Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Toward a Green Future, Part Two: The Age of Unreason

The biophobia discussed in last week’s post makes a useful example of the way that toxic ideas can have the same kind of impact on a society as toxic waste of a more material kind.  This shouldn’t be a new point to any regular reader of this blog; I’ve commented in these essays rather more than once that the crisis of our age is not just a function of depleted resources and the buildup of pollutants in the biosphere, important as these details are. To a far more important degree, it’s a matter of depleted imaginations and the buildup of dysfunctional ideas in the collective consciousness of our time.
Most of the rising spiral of problems we face as the industrial age approaches its end could have been prevented with a little foresight and forbearance, and even now—when most of the opportunities to avoid a really messy future have long since gone whistling down the wind—there’s still much that could be done to mitigate the worst consequences of the decline and fall of the industrial age and pass on the best achievements of the last few centuries to our descendants. Of the things that could be done to make the future less miserable than it will otherwise be, though, very few are actually being done, and those have received what effort they have only because scattered individuals and small groups out on the fringes of contemporary industrial society are putting their own time and resources into the task.

Meanwhile the billions of dollars, the vast public relations campaigns, and the lavishly supplied and funded institutional networks that could do these same things on a much larger scale are by and large devoted to projects that are simply going to make things worse. That’s the bitter irony of our age and, more broadly, of every civilization in its failing years. No society has to be dragged kicking and screaming down the slope of decline and fall; one and all, they take that slope at a run, yelling in triumph, utterly convinced that the road to imminent ruin will lead them to paradise on Earth.

That’s one of the ways that the universe likes to blindside believers in a purely materialist interpretation of history. Modern industrial society differs in a galaxy of ways from the societies that preceded it into history’s compost heap, and it’s easy enough—especially in a society obsessed with the belief in its superiority to every other civilization in history—to jump from the fact of those differences to the conviction that modern industrial society must have a unique fate: uniquely glorious, uniquely horrible, or some combination of the two, nobody seems to care much as long as it’s unique. Then the most modern industrial social and economic machinery gets put to work in the service of stupidities that were old before the pyramids were built, because human beings rather than machinery make the decisions, and the motives that drive human behavior don’t actually change that much from one millennium to the next.

What does change from millennium to millennium, and across much shorter eras as well, are the ideas and beliefs built atop the foundation provided by the motivations just mentioned. One of the historians whose work has been central to this blog’s project, Oswald Spengler, had much to say about the way that different high cultures came to understand the world in such dramatically different ways. He pointed out that the most basic conceptions about reality vary from one culture to another. Modern Western thinkers can’t even begin to understand the world, for example, without the conception of infinite empty space; to the thinkers of Greek and Roman times, by contrast, infinity and empty space were logical impossibilities, and the cosmos was—had to be—a single material mass.

Still, there’s another dimension to the way thoughts and beliefs change over time, and it takes place within the historical trajectory of what Spengler called a culture and his great rival Arnold Toynbee called a civilization.  This is the dimension that we recall, however dimly, when we speak of the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason. Since these same ages recur in the life of every high culture, we might more usefully speak of ages of faith and ages of reason in the plural; we might also want to discuss a third set of ages, to which I gave a suggestive name in a post a while back, that succeed ages of reason in much the same way that the latter supplant ages of faith.

Now of course the transition between ages of faith and ages of reason carries a heavy load of self-serving cant these days. The rhetoric of the civil religion of progress presupposes that every human being who lived before the scientific revolution was basically just plain stupid, since otherwise they would have gotten around to noticing centuries ago that modern atheism and scientific materialism are the only reasonable explanations of the cosmos. Thus a great deal of effort has been expended over the years on creative attempts to explain why nobody before 1650 or so realized that everything they believed about the cosmos was so obviously wrong.

A more useful perspective comes out of the work of Giambattista Vico, the modern Western world’s first great theorist of historical cycles. Vico’s 1744 opus Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations—for obvious reasons, the title normally gets cut down nowadays to The New Science—focuses on what he called “the course the nations run,” the trajectory that leads a new civilization up out of one dark age and eventually back down into the next. Vico wrote in an intellectual tradition that’s all but extinct these days, the tradition of Renaissance humanism, saturated in ancient Greek and Roman literature and wholly at ease in the nearly forgotten worlds of mythological and allegorical thinking.  Even at the time, his book was considered difficult by most readers, and it’s far more opaque today than it was then, but the core ideas Vico was trying to communicate are worth teasing out of his convoluted prose.

One useful way into those ideas is to start where Vico did, with the history of law. It’s a curious regularity in legal history that law codes start out in dark age settings as lists of specific punishments for specific crimes—“if a man steal a loaf of bread, let him be given twelve blows with a birch stick”—without a trace of legal theory or even generalization. Later, all the different kinds of stealing get lumped together as the crime of theft, and the punishment assigned to it usually comes to depend at least in part on the abstract value of what’s stolen. Eventually laws are ordered and systematized, a theory of law emerges, and great legal codes are issued providing broad general principles from which jurists extract rulings for specific cases. By that time, the civilization that created the legal code is usually stumbling toward its end, and its fall is the end of the road for its highly abstract legal system; when the rubble stops bouncing, the law codes of the first generation of successor states go right back to lists of specific punishments for specific crimes. As Vico pointed out, the oldest form of Roman law, the Twelve Tables, and the barbarian law codes that emerged after Rome’s fall were equally concrete and unsystematic, even though the legal system that rose and fell between them was one of history’s great examples of legal systematization and abstraction.

What caught Vico’s attention is that the same process appears in a galaxy of other human institutions and activities. Languages emerge in dark age conditions with vocabularies rich in concrete, sensuous words and very poor in abstractions, and and transform those concrete words into broader, more general terms over time—how many people remember that “understand” used to mean to stand under, in the sense of getting in underneath to see how something works? Political systems start with the intensely personal and concrete feudal bonds between liege lord and vassal, and then shift gradually toward ever more abstract and systematic notions of citizenship. Vico barely mentioned economics in his book, but it’s a prime example: look at the way that wealth in a dark age society means land, grain, and lumps of gold, which get replaced first by coinage, then by paper money, then by various kinds of paper that can be exchanged for paper money, and eventually by the electronic hallucinations that count as wealth today.

What’s behind these changes is a shift in the way that thinking is done, and it’s helpful in this regard to go a little deeper than Vico himself did, and remember that the word “thinking” can refer to at least three different kinds of mental activity. The first is so pervasive and so automatic that most people only notice it in unusual situations—when you wake up in the dark in an unfamiliar room, for example, and it takes several seconds for the vague looming shapes around you to turn into furniture. Your mind has to turn the input of your senses into a world of recognizable objects. It does this all the time, though you don’t usually notice the process; the world you experience around you is literally being assembled by your mind moment by moment.  We can borrow a term from Owen Barfield for the kind of thinking that does this, and call it figuration.

Figuration’s a more complex process than most people realize. If you look at the optical illusion shown below, you can watch that process at work: your mind tries to make sense of the shapes on the screen, and flops back and forth between the available options. If you look at an inkblot from the Rohrshach test and see two bats having a romantic interlude, that’s figuration, too, and it reveals one of the things that happens when figuration gets beyond the basics: it starts to tell stories. Listen to children who aren’t yet old enough to tackle logical reasoning, especially when they don’t know you’re listening, and you’ll often hear figuration in full roar: everything becomes part of a story, which may not make any sense at all from a logical perspective, but connects everything together in a single narrative that makes its own kind of sense of the world of experience.

It’s when children, or for that matter adults, start to compare figurations to each other that a second kind of thinking comes into play, which we can call abstraction. You have this figuration over here, which combines the sensations of brown, furry, movement, barking, and much more into a single object; you have that one over there, which includes most of the same sensations in a different place into a different object; from these figurations, you abstract the common features and give the sum of those features a name, “dog.” That’s abstraction. The child who calls every four-legged animal “goggie” has just started to grasp abstraction, and does it in the usual way, starting from the largest and broadest abstract categories and narrowing down from there. As she becomes more experienced at it, she’ll learn to relabel that abstraction “animal,” or even “quadruped,” while a cascade of nested categories allows her to grasp that Milo and Maru are both animals, but one is a dog and the other a cat.

Just as figuration allowed to run free starts to tell stories, abstraction allowed the same liberty starts to construct theories. A child who’s old enough to abstract but hasn’t yet passed to the third kind of thinking is a great example. Ask her to speculate about why something happens, and you’ll get a theory instead of a story—the difference is that, where a story simply flows from event to event, a theory tries to make sense of the things that happen by fitting them into abstract categories and making deductions on that basis. The categories may be inappropriately broad, narrow, or straight out of left field, and the deductions may be whimsical or just plain weird, but it’s from such tentative beginnings that logic and science gradually emerge in individuals and societies alike.

Figuration, then, assembles a world out of fragments of present and remembered sensation. Abstraction takes these figurations and sorts them into categories, then tries to relate the categories to one another. It’s when the life of abstraction becomes richly developed enough that there emerges a third kind of thinking, which we can call reflection. Reflection is thinking about thinking: stepping outside the world constructed by figuration to think about how figurations are created from raw sensation, stepping outside the cascading categories created by abstraction to think about where those categories came from and how well or poorly they fit the sensations and figurations they’re meant to categorize. Where figuration tells stories and abstraction creates theories, reflection can lead in several directions. Done capably, it yields wisdom; done clumsily, it plunges into self-referential tailchasing; pushed too far, it can all too easily end in madness.

Apply these three modes of thinking to the historical trajectory of any civilization and the parallels are hard to miss. Figuration dominates the centuries of a society’s emergence and early growth; language, law, and the other phenomena mentioned above focus on specific examples or, as we might as well say, specific figurations. The most common form of intellectual endeavor in such times is storytelling—it’s not an accident that the great epics of our species, and the vast majority of its mythologies, come out of the early stages of high cultures.  If the logical method of a previous civilization has been preserved, which has been true often enough in recent millennia, it exists in a social bubble, cultivated by a handful of intellectuals but basically irrelevant to the conduct of affairs. Religion dominates cultural life, and feudalism or some very close equivalent dominates the political sphere.

It’s usually around the time that feudalism is replaced by some other system of government that the age of faith gives way to the first stirrings of an age of reason or, in the terms used here, abstraction takes center stage away from figuration. At first, the new abstraction sets itself the problem of figuring out what religious myths really mean, but since those narratives don’t “mean” anything in an abstract sense—they’re ways of assembling experience into stories the mind can grasp, not theories based on internally consistent categorization and logic—the myths eventually get denounced as a pack of lies, and the focus shifts to creating rational theories about the universe. Epic poetry and mythology give way to literature, religion loses ground to secular scholarship such as classical philosophy or modern science, and written constitutions and law codes replace feudal custom.

Partisans of abstraction always like to portray these shifts as the triumph of reason over superstition, but there’s another side to the story. Every abstraction is a simplification of reality, and the further you go up the ladder of abstractions, the more certain it becomes that the resulting concepts will fail to match up to the complexities of actual existence. Nor is abstraction as immune as its practitioners like to think to the influences of half-remembered religious narratives or the subterranean pressures of ordinary self interest—it’s utterly standard, for example, for the professional thinkers of an age of reason to prove with exquisite logic that whatever pays their salaries is highly reasonable and whatever threatens their status is superstitious nonsense. The result is that what starts out proclaiming itself as an age of reason normally turns into an age of unreason, dominated by a set of closely argued, utterly consistent, universally accepted rational beliefs whose only flaw is that they fail to explain the most critical aspects of what’s happening out there in the real world.

In case you haven’t noticed, dear reader, that’s more or less where we are today. It’s not merely that the government of every major industrial nation is trying to achieve economic growth by following policies that are supposed to bring growth in theory, but have never once done so in practice; it’s not merely that the populace of every major industrial society eagerly forgets all the lessons of each speculative bubble and bust as soon as the next one comes along, and makes all the same mistakes with the same dismal results as the previous time; it’s not even that allegedly sane and sensible people have somehow managed to convince themselves that limitless supplies of fossil fuels can somehow be extracted at ever-increasing rates from the insides of a finite planet:  it’s that only a handful of people out on the furthest fringes of contemporary culture ever notice that there’s anything at all odd about these stunningly self-defeating patterns of behavior.

It’s at this stage of history that reflection becomes necessary.  It’s only by thinking about thinking, by learning to pay attention to the way we transform the raw data of the senses into figurations and abstractions, that it becomes possible to notice what’s being excluded from awareness in the course of turning sensation into figurations and sorting out figurations into cascading levels of abstraction. Yes, that’s part of the project of this blog—to reflect on how we as a society got in the habit of thinking the things we think, and how well or poorly that thinking relates to the world we’re actually encountering.

It’s at this same stage of history, though, that reflection also becomes a lethal liability, because wisdom is not the only possible outcome of reflection. Vico points out that there’s a barbarism of reflection that comes at the end of a civilization’s life cycle, parallel to the barbarism of sensation that comes at the beginning—and also ancestral to it. Reflection is a solvent; skillfully handled, it dissolves abstractions and figurations that obscure more than they reveal, so that less counterproductive ways of assembling raw sensation into meaningful patterns can be pursued; run riot, it makes every abstraction and every figuration as arbitrary and meaningless as any other, until the collective conversation about what’s real and what matters dissolves in a cacophony of voices speaking past one another.

The barbarism of reflection is already well established in contemporary industrial culture, and the usual consequences are showing up on schedule. It’s in this context that religions play the most critical of their historical roles. How that might play out in the near future will be the theme of next week’s post.


AlanfromBigEasy said...

An insightful analysis ;-)

I shall have to read more of your blog; something I have unfortunately overlooked.

Thijs Goverde said...

... of course, what this man calls wisdom, that man may call self-referential tail-chasing, and what that man calls self-referential tail-chasing, this one calls madness.

Aye, there's the rub!

John Michael Greer said...

Alan, thank you. I talk about trains now and again, too. ;-)

Thijs, I'll have more to say about the distinction between those three categories as we proceed. The short form is that you can usually tell them apart by watching the consequences when they're applied to the world of ordinary experience.

Tom Bannister said...

Particularly good point made there on the development of law. At the moment for example I am doing a paper in the law of mediation. Basically, as with a lot of alternative dispute resolution gaining ground in the western world (mediation, arbitration, negotiation etc), the aim is to bring law back to what actually happens instead of assigning theoretical legal rights at all costs, finding these solutions to be often inappropriate to the reality on the ground, but then instead of accepting this reality harping on about the importance of rule of law as a guard against tyranny blah blah blah etc etc etc (although in my course materials is an article titled 'Mediation Dangerously: What's better than rule of law'...)

I am thinking of bringing up the example of in the late roman empire in one of my lectures about the landed peasantry in the late roman empire being desperate enough to surrender their property rights to local wealthy landowners to avoid taxation/ repressive govt policy. But as you have said, reflection at this stage in a civilization can be lethal. Anyway, thanks for the post!

P.S: Thanks for bringing Oswald Spengler to my awareness. Just finished reading Decline of the West. Amazing book!

buho62 said...

"Run riot, it makes every abstraction and every figuration as arbitrary and meaningless as any other..."

I'm beginning to understand why 'postmodernism' has taken over academic thought. Great post!

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, citing the late Roman Empire is a perfectly good act of abstraction -- "these two things belong in the same category." I'd do it. Glad to hear you found Spengler worth reading!

Buho, excellent. Getting the point gets you tonight's gold star.

Joel Caris said...

Excellent, JMG. This one is going to need some reflection--it definitely feels like one of your essays that may really impact the way I understand the world.

I'm curious, in the context of what you're writing here, do you consider something like Thomas Berry's quest to create a new story for our culture as quixotic? Could such a thing truly take hold during an age of abstraction, or are the stories more or less set in stone until that civilization falls?

Ares Olympus said...

A worthy exploration on 3 levels of thinking - figuration, abstraction, and reflection. Figuration reminds me of the idea experts say to quickly remember set of things - build a story around them, as fantastical as you like, and you'll remember it better.

I'm very interested in how an age of reason turns into unreason, and my own answer first answer is complexity and specialization. The best advice you can hear from an expert is "I don't know" because you have to instantly acknowledge that if the experts don't know, you'd better keep your mind open. But experts don't get paid for not knowing.

I'm trying to remember where I read it, but maybe you John, who commented about the New age belief "We create our own reality" comes from an older ideal "What if we created our own reality?" where "what if" was forgotten. Not to say new-age ideals are univerally valued, for the moment by fossil fuels, the materialistic equivalent is almost true for a time. So its as simple as power corrupts, and one step forward (new iPhone!) can be cherry-picked over 3 steps back you don't face (like unaffordable college, health care, and morgage payments).

