Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Technological Superstitions

I'd meant to go straight on from last week’s post about völkerwanderung and the dissolution and birth of ethnic identities in dark age societies, and start talking about the mechanisms by which societies destroy themselves—with an eye, of course, to the present example. Still, as I’ve noted here more than once, there are certain complexities involved in the project of discussing the decline and fall of civilizations in a civilization that’s hard at work on its own decline and fall, and one of those complexities is the way that tempting examples of the process keep popping up as we go.

The last week or so has been unusually full of those. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has continued to spread at an exponential rate as hopelessly underfunded attempts to contain it crumple, while the leaders of the world’s industrial nations distract themselves playing geopolitics in blithe disregard of the very real possibility that their inattention may be helping to launch the next great global pandemic.  In other news—tip of the archdruidical hat here to The Daily Impact—companies and investors who have been involved in the fracking bubble are quietly bailing out. If things continue on their current trajectory, as I’ve noted before, this autumn could very well see the fracking boom go bust; it’s anyone’s guess how heavily that will hit the global economy, but fracking-related loans and investments have accounted for a sufficiently large fraction of Wall Street profits in recent years that the crater left by a fracking bust will likely be large and deep. 

Regular readers of this blog already know, though, that it’s most often the little things that catch my attention, and the subject of this week’s post is no exception. Thus I’m pleased to announce that a coterie of scientists and science fiction writers has figured out what’s wrong with the world today: there are, ahem, too many negative portrayals of the future in popular media. To counter this deluge of unwarranted pessimism, they’ve organized a group called Project Hieroglyph, and published an anthology of new, cheery, upbeat SF stories about marvelous new technologies that could become realities within the next fifty years. That certainly ought to do the trick!

Now of course I’m hardly in a position to discourage anyone from putting together a science fiction anthology around an unpopular theme. After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, the anthology that resulted from the first Space Bats challenge here in 2011, is exactly that, and two similar anthologies from this blog’s second Space Bats challenge are going through the editing and publishing process as I write these words. That said, I’d question the claim that those three anthologies will somehow cause the planet’s oil reserves to run dry any faster than they otherwise will.

The same sort of skepticism, I suggest, may be worth applying to Project Hieroglyph and its anthology.  The contemporary  crisis of industrial society isn’t being caused by a lack of optimism; its roots go deep into the tough subsoil of geological and thermodynamic reality, to the lethal mismatch between fantasies of endless economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, and to the less immediately deadly but even more pervasive mismatch between fantasies of perpetual technological progress and that nemesis of all linear thinking, the law of diminishing returns.  The failure of optimism that these writers are bemoaning is a symptom rather than a cause, and insisting that the way to solve our problems is to push optimistic notions about the future at people is more than a little like deciding that the best way to deal with flashing red warning lights on the control panel of an airplane is to put little pieces of opaque green tape over them so everything looks fine again.

It’s not as though there’s been a shortage of giddily optimistic visions of a gizmocentric future in recent years, after all. I grant that the most colorful works of imaginative fiction we’ve seen of late have come from those economists and politicians who keep insisting that the only way out of our current economic and social malaise is to do even more of the same things that got us into it. That said, any of my readers who step into a bookstore or a video store and look for something that features interstellar travel or any of the other shibboleths of the contemporary cult of progress won’t have to work hard to find one. What’s happened, rather, is that such things are no longer as popular as they once were, because people find that stories about bleaker futures hedged in with harsh limits are more to their taste.

The question that needs to be asked, then, is why this should be the case. As I see it, there are at least three very good reasons.

First, those bleaker futures and harsh limits reflect the realities of life in contemporary America. Set aside the top twenty per cent of the population by income, and Americans have on average seen their standard of living slide steadily downhill for more than four decades. In 1970, to note just one measure of how far things have gone, an American family with one working class salary could afford to buy a house, pay all their bills on time, put three square meals on the table every day, and still have enough left over for the occasional vacation or high-ticket luxury item. Now? In much of today’s America, a single working class salary isn’t enough to keep a family off the streets.

That history of relentless economic decline has had a massive impact on attitudes toward the future, toward science, and toward technological progress. In 1969, it was only in the ghettos where America confined its urban poor that any significant number of people responded to the Apollo moon landing with the sort of disgusted alienation that Gil Scott-Heron expressed memorably in his furious ballad “Whitey on the Moon.”  Nowadays, a much greater number of Americans—quite possibly a majority—see the latest ballyhooed achievements of science and technology as just one more round of pointless stunts from which they won’t benefit in the least.

It’s easy but inaccurate to insist that they’re mistaken in that assessment. Outside the narrowing circle of the well-to-do, many Americans these days spend more time coping with the problems caused by technologies than they do enjoying the benefits thereof. Most of the jobs eliminated by automation, after all, used to provide gainful employment for the poor; most of the localities that are dumping grounds for toxic waste, similarly, are inhabited by people toward the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, and so on down the list of unintended consequences and technological blowback. By and large, the benefits of new technology trickle up the social ladder, while the costs and burdens trickle down; this has a lot to do with the fact that the grandchildren of people who enjoyed The Jetsons now find The Hunger Games more to their taste.

That’s the first reason. The second is that for decades now, the great majority of the claims made about wonderful new technologies that would inevitably become part of our lives in the next few decades have turned out to be dead wrong. From jetpacks and flying cars to domed cities and vacations on the Moon, from the nuclear power plants that would make electricity too cheap to meter to the conquest of poverty, disease, and death itself, most of the promises offered by the propagandists and publicists of technological progress haven’t happened. That has understandably made people noticeably less impressed by further rounds of promises that likely won’t come true either.

When I was a child, if I may insert a personal reflection here, one of my favorite books was titled You Will Go To The Moon. I suspect most American of my generation remember that book, however dimly, with its glossy portrayal of what space travel would be like in the near future: the great conical rocket with its winged upper stage, the white doughnut-shaped space station turning in orbit, and the rest of it. I honestly expected to make that trip someday, and I was encouraged in that belief by a chorus of authoritative voices for whom permanent space stations, bases on the Moon, and a manned landing on Mars were a done deal by the year 2000.

Now of course in those days the United States still had a manned space program capable of putting bootprints on the Moon. We don’t have one of those any more. It’s worth talking about why that is, because the same logic applies equally well to most of the other grand technological projects that were proclaimed not so long ago as the inescapable path to a shiny new future.

We don’t have a manned space program any more, to begin with, because the United States is effectively bankrupt, having committed itself in the usual manner to the sort of imperial overstretch chronicled by Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and cashed in its future for a temporary supremacy over most of the planet. That’s the unmentionable subtext behind the disintegration of America’s infrastructure and built environment, the gutting of its once-mighty industrial plant, and a good deal of the steady decline in standards of living mentioned earlier in this post. Britain dreamed about expansion into space when it still had an empire—the British Interplanetary Society was a major presence in space-travel advocacy in the first half of the twentieth century—and shelved those dreams when its empire went away; the United States is in the process of the same retreat. Still, there’s more going on here than this.

Another reason we don’t have a manned space program any more is that all those decades of giddy rhetoric about New Worlds For Man never got around to discussing the difference between technical feasibility and economic viability. The promoters of space travel fell into the common trap of believing their own hype, and convinced themselves that orbital factories, mines on the Moon, and the like would surely turn out to be paying propositions. What they forgot, of course, is what I’ve called the biosphere dividend:  the vast array of goods and services that the Earth’s natural cycles provide for human beings free of charge, which have to be paid for anywhere else. The best current estimate for the value of that dividend, from a 1997 paper in Science written by a team headed by Richard Constanza, is that it’s something like three times the total value of all goods and services produced by human beings.

As a very rough estimate, in other words, economic activity anywhere in the solar system other than Earth will cost around four times what it costs on Earth, even apart from transportation costs, because the services provided here for free by the biosphere have to be paid for in space or on the solar system’s other worlds. That’s why all the talk about space as a new economic frontier went nowhere; orbital manufacturing was tried—the Skylab program of the 1970s, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station in its early days all featured experiments along those lines—and the modest advantages of freefall and ready access to hard vacuum didn’t make enough of a difference to offset the costs. Thus manned space travel, like commercial supersonic aircraft, nuclear power plants, and plenty of other erstwhile waves of the future, turned into a gargantuan white elephant that could only be supported so long as massive and continuing government subsidies were forthcoming.

Those are two of the reasons why we don’t have a manned space program any more. The third is less tangible but, I suspect, far and away the most important. It can be tracked by picking up any illustrated book about the solar system that was written before we got there, and comparing what outer space and other worlds were supposed to look like with what was actually waiting for our landers and probes.

I have in front of me right now, for example, a painting of a scene on the Moon in a book published the year I was born. It’s a gorgeous, romantic view. Blue earthlight splashes over a crater in the foreground; further off, needle-sharp mountains catch the sunlight; the sky is full of brilliant stars. Too bad that’s not what the Apollo astronauts found when they got there. Nobody told the Moon it was supposed to cater to human notions of scenic grandeur, and so it presented its visitors with vistas of dull gray hillocks and empty plains beneath a flat black sky. To anybody but a selenologist, the one thing worth attention in that dreary scene was the glowing blue sphere of Earth 240,000 miles away.

For an even stronger contrast, consider the pictures beamed back by the first Viking probe from the surface of Mars in 1976, and compare that to the gaudy images of the Sun’s fourth planet that were in circulation in popular culture up to that time. I remember the event tolerably well, and one of the things I remember most clearly is the pervasive sense of disappointment—of “is that all?”—shared by everyone in the room.  The images from the lander didn’t look like Barsoom, or the arid but gorgeous setting of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, or any of the other visions of Mars everyone in 1970s America had tucked away in their brains; they looked for all of either world like an unusually dull corner of Nevada that had somehow been denuded of air, water, and life.

Here again, the proponents of space travel fell into the trap of believing their own hype, and forgot that science fiction is no more about real futures than romance novels are about real relationships. That isn’t a criticism of science fiction, by the way, though I suspect the members of Project Hieroglyph will take it as one. Science fiction is a literature of ideas, not of crass realities, and it evokes the sense of wonder that is its distinctive literary effect by dissolving the barrier between the realistic and the fantastic. What too often got forgotten, though, is that literary effects don’t guarantee the validity of prophecies—they’re far more likely to hide the flaws of improbable claims behind a haze of emotion.

Romance writers don’t seem to have much trouble recognizing that their novels are not about the real world. Science fiction, by contrast, has suffered from an overdeveloped sense of its own importance for many years now. I’m thinking just now of a typical essay by Isaac Asimov that described science fiction writers as scouts for the onward march of humanity. (Note the presuppositions that humanity is going somewhere, that all of it’s going in a single direction, and that this direction just happens to be defined by the literary tastes of an eccentric subcategory of 20th century popular fiction.) That sort of thinking led too many people in the midst of the postwar boom to forget that the universe is under no obligation to conform to our wholly anthropocentric notions of human destiny and provide us with New Worlds for Man just because we happen to want some.

Mutatis mutandis, that’s what happened to most of the other grand visions of transformative technological progress that were proclaimed so enthusiastically over the last century or so. Most of them never happened, and those that did turned out to be far less thrilling and far more problematic than the advance billing insisted they would be. Faced with that repeated realization, a great many Americans decided—and not without reason—that more of the same gosh-wow claims were not of interest. That shifted public taste away from cozy optimism toward a harsher take on our future.

The third factor driving that shift in taste, though, may be the most important of all, and it’s also one of the most comprehensively tabooed subjects in contemporary life. Most human phenomena are subject to the law of diminishing returns; the lesson that contemporary industrial societies are trying their level best not to learn just now is that technological progress is one of the phenomena to which this law applies. Thus there can be such a thing as too much technology, and a very strong case can be made that in the world’s industrial nations, we’ve already gotten well past that point.

In a typically cogent article, economist Herman Daly sorts our the law of diminishing returns into three interacting processes. The first is diminishing marginal utility—that is, the more of anything you have, the less any additional increment of that thing contributes to your wellbeing. If you’re hungry, one sandwich is a very good thing; two is pleasant; three is a luxury; and somewhere beyond that, when you’ve given sandwiches to all your coworkers, the local street people, and anyone else you can find, more sandwiches stop being any use to you. When more of anything  no longers bring any additional benefit, you’ve reached the point of futility, at which further increments are a waste of time and resources.

Well before that happens, though, two other factors come into play. First, it costs you almost nothing to cope with one sandwich, and very little more to cope with two or three. After that you start having to invest time, and quite possibly resources, in dealing with all those sandwiches, and each additional sandwich adds to the total burden. Economists call that increasing marginal disutility—that is, the more of anything you have, the more any additional increment of that thing is going to cost you, in one way or another. Somewhere in there, too, there’s the impact that dealing with those sandwiches has on your ability to deal with other things you need to do; that’s increasing risk of whole-system disruption—the more of anything you have, the more likely it is that an additional increment of that thing is going to disrupt the wider system in which you exist.

Next to nobody wants to talk about the way that technological progress has already passed the point of diminishing returns: that the marginal utility of each new round of technology is dropping fast, the marginal disutility is rising at least as fast, and whole-system disruptions driven by technology are becoming an inescapable presence in everyday life. Still, I’ve come to think that an uncomfortable awareness of that fact is becoming increasingly common these days, however subliminal that awareness may be, and beginning to have an popular culture among many other things. If you’re in a hole, as the saying goes, the first thing to do is stop digging; if a large and growing fraction of your society’s problems are being caused by too much technology applied with too little caution, similarly, it’s not exactly helpful to insist that applying even more technology with even less skepticism about its consequences is the only possible answer to those problems.

There’s a useful word for something that remains stuck in a culture after the conditions that once made it relevant have passed away, and that word is “superstition.” I’d like to suggest that the faith-based claims that more technology is always better than less, that every problem must have a technological solution, and that technology always solves more problems than it creates, are among the prevailing superstitions of our time. I’d also like to suggest that, comforting and soothing as those superstitions may be, it’s high time we outgrow them and deal with the world as it actually is—a world in which yet another helping of faith-based optimism is far from useful.


1 – 200 of 259   Newer›   Newest»
Kutamun said...

One of the most useless of modern technologies that political systems still seem intent on investing billions into is fighter jets . Considering the assymetric nature of modern warfare in a world of M.A.D , the fighter jet continues to captivate the imagination of Middle aged WASP pollies , who have grown up with images and tales of Bigglesworth , world war 2 fighter heroes , moon missions and top gun . The metaphysical equivalent of lofting ones needle shaped penis into high altitude supersonic flight , the fantasy seems to also hinge heavily on the ability to transgress a neighbours aeronautical soveireignty and deliver " ordnance " before beating up the tower and repairing to local bar for an evening of wine , more temporal congress and song .
Nonetheless , the distribution of modern fighter fleets is a useful too for mapping strategic geopolitical chokepoints and resource deposits , as well as who currently controls them (BRIC or ANGLO empire) ::: ie mig/sukhoi or boeing

World Air Power - 4th gen combat air superiority fighters

U.S.A.F - (1500) 470x F15, 820 x F16 , 178 F22 Raptor,14x JSF
U.S Navy. - (1000) 1000x FA18 ( 19 carriers)
U.S Marines. (250). 250 x FA18
Canada - (104) 104 x FA18 Hornets
Cuba. (3). Mig29
Brazil- (0). Ordered 36x saab Gripen NG
Chile. (46). F16
Venezuela. (44). 24xsu30 , 20x F16
Peru. (19). Mig29

Asia Pacific ///////
Australia (75). 75 x FA18 hornets
Phillipines - Nil effective
Malaysia (38) 18xsu30, 8x FA18, 12x Mig29
Japan - (210). 210 x F16
Singapore - (110). 70 x F15, 40x F16
Thailand - (66). 54 x F16 12x saab gripen NG
Burma - (31). Mig29
South Korea - (210) 50 x F15 , 160x F16
Taiwan - (144). 144x F16
Vietnam - (65). 36 SU 27/30
NorthKorea. (35). Mig29 ..
China Airforce (610) 340x Su27-30equiv' , 270 chengduJ10 4th gen fighter)
China Navy (64) su27/30
Indonesia - ( 37). 16x su30 , 21x F16 ( plans to add another 64SU30 and 32 F16)

Kutamun said...

Middle East /////
Saudi. - (500 ) 310xF15, 110x Tornadoe , 70x Eurofighter
United Emirates (79 ). 79xF16
Jordan. (78) F16
Egypt (240). 240x F16
Iraq (0)
Israel (395) 75x F15 , 320x F16
Turkey (240). 240x F16
Iran (26). Mig29
Syria. (40). Mig29

Europe /////
Germany - (230)110 eurofighter ,120 tornadoe combat aircraft
France - (90) 90x dassault rafael
France Navy. (40) dassault rafael ( 4 carriers)
Great Britain - (234) 117x eurofighter , 117 x tornadoe
Norway. (57). F16
Finland. (62). FA18
Denmark. (30) F16
Sweden. (80) Saab GripenNG
Belgium. (54) F16
Holland. (61) F16
Italy - (170). 86x eurofighter , 85x typhoons
Greece. (160). All F16 !
Portugal. (30) F16
Spain - (130) 46 eurofighter , 86x fa18 hornets
Austria - (15). 15x Eurofighter
Hungary. (14) Saab Gripen NG
Poland (70). 41x f16, 31x mig29
Czech R (14). SaaB GripenNG
Slovakia. (12). miG 29
Belorussia. ( 38). Mig 29
Ukraine. (70). 45xmig29, 25x su27
Russia Airforce (835). 370x su27 , 38x su30, 35x su35 , 250xmig29, 134x mig31
Russia Navy. ( 30) 25x su30. 5x mig29 (one carrier )

Central Asia /////
Kazakhstan. (95). 39xmig29, 30 xmig31, 27x su27
Uzbekistan. (85). 60x mig29 , 25x su27
Azerbaijan. (16). Mig29
Afghanistan. (0)

Subcontinent ////
Pakistan - (76) 76 x f16
India - (260) 200x su30, 60x mig29
Indian Navy. (56) 45 mig29 ,12x sea harriers ( 2 carriers)

Africa ////////
RSA - (26) saab Gripen NG
Ethiopia - (18) Su27
Algeria - (53) 25 Mig29, 28 x SU30
Uganda - (6). Su30
Morocco - (24). F16
Sudan. (23) MiG29
Chad. (3) MiG29

Degringolade said...

As usual, a sound piece of work.

I just got a huge grin when I read you discussing "Whitey on the Moon". Brought me back to a long time ago, in a cold barracks in Hohenfels, with a group of very unlikely friends.

We thought that the song was great then, that odd mixture of inner city blacks, Puerto Ricans and Po' white trash such as yours truly.

Seems even better now.

Thanks again


Idontlikecheeselol said...

A great post as always!

When you talk about technologic progress and all of its negative problems, and how we can have too much technology, it reminds me of Neil Postman. He talked very well about how technology hasn't exactly improved our lives, it had far more negative side effects than commonly thought, and criticized the idea of "progress". He's one of my favorite authors because he's the one who made me think that, perhaps, our society wasn't so great after all, which eventually led me to discovering this blog.

It seems to me, though, that the myth of technological progress seems to still be alive and well among the youth. Consider Reddit, a very popular website whose main audience are teenagers. You can often find comments about how good the future will be in there; just compare the amount of subscribers in the Futurology section with the subscribers in, say, Collapse. It pains me to imagine what will happen to many of those people once they grow up...

Five8Charlie said...

I guess that means you aren't going to be waiting in line at 5am to be the first Archdruid with an iWatch...

John Michael Greer said...

Kutamun, so long as there's still enough petroleum to keep them flying, fighters and fighter-bombers are very effective pieces of weaponry in conjunction with ground forces. They aren't worth much by themselves, as the US seems to be about to demonstrate with the upcoming air strikes against Islamic State, but the airland battle doctrine (that's "Blitzkrieg" in a certain other language) is still extremely effective as a way to destroy a hostile military. Mind you, that doesn't make the current corporate welfare program disguised as a fighter plane (cough, cough, F-35, cough, cough) worth the wildly inflated price, but there's a reason I made Chinese fighter technology a central theme in the first half of Twilight's Last Gleaming.

Degringolade, glad to hear it. It's a heck of a song.

Cheese, no argument there -- Postman's very much worth reading. As for the younger generation, granted; a lot of them are going to learn the hard way that "Like, dude, we've got technology!" isn't a meaningful response to the decline and fall of a civilization.

