flocks.

A wildlife NGO talked to some of the monks and enlisted their active help. One thing the NGO came up with was a livestock insurance program run by the monasteries. Villagers can pay a small sum for insurance. If a snow leopard kills one of their animals, they get compensation, so they don't have to kill the cat. The NGO also gave the monks and villagers some equipment and systems for observing and counting the leopards. According to the radio program, which didn't include any dissenting views, it's all working rather well.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

If someone is interested in forming an urban religious community, a historical model to look at is the Beguines.

Beguinages flourished in the late Middle Ages in parts of northern Europe. They were self organized communities of devout widows and single women who moved into the same neighborhood of a town or city involved in the textile trade, sometimes sharing apartments. Many of the Beguines supported themselves by spinning thread on the recently invented spinning wheel and selling the thread to weavers (i.e., they were spinsters).

The Beguines would hire a priest or monk to be their spiritual director, but they ran their own financial affairs, were under no vows, and were not affiliated with any monastic order. They prayed together and lived according to Christian morality.

Eventually the Roman Catholic church decided that the Beguines were too independent of church authority and dispersed them.

Juhana said...

Your comment about drug gangs being nascent war bands of future Dark Ages is exactly same thing I have been saying to my friends for a long time.

I don't know which one is more mind-blowing fact here in formerly orderly social democratic safe havens of Nordic countries: the extent of power and growth by organized criminal gangs or the ability of middle-class citizenry to close eyes and look other way.

Both in Sweden and Finland criminal gangs, projecting their power from inside of penitentiary system into the streets and vice versa, have gone from zero to huge from 90's onwards. Monty Pythonisque inability of Nordic political class to notice this fact, or to react constructively, would be hilarious if it would not be at the same time so horrifying... Well, it is just one thing adding to almost complete legitimacy loss of politicians around here.

I have this feeling that political system modeled after Western influences has malfunctioned permanently, and any useful responses to challenges ahead, whatever they might be, shall come from outside current "official state". Maybe resurrection of institute of divine kingship is not far away, at least behind the eastern border. Writing certainly IS on the wall.

Citizenry of Roman empire from 410's onwards must have felt this same feeling of disbelief and cocgnitive dissonance lurking behind the corner, with some Germanic and Bacaudae gangs. It would be interesting to read your thoughts about this re-emergence of feudal law in the form of (yet) illegal lords of inner cities.

Jim R said...

You would be astonished to find out how little of the fissionable material is burned up -- the nuke industry jargon is literally "burnup" -- before they remove the fuel rods from the reactor. The reason is that certain fission products, certain atomic nuclear fragments, will 'poison' the reactor and make it unresponsive to controls.

You would also be astonished to learn how many potential critical masses of the stuff are on hand at the nuclear plant. In the spent fuel pool. Among "exhausted" fuel rods.

Even after 600 years, unintended criticality will continue to be an issue. Getting the geometry right could be nothing more than dissolving a batch of the metals in an acid bath, or piling broken fuel rods in the corner. These criticalities don't result in full scale atomic explosions, but they may release a lethal burst of neutrons, and can start a metal fire.

Renaissance Man said...

It was with great relief that I got to the last paragraph of this essay and you finally mentioned the lay community that inevitably surrounds every monastery that I know of or have ever visited that isn't in a pre-existing city. I think they are not merely necessary, but rather a inherent part of the monastic system.
While I don't really wish to produce a Marxist reduction of everything to economics, if you will permit a morphological comparison, I think that, in pre-industrial times, the monastery, and also the baronial manor house, functioned with respect to the wider world in the same way as an industrial factory.
The difference is that, where the factory produces material goods for sale and the baronial estate produced agricultural products or raw materials (e.g. a stone quarry or wood from a forest) to trade with the wider world. Monasteries are manufacturing spirituality for sale to pilgrims and devotees seeking salvation (or at least buying absolution for their sins.) That is what kept the monasteries in business for a thousand years, because the wealthy paid the monks to pray for on their behalf. From what little I know of Tibetan Buddhism, that was true of their monasteries, too. As well many monasteries were also landlords and gained wealth just like any other landlord, from lands willed to them.
Just as a factory requires a town to provide its workers with the necessities of life, so the lay community that grows up around a monastery to provide the necessities for the monks that they cannot produce for themselves. The monks may have had artisans in their ranks, but that was not their primary function and no monastery could provide for every need and had to have some relationship with the outside world.

Tyler August said...