Last worthy supporting argument, Iain McGilchrist's divided brain helps clarify some ideas of two ways to see the world, and our abstraction is powerful, but if our reflection never goes back to the real world for data, that would seem to explain how reason becomes unreason.

So perhaps the moral of the story is "figuration" is a way back to reality, because it is a way of seeing and remembering the real world around us as it is?

Another inspiring writer I know is Starhawk, and recall one of her poems about fear and power. Maybe higher thinking - abstraction and reflection perhaps won't get us where we need to go, since they'll always keep us at what we think we already know. So next week back to religion, if we can find the door?


Where there's fear there is power

Passion is the healer, desire cracks open the gate

If you're ready it'll take you through

But nothing lasts forever
Time is the renewer
The wheel turns again and again
Watch out, it'll take you through

But nothing dies forever
Nature is the renewer
The wheel turns again and again
If you're ready it'll take you through

Roger Matthew said...


So how far along do you think we are in the transition from abstraction to cacophonous reflection? Despite the persistence of the narrative of progress, the self confidence of a generation ago seems greatly diminished. It seems to me that the confidence of 1960, say, in the ability of economics/social engineering/psychology/technology/etc to build New Jerusalem is largely gone. My dad can recall a time when people saw man's future in the infinity of the stars. Who believes this sort of thing now? With modernity looking so yesterday, can we say that we've finally passed into a new season?

Also, is there a forum for your readers to ask particular questions that might not be directly related to a given blog post?

Ray Wharton said...

What a useful triad of concepts! Having been a philosophy student back in my school days I have certainly had many a chance to observe some of the consequences of reflection, in myself, in the writings of many philosophers, and in the reactions of my colleagues to various systems of abstraction.

I very much look forward to more about the consequences of reflection. In terms of wisdom, one form of it I think I know how to identify on sight is the knowledge of the limits of ones rational tool kit. Understanding that any system of rationalism is going to have blind spots, that some of those blind spots are hidden, and that there are ways to live which avoid the some of the most problematic groups of blind spots. Also knowing how to get out of a tailspin, which in my case involves a moment of frustration, followed by thinking about which compost pile is in most need of turning, then biking to the property where the pile lives and giving it some tender love and care, or if the weather is not permitting making tea. As for madness I have seen that too, though I am content to still be mostly mystified by it, gaze not into the abyss and all that. One rarely develops a taste for reflection until abstraction has become a fairly central mental activity, and at that point the danger of a reflection breaking a whole assemblage which has become important to functioning is all to easy.

I have defiantly seen alot of tail chasing, and spend a good bit of time making myself dizzy with the act. Those who go into the full on tailspin of madness, are quite frightening, and I understand deeply that it can lead to quite a serious case of barbarism. That potential for barbarism I see as recognized clearly by many people with comparatively little taste for rationalism or reflection, I even suspect it is a factor in some flavors of anti-intellectualism. Intellectuals sometimes get very very weird, and given access to enough power, which a skilled intellectual can often lay hands on, some can do fairly monstrous things. Nihilism and its various symptoms are one possible route, most the other routes I have seen are hard to really talk about in polite company, but it can lead to some decidedly scary behavior. If abstraction can logically argue for whatever it is trained to argue for, reflection can lead to... well, all what comes to mind is how many people I have seen broken by Lacan and a few others of sister traditions.

As for wisdom... I think that humility is an important stance to take when engaging in reflection, it seems to offer some protection from madness and even some kinds of tail-chasing. Recently I was considering how for some types of thinking arrogance really seems to work, I was admiring that kind of arrogance which is found in Gilgamesh, Beowolf, and many good rap musicians, especially those musicians who have had serious encounters involving gunfire. Well, this line of thought is still fuzzy, but I am fairly sure that that 'beautiful arrogance' is potentially very hazardous if one is engaging in reflection. Also, it seems like wisdom is fostered if the reflection is not in too clean a mirror, but one where the act of reflection itself stays grounded in the world as we have to live in it and deal with day to day problems. Don't protect intellectuals from the more mundane problems of normal human life.

Hmmm... a very provocative post, thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, I think Berry's a bit ahead of his time, but that's not necessarily a problem -- now's the seedtime when the new stories will find their proper soil and begin to sprout. The reason I suspect his efforts won't bear fruit, to continue the vegetative metaphor, is that he's not going deep enough -- it's not just the story that has to change, it's the whole pattern of figurations and abstractions, and that takes...well, we'll talk about that shortly.

Ares, complexity and specialization are part of it, but the historical process of abstraction itself has unreason built into it. An abstraction is a mental model derived from figurations, and that's all it is, but believers in abstraction inevitably convince themselves that their abstractions are the true world, of which the world of appearances is merely a shadow or a reflection. To the devout believer in science, scientific laws are reality, and the world we actually experience is a muddy and confused expression of those laws. The consequence is that they blind themselves to the inevitable holes and gaps in what are, after all, merely tentative mental models of the cosmos, and end up running themselves into unreason, convinced that they know the truth even when the universe refuses to play along.

Roger, we're in the middle of the transition. It's not an overnight thing, or something that affects everybody at once; there are still plenty of people who do believe in the Star Trek future -- I field anguished diatribes from them regularly -- and people who are already well into the barbarism of reflection. As for offlist discussions, post a comment here marked NOT FOR POSTING with your email address and what you'd like to talk about, and we can likely arrange something.

Bruin Silverbear said...

It's posts like this that get my head spinning, though not in a negative "How could he do that to me way". More like a "Dammitall! I'm suffering a bit of Cognitive Dissonance here!" kind of way. What you say makes perfect sense and history clearly bares that out as well. It difficult though to imagine so many people being stuck in such a cycle but explained in this manner it is hard to deny it. I won't simply give up but there are times (and this is one of them) when I think to myself that I should have been more on board with these ideas in my 20's because it's easier to pretend that my impact would have been that much greater than stumbling on it in my 30's. Thank you as always Mr. Greer for your wisdom. I look forward to each week's post.

Leo said...

barbarism of reflection sounds similar to the only coherent explanation of post-modernism

Krampus submission

Justin Wade said...

You may want to check out the work of Roger Sperry, et al into split hemisphere brain function. Interesting correlations.

In studies of people missing one or the other hemisphere from stroke/seizure/disease/etc.

The left hemisphere understands the world almost wholly through abstraction. Without the right hemisphere, the mind loses almost all ability to attach visual/aural context to abstract information. They may get lost in the same building every day, cannot distinguish between male and female voices or detect sarcasm, etc.

The right hemisphere understands through sensory experience. Without the left hemisphere, the mind loses much of its ability to describe the world in rich, abstract detail and differentiation. They may not be able to count high, vocabulary is limited, etc.

The abstract late period culture is more left brained, the direct experience early period is more right brained.

Derv said...

As a staunch Scholastic Thomist, I take issue with the idea that religion cannot be logically internally consistent (and this doesn't only apply to Thomism, of course), but you very well could argue that that's a consequence of your simplified abstraction. :) Very interesting, and I always enjoy seeing how the development of humanity en masse often parallels our development individually. The perception of our cultures or species as an organism always seems to provide insights.

I have a somewhat related question of a very dark bent, if you don't mind. Religious Christians are now and always have been under threat by the false dichotomy you often put forward, that of utopia or apocalypse. Obviously any traditional Christian believes that apocalypse of some sort will come, and in death or resurrection some utopia, and many groups have fallen into the fallacy of thinking they're special. Catholics have usually (not always) avoided this tendency, but Protestants and their offshoots have struggled more with it, from the Great Disappointment to Harold Camping. I do not believe in an imminent apocalypse, but I entertain (for religious reasons) the very real possibility that it could come in my lifetime, though there'd have to be decades of precursors by my measure.

But I've noticed something in myself, something which I've seen in others both Christian and non-Christian alike. Some part of me WANTS to see the world burn. Surely it must be universal at least subconsciously else the myth of apocalypse would hold little appeal, but I find myself nearly rooting for it at times. If I had to chalk it up to anything, I'd have to say it comes from my disgust with the choices our society makes today. I am greatly bothered by all the signs of decline - hypersexuality, massive waste, assumed immortality, endemic corruption and apathy, growing wealth disparity, etc. - and I really feel at times like it'd be better for it to all fall down. Perhaps I'm just tired of waiting and don't want a slow decline; a few years of Mad Max and a reboot is a small price to pay to avoid centuries of decline. I'm also a Millennial, if that makes a difference to you.

Would you agree that this feeling is common? Do you feel it? What causes it? Is it specific to the fringe groups who reflect on society's excesses, or those who don't personally benefit from those excesses? Is there a whole sea of millions out there just waiting with bated breath to watch it all burn down? Naturally, in my mind, the apocalypse leaves me alive (funny that), so is it simple wish fulfillment?

I know you've touched upon it before, and maybe I've missed an earlier post on it, but I'd love to hear you really dive in to the apocalypse mentality. The utopian view's appeal is abundantly obvious. Perhaps apocalypse is the cynical view that there's no other path to utopia, which would at least make it one more step to a more balanced worldview.

I apologize for being long-winded yet again. I have a bad habit of ranting.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

It is a fascinating piece of work!
I shall risk a naive question.

Does the historical evolution of magic follow the more or less similar trajectory of figuration, abstraction and reflection as other human institutions and activities in accordance to what Vico described or is it an activity that attempts to step outside this mechanism?

Jason Heppenstall said...

Reflection is anathema to industrial society. I've spent a fair bit of time recently creeping around in the woods trying to catch some of the small furry critters that ate most of my chestnuts. It takes a lot of patience and sitting around, and when still, you get to see the skittish songbirds and other shy woodland fauna appear. Once attuned to the setting, listening to the wind in the trees and the rustle of dry twigs in the undergrowth, it seems an absurd thought to imagine all the other people charging around in modern life without so much as a thought about the natural world they inhabit.

Staring into a fire induces a similar state of reflection. How much of modern TV watching culture derives from this basic practice? Of course, the flames of a fire tend not to try and sell you new cars and hair dye, or subliminally convince you that you are too fat.

My school report circa 1982 said "Jason enjoys staring into space and has trouble paying attention to the curriculum." In my defence, I was in a trance state for many of my school years, which might explain my poor academic results. Many years later and I can see on Facebook and the like that most of my schoolmates have successful careers in areas such as IT, finance and law - and that I have ended up growing a beard, writing a little-read blog and creeping around woods looking for squirrels to barbecue.

I read recently on a druid blog that following the path of wisdom is like walking a tightrope over a sea of insanity. Fall one way and over-reflection will devour your mind. Fall the other - into 'normal' modern consumer-driven society - and you'll be immersed by another type of insanity, albeit a more respectable one. It takes balance not to fall.

Perhaps that's why tribal peoples - the ones who are more or less left to themselves - don't suffer from all the mental ills that this age of reason has foisted upon us. And that when their lands are appropriated from them by diamond/oil/tourism concerns many choose suicide as a preferable alternative to entering our modern society.

morenewyorknews said...

Although i am not a lawyer,i had enough brush with courts,judges,clerks,judiciary officers and lawyers.The less i say about process of creation and implementation of laws ,the better it is.I could write whole book and still it won't be enough.
Today,India have world's largest written constitution with some 97 amendments.Millions of cases are printed in All India Review every year.Our law system is solely based on English law,with Mughal,Soviet and American laws added over top of it.But it hasn't made India a developed ,rich,equal nation in last 150 yrs.
I can only say is govt uses incomprehensible/biased laws to fleece more money from gullible people.These laws give more teeth to bureaucrats and they can become rich.Less i say is better.
Justice is something you never seek in court.If you are receiving end,just drink your misfortune and live happily.

KL Cooke said...

"Meanwhile the billions of dollars, the vast public relations campaigns, and the lavishly supplied and funded institutional networks that could do these same things on a much larger scale are by and large devoted to projects that are simply going to make things worse."

Here's a textbook example:

Regarding Spengler, I'm still plodding though--nearly to the halfway point. What makes the going slow, apart from his ponderous style and tendency to repeat himself, is the enormous number of reference I have to look up to understand what he's talking about. Fortunately the Internet makes that easy to do, stopping in mid-text. How people read Spengler before the Internet is beyond me. Clearly he was writing for readers smarter and better educated than me.

Compound F said...

Hmm. Your essay reminds me of this poem by Seamus Heaney written on the eve of the Iraq invasion.


First he was shivering on the shore in skins
Or hunkering behind shell-middens in a cave.
Then he took up oars, put tackle on a mast,
And steered himself by the stars through gales.

Once upon a time from the womb of earth
The gods were born and he bowed down
To worship them. Then he walked tall
From temple to agora, talking against himself.

The wind is no more swift or mysterious
Than his mind and words; he has mastered thinking,
Roofed his house against hail and rain,
And worked out laws for living together.

Homemaker, thought-taker, measure of all things,
He survives every danger except death
And will yield to nothing else. Nothing
Else, good or evil, is beyond him.

When truth is the treadle of his loom
And justice the shuttle, all due honor
Will come his way. But let him once
Overbear or overstep

What the city allows, treat law
As something he can decide for himself -
Then let this marvel of the world remember:
When he comes begging we will turn our backs.

--Seamus Heaney

ksmithcamp said...

If you still believe (as in the cited 2009 post) that “nothing even approximating a new idea has entered the Western world's … discourse” in the last half century or more, I would like to point you to a set of ideas that is finally making it to the level of “reflection”, after passing through many years of incomprehensible (to non mathematicians and non scientists) figuration and abstraction. There's still not a settled vocabulary for these ideas, but I will use “complexity theory” for now. Skipping to the recent development of reflection in this area, I would love to hear what you think about two brilliant and readable works published in 2012. One is Addy Pross's “What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology”, whose title pretty much says it all. The second is “Money and Sustainability: The Missing Link”, by Bernard Litaer and others, which uses the same principles to suggest how we might design a better financial system than the predatory one we are stuck with at the moment. Economists are beginning to sit up and take notice; witness an article in the forthcoming issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, already available at

Of course, whether any of this will make any difference to our civilization in which “the barbarism of reflection is already well established” is another question altogether.

Freebooter said...

Arrgh - first thought on finishing the blog-O-the-week.... postmodernism, but to late to get the gold star. Excellent work JMG, your reflections on our present time are invaluable to us trying to pierce the veil to see what may come and how to tell new stories with old roots about it.

Bill Pulliam said...

postmodernism, reflection, hmm...

For the longest time, I was very confused about postmodernism. Everyone I heard babble on about it just seemed to be spouting off jargon. I never could get the point; it all seemed trivial. Then, back in the Live Journal days, one of the postmodern pontificators posted a link to one of those internet quizzes, "How postmodern are you?" He was bragging about his score, something like 95%. Just for fun I checked it out. And I score something like 99% postmodern.

Apparently the reason I never "got it" was that I was the proverbial fish who has no concept of water. Well, of course everything is subjective, relative, and embedded with a context specific to a particular time and place! Duh! That's all there is to it? Evidently, yes. I just always kinda took this as a given, and moved right on to the fun stuff.

But I find that much of what appears to be overtly "postmodern" now just annoys or bores me. Yeah, sure, narrative is just one particular concept and we are free to explore, twist, or even abandon it. Blah blah blah. Now can't you just tell me a good story? Do you have to end your film by just cutting to black at some random moment? Do you have to be self-referential about your self-referentialism? Yawn... Reflection run amok also makes things tedious and dull!

Maybe it is just that I have a strong 12th House in my birthchart...

peacegarden said...

Awesome, as usual, sir! I knew we were heading here, but didn’t have the useful vocabulary provided by this essay. You are an able cartographer of our times; placing them in a context that is far from obvious (at least to me). Thank you for that.

So much of what we see is quite “logical” in the proper framework…not at all the “craziness” I tend to assign it. I think I can run with it; stop wasting precious time “pushing against” the craziness, more time pursuing what is doable now to preserve what can be preserved in a state of grace.

Green blessings upon us all.


Vesta said...

Thanks for another extraordinary post.

I now can't help but see the figuration -> abstraction -> reflection pattern everywhere. You discuss the bounds (development of the individual, and societies), and the law example is a striking intermediate.

How about in biological sciences (my training), from: natural history -> categorization/classification/organismal -> game theory/whole systems ecology?

Or in contruction (my trade), from: tradecraft -> engineering -> architecture?

Doc said...

