Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Bright Were The Halls Then

Arnold Toynbee, whose magisterial writings on history have been a recurring source of inspiration for this blog, has pointed out an intriguing difference between the way civilizations rise and the way they fall. On the way up, he noted, each civilization tends to diverge not merely from its neighbors but from all other civilizations throughout history.  Its political and religious institutions, its arts and architecture, and all the other details of its daily life take on distinctive forms, so that as it nears maturity, even the briefest glance at one of its creations is often enough to identify its source.

 Once the peak is past and the long road down begins, though, that pattern of divergence shifts into reverse, slowly at first, and then with increasing speed. A curious sort of homogenization takes place: distinctive features are lost, and common patterns emerge in their place.  That doesn’t happen all at once, and different cultural forms lose their distinctive outlines at different rates, but the further down the trajectory of decline and fall a civilization proceeds, the more it resembles every other civilization in decline. By the time that trajectory bottoms out, the resemblance is all but total; compare one postcollapse society to another—the societies of post-Roman Europe, let’s say, with those of post-Mycenean Greece—and it can be hard to believe that dark age societies so similar could have emerged out of the wreckage of civilizations so different.

It’s interesting to speculate about why this reversion to the mean should be so regular a theme in the twilight and afermath of so many civilizations. Still, the recurring patterns of decline and fall have another implication—or, if you will, another application. I’ve noted here and elsewhere that modern industrial society, especially but not only here in North America, is showing all the usual symptoms of a civilization on its way toward history’s compost bin. If we’ve started along the familiar track of decline and fall—and I think a very good case can be made for that hypothesis—it should be possible to map the standard features of the way down onto the details of our current situation, and come up with a fairly accurate sense of the shape of the future ahead of us.

All the caveats raised in last week’s Archdruid Report post deserve repetition here, of course. The part of history that can be guessed in advance is a matter of broad trends and overall patterns, not the sort of specific incidents that make up so much of history as it happens.  Exactly how the pressures bearing down on late industrial America will work out in the day-by-day realities of politics, economics, and society will be determined by the usual interplay of individual choices and pure dumb luck. That said, the broad trends and overall patterns are worth tracking in their own right, and some things that look as though they ought to belong to the realm of the unpredictable—for example, the political and military dynamics of border regions, or the relations among the imperial society’s political class, its increasingly disenfranchised lower classes, and the peoples outside its borders—follow predictable patterns in case after case in history, and show every sign of doing the same thing this time around too.

What I’m suggesting, in fact, is that in a very real sense, it’s possible to map out the history of North America over the next five centuries or so in advance. That’s a sweeping claim, and I’m well aware that the immediate response of at least some of my readers will be to reject the possibility out of hand. I’d like to encourage those who have this reaction to try to keep an open mind. In the posts to come, I plan on illustrating every significant point I make with historical examples from the twilight years of other civilizations, as well as evidence from the current example insofar as that’s available yet.  Thus it should be possible for my readers to follow the argument as it unfolds and see how it hangs together.

Now of course all this presupposes that the lessons of the past actually have some relevance to our future. I’m aware that that’s a controversial proposal these days, but to my mind the controversy says more about the popular idiocies of our time than it does about the facts on the ground. I’ve discussed in previous posts how people in today’s America have taken to using thoughtstoppers such as "but it’s different this time!" to protect themselves from learning anything from history—a habit that no doubt does wonders for their peace of mind today, though it pretty much guarantees them a face-first collision with a brick wall of misery and failure not much further down time’s road. Those who insist on clinging to that habit are not going to find the next year or so of posts here to their taste.

They won’t be the only ones. Among the resources I plan on using to trace out the history of the next five centuries is the current state of the art in the environmental sciences, and that includes the very substantial body of evidence and research on anthropogenic climate change. I’m aware that some people consider that controversial, and of course some very rich corporate interests have invested a lot of money into convincing people that it’s controversial, but I’ve read extensively on all sides of the subject, and the arguments against taking anthropogenic climate change seriously strike me as specious. I don’t propose to debate the matter here, either—there are plenty of forums for that. While I propose to leaven current model-based estimates on climate change and sea level rise with the evidence from paleoclimatology, those who insist that there’s nothing at all the matter with treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer for greenhouse gases are not going to be happy with the posts ahead.

I also propose to discuss industrial civilization’s decline and fall without trying to sugarcoat the harsher dimensions of that process, and that’s going to ruffle yet another set of feathers. Regular readers will recall a post earlier this year discussing the desperate attempts to insist that it won’t be that bad, really it won’t, that were starting to show up in the flurry of criticism each of these weekly essays reliably fields.  That’s even more common now than it was then; nowadays, in fact, whenever one of my posts uses words such as "decline" or "dark age," I can count on being taken to task by critics who insist earnestly that such language is too negative, that of course we’re facing a shift to a different kind of society but I shouldn’t describe it in such disempowering terms, and so on through the whole vocabulary of the obligatory optimism that’s so fashionable among the privileged these days.

I’m pretty sure, as noted in the blog post just cited, that this marks the beginning of a shift by the peak oil community as a whole out of the second of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous five stages, the stage of anger, into the third stage of bargaining. That’s welcome, in that it brings us closer to the point at which people have finished dealing with their own psychological issues and can get to work coping with the predicament of our time, but it’s still as much an evasion of that predicament as denial and anger were. The fall of a civilization is not a pleasant prospect—and that’s what we’re talking about, of course: the decline and fall of industrial civilization, the long passage through a dark age, and the first stirrings of the successor societies that will build on our ruins. That’s how the life cycle of a civilization ends, and it’s the way that ours is ending right now.

What that means in practice is that most of the familiar assumptions people in the industrial world like to make about the future will be stood on their heads in the decades and centuries ahead. Most of the rhetoric being splashed about these days in support of this or that or the other Great Turning that will save us from the consequences of our own actions assumes, as a matter of course, that a majority of people in the United States—or, heaven help us, in the whole industrial world—can and will come together around some broadly accepted set of values and some agreed-upon plan of action to rescue industrial civilization from the rising spiral of crises that surrounds it. My readers may have noticed that things seem to be moving in the opposite direction, and history suggests that they’re quite correct.

Among the standard phenomena of decline and fall, in fact, is the shattering of the collective consensus that gives a growing society the capacity to act together to accomplish much of anything at all.  The schism between the political class and the rest of the population—you can certainly call these "the 1%" and "the 99%" if you wish—is simply the most visible of the fissures that spread through every declining civilization, breaking it into a crazy quilt of dissident fragments pursuing competing ideals and agendas. That process has a predictable endpoint, too:  as the increasingly grotesque misbehavior of the political class loses it whatever respect and loyalty it once received from the rest of society, and the masses abandon their trust in the political institutions of their society, charismatic leaders from outside the political class fill the vacuum, violence becomes the normal arbiter of power, and the rule of law becomes a polite fiction when it isn’t simply abandoned altogether.

The economic sphere of a society in decline undergoes a parallel fragmentation for different reasons. In ages of economic expansion, the labor of the working classes yields enough profit to cover the costs of a more or less complex superstructure, whether that superstructure consists of the pharaohs and priesthoods of ancient Egypt or the bureaucrats and investment bankers of late industrial America. As expansion gives way to contraction, the production of goods and services no longer yields the profit ot once did, but the members of the political class, whose power and wealth depend on the superstructure, are predictably unwilling to lose their privileged status and have the power to keep themselves fed at everyone else’s expense. The reliable result is a squeeze on productive economic activity that drives a declining civilization into one convulsive financial crisis after another, and ends by shredding its capacity to produce even the most necessary goods and services .

In response, people begin dropping out of the economic mainstream altogether, because scrabbling for subsistence on the economic fringes is less futile than trying to get by in a system increasingly rigged against them. Rising taxes, declining government services, and systematic privatization of public goods by the rich compete to alienate more and more people from the established order, and the debasement of the money system in an attempt to make up for faltering tax revenues drives more and more economic activity into forms of exchange that don’t involve money at all.  As the monetary system fails, in turn, economies of scale become impossible to exploit; the economy fragments and simplifies until bare economic subsistence on local resources, occasionally supplemented by plunder, becomes the sole surviving form of economic activity

Taken together, these patterns of political fragmentation and economic unraveling send the political class of a failing civilization on a feet-first journey through the exit doors of history.  The only skills its members have, by and large, are those needed to manipulate the complex political and economic levers of their society, and their power depends entirely on the active loyalty of their subordinates, all the way down the chain of command, and the passive obedience of the rest of society.  The collapse of political institutions strips the political class of any claim to legitimacy, the breakdown of the economic system limits its ability to buy the loyalty of those that it can no longer inspire, the breakdown of the levers of control strips its members of the only actual power they’ve got, and that’s when they find themselves having to compete for followers with the charismatic leaders rising just then from the lower echelons of society. The endgame, far more often than not, comes when the political class tries to hire the rising leaders of the disenfranchised as a source of muscle to control the rest of the populace, and finds out the hard way that it’s the people who carry the weapons, not the ones who think they’re giving the orders, who actually exercise power.

The implosion of the political class has implications that go well beyond a simple change in personnel at the upper levels of society. The political and social fragmentation mentioned earlier applies just as forcefully to the less tangible dimensions of human life—its ideas and ideals, its beliefs and values and cultural practices. As a civilization tips over into decline, its educational and cultural institutions, its arts, literature, sciences, philosophies and religions all become identified with its political class; this isn’t an accident, as the political class generally goes out of its way to exploit all these things for the sake of its own faltering authority and influence. To those outside the political class, in turn, the high culture of the civilization becomes alien and hateful, and when the political class goes down, the cultural resources that it harnessed to its service go down with it.

Sometimes, some of those resources get salvaged by subcultures for their own purposes, as Christian monks and nuns salvaged portions of classical Greek and Roman philosophy and science for the greater glory of God. That’s not guaranteed, though, and even when it does happen, the salvage crew picks and chooses for its own reasons—the survival of classical Greek astronomy in the early medieval West, for example, happened simply because the Church needed to know how to calculate the date of Easter. Where no such motive exists, losses can be total: of the immense corpus of Roman music, the only thing that survives is a fragment of one tune that takes about 25 seconds to play, and there are historical examples in which even the simple trick of literacy got lost during the implosion of a civilization, and had to be imported centuries later from somewhere else.

All these transformations impact the human ecology of a falling civilization—that is, the basic relationships with the natural world on which every human society depends for day to day survival. Most civilizations know perfectly well what has to be done to keep topsoil in place, irrigation water flowing, harvests coming in, and all the other details of human interaction with the environment on a stable footing. The problem is always how to meet the required costs as economic growth ends, contraction sets in, and the ability of central governments to enforce their edicts begins to unravel. The habit of feeding the superstructure at the expense of everything else impacts the environment just as forcefully as it does the working classes:  just as wages drop to starvation levels and keep falling, funding for necessary investments in infrastructure, fallow periods needed for crop rotation, and the other inputs that keep an agricultural system going in a sustainable manner all get cut. 

As a result, topsoil washes away, agricultural hinterlands degrade into deserts or swamps, vital infrastructure collapses from malign neglect, and the ability of the land to support human life starts on the cascading descent that characterizes the end stage of decline—and so, in turn, does population, because human numbers in the last analysis are a dependent variable, not an independent one. Populations don’t grow or shrink because people just up and decide one day to have more or fewer babies; they’re constrained by ecological limits. In an expanding civilization, as its wealth and resource base increases, the population expands as well, since people can afford to have more children, and since more of the children born each year have access to the nutrition and basic health care that let them survive to breeding age themselves.  When growth gives way to decline, population typically keeps rising for another generation or so due to sheer demographic momentum, and then begins to fall.

The consequences can be traced in the history of every collapsing civilization.  As the rural economy implodes due to agricultural failure on top of the more general economic decline, a growing fraction of the population concentrates in urban slum districts, and as public health measures collapse, these turn into incubators for infectious disease. Epidemics are thus a common feature in the history of declining civilizations, and of course war and famine are also significant factors, but an even larger toll is taken by the constant upward pressure exerted on death rates by poverty, malnutrition, crowding, and stress. As deaths outnumber births, population goes into a decline that can easily continue for centuries. It’s far from uncommon for the population of an area in the wake of a civilization to equal less than 10% of the figure it reached at the precollapse peak.

Factor these patterns together, follow them out over the usual one to three centuries of spiralling decline, and you have the standard picture of a dark age society: a mostly deserted countryside of small and scattered villages where subsistence farmers, illiterate and impoverished, struggle to coax fertility back into the depleted topsoil. Their goverments consist of the personal rule of local warlords, who take a share of each year’s harvest in exchange for protection from raiders and rough justice administered in the shade of any convenient tree. Their literature consists of poems, lovingly memorized and chanted to the sound of a simple stringed instrument, recalling the great deeds of the charismatic leaders of a vanished age, and these same poems also contain everything they know about their history. Their health care consists of herbs, a little rough surgery, and incantations cannily used to exploit the placebo effect. Their science—well, I’ll let you imagine that for yourself.

And the legacy of the past? Here’s some of what an anonymous poet in one dark age had to say about the previous civilization:

Bright were the halls then, many the bath-houses,
High the gables, loud the joyful clamor,
Many the meadhalls full of delights
Until mighty Fate overthrew it all.
Wide was the slaughter, the plague-time came,
Death took away all those brave men.
Broken their ramparts, fallen their halls,
The city decayed; those who built it
Fell to the earth. Thus these courts crumble,
And roof-tiles fall from this arch of stone.

Fans of Anglo-Saxon poetry will recognize that as a passage from "The Ruin." If the processes of history follow their normal pattern, they will be chanting poems like this about the ruins of our cities four or five centuries from now. How we’ll get there, and what is likely to happen en route, will be the subject of most of the posts here for the next year or so.


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Andy Brown said...

Well, this should be interesting. Bright indeed have been the halls - despite all waste and stupidities. I'll try to remember that as you take us on your stygian tour of the future.

thrig said...

Well, once you climb up onto the energy plateau, one can run about with ease, while getting back down again requires the hard work of picking your way carefully back down from those heights. Most will stay up on the plateau while they can, as it is not economic etc to start climbing down early. Also, the plateau can change in size. That's about as far as I've gotten imagining it, though.

Logan said...

Our vine-covered skyscrapers and crumbled superhighways orþanc enta geweorc, the cunning work of giants.

Thomas Daulton said...

Sounds like a great overarching theme for the next several months of blog. I for one am particularly eager to hear an outsider's take on climate change. It's important to my field, so in some sense I'm a professional. I'm an Engineer who does a lot of development work and planning, mostly on the coast, so I have access to the original scientific studies as well as the governmental policy responses. Lately following the various studies and predictions regarding climate change has become a lot like following the pop-science headlines about health and diet: for every serious scientific study, there's an equally serious and pedigreed study that says something completely different and incompatible, so it's hard to come away with any coherent understanding. Of course I can't promise I'll take your synthesis as gospel, but I'm sure you are not disturbed by that. I'm interested in anyone who wants to explore the whole picture instead of this or that detail.

Toro Loki said...

A Dark Age? The thought brings joy into my heart, as I am sure it does to many others.
However, I think this may be a misnomer. Perhaps we should actually call it the "Light Age".
Consider : When peak oil starts to bite, we will have much less pollution. Perhaps we will be able to see the Light of the stars at night. Not to mention the Light of the Moon, and even the Sun in certain smoggy regions.
If central government starts to collapse, our tax burdens just might ( no guarantee) also become Lighter.
Not to mention our Lighter diets and our Lighter bodyweights.
So,take heart, a Light Age is approaching, not a Dark Age.
p.s. Don't forget to brew some Light beer to offer to the Light Horseman of the "Apocalypse".

Slow Moe said...

What can individuals do to prepare for the collapse? Is there something you have written about on this topic previously that im not aware of? I dont even know what kind of preparation im asking for, really.

Pongo said...

If I had to make a few predictions about what the future of America after the dark ages will look like, I think I would start with the following:

1) A thousand years from now many American cities - I'm thinking especially of places like Phoenix that are particularly uninhabitable - will be archaeological paradises for intrepid explorers and researchers, and will otherwise be deserted aside from their periodic expeditions. Other American cities - the ones that survive in some form because they are located in a place where the available resources make it logical to maintain a city - will be like Jerusalem, where municipal building projects have to be undertaken with the cooperation of archaeologists because they tend to dig up so many ancient artifacts.

2) Depictions of American culture, and the culture of the rest of the industrial world, will be recognizable as a genre or subgenre in whatever the dominant pop culture mediums of the day are, but they will be twisted into whatever form the creatives of that era find suitable to their needs and would thus seem strange - even farcical - if any members of our own society could manage to be alive to see them. It will include works that mix and match elements of disparate decades that shouldn't go together, either through historical ignorance or a gap in the historical record or creative expediency - ie, you'll see characters dressing in 70's fashions but acting like 50's stock characters with some surviving fragment of 90's pop music playing in the background. You will also see elements of the now dead culture depicted in ways that would seem completely blasphemous to us now; think of the way horror movies have twisted Egyptian religion around for cheap thrills (the ubiquitous walking mummy avenging the defilement of his tomb), or countless depictions of Roman civilization in Hollywood costume epics, most of which said much more about the values and norms of the era in which they were made than they did about actual history.

onething said...

Hmmm, regarding your opening paragraphs, it seems like a mirror image of Tolstoy's remark that all happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

Pinku-Sensei said...

"Most civilizations know perfectly well what has to be done to keep topsoil in place, irrigation water flowing, harvests coming in, and all the other details of human interaction with the environment on a stable footing. The problem is always how to meet the required costs as economic growth ends, contraction sets in, and the ability of central governments to enforce their edicts begins to unravel."

I opened my lecture in my environmental science class on human population just this Monday using a graph of the human population for the past 2000 years to make this exact point. First, I describe how civilizations with effective central governments work very hard to increase human carrying capacity but the collapse of those governments results in a dramatic decrease in population as the carrying capacity falls. I then direct the students' attention to the fall in total human population that runs from 400 CE to about 700 CE on the graph. That's when the Western Roman Empire collapsed and Rome went from a city of more than one million in the late Fourth Century CE to 30,000 by the late Sixth Century CE. It never got above 50,000 throughout the Middle Ages.

Furthermore, the total population of the European portion of the Western Empire fell from 19.5 million to 12 million between 400 CE and 650 CE. The Eastern Empire didn't collapse, but its population fell over the same period from 28 million to 16 million.

That collapse and decline on just one of four or so Eastern Hemisphere empires can be seen clearly on the graph, and it makes a strong impression on the students.

As for what caused that decline even in the Eastern Empire, you nailed it when you wrote "epidemics are thus a common feature in the history of declining civilizations." One of them was Justinian's Plague, which reversed the Eastern Empire's attempt to reconquer what was once the Western Empire. Today, we have MIRS and Avian Flu, and the latest outbreak of Ebola appears worrisome.

peakfuture said...

Looking forward to all of this amazing commentary. You've done a great job in mapping things out in Star's Reach; it will be interesting to see what alternate possibilities exist.

If there are any differences (egads, have I fallen into the 'this time it is different' hole?!), it would seem at first glance that really basic long distance communications (radio) might be around, as you mentioned in _The Ecotechnic Future_. How much would it alter the descent/collapse trajectory?

If there is one physical element that might make the descent different, it is the issue of nuclear stuff - power plants and weapons. But as you've mentioned previously, large scale nuclear war would most likely be by accident. Don't recall if you've addressed the nuclear plant/waste issue in detail. The prospect of all of those wet storage pools going bad is mind boggling. Or will the failure of the first few make people bite the bullet and say, "All of it to Yucca Mountain (or equivalent)!" before more fail? Are there any examples during previous declines where a watershed moment happens, and rationality returns for short spell to handle such situations?

Do you see any other "special cases" or conditions where decline this time around might have a unique flavor?

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, welcome to the tour.

Thrig, well, climb aboard; we'll have a lot of viewing time at the edge of the plateau, and a good look at the rugged slope below it.

Logan, that just earned you tonight's gold star for Old English above and beyond.

Thomas, if you did take what I say as gospel, I'd be worried. What I'll be offering in terms of climate change is a best guess, triangulating between current models and paleoclimatology, and providing very wide error bars.

Toro, nah, light beer is an abomination unto the gods. I'll happily raise a glass of stout or porter to the coming Dark Age instead!

Moe, er, I've been writing about it on and off for eight years. You might have a look at this book for starters.

tom peifer said...

My take on all this is influenced by having lived for 20 years now in Costa Rica. For those familiar with 'World system Theory, ala Emmanuel Wallerstein, I live in the 'periphery,' ie a backward rural area, that never got fully integrated into the 'core' of the country's bustling metropolis, San Jose. At best the bureaucracies couldn't completely manage things out here. from crime to drugs to illegal deforestation, for any number of reasons things were never completely under control Now with the crash in the local tourism and gringo-second-home industry, plus economic pressures at the national level, you can see the symptoms of unraveling. Scattered incidents of lightly armed groups engaged in wanton and unpunished defiance of the "rule of law' are just two things that come to mind. It's not hard to imagine how things would devolve as the road to decline becomes steeper. On the good side, people really know and look out for each other, and shifting to a system of exchange is not such a leap from where things are still at in the fairly healthy remnants of an agricultural economy. Like the others who chimed in, I look forward to following the course of the thread for the near future.

Bill Pulliam said...

Hmmm... this bit strikes close to recent thougts of mine:

"Among the standard phenomena of decline and fall, in fact, is the shattering of the collective consensus that gives a growing society the capacity to act together to accomplish much of anything at all."

It *feels* to me like in the present day, the internet has greatly aided and abetted this process. It has made it very easy to surround yourself with a bubble of people who share your own particular view of the world, trade your "thoughtstoppers" around the globe, and avoid encountering anyone who thinks differently from you. But I gather a similar process has happened in past cycles as well. So were there other developments /shifts/whatever in society, social arrangements, etc. that served a similar function as the mass-adoption of the internet has in this century?

Cherokee Organics said...


Exactly. Coaxing fertility back into the soil is an enormous challenge. You left me with thoughts about how the ancient Greeks found the ecological limits of an export economy - the hard way.

A cheeky mate of mine said to me once: "Only those who have fallen off, can know for sure where the cliff actually is and everyone experiences it differently". He was referring to mental health matters, but the quote is apt (I believe) in this circumstance too.

Once I became aware, I've always felt that the practice of industrial agriculture was a sign of decline for sure. My gut feel is that only nature itself can now repair the vast damage we've inflicted on the soils and planet itself and it will happen in her own sweet time.

We could possibly speed up the soil and land restoration process through the vast growth and/or application of green manures and/or crops, but unfortunately we can't actually do that and eat at the same time. Plus we'd probably be inclined to eat the seeds instead.

Which is why I'm sitting here on a dark winters Thursday - it is lunchtime here - with no lights on, but with the computer happily whirring away.

I chose a different path to obtain access to energy sources that the majority of our culture doesn't really want to think too much about: Small scale solar electric; firewood; solar hot water; deep organic soils; onsite water collection; and local food etc. All of those are either local energy or an expression of that local energy. They're all good, but they just don't look or work like how you'd expect them - or have become used - to. Plus it takes a long time to get used to living with their foibles. I'm still learning...

You know I occasionally get an: “I feel really sorry for you dude” sort of response when I describe conditions here. The last time a few weeks back was a collector for a very large and well known environmental charity. Like pointing out the obvious to him was not the done thing, but I’m certainly not down in my outlook, although that was what the collector dude was trying to suggest. It was an unfortunate encounter…

Are you delving into a new book with this thread of thoughts / essays?