I was wondering when the (fascinating) talk on religious sensibilities would get back to the regular topic. Brilliant!
I have never seen so many commentators miss the point of one of your posts before, though. Hopefully they'll catch up as you keep going along this vein.

re: Orlov & Apocalypse : I think he has been bitten by the bug, yes. The prospect of abandoned nuclear reactors are scary, but! They're scary to individuals, not the biosphere as a whole. The Chernobyl zone of exclusion has been recolonized by a wealth of wildlife-- and while lifespans might be unusually short, and mutation rates unusually high, populations living unmolested in the Zone are doing better than the ones who have to compete with human beings. I am not saying I want to move there. By no means! I am saying, however, that an ecology can happily thrive in conditions a sane human would run screaming from. Including inside the Chernobyl sarcophagus: black mould, adapted to feed off of gamma rays. For that matter, before 1945 this was the lowest-level of radiation ever present in the history of life: radiation is radioactive decay. Go back in time, and you've more things decaying. Subtle? Yeah. But go back a billion years (or so) and a sandy beach could give you a sun tan in the dark.
Of course, for individuals adapted to the lowest-dosage-ever... yikes. Radiation sickness. Cancer. Mutated offspring. All those things we've learned to fear. I'm not trying to say it'll all be okay, and you should cash in on the low, low price of real-estate in Prypiat-- just that, as usual, we've got to go on with our lives after the four horsemen ride by.

-Tyler August, MSc.
(I sign this to credential myself: I've a master's of Astronomy and a bachelor's in Physics. Not an expert, but informed.)

Myriad said...

I visit and speak with Brothers of the Brothers of Charity several times per week, because they have taken on a significant role in the life and care of my developmentally disabled brother. (Yes, there is a complex story there with multiple spiritual dimensions, and any number of potential sidetracks, including why the BoC's calling includes such a project in an affluent region of the United States. But I don't want to post a book just now.) Their order was founded in the early nineteenth century rather than in the near aftermath of the fall of Rome, and their lifestyle is organized around service in the world rather than the more cloistered situation this discussion has generally focused on. But nonetheless they are a religious order under Catholic auspices who have taken lifelong vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy. So, because there's been some curiosity and speculation about it here, I'll ask them at the next suitable opportunity how they see the vow of celibacy as strengthening their organization.

In the meantime, here's what their own web site says about it: "Observance of the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity may not seem the best way to live a life of pleasure. It has a profundity that often is ignored due to a great many misunderstandings on this subject. Like the marital vows, the religious vows are only means to an end. They enable the person who takes them to reach a higher goal. The three most common vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience allow us to serve a great number of people. Thanks to those vows, we are free to accept a special commitment in the world. We are not subject to the desire to accumulate material wealth, we attach less importance to family and other intimate bonds, and we have no particular tendency to defending our own interests tooth and nail. We represent a counterbalance in this world where far too often the emphasis is on money, sex, and power. The vows remind mankind that the false gods that they sometimes adore are mere ersatz for the love of God, who constantly appeals to man to live his vocation to the full." (Emphasis in original.)

So the reason they offer publicly, not surprisingly, is that the vows increase their ability to focus on their calling to service. A further link between the vows and organizational resilience is not quite explicitly stated, but as I read it, it's there between the lines.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Unknown Deborah and Moshe,

I posted this before, but I'll reiterate: When I was trying to start a commune in the US about 8 years ago I got an email from an old timer kibbutznick (I think he died since) who was the secretary of the International Communes Desk (or some such organization). He said to try to start a commune anywhere but in the US because the national ethos is inconsistent with communal living. But apparently the kibbutzim are also finding out that the current obstacles to communcal living are great. I wrote a summary (to be expanded later) about 14 pitfalls and possible solutions to communal living here: yesterday.

I think the community Moshe mentioned might have been Oneida?

Dear Carl, great that you are buying the broadfork from Meadow Creature. I know Bob Powell from when I lived on Vashon Island and worked at Burn Design right next to his machine shop. Great guy

Chris G said...

One of the problems that celibate communities would help control is run-away population growth, unwanted children, the lack of resources to supply for the children, and near ceaseless warfare between societies with growing populations, which is like a stupendous tax on a society (not a boon, as it is often portrayed in our society.) (If one has read, for just one example, the Hare Krishna commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, one of the biggest concerns is "unwanted children"). Mostly, these problems have been avoided because of the big resource bonanza. Actually, I think what JMG is getting at is that celibate communities are part of the norm; and this era is the exception that proves the rule.