As one who does much thinking about thinking, thank you for manifesting the interesting perspective that i believe we share. I have been working on the weigh as a new path and attempting to delve deeper into the abstraction we call science. What is modern organic molecular theory now has advanced to the stage of a new york times crossword puzzle - while difficult, the answers of how to recreate natural products in the lab are there. What is not there is the wisdom to take the whole as something different than the sum of the parts.

Interesting enough - i believe that mathematics today traps us in an illusion, by removing nature's wiggle room and insisting that everything be quantitatively equal. This more bigger, better, best philosophy is what supersized the diabetes epidemic. The culture of eating clean food, drinking clean water and honoring the natural system seems to be very druidish - the timing of these posts has been very conducive to keeping one weigh sayer on the straight and narrow path, so to speak. That nature follows the golden mean spiral was known once before; some interesting non-math with numbers seems to be coming down the pike.

I wonder if this revelation that we share has to do with observing Ashlandia first hand - since the tv show Portlandia only shows one side of true Oregano flavor. The outer edge of spiritual ego serves as a border than differentiates one myth from the others. Perhaps what is myth to one person can be real to another - simultaneous civilizations may lead to many new forms of viable social interaction.

Andy Brown said...

I came of age intellectually through post-modernism, which Buho notes is the domesticated term for much of what you are talking about. It's telling that it was most commonly referred to as "the post-modern critique", since no one was able to really build much constructive out of it. Just as poets love the arbitrary limitations and traditions of the sonnet or the ghazal, thinkers demonstrate their skill and artistry within the arbitrary traditions of their disciplines. The post-modern critique showed that the practices and texts of anthropology or economics were as arbitrary as the poetic forms. Most people shrugged and went about their poetry, anthropology, economics and so on. Many honest and courageous thinkers tried to "think" their way "forward" - but if they are doing it, they are not doing it in the disciplines in which they started. In the cacophony of neo-paganism and witchcraft, I know there are intellectuals sifting wisdom from the wreckage. In the commentariot here as well. One of my hopes for green wizardry is for handling a kind of wisdom from what we've done and what we've thought.

Wander said...

The talk of abstraction reminds me of Joel Spolsky talking about abstractions in writing computer code. He talks about how abstractions used get leaky, meaning that the underlying complexity is never fully abstracted away or in his own words "All non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky."

Here is the article:

I think that the world is always more complex than people try to pretend it is.

Master Oogway said...

A key element that I believe you are missing John it the role written languages plays in how abstraction takes hold and becomes a "thing". Once we write down our abstract thoughts we loose site that they are fluid ideas, changing from moment to moment based on our reactions to continuous streams of input from our surrounding. Our abstractions become inflexible facts when we write them down.

Tracy G said...

This is funny. Just last week, I was describing that exact process—figuration, abstraction, reflection—in an essay which has been occupying a great deal of my attention lately. ;-) In my own writing, I was specifically discussing the development of constellations and their accompanying starlore as the bridge which the mind crosses to travel from the disorientation that's experienced when confronted with dizzying multitudes of stars, to the point where it is able to make models of key aspects of the Universe's underlying order, as expressed by such phenomena as the rotating views of the heavens which reliably accompany the passage of each season. And then begins the process of grappling with what we know and do not know about that, and what it might mean to be a human being living within that system, to be an almost vanishingly small yet inextricable part of that, and to be in conscious relationship with it.

I wasn't using those specific terms, though, and the manner in which you've defined them is most helpful for bringing my thoughts into sharper focus. I will go back and add at least a sentence or two about figuration, abstraction, and reflection. Thank you!

And of course, your main points about the way this works in the historical trajectory of civilizations are also well-taken. I always enjoy your writing, and this latest series on religion is as incisive as ever.

onething said...

**I can only repeat that I see the crisis of civilization as a crisis in leadership. Perhaps people ought not to need leaders, but they seem to.

Human beings live closer to the dream world than they like to think, and thus are quite vulnerable to seeing reality as given to them by their leaders. You can fault them for it and I do, but I see a difference in motivations between the ruling class and the plebeians which seems to be in operation right now. Hubris and privilege do not like to admit they have lost the way or make changes that would bite at the edges of their cookie.

**I'm going to hold in mind what you say about early myths being just stories, as I've recently been listening to the lectures of Bill Donohue on youtube, in which he makes quite a good case that much of the Hebrew scriptures were nonliteral stories embedding esoteric meanings, including the use of numbers and the numbers of names to indicate to the learned what the real discussion was about.

**Also, can't help but notice that the paragraph which begins "Partisans of abstraction" is a perfect rendition of the situation regarding Darwinian evolutionary explanation attempts, versus Intelligent Design, which is more practical and more interested in data than stories, especially that last sentence "The result is that.."
Couldn't have said it better. Intelligent Design is not anti-evolution by the way, it simply thinks a materialist explanation is inadequate.

**I find it interesting the way different people will respond to a particular post by saying this or that one is the best. I don't know if this is the best one, but it is surely one of the most important you have ever written. It's where the rubber meets the road for a real human being; it is pure Buddhism. A fearless and searching analysis of what is ultimately emotionally held deep dreams.

L. Tolar said...


"Reflection run riot" is such an apt description of post-modernist theory! (Was that your intent?)

I'm writing though to encourage you to read, if you already haven't, the late Father Walter Ong's imortant work, _Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word_ (1982) (now available for free as a PDF, per the link below). I think some of what you ascribe to homo sapiens sapiens' childhood development-as-usual is "normal" only in the sense that it occurs in a culture that has interiorized the technology of literacy.

The change in human consciousness that occurs when we personally and culturally have the capacity to externalize memory is so pervasive that we usually don't recognize it. Primary oral cultures organize "thought" around techniques that preserve memory and embed them in the present (a lot more narrative, poetry, etc.), much more than literate cultures, in which the exteriorization of thought enables one to organize it more abstractly and hierarchically and come to believe that it somehow exists apart from the humans in which it has arisen. I think the classicist Havelock even speculated at one point that a lot what was driving Plato to argue for ideal forms was his personal experience of living in a primarily oral culture that was transitioning into alphabetic literacy.

So, I'm paraphrasing Ong's work badly, but I think his insights (and the scholarly tradition that followed them) would resonate with you. If one is going to compare civilizations across time and space, I think it is critical to simultaneously account for how media ecologies affect (bring into being) human consciousness. I'm sure if anyone can integrate the powerful historical implications of media ecologies into better addressing our current predicament, it's you.

Love the blog and your books--have been following them since 2006.

Isaac Hill said...

Howdie, I've been reading your blog for a while, but haven't commented. I found this essay particularly useful, using the abstract thought process to categorize thought, and thus reflect is rather interesting. It's definitely allowing me to see a few things more clearly. I studied postmodernism in college (I was a poetry major) and always found something not quite right with it, especially when I started doing permaculture after I graduated and gained a closer connection to the earth. I am very much looking forward to the deepening of this subject in future reports!

redoak said...


To what extent do you agree with Nietzsche’s concerns that the western philosophical tradition follows this trajectory you outline and has arrived at a state of mal-adaptive reflection (ie nihilism)? Just wondering if you find this convincing or just another way of advancing the “uniqueness” argument.

Dale NorthwestExpeditions said...


I always enjoy your weekly posts. But, looking down at my two faithful dogs lying by my chair, I think it is time for a walk in the woods.

I think we think too much at times. I enjoy the feel of a cool breeze on my face, the trees lining my path, and the knowledge that I can have a warm fire and hot cocoa when I get home.

I admire your incredible intellectual skills, and am perhaps envious of your powers of deduction, but what do you see as the final goal of all this? I am not being mocking or reproachful, just wondering how much change can be accomplished by it all?

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

Dear god, I am absolutely horrified by the amount of delusional madness(religion of progress) I am picking up in everyday life. It is getting downright disturbing!

Today we talked about Carbon Taxes in my Environmental class and no one could explain to me how it actually works or keeps fossil fuels in the ground. They kept repeating the mantra of "It will make renewable cheaper." As if some mass veil were pulled over their eyes to the fact renewable will be taxed too. Duh, they use carbon as well. It is maniacally frustrating to see this mass dislogic. It really doesn't surprise me that Jim Jones was able to get hundreds of ordinary people to drink cyanide. But, were different than those people right? Not as ignorant, more clever and nothing like that could happen to us right? It really isn't different at all. I am expecting to wake up any day in the middle of the Via Appia illuminated on each side by only torches, only to see some centurions and a poor beggar walk by and realize, time never changed.

The lack of reflection upon our own preconceived notions is incredible in this age of unreason. We say we worship science but in practice reject it completely. Is this the sort of thing that drove Nietzsche mad? I am starting to think so.

Seaweed Shark said...

Thanks for this insightful essay.
Another quip from Will Durant comes to mind: "The older the civilization, the longer the lawsuits." -- Caesar and Christ, p. 401.

John Michael Greer said...

Ray, arrogance is an advantage when the challenges you face come from the world around you, because it keeps you from crumpling in the face of sustained hostility. It becomes lethally maladaptive when the challenges you face come from your own mistaken ideas and agendas. Glad you found the post thought-provoking!

Bruin, 'tis an ill wind that blows no minds, as we used to say back in the day.

Leo, got the submission -- many thanks. As for postmodernism, well, yes. More on that as we proceed.

Justin, hmm. That sort of explanation was very popular back in the 1970s, too, before further studies found that it was an extreme oversimplification of a complex reality. Still, I'll look at Sperry's work as time permits.

Derv, religion belongs to the realm of figuration, theology (Thomistic or otherwise) to the realm of abstraction. Theology can certainly be internally consistent -- in fact, if it isn't, it's falling down on the job -- but does it embrace all the richness, variation, and paradox of religious experience as it takes place in the lives and souls of millions of believers? There I'd disagree.

As for the craving for mass slaughter, that's the ugly secret at the core of the whole apocalyptic scene. Daydreams of seven billion heaped corpses or the like are one of the few ways that a great many people nowadays can give vent to the rage and bloodlust that's hardwired into the lower end of the human psyche, and heavily stimulated by the stresses of contemporary life. I should probably do a post about that one of these days.

Karim, that's not a naive question at all, as I'm sure you're aware! Yes, magical systems tend to go through that same trajectory, from nearly random grab-bags of folk practices that work, through systematization and the rise of theory, to the confrontation with reflection that either shatters them or transfigures them into vehicles for spiritual experience.

Jason, excellent. The practice of sitting quietly in a natural environment has much to recommend it, over and above any taste you may have for roast squirrel.

News, that's a very common situation when abstraction has just about run its course in a legal system. The question becomes simply what shock will bring the whole thing crashing down, to be replaced by some simple code based on individual cases.

KL, thanks for the link -- that's a classic. As for Spengler, remember that he spent his career as a high school teacher; your ordinary graduate of a German secondary school in his day, or the equivalents in most other countries at the time, could follow what he was saying with only the occasional reference to a good encyclopedia. That's a helpful measure of just how far education has decayed in the last century.

Compound F, anything that reminds anyone to read a Seamus Heaney poem is a good thing!

Ksmith, I'm curious as to why you felt it necessary to trim the word "political" out of the comment of mine you quoted, thus rather significantly changing the sense of what I said. Of course there have been new ideas since the Second World War; how many of them, complexity theory included, have shown any sign of becoming part of the political discourse of our time -- outside, that is, of articles in specialist publications that have no influence whatever on the conduct of affairs?

John Michael Greer said...

Freebooter, thank you.

Bill, excellent. It's exactly the inability to stop talking about the nature of narrative, and buckle down to storytelling, that generates the self-referential tailchasing I mentioned.

Peacegarden, thank you.

Vesta, exactly! Furthermore, I'm sure you can think of examples of self-referential tailchasing in architecture these days...

Doc, that gets you today's gold star. Mathematics is a system of abstractions, based on the fundamental abstraction of quantity -- in the real world, after all, one apple plus one apple can equal one apple, if the first two are small and the third is big and juicy. As with all abstract systems, a lot of detail gets lost, and that detail can be crucial in the real world.

Andy, thanks for putting the word "forward" in quotes. There is no "forward" in the arts or the humanities, but it'll take the demise of the myth of progress before people begin to grasp that!

Wander, fascinating! Thanks for the link; as a fairly dedicated non-geek, I don't get a lot of exposure to what's being thought in the geekosphere, and some of it -- as in this case -- deserves close reading.

Master O., I'd say rather that written language is one example of a broader process.

Tracy, glad to be of help. If you have any use for the sources, the ideas I've presented here are based on an odd sort of fusion between Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances and Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with a bit of Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge thrown in for seasoning.

Onething, fascinating to hear that Donohue is saying something that people in the magical scene have known for centuries. If you have the time and interest, you might have a look at David Fideler's book Jesus Christ Sun of God -- the spelling is deliberate -- which discusses some of the numerical and geometrical symbolism of the New Testament.

L. Tolar, thanks for the recommendation; I'll check it out.

Isaac, glad to be of help!

Redoak, I think Nietzsche was quite correct, and would point out that every philosophical tradition in every culture runs into this same problem sooner or later.

Dale, by all means take the walk, but remember that we can't solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used to create them. That's the point to exercises in understanding how our thinking got screwed up, and how that might be fixed.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

Not for posting - unless you chose to do so.

I know that I am known for trains, but that is just the practical application of my analysis. My goal is to grab a 2% or 3% chance to alter the course of the future by just enough to make a difference - to make a bad situation just slightly better.

I generally keep my deeper levels of analysis to myself.

There is little certainty in my analysis it is more about trends and probabilities. And trying to discern our collective errors (modern economics springs to mind - roughly true within certain subsets - but quite wrong beyond those boundaries).

You appear to be doing much the same thing, but from a quite different perspective.

Another tool of mine is optimism. Even when the accepted reality does not justify it, that emotion is both useful and attractive to others. I see it as a force multiplier, to use a military term.

Best Hopes,


Unknown said...

Jay here, with one way to think of how humans work. Over the course of our evolution, memory has been thoroughly tested over hundreds of millions of years. Almost all of us use memory constantly and effortlessly; it's our go-to mental method. Reason, on the other hand, may only be several thousand years old. Most people use it slowly and uncertainly; I recall reading that a surprising fraction of functioning adults cannot think abstractly at all.

The practical upshot is that people usually use memory, not reason, to govern their lives, because they correctly understand memory to be more reliable under ordinary circumstances. Here I'm including everyone, although individuals differ at the margins.

Phil Harris said...

Nice one JMG.
And for Alan, occasionally we get bicycles and more frequently compost heaps. There are a lot of wheels and the conviviality that can help drive them!

I endorse Tom Bannister: tribunals, family courts, small claims, appeals procedures, can use the touch stone of 'reasonableness' to resolve disputes and protect individuals and weaker groups. (They have some fearsome sanctions for some transgression but essentially Sharia Law is meant to perform the same function?)

It would be nice to make ethics more essential for the business culture - 'spirit of the law' and all that.

Phil H
PS I have had many a minor discussion with people who think the world is a matter of opinion and that the split between subjectivity and objectivity is the necessary basis for understanding reality. Curiously it was the more literary educated arts types who thought that matters of value like beauty or even decency (goodness?) or quality must be entirely subjective (relative?) phenomena. Try that with ‘danger’ or even ‘nutrition’?

Doug Darrah said...

Good stuff as usual. And, incredibly hopeful and uplifting, too.

I still think it's a numbers game, and there's far too few even considering the lines of thought you describe (let alone grokking the implications of them), but I walk away from this post with a feeling that humanity doesn't ABSOLUTELY suck: there's a glimmer of possibility in our species if we can collectively internalize and move forward with the understandings you've noted.

Chris G said...

Okay, for what it's worth, some "reflection" (perhaps):

@Compound F above quoted the Heaney poem, written on the eve of Iraq invasion... Iraq for me was a breaking point, maybe a kind of move from abstraction to reflection (I'm using these terms loosely) because it was clearly BS but everyone seemed to go along with it anyway. Then I started seeing this in many other places. Peak Oil is the most recent and kinda the biggest instance of seeing an almost full-scale failure to prepare for reality slash not live in dreams. (At one point, JMG, I did live in dreams and am thankful you popped me in the mouth for it - in a rather unmannerly, un-bourgeois way. It seems rare that anyone will tolerate being shouted down online, but I did.)

to me at this point, reflection seems to be "seeing through illusions", mostly those created by the tendency to social consensus / not straying from the herd. Have I abstractified reflection? sometimes the forms blur... But like the Heaney poem suggests, straying from the herd can be very dangerous.