Charlie, I've always found a stone circle perfectly adequate for telling time! ;-)

Cherokee Organics said...


At present, I'm about half way through a book by the English sci-fi author Peter F Hamilton titled: "The Great North Road". You're a bad influence (hehe!) because my mind now skips over all of the tech dream stuff only to focus on the story and character interactions. If you ignore the tech dream stuff, he tells a ripping yarn. Anyway, Peter could be described as a techno cornucopian of the first order.

What is interest though is that in this most recent novel is that he has: introduced the concept of economic limitations to the story; described that the majority of the human population works to scrape by; introduced the concept that the majority of the population is committing financial fraud of one sort or another just to get by; has described that there is a large under class of citizens eking out an existence; and introduced the concept that energy is not in fact unlimited and that the availability of it comes at the expense of the biosphere.

I could keep going on, but the story displays a significant departure from his previous works - which I probably can't now re-read...

One of the things that gets hammered home here is that accepting limits is actually a form of freedom. All the little things that people tie themselves down with are a burden to them. Those burdens have a cost too, which is not insignificant.

I'll tell you a funny story about a visit to the local bank during the middle of a working day.

Pleasantries were exchanged and then the teller had the temerity to ask me, "why aren't you at work?". I'm unsure whether they were just being friendly or not, but the question annoyed me greatly, so I after a pause to gather my thoughts, I responded, perhaps a bit ungraciously from hindsight, "Isn't this bank involved in some sort of financial planning scandal?". Well it was uncomfortable all round after that for sure. hehe!

I've noticed that off shoring of administrative and service type jobs is going ahead full steam with reckless abandon here. Actually, I read recently that Gen Y's have now recorded the highest level of under employment in over 40 years here. Not good.

PS: I'm not sure, but I wonder whether you had come across this: Stonehenge a map of what was there in the past. I thought that it may be of interest to you.



If anyone is curious about the farm here you can check out the blog at: When good tanks go bad. This week was the disaster edition of the weekly blog!

Pinku-Sensei said...

"The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has continued to spread at an exponential rate as hopelessly underfunded attempts to contain it crumple, while the leaders of the world’s industrial nations distract themselves playing geopolitics in blithe disregard of the very real possibility that their inattention may be helping to launch the next great global pandemic."

President Obama actually talked about Ebola on Meet the Press, saying that it could pose a danger to the U.S. and that the country should send troops and resources in. That might be wiser in the long run than chasing ISIS, AKA The Sith Jihad, around Syria and Iraq, even though that would be a more popular thing to do, as people understand a fight with a human enemy better than an effort to contain The Red Death. Speaking of which, the same people who observed relationship between food prices and unrest and predicted the onset of the Arab Spring and then the current spate of crises in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere, are calling attention to a model of Ebola spread that could turn into a global pandemic by just adding intercontinental transportation into the mix. That's an issue that was pointed out in "The Hot Zone" 20 years ago. Welcome to the science-fiction future of two decades ago.

Ebola may already be spreading through travel. There is a patient exhibiting Ebola-like symptoms in a hospital in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, right across the river from Detroit. That's very close to home, literally.

Twilight said...

An interesting coincidence - I've had my fill this week of the Tyranny of Optimism, and its manifestation in the world of business. The obsessive need to force fit every idea into optimistic/pessimistic categories, and then to destroy all the pessimistic or negative ideas leaves one totally blind to at least half of the likely outcomes. I'm rather sick of trying to find a way to present possible unwanted outcomes in a "positive" light, just so I can sneak it past the filters and have it be recognized. It's really quite hopeless - I watch in bemusement during conversations and meetings at just how fast and effective the filters are, and how if pushed the result is only anger or cognitive dissonance of some form.

I suspect that this almost hysterical need for optimism has a strong class relationship though, and that the public as a whole is losing the need for it as their own life experiences are repeatedly battered with non-optimistic realities. But the establishment will keep trying to force the happy-talk meme, and increasingly wonder why it doesn't take.

I feel better now - it's refreshing to be here among realists.

Thomas Daulton said...

First gut reaction:
JMG -- "too many people in the midst of the postwar boom forgot that the universe is under no obligation to conform to our wholly anthropocentric notions of human destiny and provide us with New Worlds for Man just because we happen to want some."

I often wonder what role that centuries-old Western religious ideas also played, unacknowledged, in those sci-fi assumptions -- you know, the memes that Man was created in God's image and that God gave us dominion over "the world" (updated to The Universe) so that we could conquer and subdue it.

I'm sure you're going to reply that Judeo-Christian religions have not always interpreted those verses as human-centric or even paid any attention to them at all. Still, on the other hand, those are very old memes. They have their roots in the Enlightenment, a tradition which almost any sci-fi writer probably feels he is carrying forward.

Since those ideas are often unacknowledged assumptions and background cultural memes (even among atheist sci-fi writers), that helps explain their staying power in the face of counter-evidence. The counter-evidence never really confronts the basic religious meme.

ChemEng said...

For those who have an interest in nuclear power I recommend the book Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey. It is new (January of this year and includes a discussion of the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy). I found it by chance on the shelves of my local small town public library. The book is written in an entertaining style and approaches this very serious topic with a degree of humor. It is remarkable how many accidents have occurred — including a fair number of nuclear bombs that have been dropped accidentally (in the great majority of cases they were not armed so there was never a chance of a nuclear explosion).

As its title indicates the book focuses more on the immediate effect of accidents rather than on long-term containment and clean-up issues. However the final chapter — Caught in the Rickover Trap — is thought-provoking. The type of nuclear reactor that we use now is based on the highly successful design introduced into the U.S. Navy by Admiral Rickover in the 1950s. But the success of a very small reactor in a submarine does not necessarily scale up to safe operations in much bigger commercial reactors. And, although there are many new ideas for generating nuclear power more economically and safely it is questionable if we will implement them. As the author says,

The real danger is that any engineering discipline can fall into its own Rickover Trap. We do not, for example, necessarily burn gasoline at the rate of 134 billion gallons per year in the United States because it is the best way to power an automobile: we do so because we have been doing it a long time, and the infrastructure is in place. As is the case of pressurized water reactors, it has worked well for us for a long time, but there could be a better way to do it.

In this post, Mr. Greer suggests that new and imaginative technology is not implemented because it is not economic.

. . . New Worlds For Man never got around to discussing the difference between technical feasibility and economic viability . . .

Mahaffey’s book is suggesting another reason: we become comfortable with existing technology and choose not to make the effort to change, even if such change is technically and economically feasible.

latheChuck said...

Not exactly on topic, but NASA is reporting an "extreme, but not VERY extreme" solar flare coming our way tonight (Sept. 10). Perhaps it will set back our enjoyment of grid-tied technology by a century or so. This is, I must admit, a highly UNLIKELY result. The chance of a truly damaging flare is only about 1% per year... but this could be the year.

We may see the aurora in Maryland tomorrow night. It may not have to compete with electric lighting.

I think that I am exaggerating. We shall see.

Grebulocities said...

For all we've given up in manned spaceflight, I will say that NASA's unmanned programs in the last couple of decades have been, by and large, resounding successes. Starting with the Hubble Space Telescope and moving on to a variety of very successful Mars missions (of about a dozen we launched, we only lost one to unit conversion errors!), the Kepler telescope which catalogued thousands of possible exoplanets while it was operational, MESSENGER's Mercury mission, several missions including Dawn and NEAR to asteroids, Galileo and Cassini to Jupiter and Saturn respectively, and the New Horizons probe which has recently passed Neptune's orbit and should go though the Pluto system in July 2015.

I'm not under any illusions that we'll be able to keep up this pace of unmanned space exploration forever, but I hope we do manage to get the James Webb telescope up to replace the Hubble, and accomplish however many other interesting projects we can manage before the funding runs dry.

And then the next phase of the space exploration project will begin, and this one will take centuries: preserving all the knowledge we managed to accumulate about our universe during the brief window we were able to spare that kind of energy. I think it does seem quite possible that lots of data will survive on acid-free paper for periods of up to several centuries if maintained, but it's anybody's guess what future societies will make of it.

Our durably printed texts (and some still are printed) do have the advantage of being much more widespread worldwide, so that barbarian hordes can't burn the Library of Congress and do damage on the scale of the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the library of Baghdad, and the burning of the Mayan codices. But it's anyone's guess as to what will survive and be known to the scholars of Meriga.

The North Coast said...

The diminishing returns and increasing "disutility" is evident in the recent major data breaches among major retailers. It has become all too obvious that we have no effective defense against the misuse of technology for devious ends... such as using a purloined data base to empty out a few thousand bank accounts. That hits home in a way that reading about an island somewhere made of discarded plastic, or the destruction of a distant rainforest, does not.

I suspect that, for every i-moron camped out in line in front of the nearest Apple store, eager to drop $600 he doesn't even have, on yet another gadget that obsolesces before he pays for it, that there are 5 other people who are backing away from advanced tech that they don't understand well enough to protect themselves against the unintended effects thereof. Suddenly, ordering a pizza on your smart phone while on the train, and entrusting your bankcard number to the doubtful security of the typical mobile device, doesn't seem so clever. Never mind programming your "smart house" using a mobile device.

Suddenly, mechanical deadbolt locks and old-fashioned paper checks seem very comforting. Not to mention a home where you can walk everywhere you need to go, and that doesn't rely on fragile technologies and complex networks just to lock and unlock your door.

Yupped said...

I've spent a lot of time working in New York this year. When I last spent much time here, many years ago, I was still a true believer in technology and never-ending human achievement. Back in the 80s all these avenues of glass and steel were breath-taking to me - another sign of man's inevitable drive to conquer the laws of physics, etc, etc. What will we think of next, I probably thought.

Now, though, at least to me, New York just seems like an incredibly messy place, a slow motion maintenance crisis. Rows and rows of massive structures that, aside from being really tall, don't have much to say for themselves. They're just office buildings after all, just places to type in.

I wonder if I'm alone in losing my excitement about sky-scrapers? Perhaps it's just my advancing age, or the result of reading too many ADR posts, but their bigness seems rather silly, like so many folly castles lining the streets. Maybe building towers that seem to touch the stars is the best we can do though, now that we seem to be giving up hope of actually traveling to them. So I'd put urban architects right up there with science fiction writers, and probably economists, as a class of people who are going to have some explaining to do.

Kaitain said...

I find some of the “inspiring” visions in the Hieroglyph site rather amusing, especially with all the latest trendy catchphrases and buzzwords.

One of the Martian moons as a “hub for innovation” that everyone is vying for citizenship of? Richard Florida’s pet nostrum, once again.

“Extreme tourism destination hotels” in Antarctica? Sounds like someone drank the Richard Branson Kool-Aid a few too many times.

Using drones to protect elephants from poachers? Right now, they are used mostly to spy on people and kill them. Are these drones fitted with missiles or Gatling guns to kill said poachers, or do we have to wait and see if the park rangers can get there before they escape? And how is this a big, bold vision of the future? Sounds like small ball to me.

Crowdsource funding to build a 3-D printer on Mars? When I was growing up, we were told we would have entire colonies on Mars by now, complete with terraforming projects so that eventually people could live on the surface without wearing a space suit.

A 20 kilometer steel tower which reinvigorates the US steel industry? With a bar in space as icing on the cake? This is supposed to be the inspiring vision of tomorrow? Someone must be having a serious case of Burj al Khalifa envy. How dare those “primitive” A-Rabs build the world’s biggest skyscraper! What about all those O’Neill cylinders, Stanford toruses and other space colonies we were promised? With today’s economic system, how much you wanna bet the steel would be made in China? Even if the builders wanted to adopt a “buy American” policy, they would probably get sued for violating all those wonderful “free trade” agreements we’ve spent the last few decades trying to ram down everyone’s throats.

This is supposed to be the inspiring vision that will lead to the next Golden Age? Compared to all the exciting things we were told were just around the corner, like colonies in space, under the sea and on the Moon, jet packs, flying cars, nuclear fusion, solar power satellites, artificial intelligence, supersonic transports and hypersonic spaceplanes, hotels in space, household robots to do all of our chores and so on, this all sounds rather pathetic. Whatever happened to the Jetsons and Star Trek future we were all assured was right around the corner when we were kids? This vision from Hieroglyph sounds like more of the same, and a continuation of a drab present that so many of us hate already. Where’s my jetpack, dude?

Is this what the science fiction business has come to? I’ll take Tolkien, Moorcock or Herbert over these guys any day. Truth is, novels like the Lord of the Rings, Dune or the Elric of Melnibone series probably present a more realistic vision of the future anyways. I think I’ll skip this latest exercise in techno-cheerleading and corporate marketing.

Michael McG said...

Unlike sandwiches which once eaten are but a memory, any technology in operations mode requires ongoing inputs of energy. This complex chain of dependencies is growing and the interrelationships so tightly coupled that often no one knows how they work or are supposed to work so that often a seemingly simple change requires a team of experts to unwind then reweave the Gordian knot

Shane Wilson said...

As for millennials, I find it's quality, not quantity, the vast majority, are addicted to smartphones, "social" media, etc, but there is a significant minority, the cream of the crop, imho, that are sceptical of technology, into permaculture and sustainability, and doing things by hand.

Kyoto Motors said...

So my first comment has to come by way of a video:
fellow Canadians will likely have grown up with this song...
it's a counterpoint to your sandwich argument, tho' admittedly not a very persuasive one. I just couldn't resist... I sing it with my son all the time.
But seriously, I love the space program theme, as I have mentioned in the past, so bravo. A nice echo of some earlier posts...
Excellent reference too, Gil Scott Heron's Whitey on the Moon. I hadn't listened to that one in a while.
I was appalled recently by our National Broadcaster's recent presentation of a documentary designed to cheerlead the industrial push to mine asteroids for various resources. No one mentioned that it's just not going to happen... (of course not)
Anyway, I look forward to this week's conversation!

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

I thought you'd like to know that at least one mainstream philosopher takes petroleum shortage seriously:

He's a Frenchman, and he has a fascinating indictment of modern scientific projects like the atomic bomb, which involve an inversion of Christianity (something he likens to trying not to stand in the eye of a storm). He draws on Rene Girard's insights about how religion and societies constitute themselves through ritual violence against a scapegoat. I recommend it to those who think Christianity as we see it often manifested today (including its secular inversions) is "normative".

Purple Tortoise said...

At present, it looks to me that our problems are more politically determined than due to genuine resource limitations. For example, it seems to be a common occurrence that infrastructure built 50-100 years ago (like water pipes) is crumbling, yet we somehow cannot find the money to fix it. But how can this be when we are, at present, wealthier than our predecessors 50-100 years ago? I don't have the numbers, but I expect per capita energy and other resource use is greater now than 50-100 years ago. We are doing less with more and they did more with less.

My working theory is that as the economic growth rate declined from what it was 50-100 years ago, the elites decided not to accept a lower growth rate. They arranged the situation politically so that their growth rate was maintained at the expense of the rest of society. If we had a different political situation, the decline could be better managed.

- Purple Tortoise

Moshe Braner said...

One aspect of "too much technology" that I've been watching with increasing horror in the last few years is the conversion of most young people (and many not so young) from living beings into appendages to their "mobile devices". Never quite in the here and now, I see them texting (or talking on the phone) while walking together as a romantic pair, texting while carrying their baby or walking their dog, texting while driving or biking or even skateboarding. I do worry what will happen to this whole generation when the beer and pizza stop miraculously showing up in between the texts.

Grebulocities said...

Speaking of fantasies related to manned spaceflight, here's a great BBC article on the various projects that claim they'll colonize Mars in the next decade or two:

I find it both funny and sad at the same time. I wonder how many of these people are clinging to this sort of fantasy in order to keep themselves from falling into the abyss that comes with the destruction of their (civil) religious beliefs?

Donald Hargraves said...

Would you consider the conspiracy theory that we never landed on the moon as an example of the economic decline of most American families? After all, it WAS a whole different economy (one that could afford vacations with a workman's wages) that got us on the moon – an economy that could allow people to dream of the moon.

M said...

Regarding technology overshoot, I'm a big fan of Ivan Illich. Much of his thinking was based on the idea of going past what he called a human scale in books like Energy and Equity and Tools for Conviviality.

In Tools, he considered the industrialized education, transportation, and medical systems in the U.S. to be tools of a kind, tools that had passed the tipping point of creating positive change. His philosophy aligns very much with the idea of too much technology.

Such an insightful thinker, too bad he fell so far from favor so quickly--our loss for not engaging his ideas in a meaningful way. But I guess that is often the fate of those who see earlier than most the dangers ahead.

GuRan said...

Sir and Druid,

Thankyou, and on-point as always.

My world is engineering academia. If you pick up any research paper or grant application, the first few paragraphs will invariably explain how the completed or proposed work will advance Man's Struggle towards a Better and Brighter Future. Then with that sometimes very flimsy justification out of the way, proceed to the work which may or may not be very closely related to the Justification.

We High Priests of Progress are going to have to re-imagine our purpose.


Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

As usual, an excellent post.

I recently came across a John D. MacDonald sci-fi compilation, Time and Tomorrow, on a Friends of the Library sale rack. One of the stories, "Ballroom of the Skies," circa 1952, features a post WWIII USA, devolved into a 3rd world "colony" ruled by India (Iran, Brazil and India dominate Earth), and invaded by space aliens. MacDonald includes end of empire, resource depletion, tight oil, breaking shale - a task left to prison inmates, and even mentions Toynbee.

I'm not a sci-fi aficionado, knew MacDonald from his Travis McGee crime thriller series, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Hope all is well as we approach Autumnal Equinox.


Tim Horan said...

iPhone, iPad Mini and now iWatch. Technological fetish objects are becoming smaller and smaller. Soon we will have the iVitamin, a tiny capsule to swallow for those of us who have become techno-superstition apostates and need to re-internalise the narrative of linear progress.

JMG, your post has led to perhaps what is an unintended consequence. I am now convinced that Science Fiction could be re-energised by becoming "Eco-Technic Fiction". It would be nice to sit back and watch a big screen motion picture about a future society that has rediscovered meaning by embracing voluntary poverty and living within the means of the biosphere. It would also reduce the expenses of the poor, beleaguered merchants of vulgar spectacle.

All jokes aside, the ongoing project of your blog is a welcome tonic that has personally helped me face the slow grind of the "Long Descent" with clear eyes and a brave heart. It is with no small amount of humour that I realise my optimism has been fueled from a corner of the internet that is mistakenly regarded as the "doomy" side of town.

All the best - Tim

Nick Nelson said...

I think if the internet hasn't already gotten there, it will soon reach diminishing returns as well. Massive server farms that must remain online 24 hours a day, sucking up as much electricity as an entire town. Shoddy security exposing the personal data of millions of people to theft and abuse.

Even worse, perhaps, is the personal, human cost of using the internet. Of course the internet is what you make of it, but for many people I think it has become an incredibly destructive addiction. Plumbing the strange depths of the various communities that can be found on sites like Reddit or 4chan (my own sad addiction) I often encounter comments or blog posts where people talk about needing to take a break for a few days or a week, because the stress of whatever tempest in a teapot they've embroiled themselves in has become too great. I believe that the kinds of interactions you can have with people on the internet very often exacerbate or outright CAUSE depression, uncontrollable rage, chronic stress, and other psychological ailments that are usually reserved for the most high pressure aspects of real life.

When I have the chance to get away from civilization and go to the Mexican desert I'm always overjoyed when I cross the border and my cellphone loses reception. I power it down, put it in my bag and forget about it for 3 days or so. Unfortunately that doesn't happen nearly as often as I would like.

In short, I don't think there's any question that any more internet than we already have will be not only a drain on our physical resources, but our mental resources as well. People practically salivate all over themselves dreaming about omnipresent, global wi-fi. When I think about that, some part of my brain screams with blind terror.

Mister Roboto said...

I'm glad you mentioned automation displacing people from gainful employment, because that, to my way of thinking, is the classic example of the detriments of having too much technology. Even if society were not coming up on hard limits on energy and resources, what all that automation would eventually do is create an economic collapse all by itself because working people would all become dispossessed paupers with no money to buy anything.

@Idontlikecheeselol: Another blogger with whom I occasionally correspond summed up his impression of this way: If you ever have any need of very stoned college sophomores who think they know everything and take themselves way too seriously, then you know where to look. Really, Reddit is such a good example of why every succeeding generation of middle-aged adults think that the current generation of youth are more ignorant and shallow than any previous generation of youth.