Hi everyone,

If you're curious or have a moment to spare, drop by my weekly blog to get a feel for the sort of things going on around this part of the world: Weekly notes from Fernglade Farm.

There's heaps of photos too!



nr-cole said...

I am curious about the future of our metropolises. As the long slide of population decline goes on, I can't imagine that heavily urbanized environments will provide much opportunity for the kind of localized, nature-connected living that'll be needed.

Even factoring in declining population, our massive cities are still going to have huge numbers of people for a long time. I know that there are many who are conscious of the predicament, dedicated to staying where they are, and interested in finding ways to deal with the challenges and build alternative support systems. Will they have an active role to play as jobs disappear, prices for everything spike, and service deteriorate, or will the cities of the scarcity age be controlled by those who can still leverage economic resources and political power?

SDBoneyard said...

Another excellent post, Michael!

"...the increasingly grotesque misbehavior of the political class loses it whatever respect and loyalty it once received from the rest of society, and the masses abandon their trust in the political institutions of their society, charismatic leaders from outside the political class fill the vacuum, violence becomes the normal arbiter of power, and the rule of law becomes a polite fiction when it isn’t simply abandoned altogether."

The Chinese, who have been through this experience several times, have -- since Confucius -- referred to this turmoil as "losing the Mandate of Heaven."

Where here in San Diego, it's more like the moment Rome's legions simply stepped sideways to let the Visigoths pass through (OK, I made that up, and will leave it to one of your more historically-minded commenters to tighten and clarify the similarity).

Like others, looking forward to the next several weeks of your posts! And again-- welcome back!


Repent said...

Your right of course. As much as I, and many like me were hoping for the 'Star trek' future of planetary peace, interplanetary exploration, high technology and replicators, we're going to get a dark age instead.

So many were the possibilities, so many things could have happened that didn't, the sense of loss can already be felt. A tragic, would of, could of, didn't narrative is at hand.

You've spoken to all of these things before. It's too bad we never made contact with extraterrestrial races; we would have benefited to compare and contrast our victories and failures with something outside of the human trajectory of endeavor. We would have been better for this.

As a druid what are your thoughts about divine purpose, reincarnation, and our purpose in the eyes of God? What do you think future 'ecotechnic' societies have yet to achieve that will be worthwhile to pursue, that our descendants should suffer through the dark age towards?

Yupped said...

Well fortunately it's the right time to harvest the melissa and st johns wort. Plus we have some beer brewing now that the house has warmed up. Sounds like we're going to need it.

I know pretty much where we're headed, at least in rough outline, and am looking forward to your new posts. Now that we've built out so much infrastructure it's getting very hard not to notice how tatty it's all looking, especially out here on the east coast corridor. So there aren't many places to turn to once the eyes are open. Probably why we try so hard to keep them closed.

Perhaps you could sketch out a little of this in the next series of posts: what do you do if you see the big picture of what's happening around you? I'm not talking so much about the day to day activities of green wizardry, which are already proving mighty helpful in my life. But how did those early adopters of decline in other collapsing societies maintain their sanity when they knew what was coming? I don't think I have the mind or the temperament to tell myself stories about the transcendent meaning of suffering in a time of social collapse. So maybe I should just keep myself focussed on the basics of chopping and fetching.

DeAnander said...

Here's a parable that fits in somehow... up the coast a ways from me is a place called Namu, for millennia an indigenous village site. Good fishing, fresh water, shelter from the worst of the weather; a natural spot for habitation.

Fast-forward to the invasion of North America by various Europeans. The Brits, the Spanish, the French, even the Russians were wandering around the coast of what is now BC (tells you who won that round, eh), naming and claiming. The whitefellas have arrived.

Now comes the industrial revolution and fossil fuel; coal is "discovered" (i.e. a native guy told them about it, big mistake on his part), the steam donkey and other devices make their appearance, and Great Britain's requirement for cheap rations for WWI's soldiers throws the fishing industry into high gear and scatters canneries all over the coast. This trend slows down again during the Depression but kicks up as soon as "better times" come along (they weren't better times if you were a salmon). And eventually by the late 40's, early 50's, there is an explosion of whitefella life and culture and activity on the rugged and remote coastline of BC.

Canneries everywhere, traditional (they seem small now) trollers, driftnetters and gillnetters crowding the ports, logging operations all the heck over the place. And Namu is a bustling centre with a large cannery, a classic 50's diner, stores, dormitories, fuel dock, the works.

Fast forward just a wee bit (it doesn't take long); fish population much reduced, overcapitalisation putting the independent small boats out of business as the increasingly expensive licences get bought up by big money. Activity slows, the gold rush is faltering. By the 80's, communities are dying; people leave, homes stand vacant; the government officially condemns and destroys entire neighbourhoods in Ocean Falls. Old cannery sites and logging camps are abandoned. Namu is eventually sold (way cheap) to a private investor.

The idea of course was to situate a fishing/tourist camp there. But it didn't really work out. A couple of caretakers lived there (I visited during their tenure), growing potatoes in between the rattling old corrugated iron buildings, selling a bit of fuel to the occasional passing boat.


DeAnander said...

[continuation of parable]

When I visited, Namu was crumbling. Old boardwalks had rotted away; portions of the docks were no longer secure to walk on (and were succinctly labelled "NO" -- just that one word -- by the caretakers). One small generator still ran in the huge shed, next to the sleeping carcasses of a half dozen huge ones; one bare lightbulb shone above it day and night. Wire cages between the buildings held tomato plants, potatoes, cabbages. It was a post-peak-oil movie set; sheets of corrugated iron flapped sadly in the wind, and the evocative, all-too-human scents of rust and diesel mingled with the organic saltchuck smells. A small tramp freighter listed against the dock, barely afloat, rusting away quietly like a far-gone addict huddled in a stairwell. We never saw the caretakers in person, just the signs of their presence.

Just 3 or 4 years later, Namu's disintegration is accelerating (as such things do). The caretakers have given up and gone elsewhere. No one's minding the store. The docks are rotting away. Coastal marine biologists express concern about the fuel oil, chemicals, etc. which are inevitably heading towards the saltchuck. A team visits and pumps out the dying freighter now and then, but without their attention it too will sink (along with whatever contaminants it contains). The once-tall ice house has collapsed onto the freighter, which doesn't help :-)

The private owner can't afford the massive effort required to clean up Namu. The local band would like to buy the site back (after all, it was theirs for 10,000 years before the Anglos showed up) but not in its present, contaminated, degraded condition. And they certainly can't afford the cleanup. The government staunchly refuses to discuss the matter or admit that there's a problem. The cannery company? don't make me laugh. Long since defunct. No one, it seems, is responsible.

It seems a perfect parable to me of civilisational decline; the resource extraction outpost abandoned in place, never cleaned up, forgotten. A local writer summed it up when the caretakers left: "Namu Uninhabited for the First Time in 11,000 Years."

What a brief, strange, feverish, dangerous and poisonous flower was industrial civilisation, to usurp and interrupt 11 millennia of continuous inhabitation and then leave the place more or less *un*inhabitable.

Multiply Namu by 100, by thousands, by millions, and I think I see the pattern of the long decline. I also think I see a trajectory that accelerates as it sinks.

John Michael Greer said...

Pongo, a thousand years is a bit too soon -- if things follow the normal pattern, deindustrial North America will just be starting to get really interested in "the ancients" at that time. Give it another few centuries, and no argument at all!

Onething, nice! I don't usually give out two gold stars in a night, but a Tolstoy reference is worth one.

Pinku-sensei, bingo. The Roman model isn't the only good example of the kind, but it does make the point.

Peakfuture, there are always some variations on the standard model, and I'll be discussing them as we proceed. Some legacy technologies, such as radio, might bring some interesting and positive variations; some, such as dead zones surrounding today's nuclear plants, will bring some hideous ones -- but I'd point out that nuclear plants are scattered very unevenly over the landscape, and the processes by which the waste will get out -- as of course it will -- are equally uneven. More on this as we proceed.

Tom, I'd recommend reading a good history of Gaul in the late Roman and early post-Roman period. You might find it very familiar.

Bill, well, in late Roman times religion was the usual way to insulate yourself from people who disagreed with you -- if you only hang out with your fellow worshippers of Isis, Mithras, Jesus, etc., it's a fairly effective self-isolating strategy. I'll have to do some reading and see if there were other methods elsewhere.

Cherokee, of course there'll be a new book! My working title is Dark Age America: A Future History of the North American Continent 2050-2550 AD.

Cole, most likely it won't be either-or, but both-and: there will be those who leverage existing resources and power structures, and those who build new ones, and in different cities and different periods, one or the other will be the more influential. I'll have a fair amount to say about this in a future post.

Boneyard, you're not so far off -- the Visigoths were permitted to enter the Roman Empire legally, and then were treated so badly that they turned on the Romans, with results you probably know about. More on this as we proceed!

Repent, that's a huge topic, and probably deserves a post or two all its own. The very short form is that I see the historical cycle as meaningful in the same way the human life cycle is meaningful. You and I, like every other human being, are making that journey from birth to death, and our deaths don't make our lives meaningless -- quite the contrary. The same is true of civilizations, which are born, live, and die in a similar cycle. It's the cycle that has meaning, not some imaginary goal at the end of it!

Yupped, that's definitely something I plan on discussing as we proceed.

DeAnander, that's a brilliant parable. Okay, tonight's a record: three gold stars. I'll have to start hoarding my remaining stock.

John Michael Greer said...

On the other hand, gentle readers, I've already fielded one comment insisting "but it's different this time!" -- which of course is a bit of handwaving I've already addressed many times in this blog -- and another that quoted the latest gullible blather about the fracking bubble and demanded that I refute it, which I've also done many times before. I didn't put either comment through, and you know, I'm probably not going to put any other comments rehashing those same tired thoughtstoppers again, either. Those who really want to know why I think that the differences this time don't matter, or why I don't buy into the current fracking hype, can take a few minutes to look back over the archives. 'Nuf said.

Tom Hopkins said...

I stopped at cumberland on the way to age of limits this year to get a feel for the place you have described in your essays. Strategically thinking, cumberland could be a stronghold. One major road in and out, access to mountains and waterways for wild foraging, and architecturaly sound building for communal living. Did you choose it for its possible importance as a refuge for a dark age?

Mark Luterra said...

I'm thinking of three small things that are "different this time. I'm not suggesting that any of them will necessarily change our trajectory, but I'll be interested to watch how you treat them as you lay out your perspective on the next five centuries.

1. The mass migration from agricultural areas to cities happened on the upswing of industrial civilization due to the replacement of human labor with cheap fossil energy. I find it hard to believe that this trend will not reverse during the collapse, as hungry urbanites and suburbanites stake tenuous claims on fields of weeds left idle when economic collapse and dwindling oil combined to destroy the industrial monocultures.

2. A few science-driven fields, including genetics and computer engineering, continue to develop "new and improved" products as the economy falters around them. I suppose that eventually, like the fizzling space race, they will become nothing more than expensive curiosities.

3. No previous civilizations have had an equivalent of the Internet, allowing for immediate communication across borders. I suppose it could be an early victim of collapse, relying as it does on a fragile network of wires and hubs that is easily severed by power cuts or sabotage. On the other hand, the hacker generation is coming of age, and I would be not at all surprised to see some form of long-distance communication (ham radio based?) surviving far into the future and perhaps modified to allow Internet-like data transfer.

Toro Loki said...

That was part of my point actually.... offer "Light Beer" to the unwanted... we will keep the good stuff for ourselves...
May we all dwell in the "Glorious Light Age" together, forever...
p.s. GMG, you were mentioning the fall of Atlantis a while ago...
And you mentioned three stages... can you give me/us some references...aside from Plato... Would like to read a bit more about that...references please....

Joe said...

I find almost nothing to disagree with in any of your posts except your confidence that the coming collapse must take hundreds of years. Despite the fact that many prior collapses did take up to several hundred years to run their course, it seems to me that the rate of collapse might very well have something to do with the precursor rates of population and resource consumption growth.

Since there are no temporal terms in your theory of catabolic collapse, and since we seem to be at a very unusual point in the exponential curve of population growth, a circumstance that is indeed more than a bit "different this time", I would greatly appreciate some further elaboration of your understanding of the factors that affect the rate of collapse.

Quercus said...

3 gold stars in one sitting... Wow! Is hoarding the only way for them to maintain their value JMG? I'd like to think you'd replenished some of your stock of stardust after the little break..... It's not as if you give your gold star away willy nilly now, regular readers appreciate its value.

I just want to say thanks to all the commentators here. I am a 3 year lurker. I always have to find time to get to the end of the dialogue each week! Don't say it if it's not worth saying!

Dark age is as good a term as any to describe the period in question. Up here on Thrig's plateau, we make time for discussion of our descent, as far as we can see. And then its just periously picking your way down through what we can see and beyond. There is no other way.

Thanks for all your efforts John. The overview is really helpful for me.

RogerCO said...

There may be a sense in which it really could be different this time - but not the sense which you so rightly disparage.
You hint at it when you point out that "there are historical examples in which even the simple trick of literacy got lost during the implosion of a civilization, and had to be imported centuries later from somewhere else."
Obviously you write from a USA-centric point of view, but things certainly seem much the same in the EU and also in most other places I have experience of.
Perhaps the difference this time is that we have a civilization with a global impact - which might mean that there will be no "somewhere else" from which to import what gets lost.
This would make the preservation of knowledge in a durable and technology agnostic way - ultimately through memory and oral transmission - a key project to providing a possibility for a successor human civilization to rise.

Phil Harris said...

Five centuries can seem like a long time. I have got at the very most if luck holds, 20 to 25 years of my journey still to go and the last five miles if common experience is a reasonable guide will likely be spent, as an elderly marathon runner said, “… talking with my god”.

I am thinking again of the end of the British Empire, which I experienced as a child and young person. We did not fall into a Dark Age yet – there was stuff like the Marshall Plan and American suzerainty over Middle East oil, and industry defied gravity with oil and plastic and super-boats of iron ore and German and Japanese ‘miracles’ etc.

But the non-existence of ‘our’ Empire was puzzling. Before our working classes went under the ‘bus’, to use your handy phrase, I remember a working class bloke in a pub seriously ashamed that ‘we’ were not the ones who were dealing with Vietnam and had left it to the Americans. And popular newspapers had a succession of stories from late 1940s about some game-changer when at one-leap ‘we’ would be ‘Great’ again. There was early on a giant version of our WWII bomber that was going to be the civil aviation winner of the near future. It was called the Brabazon. I think there was a Lord Brabazon in the background – more than daft. Later there was the Comet and then Concorde (though the latter was really French). There was a long sequence of wonder drugs for transforming our rather poor health. There was The Commonwealth. There was nuclear power. The list continues ad nauseam into my old age. And now upstart Anglo America is failing!

I will go babbling of green fields and hoping for good luck for all in Arthur’s bosom.

Phil H
PS London will not last 500 years and the fields of East Anglia will be sea and salt marsh again before then. I guess we will defend the first metre rise even with shrinking resources, but after that, no chance.

Tony f. whelKs said...

Fascinating piece again, sparked off quite a few resonances in my mind.

I imagine one reason collapses come to resemble each other is that the civilisations' complexity declines, as per Tainter. On the way up, as complexity increases, there are options for differentiation, hence a mature culture can become something unique and distinct; take that away and the society must become more and more constrained by basic factors like population dynamics, thermodynamics and ecology.

I've been thinking that this somehow relates to a society being unable to 'save' itself once decline begins. One thing I first really grasped about 10 years ago was that the internet, by increasing 'communication', was actiually destroying consensus through an intellectual/ideological process of Balkanisation. Though it's possible to 'communicate' with more people more easily, what in fact occurs is a complete ghettoisation of thought. People stick to their self-reinforcing tribes (or venture out as flame warriors to defeat the dragons of heresy in the ghettoes of opposing thought...)

Hence, with consensus destroyed, no two people live in the same world, never mind a whole society sharing a few about itself. It's bit of a chicken-egg, or horse-cart placement problem. Does decline produce this fracturing of worldviews, or vice versa? Either way, when the society has no common prognostication of what's wrong, there's clearly no way it can derive a common plan of action to 'save' itself. It all becomes a bit chaotic, in the Lorenzian sense. Somewhere in a basement a moon-landing denier flaps his wings on the internet, and twenty years later a whole continent ceases to believe in evolution, gravity and apple pie. There's no chance to save the old society, the best hope is to hasten the birth-pangs of the new. Except there's a new version of the new, to each his own vision.

Maybe after a suitably Homeric time-lapse, people will be sitting around campfires reciting epic poems about the final defeat of the old monster that ravaged nations and led away millions as slaves and sacrifices. Roll over Grendel, welcome Golmun Sax!

--... ...--

Odin's Raven said...

Even in America it has happened before, if one accepts what is said by people like Barry Fell and Frank Joseph. See for instance Lost Colonies of Ancient America

As to how it may proceed this time, I accepted the invitation on the Green Wizards site,Repurposing in the Long Descent and exercised my imagination in a little story The American Brake Company Building

jean-vivien said...

"Repent, that's a huge topic, and probably deserves a post or two all its own..." A post on meaning is indeed deserved ! Although dealing with the struggle of finding a meaning for yourself is very instructive as well.

ando said...

Thanks, for your efforts JMG. Looking forward to a year's worth of good posts.



Marc L Bernstein said...

I read this post twice just to make sure that I did not miss an idea.

In our eagerness to recognize the common features of all civilizational collapses, we should not forget to also notice the differences.

In no previous civilization was there nowhere for surviving members of a collapsed civilization to go. This is largely the case today. Almost every habitable region on earth is occupied by people, and in many cases, badly overcrowded.

In no previous civilization was here a global mass extinction of species going on.

In no previous civilization was there global pollution on such a massive scale.

In no previous civilization was there global devastation of the oceans or such massive destruction of rainforests.

In no previous civilization was there such an irresistible threat of major climate change and global sea level rise.

I'm sure that other differences exist as well.

This does not detract from the historical approach nor does it nullify the ideas of Arnold Toynbee and other major historians. It merely adds a new twist on an otherwise cyclical pattern.

RPC said...

The four horsemen won't be needed to bring about a population collapse (though they might help). If we define the Baby Boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964 and the average life expectancy as around 80 years, the death rate of that enormous cohort should be ramping up just about now and will reach an impressive plateau in the years 2025 - 2045. Barring complete collapse, it's going to be a good half century for the death industry.
Which leads to a question: is some sort of population spurt a common feature of peak civilization?

William Church said...

@ Pongo: Oh no! I am a dyed in the wool Mummy movie connoisseur! I love them all. Hopefully the ancients would cut me some slack because of a genuine interest in Egypt and its accomplishments.

@ JMG: John I had occasion to visit my old college campus this week and had an interesting conversation with an old professor/friend who has climbed to a position of real authority in the college governance apparatus.

We were speaking after dinner and the course of the conversation came to our field of engineering and its future. He said he thought it would be difficult especially given that the American Empire was crumbling.

I was shocked to my shoes.

Here is a man who is renowned in his field. A field which is intimately associated with progress. He is in a position of real power within a university setting. And here he is telling me that he honestly thinks the basis for future progress within our frame of reference is faulty. Even whimsical.

We touched on the concept of Peak Oil. He thinks that things would be much more severe without the domestic oil production the US has recently found. He thinks the financial system is doomed. He freely admits that libertarian economic theory on trade and regulation (which he previously supported wholeheartedly) has been instrumental in engineering the disastrous predicament we are in.

It was shocking to me for two reasons. One, he is a jolly, optimistic chap who always looks on the bright side of things. Two, he is a man who has made his living helping the cause of progress with an "ever upward and onward" frame of mind.

That was a couple days ago and I am still unsure of what to make of it. But I thought you would find it very interesting to you knowing what my field is.


zaphod42 said...

Interesting beginning. I look forward to the middle and of course the end. Not seeing the end, of course, but rather reading your precognition.

And so, we have James Michael Greer as the Hari Seldon of the Industrial Age. Or so we can hope.

And while we are about it, we will be looking for our R. Daniel Olivah. I will leave that to Ray Kurtzweil.


escapefromwisconsin said...

What I find fascinating is that some of the most dire collapsing regions are in the Eastern Mediterranean: Iraq is once again in crisis, Syria is in civil war, air strikes are happening in Gaza, and Egypt is ruled by modern-day pharoahs in Islamic garb. The Greeks are virtual debt slaves (where is Solon when you need him?).

This is where civilization began. Tell Abu Hureyya is in Syria, as is Damascus, probably the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Jericho, another contender, is in Israel. The Nile may be the oldest continually inhabited region in the world. The ancient homeland of the Natufians is pobably in the hands of ISIS. A glance at the BBC today reveals:

"Iraq rebels 'seize nuclear material'"
"How ancient treasures in Syria are being bombed to pieces"
"Suicide vests and bombs on sale in former Taliban hotbed "
"Deaths rise in air strikes on Gaza"
"Iraq confirms chemical sites seized"
"War-torn South Sudan's oil-rich economy on the edge of collapse"

The smartest commentators understand the root causes of all this beyond the superficial poitics - too many people, not enough food, not enough water, not enough energy. In every case.

Civilization seems to be unravelling where it began. Ironic, no? I wonder if the New World will get the last of the wave, not the first.

Bill Pulliam said...

Interesting about the religious segregation. I see that at a smaller scale here, where social and political life is mostly organized around the churches. Still there are many community groups that are non-denominational and people do mix in those. They of course are the only ones really open to us. Also interesting, the old-fashioned rule of not discussing religion and politics in social settings still seems to be largely observed around here, though it is considered hopelessly passe in the urban/suburban world. Two of the couples we know who are best friends with each other and very active with animal rescue and animal cruelty issues are diametrically opposed in the current U.S. political spectrum. One has a "We Love Obamacare" sticker on their truck, one has Sarah Palin's biography displayed on their coffee table.

An amusing bit of linguistic irony that I am sure is not lost on out host -- the term "thoughtstopper" could be used as a thoughtstopper. Just about any term can be, if used, overused, and misused in that way with that intention. It's kind of like the evolution of euphemisms, where the euphemism becomes synonymous with the original term, so a new euphemism needs to be coined. A new term is meaningful for a while, then it eventually can just evolve into a bit of linguistic noise, or an off-the-shelf identity label. So use it while it's fresh; once the TV pundits pick it up it'll become as meaningless as all the others!

zaphod42 said...

I, too, loved the parable of Namu. Wiki has a wonderful historical assessment, well worth the read at:,_British_Columbia.

Thank you, DeAnander.


Hawkcreek said...

Thank you for continuing to make me think.
In your studies of previous descents, have you seen any evidence of a shortening of the time period in the dark due to improved communication of ideas across generations?
This interests me because of the fact that I am a prepper (one of many), and have a fairly extensive printed library of most of the necessary skills to re-create a “local” industrial society. My background as a control systems designer also has given me the skills to create several different types of power sources from a local junkyard if needed. I’ve lived off-grid for 12 years, but I know I could live comfortably even if I could no longer buy PV panels. I have proven that I can design and build a house (chicken or human), raise my own food, and distill my own vodka and rum (all necessities for a civilized life).
With that said, I also know that there are millions of people all over the world that can do the same things I can do – I’ve worked with a few of them.
How is it possible that these skill sets and printed records can be lost so thoroughly that we have a couple of hundred years of a completely de-industrialized world?
I realize that this seems to be me saying that it really is different this time, but won’t we be starting from a completely different base point this time?