Probably my favorite book is the Alphabet versus the Goddess, which is about the rise of alphabet literacy and the parallels to monotheism, patriarchy. Others have commented on the left/right brain duality in this thread, so I wanted to bring this up. I wish I could connect the right/left duality issue better to the figuration/abstraction/reflection topic... besides the child->man->old age morphology of civilizations, maybe there is another vector, a male/female vector?

Time is so complicated, so irredeemable. In one sense, it's just *going to happen* - most people are not going to shift, see through illusions, look that far ahead, break with the herd. Those who do are branded nearly madmen. sometimes they are, it's hard to tell the difference.

On the other hand, all people need to do is grow their own gardens, ride bikes, stop having babies, turn off the tube and stop buying things, and worship trees. That's it. But we can't do that together. Some will keep the old forms.

It's like a plant that has grown out, sprouted branches and leaves, but in the terminus can do nothing else but sprout the seed pod, which will be blown apart and scattered to the winds.

thecrowandsheep said...


You and your readers may be pleased to know that we have been working on a technique to lift our morale whenever we encounter any industrial era fecklessness.

It resolves around thinking optimistically in a post-industrial sense. E.g. Instead of becoming incensed at the logic behind that recently built 6-lane highway through your neighborhood, try to think of it as a fantastic bike path in the making. Or or, you are almost run down by 8 tonne sports utility vehicle. Try to view this superb vehicle as a future source of a wonderful alternator for a wind turbine.

Perhaps you are upset about that nuclear power plant, try to view this as, this is where we came a little unstuck. Could you help us out?

Zach said...

I have no idea why readers need to pester JMG for some sort of "official" book recommendation list. My "to-read" list is already growing faster than I can keep up based on the references casually tossed around.


redoak said...


Agreed regarding Nietzsche. Which means we are not well positioned intellectually to deal with the long descent (to put it mildly!).
I'll contemplate a useful way to articulate the problem as I put the rest of the garden to bed this weekend.

Ric Steinberger said...

John - Thank you again for your weekly insights. They somehow make the future we all face seem somewhat less threatening and more familiar.

Yet I get rather concerned - more for my children and their children - when I read/see material from people like Guy McPherson. Have you seen this talk of his:

I don't have his scientific background and am naturally skeptical of apocalyptic thinking, but he presents evidence of about two dozens positive feedback loops that, so he claims, have irreversibly pushed not just the human species, but most higher life forms, towards irreversible extinction. In other words, we've already passed the tipping point, and we have no more than a few decades.

I know you have written of countervailing negative that would prevent human industrial civilization from a total collapse. But McPherson is talking about a complete collapse of habitats that support humanity and most higher life forms. In other words, game over no matter what. It's already too late.

What do you think?

DesignScience said...

I would like to share a model for thinking about thinking that I have found very helpful, Bayesian probability, sometimes called subjective probability. It has become one of my favorite tools on my cognitive tool belt. I offer these thoughts in the hope that you or your readers may gain some benefit from it as well.

“a theory tries to make sense of the things that happen by fitting them into abstract categories and making deductions on that basis”

Deduction or inference? I mention this not to split hairs but to share what I have found to be a very useful palliative for the hubris around reasoning I picked up from our hyper-rational culture. Deduction is the logic that teases out the implications from the premises, adding nothing new in the process. The chestnut of deduction is well known; Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal. Theories on the other hand are another form of reasoning, the logic of inference. Here additional implications are proposed that use whatever evidence is at hand to weigh the various probabilities of what may or may not be “true” as a model for describing that evidence. E.g. I’ve watched 100 apples fall down when released from a tree, I propose in the theory of gravity that the 101st will as well. That the theory of gravity applies to planetary orbits and the parabolas of cannon balls just reinforces that in universe as we experience it most things follow the most probable path most of the time.

The school of Bayesian probability has been presented as a solution to the “problem of inference” that has run through western philosophy since at least Hume and so popularized by Popper. The Bayesian interpretation is presented in a wonderfully entertaining mathematics text book by E.T. Jaynes’ entitled ‘Probability Theory, the Logic of Science’. This interpretation is not overly popular in academic circles even as its practical applications become widespread (it is used in analysis of foreign affairs by spies and generals, is the core of your email spam filter and forms the backbone of many of the cutting edge analysis software packages being used in fields as diverse as genetics and traffic control.) In my opinion this lack of mainstream acceptance is in part due to the humility built into this model of human reasoning; that we at best can know only what is most or least probable in any given concrete set of events; no revelations, no power to pierce the world of appearances to touch some pure Platonic realm, no guaranteed path to any final truth. (Perhaps the heart can poetically know such things but reason needs to recognize its limits, in general our society at this stage is not a fan of limits…)

One model used in neuroscience for how our sensory systems work depends on probability. It is in robotics as well. As we tried to make machine senses it became necessary to find solutions that could actually be implemented in existing hardware while working towards the goal of being able to deal with the constantly changing inputs any non-trivial environment provides. This work found using probability to be a practical way forward. The optical illusion presented in this week’s entry can be understood in the same way; the mind is fluctuating between two separate ‘most probable’ interpretations of the visual messages it is receiving. Research into the visual pathways of the nervous system sometimes will use an explicit probability model for getting a handle on the dynamic of shifting weights within the soup of neurotransmitters. This is rather high level. A bacterium in a food gradient will move towards the food source. How? Isn’t it following the most probable path?

DesignScience said...

(part 2:)
The model: the figurative – the buzz of raw sensory input is filtered / interpreted into what we become conscious of by application of pre-conscious probability. These conscious datum are classified into our abstractions through a further process of filtering, assigning them to the classes we “feel” they most probably belong to. Finally we are able to reflect on our abstractions and wonder why the menu never tastes as good as the meal no matter how carefully we work out the most probable relationships among them.

I think it’s obvious to readers of this blog that modern society is not exactly skillful when examining the most probable outcomes of current conditions and acting on that knowledge. I would like to quietly suggest that an honest appraisal of our own lives will show the same characteristics. Then perhaps taking those steps to transform those lives will become a tad more persuasive. Even if there is just a small chance my efforts will “matter”, well in a universe guided by probabilities that is a game we can play with gusto. Green wizardry to me is all about strengthening the probability of lessening the harm I cause to the earth and others while lowering the probability that my loved ones and I will experience unnecessary suffering.

For me the probabilist philosophy has been a comfort. It leaves room for magic, after all what is most probable is not 100% deterministic (it explains why things are normally, well, normal yet also why at times the most extraordinary occurs). It provides a way to work with my own emotional pain by reminding me that however real and true something might appear to me at any given time it cannot claim any final authority as the one and only way to interpret the raw evidence. It gives my BS detector a good workout. When I get infatuated with a new idea sooner or later I remember to ask myself just how probable might it actually be. That is how the long descent model of the future eventually won out over the emotionally loaded hope and fear in the utopia / apocalypse duality. Like our host’s brilliant teachings about looking for a third when caught in a dualism my Bayesian study reminds me to look for those elements of evidence I have overlooked (there are always some) and to give these alternate points of view some real weight in my assessment of their value.

All this has been helpful but the most critical lesson I took from my study was how all people always bring a whole host of prior convictions to any so-called rational conversation. This is not good or bad, just the way it is. Bayesian probability differs from the typical probability most folks learn in school at exactly this point, it is explicit about the priors. It seems a better model of the human being to me, it provides room for the heart to have reasons our reason may not completely understand.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, we worship science rather than practicing it, and that's exactly the problem. Getting people to practice it, rather than just chanting mantras like the one your class was intoning, is something that could help hugely -- and of course that has to start with those of us who see the necessity getting up and doing science ourselves.

Shark, spot on -- of course Durant usually was.

Alan, I'll gladly post it, because it's a useful reminder that there's strategy in any such discourse as the one we're both engaged in. Yours is different from mine, which is not a criticism. As for trains, oh, understood -- my comment was partly a joke, partly a reference to one of the things we both push, in our own distinct ways.

Unknown Jay, true enough. The challenge comes when we start to notice how much our memories depend on our figurations and abstractions!

Phil, nicely put. The challenge is grasping that subjective knowledge of an objective reality isn't wholly subjective, or wholly objective!

Doug, thank you. Of course it's a numbers game, but Darwin reminds us how effectively a successful adaptation can propagate through a population. That's my model, you know.

Chris, I'm perfectly comfortable being non-bourgeois, but you're right that I'm not always as mannerly as I should be. My apologies -- popping someone in the mouth should always be done with proper civility.

Sheep, the nuclear power plant will someday be a wildlife preserve where human beings don't go, and also a source of additional mutations to speed up the process of biological evolution. Tens of thousands of slow, miserable deaths from cancer and radiation poisoning is a small price to pay for such advantages, don't you think? ;-)

Zach, excellent. I'm considering the occasional book column, but a fair number of the books referenced in it will already be on your list.

Redoak, yes, that's a very mild way to put it. Fortunately there are ways to assume a crash position, so to speak. More on this as we proceed.

John Michael Greer said...

Ric, he's cherrypicking scientific research to support a preconceived agenda. I encourage you to doublecheck his science -- his positive feedback loops are counterbalanced by negative feedback loops that have functioned many times in the history of the planet, and you can find this out easily enough by looking up the effects he discusses in publicly available sources. Never take claims like this at face value. For that matter, I encourage you not to take my claims at face value, either -- look it up, check my sources, listen to alternative opinions and make up your own mind.

Design Science, hmm! Thanks for the recommendation; I'll look into it.

Anselmo said...

Good news! :

Civilizations can avoid their collapse......

Jared Daiamont in his book “Collapse” gives us the example of Japan, during the Tokugawa era, who avoided a catastrophe by deforestation, that probably would destroyed his political régimen. The objetives of the Shoguns Tokugawa were to transfor the japanese economy in sustainable and stopping the population growth:

“The shift was led from the top by successive shoguns, who invoked Confucian principles to promúlgate an official ideology that encouraged limiting consumption and accumulating reserve supplies in order to protect the country against disaster.”

In few words: “the Tokugawa solution for the problem of resource depletion in Japan itself was to conserve Japanese resources by causing resource depletion elsewhere”.

Some of the measures for to avoid the collapse were:

1. “already in the 1600s with Japan's development of a detailed body of scientific knowledge about silviculture”

2. replacing oxen and horses as draft animals “by people using spades, hoes, and other devices.”

3. Reduction of the timber use: “use of coal instead of wood as a fuel rose.”,“Lighter construction replaced heavy-timbered houses” ,”fuel-efficientcooking stoves replaced open-hearth fireplaces”,”small portable charcoal heaters replaced the practice of heating the whole house”, “reliance on the sun to heat houses during the winter increased.” This probably had consequences in the architecture and furniture.

4. “Expanded fishing efforts incorporated new fishing techniques, such as very large nets and deepwater fishing.” This probably had consequences in the diet that, probably, is the more healthy of the world.

5. Promulgated norms with the purpose “that fish and shellfish stocks were limited and might become exhausted if anyone else could freely fish in one's territory”

6. Encouraging the “Hunting of sea mammals (whales, seals, and sea otters) increased, and syndicates were formed to finance the necessary boats, equipment, and large workforces”

7. Depletion of the resources of the Hokkaido Island, that in those times was not a part of Japan.

“Another part of the shift consisted of the near-achievement of Zero Population Growth. Between 1721 and 1828, Japan's population barely increased at all, from 26,100,000 to only 27,200,000.”

a. “Compared to earlier centuries, Japanese in the 18th and 19th century married later, nursed their babies for longer, and spaced their children at longer intervals through the resulting lactational amenorrhea as well as through contraception, abortion, and infanticide.”…. “Japanese birth rates” were “in phase with falls and rises in rice prices.”

b. In the movie the “Ballad of Narayama”, that tell Us the story of japanese peasants , who lived in a especially hard place, can be seen that, with the infanticide, were practised the murdering by exposition to the elements of the aged people, and the murdering of the poor persons.

The warning about the dangers of deforestation, that triggered the Tokugawa shifts, were because:

“ major famines that beset Tokugawa Japan from the late 1600s onwards”

thecrowandsheep said...


Lifting your concept of catabolic collapse applied to civilisations and applying it to the functioning of a civil religion, could it be that civil religions, once the ascendency has been attained, can in actuality only function, by catabolising the ethical sentiments remaining from the prior religion? Once these have been exhausted, once the faith from the old religion has dissolved, the civilisation attached to the civil religion begins to terminally decline.

@Derv & Greer

Derv said: "But I've noticed something in myself, something which I've seen in others both Christian and non-Christian alike. Some part of me WANTS to see the world burn. Surely it must be universal at least subconsciously else the myth of apocalypse would hold little appeal, but I find myself nearly rooting for it at times."

A German word for "to collapse" is zusammenbrechen...togetherbreak...break together. Does this mean things collapse by breaking together OR in a collapse we all break together. I think this fantasy for the apocalypse sporns from a fear of collapsing alone. In an apocalypse, we all go down together.

S P said...

One of the things I've been reflecting on recently has been the following:

America is by many objective measures the most successful nation on the planet, and one of the most successful civilizations of all time.

And yet, almost all of the assumptions in modern American life are fundamentally wrong at some level or the other. To name a few: drugs and procedures will make us live forever, debt doesn't matter and we're all going to become rich, we can bomb anybody around the world with no consequences, technology improves everything, we are going to explore the far reaches of space, resources of the world are infinite and belong to us, all of the races and classes get along perfectly, etc. etc.

You see, it doesn't matter how powerful or wealthy a society is; if everything it is doing is flawed, if the glue holding it together is a lie, then that society will fail.

So I'm trying to understand whether the assumptions were always wrong, but we were just rich enough to patch things up and make it work, or whether the assumptions grew wrong over time, in decadence.

I think it's a combination of the two, but more the latter. It just seems as though once the rot sets in, there's no going back. It's a shame and tragic in many ways.

Odin's Raven said...

That's a very interesting essay. Thank you Mr. Greer.

I was struck by the phrase 'barbarism of reflection', searching for which brought me to to Vico's suggestion that it will be worse than the 'barbarism of sense'. He makes me think the next several centuries would be best avoided until the cycle turns.It seems optimistic to expect any effort now made to ameliorate the conditions of the future could be successful. Can the full rigour of fate be avoided? Wyrd bid ful araed. Why should it be different this time?

' through obstinate factions and desperate civil wars, they shall turn their cities into forests and the forests into dens and lairs of men. In this way, through long centuries of barbarism, rust will consume the misbegotten subtleties of malicious wits that have turned them into beasts made more inhuman by the barbarism of reflection than the first men had been made by the barbarism of sense. . . . Hence peoples who have reached this point of premeditated malice, when they receive this last remedy of providence and are thereby stunned and brutalized, are sensible no longer of comforts, delicacies, pleasures, and pomp, but only of the sheer necessities of life. And the few survivors in the midst of an abundance of the things necessary for life naturally become sociable and, returning to the primitive simplicity of the first world of peoples, are again religious, truthful, and faithful. '


Twilight said...

I can certainly relate to the potential for madness, both individually and collectively, if reflection gets too overwhelming. This risk is magnified greatly if one's abstractions – our mental models of how the universe works – become divorced from observed reality rapidly and on a wide scale. People need time to assimilate new ideas and concepts, and to get used to thinking differently, and even then the risks are not small. But for those who become suddenly aware that the world is not what they always thought, cut lose all at once and awash in a constant noise of new ideas from all quarters and not used to testing such ideas – well, what to believe?

Additionally, there are also predators who recognize in the misery and anger of masses an opportunity for power. The madness of crowds can be a powerful vehicle for those who can get out front (if they can stay there).

I'm constantly impressed by your ability to see the big-picture and the long view, and to explain it in an accessible way. The more people who can stand under these ideas and adopt such habits of thought ahead of time the better – one never can know what impact a couple of people who can keep their heads on may have. Perhaps Plummer's guild is workable after all.

BTW, you philosophy types are so cute when you argue about fads/trends – it's just like any similar discussion of abstract concepts in any other field. I may have to Google “post-modernism” again.

xhmko said...

I just had a figurative moment reading the caption of the optical illusion you posted.

Impossible Grammar: How prongs are there?

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer: “Meanwhile the billions of dollars, the vast public relations campaigns, and the lavishly supplied and funded institutional networks that could do these same things on a much larger scale are by and large devoted to projects that are simply going to make things worse. That’s the bitter irony of our age and, more broadly, of every civilization in its failing years. No society has to be dragged kicking and screaming down the slope of decline and fall; one and all, they take that slope at a run, yelling in triumph, utterly convinced that the road to imminent ruin will lead them to paradise on Earth.”