Carl said...

Dear JMG, I don't know if you've seen the newest study of the huge solar farm in the Mojave Desert

but it seems to have the small problem of lighting birds on fire when they fly over it. Not to mention it attracts insects that the birds follow in to be fried.
They also mention the two billion dollar gov't subsidy that went into starting it. All that money only gets you power for 140,000 homes in Las Vegas. So nice we can keep the ac blasting in the casinos all summer.
Oh, there was the interesting finding that more carbon was released disturbing a virgin desert biome than is being off-set by the solar farm. Talk about popping a cornucopia's bubble.

RepubAnon said...

I'd suggest that we'll see robots doing any mining on the Moon or the asteroids - no life support overhead, less worry about accidents. Not that we'll do any robotic mining in space absent the discovery of unobtanium, or something of equal value. It's very expensive in materials and resources to send even robots out to the great beyond - it's unlikely that there'll be anything to mine that's worth enough to show a profit.

However, the real problem we face today is folks who don't accept the implications of the Three Laws of Thermodynamics - notably the law of conservation of mass/energy. There's only so much carbon on the planet, of which only a small fraction is in the form of fossil fuels. There's also only so much rainfall each year, etc.

It's like Ali Baba's cave after the 40 thieves had their little work-related accident: there's lots of gold in the cave, but nobody knows how much there really is until it's almost gone. Oil, natural gas, aquifers, and other underground treasures are assumed to be infinite by the world as whole, right up until the well runs dry.

When the folks in LA turn on the taps and get nothing but dust, and there's no gasoline to take them somewhere with water, I expect the folks writing happy SF stories about the glowing future will be singing Month Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

Mark Rice said...

This book The Myth of America's Decline was inflicted on me recently. Perhaps the intent was to get me to believe all will be rosy in the future. I do not need to fool myself into thinking all will be rosy in the future to be happy.

I am not sure the author believes the thesis of the title. I admit I did not finish the book. There was no intellectual honesty in the part I did read. It read like one side of a high school debate.

Tom Bannister said...

- Idontlikecheeselol & JMG

It might have mentioned somewhere else here on this blog but we are after all nearly at 2015, when Marty Mcfly and Doc Brown are supposed to arrive in the future to find flying cars, hoverboards etc etc. Most of the younger generation will be familiar with that film (I'm in my 20s and most of my friends/colluges have) so there is hope so far as questioning techno progress is concerned...

Zachary Braverman said...

Your perspicacious comment on the concept of diminishing returns of technology made me think immediately of the newly-announced Apple Watch. I read reports and watched videos of it, and kept thinking that not only was it a lot less useful than a smartphone, but that if I had to, I would pay NOT to have to wear one. You can only have so many platforms for connecting to the rest of the world before those connections become detrimental, and I think we've passed that point.

Dylan said...

Thanks for another thoughtful post. I'm looking forward to more discussion of völkerwanderung as one of the "mechanisms by which societies destroy themselves".

This evening I heard some heartwrenching stories about Australia's policies toward incoming asylum-seekers: 3 to 7 years mandatory imprisonment in privately run island prisons. Most of these turn out to be genuine refugees. It might be a stretch, but in a certain sense these people are languishing in the blind spot of the contemporary faith in technology (human social dynamics being, of course, a merely technical matter, with technological solutions: prisons and other forms of control).

I'm reminded of an interview with Richard Kearney earlier this summer in which he talks about religious faith as, at its core, a willingness to see God in the stranger who comes to our door. Assuming that lots of us will see lots of strangers coming to our doors in the years ahead, I'm interested for very practical reasons in forms of faith that can teach that kind of imaginative compassion.

I don't see anything like that idea in your thought so far, but then, I haven't delved into your writings on Druidry beyond what you've shared on this blog.

makedoanmend said...

I'd class your thought, stated in the final paragraph, to be represented of the genus-species of Galium aparine. I'm not sure what to make of the reasoning as yet but it will cling to me for some time.

Right now I take it as another gift bestowed by an Archdruid. A wee blue stone "told" me to work on contemplation skills. The paragraph provides much homework fodder.

Thank you.

Avery said...

For some reason I own a copy of You Will Go to the Moon; I think my parents regarded it as a classic. For the benefit of those who have never read it, the most striking visual in the book is a two-page spread showing a mommy and daddy taking a little boy onto the conical rocket. Even if some people still entertain fantasies of Mars becoming populated, I doubt anyone would subscribe to this particular visual, where the kid seems to have been given a cheap seat on a moon launch. Here are some more likely alternatives my friends and I came up with when reading the book:

1. Mommy and daddy have bought their son a one-way ticket. They tell him he will be remembered as a martyr for science and technology, but he doesn't see them heave a sigh of relief after the door closes...

2. Or maybe this kid has agreed to be a guinea pig on the first manned SpaceX mission. Everything has been streamlined, so this launch will only cost $200 million rather than the $400 million that it used to cost. Of course, everything depends on being able to retrieve the rocket afterwards, but the unmanned missions have gone great...

3. Actually, we won't be able to get to space until we are comfortable with the kid having two mommies... who are both transhumanist... robots... produced by the boy on a 3D printer... etc

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, I'm a professional bad influence! As for the Stonehenge map, yes -- as you can imagine, the Druid scene is talking about that quite a bit just now.

Pinku-sensei, Obama's fairly good at talking. It's doing anything when he's finished with the speech that's his problem. At this point I think a global pandemic that could leave a quarter or more of the world's population dead in five to ten years is a serious possibility.

Twilight, me too -- thus this week's rant. I think that the increasingly shrill tone of the demands for optimism at all costs may well be a measure of just how many people are deep in cognitive dissonance, caught between the myth of progress and the reality of decline. Sooner or later, they'll start to snap out of the myth; what remains to be seen is what triggers that, and what the results are.

Thomas, quite the contrary, I agree with you. That's one of the problems I see with the historic Judeo-Christian traditions: the notion that the world was in some sense made for human benefit pervades those traditions, and though there are countercurrents, they are very much in the minority -- though they could certainly become the basis for a saner response to Nature. As for atheism, as I've noted before, the conflict between modern atheism and the Judeo-Christian tradition is a case of sibling rivalry; they share an enormous range of preconceptions, anthropocentrism very much among them.

ChemEng, thanks for the recommendation! I'll check it out.

LatheChuck, says that the flare already hit, but we should get a coronal mass ejection in the next few days. One way or another, it should be entertaining!

Grebulocities, if we wait until the funding runs out for space projects, the funding will have already run out for any further printing and distributing of books. If that matters to you, better get on it now!

North Coast, thank you for that burst of sanity. My wife and I use paper checks, deadbolt locks, and a great many other old-fashioned devices for these among many other reasons.

Yupped, the one good thing I can say about skyscrapers is that they'll give our descendants a very easy place from which to mine metals...

Kaitain, thank you! I've argued in an earlier post that pulp fantasy of the Elric sort is a better mirror of our current situation than most soi-disant "serious" science fiction. Agreed; if this is the best they can do for compelling visions of a possible future, all I can say is that I'm not impressed.

Michael, oh, granted. I used sandwiches as a conveniently simple and silly example.

Shane, that minority is likely to survive. The others? Probably not. We're heading into harsh times.

Marba Node said...

Greetings to all.

While I was looking forward to the next dark age piece, the week's subject is sufficiently relevant (to myself at least) to warrant a comment. I happen to be from the Caribbean, a "developing region" in modern growth finance parlance. I'm not claiming that the sentiment I'm about to describe started with it but since the proliferation of touch screen gizmos of all kinds, there seems to be a general inability at the level of pundits and government to think about serious policy issues without invoking app, smartphone and tablet. For instance, turns out that adequately teaching persons geometry requires tablets in all schools, so dancing triangles can show the compliant persons (the ones who pretend that they haven't yet hacked theirs while the others with no such qualms continue to watch porn) how to find area. Then there are the proposals for crime fighting apps, corruption reporting apps, etc. The connotation is that we can somehow 'tech (tek)' our way out of social problems whose root causes stem from the very lopsided distribution of resources, often done deliberately to maintain an entrenched class and power structure (same as most civilized places). I remember a number of our pundits boasting about how we are a now a technologically advanced society. I brought up the point that using technology and having the means to produce technology are not the same thing. No need to elaborate on how far that got. The other interesting bit is that there is often talk, at official ceremonies (graduations,conferences and the like) that the young people should strive to be like, Gates, or Steve choose your name, and aspire to bring about the next, mega tech company or what have you. There is almost no recognition and or appreciation that the info tech (as with most other high tech fields) industry is largely based in the US because of a massive support system in the form of infrastructure, large numbers of skilled personnel, and wealthy customer base, a large portion of which happens to be government spending tax dollars on what are, in many cases, superfluous products with very marginal utility. Of course, whenever you question the tech faith, people automatically assume you are a tech klutz or even worse, a techphobe. There is very little attempt to even wonder whether a particular scenario requires any form of technology at all. Superstition is a very good way to describe it (JMG keeps finding ways to articulate this stuff week after week :)).

As it relates to the dark age posts, here's some info that might be useful. Many readers here are no doubt already familiar with it but I found it useful despite not being a geology novice.

The link leads to a time map which attempts to put the human timescale in perspective with longer time spans. This link leads to the text portion for a bit more context.

The blog at present is not updated (once again, the result of tech promises falling through), but posts are stockpiled and the page will be active before year end.

John Michael Greer said...

Kyoto, many thanks for the song -- that's a keeper, and makes a lot more sense than trying to mine the asteroids.

Matthew, fascinating. I'll check him out as time permits.

Tortoise, the maintenance cost of every society's infrastructure rises faster than the production of wealth by that society. We may be wealthier in theory than people a century ago, but we have far more expenses to meet with that wealth than they did; in effect, therefore, we're poorer.

Moshe, I expect madness, futile violence, and death in too many such cases. It won't be pretty.

Grebulocities, exactly! That colony on Mars is the Second Coming of the great god Progress, and people cling to it the way Rapture believers cling to their misreading of the Book of Revelation. It's that, or admit that they've thrown away much of their lives on a delusion.

Donald, I think it's more complex than that. Conspiracy theories are to society roughly what paranoid schizophrenia is to the individual.

M, good for you. Illich was indeed worth studying, and I'd encourage all my readers to pick up his books and pay close attention.

GuRan, I'll know that sanity has finally gotten a look in when engineering papers begin by explaining that we're in deep trouble, and here's a way to mitigate one small piece of it.

Edde, bright gods. I had no idea MacDonald wrote SF at all. I guess it's my day to field such surprises; I also just learned that Tennessee Williams published a pulp-fantasy story in Weird Tales.

Tim, if SF is going to do anything but rehash the praises of the great god Progress, somebody is going to have to write the stories. I trust you're volunteering!

Nick, no argument there. Do you ever just turn off your phone and leave it off for a few days, without a Mexican desert to justify the act? I recommend it -- though, to be fair, I don't own a cell phone at all, and my internet access consists of a slow connection from a desktop machine that I use when I need to, and not otherwise.

Mister R., exactly. It fascinates me that so few people realize just how much social stress could be eliminated in short order by getting rid of the perverse incentives that encourage businesses to replace people with machines.

John Michael Greer said...

Carl, no, I hadn't. Many thanks for this -- it's a good piece of evidence to hand to people who are still fixated on the fantasy that we can maintain our current lifestyles on renewables.

RepubAnon, excellent. You get tonight's gold star for invoking the unspeakable: limits. (With special credit for mentioning the laws of thermodynamics.) Everything -- everything comes down to the reality of limits, and the gibbering insanity of trying to claim that they don't exist.

Mark, expect much more of that in the years ahead, as American decline becomes impossible to ignore.

Tom, I didn't see the movie so didn't think of that, but it's an excellent point.

Zachary, bingo. I can't think of any sane reason to buy something like that.

Dylan, compassion is a virtue; if it's the virtue that's most important to you, it's certainly your right and privilege to follow that path. Other people place other virtues at the center of their own journeys.

Makedoanmend, excellent. If I've given you a theme for contemplation, I'm doing my job.

Avery, funny. For my part, I think it would be great if the Mars One people were to be able to raise the funds to get to the red planet; listening to their ghastly fate from much too far away to do anything about it would teach a lot of people about the difference between a live planet and a dead one.

Marba, fascinating. I wish I could say I was surprised. I wonder how they're going to respond when the USA crashes and burns. Thanks also for the links!

k-dog said...

I remember thinking in a naive universe long long ago that all one had to do to reign in a cornucopian was to talk thermodynamics and sense. That was before I understood the religion of progress to be a cult of unexamined principles.

Too many negative portrayals of the future in popular media some say?. I'd say there are not enough, but then, my doom tolerance, like many readers here, might be higher than average.

The religion of progress demands as a foundation pillar, endless optimism. Heresy it is to quibble any scientific nuance which could challenge an endless march forward. The religion of progress is not about science. It is based on wishful thinking and a firm commitment to remain mired in a torpor of ignorant muck. Evidence and rational argument will not breach this faith for it is spawned from pscho-social not rational roots.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I think the penny dropped for me (or, all the coins fell out of the bag) on reading Clifford Stoll's "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway." 1995. Since I was working in Library Land then, I found his chapter on libraries interesting.

Data migration was a big concern. Simply, the information on the software won't play nice with the new hardware. Information is lost or unreadable.

In our local newspaper today, someone showed up to a County Commissioners meeting to ask if it were true that the $1.1 million dollar computer system for the country, well, just didn't work. And, our county had signed something releasing the software company from liability if it didn't work. The only comment from the Commission was that the query was "politically motivated." The unraveling story ought to be quit interesting. The problem? Data migration. Or, the lack thereof.

Not a week goes by that some aspect of my life doesn't seem to be negatively impacted by some bit of shoddy technology. What gets me is that it seems your just supposed to shrug it off. Find a patch or a work around or just accept that whatever it is hasn't delivered on it's promise. All of which takes a lot of time and energy on my part.

As a quick example, my e-mail account wants me to beef up my password. All fine and good. That I did without to much pain. But then they want a mobile device number ... in case I loose my password. My breath is taken away by the sheer crazy making assumption that every one has a mobile device. I'm so far out that there's no reception. Internet yes. Cell phone, no. Landline, here. But not even the courtesy of a "If you don't have a mobile device, click here" button. So every time I sign in, I have to deal with the screen that keeps asking me for my mobile number.

I actually heard a report on the radio today (NPR?) about the iWatch. Instead of singing the praises of the new gizmo, the reporters were speculating on what it was actually good for. If you had a iPad or iPhone, why did you need something else to strap onto your wrist? Oh, and by the way, the thing doesn't work unless you have an iPhone or iPad in our pocket. According to the report. Lew

jean-vivien said...

I have found the modern day equivalent to the Reich's Bunker :

It displays some sort of creepy imagery, which evokes to me not progress, but something much more creepy.

And I went to the theater watch Lucy. This is the first time I have ever felt creeped out by a movie, not because of the emotional content but because of how desperately it was trying to defend a vision at the expense of an actual narrative. It is one thing to watch creepy things on the screen. It is quite another to watch stuff that should make you feel glossy but instead makes you wonder where your culture is going to.
And it comes, just like Apple's bunker, replete with all the morbid style of beauty that is incorrectly associated with the ideals of progress. I suspect in the future, poison pills willl be administered by beautiful seducing girls ...

Scotlyn said...

Your discussion of the law of diminishing returns calls to mind the wonderful runaway cornucopia disaster scene in Terry Pratchett's "Wintersmith".

MawKernewek said...

Mars in many ways has been shown to be more interesting again, in fact it experiences ice ages like the Earth, except these ones actually occur when the climate warms up. It turns out that without any large moon to stabilise it, the axial obliquity goes through major oscillations up to 60 degrees, and CO_2 ice under the polar regions evaporates and Mars has a thicker atmnosphere and more active precipitation cycle.

It's my understanding that the cost of the JWST is crowding out pretty much anything else in NASA's astronomy space program, so it might be the last hurrah for them.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

JM, many thanks for my first authentic crechwenu (that's to say: outloud shouting laughter, rumbling on for some minutes after the first explosion) with your deadpan 'little pieces of opaque green tape' gag! Wonderful! Still rolling about as I write...

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

PS: First of today, I meant to write.

Jason Heppenstall said...

From jetpacks and flying cars to domed cities and vacations on the Moon, from the nuclear power plants that would make electricity too cheap to meter to the conquest of poverty, disease, and death itself, most of the promises offered by the propagandists and publicists of technological progress haven’t happened. That has understandably made people noticeably less impressed by further rounds of promises that likely won’t come true either.

Quite. Over here, people who harp on about affordable space travel and holidays on Mars are increasingly being seen as mentally unwell. Richard Branson, with his 'Virgin Galactic' project is a case in point as the link below points out. It would seem that if you're going to promise interstellar trips for the masses make sure you pick a blast-off date that's far enough into the future that people will have forgotten about it by the time it doesn't happen.

Beam us up, Beardie!

Jason Heppenstall said...

Speaking of the less welcome aspects of technology coming back to bite us in the behind ... I have found myself cheerleading the Scots in recent days, hoping that they manage to summon up the courage to vote 'Yes' in the upcoming independence referendum.

Why should this be so? If I'm honest with myself it's probably because I see the establishment going into full panic mode over the prospect of democracy being exercised a bit too close to home for comfort. Everyone from central bankers, politicians and the CEOs of top companies seems terrified by the prospect of an independent Scotland. Economic apocalypse will ensue, they chant in unison. What's not to like?

However, one unintended consequence of their breaking away from the union would be the likely relocation of Britain's fleet of nuclear submarines. And their new home would most likely be the Carrick Roads deep waterway at Falmouth - which is just down the road from me here in Cornwall.

That's the problem with living far away from the centres of power - you end up with other people's dangerous technology on your doorstep. I doubt very much they will park those submarines in the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament.

Jason Heppenstall said...


Ah yes, the BBC. My kids watch the BBC's children's channel CBBC quite regularly and I am often within earshot of it when it is on. What usually catches my attention are the programmes about science and the future, and how they are presented.

Given the Auntie's supposed commitment to educate and inform, combined with the fact that it is state-owned and open to meddling at every level, one only has to watch it for a while to discover what kind of people the government is hoping the kids grow up to be (from evidence I'd say sporty, healthy-eating, celebrity-following, economically productive scientists).

Some of its programmes are great, such as Horrible Histories and DNN, which mocks the vacuous nature of cable TV news - and probably have more adult viewers than kids.

However, I notice that whenever mention is made of space it seems almost compulsory to go on to explain to the kids that we'll soon be building Mars resorts, eating pills instead of meals and flying around in spaceships.

I wonder, is the BBC trying to cultivate a new wave of high-value scientists or is it just generally deluded about the diminishing returns of technology? Maybe it's both.

Spanish fly said...

"Batoro Royaro"-says Kitano.

This film was before Fukushima Daichi...There are dystopias even in the techonological Heaven named Japan.

Poor optimistic sci-fi freaks!

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

@Nick Nelson: Nick, try not having a cellphone at all. Better still is never having had one ever. Wonderful liberation! The same goes for the little glowing electronic thumb-pianos too. Though I suppose you have to be over a certain age to view that prospect with comfort. Comfort yourself too with the hunch that there isn't going to be an internet as we know it now for all that long into the future.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
The pattern of decline in UK has been different from USA, but de-industrialisation happened most obviously in Scotland.

It is probably not a co-incidence that highest support for independence in upcoming referendum matches the map for highest unemployment. See this report and maps

Phil H
PS captcha is '101'

ChemEng said...

GuRan and Mr. Greer:

I have tried for some years to talk to engineers about the issues discussed at sites such as this. I get nowhere. As a generalization, engineers are well educated and will follow the numbers to wherever they take them. However the profession seems to be an inherently optimistic.

However, this attitude may be changing. One of my colleagues works at a college in southern Louisiana. She reports that the students are willing to visualize a world in which New Orleans and Houston are permanently under water. They do not necessarily accept that that is what will take place, but they are willing to talk about it.

Matt said...

JMG: [Mars] looked [...] like an unusually dull corner of Nevada that had somehow been denuded of air, water, and life.


Odin's Raven said...

Will it be the same on the way down as it was on the way up?

Geoffrey Parker's book 'Global Crisis:War Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century' shows that war worsens whatever problems weather presents. Death on a large scale, even if local, may inhibit the production of technology.
Global Crisis

Andrew Kieran said...