Cathy McGuire said...

Another wonderful post, and I’m looking forward to seeing the raw material for this new book! (Currently re-reading Ecotechnic Future – very good!) One thing that I notice sometimes happens when we’re all discussing this – your timeline of “several centuries” seems to get lost, and folks start talking about collapse as if it’s gonna happen in ten years. In fact, it’s happening now – but the “dark ages” you are predicting to be farther off, right? I’m trying to focus both on adjustment to the constricted economy, and also to practicing/recording skills that need to be passed on somehow, because I won’t live to see any kind of Dark Ages. (Unfortunately, I believe in reincarnation, so that is not a comfort to me. LOL!)

those who insist that there’s nothing at all the matter with treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer for greenhouse gases are not going to be happy with the posts ahead.
I am guessing those are not numbered among your readers… ;-)

But the mainstream is finally paying attention. Just last night I was at a poetry critique group and someone brought in a poem in which she tried to list each of the positions viz a viz climate change, but at the end, where she mentioned the doomers, she couldn’t resist a flip comment, suggesting an unconscious knee jerk reaction. But I was much more surprised that she was even writing about it – so I’m beginning to see, as you are, some of the “bargaining” attitude coming up.

In response, people begin dropping out of the economic mainstream altogether, because scrabbling for subsistence on the economic fringes is less futile than trying to get by in a system increasingly rigged against them.
I’m already beginning to see this in the rural area where I’m living… some handyman ads indicate cash only, with others it’s word of mouth, but the same thing. People have stopped arguing about whether to follow rules that seem to actively constrict their lives while embittering the higher-ups, and just focus on staying under the radar.

Where no such motive exists, losses can be total: of the immense corpus of Roman music, the only thing that survives is a fragment of one tune that takes about 25 seconds to play,

Apropos of that, there is a short audio clip of what they say is the oldest music ever found – written in cuneiform, and played by the researcher who uncovered it:

Populations don’t grow or shrink because people just up and decide one day to have more or fewer babies; they’re constrained by ecological limits.
a current example :NHK World, Japanese tv online, has a series running about the government’s attempts to get more Japanese women to have babies, since the population is unbalanced young/old… but due to the declining economy, they’re not doing it despite “incentives”…

@Cherokee Organics: All of those are either local energy or an expression of that local energy. They're all good, but they just don't look or work like how you'd expect them - or have become used - to. Plus it takes a long time to get used to living with their foibles
Ah, I can always tell when it’s winter over there – we see more of you here! LOL! You nailed it with this comment – one reason it’s sooo important to start learning about these local systems ASAP; the “adjustment to foibles” curve is rather… curvy.

Bill Blondeau said...

The question of the survival of contemporary technical and scientific accomplishments into the future keeps cropping up here. There's usually a sense of hope that it might be helpful to our successors; there's also a wistful desire, I think, to preserve some of these things for their own sakes.

One interesting social phenomenon that seems to be gaining a lot of traction is "Maker Culture", a resurgence of pragmatic hands-on, do-it-yourself, collaborative learning. There's a makerspace in my neighborhood, and another one has just opened its doors a mile or two away. These places charge a monthly fee for access (kind of like a gym) and provide lots of equipment, expertise, and mental energy.

The makerspace in my neighborhood provides a woodshop, metalshop, electrical and electronic fabrication facilities, at least one 3-D printer; but some of the makers prefer to use hand tools. There are arts and crafts being done alongside robotics and foundry work (an iron pour last winter.) And there are at least a few of them that are interested in appropriate tech with practical utility: One family recently gave a presentation about their home-built rocket stove.

If the phenomenon continues to thrive, I would expect makerspaces to be likely candidates as culture-bearers of the mechanical and information arts. It's not hard to see them evolving into more rigorously membership-based societies (like medieval guilds or the Grange), bargaining as a unit to provide much-needed services to the surrounding communities.

Makerspaces might end up being schools of a sort. Possibly they would even take over some of the functions of public libraries... All in all, they seem plausible (more plausible than, e.g., monasteries) as a means of preservation of technical expertise and scientific knowledge.

Um. Well. Without meaning to, I seem to have talked myself into incorporating a living makerspace tradition into the Circumpolar...

thriftwizard said...

I have stood upon those decaying arches, and wondered how it felt, once they knew that the cavalry wasn't going to come, that the senators & duce bellori had turned their backs on our cold & rainy outpost of Empire, that the glory that was Rome had retreated below the misty southern horizons, for those who found themselves left behind...

Well, maybe not the exact same arches; those of Verulamium, once-bustling Roman city, reduced swiftly to ruins by scavengers re-using the bricks & tiles, the structural timbers and piping. Not so much the Saxons, who tended to build in wood rather than stone, but the left-behind erstwhile "Roman Citizens" scrounging whatever they could re-use in an attempt to keep the home-fires burning, bereft of the benefits of Imperial infrastructure. And I can't help drawing parallels, as our leaders attempt to pull up the drawbridges behind them and make further cuts to the little support available to those in need. More & more people are finding out that it can indeed happen to them, when illness or accident befalls them, and that not everyone who receives state help is a workshy layabout. It's more subtle than the withdrawal of the Legions, but it's happening... they are being left behind too, in a different way.

And people are slowly becoming more aware of it, though it's not the done thing to admit it in public. But we all know someone to whom this is happening... several private conversations I've had lately make me think that trust in our "betters" has been eroded clean away now, and people are starting to think for themselves, instead of blindly believing what we're told & following the crowd. Maybe there's a little glimmer of hope there, or maybe it's the dawning of the darkness...

exiledbear said...

The reason they all look the same on the way down - entropy. It's just math, as everything smooths out, gets distributed and becomes noise more or less.

Personally I would expect most of the big cities at some point to be nuked. It's obvious to me the "leadership" in Murica wants WW3 bad, really wants it bad, but things keep getting in their way. I wonder why they don't just do the obvious and invade someone again, instead of trying to find pretenses. I guess the fact that they can't even do that indicates they don't have much authority or ability left. It's only a matter of time now.

I think we got a glimpse of the near future when all the EBT cards went offline for a day or so last year. Bread, circuses and money printing are the only things left holding the status quo together. Everything else is gone. People have stopped believing in the myths, despite all the propaganda, and the respect of the leadership is gone.

I wonder what will happen to the police departments when their gas guzzling armored cars run out and their supply of ammo gets thin? I wonder if they'll still be shooting the peasants' dogs?

exiledbear said...

On the other hand, the hacker generation is coming of age, and I would be not at all surprised to see some form of long-distance communication (ham radio based?) surviving far into the future and perhaps modified to allow Internet-like data transfer.

To take the other side of that myth, I would claim that the "hacker generation" has already come of age and is now getting a bit old. Everything's all covered up and locked down these days, most kids aren't that interested in computers, not the way they used to be. True there are still a few kids out there soldering together their Arduinos from kit, but most of them are happy to paw mindlessly at their slave labor assembled iPads.

I think there are more kids interested in how to put neon lights under their POS car than their are hackers these days.

I remember a video where some guy was showing how the current generation of kids interacted with Windows 8 for the first time, and it was like watching my grandpa trying to deal with his computer, not a kid. And Win8 was supposed to be designed with the latest in UI research. And they were failing at simple tasks.

Not that it matters, the computer industry is brutal anyway - an employment span from 21 to 35 and then you're out because you're too old. These days, I only advise it if you're that kid soldering his Arduino together, because you were probably meant to do it. All the iPad pawers, stick to putting neon lights under your car.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Looking forward to reading the application of historical analysis to the future.

FYI Re climate change: just read (in Nature Climate Change, June 2014) about a new non-linear trend detection method that is capable of taking oscillatory variations into account at different timescales. The model can adjust for and filter long-term cycles of variability.

The method demonstrates, or more closely corroborates with, the non-linear patterns being observed. Our current plateau should have been a cooling period, but wasn't, due to AGW. Sadly, article is behind a paywall.

Bill Blondeau said...

Mark Luterra: "...I would be not at all surprised to see some form of long-distance communication (ham radio based?) surviving far into the future and perhaps modified to allow Internet-like data transfer."

The low-level technology already exists and works well: Packet Radio includes techniques for sending digital data over analog transmission channels just fine. However, the weakest link in the possible survival of any useful Internet isn't in the nature of the delivery medium: it lies in information topology.

The immense utility of the Internet is in its asynchronous on-demand delivery. You can read The Archdruid Report when convenient, and post a comment when you like. The rest of us can read your comment whenever we wish. You could never do that with previous technologies, except in a weak way via expected physical availability of pamphlets, books, or magazines. The conversation that you and I and JMG and the rest of the commenters and readers are having right now would be prohibitively awkward and expensive using such information media.

Any "Internet" worth the name existing a few centuries hence is going to require rather huge, reliable, discoverable investments in something like server farms fronted by short- or medium-wave radio. Who is going to be able to afford that? Well, presumably the last few surviving wealthy, stable, high-tech entities.

Will such states or churches or corporations or trade associations or (ahem) Maker Sisterhoods make it available for the purposes our present Internet serves? With anything remotely approaching the Net Neutrality that shapes the behavior of the Internet we know? I'm not hopeful...

The most fundamental utility of the Internet is neither porn, nor online banking, nor booking airline flights. It's conversation. In the end, the topology of conversation is what defines the Internet.

This topic will take more thought, of course, but I think that's the principal problem.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Oh yes, disease. The plague decimated Athens during Peloponnesian War. Could have been measles.

Doesn't even have to be as acutely catastrophic as Ebola. In the Midwest we've got West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease. I was thinking about this issue this morning when reading about larvicides put in catch basins in our community against WNV.

So many people with compromised immune systems, so many ways to get sick.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

JMG--This comment might belong in the "It won't be that bad, really," category. I'd like to know whether you agree with the following observation about historical cycles.

The decline of empires is inevitable, but decline all the way to collapse followed by a dark age is not. Two other things can happen.

When the empire weakens, its territory can be conquered and incorporated into some other empire. Or the vitality of the culture can revive before native political organization declines from the equivalent of kingship to something less complex.

An example of the former would be the Indian subcontinent, which keeps getting incorporated into one empire after another without ever becoming so impoverished or disorganized that it entirely loses roads, cities and literacy.

For the latter, I would propose Persia. I have a general impression that Persia has been successively part of several civilizations, the Biblical one, the Sassanian, the Byzantine and the Islamic, without ever lapsing into barbarism and always being either the central power of its empire or a wealthy province.

I'm not predicting that the US will have such luck, but perhaps some parts of the industrialized West might.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, the deindustrial dark age is still one to three centuries in the future, and I have no children, so no, that wasn't a consideration. Still, you're right that it would be a very good place to be, one to three centuries from now.

Mark, the first two of your three things happened before -- cities always metastasize in the latter years of a civilization, and technological improvement is normally the last metric to topple over into visible decline. As for the internet (and its putative sustainable replacements), I'll be discussing the role of information technologies in previous dark ages and extrapolating from there -- the short form is that better means of preserving and transmitting information can make the bottom of the descent a little less severe, but they don't change the overall pattern.

Toro, okay, gotcha. I won't even inflict light beer on slugs! You can find the three inundations in books on Atlantis by Lewis Spence and other writers of the Theosophical era.

Joe, I've talked about that repeatedly in previous posts. The short form is that catabolic collapse does in fact include a time metric, though it's not an obvious one: the more resources a society has built into its existing capital, the longer it can stretch out its decline by cannibalizing its existing capital as a source of raw materials. More on this as we proceed.

Quercus, thank you!

Roger, well, yes -- and that's one of the reasons I've put so much emphasis on the preservation of useful knowledge.

Phil, it's a common habit in the wake of a fallen empire. As for London, of course not. Have you by any chance read Richard Cowper's The Road to Corley? First-rate deindustrial SF, set in a post-global warming Britain which consists of a couple of dozen islands.

Tony, exactly. I can only hope that Goldman Sachs will still be vilified centuries from now!

Raven, thanks for the links.

Jean-Vivien, so noted. I'm definitely going to consider it.

Ando, thank you!

Marc, so? As I've pointed out more than once in these posts, every historical situation differs in at least some respects from every other; you can pay attention to the similarities and learn from them, or you can fixate on the differences and learn nothing. Take your pick!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Great parable. A similar story could be told about parts of central Illinois, once a fertile, lush landscape full of wildlife that supported the tribes well. It too went through a post-Euro settlement "growth" period of farming and small towns with concurrent wild landscape destruction.

Now huge sections are an emptied, industrial ag landscape and certain parts are so full of toxic ag chemicals in soil and water that living there seems chancy. Few birds, bees or other wildlife. Abandoned farmhouses galore. On the other hand, some commodity farmers are taking classes to learn how to grow food crops again in sustainable fashion. Can this spread? Who knows?

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, when a civilization gets its population surge varies from case to case, depending on when it gets a surge of excess resources. I see the Baby Boom as the demographic result of the full onset of the petroleum age, a normal reaction to the torrent of cheap resources petroleum so briefly provided.

Will, that's fascinating. If such ideas are beginning to spread in those circles, there are things that we may be able to accomplish that would otherwise be out of reach. More on this in an upcoming post.

Zaphod, er "James"?

Escape, it isn't the first time. The Middle East turns into a powderkeg at regular intervals, and a spark is rarely far to seek.

Bill, that's good to hear. I suspect a lot of the current political labels, as you suggested last week, will dissolve once it becomes painfully clear that they were only relevant to an age of expansion.

Hawkcreek, not a shortening of the dark age, no, but the better the information technology, the less dark things get at the bottom of the arc. The thing that keeps advanced technology from staying in use in a dark age isn't usually technical in nature, it's social and economic -- a point I'll be covering in detail as we proceed.

Cathy, thanks for the updates -- useful to hear! As for the climate denialists, I get them here fairly often; I've tried spraying, but it barely slows them down. ;-)

Bill, I consider the emergence of the Maker movement to be an extremely positive sign; if it keeps on growing, that and the burgeoning farmers market/community supported agriculture scene may well turn into the seedbeds of the economy we'll have at the conclusion of the next big round of crises.

Thriftwizard, it's the dawning of the darkness. What often tends to be forgotten by historians is that for ordinary people, the dark age is often an improvement from the last years of the falling civilization.

Bear, I don't expect to see the nukes fly generally, though I'd be amazed if we get through the next fifty years without seeing a couple of cities vaporized. My sense, for what it's worth, is that you're mistaken about the US elite; they don't want war, they want to maintain some shreds of America's former global power and wealth, and are blustering and blundering more and more frantically. They won't invade another nation, because they know -- and so do most other countries -- that the US economy is too far gone to support anything but bullying weak Third World nations, and a major war against a well-armed opponent would almost certainly result in an American defeat, and the sudden implosion of what's left of US power. More, much more, on this as we proceed.

As for the hacker generation, as far as I can see you're spot on. The best and the brightest among today's 20-somethings aren't going into computers -- a lot of them are WWOOFing on organic farms and spending their off hours in Makerspaces. It's not just the Space Age that's over; the Computer Age is beginning to wane as well...

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, thanks for the heads up -- I can probably find a print copy somewhere.

Unknown Deborah, I expect to see parts of Europe become Byzantium to America's Rome -- though it's only fair to remember that the Eastern Empire also went through severe population loss and a lot of social and economic unraveling. Since I'm focusing on the future history of North Anerica, though, I don't see a lot of options short of full-on dark age.

zaphod42 said...

Responding to "Unknown": in respect to having the 'good fortune' to be conquered and thus avoid all the problems of decline, I doubt anyone will be so luck this go around. If there is a difference, it is that the Industrial Age is a global empire, with all of the industrial economies entwined through rampant globalism. And, of course, the emerging nations are already caught up in that. Those not involved in the industrialized phase are victims of the colonialism of the rest, and pretty much already at the bottom of the hill, down which the rest are racing.

Consequently, there will be nobody around to conquer anyone... we will be in free fall, together.

And of course, John. Sorry - I just finished conversation with son-in-law, James, who cannot be called Jim or Jimmy, and who was doing a book report on "The Singularity is Near" - borrowed from yours truly. He'd heard how 'great' things were going to be, and after reading the first hand account agrees that it ain't likely to happen.

I've left the bargaining state, and hope that I am about finished with depression as well. Came to grips with it a few months ago, the realization that is, and while not happy about where we are going, see no way to avoid the trip. I am now trying to make it as comfortable as possible for me and mine. A few unfortunate circumstances prevent more than planning for where I want to be for a while. I just hope the next step down is not too bad, and we still do those things necessarily put off. If not, life will probably go on...

Thanks for your input and I look forward to reading the next year or two of posts.


donalfagan said...

I knew someone would mention Seldon, but I'm guessing there will be a few Mules in our future, too. They'll use thaumaturgy to control emotions.

shtove said...

I haven't come across this before: "incantations cannily used to exploit the placebo effect".

Very interesting, but is there evidence for it?

I came across this: "Placebo effect consists of several different effects woven together, and the methods of placebo administration may be as important as the administration itself.[5]"

WP has a history of placebo, but it's confined to medical deceptions:

Eric S. said...

“Where no such motive exists, losses can be total […] and there are historical examples in which even the simple trick of literacy got lost during the implosion of a civilization and had to be imported centuries later from somewhere else.”

One of the things that will make the sort of shape this particular dark age takes a little different (not of a difference in type, but more akin to the differences you're already taking into account with climate change) is how small industrial civilization has made the world. There isn't a single continent on the entire planet that isn’t in constant, instantaneous communication with the rest of the world and even the least industrialized countries are still tied to the fate of industrial civilization due to the impacts of human overpopulation and soil degradation. That seems to mean that there isn’t a “somewhere else” left for us if that sort of total loss happens. For the Byzantines Rome didn't completely fall until the siege of Constantinople during the crusades, for the Arabs, the end of the Roman monopoly on trade in the Mediterranean meant Islamic merchant fleets could build a thriving civilization of their own and develop many of the scientific and magical traditions that would come to define the Renaissance in Europe. Meanwhile Eastern Asia shrugged at vague rumors of trouble across the mountains while the civilizations in the Americas never even knew there had been a Rome in the first place. That's the way it's always been with every other civilization we know about. While one part of the world is experiencing a dark age, some other civilization somewhere else remains unaffected.

Will the interconnectedness of the human world today, and the level of global communication we have today affect the kinds of knowledge that are lost, which areas suffer the most loss, the totality of that loss, or how much continuity there will be between our civilization and the civilizations of the future? It feels like it could go either way… a future civilization speculating about a mysterious race of land carvers who left no records behind, or a bottleneck effect where every single civilization of the future traces its history back to this one. Or… maybe industrial civilization isn’t as all encompassing as it seems to be. Maybe the civilizations that will preserve the bset of what we’ve created, who will step up and thrive as industrial civilization slips into its dark ages, and will plant the seeds of any ecotechnic future that might wait beyond those dark ages will sprout not from the ruined capitals of our world, but from a few scattered villages on the fringes of it. Places where people have never seen a car or a piece of currency but still have generators that power radios and isolated bits and pieces of Western medicine and science passed on from missionaries, peace corps activists, and field scientists.

I'm reminded of my favorite passage from "How The Irish Saved Civilization:

"What will be lost, and what saved, of our civilization probably lies beyond our powers to decide. No human group has ever figured out how to design its future. That future may be germinating today not in a boardroom in London or an office in Washington or a bank in Tokyo, but in some antic outpost or other -- a kindly British orphanage in the grim foothills of Peru, a house for the dying in a back street of Calcutta run by a fiercely single-minded Albanian nun, an easy-going French medical team at the starving edge of the Sahel, a mission to Somalia by Irish social workers who remember their own Great Hunger, a nursery program to assist convict-mothers at a New York Prison -- in some unheralded corner where a great-hearted human being is committed to loving outcasts in an extraordinary way.”

-Thomas Cahill

mr_geronimo said...

Will you also write about the peripheries like America's Gaul, Latin America or America's Greece, Western Europe?

There are people that think they will be able to flee the collapse by running to Peru or Chile, specially among the Zero Hedgers.

diogenese said...

Hi there
HO HO looks like we are in for some VERYintresting reading just hope everything don't fall apart until you have finished .
IMHO GW climate change is a dead end problem , there ain't much the 99% can do about it while the 1% needs our input to their economy and as the decline happens the grid will be one of the first things to go caput , without it everything else stops , the world has managed with far higher CO 2 levels than there are now and will survive what we can throw at it , weathere we do is a diffrent matter , there has been asteroid strikes , vast vulcanism ,cubic miles of rock blasted into the atmosphere , ice ages and continental drift , the world survived it all we as a species don't count in the long term of planetary history ,apart from total nuclear war we are just a blip in history .
We are living the decline now , many south american cities seem to be like third century Londinium / name any periferal city of the Roman empire , failing and turning into thugtown , tens of thousands are trying to get in the city gates and safety that is the USA , which only hastens its demise , when thugcity runs out of people and resources to exploit they will turn their eyes north to greener pastures and more resources to exploit in time they will sack the new Rome .

Bill Pulliam said...

Makers --- my interaction with them so far has been heavily dominated by techno geeks and their 3D printers. Expensive ways to make more cheap plastic junk... I hope the low-tech hand-tools version of them really is thriving in the parts of makerspace I have not encountered... though the very term "makerspace" has a strong techno-geek aroma to it.

magicalthyme said...

Bear, the US 1% don't want WWIII. They are deliberately breaking apart carefully chosen small countries and sowing disorder to steal resources. Iraq was to lock down their oil. Libya and Syria are about oil. Afhanistan was to build a gas pipeline from (Turkmanistan?) behind it through a couple other countries, to the sea. US troops are already set up along the planned pipeline route. The Ukraine is an attempt to get control of their pipeline from Gazprom to Europe and install a tollbooth. And so on...The neocon plan was written some years back and included the list of countries and the order in which to break them. Iraq and Afghanistan were 1 & 2 on the list. The plan is being implemented as we read, by both parties.

For me, it's hard to look hundreds or a hundred years to the future. My big stepdown was early, when my "career" crashed back in 2002. These days I'm finally playing with my scythe. And mostly loving it (wish I'd started sooner, before the heat and humidity...)

Meantime, we've entered drought mode, so mowing my "lawn" has been replaced with watering the garden, with its constant reminder of gratitude for electricity and well pumps.


Eric S. said...

In other related news, my family down in Texas has all been talking about the border crisis down there. It struck me as the sort of event that seems especially relevent to this stream of essays:

rube cretin said...

Thanks for returning from a well deserved hiatus. I really admire your ability to keep all the plates spinning. Lots of folks sanity depends on your weekly offerings, especially since the oil drum went away,

Been following your blog for many years. I'm in my mid seventies and believe I commented here a few years ago, but can't be certain. The "paradise of memory" does not have perfect recall.

Anyway, regarding your latest offering here and on your new blog Well of Galabes. Yup, we gonna go down. Magic is certainly going to be an important element in our future and gaining an understanding of all its ramifications is important. I am reminded of Tenn. Williams famous line about magic as quoted in these few lines from his play Streetcar Named Desire. I often wonder if Mr. Williams would have agreed with your definition.