I’ll agree fully with the first 2 sentences but I think the last one over simplifies what is happening, at least this time, at least that is the way I read it. It seems to me to be turning a number of very disparate groups into a collective “they” or “we” who all buy into the same idea of what to do.

I’ve generally found the tendency to herd most noticeable among the middle class people I know. This seems to be produced by a good thing, their tendency to value the welfare of the group (nation, city, organization, business). Because of this they will sometimes make extreme effort and sacrifices for it.

Their problem is that they assume others have the same values. They don’t. Those who don’t find it easy to herd those who do into actions they can exploit.

Friends and acquaintances from the elite or wealthy, or who think they are or might one day be, commonly have rather different attitudes.

In my experience they often have a far more self-centered view. To begin with, they tend to think that it doesn’t matter much if they damage where they are as they can always move on to somewhere else, at worst perhaps hole up in that nice little holiday hacienda they have in Uruguay until the rubble stops bouncing.

At least up until now that tactic has served them well, as it did in previous collapses.

Likewise, since the instigation of low taxes on the wealthy along with virtual immunity from the law the long term fate of any business they come to control is immaterial. What matters is being able to loot more in salary and bonuses in a few years than even their wastrel grandchildren will be able to spend.

The long term just does not matter once you are in a certain strata of society.

Loot and run has served the upper end of society increasingly well over the past 40 years or so. Worse, as their wealth has grown they have been able to take over the political process and media and change things to favor themselves and the loot and run tactic more and more.

Incidentally, this is why sane societies have high taxes or other impediments (a jealous king) on the wealthy, not to redistribute to the poor, that is just a side benefit, it is to prevent large accumulations of wealth in a few hands. Allowing such accumulations of wealth will damage and probably doom your political process and ultimately your society and economy.

Remember, the rich are not like us.

In short, I don’t think it is any good just looking at overall behavior: To do anything about this rush to crash and burn you have to tease out the behavior, intentions and myths of the various groups who are driving and enabling it and try to do something about it, group by group.

And don’t forget, some groups are doing very well from it thank you!

Oh! And no matter how pure your intentions you will find it very hard to get anyone to take much notice of you: You see, they have been lied to so many times over the past half century or more they assume everyone is just lying to push their own agenda.

Stephen Heyer

latheChuck said...

SP: My hunch on "American goodness" is that it has been in large part based upon the following (in order of "top to bottom" ;-)): edible native wildlife (e.g. passenger pigeon, bison), forests (which regenerated between the time of plagues decimating the native peoples, and the colonizers), fertile soils (unfarmed for centuries), minerals (native copper, iron ore), and fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). You can wrap it all up in your term "rich". When it takes cooperation to exploit natural riches, cooperation is what you get (e.g., 19th, 20th century North America). When resources are scarce, conflict is what you get (e.g., Palestine, for as long as anyone can remember).

One of our myths is that we are "rich, because we are good"; a land of opportunity, the rule of law, freedom to innovate. It seems more likely to me that we are "good, because we are rich"; a farm can produce more than the farmer can eat, because he can apply non-renewable fertilizer and irrigate with fossil water, and no one need go hungry. So far.

latheChuck said...

Just one more subtle sign of our predicament: I bought a 1975 textbook on surveying for $2, just because I've always wondered just how it was that such things as state and national boundaries can be drawn to mutual agreement. There was a price stamped inside the cover: $15.75. The 1991 edition of this book is still in print, for $166. Why should the price of a professional textbook rise by a factor of ten, in 40 years? (Because it can.)

The thing I like about this book, and my 1941 edition of "Engineering Drawing", is that they do not rely on electronic devices to get the job done.

Moshe Braner said...

@JMG: "To the devout believer in science, scientific laws are reality, and the world we actually experience is a muddy and confused expression of those laws. The consequence is that they blind themselves to the inevitable holes and gaps in what are, after all, merely tentative mental models of the cosmos..."

- This statement kind of irked me. Yes, some people do blind themselves that way. But what's missing there is the third part: besides the "scientific laws" and the "world we actually experience" there is also the Real World (tm). At least, as I see it, the scientific approach assumes that there is an objective real world out there, unlike what some "postmodernists" say. And, that this real world follows natural laws, albeit we will probably never quite know all those laws, nor all the particulars of any specific event. Nevertheless, knowing some of those laws has proven quite useful in systematically predicting the outcome of many circumstances and interventions. Even laws eventually known to be wrong, such as Newtonian mechanics after Einstein, are still useful as close approximations, within the range of scales of time, space and speeds within which they were developed.

Our experience of the real world is not the real world (other than our existence, including our thoughts, being part of that real world). Rather, our experience is indeed "muddy and confused".

I do agree that some of the theories devised by humans, supposedly describing the real world, are hopelessly delusional. Those theories tend to come from economists more than scientists though. Economics (as it exists in its mainstream today) was not developed using the scientific method. Usage of fancy math does not bring it any closer to reality, since it's never subjected to experimental testing. Even when accidental experiments prove it wrong, they still cling to their pet theories.

BeaverPuppet said...


Wildwood Chapel had the following question on last week’s post, which I repeat here since I had the same question. I believe your response was that it would be addressed with this week’s post, but I don’t quite get the answer from this week’s post. Could you elaborate? Thanks!(If you eventually answered this in last week's comment section, I apologize, I couldn't get to all 209 comments Your blog is very popular!)

"That was the religious sensibility of cutting-edge thinkers all through the world in which Christianity emerged, and since the new religion inevitably drew most of its early converts from people who were unsatisfied by the robust life-affirming traditional faiths the people of that time had inherited from their far from puritanical ancestors, it’s hardly a surprise that Christian teachings and institutions ended up absorbing a substantial helping of the attitudes that arose out of the rising religious sensibility of the time."

Here's my question. With what specifically were these cutting-edge thinkers so unsatisfied about the robust, life-affirming traditional faiths? I gather is was some form of binary thinking; they saw something unsatisfactory about the then-current sensibility and responded in enatiodromic fasion. But what was it? What gives rise to biophobia among a minority of a people who otherwise embrace life (and death)?

HalFiore said...

John Michael, I wonder if this is my opportunity to ask you a question about a term that has been bothering me since I came across it in Spengler some time ago.

Spengler's use of the word "physiognomy," (actually, "physiognomic," used as a noun) puzzles me. On the face of it (ha, no pun intended) it would seem to have something to do with building a narrative or abstraction out of that which is observable, or, to use your term differently than I usually do, figurative.

The statement of his that I would love to hear your thoughts on was that a hundred years after the time of his writing whatever science we would have (and this would be just about... now) would certainly be "physiognomic."

OK, I'm not going to ask a question without providing my best answer. I wonder if what he predicted has become manifested in modern science's preoccupation with mathematical modelling. When I was an undergrad in the 80's, we were pretty much informed that the new word for "hypothesis" is "model." And, indeed, a model is a sort of multivariate mathematical hypothesis to attempt to describe the output of some complex natural system. Something that can't very easily be conjectured with a simple statement, such as "increasing CO2 in the atmosphere causes global warming." We start adding complexity as we understand the system more, and as the statement must account for more and more variables, it becomes the modern model.

The problem, I discovered when I left school and tried to model complex systems (hydrological effects of land disturbance) is that either you build complex abstract equations that attempt to take every known physical force into account, and end up studying your model rather than reality, or you fall back onto measured empirical models that reflect someone else's observations in some other situation.

It also occurs to me that he may just be using the term to point to his more descriptive account of a given culture's inner life, and as a way to argue for an exploration that is necessarily non-quantitative and less what would be considered scientific or rational. Perhaps when he used the term "science" in that passage, he wasn't really interested in the physical sciences.

Cherokee Organics said...


Abstract thinking is used to avoid considering the unpleasantness of consequences.

The disconnect in society is just weird. Consider this short article:

Farmers told to adapt to climate change

No disrespect to Dr Trewin, at the Bureau of Meteorology, but the quote sort of sounds like he is discussing someone else's problem. Abstraction can be taken a bit too far.



KL Cooke said...

"Daydreams of seven billion heaped corpses or the like are one of the few ways that a great many people nowadays can give vent to the rage and bloodlust that's hardwired into the lower end of the human psyche, and heavily stimulated by the stresses of contemporary life. I should probably do a post about that one of these days."

Please do that post soon.

KL Cooke said...

"Perhaps you are upset about that nuclear power plant, try to view this as, this is where we came a little unstuck. Could you help us out?"

How about handy prop for dystopian novels?

ando said...


Nicely done as usual.

Maharaj told us all along that "thinking" was the problem!



Neo Tuxedo said...

Reflection is a solvent; skillfully handled, it dissolves abstractions and figurations that obscure more than they reveal, so that less counterproductive ways of assembling raw sensation into meaningful patterns can be pursued; run riot, it makes every abstraction and every figuration as arbitrary and meaningless as any other, until the collective conversation about what’s real and what matters dissolves in a cacophony of voices speaking past one another.

Compare and contrast:

"[T]his I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid." (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

"I will not reason and compare: my business is to create." (Blake, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion)

El Gaucho said...

JMG – Great post. I’ve read your blog for quite some time now and always enjoy the thought provoking discussions. Plus I think you’ve been on a heck of a roll with these recent series of posts. One big thing that I can never get over though is the following 2 questions (and please know that I don’t mean them sarcastically) – Why should I care? Why do I care?

Being near 40 years old and without children or the desire/means to produce children, the timeline for my concern is much shorter than if I had produced offspring and had a direct line of foreseeable future descendants. Sure I have nieces and nephews that I would prefer live in some kind of non-apocalyptic world, but isn’t it in my own self interest to simply kick the can down the road for +/- 50 years until I’m dead? As long as the current systems remains mostly intact for that time span, my lifestyle and standard of living can remain relatively unchanged until I am no longer of this world.

Short of having genuine altruistic concern about the future of humanity and doing the “right” thing, why should I (or someone in my similar position) make decisions that would seem to be against their own self interests? Am I not being an irrational actor by making decisions that negatively impact my current condition without any future benefit to myself?

So why do I eschew consumerism, buy locally produced goods, ride my bike or walk whenever possible, grow much of my own food, and generally make so called “good” decisions that reduce fossil fuel consumption, carbon emissions, lessen environmental impact, etc.? Have I been brainwashed by the eco-media? Has the secret cabal of left-wing environmentalists that seek to turn us all into hippie tree huggers gotten to me? Am I just a good and righteous person (I really doubt this is the answer)? Or I am the most irrational, illogical person who should by all objective economic measures be thrown in the loonie bin?

John Michael Greer said...

Anselmo, now consider the political context out of which Tokugawa Japan emerged. Before the Tokugawa bakufu rose to power, Japan was ravaged by centuries of civil war; that's why the elites and the common people alike accepted the military dictatorship of the bakufu -- it was the only viable alternative to chaos. Could such laws be passed and enforced in the US or Europe today, without the preceding centuries of chaos?

Sheep, excellent! Yes, and that gets you today's gold star.

SP, my take is that the assumptions were adaptive during a time of resource abundance and opportunities for expansion, and when those conditions changed, the assumptions became dangerously maladaptive.

Raven, the descent will take its own course. History suggests, though, that it's possible to ameliorate some of the worst features, at least locally and in a small way, and that it's certainly possible to preserve useful knowledge through the descent and the dark age that follows it, so that those who come after will have it available.

Twilight, I figure it's worth a try. As for the madness of crowds and those who like to exploit the same, no argument there -- and I'm planning on a several-part discussion of fascism in the American future in a bit.

Xhmko, funny.

Stephen, yes, it's always very comforting to go looking for scapegoats, and the rich just now are a popular target for such activities. I suggest you go around to your middle class acquaintances and find out how many of them would be willing to see significant cuts in their lifestyles in order to spare their grandchildren a nasty future, and how many of them believe instead that more technological progress will surely bail us out. That's what I'm talking about, you know.

LatheChuck, good score on the surveying book! That used to be a common way for educated people to make a modest living -- Thoreau paid his bills at some points by surveying, as I recall, and it's a skill worth recovering, as it'll be needed down the road.

Moshe, I hoped somebody would rise to that bait! It's the universal belief of rationalist movements that the mental models created by abstraction are somehow closer to the Real World (tm) than the data of the senses as processed by figurative thinking. It's the consistent fate of rationalist movements to confuse their mental models with the Real World, and end up studying the artifacts of their own study methods when they think they're studying the universe. That doesn't make abstraction useless, but it does mean that the rationalist project always runs aground on the discovery that reason is not a panacea, and a set of mental models derived from figurations derived from sensation is actually at a further remove from the real world than either the figurations or the sensations are. More on this in next week's post!

Puppet, heck of a good question, to which scholarship so far gives only equivocal answers. Why do religious sensibilities change when and as they do? E.R. Dodds wrestled with that in The Greeks and the Irrational without reaching a really firm answer, and I don't know of anyone who's reached more solid conclusions since then, either.

HalFiore, what he means by "physiognomic" is the capacity to grasp wholes by means of their overall appearance. He was, as it happens, wrong that physiognomic science would be universal in a century, though it was an astute guess -- the intellectual trends that led to the rise of ecology and systems science after his time were already in play. The current obsession with mathematical modeling is not physiognomy -- as I see it, at least, it's the attempt to push abstract analysis of the usual Faustian sort as far as it can go.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, that's quite the example. I wonder what he thinks he means by "adapt."

KL, I'll certainly consider it.

Ando, the rational mind makes a great servant and a lousy master.

Neo, compare, yes; contrast? Not at all.

El Gaucho, the guess you dismissed is, of course, the right one. You recognize that care for others is morally right, and choose to act on that basis. Those who insist that all that matters is their own economic advantage, and put that ahead of everything else, can be usefully described by an old, unfashionable, but very solidly descriptive word:


It really does come down to that. What is it, after all, that differentiates Sauron, the Dark Lord of Tolkien's Middle-earth, from his opponents? He's the perfect rational actor of modern economic theory: he sets his own personal advantage ahead of everything else, and pursues it with all the resources at his disposal. The fact that this involves the slaughter or enslavement of the population of an entire continent is one of those tedious moral irrelevancies that the modern economic thinker is taught to dismiss from consideration. Those of us who find contemporary economic thinking repellent need, I think, to see it in its true light, as the ideology of Mordor -- which was of course one of Tolkien's points.

Bob said...

JMG - Another excellent, thought-provoking post. I am not sure how this fits, but I am reminded of Piaget's model of development, specifically the concept of Assimilation vs. Accommodation. A child who sees a zebra and says: "striped horsie" is employing assimilation, while a child that grasps that a zebra is a different kind of animal, with similar characteristics to a horse, is practicing Accommodation. Similarly, a society that observes the historical facts of the past few years or decades and says, "Recession that will be followed by an extended period of growth; we've seen this before" is choosing the former mode of thinking, while one that sees he same information and says, "The old models are exhausted; time to reset, redefine, and rethink everything we hold true," or something, would be prudently embracing the latter. That this latter approach is being chosen by such a small (but growing?) minority, can lead one to despair or hope, depending at least somewhat on the amount of cloud cover on a given day...

Ruben said...

Wow, JMG. Even for you, you have dropped a terribly unfashionable bomb.


I mean really.

Very, very much looking forward to next week, as you parse out the applications of abstract and figurative.

Raymond Duckling said...

I am sorry to respond if the question was not directed to me, but this is a question that gets repeated here more or less in a regular basis, and I cringe every single time.

First, let me tell you that it is not only single people who have to deal with this same dilemma. As a father of two, I cannot stop noticing that whatever good I can accomplish with my little efforts will end up, in the best case, as a drop in a bucket. On the other hand, I can play along and provide for my children a faction of well-being that all the others doing the same thing are certainly going to take away from them, so there's a twisted sense of justice in it, too.

My personal response to that is: that this is just a form of rationalization. It's really cozy to live a pampered middle-class lifestyle, so if I go around smart reasons to do what I want to do anyways, I'll going to find plenty of them. (Everyone's smart enough to talk himself into it, and stupid enough to believe).

I indeed believe that you have been brainwashed, but not by this hippie cult of doom you talk about. Every one able to read this words has been brainwashed by our civilization's civil religion to believe that economic actors (a.k.a. people) do act 1)always, 2)rationally, 3)in their own interest.

Once you begin to see yourself as an economic actor (which is a poor abstraction of a real person), your options are really limited. You turn yourself in some kind of robot that 1)always exhibits behavior, 2)in conformance to programming, 3)towards a well defined goal.

I believe this came to be on purpose, because for the powers that be it's much easier to control your behavior when it depends solely on narrowly defined programming and a set of arbitrary goals and premisses that can be manipulated at will by those who may assert control of the media. I also believe, though I have no formal training in any school of magic, that the leadership has fallen for their own spell and we are all running in auto-pilot now.