Fun coincidence, in my blog feed just above this is a post from will wheaton about the 45th birthday of star trek, maybe the best example of the technical utopianism you talk about

Don Plummer said...

John, I had to laugh. Your description of this Project Hieroglyph reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich's little book called Bright-Sided. The answer to everything that ails America is to THINK POSITIVELY, after all!

Did you ever read it? You might enjoy it. As one who more than once has been encouraged, if not required, to buy into the cult of positive thinking, but who never found it quite satisfactory, I found the book quite enjoyable. The subtitle of the little volume is How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. 'Nuff said about that.

YJV said...

Re: commenters on tech-addition.
Definitely a thing, although what most pre-millenials don't realise is that technology is being used to completely re-arrange society in a way to let technology control our lives entirely. If you're raised in that environment, you have no choice but to constantly keep up (or consistently lag behind) the only means of keeping yourself relevant in the job market.

One of my friends recently lost his mobile and decided not to replace it. When I was berating him for being more uncontactable than usual, he replied that he felt extremely liberated without the constant demand of being reachable. I couldn't disagree.

Plenty of millenials would love to give up all the opiate technology around them - but this for us means certain loss of marketability. Back in the day all you had to do to guarantee a decent job was do well in university and apply. Now? Apparently we're all a brand, we have to make LinkedIn accounts and sell ourselves over the next sucker trying to get a job. Being good at your job isn't required as much as a bag of sleazy 'digital communication' tricks. Symptomatic of a culture that now attaches much more significance to appearance than function.

Once you get the job, the relentless menace of technology never ends. You work all the time, and there is no personal thinking time left. This is basically the last step in turning educated people into mindless work zombies. Leisure time, as the boomers know it, is now a popular myth.

It takes a lot of courage to leave behind the dominant narratives and start a permaculture farm - especially when individuals and their entire families have invested significant time to trying to achieve class mobility. It's a lot of explanation to give with not much life security to back it. Given time, most millenials (I'm sure) will take out the time to learn real skills or work out how to use their existing skills to adapt to collapse. But for now, there's lots of hoops to jump through for us to get that unfulfilling job and fully convince ourselves that there's nothing to a vapid yuppie existence.

MP said...

JMG - I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful weekly posts. I'm always looking forward to coming in on Thursday mornings and seeing another viewpoint. I'm not at all someone who is doing right by the world, but it's heartening to see a community thinking and acting on the realities that face us.

I didn't know if you'd seen a report that just came out on I'm no fan of Vice, but the title is amazing:
The End of Fracking Is Closer Than You Think

The first paragraph: "Canadian geologist David Hughes has some sober news for the Kool-Aid-drinking boosters of the United States' newfound eminence in fossil fuel production: it's going to go bust sooner rather than later."

I do believe we are at the turning point.

Eric S. said...

A few weeks ago, I ran across this video from Neil Tyson( The tone in the video was very different from the starry-eyed enthusiasm you usually see from him. He's begging and pleading, and he's got the quiver in his voice of someone who is watching his dreams slowly slip away. The video really captures for me what you're describing here.

I think back to your reflections on the way people responded to "The Next Ten Billion Years." Back then you said that even if you gave us space and a few colonies on other moons and planets, a few asteroid mines and a space station or two it still wouldn't be enough. Also makes me think back to the grey light of morning when you talked about that divorce or move that'll solve everything once you get there. We've been dreaming long enough, and we've had enough of those dreams come true to know what that leads to.

The future predicted by the world fairs has come and gone. It left us with cheap plastic gadgets and a cheap, plastic world but it didn’t make us any happier. Running away to the furthest, blackest regions of outer space won’t either. I look at our culture’s narratives, at the epidemic of depression, at our pathos of biophobia… And I wonder if people in our society don’t want well-being and happiness so much as they want to escape from themselves. We’ve stopped dreaming because we’ve come to realize that whether we go to heaven or to the stars, we’ve still got to take ourselves along and our culture is one of intense self-hatred.

RPC said...

Marba Node wrote: "Using technology and having the means to produce technology are not the same thing." That may qualify as the quote of the week. A number of the tech publications I get are bemoaning the fact that innovation seems to follow production, and, as the U.S. has offshored production...

donalfagan said...

Heard this last night on NPR:

Welcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Diane Ackerman. We're talking about her new book. it's called "The Human Age." And, you know Diane, I think a lot of people look at the world today, the natural world and say humans have really made a mess of it. They look maybe particularly at the issue of climate change.
Yes, that's true. And it's so important that people don't lose hope. We still have a lot of things that we can do. Climate change is absolutely real, it's urgent and we all need to get involved. But we can slow it down. It's not going to happen overnight. It may take several generations. And we can't afford to be complacent, but we're not helpless. We're not powerless. We're not doomed.

That kind of dismal mindset really isn't going to achieve anything. We can have a big say in designing the kind of planet that we want and that we need to survive. Now, I'm not, by any means, dismissing the risks that we face in the coming decades. But I really derive a lot of hope from stepping back and marveling at the human species, warts and all. We have been imaginative, strong-willed problem solvers. We've already proven that we can change the world. We didn't do a great job of it. Now we can change it again.

from the comments:
The_Truth_Seeker(TM) Anomy • 2 days ago
Yeah, this is almost a "bizarre" radio segment. Seems like this person is almost clueless about reality and just takes snips from some science news she has read.

Anomy The_Truth_Seeker(TM) • 2 days ago
Glad to see someone knows what I was getting at.

Popular Science had us in self driving cars that converted into airplanes, dishes that washed themselves, the kitchen of tomorrow where food became dinner with minimal human involvement. I wrote Popular Science from the 30's and 40's but heck, pick up a PS today and there is the same thing, if one actually puts forth the effort to think about what's in the magazine instead of just believing in what's being presented.

Timothy Foster • a day ago
Her intentional avoidance of the overpopulation question could not have been more obvious. It's still the elephant in the room, I see. Big elephant.

RPC said...

JMG wrote, "It fascinates me that so few people realize just how much social stress could be eliminated in short order by getting rid of the perverse incentives that encourage businesses to replace people with machines." A big problem here is that many of today's high-tech devices can only be built by robots - the sizes and tolerances could not be handled by human beings even if sedated a la THX1138. Back in the day a television could be built from a Heathkit; imagine doing that with an iPhone! IMHO, this is another case where we've overshot the optimal level of technology.

Kyoto Motors said...

Re: conspiracy theories
I think the importnnt thing to not here is not whether or not we went to the moon at the height of our petro-technological civilisation (which we did); it's whether we'll actually still believe that we did in 100 years from now. After all, it is conceivable that it was a hoax, and already enough people believe that it was. I suspect opinion will be sharply and evenly divided when there is little evidence on the ground of any such technological capability in the day to day culture that people will be experiencing. (maybe 100 years is too soon, but eventually...)

zoidion said...

I picked up a friend at a hospital yesterday, and we talked, as usual, about the weather: a dramatic shift toward chill and the prospect of an early frost. He showed me his i-thingy, showing the hour-by-hour temperature and cloud forecasts. I wasn't impressed, and he understands: He actually reads my blog: Reports and Musings on the Long Emergency, Weather and Climate.

For the past three years, I've been intensively studying and writing about astrological weather indications and forecasting, much like some of the ancients practiced. Sometimes I'll tell acquaintances one big reason why I do it: I don't expect the current supercomputer-and-satellite-dependent system to last much longer. Usually I get a dumbfounded look, but oh well . . . Admittedly, I'm using a computer to generate charts to post online, but I still know how to do calculations (and occasionally do) on paper using a book ephemeris.

Yet the high-tech system is already wobbly:
"To reduce the risk of a data gap from polar-orbiting satellites, which provide the vast majority of data that is fed into computer models used for weather forecasting, the team recommended that NOAA quickly start work on a new “gap-filling” satellite that could be used as a band aid to ensure that crucial weather and climate data keeps flowing." --
Also, there's this:
"The next generation of polar-orbiting satellites, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS, has been delayed by mismanagement, billions in cost overruns, and technical development challenges. This has pushed back the launch date of the next polar-orbiting satellite to 2017 at the earliest, which is past the design lifetime of the youngest polar-orbiting satellite currently in orbit." [ -- note the publication date on that article: November 2012 ]

patriciaormsby said...

@Lew There ought to be an all-purpose cell phone number the unphonely can give when posed this ridiculous request. So far, I've gotten by by simply giving them my land-line number, but eventually I'm sure I'll run into software that rejects it.

@JMG Nice post this week! I know some people I can send it to who will enjoy it.

I teach English conversation (among other things), and I try to avoid any negative topic, especially if I might be passionate about it. I have three advanced students who are quite fluent and have traveled abroad, and in our most recent class, the two elder ones brought up collapse-related issues (dengue fever now spreading uncontrollably in Japan, and possible worldwide economic collapse in three years), but the third, a younger lady, wanted to talk about Disneyland. It is in these situations that I earn my pay. We managed to talk about all three topics, but I worry how the frank talk goes over with the seriously unaware. I don't want to drive the Disney-heads away, so I am having to think of ways to soften the impact of topics that will come up more and more frequently. For the time, it will be that sad topics are okay, but they must also think of one happy topic (anything--their new i-watch, the first tomato of summer, a bargain on socks, a good joke).

Phil Knight said...

They should have listened to Norman Whitfield:

Joe Roberts said...

Your description of the means of a blue-collar US family circa 1970 is spot on. I work with many women who need, for economic reasons, to put their babies into day care from the age of three to six months onward, because the moms need to work full time. This, of course, is actually the norm now in middle-class America. Day care from that young age -- tiny babies in day care all day long -- was much more rare a mere few decades ago.

On another note, I find myself fascinated by the Scottish independence movement and organizations like the Texas Nationalist Movement, which is more popular than many people realize and will really be emboldened if the Scots vote yes, which is a real possibility. Fragmentation feels like the future.

nr-cole said...

The discussion of the techno-utopia and Carl's mention of the California desert projects took me back to a few weeks ago when I was wondering what the next miracle energy project/crucible for the hopes and dreams of the deluded would be. I've had some positive encouragement and agreement from unexpected sources in the past month or so when I bring up our finite energy resources and the questionable viability of big-ticket "renewable" infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, my next thoughts are usually about myself, circa 2011, and the optimism and conviction I felt whenever I read about mirrors as big as the desert and oceans covered in wind turbines. I feel lucky now to have been disabused of those notions. More people are becoming aware of what's really in front of us, but others remain as convinced as ever that it's all going to be fine, OR that the perfect solutions are right there in front of us, and can't the "wrong" sorts of people would just get out of the way.

All this is to say that sooner rather than later we're going to have quite the hissing and spitting match going on over technological utopianism, and I think some surprisingly hostile lines are going to be drawn by the utopian-side. Most of their ire right now is directed towards boogeymen like the oil and gas industry, who are no doubt deserving, but not the ultimate reason their fantasies are never going to come true.

dltrammel said...

Came across this article about the politics of the next couple of decades that compared what we have with the collapse of Rome.

"Don't Do As The Romans Did"

Basically the author suggests, get used to being on a permanent war footing USA. That is if we want to maintain our "Empire". I smiled to myself as I read it, that the idea we wouldn't have the energy or money to do what he proposes never made the article.

Not that that unpleasant truth is going to stop many a politician in the coming years from voting to defund needed infrusture spending to funnel the money into the "War Aboard to Defend America at Home" effort.

DaShui said...

One thing that nobody seems to discuss is that if everyone starts using solar power, it just drains the sun that much faster, then whatta we gonna do?

escapefromwisconsin said...

You might be surprised at the source of this, but billionaire sociopath Peter Thiel has an excellent presentation that makes exactly the same points as you do - technological progress and its benefits have slowed stagnated since the 1970. His facts are quite well documented. There is a good summary of his points here:

Of course the implicit message of Thiel is the polar opposite of yours - that we just aren't innovating hard enough, and that pesky things like regulations, environmental concerns and democracy (which Thiel and most libertarians are openly contemptuous of) are holding it back and need to be eliminated for our own good to keep progress going. The idea that maybe this stagnation is natural and inevitable, and that we should take a different path is anathema to them, especially since it threatens the source of their wealth and power.

Note that this stagnation has come at a time when innovation has become the most common buzzword today, entrepreneurship is celebrated as an end in itself, digital wizards are feted as demigods, and countless billions of dollars of wealth formally belonging to the wider society (and created by that wider society) have been shoveled at people like Thiel and his ilk. Yet all it has resulted in for eighty percent of us is working harder and harder for less. Most people can barely pay for housing or medical care anymore.

The first smallpox vaccines were deployed before the 1800's and drastically reduced infant mortality rates. Today, we spend an average of six figures and deploy space-age technology to keep eighty-year-olds alive for a few more months. Diminishing returns indeed.

But I would suggest it's not superstition. It's a subset of superstition. It's cargo cult thinking - the idea that if we just mimic the behavior of the past, we will engender the same results without looking at the ultimate causes. The lionization of entrepreneurship in particular, with its apotheosis of people like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, seems to me like Melanesian islanders constructing hangars out of palm trees and radio towers of bamboo.

Also of interest might be this recent article in the Atlantic, which makes many points familiar to readers of the Archdruid Report: "Is Progress Good For Humanity?"

thrig said...

Giddy optimism suggests the counterbalance of history, where one might discover the telegraph

An 1858 editorial in New Englander proclaimed: “The telegraph binds together by a vital cord all the nations of the earth. ...It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth.” Speaking in 1868, Edward Thornton, the British ambassador to the United States, hailed the telegraph as “the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.”
— Morozov, Evgeny (2012-02-28). The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (p. 276). PublicAffairs.

Of course, they had their grumpy curmudgeons even back then

In 1889, the Spectator, one of the empire’s finest publications, chided the telegraph for causing “a vast diffusion of what is called ‘news,’ the recording of every event, and especially of every crime, everywhere without perceptible interval of time. The constant diffusion of statements in snippets...must in the end, one would think, deteriorate the intelligence of all to whom the telegraph appeal.”
— Ibid. (p. 277).

who doubtless now might be found making harumphing noises towards the Internet or smartphones or the like.

In somewhat related news, (pseudo)random number generation is really hard, and various studies that relied on linear congruential generators might possibly be wrong, and those experiments will probably need to be redone. Ahh, sandy foundations. And now off to continue bailing out the gaffer-taped whiffle-ball boat that is my portion of the Internet.

escapefromwisconsin said...


I wonder if I'm alone in losing my excitement about sky-scrapers? Perhaps it's just my advancing age, or the result of reading too many ADR posts, but their bigness seems rather silly, like so many folly castles lining the streets. Maybe building towers that seem to touch the stars is the best we can do though, now that we seem to be giving up hope of actually traveling to them.

You probably weren't aware of this when you wrote your comment, but on of Neal Stephenson's major ideas to restart technological innovations and get us all to beleive in the dream of progress again (besides the anthology) is to build a 20 kilometer (12.4 mile) high skyscraper. We would launch things into space from the top of it:

This is how these guys think. Can anyone imagine a more useless deployment of technology in a world where we're in the midst of a sixth extinction? Talk about your Easter island statues!

Laylah said...

@Yupped not alone at all. My day job has me tangentially involved with the construction of fancy new office towers and sky-high luxury hotels, and occasionally I'm impressed by the feats of engineering that make these structures possible... but much more often I look at them and feel comforted by the idea of ruinmen someday pulling them back down again. The concentrations of energy and resources they represent boggle the mind, and not really in a good way.

Project Hieroglyph gives me a lot of mixed feelings. There's some eyerolling, of course, at the importance the authors are ascribing to themselves -- but also it makes my heart hurt. Watching people insist so vehemently that they can make the world better by believing it so... I find myself flinching in advance of the inevitable impact with non-faith-based reality.

They've mistaken what magic can do, haven't they? Yes, directed efforts can change how people understand and approach the world, and that power needs to be used thoughtfully. But that same magic *can't* change the material contents of the world those same people inhabit.

exiledbear said...

I would put it this way. As an analogy. Let's say you have an airplane, designed before the advent of jet propulsion and supersonic flight.

Every new advance makes it go faster right? Up to a point. And then if you try to make it go faster, it starts to suffer Mach buffet and all sorts of other problems that it hadn't had to deal with before. Maybe the design of the plane has become so enshrined that nobody can think of doing anything different, and they keep trying every way they can to make that plane go just a little bit faster while staying under that mach buffet limit and not touching the basic design of the plane.

They keep trying and trying and trying until eventually the plane can't fly anymore. But they don't want to go back and they certainly can't go forward.

Someone might pipe up and point out, er, maybe we should strip off all this crud and cruft and start over with a new plane based on more recent understandings of aerodynamics? But he gets shouted down, and eventually he shrugs his shoulders, gives up and perhaps goes off to learn German or something.

Meanwhile they've abandoned the plane altogether and have gone back to using horses and buggies instead. And if I were an alien looking at these people, I'd be thinking about putting a beacon in orbit around the planet saying QUARANTINE - DO NOT APPROACH.

Somewhatstunned said...

JMG - may I very humbly offer you one of *my* gold stars for the wonderful word "gizmocentric"?


Dammerung said...

I think a point being missed here is that part of the reason technological progress hasn't benefited the poor is the wealth transfer mechanisms of Wall St. and the Federal Reserve. My boss used to do stained glass; now she has to work a dull corporate job because no one can afford the luxury. Other people in my department may have been bespoke tailors or fashion designers, but the actual increase in wealth caused by technological progress has been hoarded by those with political connections at the top. Every one of us should have access to bespoke clothing, a dietician, and god-knows-what else, but these have been reserved as luxuries for the rich because the increase in overall capital hasn't "trickled down" like we were promised.

This doesn't change anything about peak oil, of course, but it explains that there's no paradoxical relationship between technological progress and job growth unless one is imposed.

william fairchild said...


"By and large, the benefits of new technology trickle up the social ladder, while the costs and burdens trickle down; this has a lot to do with the fact that the grandchildren of people who enjoyed The Jetsons now find The Hunger Games more to their taste."

Interesting you mention "The Hunger Games". It is one of my children's favorites, as is "Divergent". They recently discovered my old 1st edition "Gamma World" RPG book and wanted me to teach them to play. Geeks beget geeks, I guess :)

I heard a radio discussion about why dystopian lit was so popular. One thesis was that it speaks to the decline, hurt, and uncertainty of the age. I thinks that's true.

It seems to me that the young folk live in a bifurcated reality. They love tech (iPads,smartphones, Tublr, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) and move about it with grace and ease. It is how they connect with each other

At the same time, a great many seems to understand, it cannot last. They worry about graduating into unemployment with student debt, being drafted to fight in the sandbox, climate chaos, school shootings, and so on.

It must be difficult for them to live with the tech promise on the one hand and the Dickensian children of Ignorance and Want on the other.

One hopeful note, the younguns don't seem the have the same level of racial/socio-economic/gender hangups as us old fuddy-duddies, so perhaps when the post 9/11 (my oldest was 3 when the towers fell) comes of age, they may moderate some of our baser urges. (One can hope, right?)

P.S. I have really enjoyed your Dark Age in America essays. They are strangely comforting.

Violet Cabra said...

It appears that the writers, scientists and engineers of Project Hieroglyph are saying that if everyone *believes* hard enough our bright, shiny future amongst the stars can come back to life, snatched from the jaws of death like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, unfortunately however, Tinkerbell isn't coming back to life so who in the room isn't believing?

Of course this isn't really how reality works outside the framework of miracles and faith healing, which last I looked Science doesn't acknowledge as valid.

Moshe Braner said...

Speaking of Scotland, one of today's news headlines seems to me to mean something they did not intend:
"British banks warn they'll head south if Scotland quits UK".

(Note to those unfamiliar with US idioms: "go south" here means "collapse".)

Note that one of the banks threatening such is formally called the Royal Bank of Scotland. Perhaps that insult will push the Scots another bit towards taking the plunge.

Moshe Braner said...

Regarding technology and employment, I agree with Dammerung above that it has been a political decision to let the 1% keep all the productivity gains from technology. If our society had a sane approach to organizing itself, it would have, among other things, used the productivity gains to give us the shorter work week we were promised decades ago, and we actually had back before the "agricultural revolution".

RPC said...