As you proceed with your posts over the next year or so I will be interested to see how your various scenarios of decline agree with another of my favorite bloggers who is no longer active, Jay Hansen. In summary here is a synopsis of the behavioral loop he describes:

Step 1. Individual and group behaviors are biased by the MPP to generate maximum power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of natural resources (overshoot), whenever systemic constraints allow it. Individuals and families will form social groups to generate more power by degrading more energy. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.
Step 2. Energy is always limited, so overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power available to the group, with lower-ranking members suffering first.
Step 3. Diminishing power availability creates divisive subgroups within the original group. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals, who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain power.
Step 4. Violent social strife eventually occurs among subgroups who demand a greater share of the remaining power.
Step 5. The weakest subgroups (high or low rank) are either forced to disperse to a new territory, are killed, enslaved, or imprisoned.
6. Go back to step 1.

Regards to all the the outstanding commenters.


thrig said...

exiledbear: Computers are covered up and locked down?! Oh boy I wish; one of the Windows admins needs to rebuild his desktop (he keeps finding malware on it), there's a bevy of critical flash and whatnot updates to install (per usual), the few thousand naughty remote hosts du jour are doing their usual spam and such (presently blacklisted: 6,768,917 or so), and earlier this week I discovered a segfault on OpenBSD if you put the UTC timezone not at the end of the date string—not GMT, there's a special case for that, and the regional timezones involve a (const char * const *)tzname that I think I found the source of, plus a headache. Related code spelunking indicates that for two-digit years FreeBSD in 2070 will probably start doing something horribly wrong to the year, and I do recall Microsoft Azure going down because you know SSL certs with yearly expirations + leap day + error! error! error! error! error! error!

gunhobbit said...

Isn't violence - or its threat - always the normal arbiter (and most essential aspect) of power?

Seriously looking forward to the upcoming articles!

jph said...

The story of Namu points to an aspect of a salvage society that I think a lot of people miss.

The assets (wood, plate iron etc.) weren't salvaged because it wasn't economically sensible to do so and as a result they decayed to the point where in the future, even if we wanted to salvage them, we can't.

Akshay Ahuja said...

I came across this poem a while ago from the Hungarian poet Sandor Kanyadi, and it has stayed with me ever since. Maybe a fitting accompaniment to these posts as they start.

History Lesson

history -- I tried to
explain it to the stones
they were silent

then I turned to the trees
the leaves kept nodding at me

then I tried the garden
it gave me a gentle smile

history consists
it said of four seasons
spring summer
autumn and winter

now winter is drawing near.

architrains said...

zaphod42, Hari Seldon has been on my mind lately, too, especially now that the decline and fall is going to be JMG's subject material for the next months. A re-read of "Foundation" with a notepad at hand has been bumped to the top of my reading list.

JMG, perhaps if the best and brightest among my generation can form a Foundation focusing on historic preservation and the application of old tech/low tech, we can bring about the Steampunk Future in the course of a shortened Dark Age. I am surely not the only Millennial preservation architect-in-training with a hobby in steam locomotives.

I have to tell myself I'm working to preserve the structures that will be the strong bones of the civilization that comes next, not the future ruins studied by the civilization that comes after - otherwise the long hours would appear better spent planting beans and tomatoes than learning how to proportion mortar from scratch or put a load-bearing masonry wall together.

Although I suppose someone will need to know how to put the castles together.

Shining Hector said...

Well, that was all very depressing even if it's all true.

So is the strategy is to push everyone from bargaining to depression? One of the common criticisms of the the Kubler-Ross stages as a therapeutic model is it suggests and orderly progression through the stages and the implicit suggestion that the therapist should push the patient through the stages. Working from those assumptions quite frequently backfires.

I wonder if a lot of the criticism you rightly anticipate just comes from people wanting to think about proactive steps they can take more than dwelling on the negative. The way I think of it is that it's like coming to terms with your own mortality, which is basically what we're talking about on a grand scale. Accepting that you will one day die and there's nothing you can do to prevent that is a very healthy thing which ideally everyone should do. It leads you to make better decisions and make the most of the time you have. On the other hand, doing something like researching the progression of microbes and insects that will one day consume your decomposing corpse, making a lurid poster of said organisms at work, and hanging it in your bedroom is basically just macabre and is neither a particularly healthy or productive means towards the end goal of coming to terms with your mortality. It's coming to grips with reality in a certain narrow way, but at the same time it doesn't particularly help that much as far as making positive and productive changes. It's more just dwelling on the distasteful aspects that actually won't meaningfully impact you and that you have no real power over anyway. This latest post kinda reminds of that to be honest.

onething said...

"Onething, nice! I don't usually give out two gold stars in a night, but a Tolstoy reference is worth one."

I am reaching for my fan and smelling salts!

At our local farmer's market, which has very cheap prices because this area is so poor, we often have one of the vendors or someone else give various classes in the last hour. My neighbor gave a class on low tunnels and showed how he puts them together. One was on soil improvement, which in my opinion is golden knowledge to be put into use before all else, such as composting and such. Several families that are homeschooling bring their kids at the same time for a get together, since we are situated on the edge of a park.

energyskeptic said...

I'm not sure why you think collapse will take 100 or more years. Turchin seems to think it's 20 years or less usually in “Secular Cycles” and “War & Peace & War” (see my review at for details)

Enrique said...

I too was reminded of Tolstoy’s famous observation about the difference between happy and unhappy families. But the Archdruid’s observation about the similarity of declining civilizations and dark ages to one another also reminded me of a haunting passage from “Spengler’s Future” by the American historian and philosopher John J Reilly, who passed away at the age of 58 in 2012. The following is from the introduction to Part III: Decline and Fall.

“This is the time after the [civilization has passed its high point], a period when most civilizations begin to seem more and more alike in their decay. Certainly they suffer from uncannily similar misfortunes. Every characteristic task which a civilization might have hoped to achieve was accomplished in previous epochs. In this period, every great civilized society, no matter its pretensions or its hopes, its goodwill or its actual accomplishments, must "join the majority." No matter the level of technology theoretically available, there has always been an appalling consistency to the lives of ordinary people in every settled society. This study of the fate of civilizations is about nothing more than an interruption in this common level of human existence, the passing season of fantasy and hubris which constitute civilization.

None of this lasts. Nothing has changed. The universe is holographic; every point of space subsumes every other point. Past, present and future are always accessible. Heaven and Hell are coincident. How could anything ever be different?”

Spengler’s Future and many of Reilly’s other works are available here:

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

What do you reckon is going to happen to rich powerful coporations like Monsanto / the Big Pharma companies? My guess is that they're all highly dependent on the US empire so when it becomes too weak to support them they'll die, i.e. within the next 15 years.


Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Eric S. writes, "Will the interconnectedness of the human world today, and the level of global communication we have today affect the kinds of knowledge that are lost, which areas suffer the most loss, the totality of that loss, or how much continuity there will be between our civilization and the civilizations of the future?"

Might be a long shot, but I'm betting on Indonesia to pull through the end of fossil fuel based industrialism as a violent but functioning federation, and then become a regional power. Good fortune for humanity if it does, because Indonesia has cultural connections with nearly all the major civilizations that have preceded it.

peakfuture said...

My $0.02 on the makerspace bit - yes, there are a bunch of 3D printer folk around, but the critical thing is that people are pooling tools and knowledge. There are some low tech/appropriate tech folks in makerspaces as well.

Orlov makes the case (Communities That Abide) that religious communities hold together better (and I think some folks have statistics on this). If there is any 'religion' in makerspaces, it seems to be 'doing and learning things', rather than passively being entertained, which can't all be bad. Don't know how well that drive/core ethos will keep them together, so that they evolve to guilds/monasteries.

Of course, if the 'doing things' is about building a Ray Kurzweil world, then they will be in for a big surprise.

Bill Blondeau said...

Bill Pulliam: "I hope the low-tech hand-tools version of them really is thriving in the parts of makerspace I have not encountered..."

Of course there's a strong makerspace interest in 3D printers (which, for the record, I by and large mistrust or detest personally - Read Charles Stross's SF police procedural novel Rule 34 for a fairly chilling look at some horrifying potentials in 3D printer misuse.) Such things exert a strong hold on the fabricative imagination... Makers also famously like robotics, GPS, Arduino/Raspberry Pi programming, optical sensor systems, and the like.

But my own experience is that makers generally respond to a wide range of tools and techniques. The makerspace in my neighborhood doesn't lack for sawdust and shavings in the woodshop (they keep it clean but you can tell), and welding is one of the most sought-after skills that people want to learn.

The makers I've seen at work/play seem to be devoted to the act of making, and almost as much to doing so in a spirit of collaboration.

It's no leap of the imagination to see folks like this, in altered circumstances, building shortwave radios from scratch, or solar furnaces, or bearing races that work pretty well, or turnbuckles, or canning jars, or any of the other likely things people will need going forward.

jcummings said...

Hi CO - here on the other side of the earth where its summer we're harvesting for our CSA shares and trying to stay cool. I really appreciated your comment. We're rehabbing a chunk of land that has seen tillage for 100 years or more and was thoroughly depleted via enthusiastic adherence to the edicts of the green revolution. Its a real challenge. The scale of depletion that has happened with industrialism is staggering. The accompanying crash will be painful indeed. I see one alternative to green manures as our only method of large scale remediation. What do you think about intensively managed ruminant herds?

Kevin said...

I have to agree with Bill about the prevalence of 3D printing and things digital among maker techno-geeks, who also seem to have a fascination with robots and the electronics commonly associated with them, all of which strike me as frivolous toys of passing interest. They're a bit like steampunk fashion accessories, as opposed to actual devices that perform tasks one might want to have performed. Nonetheless, I may consider involving myself in maker activities; if so, it'll be on the low-to-medium tech end of things, and not without its own Vernian circus wagon esthetic of frivolity.

At a guess, I'd say the part of Europe most likely to survive as a latter-day Byzantine empire would be the northern part; that's what Jorgen Randers' prognostications seem to me to suggest; though personally I'd like like to see Provence pull through - maybe even bring back the Troubadour tradition.

Eric S. said...


I could see that, especially in the South Pacific. I put a similar bet on Cuba in the Gulf of Mexico for my Space Bats story.

Shane Wilson said...

I noticed that the most developed, populated civilizations in the Americas were in Latin America. Do you think that North America simply can't ecologically sustain a highly developed, urbanized civilization like those that have existed elsewhere in the world, and that, absent fossil fuels, North America will revert over time to pre Columbian levels of population and development? I tend to think if complex civilization on the order of China, Rome, India, the Incas and the Aztecs were possible absent fossil fuels, it would have already existed in pre Columbian North America.
I just wanted to second the idea that the third world has already got a leg up on the ecotecnic future, as they're already collapsed, not as bound up in the industrial system, and already used to getting by on much less energy. The future belongs to them.

Ray Wharton said...

Like a tomato plant, which may take on very different general forms and shapes depending on how it is raised a collapse still maintains it basic morphology independent of circumstances.

The series of break downs you describe are frightening in how well each stage follows from the previous.

In response to the very popular idea that the scale of the current situation will shorten the time scale... I think it is important to remember that this is a collection of several processes, as much as a single process. For example the amount of ruins left behind will be one for the record books, and therefore will likely provide a very unusually large amount of economic salvage. Conversely it is likely that certain features and population centers could crash fast. For example desert cities might go from millions to thousands in a season if such and such a canal goes off line. Many paces.

Redneck Girl said...

Cherokee Org, Chris, not knowing what holds the place in Australia but in N. America bison was a great re-newer of soils. In the past there was a lot of talk about creating a Buffalo Common because they were so useful in preserving the prairie soils. And they are a producer of a very healthful protein, unlike domestic cattle. Considering as migrating herds how little respect they have for containment and being harassed, (they can be quite dangerous), it never happened. To fully restore the original ecology in the plant communities would require wild horses. Since they have large ranges and they only digest 1/4 of what they eat, they are excellent for plant propagation in wide areas.

DeAnder, I wonder why no one has suggested to the tribe to try a fund raising web site? Couldn't hurt and if they're successful they could likely get matching funds from the government in such a project.

Bill Blondeau, years ago when peak oil was brought to the attention of the general public, about when Reagan's 'Morning in America' BS was wrapped around the nation's insecurities, a young adult me had an idea for a Maker like business. My father was a millwright and I suggested we could create a shop with how-to books along with parts both 'junk' and new for all sorts of peak oil projects. I was and still am kind of weird that way.

Adrian Ayres Fisher, According to a recent article in Mother Earth News going back to land race grains would be a good step in that direction. It seems with the Green Revolting manipulation the length of stem is connected to the length of roots. Returning to land race grains would use less water and bring up minerals DEEPER than current grain varieties. I have no doubt it would do wonders for the soil and the people who make a living off them. Not to mention their customers health!


Bill Pulliam said...

A coupe of folks have mentioned the whole process of growing soil. You have to remember your fundamentals of ecosystem science. It's about flows and storages. Soil fertility is a combination of both. It is about sufficient storages of nutrients in the soil, and sufficient flows of these nutrient into inorganic forms that plant roots can take up. Of course those two things consolidate millions of chemical and physical components and the biomass and metabolism of millions of species of organisms. But still in the big picture you need to think about enhancing both. Green manure builds up storage; so does imported manure. Ruminants increase the internal flows of nutrients, speeding up the cycling between biomass/mineral/biomass. But they don't build up storage. Turn the ruminants loose in a sandbox, and you get starved cows laying on top of sand. Unless you feed them from outside sources, in which case you are really just using them as manure spreaders. Which if you have a source of external feed, works just fine. Tilling increases flows, which is why it both stimulates plant growth (short term) and depletes fertility (long term).

There's 20 gazillion details involved here, but the basics are that you need to have nutrients/organic matter coming in from somewhere (in the case of green manure, somewhere = the atmosphere), and you need to have nutrients released from biomass back into circulation. This can be done by microbes or by elephants. And you need to not have nutrients leaving more slowly than they are coming in. Any system you think of should be examined from this framework.

In this context, the fragility of conventional agriculture is because there are very limited internal storages, and all the flows are imported via a petroleum-derived macroeconomy. So cut off the inputs, and you rapidly run down to nothing.

John Michael Greer said...

Zaphod, welcome to the fifth stage of peak oil, which is -- as you no doubt know! -- getting up off the sofa and doing something constructive. If your son-in-law understands that the Singularitarians are smoking their shorts, that's definitely good news -- any time somebody comes to terms with reality, it's a good sign.

Donal, all the more reason to learn the signs of thaumaturgy and distance yourself from it!

Shtove, I haven't kept up with the literature, but operative mages use the placebo effect all the time. Of course it's as much the method of administration as anything else -- what do you think all the robes and incense and clutter are about?

Eric, the world is already beginning to get bigger, and one of the consequences of the decline and fall will be a rapid expansion of the world. While everybody will be affected, some may be affected in surprising ways -- parts of the Third World which are being stripped to the bare walls by the industrial nations may find their economies improving as those industrial nations crash and burn, for example. Thus I expect different parts of the world to go through very different trajectories in the centuries ahead.

Mr. Geronimo, only in passing. As I've commented before, since I don't have any personal experience of the rest of the world, my ability to suss out its future will be much more limited.

Diogenese, I don't think there's a lot of risk that Rome will fall before I finish writing its epitaph!

Eric, I heard about that. You'll find the whole process chronicled in Toynbee, down to the fine details.

Rube, I'm by no means sure I buy into Jay's biological determinism, but he's describing much the same process I am, of course.

Gunhobbit, if I may quote Mao, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, but it has to be transplanted into more nourishing soil or it won't thrive. If your ruling class has to depend on constant overt violence to maintain itself against the people, its days are usually numbered -- and if the rule of law dissolves completely, so that what you have are warring gangs carving up chunks of territory, you're well on your way to a dark age.

Jph, true enough. Thus the importance of getting salvage economies up and running now, while the picking's still so good.

Akshay, many thanks -- that's a brilliant poem, and the sort of perspective a Druid can appreciate!

Architrains, if you can pass on the knowledge of how to build and run simple steam engines to the generation that comes after you, you may just hand something of great value to the future. By all means give it a shot!

Bill Pulliam said...

Shane -- North America did have large city-states in pre-columbian times. The mound at Cahokia in Illinois is one of the largest earthworks on the planet, I believe. The civilization there was very complex. This widespread belief that we did not have these cultures here comes from several things. First, these city states were already collapsing before the Europeans arrived. Like everyone else they depleted their resource base (soil fertility) with growing population and intensive maize agriculture. Second, they built out of wood, in a climate where wood does not persist for centuries the way stone does to leaving things for Victorian archaeologists to study. Add to that the fact that the european diseases ran far ahead of the Europeans themselves in North America, and the Europeans only saw the relicts of cultures that had already collapsed and been devastated by plagues.

exiledbear said...

@thrig Just to give an example of what I mean by "locked down", to write a native program that draws a line (or changes a pixel) in any of the current modern OS's involves knowing all sorts of things and keeping multiple abstractions in your head. For a professional programmer, it's nothing too bad or onerous, but put yourself in the shoes of a 10 year old kid who doesn't really think that abstractly. Who's just playing around.

For example let's say we want to write directly to the screen in Windows, I mean as direct as you used to could do with the earlier and more primitive machines (like say, the Commodore 64). You need to know not only the DirectX API, you need to know about COM too. COM. Something that was written by, for and of the CompSci PhD crowd. Something that even a good chunk of the professional programming community says is too complex for them to understand properly. And you're going to ask a 10 year old kid, to understand COM first before he can even begin to scribble on the screen the way you used to back in the good old days?

And on the MacOS side of things, it's not much better. In some ways it's worse - you have new APIs, you have old APIs, the old DirectDraw API got replaced by Quartz I think? Or was it the other way around? My MacOS memory is not as good, even there, the Apple II was much much much simpler for a kid to get a hold on, that anything today.

It's like all those old dirt roads that people like you and me learned how to drive on, they're all replaced with high speed pavement with traffic signals and higher speeds - and no room for a kid to play anywhere without blowing things up.

And it shows when you see them interact with modern computers, all the working parts are covered up now, they have no real understanding of what's going on anymore.

Only remaining route left are things like the Arduino, where for the most part everything is exposed and there no overly burdensome abstractions to thwart a child. Even there though, the main loop is hidden from you, you get called instead, so if you want to do anything even remotely interesting you'll have to know how to create your own state machine to remember what happened between calls. You're going to ask a 10 year old to start thinking about state transition diagrams.

There won't be many kids that will have either a.) the passion or b.) the competency when it comes to hacking in the future.

John Michael Greer said...

Hector, okay, tell me this: if one of your patients was diagnosed with an incurable cancer, would you consider him horribly morbid if he took the time to learn about his prognosis, find out what things can make his last months easier or harder, and consult with a lawyer and other professionals to get his affairs in order? That's the equivalent of what I'll be doing over the months to come. Coming to terms with mortality in the abstract is very important, but it's at least as important to face up to the concrete reality of imminent death when that's in sight. Still, if that's not something that interests you, nobody's forcing you to read this blog, you know.

Onething, an old-fashioned fit of the vapors? How delightful! As for the farmers market, that's really good news -- that's one of the places I've suspected that new patterns of community are likely to start taking shape, and it's good to see that stirring.

Energyskeptic, I'd encourage you to pick up a good history of the fall of Rome, the fates of the various Chinese dynasties, or any other example of the rise and fall of civilizations, to get a sense of the timescale I'm discussing here. Turchin is talking about faster cycles within the grand life cycle of a civilization.

Enrique, hmm. I'll have a look at him.

SMJ, that's my guess. Most of them still exist only because they're propped up, directly or indirectly, by the Fed's increasingly frantic money-printing efforts.

Kevin, might be the north of Europe, might be the east -- I could see Russia becoming the core of a deindustrial Eurasia for some centuries to come.

Shane, the Mississippi Valley had thriving urban civilizations in it in pre-Columbian times, so I see no reason to doubt it'll have something similar in the future. More on this as we proceed!

Ray, exactly! Thank you for getting it.

Richard Larson said...

I recently attended a grueling seven day "Restoration Agriculture" design course. The main lecturer showed a graphic of an abandoned city in the desert. He made the point it wasn't desert when the people lived there, but he insisted the people did create the desert. And to think, those people nack then didn't burn coal for electricty...

Another lecturer noted that with three times more nitrogen in the ground, and two times more carbon in the air, than just fifty years ago, what we need to think about growing and raising, and how we should think about the land, has also changed. In large part the effects of climate changes are involved.

Can hardly believe there is only twenty-five seconds of music saved from such a long standing empire.

Looking forward to upcoming series, lessons to learn from the past!

Here is a snippet of the course I attended, my video work, I have five days of video, and will keep working on uploading short segments:

Eric S. said...

Energyskeptic said "I'm not sure why you think it would take 100 years or more."

Well... As I remember, Rome reached peak imperial tribute in 117 then started to fall into decline about a decade or so later with the invasion and loss of Scotland. The last emperor of Rome was deposed and replaced with a feudal king sometime in the 470s and that event officially marks the end of the Western Roman Empire (though Classical civilization went under around the turn of the 5th century when the empire was split in two and most aspects of Roman culture and religion outlawed in the wake of the Gothic Wars. Either way that's almost 300 years of civil wars, plagues, invasions, assassinations and economic upheavals between the onset of decline and the beginning of the dark ages.

The Babylonians took between 150 and 300 years from peak to collapse too depending on dating system, the Mayans took a little under 300 years... And the Egyptians a little over 150 once they got an empire going. It almost seems then like 250 +/- 100 could be treated like a magic number for how many years it takes a civilization to fall once it peaks. (The few exceptions being external forces like the plagues that brought down the American civilizations in the wake of the Columbian exchange).

Shining Hector said...

Hey, come on, you know I wouldn't miss any of it. I just gotta get in a little harmless hectoring now and then.

As far as continuing the medical analogy, wanting to know everything about your condition is a very common and natural response. I will say, though, that in the final analysis, as a group, the people who are able to let go and decide to make the most of their remaining time are really making the wiser decision compared to the ones burying themselves in medical journals. Knowledge fairly consistently fails as a means to buy yourself any more time or contentment. It almost seems like a perverse way of avoiding reality in itself sometimes, a futile attempt to seize control over something you will never control. I certainly wouldn't stop anyone from taking the latter route and would share whatever knowledge I had, but I might try to gently nudge them down the other path if it looked like they were only making themselves miserable, which quite frequently is the case.

Sometimes I imagine us realism junkies as actual junkies, and the irritatingly optimistic folk are right to shun us. They're sparing their psychic livers by staying off the sauce or something.

DeAnander said...

"What do you reckon is going to happen to rich powerful coporations like Monsanto / the Big Pharma companies? My guess is that they're all highly dependent on the US empire so when it becomes too weak to support them they'll die, i.e. within the next 15 years."

I hope you're right, 'cos that gives me something to look forward to... If I'm careful, and don't fall prey to highly evolved microbes or random violence or my own clumsiness, I may just live to dance on Monsanto's grave. That would be worth sticking around for.

jcummings said...

You mention that in the case of green manures the inputs are from the atmosphere, which I assume includes energy inputs via the sun. The same is true for well managed ruminant herds on perennial pastures. The inputs come from the air and sky (eaten, trampled and then redistributed), not from imported feed. The "well managed" part is critical to achieving the net positive effect you mention. Finding the right ruminants or combinations of them is important too. Most cows have been bred to do well on grain. Ironically, it's a rare and special cow that can thrive on just grass. They're out there though.

Peter said...

Loved the quote from "The Ruin" one of the most haunting poems I have read. If I recall correctly it is the Saxon recollection of Roman ruins when they were still somewhat intact. Very fitting.