A hypothesis is that celibate communities will tend to pop up in over-populated areas. The Shakers count: American colonists were fleeing the over-crowding in Europe. Coming out of Roman rubble, the Catholic monastic communities preserved knowledge, served an ecumenical (uniting) and pedagogical (teaching) function, as well as slowing the up-and-down problems of run-away human population growth and the following disease and famine. The main point being really, at just about any stage in the process, controlling population growth is as important to a surviving species as population growth itself.

E.O. Wilson, the famed evolutionary biologist, is noted for suggesting that certain behaviors that appear maladaptive such as homosexuality, asexuality and the like, are actually adaptive for NOT contributing to population growth.

Celibacy, which appears as a maladaptive behavior looked at from the narrow perspective that any species should grow as much as possible all the time, actually helps for the health and stability of the species.

Further, celibacy functions even better when coupled with religious and pedagogical functions. The Catholic Church has been among the strongest educational forces in our Western society going back centuries. Education is at the heart of the Scholastic mission (as Spengler suggests, the Scholastics are the beginning of the Western civilization, and we are at its end.) Education is done better by the celibate because they have fewer other commitments and responsibilities. The life/work balance is really: life=work. I have many teacher friends who struggle to care for their own kids and other people's kids. Not so for a monk, priest or nun.

This line of thought drew some reflections on the problem of clergy members abusing children. Nowadays, in an age of abundant energy, much of the really gut-level, visceral need for a commitment to celibacy is lost and it becomes rather just rationalistic, but the formal traditions are preserved in the Catholic Church. I would suggest that the monastic and clerical role in the Catholic Church has been used as a safe harbor for the socially dysfunctional. Often, many of these individuals were abused themselves; and then, knowing nothing else, turned to the same kind of abuse. I would go further that in an age of resource decline, such problems would probably... just not be tolerated at all. Clemency is a luxury of the well-off.

Lastly, to give the celibate life a religious dimension is natural and pretty much inevitable, as people will want to understand their role in connection to the larger community and larger process. But putting it in such rational terms is like an undressed mannequin. To open up this comment thread, Shakya Indrajala concluded: "...I've never met a monk or nun who reported being depressed or suicidal. Life is simple, but rewarding." It's not for everyone, but it takes all kinds.

Marcello said...

"Comfort and trinkets makes people weak"

Thing is, trinkets and spoiled people are just facets of the economic abundance which underwrites pretty much everything starting from any sort of healthcare beyond what a few herbs can provide to a law enforcement system a bit more fair than vigilante justice. But frankly if western people could even adapt to the routine imposed upon Auschwitz inmates I'd recon at least a percentage would adapt to anything the future can throw at us. You cannot expect people to cheer that though.

Hal said...


I had meant to follow up on your questions about relocating to a land-based home on the GW forum, but lost track of when it went back up, and so far am unable to post there or respond to your post about a land share. Don't think I forgot about it!

Bill Pulliam, trippticket, and other GW's in the Southland:

Is anyone planning on attending the Southern SAWG conference in Mobile this coming January?

Would love to have a GW caucus. Also, I have a property in Gulfport, which is about an hour from the conference center and would be happy to provide some lodging and car-pool.

DeAnander said...

"Comfort and trinkets makes people weak."

caused a sudden free association moment:

"it's the weak who accept
tawdry untruths about freedom:
prostituting themselves,
chasing a spurious starlight,
trinkets in airports sufficient to lead them astray..."
(from the libretto of "Chess")

in the context of the show, it's a critique of consumer culture from a Soviet apparatchik and hence has its own internal ironies, but... yes, though I would maybe have written "trinkets *and* airports" since "affordable" air travel is one of the luxuries we've been offered to obtain our compliance with the extractive culture.

an yeah, seems to me Dmitry's been getting a little strange lately -- much more apocalyptic and (is this related?) also seemingly on a bit of a misogynist kick -- a new focus on advising women to stay home and be good mothers, and a bit of venom/spleen being vented at women who don't... perhaps, like a number of other apocalypse-minded males, rather looking forward to a social breakdown that could force women back into the nursery and kitchen? anyway, I haven't liked the "angry insecure antifeminist boy" tone of some of the comment threads and have pretty much stopped reading.

but I still have to admire the power and verve of his prose; the recent horridly depressing rant does contain that gem of common sense -- that our attempts to "value" the world around us solely as extractable resource is about as sane as valuing our own body parts in terms of their nutritional content! "gee, I need to eat to grow and be strong -- liver is very nutritious -- maybe I should eat my own liver!" though I take issue with DO on several points, I admire his ability to put his finger on such a huge cognitive dissonance with accuracy and clarity. one of those "wish I'd said that" moments.