If you want to break loose of this perverse cycle, I make no recommendation. But it has helped to me to go back to the images of my childhood. The people I admired and hoped to grow alike and the stories that inspired me were, more likely than not, anything but rational. I don't mean to say that those were stupid, or unable to use rationality *as a tool*. But that their motivations were all over the map. They did not pursue their best interest, and did not constrained themselves to do the rational thing.

There is more meaning in doing the right thing, or the most beautiful thing, or the bravest or most compassionate thing, and failing, than in the sterile pursuit of the smartest thing.

artinnature said...


Another great post that will require some careful...reflection, thank you.

If you will allow some off topics comments:

Our local library just had it's annual used book sale and I was able to score a copy of Darwins The Origin of Species, for the price of $1. Enjoying it immensely. Darwin's writing style is surprisingly accessible and he approaches the topic with such care and respect. I don't know how anyone who actually read this book --even if they didn't agree with its premise-- could not come away with a high degree of respect for the writer.

On another note, our local cable TV provider recently decided to encrypt their signal and then rent us "decryption boxes" for $2/month per box. So my wife and I decided to end our lifelong relationship with TV as we knew it, and cancelled cable. We have no antenna either, so that is the end of broadcast TV for us. We still like movies on DVD, and sometimes stream from a computer, so the TV will not be tossed into a dumpster anytime soon! I credit you JMG for enlightening me.

Hi AlanfromBigEasy,

As one of the denizens of The Oil Drum, I was wondering if you were aware of any critical mass of people like yourself (jokuhl, Ghung, FMagyar, Dopamine, PVguy, Greenish, Tribe of Pangaea First Member) continuing the discussion at another site? I'm thinking mostly of the Drumbeat "compiler" and resulting discussions or perhaps the old Campfire. I rarely posted there but read and learned a lot from you guys/gals. I've looked at "The Energy Xchange" several times but not much happening, and its really a mess compared to TOD, which was a thoroughbred. I've never seen anything else online with such a high level of readability and usability.

Janet D said...

"Reflection is a solvent; ....... run riot, it makes every abstraction and every figuration as arbitrary and meaningless as any other, until the collective conversation about what’s real and what matters dissolves in a cacophony of voices speaking past one another."

I have only had time to skim the comments this week, so forgive me if this has already been covered, but I continue to be struck by how the above quote perfectly describes our political process in the States (and perhaps elsewhere) these days. The last Presidential election (including the debates) being perfect examples. Is this where we will be stuck for the somewhat-knowable future? Sigh.

valekeeperx said...

Great post once again. You continue to take us up and down interesting paths, with fascinating and enlightening twists and turns. So far, you’ve discussed our current fading religious sensibility and its predecessor. If I understand correctly, these sensibilities actually span multiple cultures/societies/civilizations (i.e., our current sensibility found expression in the European/Mediterranean world, broader Middle East, and southern Asia?). I have found this to be a particularly intriguing perspective and I hope that future posts will include discussions of other such religious sensibilities from other times and places.

Cherokee Organics said...


Oops, I have to apologise. Re-reading the article showed me that the quote was attributed to Snow Barlow, a professor of agriculture at Melbourne University. The author of the article slipped in a new expert without first identifying them and I didn’t originally notice. Sorry for the mix-up!

As to what was meant by the word "adapt"? I can only speculate that it meant, same, same as today, but perhaps a little bit warmer... I'm not sure I'd be holding my breath for that adaption as I seem to have gained an entire extra month growing season this year. Not good.

Last summer during the peak of the drought I planted a sugar maple (which I mentioned on the blog here at the time). It is doing quite well slowly and happily growing some leaves and getting acquainted with the life in the orchard.

Planting the sugar maple was an act of defiance, but also of faith. Without faith people may give over to despair for we can't know the future and the only thing that is certain about the future is that it is uncertain (I refer to the details here and leave the big picture to yourself)!

Faith may be a form of social currency too and just like infrastructure it can be used up, but so too can it be re-established. All it takes is work, re-engagement and perhaps a few more sugar maples!

PS: I went to see the film “About Time” yesterday. Very enjoyable and thoroughly recommended!



muzuzuzus said...

I think feeling is far more important than thinking about thinking, though the latter is included if for example we look at the history of 'thinking'. Of how it separates 'itself' in certain individuals and groups from the body and feeling and soul and relationship. I prime example of this is the 'heroic thinker' of the modern world, Rene Descartes--the 'I think therefor I am ' man. From there he think that animals were machines and acted out awful horrific things on them. He had lost feeling/soul/spirit relationship and empathy. Yesterday, I saw the most wonderful life-changing documentary I really hope you will take time to watch (and all others of course)and will provide link before I continue reflecting on what has been said: The Animal Communicator This shows us deeply and extraordinarily movingly what many people, especially modern peoples, have sadly lost. So to continue, what I feel is not being addressed is how the State, the 'State' implying the global control-freak agenda which maintains itself seemingly through generations via its myths, which I see as patriarchal--is how the State wages a war on drugs (except its own, including psychiatric drugs and alcohol which many ignore-ant people assume is NOT a drug), and this 'war' includes very much war on sacred medicine or psychedelics, which also then means a war on consciousness, soul, nature, and relationship. For it is--and I speak from experience also--sacred medicine that can help us regain, re-member, inspire feeling and thus restore soul. And I must say that as controversial the subject of psychedelics may bem that I keep meeting an even deeper taboo, and this is a wanting to draw attention to occultism being practiced and applies by the powers that be. That this occultism which is sorcery is part of their propaganda machine. It is in large part applies to manipulate our thinking and feelings. What I want to do is draw attention to it. NOT from a Christian perspective which itself seems lost in its own duality, as you explained in part 1 of your essay, and also not from a New Age perspective which carries on the disdain for nature and the body, but from the understanding of the sacredness of the body and nature and all others. To ignore this important part of the puzzle and problem we face is to willingly dwell in the shallow end. Or in more modern ling, to have a limited hangout.

Grebulocities said...

It seems the number of positive climate feedbacks that Guy McPherson believes are going to lead to near-term extinction is itself suffering from positive feedback from within the mind of Guy McPherson, doubling about every year. At 100% growth, he would believe in 25*2^5 = 800 positive feedback loops by 2018, pushing forward his date for NTE considerably earlier than 2030. Based on this, I expect that Guy McPherson will suffer a collision with reality by around 2020, making him eligible for an entry if you decide to start another of End of the World of the Week series a decade from now.

Steve Morgan said...

"Ando, the rational mind makes a great servant and a lousy master."

That, plus your comment about Sauron, brought to mind the role of corporate power in society. Thinking back to the early uses of corporations as ways to finance projects in a rapidly growing industrializing economy, they seem like very useful servants. These days, though, with their relative mastery of economic and political power in the US, what looks like evil can be easily seen as the "barbarism of reflection" of quarterly profits and limited liability.

On this note I'd expect the revival of religion to not abolish private property or corporations, but rather to put them in their place as subservient to other long-neglected ends that human societies have often valued along with or higher than material consumption. Especially in the present and coming age of contraction any viable religion will by default need other aims, because it won't be possible to win converts by providing something that's not generally available.

What will these other values be? That's a fascinating question, and I think I've seen some hints suggested in previous posts in this series. Whatever the dominant combination(s) end up being, they'll likely involve some acknowledgment of our species' subservience to the larger natural world, and how we can live within its limits and (also, hopefully) enrich it through our lives.

All that said, I'm also interested in the possibility of a post on bloodlust and other non-rational drives that show up in apocalyptic fantasies. I've noticed the same basic desire for wrathful "justice" in myself, and would love to understand it better.

p.s. I trust that the parallels between this post and your model of the economy in The Wealth of Nature was no coincidence. From that perspective, the barbarism of reflection as an out-of-control tertiary economy and the subsequent dislocations as it inevitably comes back in line with the primary and secondary economies is a lot to wrap my mind around.

Iuval Clejan said...

It often seems to me that lacking meaningful work and meaningful recreation, most americans become infantilized either through their obsession with spectator sports, or other televised recreation, or through their obsession on entertaining their children and actually getting down to a child's level of seeing the world. To be sure, there is some benefit of seeing the world from a child's perspective, the ability to feel raw sensation and figurate. But as with most things, it is a question of balance and I personally find it tiresome to not be able to have adult interaction, pursuits or solitude due to the tyranny of babies/toddlers/young children.

Is this an example of biophobia on my part? I don't think so, since I love children and often enjoy playing with, teaching them and enjoying their warmth and good natured innocence. I don't ascrible to the other extreme of "children should be seen and not heard", or babies/toddlers are the domain of mothers or childcare providers alone.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer: “Stephen, yes, it's always very comforting to go looking for scapegoats, and the rich just now are a popular target for such activities.”

Hi John,

Sorry if that was the only message that came across, that was not my intention.

Yes, I do warn that societies have to prevent the accumulation of too much wealth and/or power in too few hands but something I’m just starting to fully understand myself is that it isn’t all the fault of the rich or want to be rich. The instinct to grab wealth/power at any cost if the opportunity presents itself is deeply built into human behavior by evolution.

If society prevents the opportunity for hysterical greed the rich can be very nice people. A couple of the old-school wealthy I had the pleasure of knowing decades back were people I admired.

You see, I have a toe in a number of camps, from rural redneck to top 10% (long ago it was top 1/10 of 1%).

The real message I was trying to get across was that the people doing the looting now are actually behaving very logically, especially if they agree with you that things could get much harder. Incidentally, I can confirm that many do.

I’ve recently begun to appreciate that it is perhaps too easy for me to pass judgment sitting here in my privileged little patch at the edge of the world, financially modestly secure, without children or grandchildren to worry about, a bit less pessimistic about the future than you, and probably unlikely to see the 2040s let alone the 2050s (unless the Singularity enthusiasts are right about banning ageing).

If I was a 40 something professional in, say, New York, with children to worry about and starting to think about grandchildren, realizing that with a reasonable lifestyle and modern medicine I probably had another 50 years of life to provide for and had a chance to get in on the big time looting, I suspect I’d do the sensible thing myself.

I repeat, what had struck me was that when “they take that slope at a run, yelling in triumph, utterly convinced that the road to imminent ruin will lead them to paradise on Earth” some of them are only continuing behavior that, on an individual scale, has worked very well indeed for them before and probably will again. In fact, once a rush for the exits starts, it is those who get away with the most loot who are likely to be able to arrange safety and a good life somewhere for themselves and their family. Provided, of course, they have the other abilities needed to carry this off.

Here in Australia we are picking this up in our flow of illegal immigrants / refugees from places like Afghanistan. This is causing a lot of hand wringing among the self-declared morally superior mob.

Me, I think they are probably the best new Australians we could get. I mean, anyone who can put together that much money in a place like Afghanistan, then negotiate the perilous voyage here, has got to have a lot to offer. Oh! And it turns out they nearly all really, really want to be Australians, Islamic Australians but Australians nevertheless.

See, what’s not to like? I suspect that in decades to come many stable countries will have a similar attitude to economic refugees from, say, the USA.

The common folk, no matter how much they do the correct thing, are in for a much rougher trip: Just read the detailed history of previous collapses (where available).

Stephen Heyer

We can learn to accept that bad things happen to good people.
What is really hard is accepting that good things happen to bad people.

Enrique said...

JMG Said: Those of us who find contemporary economic thinking repellent need, I think, to see it in its true light, as the ideology of Mordor -- which was of course one of Tolkien's points.

One of the great ironies in American politics is the degree to which so many so-called Christian conservatives in America enthusiastically embrace the ideology of Mordor, which completely contradicts the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I think you yourself pointed out a while back that the Republican Party’s platform on economic and social issues is identical to Anton LaVey’s philosophy as laid out in the Satanic Bible. Then again, over the last few centuries, all of the Seven Deadly Sins have been redefined as virtues in the Western world, which shows just how twisted and off-the-rails the culture has become.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

Although I mourn the passing of TOD and especially Drumbeat (I had 16,661 posts !), I was already moving on. Drumbeat was an old shoe I would periodically return to - and use for specific information as needed.

I know of no other site that has replaced it - but I have been far too busy to spend much time looking for such a place.

Best Hopes,


Chris G said...

DesignScience - this reminds me of the debates between Einstein and Bohr, and the amazing parallel rise of relativity and quantum physics at the same time. The former is pretty solid. E=MC^2 is pretty solid, literal. The latter is all about probabilities - which Einstein rebelled against.

JMG, I am now thankful for the popping in the mouth. Woke me up. Don't start being nice. :)

steve pearson said...

Probably the best oil site to me for posts and discussion is Ron Pattersons new has some interesting articles , but not the depth or breadth of discussion.

Anselmo said...

Most inhumane practices of the Japanese population, infanticide etc .were not laws imposed by Power but habits dictated by demands of survival , which were also practiced by other peoples of the world , even in Europe , in classical times . As the Spartans (film " 300 " , or Eskimos "the savages innocents " ) .
In the present we have the successful example of China's population control , and in countries like Spain or Greece since decades there are a problem of decreasing population.
In Japan the Tokugawa laws were enacted after several famines that served as warning.
I think that in Continental Europe, Russia and Asia would be possible to enact laws restricting individual freedom to achieve sustainability . But this would not be possible in USA and difficult in UK due to the love for individual liberty that these peoples profess . It is a matter of different mass physiologies due to different historical paths .
It is a fact that in Continental Europe were adopted dictatorial regimes like; fascisms and communisms, with relative ease due to the low uptake of the democratic spirit in these peoples , whose masses psychology , in the case of the Latin peoples tends to " Caesarism ", according to Le Bon ( " Masses Psychology " ) . That is the Dictatorship. And that these regimes succeeded dramatically transform their countries in a few years .Sadly, transformations aimed at the preparation of war.

The laws of the Tokugawa , were similar to those decreed the Emperor Diocletian in the decline of the Western Roman Empire ; requirement that jobs passed from parents to children, restrictions on the movement of people , pricing . It is absurd laws in an economic system growing, but very sensible in zero growth economy.

This type of transformation can only be taken by governments seeking to stay in power for decades and, while avoiding the collapse, long term those societies become sclerotic and very vulnerable, as happened to the Western Roman Empire with the Barbarian Invasions and Japan since the intimidating visit of Commodore Perry.

KL Cooke said...

"There was a price stamped inside the cover: $15.75. The 1991 edition of this book is still in print, for $166. Why should the price of a professional textbook rise by a factor of ten, in 40 years? (Because it can.)"

A 10X rate of inflation between 1975 and 1991,was reflected in many areas in the same period. Now it's selectively about 20X, the selectivity being a function of economies of scale, outsourcing and the "stealth inflation" of reduced quality.

It's not that prices have risen, but rather that money has lost value due to unrestricted printing.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

"Never take claims like this at face value. For that matter, I encourage you not to take my claims at face value, either -- look it up, check my sources, listen to alternative opinions and make up your own mind."

I know this is offtopic, but I was reading older articles on this blog about mass migrations, and you made the claim more than once about how the population decline in Russia is opening up Siberia to Chinese settlement. Since you've never been there and neither have I, a little web-searcing was in order. And before making that claim again, I highly recommend that you should read this article:

Sorry for the offtopic.

Phil Harris said...

I keep coming across this in various contexts:
"The instinct to grab wealth/power [insert trait of choice] at any cost if the opportunity presents itself is deeply built into human behaviour by evolution."

Confident assertion that any one human behaviour is "built in by evolution" I think ignores other hypotheses. Under most circumstances the particular trait you mention can become, to use JMG’s word, ‘maladaptive’.

Afghanistan is going through a seriously bad patch and anywhere rich must look better if you are thinking of the family horizon as far as the next couple of generations: but, Australia? I don't know how it will pan out with ocean currents etc. but having a bit of background in agricultural science I take seriously the hypothesis I first heard decades back that the old continent is not naturally suited to farming long term, or at least is not suited to modern European / American type farming feeding cities and towns. That link by Chris (Cherokee) to meteorology and JMG's reply draw attention to some factors that might shorten by a generation or so your young Afghan's vision of a wealthy modern future.

Having said that I guess you personally will make it into the sunset with a few dollars to spare.:)
Phil H

Liquid Paradigm said...

It seems like we've got another apocalypse pending. To be honest, though, if I gotta go in a conflagration hallmarking the end of (our) time, this would be the one I'd pick. ;)

Yupped said...