"Nobody told the Moon it was supposed to cater to human notions of scenic grandeur, and so it presented its visitors with vistas of dull gray hillocks and empty plains beneath a flat black sky." I do have a quibble with this. Nobody in their right mind would plan a moon landing anywhere other than the most risk-free (i.e. boring) spots. Can you imagine the hullabaloo that would have ensued if NASA had lost two men just because they wanted to land them at a scenic overlook? And if you read the astronauts' memoirs, the sky was quite spectacular, though it was much easier to see through the spacecraft windows than through the gold-flashed helmet glass.

mathprof said...

Long time reader...first time poster. I teach mathematics at a community college and I am constantly telling my colleagues that we should use as little technology as possible when teaching our courses. I, in fact, think that technology can hinder the learning process to some degree. Of course the eyes begin to roll when I express my point of view...and even more so when I try to explain that we are headed to a future that has less resources (and therefore less technology) available to the masses.

I have to admit that I do own a smartphone (for about 3 years now). I used to tell my students 'I am too smart to own a smartphone'...but children finally 'convinced' me to get one. I am quite certain that I will once again be 'too smart to own a smartphone.' But for now I am like many others I suppose.

Thanks for all the very insightful writing...I look forward to it each week.


Michael McG said...

JMG - desiring more than a weekly fix of your fine analysis I've just picked up two of your books at a local store. 1. A history of the end of time. 2. The element encyclopedia of secret societies. This purchase cleared out most your stock at the location but may keep me busy for a week or so. Cheers! Michael

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Speaking of the US space program, I am curious about how far this will go:

It obviously won't help your already troubled economy, much less have great popular support, so I'm just curious what will happen to it.

Myriad said...

During my lifetime, the optimism of some SF, especially of the Space Opera subgenre, has always seemed to me to be qualified and balanced by a panoply of darker visions. Sure, I grew up with Star Trek, but the SF novels I was reading at the same time rarely presented comparably rosy futures. At one extreme were Clarke's Childhood's End and his novelization of 2001, both consummate exemplars of the progress narrative. Each ushered humanity "to infinity and beyond" but at the cost of obsoleting human life as we know it. Childhood's Endwas the second full-length SF novel I ever read. The first was The Andromeda Strain and the third was THX-1138. Overall, a very mixed bag! Mostly, though, the advanced technology in SF novels just went wrong and killed people. Westworld was as doomed to disastrous malfunction as Jurassic Park a generation later.

Possibly, being willing to do the math insulated me from interpreting fantasies as promises. The closest to the latter I can recall is a song from a Sesame Street album from the early seventies, "Someday, Little Children," whose three verses respectively predicted "living on the moon," "people won't get sick no more," and everyone "living in peace and love." Who would be doing these? As the song says, "it might be you, little children." A regrettable but perhaps useful lesson on the importance of paying attention to qualifiers, such as when you get announcements in the mail that you might have won a sweepstakes. At around the same time, some of the early short SF stories of George R.R. Martin such as Bitterblooms, Starlady, and The Stone City were turning space travel stories into a form of existential horror, merely by taking the times and distances involved in traversing deep space (even if you did have reliable spaceships) seriously.

But the balance has indeed clearly shifted. As you don't follow television or most recent movies, you might not realize the current pervasiveness of the narrative pessimism the Hieroglyph folks are responding to. (This in no way undermines your explanations of the causes, just emphasizes the degree to which they're acting.)

In the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk was often insubordinate because Starfleet's rules, however well-meaning, were too restrictive to let him solve the problem. In the reboot Star Trek movies, Captain Kirk is often insubordinate because Starfleet has been corrupted by some evil faction or another. Instead of arriving from the depths of uncharted space, the giant space amoebas have become home-grown.

If I turn on the television to a random channel and see a scene of dirty and dissheveled (but still devastatingly attractive) young people wandering through what looks like a sheet-metal shanty-town or refugee camp, with everyone carrying slung assault weapons, it could be any of half a dozen currently running science fiction series set in ruined futures. Defiance, The 100, Revolution, Falling Skies, and The Walking Dead are the titles I can recall at the moment. (Having seen zero to two episodes of each, I find them hard to tell apart, at least until I see which flavor of mutants, aliens, or undead show up to interrupt the beleaguered heroes' inter-personal dramas.) The routine conspicuous bearing of arms puts one in mind of the old TV Westerns, but it occurs to me that in these new Westerns, most of the heroes are in the approximate situations of the natives in the Westerns of a generation or two ago, facing occupying forces of either greater numbers, superior technology, or both.

Myriad said...

As far as grim futures in YA books (and the movies based on them), The Hunger Games is the tip of the iceberg. Teens are being oppressed and enslaved and sacrificed everywhere you look.

There's even a YA Feudal Japanese Steampunk Fantasy series (beginning with Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff) that directly allegorizes oil dependence and environmental destruction. The eclectic mix of technology in the setting, which includes dirigible airships and powered Samurai armor, runs on a liquid fuel ("chi") that's made from a plant crop ("blood lotus") that poisons the soil where it grows. The pollution from the extensive cultivation and use of the fuel has made most wildlife extinct over most of the Japan-like islands of the setting. It also causes a pervasive black-lung-like disease, and has turned the sky red worldwide. Continued cultivation, in the polluted environment, requires a fertilizer ("inochi") which, unknown initially to most of the populace, is made from the bodies of murdered foreign prisoners, requiring continuous overseas wars of aggression to maintain the supply.

The rebel heroes are fighting the existing system of government, military, and industrial interests (the Shogunate and the "Lotus Guild") that maintains the blood lotus cultivation. They're not supporting a True King or trying to maintain their (already long-gone) way of life, but trying to stave off complete ecological collapse that the powers that be are too locked into their system to see or escape the inevitability of. The allegory is not subtle. The blood lotus is even, in addition to everything else, an addictive drug.

Oddly, no online review or discussion of the series I've seen has made mention of that aspect of the books. It's all "ooh, a girl who rides a griffin" and "ooh, chainsaw katanas." Either the allegory is going unnoticed, or its meaning is being simply accepted as a plausible and familiar state of affairs. It's still likely that some sort of (probably magical) Space Bats will save the day in the end (the series is in progress) but still, there it is.

Pongo said...

I grew up watching 50's and 60's horror and science fiction films on VHS thanks to my father, who was exactly the right age to have seen many of them on their original theatrical runs. You can always tell that you're watching one of those because so many of them begin in the exact same way, with stock footage of atom bombs exploding or V2 rockets taking off, followed by a solemn narrator (either Paul Frees or someone doing their best impression of him) talking about "Since the splitting of the atom blah blah blah".

At the time I was watching these (the 1990's) these movies seemed very dated not because they were optimistic about the future potential of technology, but because they always seemed to place so much unquestioned faith in the competence and good intentions of military and governmental leaders and in our system of government versus the communists. But the idea of "progress" that they also advanced still seemed blatantly self-evident at the time. The depiction of that progress seemed silly and tacky, but the idea that it was happening and would continue was obvious.

Recently I've had the opportunity to catch up with a lot of those films, movies like THE PHANTOM PLANET and ROCKETSHIP X-M, and in the past twenty years they have aged worse than they did in the forty years that passed between when they were first made and when I first saw them. Back then they were living dreams in an outdated container. Now they are dead dreams showing a world that is increasingly unrecognizable from our own.

Courer du Bois said...

JMG said: "Most of the jobs eliminated by automation, after all, used to provide gainful employment for the poor; most of the localities that are dumping grounds for toxic waste, similarly, are inhabited by people toward the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, and so on down the list of unintended consequences and technological blowback."

A case in point, we have no cable at home but we do have internet and I will watch documentaries and old tv shows on youtube. The past couple nights we have been watching 'What's My Line'. One of the things that really struck me is that apart from occupations that we still have today bouncers, police, lawyers etc is there amount of people who manufactured goods being self-employed or employed in some small business. There are baby teething ring manufacturer and a money belt maker to name the first two off the top of my head. These men and women made products on their own and sold them to shops in their town. Almost nothing like that exists anymore small industry has disappeared in the U.S. .

I was getting down on myself for about two years straight about my quality of life. My dad retired from G.M. in 1993, when he retired he made about $20 per hour. I remember going on vacations and extended hunting trips in the U.P. when I was in my teens and early twenties. Logically I know about inflation, but I never realized how bad it was until I pulled up a website that had an inflation calculator and found that, adjusted for inflation he made twice what I do now, even though I make several more dollars per hour than he did. It was a sobering epiphany.

When I get home from working at my job that pays less than what my dad made over twenty years ago, I'll go back to making my bows and arrows, a much more promising field of endeavor, it seems, than my I.T. job.


Bill Blondeau said...

Edde and JMG, I have recently realized that John D. MacDonald was the very first exposure I had to the themes of peak resource availability. Interestingly, it was in a Travis McGee novel - I think perhaps The Scarlet Ruse, but I really can't recall. Decades ago.

The presentation of ideas that would be familiar and unremarkable to readers of this blog, but were appalling back then, came in typical backhanded MacDonald fashion. At the beginning of the book, Travis McGee's friend Meyer, and economist who lives aboard a neighboring houseboat, was solemnly, and not without upset, describing an international economics conference he had just attended. At this conference, the presented theme had been that there simply would never be enough resources in the world to bring all of the people on the planet - and remember, this was written in 1973 or so - up to the standard of living enjoyed by Americans and Europeans.

Travis was shocked and skeptical; but Meyer had been persuaded by the mathematics. It was a distinctly gloomy (and of course beautifully written) scene.

Later, the two friends went water skiing with a particularly gorgeous and skilled woman... an idylllic, exultant afternoon, which came as a real carpe diem whiplash.

I was disturbed by the fictional Meyer's recounting of the perhaps fictional conference; and it was obvious even to my young boat-bum stoner self that the issue was very real. Over the years it dwindled away, but now that I recall it, that was the single event that started me on my long strange trip to wherever "here" is...

John D. MacDonald. The man was a force of natural intellect and a master storyteller. He used to flip insights out all of the time, with that perfect-pitch prose.

I'm sorry he's gone. I was lucky to have found his works when I did.

Juhana said...

@JMG: Great post, again. As more and more people live in the world where economic contraction and environmental problems are the norm and wealth accumulation exception, there is ongoing shift in a way people see the world and the future. Yet, that change shall probably be far less controlled, beneficial or articulated than many in the peak oil scene believe. My wild guess is it shall be as bad mess as all prior forced changes of world views among large populations, almost biological adaptation to the new environment.

@Bogatyr: Concerning your previous response adressed to me; I shall send some e-mail information through your own blog if coming to your adopted hometown with spare afternoon outside business as usual. What comes to the topic I tried to describe somewhat confused way in last week's comments, well... You described in your response comment what I wanted to say, but better, with fewer words and more calm tone. The volatile mix you described in your post is exactly the one I tried to talk about, and warn other European readers who believe in economic and cultural decline of our continent NOT to underestimate. Grassroots-level does matter also, outside wealthy suburbs. Being closer to events and social circumstances from where these effects rise than you probably are and not native speaker of this language, I drifted quite a lot from the main points. Thanks for describing it with less passion, as true outside observer I tried to be. And you know, in UK firms have been in temporary decline, but from around Vistula eastwards and in the France they have been steadily rising. Ask Ukrainians, east or west.

Eric S. said...

Since you’ve brought up the wild popularity of dystopian science fiction in our culture at present, and I’ve seen the theme floating around in the comments on this post a bit, I am a little curious about your attitudes towards the genre, especially how it figures into our cultural narratives. It’s not quite progress or apocalypse, and it seems rooted in some other story, one that’s definitely rooted in a sense of unease about the future. Stories like that are going viral right now, and they’re trickling more and more into real, buzz on the streets fears of the future. Robots, drones, and automated weapons, unlike the soldiers and police officers you’ve mentioned in the past, aren’t subject to mimesis and don’t change loyalties. And it’s entirely possible that some of those suites of technology could remain viable for a long time. It’s a hard image to shake: pockets of civilization living on in plastic, saccharine 21st century luxury and keeping resources flowing in from subsistence peasants in the surrounding countryside who they placate with media entertainments and propaganda, or a totalitarian government using surveillance technology to exercise complete control over information and listen in on even the most privately held conversations. One can’t help but wonder what, if any chances shapes like those have of finding a way into the coming future.

John Michael Greer said...

K-dog, exactly. Do you remember how many people yelled in outrage when I suggested that faith in progress is a religion? I rest my case.

Lewis, another of the ways that new technology at this point typically causes more problems than it solves.

Jean-Vivien, the comparison with the Fuehrerbunker seems unusually apposite! Thank you.

Scotlyn, haven't read it, but it sounds fun.

MawKernewek, it may be more interesting than it was, but it's still just an airless Nevada.

Rhisiart, thanks for the addition to my Cymraeg vocabulary!

Jason, Branson's space fantasies are a very good example of what happens when fantasies of entitlement run facefirst into the real world. I imagine him wrinkled and doddering, still saying, "Any day now..." As for Scotland, well, it's up to the Scots, as it should be; I hope they go for it, but that's as much because smaller nations are going to be much better positioned to come through the next round of crisis more or less intact -- and of course because England is going to be in dire shape as things wind down.

Phil, that makes total sense. Why should those who have been thrown under the bus cheer for the people who did the throwing?

ChemEng, that's very good news indeed. The mere fact that they're not just insisting "Oh, I'm sure they'll think of something" is heartening.

Matt, thank you.

Raven, not necessarily the same, but similar. Thanks for the book suggestion.

Andrew, funny. I have to admit that Star Trek bored me even when I watched the original series as a child.

Bill Pulliam said...

Now now everyone...

Call our deities by their proper names...

It is "Apple Watch," not "iWatch."

Don't want to offend our digital overlords, do you?

Juhana -- your ongoing theme seems to be that Europeans are a fractious violent bunch whose natural tendency is to break up into identity groups based on imagined traditions from a mythical past, and start murdering each other. I think we Americans already are quite aware of this. We've gotten dragged into your internecine wars multiple times already, and your internal squabbles have been major sources of European immigrants to North America.

Of course the more fragmented you are, the easier it will be for some future emperor to eventually overrun and conquer you.

Diana Haugh said...

It seems the Space Program is our equivalent to the Pyramids. Can you picture future generations asking why such vast resources were expended on a project that benefitted so few or none? At least the Pyramids provided the builders' descendants with an income generating tourist economy. I'm afraid NASA will not leave much to see five millennia from now.
Speaking of the small things, For Sale signs have recently sprouted, two or three in each block in all the nice, middle class neighborhoods around here. Something must be afoot for there to be so very many.
As for our dystopian zeitgeist, it very much reminds me of the emotions of the world in 1913 and early 1914 when many talked about not being able to bear the strain of the coming cataclysm that everyone could feel approaching. Taylor writes about about how people wept in relief and embraced strangers on the street when the Great War finally broke loose. Few realized that rather than the longed for release the War would result in the death of so many millions.

Ray Wharton said...

If the priesthood of Progress is trying to revitalize the faith with such cheap propaganda it is only reaching to the converted. Not that bad as far as the religion goes.

The missionaries it sends to the colonies are much more twisted, and let us leave talk of the crusades to a later era; it is hard to speak the truth of that which is too close.

I have been thinking about the myth of progress recently, the old Church of Progress hung its hat on the emphasis of Technological and Economic progress. Rarely anymore do I meet people willing to admit membership in the old Church. The New Denomination which believes in Social and Spiritual progress however is painfully common.

These mental and spiritual blinders are as real as the physical and economic blinders; indeed the superstitions are as onerous to the day to day tasks of living right with Gaia Mari as the problems currently caused by the poor economy and physically wrecked domain.

A household I frequent has fallen apart, millennials breaking leases, not talking, following individual self interest. Nice kids, some of the best. Entitlement and brittle egos indeed.

Another friend faces jail time for a long ago legal issue resurfaced, the poor guy listened to his public defenders advice.

The landholder of the property I garden was deeply hurt to see a homeless youth at one of our cities many free puplic festivals flying a sign that reads 'more peace, less police.' "Why can't he just cooperate with society, instead of resisting" she wonders. I haven't found the heart to confront the difference in how the police treat land holders and home-bums with her.

Among the people listed (and in the last week alone I could fill out a dozen more examples of the same kind) there are resources, tools, funds, man power, and skills enough to make major gains in primary economics, and replace alot of fuel needs and produce a jolly lot of good food. But the Superstitions of our time prevent that. It makes me understand the antagonism of great spiritualists past against their era's superstitions. I suppose most eras so cursed must have been frustrating to those who see that insanity.

Poor weather has kept me in a coffee shop this week mostly. My time is spent making stories and games that I hope will provoke more thoughtful responses to the times than what is happening.

Moshe Braner said...

Mathprof: owning a smartphone is not the same as being owned by one. Depends how you use it. I was a long-time holdout, but now have one. It's handy for special occasions or emergencies. And being a "smart" phone I can do other things with it besides communications, e.g., help tune a musical instrument, display a street map (offline!), etc.

With the right service plan it's cheap ($3/month for me), and the phone itself was only $40 because it was used and two years old when I bought it, i.e., "obsolete". 99% of the time I have it in "airplane mode", i.e., I will not let it take over my life, I prefer being out of reach at times.

I find the "airplane mode on" nomenclature revealing: it should be called "cellphone service off" mode. But the way they label it, they're sending two messages to us "consumers": (1) Thou shalt always keep this thing communicating, except where forbidden, and (2) Thou shalt do you share of airliner riding.

But, as I keep reminding some of my associates, never trust your life to a "gizmo". I was recently telling a neighbor how I once got semi-lost in the woods near our houses as it was snowing and getting dark, and since then made sure to carry a compass (and a small flashlight) in my coat pocket. Her response was to show me her smartphone and say "I just carry this".

wolfvanzandt said...

I guess that the "grass is greener" myth is the motivation that propelled humanity out of Africa all those many thousands of years ago and I'm sure they fell out of that cradle and said to themselves, "what possessed me to do this?" I've recently read Mortimer Adler's Great Thoughts from the Great Books (mid 20th Century) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man. Adler was wondering what man would do with all the leisure time that would be on people's plate in the future when machines took over all the manual work and Chardin's song was all about the irrevocable progress forward of mankind driven by the unstoppable laws of evolution. I wonder what they would say today.

I am constantly disappointed that humanity can't seem to see that positive progress isn't entailed by scientific advancement and technological achievement but by maturity of the relationships between individuals. The greatest achievements of humanity that can be visualized is not colonies in space but people living together, here, in peace. If we would stop with the flight to the stars for a moment in history and strive for the inner flight, we would see real progress.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Gu-Ran, your observation about the opening paragraphs of engineering research papers and grant proposals rang a tiny bell. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, authors often prefaced books with a fawning address to some nobleman or ruler, saying that the toff was the inspiration for the work and hoping that he would like it. IIRC, Shakespeare's sonnet cycle starts with a short example.

The convention tells something about who and what is important to that society.

Kaitain said...

JMG and Shane,

I have observed the same thing as well. There are an awful lot of people who are glued to their electronic gadgets and not just millennials either. But there are also a surprisingly large number of young people who are into organic gardening, DIY and that sort of thing as well. The still like their gadgets, but understand that things are changing and that they need to make preparations for the Long Descent, even if they don’t consciously understand what is happening and why. The fact that so many young people are being dumped face first into the downside of Hubbert’s Peak is acting as a wake up call for many. Its people like that which give me hope for the future. As for the rest, well, that’s one of the ways Darwinian selection and bottleneck events work. It’s both sobering and scary as hell, but there it is. That train left the station long ago and its barreling down the tracks with no brakes heading for a washed out bridge…

Among my neighbors are a young couple with a three year old son who live right down the street. They are both devout Christians and are also avid organic gardeners who are making the effort to learn traditional crafts like sewing, canning and woodworking. While they are socially and politically conservative, they are also involved in the anti-GMO and anti-globalization movements. Indeed some of the most dedicated anti-GMO and anti-globalization activists I have ever met are conservative, even traditionalist Christians. Likewise, I have often had greater success discussing issues like Peak Oil and the Long Descent with conservative Christians and Jews than with supposedly “progressive” liberals and leftists.

Speaking of this and the new religious sensibility that was discussed late last year, I recently met a young lady at my favorite locally owned and operated coffee shop. She is a devout Christian, but she also feels very strongly that our society’s insane ideology of growth and development at all costs and the wholesale ecological destruction that has been the result is an act of sacrilege against God. She asks; why would we so wantonly and selfishly destroy God’s beautiful creations and replace them with a bunch of cheap plastic junk, ugly strip malls and suburban McHouses that look like they all got stamped from the same cookie cutter? I think I can already see some early signs of how the Abrahamic religions will adapt to the emerging religious sensibility, and I think a few of the posters from last weeks essay made the same point as well.

jean-vivien said...