Marcello said...

"You would be astonished to find out how little of the fissionable material is burned up"

Yes, but remember civilian grade PWR/BWR fuel is not super enriched to start with, say 5% or less (granted of course as the U-235 is burned up other fissionable isotopes are created so it gets complicated...). You are not going to get a critical mass by piling an handful of rods together in the air. Now, of course as it is the spent fuel pools are generally overcrowded and if you were to simply walk away from them there would indeed be BIG trouble and fast. But provided the plant has been shut down for a few years and the fuel has moved beyond the need for active cooling then in a pinch even rudimentary dispersal and disposal will do. No, it won't be pretty, it won't be optimal, it will not do anything for all that irradiated steel left in the plant etc. but survivable in the big picture, yes. It depends of course on how the decline will play out but provided people don't lose their heads and basic measures are implemented it should be possible to prevent most of them from turning into Fukushima.As it is the trend in the West is shutting them down and not replacing them, so we are kinda getting there in a roundabout way.

Chris G said...

in related news:

trippticket said...


Curious, I haven't followed the comments section much this week but just happened to catch your SAWG comment! Even more curious, to me anyway, is the reference to the other "GWs" in the South. My initials are GW, and I sign my name that way, so my first thought was "who is this Hal fella, and how does he know so much about me??"

Ooohhh! Green Wizards you mean! Those GWs...I'm caught up now. Blond moment.

About the conference, maybe! I see that they are offering priority fee waivers to first time attendees in the Chattanooga foodshed, which I would be, and just happen to be in. We plan on offering pastured chicken at the Chattanooga farmers market next season. That time of year is hard on us financially, between market seasons. Our six weeks of want are more like 16 weeks of want! But it builds character, right?

And thanks for the offer of lodging for the conference! That's very kind of you. Stay in touch about this if you would - trippticket(at)gmail(dot)com.


Nano said...

Seeing how beer has been part of the current of these topics. I thought I'd share.

Church vs Beer

Marcello said...

"I haven't liked the "angry insecure antifeminist boy" tone of some of the comment threads and have pretty much stopped reading."

As far I can tell a lot of people tend to expect the fulfillement of some of their wishes from the breakdown of the existing order. Personally I find it silly, I can't stand most of the PETA types for example and it is a safe bet there won't be many left after the collapse of industrial civilization but it is very little comfort compared to the loss of tap water.
I would suspect however that with contraceptives becoming unavailable, modern law enforcement breaking down and so on it is a relatively safe bet that many social changes might be rolled back. However there will be very little to cheer whatever side of the various cultural disputes you are siding with.

Jessica said...


Read your post, and I think you have some pretty solid ideas about why communes tend to fall apart. My family of four is currently in our second co-housing/co-farming relationship, and we certainly have some stories to add to that conversation.

Actually, just this morning I submitted our 60-day notice to vacate the farm and house we're in right now (and we haven't been here very long). With winter coming on, and a tiny and homely wall tent on the receiving end of that departure, one could probably guess how frustrated we are with the current situation. MY WIFE is actually excited to be moving back into our tent! Now you know something's wrong.

In addition to the concerns you laid out in your blog post, I might consider radical income disparity to be an issue. So far we've teamed up with wealthy benefactors who wanted us on their team for our skill set, but it's fairly difficult to feel like an equal partner when the ones with all the money seem to be making all the decisions. And there's never as much room for compromise as I feel like there should be, especially since I'm there mostly for my ideas, not my resources.

JMG talks about the transition to an ecotechnic future requiring many generations to really get a hold of, suggesting that we early technics might not really even understand what a sustainable technic society might look like, much less how to build one. I might also tender the idea that tight, integrated, communal living could be something largely beyond our current skill set at this point in technic history. We haven't EVER had to utilize K-selected strategies, really, more than temporarily anyway, in our culture's history, so why should we know how to utilize them now?

We can learn those strategies, very slowly, and that has indeed been my experience over the last 5 years, but I keep coming up short on the skill set required to live a more cooperative existence. Maybe my children will be better at it. Or their children.

But at this point, my vote is for private property ownership in a neighborhood and larger community that would really LIKE to work together, support local businesses, build their own houses, grow their own food, make their own wine, and take charge of their collective destiny, but not be absolutely REQUIRED to do so.