Actually, I like the word evil. It is a good, old-fashioned word that can get to the heart of things. But I am surrounded in my immediate and extended family by people who work hard to further their economic advantage within the system. They are all extracting and amassing more wealth than they need, with consequences now and down the line. Their abstractions and reflections are informed by the accepted parameters of the system. So they think they are good people (hard-workers, good providers, prudent investors, etc). They are convinced this system is the best of possible arrangements. They will keep doing what they are doing until they have some sort of galvanizing experience that causes them to look closely at the system and what they are doing within it. And then their abstractions may crumble and their reflections may go deeper and they may break through to something fresh.

But until they do that, can they be considered evil? Surely, once they have understood what they are doing, and continue to do it, they could be accurately described with that word and many others besides. But until then, aren't they just wrong? More worryingly, perhaps I am evil because I do have a pretty good grip on our predicament, but am still only about half-way through the process of shedding my excess load on the planet. Yikes.

SLClaire said...

Another comment on how abstractions and rationalism are good servants, in the right place at the right time: think of a map. Maps are a way of abstracting an area, picking a subset of characteristics from the full expression of the area and putting them on a piece of paper. You need to choose which subset is relevant for the purpose you have in mind. That means lots of different maps can be drawn of the same area. Which is *the best* map? None of them, of course, if by that you mean which map is really the territory, or even the less expansive question of which map is the most useful. That's because which map, which abstraction, is most useful depends on the purpose you need it for. A street map is what you want if you need to figure out how to drive, bike, or walk from one place to another. A topographic map is what you want if you want to determine the watershed of the local stream. Both maps drop out a lot of potential characteristics in order to focus on the much smaller set that matter for a particular purpose. But don't switch the maps or you won't achieve your purpose. And don't mistake either of them for fully understanding a place. For that you need to be in that place, fully engaged in it with all your body and mind.

One aspect of the barbarism of reflection is that we've forgotten this: we think the economic, biological, chemical, political, and so forth map is the most useful if one of these is what we make our living from. Or else we toss all of them aside as the post-modernists do and say because they are all relative, none are useful. It's another binary that can trap the unwary. And there seems to be lots of unwary right now.

steve pearson said...

P.S. Ron Patterson posted as Darwinian at the oil drum

John Michael Greer said...

Bob, I haven't read Piaget in a couple of decades; clearly I need to remedy that. Thanks for the reminder!

Ruben, some times it's appropriate to reference an agricultural implement by its proper cognomen.

Artinnature, I'm delighted to hear that you've kicked the plug-in drug! As for Darwin, likewise -- he really is well worth reading.

Janet, until and unless people start making an effort to back out of the culture of confrontation, yes, probably. More on this as we proceed.

Valekeeperx, I'll consider it.

Cherokee, my guess is that the word "adapt" in that statement actually meant "I refuse to think about what the wave of climate change hitting Australia actually implies for the future, so I'm going to finesse the point by acting as though farmers can simply adjust somehow."

Muzuzuzus, the problem with a feeling-centered approach is that it's far more grounded in unrecognized thinking than most people ever get around to noticing. Your figurations determine how you feel about your experience; as long as you remain on the level of feeling, you lack the tools to recognize when your feelings are misleading you, which they do (just as your thinking does), or to change the figurations so that your feelings come back into relation to the facts on the ground. As far as "occultism" et al., did you by any chance read the series of posts here on magic in 2011? You might find that worth revisiting.

Grebulocities, good. That almost got tea across my keyboard. Still, don't underestimate McPherson's ability to ignore the failure of his predictions; if I recall correctly, he was saying less than a decade ago that by 2012 petroleum would have run so short that there would be no more cars on the roads. I doubt he references that prediction much these days!

Steve, exactly what values will come to the fore in the deindustrial age is a good question, but certainly we can expect to see greed dethroned from its present status as a supposed moral good and returned to the category of sleazy vices, where it belongs.

Iuval, no, it's simply wanting a balance. As the boomer generation reaches grandparenthood, they're doing what boomers usually do and shoving their current obsession into everyone else's faces -- in this case, their grandchildren.

Stephen, thanks for the clarification. I don't think that the people looting the system are behaving logically at all, because their behavior is destabilizing the system that gives them their wealth and privilege, and without which they're as helpless as they are useless. The French aristocracy did the same thing in the runup to the Revolution, and you'll notice how that turned out for them!

Enrique, one of these days I'm going to have to talk about that in more detail.

Chris, duly noted; still, I've always admired the old-fashioned gentleman who could backhand somebody with perfect courtesy!

John Michael Greer said...

Anselmo, you know, it's normally considered polite in a conversation to respond to the points the other person makes, and not simply keep on talking to yourself.

Ursachi, I'll read it, and compare it to the numerous other articles I've read on the same subject.

Liquid, thanks for the link! I hope the doom-by-2030 crowd are listening.

Yupped, you'll notice that I used the word for those who come right out and insist that pursuing their economic good at everyone else's expense is justified. Most people fall at various points on the long and ramified spectrum between good and evil, of course; my point was that there are some who quite openly and deliberately go to the far end, and practically cackle about it.

SLClaire, excellent! A good solid Korzybskian metaphor. Of course you're right; the world is full of unwary people right now.

John Michael Greer said...

Muzuzuzus (offlist), you know, before you start flinging around accusations, you might want to make sure of your facts. Your post was put through yesterday, and I responded to it today.

Marcello said...

"Jared Daiamont in his book “Collapse” gives us the example of Japan, during the Tokugawa era, who avoided a catastrophe by deforestation, that probably would destroyed his political régimen."

Tokugawa Japan enjoyed two centuries of peace without either wars of conquest or any invader showing up at the front door.
This is a far from common occurrence and a byproduct of geography and others favorable circumstanes. While they did mantain military forces in the meantime they largely dodged the massive capital investments in military hardware that most european states had to undertake in the meantime to keep up with their opponents: when you consider that a single piddly 26 gun frigate from the 1750s would require no less than two thousands oak trees and would have to be replaced after few decades at most you can start to guess the scale of the savings.
That they did not choose to roll the dice going down the route of military adventurism against their neighbors or that they did not become victim themselves is something of an historical outlier, I believe.

Glenn said...

John Michael Greer said...

"Ursachi, I'll read it, and compare it to the numerous other articles I've read on the same subject."

Sleeping in a yurt for the last 14 years, I've become a bit of a Central Asia fan. The article Ursachi linked to jibes with what I've been reading on the Australian and New Zealander's backpack travellers websites.


Marrowstone Island

Anselmo said...

Excuse me by the lack of clarity of my last comentary.

You've asked a question, and I have tried to answer it.The question was: “Could such laws be passed and enforced in the US or Europe today, without the preceding centuries of chaos? “ .
The answer is affirmative , in Western Continental Europe, Russia and Asia

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG,
I was not thinking of the baby boomers, actually though that phenomenon may also be happening. I am visiting an intentional community where most of the social time involves meals where the focus is on the baby and dabbling in some pre-industrial shack construction. There is not much space/time for intellectual conversation, no folk dancing, playing music together, crafts beyond the hunter-gatherer level (though we do use power drills), much food production (food stamps are being used) and without the spiritual vision that drove those monks you mentioned who lived in hovels, well, we just have the hovels (pretty hovels though). It is a prime example of Steiner's idea of how the opposite of a bad thing is also a bad thing. Matriarchy is not much better than patriarchy. Adults being with children and losing their capacity for abstract thinking and reflection is no better than adults being disconnected from family and children due to working at the office/shop/lab too much. We haven't severed our connection to industrial civilization so I can't say how that binary opposite would be like, but I am guessing we wouldn't feel closer to nature if we were starving and had no solar panels/power drills/screws/jars/etc.

valekeeperx said...


Thanks for considering discussion of other religious sensibilities.

Another question came to mind as I read this week's post a second time, regarding figuration/abstraction/reflection, it would seem that some cultures do not proceed beyond abstraction, but reach a certain acceptable or comfortable state of equilibrium that is maintained for millennia. Many tribal groups, I expect, would fit such an assessment? Indigenous peoples here in California seem to have developed sustainable cultures that coexisted for more than 10,000 years. Though, admittedly, I may be significantly underinformed or perhaps there is insufficient evidence to satisfactorily characterize or understand indigenous history for such an assessment. At any rate, how do such cultures fit into the larger picture you are painting for us with this week’s post?

NoHype said...

I hope you'll accept my gratitude for clearing away a significant patch of fog in how I think about how others think. You've illuminated a set of unrealistic expectations that has, up to this point, influenced both how I communicate and my level of patience (or, more correctly, impatience) with others.

I'm embarrassed to admit that it's very likely I've pushed individuals into a rabbit hole or two, based on the assumption that all self-reflection is good. It never occurred to me that a mind with zero or low tolerance for ambiguity can only find itself lost in an unending self-referential logical loop. Realizing that it is a form of mental torture will cause me to be far more circumspect in the future.

It also helps me see your discussion about religious sensibility outside of my own tendency to think in the abstract. So, let's go to something a bit more pragmatic: the power of Christian iconography. It may end up bearing the same weight that Greek mythology had on Roman religious tradition, and was itself influenced by earlier polytheistic precedents.

If the current Catholic pope is a harbinger of things to come for traditionalists (looking to specific saints as guiding "sub-gods" for the types of behavior that will pull populations through bottleneck events), plus the re-emergent interest amongst progressives in the Wicca traditions, I would not be surprised in the least to see the religious sensibilities of newly-localized regional economies defined by specific patron saints and/or nature spirits.

Unknown said...

I’m a partially recovered post-structuralist and follower of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, but not so recovered as to resist the following point. One of post-structuralism’s primary insights, which can be traced back to its attempt to come to grips with the Holocaust, the failure of liberal democracy and communism alike, is that the same sort of ordinary self-interest and political bias that besets abstract thinkers also afflicts third-order “meta-reflection.” Thus (and history confirms and reconfirms this) what passes as “wisdom” in one generation or in one culture or subculture is not as immune as its practitioners like to think to the influences of half-remembered religious, political, or metaphysical narratives or the subterranean pressures of ordinary self-interest or professional flag planting.
A question that people like you and me should also be asking, John, is what sort of narrative desire for a cohesive metanarrative does the peak oil curve (shaped like a perfect dramatic rise and fall, after all) fulfill? What sort of sense of an ending do we get with apocalyptic narratives, even the more finely honed ones involving the quasi anti-drama of catabolic collapse?
Erik Lindberg

beneaththesurface said...

“Meanwhile the billions of dollars, the vast public relations campaigns, and the lavishly supplied and funded institutional networks that could do these same things on a much larger scale are by and large devoted to projects that are simply going to make things worse.”

Public libraries use up a relatively small amount of total resources and money that are used by our society, yet this sentence made me think of them. I work at the central public library of the city I live in, and I think a lot about the trends of our library system (and so many others). In the name of being “forward-looking,” “innovative,” and “inclusive,” the library is actively making the future worse. I’m a low-level employee and it’s hard for me to affect these changes in any significant way, especially when it seems that majority is behind them.

Some examples that illustrate the trends:

--Increasing quantities of what the library circulates is electronic: e-books, dowloadable music and videos. The library still has physical books, but it has around half the physical books it had eight years ago. As an employee, most of my required staff trainings relate to new technology. For example, soon I am required to take a training about e-books.

--I mainly work in the children’s area. The one plus here is that for the most part, people still value physical children’s books. However, the digital screen-world has infested this area too. All the libraries now have “early literacy” computer stations with animated games for children, and I see its effects. They distract children who would otherwise find interest in books or listening to stories (where they would have to create some of their own images).

--also in the children’s section: for our section the administration decided to buy a table that is like a giant ipod. Children can play computer games on it and access the web, and do other virtual activities. It makes me want to throw up, and now I’m expected to know how to use it. Somehow the administrators thought books are not exciting enough. And also, I keep thinking how many high-quality physical books the several thousand dollars spent on this could have bought…

--like many public libraries now, ours included, young adults can come play video games. I know it is argued that libraries provide access to media, and nowadays that includes not just books, but computers, music, videos, video games, etc. and to choose not to carry such things gets labeled as censorship. And that teens who only would go to the library to play these games, may stumble upon a book in the process. Even so, something doesn’t sit right with me that people use the library space to play video games, and that it has taken over space that would otherwise be devoted for books. And video game systems are costly, especially when there’s pressure to upgrade them to newer models.

--In the adult computer section, there is now a 3-D printer, and a lot of hype around that. I also keep thinking what the money spent on that could have bought in terms of books…

beneaththesurface said...

(continued from previous comment)

--the library system is spending millions of dollars renovating and modernizing libraries. While there are some specific changes that seem sensible (such as making entrances better handicap-accessible), by and large, I like the old libraries better. The new libraries have ugly architecture, and lack the coziness and character of some of the older libraries. Also, some of the newer renovated libraries have less room for books than their older versions, therefore some book collections had to be deleted. Apparently the Collections Division has no say in architectural decisions. There’s a neighborhood library near me that hasn’t been renovated, and I like it how it is: nice long wood tables with a few scratches, and a very rustic feel. I know the new library will be worse. Beyond that, so much money is being spent on the “image” of the library, as opposed to the richness inside. The cover is not the most important aspect of a book!

This video exemplifies some of the “innovative” “futuristic” trends libraries might take, and most of it sickens me:

It pains me to see where this all is leading. Nevertheless, I do like many aspects of my job, and there are still good services that are offered: author talks, public meeting spaces, storytelling festivals, and still many jewels of books that can be borrowed from the library, even William Catton’s Overshoot. I just don’t know how to deal with the dissonance between my belief in the importance of libraries with what I see happening. I greatly await your future post on libraries of the deindustrial future!

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Readers may enjoy Wendell Berry's essay on why he doesn't use a computer:

I think individuals may "get away with murder" in the culture of "greed is good", but eventually, the skies will turn dark with chickens, coming home to roost, for such ways of living.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, I'll keep that in mind.

Anselmo, my apologies! I missed that. Fair enough; I wonder myself if it might take something closer to 400 years of warfare and chaos, as it did in Japan.

Iuval, oog. I've seen that sort of situation, and fled.

Valekeeperx, in nonliterate cultures neither abstraction nor reflection can become dominant forces, because there's no way for abstractions to build up over time into whole intellectual systems -- it takes many lifetimes to get from the first stirrings of collective abstraction to the plunge into nihilism, and if each generation is basically starting over from the same set of figurations, that doesn't happen. The cycle I've tracked is purely a hazard of literate cultures, and specifically of literate cultures in which literacy isn't limited to a priestly elite.

NoHype, you're welcome. It's an interesting question which set of contemporary iconography will end up being central to the Second Religiosity, and which will be rediscovered centuries on in the ecotechnic renaissance of, say, 2900 CE.

Unknown Erik, I ain't arguing. Every form of human thought -- figuration, abstraction, reflection -- takes place in human brains, which are attached to human beings, and therefore are shaped by human passions, unstated agendas, etc., etc. The best we can do is try to be conscious of that potential in our own mental activities.

As for the metanarratives of peak oil, I've tried to address that repeatedly in discussing the shape of time and the difference between linear and cyclic cosmologies. The point I'd like to make about my model is that it's emphatically not an end to anything -- it means, quite simply, that life and history keep on going along their accustomed paths. It's a metanarrative of continuity, in other words, presented as a counter to the pervasive modern metanarrative of the imminent end of history.

Beneath, ugh. Yes, I've seen the same thing in other libraries, including my old home town Seattle, which replaced a really rather pleasant downtown library with a piece of instant urban blight that was not merely hideous, but very well designed to frustrate the needs of anybody who actually wants to find and read a book. Of course there was all the usual strutting and preening about electronic resources, but I moved out of town before it got too much for me.

Matthew, thanks for the link! As for chickens coming home to roost, the sky is already full of the rustling of their wings...

Cherokee Organics said...


hehe! My thoughts exactly. If greater productivity and resilience was such an easy thing for farmers, well I for one would be doing it. Unfortunately organic agriculture takes a really long time before it gets very productive. It is a hard school.

Stumpy the wallaby ate my oak grove the other day (yes, the dog ate my homework)! Fortunately, there are quite a few of the local blackwood (acacia melanoxylon) groves still un-eaten, but I am very displeased. Plus, he has had the temerity to bring his new harem (2 ladies) here for a bit of a bite too. He's in a good paddock, the rotter.

At best the article displays an avoidance technique? It is a pretty scary thought after all. The comment itself allocates responsibility to someone else though. The disconnect is frightening, but I hadn’t noticed the finessing.

Post modernism is a difficult subject for me as I've always glossed over any deeper understanding of the subject. It has always seemed like some sort of abstract construct, so I've sort of ignored it.