@Myriad :
The Sesame Street's song might have used modal verbs in an ironical fashion (even back in the 79s). Yet nowadays everytime I check Ray Kurzweil's futurism website, I can find at least one occurence of the verb Could in every header of every piece of news. When you first find about the website, and you can see it updated more than twice a week with everending news stories about such and such discoveries... But after a while, the pattern becomes pretty clear : it is just a bunch of experimental results that happen to work for a very specific effect in a very specific environment... There is never any thought about how it actually Could streamline onto the economy. When you deal with theoretical science, that is understandable. But with technology... In Ray Kurzweil's world, there is seldom any reflecting on economics, or with the politics of who will get access to what technology. There were some pieces of news about Ebola, which probably go to show how serious of an issue it is.
The use of the verb "Could" is part of the incantation. This word is the link between the almost imaginary/dreamlike world of nano/bio-tech labs and the real world. It is the equivalent of the phrases "forecast", "innovation", "futures" and "potential" in the world of economics. I guess a pretty simple counterspell would be the word "actually", but its emotional payload is generally harder to digest.

Now as for science-fiction's mythos, there is a political dimension to technology : SF stories of the 50's are mostly, if I remember well, about specially trained personnel or scientists using their technology to travel across space or to perform other miracles. There is little consideration of how the technology will change the social dynamics, or how it will be spread across a wider population. That hidden agenda of taking technicalities away from people's grasp probably emanates from the glorification of scientists, and it has been pretty succesfully implemented. A few examples of the obvious : cars you can no longer repair yourself, thanks to embedded electronics and careful specialization of every model's tiny plastic bit's shape... Frozen food, almost 10 US dollars here in Paris for takeaway pasta in a box ! Yeah, boiling pasta is even above the average French executive's culinary skills or time available nowadays.
From this standpoint, we now have the opportunity to reclaim all the tech that has gone out of our hands. It will involve a lot of human labour... My parents regularly point to me that when they were young, they had access to a lot of small jobs but that few of the young people nowadays would be willing to take them. But I want to reclaim the right to know how to make fermented foods, etc ! So there will be a lot of technologies in my life, technologies I participate i rather than suffer from.

That reclaiming will be varyingly agressive as times exert varingly strong pressures on people's abilities to feed themselves.
I suspect the decomplexification and reappropriation of tool mastery will turn into one of the hot buttons of politics and cultural change. The repartition of rarefying needs for human labour thanks to rampant automatization is already the biggest challenge we face right now, in times of affluence of the rich Western nations. Redefining what effort/work means will be a bottleneck in our overall adaptation to future circumstances. How fast and accurately we can redefine those concepts could very well determine how fast and safely we adapt to future circumstances.

Random Man said...

Computer generated imagery had the effect of making it seem that progress was still occurring, and, ultimately, it allows the human imagination to simply create whatever it wants on the screen, without any of these things existing in real life.

The classic example is now Jurassic Park (1993), and from there it has been downhill. Remember, in that movie, CGI is used to create images of dinosaurs, the dinosaurs in the movie supposedly conjured from genetic engineering. A fake of a fake! Made to seem possible. Ingenious. I was 12 at the time. I ask everybody here: where is the real dinosaur theme park? It doesn't exist and never will.

Now, movies and video games are completely divorced from reality altogether.

William Lucas said...

Nice one, Gil Scott-Heron was a recent discovery of mine. Your 'little green pieces of green tape' is priceless. You ought to market them in a combo pack together with rose-colored spectacles-shaped plastic bits too.

I really like the term 'increasing risk of whole system disruption'. On an individual level, I think that I can apply this caveat to my own life. I see that Cherokee mentions that "accepting limits is a form of freedom" so I'm going to go back to the comments to follow up that thread.


Nathaniel Ott said...

I've known Star Trek and Star Wars were impossible since I started learning about physics and thermodynamics. But it was when I realized that the ISS cost over 100 billion dollars just for a few scientists to float around in low earth orbit and wasn't even close to self sustainable, that I realized even the idea of millions of people living on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system was just as impossible, albeit for different reasons. Over population is already a problem here on our home planet and were talking about colonizing places where the effective population cap is basically zero?!

Not that we couldn't mabye teraform the place but considering man made climate change on earth and comparing to Mars, any realistic effort would take several thousand years at least, several million years is probably more reasonable. Either way its still much faster than nature, but either way its still too long for human patience to wait or likely even to attempt the thing in the first place. We barely care what happens a 100 years from now, I doubt we'll care what will happen in a 100,000. Also considering Mars is already worse off than Earth would be after a global nuclear war, the whole "escape to Mars" trope, feels pretty old.

We probably could have had several thousand scientists (and teleoperated robots) across the solar system doing some very useful research. But even that would have required a lot of technological and scientific advancement in multiple fields and a massive price reduction. Also it would probably still be more money than major governments and corporations have traditionally been willing to pay in the name of science. I find hilarious that people say wit such conviction that these things the elites are talking about are just around the corner. As if they've already happens. Completely forgetting or willfully ignoring the fact theater much the same things were promissed to themm and decades ago, and here in 2014... still waiting for that Mars ticket. Never undervalue the power of a dream I suppose.


Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@MathProf--I'm interested in mathematics but did not inherit my father's natural abilities in that subject. In many intellectual subjects, I grasp the patterns and principles intuitively, and plug details into that framework. If the teacher doesn't point out the pattern, I'll generalize from whatever data the course provides to get to an overall understanding.

In mathematics, once I got past plane geometry, I was unable to do this. By working hard enough, I could learn the procedures, but even after solving a problem, I didn't understand what I had done. I had difficulty in visualizing the process and the result, in understanding how and why each successive step led to the solution. I often didn't understand what the solution _meant_.

To generalize beyond the problem to the next proof or problem, as real mathematicians do, was quite beyond me.

I think that for a person with my limitations, which have to do not with raw IQ but something about how I think, 3-D animations of the kind that can be easily created on a personal computer would be an aid in understanding quadratic equations, solid geometry, trig, calculus, topology, statistics, and perhaps number theory. (To say nothing of celestial mechanics).

I presume that people with mathematical minds do this in their heads and don't need visual aids.

Ed-M said...


106 comments already. This is proving to be a most popular post!

It's an excellent post. When you discussed how further technologies led to disruption of wider systems, I couldn't help but think of how fracking is being very disruptive of natural systems, and soon to be financial "systems" (altho' I call those jerry-rigged schemes).

I wonder when the people who insist on infinite technological progress will show up, hahaha!


Hey I couldn't get back to you last week. I was reading the ADR on my i-phone and after 175 or so posts a glitch occurs and I find myself unable to post.

Anyway, the reason for my short two-sentence post directed at you was that the two posts that you posted prior thereto read very much as if you wanted the demise of Western civilization and the end of feminism and "open homosexuality" (i.e., we LGBT people being forthright and honest about ourselves). Such a death would open up half of Eurasia to vicious, vicious interreligious wars and there is no guarantee that the new fundamental Christian / Volkish pagan culture would be able to withstand the Islamic Jihadist onslaught, especially when you throw climate change into the mix.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender0

@Diana Haugh--The plethora of For Sale signs on houses in nice neighborhoods probably means that the housing prices in those neighborhoods have recovered to the level they were at before the housing bubble burst.

People who bought those houses at or near the top of the market have been waiting to sell until they could get all their money back, and now they can.

You can verify this by talking to a local real estate agent or looking up a graph of median single family home prices in your area between 200 and 2014.

Cathy McGuire said...

Wow! As this blog gets more popular, I fall farther behind in reading the comments! There were 6 when I looked this morning, and 106 now... ;-)

Another great summing up - I've always had trouble reading scifi that had "an agenda", versus presenting good characters in a strong situation, so I haven't read a lot of it lately. But it makes sense that those in love with high tech would seek to "protect" it from criticism pointing out the harm it's doing.

@JMG: We may be wealthier in theory than people a century ago, but we have far more expenses to meet with that wealth than they did; in effect, therefore, we're poorer.
That’s the line they’re taking over at Wall Street Journal, about the “poor” families that only make $400k/year. ;-)

@LewisLucan: Not a week goes by that some aspect of my life doesn't seem to be negatively impacted by some bit of shoddy technology. What gets me is that it seems your just supposed to shrug it off. Find a patch or a work around or just accept that whatever it is hasn't delivered on it's promise. All of which takes a lot of time and energy on my part.
Yup. Me too – I just got off the phone from the insurance company that had’t gotten the electronic request for a medical test two weeks ago, therefore hasn’t started processing it. I picked up chart notes yesterday that had 3 pages missing – I feel like I’m doing all their work, and not getting paid for it! Like the on-grid renewables, I should be able to charge back for my time! ;-)

Rene said...


An offshoot thought/question from this current series (and all the columns you've written over the last couple of years. Given the increasingly dire reports from IPCC and the World Meteor0logical Organization (, have you given any thought to your timeline for decline and/or climate catastrophe? It seems as though we are furether along the curve than most had suspected. Also, as a retired public health professional, O do agree with your assessment about the possibilities for an Ebola outbreak.

exiledbear said...

You could make the argument too that we haven't really gotten that much new tech in a while now.

Sure we've gotten new gizmos, as JMG puts it, but based on revolutionary new tech? The basics of the computer were worked out in the late 70s - everything since has just been economics, not tech. You could make the argument that the smartphones are just the logical conclusion to the computer trend that started way back then. The basics of the internet were worked out in the late 80s and early 90s. Everything since has just been economics for the most part, just making it cheap enough to get to everyone who wants it.

We've seen some improvements in battery tech, but they're not that impressive. My electric assist system on my bike has an effective range of 25 miles, and to fill its "tank" takes 5-6 hours. If I had to take a really long trip (100+ miles), I'd just take all that off and use my legs and feet to power it.

A similar fossil fuel moped system has 3x power in the same space and takes seconds to refill. That is, while there's available and affordable gasoline anyway.

In some ways, you could argue we're going backwards. Electric cars, the basics of those were worked out early last *century*, and we're only seeing economics at play, not tech, not really. But Tesla is being trumpeted as the cutting edge of the future.

I suppose materials in general are somewhat better, but nothing revolutionary. With bicycles there's the carbon fiber option, for instance, but most bikes are still made out of aluminum and steel. Even carbon fiber has been around for a while, it's just economics to get it in the hands of more cyclists. They're still fabricated pretty much the way they've always been.

Look around you, I see pretty much the same old world that the 20th century had, just refined in certain places and absolutely rotting apart from neglect in others.

I dunno. Even if we weren't facing expensive energy inputs, I think the system would grind to a halt like it is doing, just because the way society is configured can't really support any further technological advancement without tearing itself apart. One way or another, if humanity wants to go forward, it'll have to go back first.

If there's going to be a next tech revolution, I think it'll probably be people rearranging DNA, not someone building a new thingamajiggit.

Greg Belvedere said...

Great blog. I recently went searching for and reread a blog you wrote that dealt with the biosphere dividend. So, this subject has been on my mind lately. The law of diminishing returns has also come up when I try to explain why we can't get enough rare earth metals for all our gadgets and renewables. Someone told me not to worry because they are not rare, just incredibly diffuse. Of course, I compared this to getting rich by extracting gold from seawater. A good example of people trying to create technical solutions while ignoring basic economics.

I have always found Star Trek intolerably boring. I don't consume a lot of popular media (weening myself off), but I rather enjoyed the first few seasons of the Doctor Who reboot. Some people find it too unbelievable, but I don't find any sci-fi very convincing. I always find myself thinking about things like time dilation etc. So for me the show really hangs a lamp shade on some common sci-fi tropes. An unintentionally amusing send up of the myth of progress.

I really enjoy the Gil Scot Heron reference. I have been trying to boil down the way I feel about some of the statements made by the singularity folks and this really hits the mark. The only thing I have heard that comes close is these lines from Bob Marley and The Wailers "So Much Trouble In the World"

You see men sailing on their ego trip,
Blast off on their spaceship,
Million miles from reality:
No care for you, no care for me......

So you think you've found the solution,
But it's just another illusion!

John Michael Greer said...

Don, I did indeed. It was a brilliant and frankly necessary book, and I'd appreciate it if every one of my readers were to go out, buy a copy, and stuff it sideways down the throat of the next person who says that we can achieve anything we want if we just believe hard enough!

YJV, I suspect when the bottom falls out of the fracking boom and the next rounds of massive layoffs hit, a lot of millennials are going to have to learn to get used to an absence of gizmos a lot faster than they expect.

MP, thanks for the link! David Hughes is one of the sharpest knives in the peak oil drawer; if the media in general has started listening to him, that's a very good sign.

Eric, thanks for the video! Am I the only person, I wonder, who sees the resemblance to a fundamentalist preacher begging Jesus to hurry up with the Rapture?

Donalfagan, the comments are heartening, but I do wish somebody in the media would respond to Ackerman's sort of pablum by asking, "But haven't people been saying exactly this for years, with zero effect on our situation?"

RPC, good point. Me, I'd rather build the Heathkit.

Kyoto, the question to my mind is whether it'll be forgotten, or whether it'll be turned into a detail in a mythic narrative about how the ancients transgressed the limits under which humanity must live, and were duly punished...

Zoidion, hmm! How do your results compare to those of the official forecasts?

Patricia, thank you. I hadn't heard that dengue is becoming pervasive in Japan -- ouch. Especially since, where dengue goes, yellow fever and malaria are likely to follow...

Phil, they should indeed have done so.

Joe, life imitates fiction -- I invented an Oklahoma Independence Party as a stage property for Twilight's Last Gleaming.

NR-Cole, exactly. Cornucopian fantasies are cornucopian fantasies, no matter what kind of technological excuse undergirds them, and I expect all sorts of hissy fits before believers in the green end of those fantasies finally stop pretending.

. josé . said...

Funny Gil Scott-Heron should be mentioned in this week's post. Just last week, a friend shared a video on Facebook, and I commented that he reminded me of Gil. As it happens, I was thinking "The Revolution will not be Televised" and "B Movie", but Whitey on the Moon works too.
I'm not sure which link works better.

Lots of great quotes here. One I took the effort to write down:
"Technology has given us everything we could ever want,
and at the same time,
stolen everything we really need."

John Michael Greer said...

Dltrammel, the fascinating thing is that what this guy is suggesting is that we do as the Romans did, and hollow out our economy and nation to keep a rigid military shell around the void. Funny, in a bleak sort of way.

DaShui, I'm sure they'll think of something.

Escape, fascinating. Thiel is a capable practitioner of the fine art of insisting that when what we do isn't working, doing even more of it is the only possible response. Many thanks for both links!

Thrig, happy bailing. An astonishingly large fraction of the basic experiments that undergird whole sections of modern science have turned out to be impossible to replicate...

Bear, I've always figured that about the time the first broadcast of "My Mother the Car" reached the listening station on Proxima Centauri, this entire solar system got redlined on the AAA (Alien Astronautical Association) maps, with a warning telling everyone to stay away!

Stunned, thank you and I'm delighted to receive it. The one favor I'd like to ask is that you use it wherever you feel it's appropriate, to get the meme in circulation!

Dammerung, you're missing the other side of the equation. Technology doesn't just produce wealth; it also produces costs and burdens, and those are also unequally distributed. Would you be happy if you were to get your fair share of technological unemployment, toxic waste in your water and air, and so on? That's also an essential part of the question, you know.

William, I well remember Gamma World! If your kids are playing that eagerly, there's some hope for their generation. ;-)

Violet, excellent. That just earned you tonight's gold star. Exactly; when the proponents of science and technology are saying "You gotta believe!" and an archdruid is saying "Come on, guys, can we talk about the real world for a change?" -- well, all I can say is that something has gotten very far out of joint.

Moshe, I hope they do indeed go south. In an American sense, of course! As for the 1%, well, how eager are you to accept your fair share of the costs of technology, which are currently shoved off on the poor? As I noted to Dammerung, that also has to be included in the discussion.

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, even the less boring spots are boring compared to the romantic vistas of the Chesley Bonestell era. Spend some time chasing down old images of the Moon sometime!

Mathprof, I think you're definitely on to something. You learn much more by drawing geometrical constructions by hand than you do by generating them on a screen -- I've done both, and taught people to do both, so I can speak from experience here. The human brain is not used to disembodied images disconnected from physical movement, and doesn't process them as well -- at least that's my impression.

Michael, glad to hear it, and thank you!

Ursachi, good question. It might just possibly manage a few launches, but I wouldn't advise betting on it.

Myriad, science fiction used to explore difficult futures all the time. Many of the classic SF stories of the genre's golden age have nothing in common with the sort of airbrushed optimism Project Hieroglyph is trying to promote. I'm glad to hear that that's still the case -- it'll give young readers useful metaphors for the future that their parents' and grandparents' generations are bequeathing to them.

Pongo, fascinating. I haven't seen any of those since I stopped watching Saturday afternoon creature features on TV in my misspent childhood. You've piqued my interest -- I wonder how bizarre I'd find them now.

Courer, a bowyer's work is indeed a good deal more sensible right now, and will likely be much more so as things proceed. Keep at it.

Bill, that's fascinating. I'm not much of a mystery-fiction fan, so haven't read much MacDonald; it's good to hear that he was that far on top of things.

Juhana, well, you know where I stand on that question. The decline and fall of a civilization and the coming of a new dark age is not a controlled, beneficial, or articulated process.

Eric, actually, drones change loyalties all the time -- check out the one that defected to Iran a while back. All you have to do is hack the radio controls! I'll be addressing all this as we proceed; as so often, fears about the future are veiled discussions of the present, while the future itself is going its own way.

Bill, hah. As for Juhana's predictions, well, yes -- it seems quite probable that Europe will descend into internecine ethnic and religious warfare, thus simplifying things for whomever decides to conquer it next.

John Michael Greer said...

Diana, I've also been thinking about the accounts I've read of the last year or so before the First World War, the rising sense of tension that produced frantic relief once war came. It does seem eerily familiar, doesn't it? As for the for sale signs, remind me where you live.

Ray, I wonder what it's going to take to get people to give up the fantasy that things have to get better in one way or another. That's far from a universal human belief; it's the specific fetish of industrial humanity, and it's been a fertile source of misery and failure. Social and spiritual progress, to my mind, is just as much of a delusion as any other; the world is what it is, and if you want it to change, you must change it yourself -- and there's no guarantee you will succeed, either. Once we get back to that realization, it might just be possible to accomplish something, but until then...

Wolf, only because we've neglected that sphere for so long that there's a certain amount of low-hanging fruit. What if we start instead from the recognition that the universe is under no obligation to give us a better anything?

Kaitain, I've had conversations with devout Christians who are deep into the new sensibility; there just aren't many of them yet. That's one of the reasons I say that the question of which religious forms will be central in dark age America hasn't yet been settled.

Random Man, true enough -- and that means that much of what stocks the nonrational part of people's heads, the part that determines their tastes and feelings and unthinking assumptions, is as delusory as any lunatic's ravings.

Hadashi, glad to hear it!

Nathaniel, that's brilliant -- "Mars is already worse off than Earth would be after a global nuclear war." I don't often give out two gold stars in a night, but that's worth one.

Ed-M, I've been wondering about that too. I had one half-coherent denunciation last night, but the cornucopian trolls have otherwise been noticeable by their absence so far.

Cathy, only $400K a year -- oh, how they must be suffering! ;-)

Rene, I've assumed all along -- based on paleoclimatic analogues -- that we'd get disruptive climate change much faster than the IPCC estimates suggested. Thus my timetable remains in place -- if anything, I'm surprised that things are still moving so slowly on the climate front.

Bear, excellent! I forget who it was that showed, via hard facts and figures, that the peak rate of technological innovation was in the 1890s, and we've actually been slowing down ever since.

John Michael Greer said...

Greg, a quote from Bob Marley is no small matter. Thank you for that!

Jose, an interesting coincidence. A lot of things from that era seem to be stirring...

onething said...

Unintended consequences,

Well, as of half a year or so ago, we're required to carry cell phones upon our persons, and funnily enough, just a couple weeks later the local Sunday paper carried an article about cell phones and other devices, advising not to let children have them, and not to carry them near your vital organs, specifically cautioning women not to carry cell phones on their breasts, which is exactly where many women put them as it is quite convenient. For a while I was the lone nut, telling this to my coworkers, but recently a nurse practitioner who takes an interest in breast cancer, spoke to some of the women I work with and said the same thing. As for children, not only are they young and growing, their skulls are thinner.