There are so many things that are different about this era, but in a negative sense. Therefore, I am taking your 'forecast' as an optimistic one. Not pleasant though. We are in for a rough ride but with luck something might just survive. Look forward to the future articles.

Bogatyr said...

Well, now I know where Saruman's tower got its name!

JMG and SMJ: Monsanto et al have already acted to ensure their survival by capturing the US legislature and Supreme Court. Note the recent decisions on corporations' rights as legal individuals... What next in this vein, I wonder?

There was some talk of the UK Parliament having greater respect than the US Congress. Not sure how long this will be the case: the leaders of the three main parties have acted to railroad through extended snooping powers (having told MPs that there would be no major legislation over the summer, so they could return to their constituencies in recess - thus there will be little scrutiny or debate).

It does lead me to believe that our political elite know something that scares the bejeezus out of them, and which they're not willing to tell the voters about. It could be that the black flags of jihad are secretly being prepared in English towns; it could be that the imminent energy crunch will be much worse than we've been led to believe; it could be that they're planning to rig the Scottish referendum and then have a clampdown. Who knows? But it does feel as if something is brewing.

Deborah Bender: I'm not sure that Indonesia as such will pull through; it's a pretty recent creation, after all. Java returning to its ancient role as a regional power is entirely credible, though.

Thriftwizard: I too have stood on those crumbling arches. My ancestors would have looked to the East, and prepared for the coming storm. They found their strength in their ancient tribes. Perhaps it will happen again, though we're far weaker now.

Juhana: sorry for not replying earlier. I live next to the Griboyedov Canal; from my apartment window, the onion domes of the Church on Spilled Blood loom overhead. Helsinki is not far! Am I a pragmatist? Years in Asia have shown me that it works; still, I'm more of a disillusioned idealist. I try to be pragmatic now, but I have to work hard to stop it slipping into cynicism. Football isn't my game, I'm afraid - but if you're in Peter let's go to a stolovaya and have a few glasses of Baltika!

Cherokee Organics said...


A very well thought out title for the new book. I can almost hear the sounds of the reviewers - in the future - spluttering, falling over themselves and generally frothing at the mouth about the title alone, let alone the content. Should be good for publicity! Well done.

There were two wombats out last night, which can only mean one thing: Rain today. Yet again, they prove their predictive reliability! Sensible creatures. Three Kangaroos and two wallabies are happily bouncing around in the rain outside. The dogs are pretending they're not out there because the wood heater is just that much nicer.

The weather here seems to be more consistently turning into a wet / dry pattern. I didn't think that it would be possible to break another weather record Down Under this year, but the only thing certain is change: Sydney nearing record dry spell. Just for your interest, they are further north of here and have cooler more tropical summers and that warm dry air mass from the centre of the continent referred to in the article then swings south. Very unpleasant and only getting stronger.

Hi Cathy. Thanks and sprung! Yeah, it has been a damp winter so far. Today was meant to be a day of excavations, but the wombat warning forced me to reconsider and stay inside today. As it was all drizzle, it rained many hours, but not much rain actually fell. It is dark here by about 5.30pm so there is plenty of time for comments. I always enjoy tales from your part of the world too. Last summer I changed the way that I worked and got up at dawn and worked til lunchtime - thereby escaping the heat of the afternoon - and have found that more was achieved than at this time of the year. You'll be happy to know that the chickens are now getting a warm mash of milk and oats every morning too and I’m leaving a layer of bedding on the floor of their shed. They're happy chooks.

Hi Redneck Girl. I'd like to see that! All of the wild animals here have padded feet (many with big claws) which goes a long way towards not compacting the local soils. Some of the introduced animals such as Alpacas also have padded feet showing their similar heritage. Most of the introduced domesticated animals though have hooves which compact the soils here - although it is possibly more likely a case of overstocking by farmers (or lack of rotation). Some horse paddocks around here are revolting over winter. I'd imagine the migrations of bison were an antidote to that sort of compaction? Dunno? I always enjoy your writing.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi jcummings. Well done, it sounds like the land is under good stewardship. Mind you, you're going to have to bring back lots of goodies for the soil - in the form of feed, manures, composts, mulches - whatever you can get your hands on really. Even cardboard has useful quantities of boron in it!

>What do you think about intensively managed ruminant herds?

I read in a book by Peter Andrews on the topic of land restoration Down Under in that he met an old time farmer who gave him this bit of advice: "Keep 10 sheep when you can feed 10 sheep". That tends to reflect my thinking as well. It is not hard and fast though because you can build soil fertility as described above through the simple act of importing feed - from somewhere else. If you look at Joel Salatin's systems (really nice bloke too) that is how they build soil fertility. They also practice consistently moving herds around – all of the time. The native wildlife does this function themselves here and I don't have to think about it very much at all. Perhaps once a year I have to drop the herbage – well before the bushfire season.

Mind you, I bring in feed for the chickens too, but am slowly working towards obtaining, trialling and growing replacement feed. Every day I collect greens and herbs for them and am getting a feel for what they like and what can grow easily and reliably here. Plus I have to understand how to reproduce those plants. Plus the chickens free range too for a time each day – even today in the rain.

Intensive practices are at the heart of some of the problems in modern agriculture, but it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.

What do you reckon about those types of systems?



Ventriloquist said...

Sorry for the repost, but I mistakenly placed the comment below on the previous week's blog comments:

"Factor these patterns together, follow them out over the usual one to three centuries of spiraling decline . . ."

Is it possible that this timeline would be accelerated in the context of the 21st century?

Would one of the results of globalization not give rise to critical shortages happening at a faster pace than in a far less-connected time?

For example, during much more agrarian eras, the 3-day food supply at the local supermarket did not precede a very quick starvation of most of the citizenry . . . i.e. it probably took a lot longer for that 90% population decline than it would today, no?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Bill. Exactly! Of course the cow dying of starvation in the sand pit would also be an input to the biology of that sandy soil. I try to be a net importer of organic matter onto the property here and everything ends up back in the soil even my own humanure. Of course I bring in a lot of composts and mulches here too. I'm pretty sure the local sand and soil supply dude thinks I'm a bit nutty, but over the years he's gone from derision to curiosity. Possibly I've simply worn him down?

Hi exiledbear. When I was very young I had the very good fortune to have a wealthy grandparent who decided to purchase a Commodore 64 for me. Dude, it was an awesome machine. As a young kid, I taught myself 6510 machine language because I wanted to write games and the basic language was just way too slow as it was an overlay.

Tell ya what, if you knew the memory addresses to point the graphics engine at, then you knew what bit in which byte of that memory chunk you could switch pixels on and off in hi res mode. If you knew what the byte address was for the colour overlay, you could change colours... It wasn't that complex and 6510 machine language was not that different from basic, it was just simpler and you used 8 bit memory addresses rather than variables! Games were expensive to purchase, hard to pirate so it was enough incentive.

Nowadays, computers bore me and as long as they work it’s all good as I just don’t want to have to think about them.

Not all 10 year olds are dumb. There is a 13 year old kid up this way who runs a 2,000 chicken free range egg farm. He's the whole next level again, precocious I believe is the word.



Bill Pulliam said...

JMG and Hector -- the problem with the dying patient analogy is that even though empires and industrial civilizations die, humanity and human society do not (at least not in the same time scale). We all have cultural descendants, even those who will not have biological descendants. The grand sweep of human experience continues unbroken through the rises and falls. There are rarely discrete termination points where a civilization goes from being to non-being in a heartbeat in the way that an individual does. So the death metaphor will only take you so far in understanding.

Kutamun said...

One of the things a " peak oiler "' for want of a better term must constantly guard against is confusing the collapsing of an industrial system with the collapse of ones own psyche .
This has recently led to some well known tragedies.
I have noticed that many around the scene seem to be childless , more or less narcissistic types , such as myself . Perhaps it is our peculiar psychology that enables us to better grasp the realities of impending industrial decline , accustomed as we are to our own inner wasteland .?
I have noticed a strong tinge of Germanic Descent in many of the commentators .
Our strong inherent yearning to be floating back in the warm amniotic brine could easily be conflated with the romantic notions many of us nurture about post industrial " Lord Of The Rings" type lifestyles and eco villages . Lets hope we dont meet Tiamat in the village , though i feel we are bound to.
For the last few years i have been fascinated by maps of the retreating German Nazi armies in the final stages of world war 2 , wounded, battered , constantly retreating , pockets of strength , heroic rearguards , encircled formations . Territories virtually split in two , strong tactical local victories held against the context of inexorable strategic defeat . Mad Nietzschean Dictator hiding in unknown Germanic location .
I realise this to be a knot of corrupted Reichean Organin held within my own body , and peculiar to my own darkened peak oiler psyche , but these maps accurately reflect a minature model of the collapsing industrial civilisation .
All the people driving black german made cars and bleaching their hair blonde gives it away , along with the shopping mall gas - chambers , mass surveillance and sloganeering propaganda .
Yes , these are murky waters indeed , and one must keep up ones regular spiritual practices to keep safe ...we are sailing close to some dark things here , so be careful , and try to be kind to yourself and each other , as Jerry Springer would say !

Eric S. said...

Hector said “doing something like researching the progression of microbes and insects that will one day consume your decomposing corpse, making a lurid poster of said organisms at work, and hanging it in your bedroom is basically just macabre and is neither a particularly healthy or productive means towards the end goal of coming to terms with your mortality.”

“Sometimes I imagine us realism junkies as actual junkies, and the irritatingly optimistic folk are right to shun us.”

I think what we’re seeing here is a perfect example of the differences in religious sensibilities JMG discussed a year or so ago:

Back then he described the sense that many people have of “a sense of belonging and of participation in the great cycles of Nature, an awareness of oneness with life that does not shrink in terror from life’s natural completion in death. What inspires them is not the hope of a final separation from the realities of nature, life, history and time, but a conscious and delighted participation in these realities—not the promise of salvation, but the reality of homecoming.”

By placing our lives within the broader context of the life and death of a civilization, and that civilization itself within the broader context of the life and death of human kind, the life and death of this planet, and ultimately the rotational cycles of the cosmos and the eternal principals that move it. What you see as macabre, others see as the very meaning and beauty of life, which is the enduring power of nature itself and the fact that humans have the privilege to be a part of that dance… and to actively participate… telling its stories and singing its songs. Looking back at the final poem about the ruin in this week’s essay, I’m reminded of this quote:

“What is a ruin, after all? It is a human construction abandoned to nature, and one of the allures of ruins in the city is that of wilderness: a place full of the promise of the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers. Cities are built by men (and to a lesser extent, women), but they decay by nature, from earthquakes and hurricanes to the incremental processes of rot, erosion, rust, the microbial breakdown of concrete, stone, wood, and brick, the return of plants and animals making their own complex order that further dismantles the simple order of men. […] A city is built to resemble a conscious mind, a network that can calculate, administrate, manufacture. Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life. With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped. This is the same transmutation spoken of in fairy tales when statues and toys and animals becomes human, though they come to life and with ruin a city comes to death, but a generative death like a corpse that feeds flowers.”
-Rebecca Solnit

magicalthyme said...

Shining Hector, knowing what is coming and which signs and sumptoms indicate what changes in your disease state, helps you choose which possible treatment to opt for given your personal situation. Looking the other way leaves you open to a lot of needless pain and suffering. Looking squarely on your disease enables you to choose between palliative treatment now or later. If you choose later, it helps you to choose interim treatments that will enable you to have some quality of life now and to start tying up loose ends (such as doing what you can to prepare your loved ones), and gives you the insight to know when it's time to switch to palliative treatment.


Bill Pulliam said...

And another thing... this view of the decline into a "dark age" as being comparable to "death"...

This buys into that whole idea that the "dark ages" were a time of misery, decay, and cultural "darkness," comparable to death or even hell. In reality, they are now viewed as "dark" only because they leave a skimpy historical record.

Sure there are wars, famine, poverty, disease, displacement, misery. And there is plenty of that to go around during the ascendance and peak of a civilization as well. Dark ages also have plenty of love, joy, celebration, song, dance, storytelling, art, feasting, etc. too. There's not a whole lot of indication that the general level of human happiness follows the economic curve of ascendence, peak, and decline. We may think that life without our creature comforts would be unbearable. But many people have lived happy and fulfilling lives without them. And many people lead miserable, lonely, isolated lives of pain, suffering, and fear in the midst of our material "ascendance."

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@redneck girl

Greetings from Illinois. Interesting comments re bison, wild horses and land race grains. I also remember the discussion about buffalo commons, and also the idea floated some years ago to bring in elephants as a sort of substitution for lost megafauna across the southwest.

Wild horses would be an excellent part of that effort: they died out and didn't come back until the advent of Europeans, at which point tribes such as the Lakota and other plains tribes speedily became among the best riders in the world.

Re landrace grains, yes, but also needed are vast tracts of rewilded prairie (roots up to 20 ft.) as they're doing in places such as Midewin (20,000 acres) and Nachusa (3,100 acres). I believe Bison are coming to Midewin. Said prairies would be Pangean hybrids, of course. Still. And compared to the 13 million acres of corn in Illinois--well, there's a long way to go.

Redneck Girl said...

JMG, one of the things that concerns me is that we are shipping scrap metals out of the country. Kind of hard to do metal salvage when there isn't much left to salvage.


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Bill Pulliam and others re Cahokia and soil building:

Bill, to add to your good summary of the city at Cahokia, I believe another issue there was that intensive maize production also brought in some nutritional problems for the people owing to too much reliance on that one plant.

In a weird way we are repeating that mistake.

Traditional three sisters ag helped keep the soil fertile, but supported fewer, semi-nomadic people.

Bill Pulliam said...

Animals, manure, soil improvement...

jcummings -- animals add no nutrients to the system, unless you give them feed that comes from outside the system. They only increase the rates of nutrient cycling. And harvests of animal products represent a flow of nutrients out of the system that has to be replaced. This does not make animals bad, it is just something you need to take in to account. The same (net nutrient flow out) is true of potatoes and anythine else you harvest. Even beans, which provide their own nitrogen, take other mineral nutrients away from the system when you harvest them.

In general on soil restoration-- a decade or two of fallow can also be good for soil reclamation, even if the fallow is entirely unmanaged (just let the weeds take over). Whichever nutrients are in short supply, whatever plants are best at retrieving/fixing/accumulating those nutrients will have a competitive advantage. Plus there's indirect evidence that free-living nitrogen fixing microbes (cyanobacteria) also get to work in barren and fallow soils pretty much as soon as the sun rises and provide a significant amount of long-term nitrogen accumulation. We have some old cropped soils low in fertility and organic matter; after 12 years of "neglect" (in the eyes of my neighbors) the wild blackberries have gotten fatter and the plant cover thicker, indicating that the nutrient cycles are getting well-established again without my having to lift a finger.

The acreage of depleted cropland that will become unproductive as industrial petroleum-based farming becomes less viable will be vast. I expect most of it will just have to be left to its own devices, covered with mile after mile of invasive weeds. We spent a century depleting the natural fertility of these lands with massive diesel-powered machines. We won't be able to actively heal it all with just our muscles and hand tools. We'll just have to work on the smaller intensive plots, while natural processes gradually grow something resembling soil again on what are now sterile, infertile culture media that provide little more than physical support for plants that are fed petroleum.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Just a quick note to say thank you for your articulate, thoughtful work.I love the historical perspective.

Renaissance Man said...

If this rambles, please forgive, it's a thought I’m putting out that has occurred to me just now. Reading your essays, the commentary discussions that follow, and as much of the recommended ancillary material that I have time for, it occurs to me that there are two linked features that are prime aspects of both civilizations and dark ages, viz., communication and zeitgeist.
I do not know if communication is a pre or co-requisite, but all civilizations and empires, have open and relatively safe lines of communication from end to end. Under the Mongols, the silk roads opened up so one could travel from Damascus to Beijing in safety. Under Claudius, you could travel from Britain to the Levant; within North America, from Florida to Anchorage, we can cross the continent assured of complete safety (parts of Detroit and Chicago notwithstanding).
At the same time, the zeitgeist of the civilization exudes a sense of confident trust. I don’t know if that is a pre or co-requisite of open communication, but it is certainly synergistic: no traveller fears the inhabitants will seize them; inhabitants do not fear the passing travellers, come to trade, and not plunder. There is a bold courage and a confident sense that wars are disruptions to the ordinary flow of peaceful trade.
In contrast, dark ages, as you point out, are a time of fragmentation and I would say the zeitgeist is defined by fear. Communication is almost nonexistent, insular communities fear the arrival of strangers and it is dangerous for anyone to travel. Trade is almost impossible across multiple political entities, each taking a portion of goods as a toll; populations crash because a single raiding party can wipe out annual food supplies and leave a starving population chronically vulnerable to disease. Small wars are constant; quiet peaceful prosperity elusive.
Again, I do not know if these are co or pre-requisites, but if the current political and religious gridlock and increasingly divisive tensions breaking into more violent clashes across the globe are any indication, civilizations cease to exist when fear replaces confidence, when communication and the exchange of ideas stops and when the hoary image of small groups of frightened peasants, huddling in their farm awaiting the next raid from a passing war-band become the norm. The war-bands form from people afraid of their neighbours, the people are afraid of raiding war-bands. Frightened people do not share ideas on the best way to coax more grain from the soil, or how to maintain fertility.
I envision a great wheel, one that takes centuries to turn, from insular fear to open confidence and back again. During the confident time, there is an expectation that things will become easier, more comfortable for the next generation. During the fearful time, the expectation is that someone else will take all these comforts away so hoarding and defensiveness become endemic.

SMJ said...

@DeAnander: For my daughter's sake I hope I'm right too! I fear that 15 years is optimistically soon, but looking at how things are I don't see how it can be any longer. My other fear is that the US corporations will die but will be replaced by new ones from other countries. However, it seems that Russia is very anti GM. However, can people be trusted to resist making a huge fortune for the sake of the general good? I guess ultimately as energy cost and scarcity increase, GM and Big Pharma activities will cease to be profitable. But that would be much more than 15 years away.


Nastarana said...

jcummings, Redneck Girl, el al,

Some of the smaller American seed companies are beginning to make available seeds for various forage crops, such as fodder radish, mangels (huge beets), Belgian white carrots, and many others, which have been used in Europe for centuries to feed livestock through the winters. Most of these are large and deep rooted crops which bring up nutrients from subsoil. I am wondering what place crops like fodder radish might have in a good rotation, for example, fodder crop, to be fed to chickens or large livestock and composted and some eaten by the farmer, followed by a legume, followed by a greedy feeder, such as cauliflower or tomatoes.

I don't think there was any such thing as a "Biblical Civilization", unless one means the Canaanites who built cities in what are now Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. The civilization around Susa and the recently excavated city being called Arratta is still little known. It was frequently invaded and controlled by Summerian and Babylonian kings. Persia, after the conquest by Medes and Persians, never succumbed to invasion until the coming of the Moslems in about the 8thC AD, and even after that, retained many of its' traditional folkways and institutions. One of the more surprising things one learns reading about ancient Egypt is that human settlement there was much more recent than in Syria and Anatolia, for example. some of the continuously occupied Syrian cities, such as Aleppo and Damascus were already millennia old when settlers began trickling into the Nile Valley around, if memory serves, 5500 to 4000 BC.

mr_geronimo said...

About pre-columbians in the Missisipi: I belive I read somewhere that Fernando de Soto, the conquistador that mapped southern United States, found the last cities of the mound builders in the late 16th century but when the english and the french arrived there a century later there was nothing. The moundbuilders were probably in their last days by the time Soto arrived there.

In Amazonia there was also a culture of complex pottery and composting pits (the Amazonian soil is incredibly poor, one must mix slash-and-burn with compost to be able to farm there) that by the time the jesuits explored had alredy collapsed and dissapeared.

I belive the changing climate since the late middle ages combined with excessive growth killed these early civilizations like it did the Pueblo, may have forced the turks out of Altay in Asia and may have something to with the agricultural collapse in Egypt during the Fatimids.

And the current climate change will have similar effects: civilizational collapse in some places, nomad hordes in others. Maybe in 500 years Juan Doe will unite the nomads of Texas-Great Basin with the blessing of the Mormon monks that kept Secret of the Gun during the dark times and conquer the last, rotten, Murrican successor states in the continent while fighting against the Cuban Pirates?

Ángel said...

If somebody said to me couple of years ago that I was going to read during several months what a guy who proclaims himself Archdruid thinks is going to happen during the next 500 years in North America I would have told them that they were nuts.

But not only I'm going to read it, I'm going to do it with great joy. Thanks, JMG.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, you mentioned Russia as a possible center of power in Eurasia in the future. While the emerging geopolitical reality of scarcity industrialism will be a big advantage for them over the coming decades, their declining birth rates and huge territory might give them a bit of trouble after we reach the bottom of Hubbert's curve. Also, I recall that article of yours about the US and Mexico. Russia has quite a few unhappy communities and groups on its periphery and within its borders.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, there are a lot of dead cities surrounded by desert at this point; sometimes the people created the desert, sometimes natural forces did so, very often it was a combination of the two. All the more reason to learn how to feed the soil!

Hector, fifteen minutes of reading once a week is hardly the equivalent of burying yourself in medical journals -- not least because most people these days are responding to the diagnosis by insisting that it just ain't so, and they're going to live forever!

Peter, here as in most things, I try to take the middle ground between optimism and pessimism. The fact that any given change will be seen as good by some people and awful by others just adds spice to the sauce!

Bogatyr, I don't have a clear sense of what's going on in Britain, but here in the US it's very clear that the federal government expects a domestic insurgency and is preparing to fight it. That may not be all they're expecting, but when local police departments are being handed armored military vehicles brought home from Iraq, that's a pretty clear sign. Given the recklessness with which the US has been manufacturing insurgencies in other countries, for that matter, it's probably a safe bet that somebody else is going to return the favor!

Cherokee, I can see a flashing red light on the wall: WOMBAT WARNING! WOMBAT WARNING! I confess I'm not at all sure what kind of noises wombats make, if any, but that might do for a klaxon... ;-)

Ventriloquist, sure, and in those previous eras nobody had the technology to truck food supplies thousands of miles in a few days to relieve local famines, either. It fascinates me to watch how often people pay attention to only those implications of modern technology that support whatever narrative they prefer! All in all, it seems to me, if you put the vulnerabilities produced by technology side by side with the strengths produced by the same technology, they more or less cancel each other out, and leave the familiar process to work in familiar ways.

Bill, of course it's just a metaphor. I used it there because Hector's a physician, and presumably has some experience with such things.

Kutamun, in a very real sense Nazi Germany was simply Western civilization pushed to the point of absurdity -- a kind of Monty Python parody, but with real blood. Thus the parallels you're seeing are certainly there -- and so is the darkness.

Eric, precisely -- in fact, I noted during that discussion that Hector was among the most articulate defenders of the old sensibility among this blog's readers, with his "stuck on this rock" response to my ten billion year forecast.

Bill, the darkness of dark ages is a more complex thing than that. I;ll be talking about it in some detail as we proceed.

John Michael Greer said...

Wadulisi, they're going to have to do a lot of shipping if they want to haul all the dead skyscrapers off the continent!

Ien, thank you!

Renaissance, yes, and that's also an important aspect -- the collapse of social order is a huge factor in generating dark age conditions, and unfolds from the collapse of mimesis I talked about in an earlier post. More on this as we proceed!

Mr. Geronimo, the latest research I've seen suggests that the 90%+ death rate from European diseases was the main factor in the collapse of the urban societies of the Mississippi valley -- the dieoff was worst in the cities, of course, because crowding made the rate of transmission so much higher. That said, your image of the future has a lot in common with mine!