The difficulty comes from the lack of available brain resources to consider the issue of post modernism. I have to literally be able to identify hundreds of plants here, their uses, their cycles, how to cook or preserve them. Then on top of all of that there are the systems here such as water, electricity, firewood, chooks, worm farm, soils etc. There just is no space for abstractions.

Honestly, I have no idea what anyone even means by the term "post modernism". Everyone here could be speaking about space lizards for all I know - whatever they are! hehe!

Life here is seriously forcing a refocus of my attention from the abstract to the utilitarian.

Hi Phil,

The Afghans have a long history with Australia. They worked on repairs and supplies for the old inland telegraph routes. Interestingly, camels are quite the feral herbivore right across the outback! I've eaten camel pie which is available in central Australia and it is very good eating. Crocodile meat was better, but it may have been because they were feeding them chickens?

You are spot on too as Liebig's law of the minimum applies here. Phosphate is in short supply right across this old continent. It is just that no one thinks / talks about it (here at least).

I have literally brought in to this farm on the side of a 6 million year old volcano, 400 cubic metres of: compost; mulch; mushroom compost; rock dust; and other stuff. The top soil is at least 200mm deep in spots. Despite all of that, things still grow slowly here.

It would be nice if more people over here were concerned and willing to do something about it, but I don’t see it. The early explorers (Major Mitchell for those that are interested) used to report that the soils were at least 22% carbon, but the sheep ate it all up within a few decades.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jason,

Good luck with the resolving the mystery of the chestnut thief.



Bogatyr said...

Glenn wrote: "Sleeping in a yurt for the last 14 years, I've become a bit of a Central Asia fan. The article Ursachi linked to jibes with what I've been reading on the Australian and New Zealander's backpack travellers websites".

Having lived in Beijing for several years, and also having an interest in Russia and Central Asia, I would also agree with the article. To the extent that the Chinese are considering any relocation of surplus population, they're talking about Africa, in my experience.

Of course, as this week's ending of the one-child policy shows, the Chinese are now worried about the ageing of their population, not about a surplus of productive workers.

Glenn, I'm envious! One of my long-term goals is to sleep in a yurt far out on the steppes...

Ursachi Alexandru said...

If you find the time to read that article, please tell me what impression you've made about it and by all means link me some of the articles you've read. It's the fact that this particular one is based on reports from on-the-ground that gave it credibility in my mind, but I'm curious about your sources. Again, sorry for the offtopic. I'm following the current discussions with much interest.

sunseekernv said...

@JMG - just read Colin Tudge's Neaderthals, Bandits & Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began. Having read Cohen's The Food Crisis In Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture first, Tudge was a bit disappointing (but I'd still recommend it), but in 53 pages (vs. 341) I suppose one can only say so much. There is substantial overlap between the two books, though Cohen sticks to the demonstrable facts with copious references, while Tudge speculates some about social factors. Tudge is a nice quick overview for those who don't relish the densely footnoted style typical of serious academic books, and his suggestion to read the Christian Bible with an eye to the context of developing agriculture is novel - context means so much for effective understanding. Both put the kibosh on the notion that agriculture came from "progress".

re: "we worship science rather than practicing it" - amen.

re: El Gaucho's question - excellent plainspeaking. So what is the essential nature of real evil? My take is unfairness forced upon others, which seems to me born of the illusion of separateness and separability, those in turn born of incorrect abstractions/reflections.

@El Gaucho - maybe another old fashioned word applies: conscience.
An awareness of goodness seems to be involved with fairness, and ultimately, an awareness that everything is connected.

Also, your notion that "when I'm dead and gone" may in your conscious mind make "sense" as a finality. But what if (an) unconscious/subliminal level of mind associated with "you" knows that reincarnation is an absolute fact (because that level links all your "lifetimes", being beyond time).

At a less metaphysical level, knowing at some level of reincarnation, you wouldn't want to trash the ecosystem, etc., because you might want to "come back" to experience various things you'd like to (often involving others), and a severely trashed world might not be so conducive to that. I have some reincarnation book references at the end of a comment last week:

thrig said...

A non-computer user not using a computer is an easy argument; for contrast, consider a computer-supporting user on why they *hate* computers (whose opinions as a computer-supporter I fully agree with—I just completed ripping out yet more notification spam on the OS I'm presently using):

Oh hmm. Time to puzzle over the captca.

Janet D said...

@ the film The Animal Communicator (which I think you can watch for free still by following your link) - that was quite a mind-expanding film for me. The summary for non-watchers: the film movingly documents a woman who demonstrates an ability to communicate with animals of all kinds, and demonstrates it eerily well. Made me realize how puny the modern mental concept of "the world" is, and how much arrogance we display about things we really know absolutely nothing about. I have great empathy for the animal beings who are stuck on this planet with a bunch of blockheads, really.

@beneaththesurface....I have fought the e-library beast for some time. Sent a letter to our local library 4 years ago after they stuck computers in the children's section & I quit going because I couldn't get my kids to pay attention to the books anymore...their heads were constantly swiveling to view the moving images on the screen. The explanation I was given: "but kids today engage with technology and they actually learn to read that way". When I pointed out that survey after survey showed that kids older than 10 rarely read any books, they had no answer. I have since found another library which keeps the computers separate and we are back to loving the library trips again. I am thankful to be so fortunate.

@ Chris...on the difficulty of organic farming...I am only trying to garden, and manage mostly to kill more than I grow. I am getting better, but I've heard it said (by one who's actually done it) that it takes at least 10 years to learn enough to actually grow the majority of one's own food. Given how few are even starting (or interested), it's rather frightening.....

Phil Harris said...

@ Cherokee
I had seen the old pics of Aussie camels but never connected them with Afghanistan!

Good luck to permaculture pioneering some various methods for farming to persevere in Australia.

I seem to remember seeing some effective means for dealing with soils salting up in some of the farmed river valleys?

Your forest farm on higher ground sounds like one move in the right direction, if you dodge the natural fire-climax ecosystems? If that is what they are in your neck of the woods?

very best

Phil Harris said...

Just a hint of a new religious sensibility?

"An encyclical on care for the planet is said to be on the way."

"Witness his reaction to a letter – sent to "His Holiness Francis, Vatican City" – from a single woman, pregnant by a married man who had since abandoned her. To her astonishment, the pope telephoned her directly and told her that if, as she feared, priests refused to baptise her baby, he would perform the ceremony himself."

It would be nice to think the Catholic Church could turn on a sixpence (dime?). It mightgive some pause to the "greed is good" nonsense. I was cheered recently when that German bishop with a taste for conspicuous consumption was put on a very low-budget flight to Rome for a chat with the man.

Phil H
PS Some of these stories I am reading of 'intentional communities' courtesy of your blog, are piteous: some real tragedies for the young people involved.

Anselmo said...

Response to your commentary (11/16/13/10.32 PM)

You manifest doubts about whether it would be possible to adapt a modern society to the Era of Scarcity, in the style of how it was made in Japan of the Tokugawa Era . My answer is that I think that it is possible. According with the examples of Cuba and North Korea, which have faced their particular oil shortages, when the USSR ceased to supply them with oil. None of the those states collapsed. In the case of Cuba, I have no news of any famine. But I have news of a lot of misery. According to my information about the famines that were in Korea. It were due to lack of fuel for trucks to transport grain once harvested.

In both cases, those are Stalinist regimes in which there aren´t freedoms.

It seems clear that the necessary measures,to prevent the collapse from exhaustion of resources, can be taken by Stalinist regimes. But it is also clear that in the long term these dictatorial regimes stagnate their societies and make them very vulnerable.

jeffinwa said...

For some reason this weeks post has driven home to me just how momentous this popping of our industrial age bubble is.

It's the lifestyle of industrial society that legends will be told of to a disbelieving audience.

At 62 I don't know how much of the transition from one age to the next I'll witness but this seems to be the physical manifestation of what we've been expecting since the 60's.

JMG said: "it's that only a handful of people out on the furthest fringes of contemporary culture notice that there's anything at all odd about these stunningly self-defeating patterns of behavior"
My spouse and I have always lived on those further fringes, much to the chagrin of friends and family, getting by just fine while treading lightly; Love and respect and gratitude towards life and Nature have served us well on our journey.
JMG, we surely appreciate your talent to bring the light of understanding of what we knew to be true to conscious awareness.

gods are alive, magic is afoot
Magic is afoot, gods are alive
to paraphrase Grace Slick

Glenn said...

Bogatyr said...

Glenn, I'm envious! One of my long-term goals is to sleep in a yurt far out on the steppes...

Well, ours is in the woods of the Olympic Peninsula; at the time we built it, portability was paramount, but we've been on the same site for almost 10 years. I'd like to build a slightly smaller (16' vs 18') and more authentic one now that I know a good deal more than I did in 1999.


Marrowstone Island

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@jeffinwa--The poem you paraphrase was written, set to music and recorded by Leonard Cohen. Buffy Saint Marie also recorded it.

60 Minutes (American television news magazine) tonight is titled "Powering the Plantet". I wonder what this very corporate institution of journalism is going to say.

Marcello said...

"But it is also clear that in the long term these dictatorial regimes stagnate their societies and make them very vulnerable."

Of course but then if economic growth goes out of the window stagnation will be the norm across the board and democracy will be difficult or impossible to mantain; while from a technical point of view the printing press might suffice I suspect that the social dynamics of a shrinking economic pie will destroy it.
Anyway I can't speak for Cuba but the DPRK is propped up by chinese and international aid, without which it might well collapse. They are also committed to punch well above their weght in military terms so perhaps it balances out but it is hard to tell.

Johan said...

A most interesting take on Barfield - not mine, but very much worth thinking more about! It's been a while since I read *Saving the Appearances*, but the schema seems to fit the thesis quite nicely. And if we now just connect Barfieldian figuration with Spengler's characterization of cultures, we'll be getting pretty close to what this series of posts is about, I think.

(By the way, good to see abstraction and reflection making a comeback, especially in such good company! I wish you could convince a publisher to buy a book on philosophy, including the philosophy of the M word!)

To me, there's another aspect of Barfield's work that offers even more insight into our current predicament. It's the polar relation between what Barfield called expression and communication in *Speaker's Meaning*, and the poetic and prosaic principles in *Poetic Diction*. The polarity has today been stretched right up to the breaking point, which leads right into Vico's barbarism of reflection.

That polarity is arguably more an issue with reflection than with either figuration or abstraction, but that would lead us deeper into a Barfield discussion - especially his concept of participation, which threatens to lead off-topic quickly :)

Very much looking forward to the upcoming post!

redoak said...

Putting the garden to bed this weekend gave me ample to time to compose some thoughts on the historical trajectory of thoughts and beliefs. At a very broad viewing, the history of western philosophy follows the pattern quite well: from figurative, to abstract, to reflective thinking. In fact, the traditional historical rendering of western philosophy into classical, modern, and post-modern thinkers is an approximation and acknowledgement of the pattern. It is a very useful set of categories.

Meanwhile, the development of an individual’s personal thoughts and beliefs follows a similar trajectory, but one that is deeply influenced by the historical position of their culture. This begs a very important question. What is the anticipated effect of one’s historical circumstances on the full development of one’s thoughts and beliefs? If you are careful, this question can become a powerful tool for interpreting the best philosophers as they struggle to assist in the education of the young of their tribe.

Not all cultural positions are well disposed to the full development of your thoughts and beliefs. For example, in a society with a strong bent for the figurative, abstraction and reflection are at best suspect, at worst blasphemy. Of course, that kind of thing is simply inspiring to the types of young minds we are considering. No, it is the society that has fully embraced the barbarism of reflection that is most dangerous. Young minds today are formed within an infinite horizon which dissolves the care and concern necessary for development and maturity. One cannot begin with reflection.

A false wisdom reigns in the western industrial mind. It cunningly assumes primacy by reducing all other claims through a mendacious assertion of facts, method, and the measurable, over values, intentions, and wholes. It destroys the natural development of philosophy, and makes our best teachers appear as madmen. Those who react against it turn to the worst kinds of superstition and ideology just to escape the torture of continuing the hopeless struggle. The middle way is all but lost, except perhaps here on the ADR!

jeffinwa said...

@Deborah Bender

Thank you for clarifying the dim memories; a beautiful poem and Buffy Saint Marie did it justice.

Crow Hill said...

Could be of interest to some members of The Archdruid Report community:

The Appropriate Technology Sourcebook

Cherokee Organics said...


Nice work with the Sauron comment. I'd never interpreted Tolkien's writing that way before. Very subtle and definitely worth an Archdruid guffaw!!!! hehe! Your comment was much larger than I'd first considered it to be too.

Don't you think it is ironic that the cult of individualism is so intolerant and fearful of disenssus? It seems to be a very insecure culture.

Hi Phil,

Thanks. I've read recently that they believe the salt is accumulated in aquifers from rainfall over a massive time scale. Salt isn't a problem at this location here though and pumping water from the ground is a no-no (a couple of neighbours have water bores). The irrigators are speeding on their own demise.

You are spot on too about the fire ecology. I got into a bit of trouble earlier this year for reducing the fire risk, so now I do what I am legally able to achieve, but not what I know has to be done. It is only a point in time....

Hi Janet,

Yes, that is my concern too. There is difficulty in quick transitioning from industrial to organic agriculture. It reminds me of the old engineering saying: "good, cheap, fast - pick any two". A good example is the Macadamia tree which can take up to 10 years (probably longer this far South) before they produce fruit... Just sayin...



Anselmo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anselmo said...

I think that you ' ll be right , in the case that the forces that drives a civilization will be only material

Steve Murgaski said...

Hello. I find that I have a lot of reactions to your writing, but that the style of it often puts me off of writing a comment. As a specific example, would you consider using the expression "Dear reader" less often? It strikes me as patronizing.

The scope of your ideas, and the literary references, are intoxicatingly vast. But I'm afraid you know that too well already.

Robert Mathiesen said...

In contrast to Steve Murgaski, I rather like the 19th-century features our host's style. But then, geezer that I am, I tend to ignore things that smack too much of the 21st century. :-)

sgage said...

@ Steve Murgaski

The expression "Dear Reader" is a well established trope in English essay writing for a very very long time now. I do not see how you get 'patronizing' out of it. I get the opposite.

In any case, if that's what's preventing you from posting here, well, that seems a bit overly sensitive. Just jump in - there are all sorts of voices represented here, and all are respected.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

I read an account of hand drilling a well (in old Australia) by turning a hand push bar to a drill. It took days or weeks. Does anyone know what this method of water well drilling was called?

deedl said...

The comparison between individual development of the mind and the development of societies reminds me of the spiral dynamics model ( This model also tries to explain how the mind conceptualizes the world in new ways if the old concepts do not fit reality and how societies reflect the mindset of its inhabitants.

Another parallel i want to point out is that of maslows hierarchie of needs. Since civilization is a result of surpluses to feed specialists, times of low surpluses are dark ages. The smaller the resource base the more people are concerned about the basic needs as food and shelter. When those needs are fulfilled, then the needs up the hierarchy become more abstract, such as freedom, self-actualization and so on. So may be that civilization and abstract thinking coincide and dark ages and non-abstract thinking also coincide, because the same surpluses that feed the specialists of civilization enable people to live up to the abstract needs of the upper levels in the hierarchie of needs.

Finally i will point out the possibility that dark-age-societies may also have abstract concepts that are not considered so by us. Some time ago you wrote about the importance of honor in societies of herders. Isnt honor an abstraction that we lost on our way from the dark ages to todays world? Shouldnt be honor seen as an moral abstraction instead of a primitive behaviour? Blinds our thought that we are the best and brightest of all eras us for abstractions of the past, disposing them as unrational without really diving into them? (no rhetoric question but real ones)

Compound F said...

Let me interject, before finishing reading: I sort of understand your contempt for "evangelical atheism," which is perhaps a thoughtful put-down. What I don't get is your thoughtful praise for deification. Maybe you put it in one of your books (I've read three, so far, and haven't found it, although that explanation was admittedly not your purpose in those books). Now, (here's where I potentially shoot myself, but I think not) I'm looking for a straight argument on the benefits of deification.

Nano said...

A small synchronistic find/share

Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts. Being born and growing up are such common experiences that people seldom consider what they involve. As most readers of books pass from cover to cover, realizing not at all that the letters which form the words are the product of painstaking craftsmanship and that the imposition of the type upon the page, the composition of the title-piece, the binding of the volume, are the result of centuries of study and design, so also we take as a matter of course the miracle of being alive, and the comings and goings of the men and women about us.