And here's an interesting teeny tiny thing. I just got back from visiting my two-year-old grandson, to whom I brought a set of wonderful old wooden puzzles of high quality that they don't make anymore (It's not just that I like saving money in thrift stores, it's like a treasure hunt of unexpected bonanzas like puzzles from my childhood that you can't find anyway.). This child was born with a couple of the 7 deadly sins, and becomes frustrated easily. Pudgy little hands try to put the piece in place but it has to line up exactly, and if you try to push it hard when it isn't lined up it only gets skewed, then the little guy decides it wasn't the right piece after all. His mom tells me that his tiny game device has a matching the shapes game, but you know on computers, once you get your thingie rather close, it snaps in place electronically. And I thought, what a difference the real world makes.

latheChuck said...

An update on the current space-weather situation, from NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center:

"We don't expect any unmanageable impacts to national infrastructure from these solar events at this time, but we are watching these events closely."

Isn't that a relief? He makes "unmanageable impacts to national infrastructure" sounds like a bad thing.

(By the way, I use the term "solar flare" loosely, to include both the prompt X-ray radiation which arrives (of course) at the speed of light and impairs HF communication, and the Coronal Mass Ejection (charged particles) which arrives a few days later to put national infrastructure at risk of unmanageable impacts.

I think I'll be putting the computer down cold tonight.

Nathaniel Ott said...

@JMG it is funny that most people would agree they wouldn't want to live on a post nuclear Earth if they didn't have to, but enter Mars and despite already being worse in multiple ways(lack of breathable air just to name one) suddenly they're all "It's our destiny!" Again, power of a dream seems to be able to cloud the judgment of even obviously smart people. Also, thanks for the gold star! Never thought I'd get one, just so you know I just did a "raise the roof" in my apartment.


Tom Bannister said...

Hi Again

Granted this article was written a couple of years ago and I know you've already commented on Niall Ferguson. Still though, he's a mainstream respected historian who's saying "don't believe the techno hype":

onething said...

JMG, you said,

"Tortoise, the maintenance cost of every society's infrastructure rises faster than the production of wealth by that society."

Must it be so? Or is it greed and destructiveness that brings people down? I imagine a nice, sedate old city with a stone bridge over an Old European river, the cathedrals built a thousand years ago...each one seems like an investment that produces dividends down the years.

Juhana said...

@Bill and JMG: Well, I think there are many strengths and areas of knowledge here also. Infrastructure is good, rail-based. Memory how to adapt to pre-industrial living in any given environment is not that far away. With radical re-localization programs, by trying to revitalize local small scale workshops, agriculture and community works there would be a lot positive things to help people get through hard times. At individual level that is happening, but institutional level is not only passive towards this trend, it tries to pull the cart to other direction. Localization would demand giving up these grandiose dreams about being "soft superpower" a la European Union. What a bureaucratic monstrosity that thing has become, like some some Lovecraftian monster born out of originally bright dreams.

It stands on the clay legs, and also from my point of view accelerates dysfunctional political habits among European elites. Now this "looking into great distances"-policy is backlashing, as little people and local communities which could be springboard for more controlled localization in near future, feel abandoned and abused by big politics. People are turning for whatever they have, and what we have no shortage here are local, strong and unfortunately often sectarian identities. Irony of history is that as elites of EU are concerned with Great Game in the east, troubles are brewing right on their own houses.

Is the path I described only possible one? No. Is probability of that kind of situation rising with current political decision non-making and EU's empire-dreaming? Yes.

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, I won't own one of the things. As for puzzles, yes, that's one of the reasons learning to manipulate physical matter is a good thing -- you learn that close isn't good enough.

LatheChuck, that sounds like a very good idea. I've been hoping for a break in the clouds to the north, on the off chance that we get aurora action this far south.

Nate, when people start going off about how living on Mars will be so exciting, I tell them that they can get most of the same thrill by moving into a mobile home in northwestern Nevada and staying there for a couple of years. Somehow they don't seem too delighted by the thought.

Tom, I've noted more than once that Ferguson is perhaps the most uneven of our current historians; sometimes he's clueless, sometimes he's spot on. This time he's spot on. Thanks for the link!

Onething, the trick there is that you have to stop. Don't build a new cathedral every twenty years, or a new stone bridge every fifty. Figure out what you can afford to maintain, and don't build anything beyond that. It's just that so few societies can stand that kind of stasis.

Juhana, Bill and I are responding to your comments about ethnic identity and tribalism. Rail connections and the other advantages Europe might otherwise have mean nothing if everyone's fighting to the death along ethnic and religious lines. I think you're quite right that this may well be what happens in Europe, but it's worth recalling what typically happens in history to regions that get caught up in internecine warfare: someone else conquers them. Just a thought...

steve pearson said...

Just some random thoughts on the gizmos: they are just tools. I have a cell phone & use it probably 2 or 3 times per day; I have a computer and am sitting at it now.I survived perfectly well without these things and can again when they are gone if I'm still alive.
I suppose that is a bit disingenuous; the whole world has become so dependent on them that it will be a rough road down. try to check out of a supermarket with 4 items if the system is down; the clerk can't add the numbers.I don't think the register will even open.
I'm not sure I'm making any sense, but it feels that these are just tools to use while they are here and when they are gone, they are gone. Perhaps like you can have a chainsaw and not cut down every tree you see, or a gun and not shoot everything.
I suppose the problem is individually and collectively becoming dependent on them to the point that the modern world will crash without them.I'm not sure the impact will be that different for you if you personally have said devils device, or not. I'm sure we shall soon find out.
You know what they say; " if all you have is hammer, the whole world looks like a nail"
Cheers, Steve

Redneck Girl said...

A bit off topic if you'll allow JMG but:

@ Ray, do you have the Backwoodsman magazine where you're at? When you mentioned your bicycle vardo and sharpening tools for a living I thought of Gypsy tinkers. Perhaps you ought to learn how to mend pots as well? ;D The magazine also had an article on crafting pewter dishes with simple tools. (And you might consider a false floor in your vardo to hide essential tools.)

Also that magazine has a lot of simple, very old fashioned kinds of projects, (a candle lantern for one in this issue), that just about anyone could use as well as some newer ones like a small portable rocket stove for cooking (for another). Along with all kinds of advice for living off the land as they did during the 1930s.

Using what some call junk to make objects of worth in a resource diminished world, isn't that much like what a successful ruin man does?


Redneck Girl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YJV said...

The sooner the better in my opinion - as you said, those that learn to adapt are those that will survive. I myself am thinking of how I can use my technical knowledge to help re-engineer the failed high-energy-consuming infrastructure of the future. Everyone my age who is aware of this should be thinking of ways to keep themselves as practically valuable as possible.


Scotlyn said...

Re the cornucopia scene, let's just say there were sandwiches... Lots of them....

Just want to say I've dived into this blog for the past week and I feel like I just woke up. My take is: it's not getting better, the cavalry aren't coming, get over it. Now, there's work to be done.

I've woken every morning this week with the awareness, there's work to do... And that provides an energy that sustains a whole day's productive effort.

Wizzrobes said...

I hate to say it, but many in my generation still seem to have a hopeless faith in technofixes (I'm 24.) For example I recall a conversation I had with someone around my age a couple years back. We exchanged pleasantries and it eventually got into a discussion of what our life goals were and our passions. His was artificial intelligence. He then went almost immediately to list out a litany of benefits unprompted to artificial intelligence. One of them was regulation of the stock market. He said with a future artificial intelligence system, it could better detect and regulate the stock market to a point preventing a crash like what occurred in 2008. It never once occurred to him that the problem with the stock market wasn't a lack of competent regulators, it was the fact the rules allowed such risky behavior that caused the crash to begin with! Same spiel with him regarding any social ill. Abusive police officers? Just stick a camera in the back of your car! Poverty? Just give the poor a 3D printer (really...). What was extra odd about that guy was he seemed to have no interest in going to a university, despite having an advanced degree is a necessity to get into those fields. In fact he seemed to live in pretty deprived conditions, living in a dump in Arkansas. This techno optimism seem to fill an almost religious utopianism role for him, rather than just a misguided sociological impulse. He's not the only one like this. You can take sometime and peruse the subreddit /r/futurology and you'll find a crowd of mostly millennials going on and on about some glorious robot future, singularity, yadda yadda.

On the flipside, there's certainly a lot of millennials who want to move beyond such thinking. Lots of us are rediscovering the joy of actual physical interaction! Physical meetups and organized activities are making a comeback. Though even then you get some "futurist" who says the solution to social isolation is creating more virtual realities, rather than just uh, getting people to do things together.

Cherokee Organics said...


I'm not sure that you have a business card, but that reply would make a great slogan! hehe!

Please don't get a big ego, but you're good: Worrying trend of older couples dying together

It is a common response of our society to respond to complex situations with calls for further funding and even greater complexity. Doesn't make sense to me at all.

It is the little things that interest me too. I noticed in the past few days that they have announced that this will be the final year of Australia's open garden scheme (having operated for a few decades). It was announced with very little fanfare. I know someone who opened their garden under that scheme and the scheme administration itself took 66% of all entry takings for the two days that they opened their garden. The remaining 34% was donated to the local primary school.

Hi Shane,

Very nicely spoken. Not everyone is distracted by the latest trinkets and I'm glad to hear that you are amongst those that aren't.

Hi Hadashi,

Accepting limits really is freeing. It is just counter to the prevailing culture and so it takes a bit of effort to resist. There are certainly advantages to be had for those that join in to the prevailing culture too.



Phil Knight said...

When it comes to internecine warfare, what I find most intriguing is that every single British poster on here seems to unconsciously assume that the last battle on British soil, Culloden, really was the last battle on British soil.

Not only do I suspect that not to be the case, I suspect it may well turn out not to have been the last battle between England and Scotland. I'm amazed how people seem to have forgotten that one of the primary purposes of the Union was to ward these two antithetical nations away from their compulsive inclination to fight each other.

I can think of no greater example of the belief in progress than the unquestioned assumption that the peoples of the British Isles have put their old violent means of expressing their mutual hostility long behind them.

Bill Pulliam said...

Did someone write an apocalypto-nonsense book or something about "Carrington Events" and "Coronal Mass Ejections" in the last couple of years? Maybe tied to the 2012 nonsense? I seem to be hearing a lot of hyped-up talk about them lately.

An "X-class" solar flare is not an especially unusual event near solar maximum. Neither is a "strong" geomagnetic storm. You've all lived through dozens and dozens of them without noticing unless you looked up into the night sky during the auroral display. And "coronal mass ejections" occur on a weekly basis around solar maximum, and a fair number of these are pointed right at dear old planet earth. This has been going on since before astronomy was invented.

So why do I hear about this stuff now in the mainstream press and the blogosphere as though it is something unusual and frightening? Be more worried about your bridges and municipal water supply, and less worried about a "Carrington Event."

Juhana -- all the local organization and self-sulficiency in the world won't help you if you are wrapped up in slaughtering your rivals. And all that infrastructure and those rail lines are easily commandeered.

Eric S. said...

"drones change loyalties all the time -- check out the one that defected to Iran a while back."

That's a very good point. A while back I was reading about the history of malware, computer viruses, and hackers and was fascinated to see that none of it featured in any of the writings of the many science fiction writers who predicted our computer culture. It just kind of started happening at first by accident, then at the hands of unscrupulous people exploiting weaknesses in the system for their own ends. Many of our technologies are a lot more rickety than either our hopes or our fears allow. When technology fails it does so in boring, anticlimactic ways. The internet doesn't become self-aware and build a race of killer robots, or enslave humanity it just lets your computer get viruses that make it crash, lets people steal your bank account numbers, or leaks your e-mail address so you get spammed with Nigerian Prince Scams and Viagra ads.

"I'll be addressing all this as we proceed; as so often, fears about the future are veiled discussions of the present, while the future itself is going its own way."

That sounds like it's going to be an interesting discussion, I'm looking forward to it.

Wizzrobes said...

Btw, since we're sharing links regarding futurism, there's a new youtube video going around titled "Humans need not apply". Thought it might be somewhat relevant to this discussion.

exiledbear said...

@JMG Come now, it doesn't snow on Mars the way it would in northern Nevada.

But thinking about the economics of the rest of the solar system - even if Mars were made of nothing but gold, would it still be economically viable to go there?

If you really want to know how the cynical economics of space works, you should watch the 2009 movie _Moon_

I think the only thing worse than no space economy would be that kind of space economy...

Juhana said...

@JMG: That is quite possible, yes. Especially in Western Europe it feels to me that upper and lower echelons of society are nowadays living in parallel dimensions, where two different realities share same physical space. When expectations and values of upper part, practically dominating media, contradict with reality in lower echelon, this "lower" reality is shrugged aside. As a result there are absurd things like current Rotherham child abuse scandal, where over 1400, mostly White working class, children were sexually abused by immigrant gang over period of decade. There seems to have been extensive cover-up by police, because they feared allegations of racism more than they wanted to protect those children. This kind of incidents, and this is trend not exception, have of course reflection in other side of the fence too, among parents and communities of those abused children. Slowly their opinions harden, and they eventually shall turn to some other facet than official police for protection. Who can really blame them? In that kind of situation everyone just have to fight for his/her own group. It's really that simple.

So I actually believe like you do that there is high probability for Western Europe to slide slowly towards vicious, low-intensity conflict between religious-ethnic blocks. Opinions and actions on both sides harden as economy continues to decline. It's not my wish, that's just the way I see world. Who is going to collect spoils of war, that's beyond my range of vision. If you believe it's going to be some outsider, maybe, but you should provide some references to back up that hunch.

You know, believing that peak oil is inescapable reality and that renewables are not going to save us makes one very unpopular person when it comes to his opinions... Believing that seeds of identity conflict are already sowed into soil of Europe is just other unpopular opinion. So should I just change my opinion about peak oil too, to avoid offending anyone's feelings, even if my opinion is based on analyzing events and evidence not in political/religious zealotry..?

I don't live in Western Europe. I do not see myself as participant in that potential future conflict. I just hope that Eastern Europe shall choose other path than Western part, for it's own sake. I I think West's destiny was forged by very bad decisions made decades ago, and now we are just seeing those decisions bearing bloom. Probably embracing market liberalism and open borders were worst of those mistakes, but these last ones are just value-based opinion of mine.

I didn't mean to offend anyone with observation about tomorrow's conflicts on display through today's hooliganism. I have no political wish for that observation to be true. Yet I believe there exists certain symmetry between unofficial, intensifying public displays of sectarian loyalism and nature of political challenges that given society is going to face in near-future. If I am proven to be wrong here, that there exists no such symmetry, I gladly change my opinion.

And this insanity caused by modernism and it's twilight, it shall have it's sibling in New World also. So do not turn august concerning European sectarianism too soon. Group identities and flags they rally around shall not be same, but the behavior shall be familiar from those hooliganism videos. Dark Ages are nasty business and we all are same species after all. Now I truly drop this subject, with gloomy feeling that I unintentionally insulted some readers of this blog ways I don't actually grasp even now by comments I made in last week's post. My humble apologies for that.

Pantagruel7 said...

A very cogent post today. I loved the description; "they looked for all of either world like an unusually dull corner of Nevada that had somehow been denuded of air, water, and life." I guess if it had been a Phillip K Dick sci-fi novel he'd have placed a brothel there! And thanks for the link to the Herman Daly article.

Myriad said...

Yes, "could" especially in science reporting (which is a very different world than actual science) is literally a word to conjure with. Specifically, to invite imagining of benefits (or, let's be fair, adverse consequences) not justified by the findings. I'm reminded of Betteridge's Law of Headlines: any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered "no." ("Is e-wear the future of fashion?" "Are aliens living among us?")

"Any future-tense use of 'could,' 'might,' or 'may' should be replaced with 'probably won't'" would make an interesting law. Unfortunately, it's too strong a prescription, leaving all discussion of the future in the hands of nihilists and the pathologically certain. There's no such easy substitute for critical thinking.

I'm sorry to hear that the food situation in Paris has suffered such a decline (though somewhat comforted, if it's only "executives" affected). Even my most basic daily cooking owes to French traditions. I'm not sure I'd blame scientists or science fiction authors for it, though. Even back in the fifties, a lot of science fiction addressed the consequences of technology, sometimes directly (The Man in the White Suit, 1951), sometimes metaphorically (Godzilla, 1954). Far more so, in the decades since.

Is there a comparable political agenda behind the innumerable stories of highly trained and skilled heroes who routinely perform physical feats well beyond what an ordinary person is capable of?

Varun Bhaskar said...


When I first posted on this blog I made a comment about still having hope that humanity would make it to the stars, you responded urging me to consider why that was the basis of my hope. After a period of reflection I realized that the idea just sounded kinda cool, strangely I never expected or even wanted to travel into space myself. The idea of a life without fresh air, sunshine, and all the other things we take for granted planet side was just unappealing.

Why is it a religion to them? I think it has something to do with the idea of godhood. They all believe that they will be the gods who bring life to dead worlds, crafting that life in their own images.

On one point I disagree with your other readers. No one on this board is a pessimist. We're all realists that tend toward optimism. We believe that the conversations we are having and the work we are doing will help those that come after, we believe in our legacies. I would argue that we believe with a much firmer conviction that our legacies are important, that caring for the earth and our communities is important, than the true believers of the cult of progress.

The one trend I've seen in all the peak oil sci-fi that your readers have produced is that they all tend toward acceptance of bad things, but also accept there is continuity. Maybe our next moon-bat challenge should counter these tech-utopian visions with our own non-tech visions?

In other news. My political science professor had a phrase “ycamtsu,” meaning “you can't make this stuff up” to describe weird coincidences in history. Some time ago you posted a wish-list of technologies to deal with various problems that humanity will face in the aftermath of industrial civilization. One of the things you desired was a way to deal with nuclear waste. Well behold Bacteria that Eats Radioactive Waste Discovered. The name of the region where it was found? Peak District.


Varun Bhaskar

Richard Larson said...

Like normal, optimism is based on religion, or rather, a belief in a fantasy.

Ed-M said...

Hi Rene,

About the WMO report that climate change is further along than expected: I've known for a couple of years that it has been meeting or exceeding the IPCC's worst case scenarios, save for surface temperature (which the deniers latch onto with all their might and main). The last, of course, is due to the deep oceans and the ice taking all the heat, and due to the aerosols from the fossil fuels blocking 20 % of the sun. What a Faustian bargain our ancestors have made; it appears that in the Progress christian heresy, Mephistopheles is the Holy Spirit.

JMG and Onething,

Not having to build a brand-new cathedral every fifty years or a new bridge every twenty is easy, if you don't have an ever-increasing population or traffic problem, like we seem to have in much of the United States! Here in New Orleans, the state has *finally* finished widening Route I-10 from Downtown New Orleans all the way out to Kenner because of impossible (to tolerate) traffic problems. And when did the state highway department begin this? About the mid 1990s or so.

The depression of the Central Artery and the Third Harbor Tunnel in Boston (collectively "the Big Dig") took a similarly long time in response to equally intolerable traffic problems.

Ric said...

So about five minutes after reading this post, I came across an interesting bit in the New Yorker via Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor site:

The Hazards of Going on Autopilot

My favorite line from the article:

“We’re asking human beings to do something for which human beings are just not well suited,” Casner said. “Sit and stare.”

Dagnarus said...

Something which has occurred to me after reading your post is the idea of creation vs discovery. This is exhibited by the sci-fi authors being able to create whatever wondrous alien world they desire, only being limited by their own imagination. The discoverer however is limited, when the appollo missions go to thet moon the discovering only the barren wasteland which is moon. The discover is limited to only being able to discover that which is already there.

What is not fully realized in the modern world is that our relationship to technology is not that of the creator of it, but that of it's discoverer. When science fiction writers, writes about say fusion reactors they can simply create such a technology, and then that technology will work. If a nuclear physicist wishes to "create" a fusion reactor however they have to deal with all the vagaries off nuclear physics and everything else which goes into the creation of such a reactor, none of which the nuclear physicist has any control over, the "laws" of physics were not created by him/her, they simply have to deal with the ones given. Their exists a set of possible designs for workable fusion reactors, nothing human being can do is capable of either increasing, nor decreasing that set, the best we can do is to discover a member of it. This of course means that if that set is empty, tough luck.