Angel, thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Ursachi, of course they're going to have problems, like everybody else; I'm pretty sure that most of Siberia will end up Chinese, just for starters. For that matter, if European Russia does become a center of consolidation in the deindustrial dark ages, it may do so under a new ruling class that invaded from somewhere else, the way the Rus originally did a millennium ago. It's purely a matter of geopolitics: which geographic and demographic regions are well positioned to endure as things come apart.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG re Dark Ages -- I was more thinking about the reaction of others that a looming "dark age" represents the end of history, an abyss into which the thought of falling is abhorrent.

I find it interesting that you use this term, which mainstream historians have largely moved away from. I will be curious to see *why* you have chosen this description, given that the power of language and narrative is one of your big themes. I'm sure it's not an accident, or even just a casual choice.

Eric S. said...

Bill said: "And another thing... this view of the decline into a "dark age" as being comparable to "death"...

This buys into that whole idea that the "dark ages" were a time of misery, decay, and cultural "darkness," comparable to death or even hell. In reality, they are now viewed as "dark" only because they leave a skimpy historical record."

It seems like you have two choices when you talk about the dark age following the collapse of a civilizations. You can think of the final waves of crisis that bring a civilization down as the last ragged breaths of someone dying and the darkness that follows as the blackness of death... or you can think of those crises as the contractions and bloody screams of birth, and the darkness that follows as those early years of infancy before first memories begin to take shape. Ultimately they're one and the same thing... it just depends on how you choose to look at it...

Roger said...

When you are immersed in life it's hard to see the trickles of events coalescing into torrents. You never see the deluge coming. The Goths sacking Rome? Hah, that'll be the day!

The place that my family came from was a society where people stayed put in the valleys of their birth. Nothing much changed over the generations except that once in a while one brutal regime would be replaced by another.

People lived in stone farmhouses that had been there since the beginning of time or so it seemed. And worked soil that had been farmed for the last 6,000 years. They went to churches that were built on the site of pagan temples that had been built on top of neolithic shrines that stood on the holy places of the earliest hunters.

And then the deluge, that is, the 20th century and war and revolution. The ancestral valleys were de-populated, the farmhouses left to ruin. The old country is now educated and urbanized, the age-old peasant dialects forgotten or taught as heritage languages.

Our families in the New World are racial and ethnic composites. All of us speak English. None of us are farmers and nearly all of us (including those still living in the old country) are university educated professionals. All in the space of one generation.

So it doesn't surprise me that hardly a scrap of Roman music survives. Or that the loss of knowledge can be total. I think that often-times when people pitch the old ways they do it in a hurry, necessity dictating the pace of change. When Rome was ascendent, how long did it take for Latin to take root in Gaul - on both sides of the Alps? Not long I'll bet.

Violet Cabra said...

Last night I finished the second volume of The Decline of the West. In all honesty I feel like Spengler helped free my soul a little, provided a light to see deeper into prepossessions and also elucidate the larger historical trends that are likely irregardless of my stake in a particular outcome.

I can see now why you are watching the fracking bubble so closely; according to Spengler the Age of Caesars begins after both democracy is killed by money and then money itself implodes. If our monetary system implodes that would likely opens the door to a return to what Spengler call the "formlesness" of history. How, as you opened this essay with, civilizations in decline become increasingly similar as they approach dark age.

Recently, I've been thinking about the fragmentation of culture along class-lines in terms of black holes. As an object moves towards a black hole the accelaration acts on the two ends of said object unevenly - the side closest to the black hole is moving much faster than the side furthest away. This leads to the object being torn in two. As the gravity and acceleration increase this process repeats until, theoretically, the atoms themselves are torn to shreds, the object rendered formless.

Working at an upscale organic farm I see this process in slow motion - our costumers for the most part are way more privledged than the people who work here. No one who works here could afford to buy the food we sell, instead we eat what the costumers pick over. Within the farm there are the downwardly mobile children of the middle class and devoutly religious recent immigrants and a constant murmuring of class-tension between the two groups.

As the gravity of the dark ages starts to tear apart the fabric of society I imagine an enormous amount of factionalization in the years ahead, mediated more and more frequently with violence, until of course, the social differntiation that characterized our Civilization is rendered formless,and there is a return to the "rule of blood," peasants and nobility.

exiledbear said...

@Cherokee Exactly. You didn't even have to use assembler if you didn't want to, all you had to do was PEEK and POKE to various memory locations and you could see what you did and what it produced. Today however, you have to understand enough COM to be able to instantiate the DirectX API objects and go thru about 30 different settings in the API to just get access to similar memory registers. And only then can you start PEEKing and POKEing, except you have to do it C++, you can't just sit there at an interpreter prompt and do it anymore. I forgot all about that, we're asking 10 year olds who want to scribble on the screen like we used to, to know C++.

I'm sure there's going to be 1 or 2 savants that will do it, but 10 year old me would've given up and bought a chemistry set today. 10 year old me today would be mixing chemicals instead.

Chris G said...

"It’s interesting to speculate about why this reversion to the mean should be so regular a theme in the twilight and aftermath of so many civilizations."

that's probably the easiest part of the whole matter... it's said that in science the simple, elegant answers are always the best... it's simply that a civilization runs out of "gas" (whatever that might be), then starts eating what it has already made, and goes back to the ecological baseline, which is what the sun can provide in light and rainfall... which is the god at the low point in the waveform.... The immanent in contrast with the transcendent.

So it's probably worth noting again that the relatively most stable civilizations that we know of are the Chinese and Indian... where the foundation is rice: grown in swamps in tropical or semi-tropical climes.

JMG, I'm sure you have studied quite a bit about the longevity of those eastern cultures and about their agricultural foundations, and how they compare to the western agriculture and culture. I hope to hear more on those subjects.

Bruce Anderson said...

Dear JG
There is one undeniable aspect of today's civilization that truly IS different this time and represents a wild card in any proposed scenario of the future. That is, nuclear weapons. If we are to apply the applicable lesson from the past in this case it would be that there has never been an arsenal possessed by human beings that they didn't eventually drag out of storage and use against each other. It's what we do.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Angel--JMG did not proclaim himself Archdruid. He was offered that post by an organization already in existence. I'm sure you did not intend your remark to be rude, but it came across that way to me.

When encountering a title that seems odd or grandiose, IMO it's better not to make assumptions. Religious and fraternal
organizations large and small confer specialized titles on their leadership. The title doesn't necessarily have the same basis or import in every organization that has ever used it.

E. g. in some denominations of Wicca the unpaid leader of a close-knit group of about a dozen people has the formal title of Lady or High Priestess. Lady in this context is not a claim of hereditary privilege, and High Priestess does not imply a grand temple full of acolytes in the neighborhood. Either title does usually indicate that the holder studied and worked for some years, has personal qualifications for the position, and has the respect of her colleagues. Within traditional Wicca these points are perfectly understood; not necessarily so outside them.

Robert Mathiesen said...

One of the huge problems with any argument from "but this time it's different" is our own preconceived (and false) arrogance about the unique superiority of our own world. Thus, Mark Luterra writes:

"No previous civilizations have had an equivalent of the Internet, allowing for immediate communication across borders."

However, Graham Robb recently reminded us of Julius Caesar's observations that the Gauls whom he conquered could do just that by use of the human voice and carefully chosen high places. One reviewer of Robb's book summarizes how Robb figured out how this might well have worked:

"One example will suffice. Certain references in Caesar’s writing indicate that the Gauls operated a vocal telegraph, composed of strategically placed teams yodelling news overland to one another, which passed messages at a speed nearly equivalent to the first Chappe telegraph in the 18th century. To judge how this might have worked, Robb takes himself off to the oppidum above Aumance, near Clermont-Ferrand, where he reports on the car alarms and the whirr of traffic still audible across countryside four kilometres away.

He goes further. Aumance was one of around 75 places once known by the name Equoranda, a word with an unknown root that resembles the Greek and Gaulish for 'sound-line' or 'call-line'. All the Equoranda settlements Robb visits turn out to be on low ridges or shallow valleys, and would, he writes, 'have made excellent listening posts'. Examined in this light, one word in Caesar’s account becomes fruitful: he observes that the Gauls 'transmit the news by shouting across fields and regios', a word that can be translated as 'boundaries'. An ancient Persian technique for acoustic surveying, still current in the 19th-century south of France, involves three men calling to one another and plotting their position along the direction of the sound. Put the pieces together and you end up – or Robb does – with 'the scattered remains of a magnificent network' that could have acted not just as a telegraph system but as a means to map the Druids’ boundaries on to the earth.

It’s a magnificent piece of historical conjecture, backed by a quizzical scholarly intellect and given a personal twist by experiment."


Nor is this the only such system of long distance communication known. Anthropological linguistics has produced a number of significant studies of what are sometimes termed the "drum and whistle languages" used for that purpose in parts of Africa.

shtove said...

"I haven't kept up with the literature, but operative mages use the placebo effect all the time. Of course it's as much the method of administration as anything else -- what do you think all the robes and incense and clutter are about?"

I suppose the placebo effect is a paradoxical deception that tells us a lot about ourselves.

So evidence, rather than assertion, would be helpful.

latefall said...

@JMG: I am excited about the next few posts! Rubbing my hands in anticipation actually. By the way lately I have the feeling I am "converting" people I run into like crazy - if they aren't converts already...
By the way this movie works quite nicely for many of my audience: - best if it just pops up on youtube and they don't have time to read the title :). You are in the refs. Oh, and guess what kind of comments get a lot of likes in the English version? The author calls it "whataboutery".
If my "converts" actually start doing something as a direct consequence of this is another matter though I am afraid. I think mostly they start not doing certain things - which may be just as good. The ones that aren't freaked out too much are generally pointed here for some more in depth commentary.

@Renaissance: Very nicely put. I tried to get this point across in earlier comments, but your way is a pretty simple and effective check. Maybe it could be turned into a song?

@Bill Blondeau here's someone thinking very much along your lines:
Also, the historical context that Bauwens gives to this dovetails extremely well with what hase been discussed in the last few threads here. Traveling maker-sisters, role of religion in conservation of knowledge, modern monasteries, mutualisation, and all of it in pretty actionable format.
I've been a bit of a maker for some time now and my perception is that a push for "for benefit (not profit) non-authoritarian commons" makes a lot of sense, especially now. I'd hope there'd be a few less shiny robots and a few more upcycled Growerbots and basic items being worked on, but you take what you get. I see much of the real value in making people collaborate and think for themselves.

@Cherokee (carry over from last week): I hadn't heard of the Toyota War, but I am not too sure I get your point. My tentative answer is this: Toyota War should really be named Toyota Campaign. It was heavily supported by the French - also without that MILAN system your average encounter with tanks sitting in a desert is a lot less fun for your side. Even if you have a bunch of light vehicles with, say RPG-7s. The other point is history has in more than one instance that demonstrates the Sahara desert is well suited for mechanized maneuver warfare - especially if you know the area, and the concept of Schwerpunkt. Morale is another factor not to be underestimated (especially in African conflicts).
My original point was pertaining more to wars of attrition, and limitations of maneuver warfare in a modern context (e.g. Lebanon 2006), and re-use of UXO. I could imagine this for the "dark ages" with contested energy dense regions/high carrying cap regions, transportation choke-points, all this playing out with highly asymmetric technology.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, good. We'll get to that as this sequence of posts proceeds.

Roger, exactly -- and it's usually a period of relative prosperity and the absorption of international influences that precedes the sudden implosion.

Violet, exactly. So far, Spengler's been on the money so often that it seems sensible to watch for the signs he points out.

Chris, I'll certainly be discussing that, not least because the southeastern quarter of North America will be a tropical or subtropical region in the not too distant future.

Bruce, I addressed that in an earlier post here. It's a source of wry amusement to me that so many people are so desperately eager to find some way in which it's different this time...

Unknown Deborah, thank you, but I didn't take offense.

Robert, fascinating -- I'll have to look into that.

Shtove, then go look it up yourself. You can Google the subject just as easily as I can, you know.

Latefall, yes, I get plenty of whataboutery here, too, as no doubt you've noticed! Glad to hear you're spreading the word.

rapier said...

I have a simple metric by which collapse can be measured. When the electrical grid goes down or at least at first becomes unreliable there will not be collapse. When it does stop functioning reliably collapse is here.

Everything can and will seem 'normal' with the grid up. When it goes down nothing will be normal on the household and personal level. Access to money and communications will take hits. The flow of commerce and travel will be curtailed. Financial assets will soon begin to deflate.

And on and on. With the grid up the systems of control can continue to operate.

It think the grid is safe for quite awhile baring physical attack or rolling accidental failures. How long is quite awhile? I don't know but it is measured in years.

Bill Pulliam said...

Violet: "No one who works here could afford to buy the food we sell, instead we eat what the costumers pick over. "

This is EXACTLY why I stopped growing food to sell. As I put it, "I didn't move here to spend all my time growing food to be sold in expensive restaurants that we can't afford to eat at." So my work here focuses inwardly on the household, not outwards to the market.

Ángel said...


Oh, I'm sorry if it sounded as rude to you. I didn't mean it! English is not my first language. Thanks for your clarification!

onething said...

Shane Wilson @7/10/14, 6:21 PM,

A good case has been made that civilization requires draft animals to get started. At the end of the last ice age, north America lost its horses, camels, elephants (that may have been earlier). Buffalo are too wild and not easily domesticated.

Renaissance Man said...

An aside, with reference to makers and steam power and such.
The Ameliasburgh Museum in Prince Edward County (the peninsula south of Belleville Ontario, if you're trying to find it on a map) hosts an annual event by the Flywheel Society (I think?)... who build flywheel-based machines that run on petrol, steam, corn oil, and I forget what else I saw.
All of the exhibitors were retired, but eager to share their knowledge and how-to with the kids who were there.

Ruben said...

@Violet Cabra, I was interested to hear you can't afford to buy the veggies you grow for the customers. You may enjoy some of my recent wonderings on this topic.

Is our localism too artisinal?

jcummings said...

I find your differentiation between what adds nutrients and what cycles them fascinating. I would absolutely agree - ruminants are nutrient cyclers, but, when managed correctly, they are a great tool for stimulating and advancing nutrient accumulation via plant action in a number of ways.

The key is in the management. Like so many remediation practices, unless you use ruminants in management systems that closely mimic natural systems, they are very hard on the land.

I couldn't agree more about the vastness of wasteland that will be left behind when industrial Ag runs out of gas. My feeling though is that absent large herds of migrating ruminants, we'll start to see the rules of plant succession take hold. First will come invasive weeds, followed by brushy scrub, then fruit like brambles and small trees, followed by larger trees and ultimately forests. Regional differences allowed for, of course.

Chris said...

Bruce Anderson wrote: "There is one undeniable aspect of today's civilization that truly IS different this time and represents a wild card in any proposed scenario of the future. That is, nuclear weapons. If we are to apply the applicable lesson from the past in this case it would be that there has never been an arsenal possessed by human beings that they didn't eventually drag out of storage and use against each other. It's what we do."

I'm far more worried about the several hundred nuclear power plants. The warheads can be left to rot in their silos, but you can't just turn off an operating nuclear reactor and walk away.

jcummings said...

I like any and all experimentation. Given the scale of industrial Ag, we're going to need all the arrows on our quiver we can muster.

I think, though, the best and most successful remediation tools are going to be ones that do two things: 1. Mimic natural systems and 2. Reduce to as low as possible inputs (not just feed, but gas and electric and etc.) from off-farm.

That's why I like ruminants. If they are managed properly, they mimic the effect of large herds of ruminant animals in nature (like the buffalo here in n america) and they eat sunshine. They help develop mineral cycling too but I do bring minerals in for them for now. Depleted soils - curses!

All the best in your season of planning!

jcummings said...

I think by now we can all well conclude that you're interested in What We Can Know based on historical precedents and the facts on the ground. While its true that discussions of how things are different result in speculation only, I think the kickback you're seeing on that front is coming because you seem to treat discussion of "how things are different this time" as if your readers wanted to argue about the style of wall paper on the titanic or the kind of music the orchestra was playing as it went down - unique to that situation, yes, but of no consequence to the sinking event.

A great many of your readers and a great many other smart folks see that the many profoundly important ways its different this time (innumerated sporadically throughout the comments of your posts) are more like the type and size of the ship, its speed and direction - not mere window dressing.

The answer to your oft-used rhetorical device "so what?" is that the weight of these unknowns puts a great deal of strain on conversations of what we can know based solely on historical precedents and facts on the ground. We feel the reality of these differences in a palpable way, they are woven into the fabric of our lives in an intimate and frightening way such that when you wake up to their presence, the vast extent of these differences is shocking and so discussions of how things are going to go down seem disingenuous without them - even though you routinely remind us they are off the table.

Ignore them for the sake of your thought experiments if you must. I for one find your analysis fascinating and will keep coming back, but will try to fill in the blanks elsewhere.

Raymond Duckling said...

On the hacker generation subject:

While others have focused on whether the loosely defined hacker generation is able to rise to the task and make a difference this time around, I would like to question if they are willing to do so.

A bit of anecdotal evidence: A couple of weeks ago I wrote the following piece (slightly edited) in response to the latest request for a trade journeyman at my job's internal mail list...

===== MSG BEGIN =====
Subject: [Employer] Handyman group.

Given the recurring need from colleagues at [Employer] to find a reliable carpenter/forger/mechanic/builder/etc... don't you think the Universe is trying to tell us something?

Speaking from personal experience, most repair work at home is simple stuff that a reasonably intelligent person with basic training an the proper tools can handle by herself. What makes us think we need an specialist for everything?

My own training is unfortunately incomplete, due mostly to the typical father-son divide that arises during adolescence. However, there are many tasks that I could handle given the motivation and tooling. I know for a fact there are engineers at this building in the same situation, or even they have overcome the same challenges and are much more competent than myself.

I wonder if there's the interest to rise to the challenge. Some sort of hacker space, but focused in doing home repair stuff instead of computer stuff. We have the people and we have the need, and potentially there's people without the skills but who would like to learn given the opportunity.

Give me a call if you are interested.
==== MSG END ====

For that message, I received 4 responses, which is in the ballpark of 1% of recipients. There were two younger folks that would fit quite well in the "hacker generation" label as described here. Those expressed awareness and a sense of discomfort from lacking what once was considered basic manly skills. There was also a not so young guy, inquiring in the possibility of borrowing tools and exchanging tips now and then. And finally, there was this dude who mocked me with a one liner that read more or less as "Jo, take my monis!". All three got discouraged as soon as I let them know the number of responses to the original message.

My take is that while this demographic has their hearts in the right place, their perception of the world is for the most part still fixated in the Myth of Progress. Since their day to day revolves around an industry that is for the most part still growing and still sharing a part of the bounty with the hands-on-deck, so to speak, most don't see as a productive use of their time to learn who to fix real stuff with your own hands.

The challenge now is how to engage the few that might be interested.

John Michael Greer said...

Rapier, good. Now factor in the very high likelihood that the grid won't go down in any easily recognizable way -- rather, service to some areas will become unreliable, or get shut off completely, while others remain supplied with power. Over time, the areas supplied with power by the main will get smaller, while secondary local grids spring up in areas that have energy resources that can support them. Two centuries from now there may still be some places in the US that have electricity coming out of wall sockets. How does that affect your metric?

Renaissance, thank you.

Jcummings, you're misstating my viewpoint -- and of course that's common enough, since it cuts straight across so many of the habitual thought patterns of our age. I'd encourage you to notice how often, when people start saying "But it's different this time," that's immediately followed by an attempt to drag the conversation back to the familiar ground of progress vs. apocalypse: "it's different this time, and therefore we're still on our way to the stars" or "it's different this time, and therefore everything's going to crash to ruin all at once."

Those points of view are already being discussed almost everywhere. I suggest it's worth considering another possibility -- that it's no different this time -- and I'd point out that so far, predictions based on the suggestion that it's no different this time have been one heck of a lot more accurate than those that stayed comfortably settled in the mythic territory of progress and apocalypse. I'd also point out that, as I noted in an earlier post, it's a lot easier to avoid confirmation bias if you start with the assumption that you can test your predictions against the past, and then try to adjust for novel conditions, than if you start from the assumption that it's different this time and the past has nothing to teach you.

That said, by all means fill in those supposed blanks as you wish. I'd just like to encourage you to think about whether you're filling in said blanks with something more useful than warmed-over religious mythologies in secular drag.

Raymond, they're not hungry enough yet. Give 'em time...

team10tim said...

Hey Hey JMG,

I have a question of the "this time it's different" variety. I know that it is always different and focusing on the minutia isn't going to yield anything useful... But, this time around we have Spengler and Toynbee and Greer.

On the one hand I know that evolution isn't driving at anything and on the other I know that forewarned is forearmed. Is there a change in the pattern coming?


Phil Harris said...

I was very struck by your reply to a comment (by Katamun): “…in a very real sense Nazi Germany was simply Western civilization pushed to the point of absurdity -- a kind of Monty Python parody, but with real blood.”

Yes, I can imagine a comedy ‘Office’ series where the overweening manager responds to the growing popularity of one his subordinates by sending round his own guys and shooting the potential rival and his clique at their desks.

The real catastrophe seems to have been a triumph of every bit of middle-brow twaddle popular at the time – with a load of half-true geopolitical theory about world dominance. God help us, there still seems a lot of that stuff around.

(PS I am still hoping for a 4m rise in sea level for the descendants rather than 20m, but geology and hydrology are not likely to take a lot of notice of my wishes.)
Phil H

MawKernewek said...

It is possible Russia may benefit from global warming by the zone of possibility of agriculture shifting north, though net effects may end up negative since existing agriculture zones may degrade.

Nevertheless, perhaps after the age of scarcity industrialism, they will attempt to develop Siberia and the Far East agriculturally under some kind of feudal arrangement bringing in workers from elsewhere, once the more mechanised industrial agriculture becomes less viable.

Of course this will not be a sustainable idea, because these people might not be content to remain feudal peasants indefinitely.

Violet Cabra said...

@ Bill Pulliam, and Rueben,

I think there is a feedback loop with the organic movement that inflates the price. Organic farming is viewed more as a boutique item then an answer to the problem of hunger.

One of the primary reasons the farm I work at is so expensive is the huge efforts put into quality control. Sure, a half pint of strawberries is $6.50 but only about 25% of ripe strawberries are perfect enough to find their way into the half pint container.

My estimate is that 70% of the produce here is wasted. 25% is sold and 5% is eaten by the workers. That other 70% finds its way to the gargantuan compost piles.

This is one business strategy, and it seems adaptive now. The farm grosses huge amounts of income, is able to maintain an impressive collection of infrastructure and employs scores of workers.

An interesting point is I've heard from a coworker is that some organic farms in the area have attempted, and failed, to make ends meet growing dry beans. There isn't a market yet for bulk staples.

Of course, as you point out in your essay Rueben, eventually the bubble of globalisation will pop. When there aren't lentils from India and quinoa from the Andes there will be a market for dry bulk items, which I imagine will be the cash crop of most farms. A little bit later shipping costs will become prohibitively expensive and there will be a local market for bulk.

I imagine, too, that a pound of locally grown pinto beans will be much more expensive than lentils from the other side of the world since they won't be coming to us via the iniquities of imperialism. Still, people will buy them if they have money to spend and any alternative is magnitudes more expensive.