This whole transition is painfully slow - probably excruciatingly slow for the rapid collapse types like a lot of Kunstler's clan - especially for people who are used to a fast-paced world, but it seems that that's the only way it's going to happen. Making slow, incremental changes in our lives seems to be the only way anything ever sticks. And I'm just not ready for communal life. May not ever be.

Just my .02

Kris Ballard said...

xI hurried and read this article, before the next one comes out! I'm not sure about the celibacy thing, but I do favor birth control. I am looking forward to reading your new book, but am a little short on funds. It sounds like I can get an idea of what the book is about, by reading some of the old articles. I always enjoy learning creative ideas from you!

Patrick Cappa said...

@Adrian Ayres Fisher, and JMG,

In hindsight, I would call my early forays into rationalism, anarchism and atheism more than a bit pigheaded, and the Quakers are by far the most chill, friendly and non-imposing of the christian faiths, but even that was still too much for my young, rebellious brain. I think it was the whole christian narrative. Why did we (gruesomely) kill our god? Why would he forgive us after something like that? He LOVES us, but allows the devil to exist, blah, blah, blah...
More importantly, and more on-topic, is that it took a different narrative, or perhaps a different "religious sensibility", to get me to realize the problems inherent to a strictly rationalist approach to life. And it was this more nature-centered narrative, not denying objective fact, but allowing for the subtle nuances of consciousness to blend with everyday reality, that eventually "flipped" me.
That said, I still distrust how people will use another's sincerely held belief as a stepping stone to power, and how willingly believers can be utilized as a tool for political power plays and other unsavory behaviors. Even the Quakers.

Michael Dowd said...

John Michael,

My wife, Connie Barlow, a science writer, and I love your thinking and writing. We were introduced to you via Richard Heinberg nine months ago and have since read 5 of your books (The EcoTechnic Future, The Long Descent, The Wealth of Nature, Apocalypse Not, and Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth) as well as many of your blog posts. This is my first comment, however. It's purpose is to recommend two resources that I think you'll enjoy.

1. "Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict" - by Ara Norenzayan

2. "Let There Be Sight: A Celebration of Convergent Evolution"

Keep up the great writing! I've purchased Green Wizardry but haven't read it yet. I look forward to your new book too.

Together in the Great Work,

~ Michael

Dan Mick said...

John, your post assumes monogamy as the only option. Read "Sex at Dawn" by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. Many communities have existed throughout history and pre-history that were communal, successful, sexual and non-monogamous. Great blog.

GreenEngineer said...


For what it's worth (and, yes, this is merely an anecdote) I personally know of at least one intentional community which has been successful for over a decade, which does not practice most of the monastic principles you describe.

The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in California ( is a non-profit educational organization. They are located on an 80 acre parcel which is owned communally by the Sowing Circle (, which is the community organization which exists within OAEC.

The relationship between the organizations is complex (and there are lots and lots and lots of meetings, I am told) but basically, the core of the Sowing Circle is also the core staff of OAEC, but there are SC members who do not live on the land, and there are OAEC employees who do live there but are not SC members.

The community is interesting because they practice communal ownership of the land and buildings, but otherwise have personal property, sexual freedom (as far as I can see) and a great degree of personal autonomy. (And example of the last item: all communal meals are vegetarian, but some of the residents are not, and are free to go offsite or cook meat at home, and there seems to be no negativity associated with that choice.
Note that the residents do maintain private homes. I'm not sure what the ownership arrangement is exactly, though.

From what I have seen (three weeks total as a resident while taking classes) they do not practice a middle class lifestyle, but they definitely enjoy a middle class standard of living.

This community has been around for nearly two decades and appears to be stable and prosperous.

Now the key to all of this might be that they make a good deal of money by running classes and holding plant sales, which allows them to maintain a middle class standard of living. They are not by any means self-sufficient, nor do they attempt to be. (Although if the hammer comes down, I'll bet they will do pretty well for themselves.)

On the other hand, the Shakers and many others communities also practice this, selling furniture, farm goods, and crafts. So I don't see this making OAEC/SC unique in any way.

Probably the most unique thing about them are the people. I do not know all of the SC members, but the ones that I do know are some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, bar none. Maybe this is why they are able to keep the community going without a lot of arbitrary (but apparently important, per the historical record) rules. They are all very smart people who are deeply committed to their community and are willing to spend lots of time in meetings to make it all work.

I really don't know what their secret is. But in my mind they stand as a clear counterexample to the failure patterns you describe. Apparently it is possible to make this work without monasticism - though granted, it's may not be likely under most conditions.