My guess is that when economic conditions change the business practices of organic farmers will change accordingly. Some of that will probably be identical to your stance, Bill, of simply growing for yourself. Others will probably grow bulk, and there will probably even continue to be CSAs and and farmers markets in urban areas for years to come selling $6.50 half pints of strawberries to the well-to-do.

Anne Patterson said...

Thanks for a great post kicking off discussion on the future we are facing.

An issue that concerns me that we face is the legacy of contamination in our land and water from industrial activities, particularly the ongoing contamination caused by fracking and other forms of unconventional fossil fuel extraction as the fossil fuel based economy desperately tries to keep going. We know it is doomed to fail but is leaving us with a terrible legacy of contaminated land & water. We can live without fossil fuels, though the disruption caused across the world by the loss of these as an energy source is going to be massive, but we can't live without water.

This is why here in the UK many of us are actively resisting the roll-out of fracking and other unconventional gas & oil extraction techniques, we are a small, densely populated country, we can't afford the impact on our land and water to have 1000's of wells spread across the 60% of the country which the government is opening up to fracking.

We hope we can delay and slow down the roll-out of fracking in the UK long enough for the bubble to burst and the industry to be stopped by lack of investment. We are working on a physical and magical level to protect our land from fracking, as part of an international network that is succeeding in protecting many places from this toxic industry in the USA, Australia and elsewhere.

But there are many whose land and water has already been contaminated, so some of the knowledge we need for the future will be about how we deal with this.

Andy Brown said...

I just have to say that there's no other blog that I would read 142 comments deep. Kudos to the commentariot. And thank you Archdruid for tending it. I really appreciate your last rejoinder with jcummings, since I'm sure it's hard to repeat once more, with generosity and understanding, something you've told us many times before.

Bill Pulliam said...

About artisinal and local and why they are so expensive...

I believe this is because the producers of these things set their prices at a level that they hope will support (or at least subsidize) a 21st century american standard of living. When I go to these places, be they local farms or local artists, usually I see trucks, grid power, air-conditioned houses, etc. And if you are going to value your time at $10/hr or even $2/hr to try to support this way of life, your prices are going to be too high for the middle and lower thirds of American households' incomes.

Ruben and Violet -- if you are not already familiar with him, you might be interested in Jeff Poppen a.k.. the Barefoot Farmer and his philosophies of farming and living. I discuss this some in my own blog here:

That post includes links to some of his stuff directly. Basically, he thinks the commoditization of agriculture is absolutely wrong, farm produce should not be sold, it should be distributed free to the community. He is a proud and unrepentant old-school hippie. He has quite radical views of agriculture and society, which I find very interesting. And they may well be a reasonably good economic model for a workable "dark age" community in future centuries.

As an aside, I became aware of him when I moved here in 2002 and strangers on the street kept asking me if I was him. He had done some shows for local public TV hence his face was known. When I eventually went to his place for one of his festivals I figured that would be the one place I would not be mistaken for him... wrong! Even on his own farm, I was getting called "Jeff" left and right.

peakfuture said...

JMG - surprised you didn't refer people to your old post on nuclear weapons - ( That article and the extensive commentary are a pretty good bulwark against the idea that nukes will be used in quantity. I re-read it this morning, and the general discussion was excellent all around.

If there is any caveat to all of that (and it was discussed in the commentary), it is that there have been quite a few close calls - it might be permissible to chalk up a small part of our current condition to a bit of luck. A few comments brought up some them, both known and unknown to the general public.

Mark Twain's "History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes," and George Carlin's, "The planet'll shake us off like a bad case of fleas," are the two quotes that come to mind in all of these discussions.

Yupped said...

Hi Ruben, I read your post on localism. Thanks for that.

I've had the same concerns, since increasingly we rely for income by selling various herbal products mostly to relatively well to do customers at Farmer's Markets. People that my dear father referred to as having more money than sense. Perhaps a little unfair, but it gets to your point about localism and expensive artisan products, funded by globalism.

Firstly, is it cynical to make money this way? I don't think so. It's just an exchange of value - I'll sell a fancy herbal tea and be paid for it with industrial wealth. I don't worry about it too much, but others might have deeper ethical concerns I suppose.

Secondly, this is just a transitional thing, right? As we do down the road aways, we'll all be living a lot smaller and scratching a living. Localism will be a default, imposed on us by reality, not a choice. So I see the current market for local/artisan products as a great opportunity to learn something new and helpful for the future, and to be kindly paid for by the froth of the current system. That's also OK to me, as long as I'm learning something that could continue to be useful in a more resource constrained future. So, growing/selling food and herbs is probably a good thing; becoming a local pedicurist, may be not so. Although who really knows? The economic viability of one's chosen set of skills is going to have to be worked out in the future, once we get there I guess.

Joel Caris said...


I've been excited about this series of Dark Age posts ever since you mentioned its coming some months ago in one of your comments. I'm happy it's here! I expect it to be fascinating, and a nice compliment to my current reading of Star's Reach.

I wanted to make a quick point about the internet, information technologies, and "It's different this time."

The internet really isn't that big of a deal. It's just a medium for transferring information--every once in awhile of the non-porn, non-celebrity gossip variety.

It's a convenient medium if you have access to it, granted, and it's fiddled about the edges of how we transmit information, but it's just a tool.

I think people conflate the information available on the internet with the internet, but that's inaccurate. The internet is just a vehicle for that information. It's nothing in and of itself. And disembodied information, to be honest, can be quite limited in its usefulness. Anyone who gardens or, say, makes yogurt should be able to attest to that. Disembodied information is a template from which to create experience. Experience is where the real knowledge lies. That's one of the differences between information and knowledge.

The internet's value is in the information itself and the internet did not create that information. It simply is one more method for us to express and transmit it to others.

Whenever we talk about some good aspect of the internet, we're actually talking about other human beings and other cultures. We're talking about the knowledge, communication, and cultural artifacts that come from other human beings, not the technological devices that bring it to us.

The internet's just a medium. It's nifty in certain ways, but that's about it.

I'm all of 33 years old and I remember well the world without the internet. It was a bit different, but mostly the same. The family garden that I helped water and harvest as a kid grew pretty much the same as my garden does now. The phone conversations I had sitting in the kitchen on our corded telephone were much the same as the conversations I have now--except I could hear my co-conversationalist a heck of a lot better on the old corded telephone. (I'm back to that now at my new place. Long live landlines.)

When the internet goes, the knowledge and information and cultural artifacts it currently carries will continue to exist. They won't go with the internet unless we decide to allow them to. We're talking, after all, about human knowledge and human artifacts. If we're willing to continue to transmit them, they'll survive.

The internet is both nifty and awful. But it's not all that important.

exiledbear said...

I suggest it's worth considering another possibility -- that it's no different this time -- and I'd point out that so far, predictions based on the suggestion that it's no different this time have been one heck of a lot more accurate

And I wonder why that is? Why does human experience seem to consist of going 'round and 'round, 'round and 'round, 'round and 'round, you know, like the wheels on the bus?

Why do humans love chasing their tails so much? That and clinging to stories that barely have anything to do with the real world?

shtove said...


Ah now, the assertion on the placebo effect was made by you, not me.

No offence intended - just handy to have the evidence to hand.

Roille Figners said...

"...population expands as well, since people can afford to have more children, and since more of the children born each year have access to the nutrition and basic health care that let them survive to breeding age themselves."

I would add that prosperity helps increase population in another way: Access to proper food & health care prevents many of those children from becoming felons & murderers. It has been shown, for example, that a disproportionate number of criminals suffered malnutrition during childhood and/or in the womb. In other words scarcity of food, and the right types of food, has a population-decreasing effect beyond the single individual subjected to it. If a boy from a poor family survives to breeding age but kills 2 other young men, that's a net loss of 1. Not a lot of people like to go into this territory because it's a bit on the fatalistic or "nature" (not nurture) side and is unfashionable.

Andy Brown said...


Don't fall into the trap of seeing the placebo effect as a "deception". Speaking as an anthropologist, I don't think there's a culture on earth where healers don't enlist the very powerful ability of people's own minds to aid in the healing process. It's not just bells and rattles, either. I can remember when doctors, their paraphernalia, and the respect they had - doubtless played a huge part of why they were successful at healing and maintaining health. The industry's rejection and dismissal of "the placebo effect" - epitomized by their unwillingness to engage patients as full human beings and their over-reliance on an arsenal of drugs - is one way they often fail as healers.

Phil Harris said...

News while we wait - a very significant blog by Luis de Sousa.
Sometimes the world moves fast!
Phil H

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Angel--I should apologize to you for not taking the trouble to use the correct character for the first letter of your name. JMG is not offended; I'm not offended; I hope you're not offended. And thank you for making the effort to write in a second language.

Regarding boutique organic food, I'm a customer. If I were supporting a family on a low wage job, I'd get books from the library and food from wherever it was cheap.

I have some spare money and not much space for a garden. The independent bookstore in my little town has an optional surcharge over the cover price of new books, which I pay in order to keep the bookstore going so I can have somewhere to browse physical books. (I also buy used books when I can, and exchange/donate/pass along my leftovers.)

The weekly farm stand in town sells organic produce from nearby farmers at a dollar or two a pound above the prices for organic produce charged by two supermarkets within walking distance. I buy some of it, not because it's that much better in quality, but because I figure I'm the community that's in a position to support the agriculture right now, and I hope to continue eating fresh fruits and vegetables in the future.

That's not a solution to the workers being unable to buy the fruits of their labor.

exiledbear said...

population expands as well, since people can afford to have more children, and since more of the children born each year have access to the nutrition and basic health care that let them survive to breeding age themselves

As much as it pains me to cite Bill Gates (I really do loathe the little weasel), he did bring up a good point about access to nutrition/public health and population growth. You can read the point he makes below:

This is probably the only time you will ever hear me cite anything he has ever written.

TL;DR - Counter-intuitively, it's only when conditions are unhealthy and miserable that population soars. If public health and nutrition is good, it tends to stabilize or even reduce population growth.

exiledbear said...

re: placebo - if it's stupid but it works, it's not stupid.

Same thing with curing schizophrenics by sending to live with african shamans. If it's stupid but it works - it's not stupid.

Do it. Worry about how it works later.

Kevin said...

Bill, I like very much what you say about Jeff Poppen's philosophy of the economics of farming. It reminds me of the writings of Charles Eisenstein, whose ideas on the gift economy Poppen seems to be putting into practice. What's more, the apparent success of his farm suggests that it could work out for a wider range of goods and services, including my own. As an artist I'm only too acutely aware that the moment you try to commodify art, charging enough money for it to support even a very modest living by current standards - well, it just dies on the vine. Whereas in a community like Poppen's, perhaps I could afford to offer my work as a service, like a musician performing for the pleasure of all.

I also like very much that Poppen is a proud unrepentant old-school hippie. They have nothing to apologize for; nothing at all.

Redneck Girl said...

@ Mr. Geronimo: You may not be fully aware of how devastating European diseases were for American Indians. When De Soto went through the south I have absolutely NO DOUBT that they carried Swine Flu with them. The culture of the mound builders might have been in decline but likely wouldn't have been vastly affected by De Soto's passage in anyway until the flu struck the tribes. That was an old story time after time for American tribes. It was a virgin field epidemic washing in tides across the continent. In fact the builders of the ruler straight canals (of I think it is in the Pantanal in Brazil? Not sure!), were a huge tribe supporting a city of hundreds of thousands. They NEVER saw a European face and became extinct, unknown to the European colonizers.

As someone with obvious
American Indian background, (I'm not a pure blood), I have disputed the myth about how much land was 'unexplored' or unused by indigenous people. I feel confident that much more of it was utilized in ways Europeans were ill equipped to recognize.

In the "This Time It's Different" game I can think of a single event that really would create a fast collapse world wide and that would be a Carrington Event. It would definitely grease the skids and be catastrophic for the USA as well as most other highly developed countries. Obviously not so much for 'third world' countries. It would likely make for an interesting set of events any way you'd look at it. No doubt there's quite a novel in that tangle of vegetation!


Redneck Girl said...

Hi Chris, Just found your post in regard to soil renewal. One of the movies that illustrates how the plains tribes viewed the migratory herds was Dances With Wolves. They would send out scouts looking for the herds to reappear. The herds didn't have fixed routes they followed. They did follow the grass. I agree with you that close confinement is the destruction of the soil and basically a plague on the health of the animals confined. All grazing animals do better when they have a larger expanse to graze.

As far as how dangerous buffalo/bison can be I can give you two examples, the first from the completion of the railroads. A migratory herd crossed the railroad tracks in their thousands and some engineer in his arrogance blew the whistle of his gen-u-wine steam engine to get the herd to move faster. A bull felt himself insulted and assaulted the engine which in that era weren't what they are today. The bull de-railed the engine. He broke his neck in the process but he was powerful enough to de-rail a steam engine. A more modern example of short tempered buffalo occurred in Yellowstone Park about ten or twenty years back when a German tourist decided he'd pet himself a buffalo. BAD IDEA! He didn't survive the experience being tossed more than twelve feet into the air. Buffalo can be domestically raised but at heart are still wild animals, something to keep in mind when around them.

Frankly I would love to see elephants turned loose in the south to run wild but I don't expect to ever see it happen. Not in this lifetime anyway.

Those animals imported to Australia with padded feet like lamas, alpacas, vicunas, in fact all cameloids originated on the American continent, along with the horse. The continent has gone through extremely dry conditions geologically speaking.


onething said...

I call Google the Mind of God. I'm 56 and I only vaguely remember what it was like to live without it...

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, who is this "we" who have Spengler, Toynbee, et al.? Not those who are making the decisions. I'm reminded of one of my favorite cartoons...

Phil, exactly. It's as though someone wanted to do a sort of Grand Guignol farce about middle-class European crackpot ideas, and forgot to tell the actors not to actually murder people.

MawKernewek, depends on whether they can hold onto Siberia at all. I admit I have my doubts.

Anne, yes, that's an important issue, and one I'll be discussing.

Andy, thank you. It bears repeating, and I know it's a hugely difficult concept to grasp.

Peakfuture, actually, I did refer to it, with a clickable link.

Joel, exactly. There's a lot of confusion between the internet as a means of communication and the internet as a means of accessing stored data over a geographically large area. The former is fairly easy to duplicate with lower-tech equipment; the latter not so much. More on this as we get to it.

Bear, how about because human beings are human beings, and don't actually think as much as they think they do?

Shtove, in case you haven't noticed, this is an informal blog, not a peer-reviewed journal article. If you want to find out about the placebo effect, by all means google it; if you just want to nitpick, sorry, I don't play that game.

Roille, true enough.

Phil, thanks for the link!

Bear, based on historical factors, I suspect there's more going on with the demographic transition than the usual theory (as cited by Gates) suggests. Notably, if people don't have enough food to survive, I find it hard to believe that their numbers will increase. Still, I'll look into less weaselly sources on the subject.

Onething, I'm 52, and I can easily remember the pre-Google days. Mind you, I still look things up in a print encyclopedia fairly often...

Anselmo said...

Toynbee's entire work can be summarized in the following statement:

The birth and evolution of civilizations is conditioned by spiritual rather than material factors. These factors are manifested in creativity of a creative minority, which seduces the rest of the population to adopt a set of core beliefs.

Such minority eventually loses his creativity and becomes dominant minority, giving rise to the collapse and disintegration of civilization. It should not be that politicians are the dominant minority, are only part of this.

USA is merely a parochial state of Western civilization. This civilization collapsed shortly before the sixteenth century, and began his stage of disintegration, which continues to this day.

This disintegration has among its consequences phenomena that determine our whole life, of which the following examples:

European expansion occurred in the sixteenth century: T. According to material and military expansion is a clear indicator that a civilization has entered a phase of disintegration.

The wars of religion, Napoleonics, IGM, WWII, the Cold War. They are part of what T. called Time of Troubles. Time when we are living now.

Cultural movements like the Renaissance and Romanticism are, according to Toynbee, archaistic movements seeking escape from the present problems by the procedure of the flight to the past.

The failure of archaism leads to Futurism, which is the attempt to solve the problems presented by a flight into the future, leading to violent political ideologies, such as Jacobinism, communism and fascism.
This disintegration process can be reversed at any time if a creative minority capable for the replacement of the dominant minority appears

It can be said that we are living products of the disintegration of the Western Civilization.

Leo said...

@ ExiledBear & JMG

Reference: Plagues and Peoples

Modern population dynamics (especially city growth) are very different from historical ones because we have greatly changed the negative side of the equation.

Devastating epidemics, generally killing 10-30% of the population but occasionally 90% in specific areas, no longer exist and the devastating impact of childhood diseases is largely gone.

If I remember the stat right, 1 in 10 children would die to milk borne diseases before pasteurization was enforced. And that is one category among many.

Important detail, a weak city born person who has been exposed to diseases has a higher disease resistance than a healthy peasant who hasn't.

This meant that epidemics rarely hit the countryside and when they did, they tended to be incredibly devastating (wiping out villages). Cities would have more often epidemics but they didn't have the same impact.

Also what were childhood diseases in the city tended to kill young adults in the city.

This had quite a few affects in societies and also development (parasite load negatively affects intelligence) but I'll look at an important one.

Cities only maintained population by having a constant peasant migration, the problem being these peasants would generally die fairly quickly. About 6-9 out of 10 wouldn't survive. The end of this effect is one of the reasons slums exist in the third world.

Once public health care rots away, both the general disease load will increase and proper epidemics will start happening again.

I know someone from Mexico City and their description puts it as a prime target for one of these epidemics. A normal one could easily kill 25% of the population, 5 million people.

Also diseases reduce workload and effectively steal food they reduce the amount of productivity by 20-50% (this is a guess, probably on the low end).

What we're seeing now is fairly unique historically and once disease returns the effect Bill Gates and others are seeing will likely disappear.

Also this is a simplistic model, but covers the major points.

EnergyLens said...

There seems to be a narrative shared across a diverse set of interest groups that a world government is being pursued or is in fact inevitable (I just finished reading “Why the West Rules… For Now” which was má o menus and I think often of the less-than-stellar but still thought provoking “A Short History of the Future” by Warren Wagar”; also I’ve run across a number of references lately to the SDR replacing the dollar as a world currency and the mechanisms being put into place by monied interests for exercise of supranational power). Anyway, this latest focus on the shape of the future brings Wagar’s book to the forefront (mud re-skim) and I wonder why its never been mentioned (that I’ve seen) in all of the peak-oil associated chatter over the past eight years. His post-collapse post-world-government “smalls” party has always seemed a (utopian) ideal that resonates with themes such as Small is Beautiful, the subsidiary principle, Leopold Kohr , Transition, re-localization & etc. and I bet the salvage economy fits in there. Looking forward to this year’s theme and curious to see if the idea of World Government crops up.

Anne Patterson said...

Regarding the comments on the cost of organic veg, yes it is more expensive to buy in the shops than industrially produced vegetables but there are alternatives. Those who have access to growing space can grow at least some of their own fruit & vegetables, you can grow useful amounts even in a small patio in tubs. Here in the UK we are fortunate to have allotments we can rent, we have an allotment just down the end of our road and at some times of year hardly buy any fruit & veg, so we are eating fresh, organic fruit & veg with no food miles.

For those who don't have access to space for growing their own why not get involved in a local Community Supported Agriculture Scheme such as Our local CSA has veg shares for £7 or £12 per week. The CSA employers a grower but is otherwise run by volunteers which keeps the costs down. If there isn't one local to you why not start one.

There are also groups such as which work with the community to increase the local supply including planting edible food plots outside buildings such as the railway station.

Another way of working with local food is collecting fruit from fruit trees in people's gardens that would otherwise go to waste and give it away or turn it into preserves such as

There is a UN report which states that small scale organic farming is the only way to feed the world.

We all have to eat so doing what we can to improve our access to locally produced healthy food is something we can usefully spend time & energy on.

rapier said...

On the electrical grids failure as a marker and cause of collapse.

If the areas containing those with power maintain their reliable electrical power it seems likely then they could then maintain their power. At least far longer than if there is total failure.

I am probably far too fixed on this idea but with modern communications intact,which requires the grid, I am unable to imagine how centralized economic and political power would fail, in any short period.

I think Hunger Games accidentally hits upon a possible outline.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

An insight on Climate I learned from Joe Friday# at a streetcar stop in New Orleans (we let two streetcars pass as we talked).

Joe prefers the term "Climate Chaos".

"We" are perturbing a metastable system with increasing forcing. The results are quite simply unpredictable. Perhaps, or perhaps not, in a global, century plus span, but for the farmer deciding what and when to plant, city water supplies, etc.

Also, his prediction for Oklahoma is "Persistent drought with intermittent showers".

The impact of increasing unpredictability in weather (as opposed to Climate) has been, I think, underestimated.

# Retired Colonel in USAF as meteorologist, professor emeritus of Meteorology at University of Oklahoma, former President of American Meteorology Society.

Bill Pulliam said...

So we have already forgotten the reference books and the reference librarian? This was the well-trained knowledgeable person you asked to help you with your question, and who could lead you right to the sources wherein your query would be answered. Of course, that required paying a living wage to a skilled worker in compensation for his or her valuable and specialized skills. And it required leaving your house and talking to another human in the "meat world." Apparently all of this is also hopelessly passe now, along with keeping your political and religion opinions to yourself outside of the voting booth and the house of worship.

JMG - you might find this story amusing or horrifying, though I doubt you will actually find it surprising...

Yesterday Peggy went to a meeting at the county library for a group that wants to start a local chapter of the state arts and crafts association. They were discussing a suitable geographically-based name, and Peggy asked about a map of the physiographic divisions of the state. The response she got from the group was "too bad no one brought a laptop." They were sitting in a LIBRARY!!! Some of them left the meeting room, and eventually came back with what appeared to be a printout of something they had found online using the library's computers, which was not really adequate (county boundaries not shown).

She was telling me this story after the fact while she and I sat in our dining room/library. I took me about 15 seconds to grab a reference book, flip it open, and hand her exactly the map they had been looking for -- color coded physiographic regions, with county boundaries AND names. And major rivers, to boot!

exiledbear said...

Those who study history can profit off of those who are doomed to repeat it. Dammit I'm going to make lemonade out of these lemons, if it kills me :/

dltrammel said...

It is getting where the signs of a near bubble crash are more and more apparent. This article in the Times points out that too many big institutional investors just can't survive with a 1-2% return on their money, which is becoming the norm since the Fed has put interest rates at zero. They are all chasing anything that will perform better, even if the writing on the wall is that tulips aren't investments.

"Welcome to the Everything Boom, or Maybe the Everything Bubble"

(long article warning)

A few pundits are predicting a 2008 level crash by 2015-16, but I'm hoping sheer inertia holds it off til 2017-18.


Well I'm aggressively cutting as much of my expenses as I can and putting it into savings. Hopefully when the next crash does happen I can pick up someplace to live my retirement out at dirt cheap prices.

At least I'm learning to get by on alot less, so if prices do rise I have a cushion.

Bill Pulliam said...

Local food does not have to be "artisanal" and upscale; these are choices made by the growers not forced by the economy. There's also the hillbilly local food growers. We just got pick-your-own blueberries from one of these for $7 a GALLON. He says he doesn't put anything on them; given the way blueberry bushes grow like Jack's magic beans around here, I'm inclined to think that is (mostly) true.

If you invest in expensive equipment, go into debt to build infrastructure, etc., then you have committed to an upscale marketing model. Around here CSAs have almost all followed this model, and their clients are middle- to upscale.

On the other hand, you can get hillbilly eggs from some neighbor with a flock of hens for $2 a dozen. They are not likely to be medicated. They are also not likely to have been fed organic feed. But in the summer at least, you can get egg production from foraging hens without any supplemental feed at all. So they are as organic as the weeds in your back 40. Again, if you choose a bigger model, with high year-round rates of egg production, then you are committing to expensive feed, more infrastructure, etc. and inevitably higher prices.

John Michael Greer said...

Anselmo, not a bad summary -- and it's at your next to last point that Toynbee stops being a historian and becomes a preacher, since there are no examples of such a reversal in history. It's one of his blind spots that, being part of the dominant minority of his time, he gave too much of a role to the personalities and individual decisions of the dominant minority.

Leo, thanks for the reference. That's roughly the sense I had, as indicated by my comments about the collapse of public health measures as a necessary factor in population declines. Still, this is an issue that I was planning on researching anyway for this series of posts.

Lens, as I see it, we're past the point at which world government would have been an option. Not all civilizations, pace Toynbee, end in a Universal State. As the availability of cheap concentrated energy declines, disintegration and relocalization are the core themes to watch for. (I've read Wagar's book, btw, and was massively unimpressed.)

Anne, no argument there, except that the UN is overly optimistic. We're not going to feed seven billion people with organic methods, or any other methods, for more than a short time -- that's one of the reasons why depopulation will be a major feature of the centuries immediately ahead of us. That said, once fossil fuels and other agrichemical feedstocks run short, organic methods are the only option left, and preserving the techniques is a crucial issue at this stage of the game.

Rapier, nah, you're neglecting all the other aspects of maintaining and exerting power. If you've got a modest amount of electricity, for example, but no access to raw materials needed to build and maintain core modern technologies, the electricity's a useful advantage but not a game-changer. In making sense of the future, it's important to remember that "technology" isn't a single thing; you can have one part of it -- say, a working electric grid over a town-sized area -- but lack many other parts of it, and the resulting technological bricolage is going to have possibilities and vulnerabilities that differ sharply from those of today's technological suite. More on this as we proceed.

Alan, I'm fond of Thomas Friedman's comment that what we're facing isn't global warming but global weirding. On pure thermodynamic grounds, I'd expect increasing energy in the global climate system to produce more extreme divergences, not uniform warming. Next time you talk to Dr. Friday, though, could you see if he can recommend some sources along these lines that are accessible to the nonspecialist?

Bill, utterly unsurprising. We have a 1950s edition of the Encyclopedia Americana, and I've watched people goggle as I pull out a volume and actually, ahem, look something up. It's still a very good resource, and goes into detail you won't find in typically dumbed-down online sources such as Wikipedia.

Bear, by all means make that lemonade! My plan is not dissimilar -- when the people who don't study history go stampeding off the nearest cliff, I plan on standing by at a safe distance, knowing what's going to happen, and then going about the rest of my life.

MawKernewek said...

As far as plagues go, the Black Death may have killed maybe 30-40% of Europe's population, but is it only an observational selection effect that there wasn't a plague that killed 90%+ of people in the Old World in historical times?

Anselmo said...

The necessary condition which must be satisfied by a minority for become creative, is to have made ​​the process of withdrawal and return.

This minority needs to separate voluntarily from their society to develop, alone, new ideas that can be incorporated into the set of beliefs of their civilization.

Likely Toynbee, didn´t withdrew.

onething said...

Well, of course I really do remember living without google, but I have also wondered aloud how we ever managed. And sure that's the reason that most households had at least one set of encyclopedias, and for that matter, perhaps I ought to buy one for a song at a thrift store, but it will be out of date...only certain things will be in it. The amount of info plus commentary and even question and answer that is possible with google is something that makes life much easier. For example, if I were to try to battle cancer naturally, it would be much more difficult to pull off without the internet.

As to the high price of vegetables at the farmer's market, and I've said this before, I doubt many are making anything close to a living wage even with high prices. It seems to me that the problem isn't that the vendors are charging too much as that they are competing against big agra who leaves devastation (external costs) in its wake and/or uses 3rd world labor. Fact is, food in America, especially frankenfood, is far too cheap.

jeffinwa said...

Probably old to most but new to me; interesting way of looking at long and short term cycles, big and small. Sort of relates to this weeks post.
Thanks as always John.

Shane Wilson said...

@Violet, Bill
if I might tie it in to the bigger picture and JMG's Green Wizardry, the goal of growing your own food and making your own stuff is resilience, and limiting your exposure to global supply chains and global finance. Five pounds of cucumbers are five pounds of cucumbers, regardless of the exchange rate of the $. That is an advantage in a coming financial collapse, and protects you against the ravages of the marketplace, such as hyperinflation. The goal should be to go from being a consumer to a producer, limiting your exposure to the marketplace, and getting away from the monetary market to other non-monetary methods of exchange. Americans are stereotyped as "thinking only in $'s", and I'm finding it is just as true in green, locavore, organic, permaculture, homesteading circles. I've been disappointed in my search locally to find many into permaculture/organics/homesteading that are focused on business/profit/market/commodification. It's like we're talking different languages. It's not so much even as a negative judgement on my part, so much as a disappointment that we're not "talking the same language" and have vastly different goals. Those who I've been gravitating towards and getting to know are those who, you might say, have more of a Green Wizardry bent, focused on shortening their supply chains, getting as much as they use/need away from the monetary market, and producing as much as they can themselves. I've been volunteering for a local community garden organization that focuses on low income food deserts in my city. It's a great educational opportunity for people. I think that it's a tragedy if low income people feel that their only option is cheap, processed, agribusiness food, and that eating organic, locally raised foods is too expensive for them. Personally, I know that I can't afford the expensive, organic, local products that are marketed to high end consumers. I hope that after a financial collapse or whatever is in store, the farms and growers that are now focused on marketing to high end consumers can retool as subsistence farmers based on local needs and means, but I have my doubts. I realize that old habits die hard, but it is interesting to observe the transition between the old, capitalist based way of doing things and the new ways to come.
a Carrington event would be disastrous, and would accelerate the process of decline, since, at this point and time, many things would not be rebuilt, however, all everyone knows right now is based on modern technology, so after such an event, you can bet that the powers that be would put as much energy as they possibly could into restoring as much of the grid as possible.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

Bear, JMG & Leo,

I recall seeing, somewhere on these interwebs (useful reference, no?) a rebuttal of the endlessly promoted "demographic transition" notion, which holds that all you have to do is make a population rich and they will have less kids. The rebuttal suggested that the causality runs the other way, citing various examples (eg China) where population restraint was followed by prosperity. The idea being that a subsistence economy can never afford to invest in industrializing if every peasant has 10 kids, but they can afford it with 2 or 3 kids. Of course this also relies on the new-fangled medical disruption of the death rate so the peasants don't need 10 births to ensure 2.1 adult offspring.

But both directions of this relationship are plausible in the right conditions. Having children in an industrial society is much more expensive than for a peasant, so after industrialization, contraception and maybe some cultural shift, it makes sense to have less children.

The conditions of global industrial decline and energy scarcity are another matter, so I don't see why these population effects, observed over the last century, should be expected to continue serenely when resource availability has reversed.

In general, all critters from yeast to blue whales try to grab resources and convert them into their own species' biomass. Less resources, less biomass.

John Michael Greer said...

MawKernewek, heck of a good question. The 90+% dieoff in the New World after Columbus was the result of scores of diseases suddenly being dumped on a population with no immunity, and that's a very special situation. (I can imagine an alternate history in which the New World had its own plagues, and the post-Columbus pandemics ravaged the entire planet down to 8% or so of its 1491 population -- would make for a very strange world.)

Anselmo, dominant minorities never do. That's why they stop being creative -- and since they keep a deathgrip on the levers of power, they foreclose the chance that anyone else can do it in their place.

Onething, the encyclopedia may be out of date, but if you get a good one, it'll have better information on history, literature, and old-fashioned technology than you can get on the internet. Give it a look!

Jeffinwa, er, did you notice that the guy's predictions are from 2010 and didn't pan out?

1ab, well, yes. I'm still going to research the current literature.

John Michael Greer said...

Ricardo (offlist), I can't edit comments -- all I can do is post a comment or delete it. Five screens including an original work of fiction is way into "teal deer" territory. If you want to post all that on a blog of your own, and then put a link to it here, that's fine, but I look askance at two-screen comments, and more than that is right out.

sgage said...

@ onething,

"Well, of course I really do remember living without google, but I have also wondered aloud how we ever managed."

I'm just a bit older than you and JMG (59). I did my entire college career, ending up with an MS in Forest Ecology, without the Internet at all, much less Google. Yes, that meant rainy afternoons spent in the University library looking through the indices of the relevant journals, following references from one journal article to others, etc.

The big difference between my undergrad and graduate years: word processing. I have wondered about all the papers I typed out in the wee hours of the morning on my trusty old manual Smith Corona.

But I had a system of writing on yellow legal pads with special annotations for rearranging text and such - it was word processing, and it worked well, and I wrote some good papers that way.

But I still miss the Library... and to this day the words of Marshall MacLuhan haunt me... "every automation is an amputation".

Something to think about as we power down...

Ricardo Rolo said...

Fair enough ... I just got carried away ;) Anyway, I will give you a fairly edited version of the non fiction part ( will save the story for one of your anthologies in other day )

As I see it, the USA ( by this I mean the political entity ) will most likely hold for some more time as a united country and continue with the bully weak countries for resources, just increasingly weaker and closer to home countries. That combined with the declining natural growth the USA have since the 70s ( all the growth it had in pop was consequence of migrants ) will surely make way for both oportunistic calls for illegal emigration ( for the cheap labor ) and for a increased chance of a small event to cascade into a well armed group of either "natives" or migrants to go insurgent. Besides that, the current trend of abandoned houses ( that will go worse ) added to migrants ( people moving unchecked is a infectious disease nightmare scenario ) will surely bring old diseases back along with new ones . In the long run, it is sure that the USA will suffer a long depopulation, with all the consequences you can imagine ... and this is still in the time where I think there will be some kind of political centralized control.

It is even possible that the USA might survive for long ( give or take some centuries of civil wars in between ), but the next century or so will surely not be a good ride for the USA ... A decay fast enough to be noticeable in a lifetime, but slow enough for maintaning the isulsion of steady state or some localized growth. It is actually a pretty common scenario historically wise ... not everything ends with a bang, after all

Ricardo Rolo said...

cont ..

In a tangent point, you must be careful about who cries "Bright were the halls" :D . Remember that whoever wrote that poem was surely a upper class guy ( after all he knew how to write in the VIII century Britain ) that words it in a thinly disguised lamment of how he couldn't take hot baths in a Roman caldarium while drinking mead like his forefathers ( most likely his forefathers drank wine, though ;) ). Given what I know of European folklore ( especially the Portuguese one, that is surprisngly sparse on references to Romans for a Romance speaking country ... all the olden days stories involve "Lusitanians" ( catch all word in this context for the pre-Roman population ) or "Moors" , with barely no "Romans" or "Visigoths"/"Suebi" ), that feeling was not shared by the bulk of the ex-Roman population.

In other words, much of the nostalgia literature we see from time to time from those days regarding the romans is actually barely disguised envy about how they could not live a fictionalized "Roman good life" ( the wording of the poem makes me think that the author was viewing the Roman life like if came out of a typical rapper video ) or build anything in the scale the romans did by the part of someone that was from the ruler class, whhile the common person was not exactly eager to get back to the "good ol'days". Not that the envy of the old ones is not important in post collapse days: we could argue that most of the European history is driven by the inferiority complex the post roman european rulers felt of those gigantic roads and aqueducts they saw ... it might simply not be the prevalent view ;)

Shane Wilson said...

wouldn't the alternate history of New World plagues be contained, since it was the Europeans doing the exploring? Any European explorers encountering a diseased New World would've died before they got a chance to turn back around and spread the disease in the Old World. On the off chance that anyone made it back to the Old World, they'd say that the New World was cursed with plagues and should be avoided like, well, the plague. Now, if somehow a diseased New World got overcrowded and they got wanderlust like the Europeans and set out for new lands...

episquared said...

Are the physical objects - cars, buildings, tools, etc - produced by our civilisation more durable than those of previous ones? If they are, how will this alter the fall?

Stephen Heyer said...

Thanks Pinku-Sensei for the figures on the population decrease after the collapse of Rome. I've mean meaning to track them down myself but did not get around to it.

Redneck Girl said...

Shane Wilson said...
a Carrington event would be disastrous, and would accelerate the process of decline, since, at this point and time, many things would not be rebuilt, however, all everyone knows right now is based on modern technology, so after such an event, you can bet that the powers that be would put as much energy as they possibly could into restoring as much of the grid as possible.

I think the damage would be more than you realize Shane. My understanding is that there are more than a hundred specialized transformers that govern regional loads. (Built in Germany.) They take as much as a year to build and are designed and constructed to fit their specific area of coverage. We have exactly two replacement transformers in this country and with a world of developed nations needing new transformers as well, not many of them are going to want to wait for that aging diva known as America to get what they want and need. For the cost of one backfire bomber we could build and put in overload cutouts to prevent the grid from imploding but no current politician wants to short his rich, important patrons to get this done. Too busy sucking up to his biggest donors to waste his time on something that might save a lot of hardship and deaths for the poorer citizens of this country.

My information source is Matthew Stein's book When Technology Fails. He's an engineer and was shocked at how ill prepared the nation is in such a situation. We were actually missed by a Carrington Event by two weeks this year.


Nastarana said...

Ricardo Rollo, the ghost of Rome has haunted Europe from the time of Charlemagne almost till the present.

onething, Perhaps you were not aware that a substantial part of Wikipedia was simply copied from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, gold standard among encyclopedias in history, geography and related fields. Most encyclopedias thrift stores and libraries can't give away; the 1911 Britannica sells on the 2nd hand market for around $200US a set.

Violet Cabra, et al. about artisan production. have you considered the costs of rent, taxes, insurance, etc.? Many small artisan businesses doing good work and selling good products are forced out of business because of the high cost of rents. In the CA central valley town where I used to live, rent on a downtown storefront started at $1000US a month. This in a depressed town of no particular distinction and not much prosperity. Half the storefronts in the downtown blocks were empty; the owners would rather let them sit empty than lower rents.

Produce returned to compost is not wasted. Maybe someone will come up with a way to turn the discarded berries into jam.

Continuing high land and house prices is, I think, one of the two main reasons why prominent politicians are losing elections over the issue of immigration; the other is that we don't want CIA trained cannibal commandos being resettled in our neighborhoods. I agree with the archdruid that migration is inevitable, but I think surely it could be better managed.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All

Important subjects like demography should not be just left to experts (smile) Having said that, I have considerable respect for erudition and scholarship and datasets (and commonsense), which is one of the reasons I hang around this blog (smile) I would like to help construct a useful set of links as a background resource to help us study demography. This is a set of knowledge that has in my view long term value.

I find the historical approach very appealing where it provides real tests of complex human ecologies, especially those agrarian ecologies relevant to civilisations and urbanisation – the alpha and omega of much of our present and future social organisation.

I have read recently a very useful 2005 essay, for example, on population numbers through the Roman Empire. I like the idea in this essay of setting ‘boundaries’ to conjecture despite the absence of adequate datasets.

Until recently datasets for the 18th and 19th C (and the beginning of western industrialisation and modern population acceleration) were only partly adequate, which is why attention was paid particularly to Sweden where there are good and long enough data sets to study health and disease during the transition to urban living and, thus, to modern times in westernized societies. This Swedish data relates also to local ‘carrying capacity’ in a northern environment where primary calories (base of the food chain) is restricted by fundamentals such as photosynthesis and growing season –and suffers strict local Limits to Growth!

Since the 1720s English Famine, England’s population has increased about 10-fold to the present day from about 5.6M. (The British Isles as a whole is more complicated.) Very recently “micro datasets” have enabled reconstruction of population trends, for instance in London during the crucial 16th to 18th Centuries, which illustrate the role of a mega-city and trading networks and internal migration, as well as constraints imposed by very high infant mortality and other morbidities. London had grown from c. 80,000 to over 700,000 inhabitants between 1550 and 1750, which looks to have made it comparable perhaps with Rome and other ancient exceptions to agrarian dispersed population.

If anybody wants to suggest a location online for the few studies I have collected so far, I would try to provide.

Phil Harris said...

For those who have not seen it already (h/t friend Max)
Portrait of a Sagging Empire
(A tribute retrospect to Chalmers Johnson)

RPC said...

Phil Harris said, "I was very struck by your reply to a comment (by Katamun): “…in a very real sense Nazi Germany was simply Western civilization pushed to the point of absurdity -- a kind of Monty Python parody, but with real blood.”

Yes, I can imagine a comedy ‘Office’ series where the overweening manager responds to the growing popularity of one his subordinates by sending round his own guys and shooting the potential rival and his clique at their desks."

Oddly enough, this is how my father described political maneuvering among the prisoners at the Nazi labor camp where he was confined during WWII. One faction would gain the ascendant; as soon as the guards took notice, the leaders of that faction would be eliminated and the maneuvering would begin again. The survivors were those that kept a low profile.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

Nuclear bombs detonated at high altitude simulate a Carrington event. A "bloodless" use of such weaponry. Also with minimal fallout.

As a "bloodless" way to disable an enemy with almost no fallout on the attacker, this makes high altitude explosions a more likely use of nuclear bombs than destroying a city IMHO.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Gary Snyder, in "The Practice of the Wild," makes the comment that "books are our elders." I also miss "real" libraries, having as a city child spent much of my life in the excellent public library in my neighborhood. In a way the library raised me.

The internet is also our elder, now. For me, for example, how wonderful to be able to read agricultural and horticultural journals from the 19th century! Eyewitness accounts of the land before, as it were, and full of information that might be useful in the land to come.

As a result of this week's excellent discussion, I'm beginning to imagine a central-to-northern Illinois landscape of the future, what the ecosystem successional changes might be and what type of new culture might arise eventually. There have always been waves of migrations and cultures here, for the last 10,000 years.

IMO, while small agrarian villages, subsistence farming and herding, etc. might be similar patterns during dark ages, the land directly affects the cultural details--beliefs and material culture alike. The peoples that remained after Cahokia collapsed were experiencing a sort of dark age. There was much migration. Yet always their methods of agriculture, folkways and spiritual identification with the animals of the Illinois/Mississippi River valleys were vastly different from the European beliefs and habits of material culture--because of the bioregion in which they lived.

It would be interesting to posit a time when some of those old nature-based cultural strains would re-emerge in this bio-region, adapting to the new hybrid landscapes as they rewild themselves. This would, in a way, rhyme with the post-glacial settlement and cultural development that occurred as different tribes adapted to a constantly changing landscape. Nothing is always.

OK, way off topic. Looking forward to the discussion of coming weeks.

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer

That was an excellent post, even if it does make for depressing reading. Over here in the UK I can see increasing alienation between the majority of the people and the political class. I don’t think that this has reached the same level as in the US, due to the fact that we still get beneficial services from our government like the National Health Service. But in my experience there is defiantly a growing disconnect between the promises of progress and the reality on the ground, which is even being noticed by people who think that peak oil is some kind of essential oil or something that you use in cooking.

There is of course one way that the political class may be able to save itself. That is by admitting the truth of the situation we are in and acting in accordance with that truth. The Political Classes did start to get it back in the 1970 (e.g. President Carter), but completely forgot about it when the neoliberals got into power in the 1980’s and the oil prices went down. Jared Diamond also cites examples from the past where societies have prevented collapse by changing course. Therefore such an outcome is possible. It may mean that the Political class will get poorer, but that may be better than the prospect of hanging from a lamp post. I remember we talked about the possibility that another crisis like the one in 2008 may wake the political classes up, when you were in London last month. (Hope you enjoyed your beer). It will be interesting to hear what you have to say about this possibility in upcoming posts.

Please note that I am well aware that we missed out on the chance of an easy transition 30 years ago, and that any attempt to deal with this crisis won’t stop us from getting a lot poorer than we are now. Our present industrial society is toast. I am also aware that an attempt by the political class to deal with the situation may be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of crisis. However the way that you navigate your way down the reverse slope of Hubberts curve will determine the state that we will be in once we reach the bottom. If we keep on throwing ourselves off cliffs and falling down crevices then we will arrive at the bottom in a pretty awful state.

Anyway I have started gardening this year, because even on a best case scenario the future is going to be pretty rough.

Cathy McGuire said...

@VioletOne of the primary reasons the farm I work at is so expensive is the huge efforts put into quality control. Sure, a half pint of strawberries is $6.50 but only about 25% of ripe strawberries are perfect enough to find their way into the half pint container. My estimate is that 70% of the produce here is wasted. 25% is sold and 5% is eaten by the workers. That other 70% finds its way to the gargantuan compost piles.
Arrgh! Can’t they open up a “jammer’s market and sell the imperfect for $3/lb to those of use who make jam??

@Yupped: So, growing/selling food and herbs is probably a good thing; becoming a local pedicurist, may be not so. Although who really knows?
Pedicures for seniors and handicapped who can’t reach their toes will be a wonderful gift/trade/kindness.

@Bill PThey were discussing a suitable geographically-based name, and Peggy asked about a map of the physiographic divisions of the state. The response she got from the group was "too bad no one brought a laptop." They were sitting in a LIBRARY!!!
Yeah, one of the drawbacks that new Master Food Preservers complain of is that our binder is 4.5” thick and we actually have to look things up! Most of the young ones don’t know how! Very sad…. OTOH, one of my poet friends now brings her Smartphone to critique groups and can instantly give us the definition of any word we are chewing over…

On the other hand, you can get hillbilly eggs from some neighbor with a flock of hens for $2 a dozen. They are not likely to be medicated. They are also not likely to have been fed organic feed.
Yes, and they are not likely to be washed and then re-oiled (a mandate for “official” sales that washed off the protective coating) ;-)

KevPilot said...


Rather than a comment on this post I have a question to ponder. Perhaps you have already discussed this in previous post, if so, my apologies. My question to ponder is this: Can humanity actually survive another dark age?

I ask this because we, in our time, are unique in human history only for our technology. In every other way, we are pretty much the same as everyone else down the good old historical timeline. When the Maya or Minoans collapsed, the human suffering was traumatic, but that was as bad as it got and the suffering stayed local.

We, other the other hand, have unforgiving, forever technologies. For instance, hundreds of cooling ponds filled with thousands of spent fuel rods along side hot reactors are scattered all over the world, though mostly in the northern hemisphere. We would not need a dark age, just a dim one, where the lights went out only in a few "lucky" places, to turn these under-maintained reactor sites in perpetual poisoning machines. We could have a world of multiple Fukushimas producing mass die offs and tweaking DNA replication for hundreds of thousands of year.

My concerns go on to non-nuclear technologies as well. As maintenance falls off and universities stop producing bright, young engineers, the vast square footage of chemical production and storage facilities will go un-monitored and un-managed. This stuff can kill us, as well as the rest of the biosphere, just as dead as decaying radiation.

Since I live in Los Angeles, I am concerned about the millions of tons of cargo in and laying just off the Ports of LA and Long Beach. What happens when there is no more money, no more letters of credit and those ships are simply abandoned at anchor. We could have a witch's brew of cargo that does not play well together just waiting for the chance to leak free and rumble in un-manned ships so near to shore.

If any of my concerns have weight, it would certainly put an evil twist the idea that, "We just can't live without our tech."

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