I think this is the problem main problem in how people think about technology in the modern world. The assumption seems to be that if we have a problem (say we're driving off an energy cliff) then we can create new technology to deal with that problem. We can't all we can do is discover a possible technology which can help us, if such a thing exists, and then only after looking through a potentially infinite set of designs which don't work.

MindfulEcologist said...

I want to second the good Dr. Kris who commenting on the ‘Heading for the Sidewalk’ post said,
“Of all the voices out here yours rings most true, and I want to thank you personally for doing what you must with art and humor. Facing nightfall with a true wizard for guidance is a great comfort.”

When the dreams that humanity would one day have a life among the stars really gave way to a reality of continual earthly fate for me it brought about a despair but lead eventually to a kind of peace. It was a very confusing and difficult time. Like most of my generation (I am 51) I hold a deeply emotional pride that the U.S. was able to unite its best and brightest engineers and scientists and have them dedicate themselves to an achievement for all mankind, so that one July afternoon they succeed in landing a man on the moon, placing a human footprint on a world other than our own. I learned just how deep the emotion ran when I had the chance to shake hands with an astronaut while visiting the Kennedy Space Center with my family. In that handshake the space program became real and tears rolled down my cheeks for many long minutes from a glow that held our fragile species in a warm embrace. It was a joy in the potential for “goodness” within humankind; this was a feat of peace, not war. My more rational side understands there were mixed motives, plenty of selfish profit seeking and the usual quota of chasing after fame and glory that accompanies any human endeavor in the real world. There was even a war element, as they said, "We basically put a guy on top of a nuclear missile and lit the fuse."

But, but, it did happen in the real world. Not a SF story but right there on our TV screens. Astonishing. With such a feeling lodged in my breast it is not hard to understand why it is so tempting for some to think that if only the U.S. could get its act together and launch another Apollo-like program to get us off carbon fuels all would be well. I get the allure, but my reason cannot go there.

I read Catton’s masterpiece ‘Overshoot’ years ago, worked through Derrick Jensen’s writings, ‘The Party’s Over’ by Heinberg the year it was published and have been following our host on this blog almost since inception. When the probability of humans ever traveling among the stars dissolved into empty space, well, it was as if someone had taken the hope and left just the despair.

At first.

Slowly the love for the earth grew stronger, clearer, less confused. Every element of my being is born from the cycle of things right here. Every experience of love and sorrow has all occurred right here. There is a Tibetan Buddhist song to the world that sings, “World we live and die on your lap, on you we experience all our woes and joys, you are our ancestral home of old, forever we cherish and adore you.” I have the power to change some things and can be at peace with the rest. In that surrender I found those things I can change are the very things that matter the most for creating a meaningful life, right in the middle of the horrors of the ecological crises.

Thank you JMG for your contribution to my little waking up.

More at – mindfulecology dot com.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Cathy McGuire - As my friend Debbie, the Chicken Goddess (my go to person for all things chicken) says, "Why can't people just do their jobs?"

But then, she and I are of a generation where you did your job (no matter how menial) to the best of your ability. Maybe we were just victims of the military industrial complex and a system that wanted to stamp out identical, compliant workers. Lew

Roger said...

Juhana, Does the German regret ditching the mighty D-mark? How much was the man in the town square consulted beforehand? Not much I'll bet. And so what about a fracturing of the EU?

Yeah, I know, there's other factors at work and so there's not a straight line from imbecilic and unworkable banking arrangements to resurgent nationalism. Or "re-localization". "Nationalism" after all is such a nasty word. Brings up images of straight-arm salutes and goose-stepping goons.

There's a lot of nightmare scenarios you can map out especially given the mis-firing, mis-calculating "leadership" we have both sides of the Atlantic. "Mis-understimate" them? Hard to do isn't it? Where do you find the bottom with these clowns?

In any case, fascinating thing this EU experiment. But typical, I think, of utopian dreamers.

I mean, who else would seriously imagine an industrial powerhouse co-habiting in a common monetary and political space with economies based on money laundering and tax evasion? Boggles the mind. And that's just the economic impracticality, never mind long standing and visceral tribal loyalties.

Yeah, I know the reasons for the EU and I have some sympathy for the "why's" of it ie two suicidal, continent-spanning wars. I have to say, though, there's a side of me that's a lousy cynic. And the cynic tells me that this isn't about avoidance of wars, that this is just the cover story. No, this rather is all about bankers and plutocrats and their schemes. To cut to the chase, more money for them and less money for you

But, I think, re-localization is inevitable for various reasons and therefore one currency and a border-less Europe are doomed. And that is regardless of the disdain that the monied set has for those inconvenient boundaries and jurisdictions with all their tiresome rules.

Island Poet said...

The myth of the Magic Salt Mill is an excellent example of the understanding of the Law of Diminishing Returns that our ancestors clearly knew. I also highly recommend a re-reading of - In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations by Jerry Mander

Rita said...

@Purple Tortoise
I live in California--home of exploding natural gas pipes. Our local utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, has been putting up billboards congratulated itself for doing maintenance. Local water district has back of the bus ads about replacing old pipes. Silly me, I thought cleaning and repairing what you own was basic adult behavior. All of this reminds me of a toddler proudly telling a parent, "Look, I cleanded my room."

Any computer user will testify to the dis-utility of having programs you routinely use updated or made unusable by new system software. Had to buy a new computer a while back and I HATE Windows 8. And a whole collection of music on cassette tapes and no tape deck anymore.

Agent Provocateur said...

Some stray thoughts on the law of diminishing returns with higher technology:

>90% of traditional Irish dance tunes, marches, airs etc. can be played on a D tin whistle. This instrument has 6 finger holes and no keys (levers with pads allowing for more notes). It and its more sonorous big brothers the keyless “Irish” flute and the lower D whistle are just about the lowest technology and lowest cost musical instruments you could conceive of. No strings, slides, valves, or reeds; just a fipple or your lips and some well placed holes in a metal or wooden tube.

Far from being stuck in one key (D major), one cross fingered note (C natural) allows for 2 major keys (D and G) each with 3 associated modes (tonic on 2nd, 5th, and 6th step of the major scales). This allows for a total of 8 different keys/modes/scales to play tunes on. This is quite sufficient to play an entire genre of richly melodic music.

Of course you could go higher tech and add some keys to the flute. Doing so provides new notes with some diminished speed and possible different articulations (these being integral to the way the music is currently played) from the simple finger holes. These new notes also come at the cost of more care and maintenance, more to go wrong, vastly increased price, and greater fragility of the instrument. You get more notes (that you mostly don't need) but at a very high cost technically, financially, and in terms of resilience.

What is true for traditional Irish music I suspect is also true for most traditional (pre-tempered scale) music. The limitations in range (2 octaves tops generally) and scales of the older instruments just forced musical creativity into different (not worse or better) directions. So it will be as we descend Hubbert's Curve. The greater limitations of life will (for those who still have it) “just” force their creativity in other directions. These directions will be the ones that work with the greater limitations of life in the future.

On an even more tangential note, Irish flute playing is said to have really taken off when the Boehm flute (a fully keyed chromatic instrument capable of playing in three octaves and any musical key) made older system flutes obsolete … and so within the limited financial range of typically impoverished Irish musicians. Thus, ironically, advances in musical instrument technology in the mid 1800s resulted in inexpensive cast offs which helped reinvigorated traditional music just at the time it was expected to die.

On the other hand, Jazz music would be largely impossible to play on non-chromatic instruments. Greater complexity of instruments did not prove to be a case of diminishing returns for Jazz. Indeed, just the opposite is the case; Jazz is the product of that complexity. And so Jazz may prove to be a genre of music than is shorter lived due to the technical requirements of the necessary instruments making them very expensive in the future. If so, Jazz would be an example of a “progress trap”. Basically it, as well as all electronic and amplified music, would be human activities that prove to be a dead ends due to their dependence on relatively high tech. Music will continue nonetheless.

Perhaps these examples are trivial, but I think this sort of division between low tech activities that endure and high tech progress traps may be found throughout all the areas of activities in industrial societies.

And now its time to scythe some rye to thatch the roof of my tool shed.

Ray Wharton said...

@William Fairchild

Thank you for mentioning Gamma world! There is a faint memory from my childhood of a map in a post apocalyptic RPG book.

Behold! With this prompt I have found the long faint image! The city of Troyt in Meriga, I wonder if any similar map might have influenced Star's Reach? This memory has been trying to surface for a couple weeks.


The Science Fiction farce that is the target of this post speaks ill of our cultures ability to make use of stories for thinking generally. For example when I first started thinking about decline I was hyper focused on the technological limits, this is a caricature of the process thus far.

The first question was "can solar or thorium fill in for fossil?" It didn't take much research to find that it couldn't. I responded by trying to envision and enact a life that was as rich as possible, sans the technologies that follow from fossil use. This proved to be insufficiently deep, because economic limits quickly shredded those plans.

Then the second question "What is economically viable during contraction?" Much improved, because with two data points it became a flow rather than an ideal of an ideal life. Focus on trying to enact likely scarcity economic activities followed. Quickly I found that in current conditions it is not economically viable, because there is no demand, and any productivity I have managed has inevitably created 'too many sandwiches'. I received too much praise of the idea of throwing into such projects, and then too little interest in participating. I profited some skills, and experience, and a few veggies, but I found that there is no economy going alone. Also I found any economic productivity requires investment, so often pursuing these activities is a net loss. Today I find that many tasks I can do skillfully are not worth the energy of biking to the place with the tools.

These questions took into account the Old Church of progress's world view, namely materialism. But they did not confront the issues from the New Denomination. "Why aren't more people moved to try disconnecting from the system that they hate on with every third utterance?" One might focus on the blinder stories that people receive, but more important I believe to notice the lack of other stories. Original thoughts are like original cultivars of a crop; one can't get anywhere with out enough genetic material to breed from. The soothing activities that avoid developing new seed stocks of ideas are very pervasive among tech and spirituals progressives both; we need to sow weeds into those fields!

The preference for capital intensive stories (movie, video games, albums, even publishing) I think is a core challenge. It tends to support mono-cultures of ideas adapted to the medium. But I think this weekend I will be play testing an RPG I am developing to explore narratives which I am hoping will better represent our circumstances, and hopefully even be inspiring.

exiledbear said...

re: Autopilot

Ideally, he said, automation would adopt a human-centered approach

This goes against every instinct in corporate management. They *want* to make the human as redundant as possible, so that they can exert maximum leverage on his wages. And they just like being in charge, knowing their underlings are all easily replaceable.

Safety? Schmafety. Like in Fight Club where he was discussing the average settlement from a defective part, if they come out ahead, they'll do it. As long as the customers don't complain, as long as they don't care, anyway.

This is part of what I was alluding to - our society just isn't really structured to handle too many more technical advances before it tears itself apart. Or the technical advances that allow for more possibilities are used in unenlightened ways. In this case, to make pilots feel like they're redundant and less important so they don't ask for more wage increases.

And the pilots respond at a subconscious level by disengaging from their jobs too. I mean, he calls it mind wandering, but you could just as easily call it disengagement, doing the minimum necessary to avoid getting fired.

And at its base, not really a technical problem here, it is a social and economic and political problem. And the profit motive doesn't always motivate enlightened decisions.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Bill,

Your quote: "all the local organization and self-sulficiency in the world won't help you if you are wrapped up in slaughtering your rivals."

Well spoken. The other thing that people fail to consider is that it is vitually impossible to pursue both strategies. People fail to consider that they have to make the choice between both strategies. I believe the origin of that delusion is the thought that we can have it all. We can't, it is not possible, better to face that thought than live with the delusion of omnipotence.



sgage said...

@ Dagnarus,

"The discover is limited to only being able to discover that which is already there.

What is not fully realized in the modern world is that our relationship to technology is not that of the creator of it, but that of it's discoverer."

Nice formulation... interesting to ponder...

Moshe Braner said...

It seems that these days we're bombarded with various "could" articles involving bacteria, naturally enabled or genetically engineered to do something that we'd like them to do for us. And typically the journalists display a total lack of understanding of the most basic scientific concepts.

Thus, the "bacteria that (could) eat radioactive stuff" story mentioned above: how is the incorporation of the radioactive atoms into bacteria going to stop the nucleii of said atoms from spontaneously going "pop"?

Or the numerous stories about bacteria that "could" provide us with copious amounts of a "green" version of oil / alcohol / methane / [insert your favorite hydrocarbon fuel here]. Never a mention of the fact that for a resultant molecule to be a source of energy, that energy must have been obtained from elsewhere. In other words, those bacteria have to eat. Eat what?

Related are the cornucopian visions of oil-generating algae. All that is ever mentioned is that the algae will be fed CO2 from a coal-burning power plant (as if that is better than CO2 from the general air). There is never any mention of the SUNSHINE that algae need to grow on. And the practical problems arranging said sunshine for growing industrial amounts of a pure algae strain.

SLClaire said...

Speaking of rats and sinking ships, my husband and I received notice this week of a rat attempting to sneak off the underfunded-pension-liability ship. The rat in question is the company he worked for from 1991 through 2001. Under the terms of the union contract in place when he resigned (the terms under which his pension benefit is calculated and distributed), he would not receive his pension for another four years. However, for a limited time (yes, it used this phrase), he has the opportunity to elect to receive a lump-sum payment of his accrued pension benefit later this fall, rather than taking it as an annuity under the usual rules. After telling him this, the letter goes on to say that he could instead elect to begin receiving the monthly pension benefit this fall, with the same limited time to make the decision. The company has opened a dedicated Pension Service Center to answer any questions he has about this opportunity. When we got the package containing the details and forms for the various options, the order was the same: lump sum first, then start monthly payments this fall, then do nothing.

The way it reads to us is that the company would very much like for as many of its potential pension recipients as possible to take the money and run, thus allowing it to adjust its pension liability for its remaining potential retirees closer to what it can actually fund. Hence the emphasis on the lump-sum payment and the oh-by-the-way phrasing of the monthly benefit option. I wonder how many other organizations are doing, or getting ready to do, the same thing.

August Johnson said...

@catching up - Last week you asked about the Master Conserver handouts. I've made them available at my site.

The direct link to the handout is:

This is an 8MB pdf file.

Redneck Girl said...

City people, humph. I remember reading about a first nations man talking to a city dweller about nature being around them in the city and the resident denied it. The first nations man pointed out that such was not true, he could hear a cricket chirping on that busy street and pointed out a dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. The city dweller had never considered such a thing as an indication of the natural world. All he saw was the regimentation of the city and the creations of it. Anything else was a weed or pest, a blight against the geometry and order of the city.

The magical world all around wears a disguise of familiarity, a cloak of the mundane where the magic of nature and even your own wild nature is hidden and denied. Something to be feared and ignored, perhaps viewed with disgust rather than embraced and loved. As you love nature you are allowed to love your self. That's when you slip into the natural world as an equally magical creature there. That nature escapes civilization sometimes, manifests as modern culture in songs or plays that strike a chord in a 'civilized' individual's soul. LOL! Tell me Blue Oyster Cult's, 'Baby Don't Fear the Reaper' isn't a description of the Wild Hunt slipping through?

This has been my American Indian and Kelt making themselves known!


Calm Center of Tranquility said...

Just a thought as I digest this week's post. You might want to re-think your celebration of paper checks as opposed to the digital economy. Thanks to a daughter who worked for a bank for eight years, I know that paper checks ARE a part of the digital economy. If you live in a small town, there's a chance your local business might put your check in the till and carry it off to the bank to the deposit - but there's just as much a chance they won't. A growing number of small businesses, and all large business, process your check in the same way they would process your debit/credit card. (I have considered doing this myself - get the machine and process checks at home instead of driving 30 miles into the town where my money lives.)

Even if you deal with businesses who don't electronically process, their bank, when your check gets there, most certainly does. So ultimately, your paper becomes digital currency. If you want to avoid digital currency - then avoid paper checks.

I have grown increasingly nostalgic for the days of actual money (I was born the same year as JMG), but there are huge barriers to going back to that use. There would be no way to pay my house payment; paying my utility bill with cash would require a drive of 120 miles. Ditto with other services. Still, I have been gradually working my way back to cash as much as I can.

To Bill Pulliam - not sure why the popularity, but Newt Gingrich was/is a big proponent of the dangers of a Carrington Event, and he has a lot of influence.

It appears I left my back door open, so now I need to go shoo the chickens out of the house.


Shane Wilson said...

@ juhana,
I was under the impression that Finland was a part of Scandinavia, which is considered a part of western Europe, albeit a peripheral part. I know it is not Slavic, which is what I automatically associate with eastern Europe--eastern=Slavic, in my mind. It might be a good thought experiment to envision your country a century or two out, once the U.S. as an omnipotent world power and the EU is a faded memory, long after the leaders of both have hung from lampposts. Broaden your vision to include descendants not even born yet.
Regarding the internet and cyberwarfare/hacking, is it possible that the kind of factional fighting we're talking about plays a part in the implosion of the internet? I could see a future where cyberwarfare and hacking reaches such a fevered pitch between the powers able to engage in such stuff that it ceases to function at all, as nations respond to increasing attacks by reducing connections outside their borders to the point that the internet becomes so balkanized that it ceases to be a world wide web. Is this a feasible scenario?

Moshe Braner said...

Rita: buy or borrow a tape player and convert those cassettes to some other format. I've done hundreds of cassettes and LPs. Any old PC and some free software is all you need to digitize them. Then burn to CDs and/or save as MP3 files. Now I know our host here and others say that at some point in the future the computers will be gone. But not for some decades anyway. And audio tape self-destructs too. At least the digital formats can be converted to the next digital format without further losses, for as long as we have digital technology. In the long run, it's the musical traditions that we bequeath to our descendants orally that will endure.

Don Plummer said...

@Rhisiart (and JMG)--Google Translate translates "crechwenu" as "smirk" or "guffawed." How lame! I like your translation much better. :)

(The University of Wales' online Geiriadur doesn't even have a match for the word.)


John Michael Greer said...

Steve, yes, they're tools -- but please remember that tools are not value-free; they embody the values of those by whom they were created and marketed, and if those values are antithetical to yours, not using them is a valid choice.

YJV, glad to hear it. The sooner people in your generation get to work thinking along those lines, the better.

Scotlyn, delighted to hear it. Slapping people awake with the cold wet mackerel of reality is this blog's main job!

Wizzrobes, good. Very good. You might be startled to know just how hard it is for most people to recognize the religious dimensions of belief in technology; when I proposed that faith in progress is a religion, a while back on this blog, the screams of outrage were pretty epic.

Cherokee, I don't have a business card, but if I get one, I'll keep that in mind.

Phil, that's a very good point.

Bill, yep, there were a bunch of apocalypse-by-solar-flare books a couple of years back. Anything that suggests that we don't have to go through the Long Descent is pretty much guaranteed an eager audience these days.

Eric, good heavens. I take it the book didn't mention John Brunner's 1975 SF novel The Shockwave Rider, which had malware, computer viruses (he called them "tapeworms"), and hacker culture down cold.

Wizzrobes, yes, that's the latest "worry about this so you don't have to worry about the end of the industrial age" fad. Did you know those same claims were being made in comic books in the mid-1960s? I read more than one of them then.

Bear, true -- it also lacks scorpions, rattlesnakes, and other sources of human interest. Still, the comparison's pretty close otherwise.

Juhana, I'm not suggesting you change your views. I'm simply pointing out that the logical consequences of those views do not support the idea that Europe will survive the end of the industrial age as something other than a collection of burnt-out failed states under someone else's dominion. Your tribalism is a great advantage to your enemies, you know. The question in my mind just now is whether Europe will end up overwhelmed by mass migrations from the Middle East, conquered by Russia, or split between the two.

catching up said...

Hi JMG (continuing an off topic conversation responding to "Catching Up, I need to find somebody willing to host a large PDF file for free download. If you or anyone else has a suggestion, I'm all ears")

hrmmm. I'll look into it. Can you specify what you mean by "large"?

John Michael Greer said...

Pantagruel, oh, granted; no doubt the settlers on Mars will take care of that detail, the way settlers in the American West promptly did.

Varun, "Ycamtsu" sounds like the name of one of the evil gods out of H.P. Lovecraft's Chulhu Mythos stories. How did your professor pronounce it?

Richard, the distinction's an important one. Most religions are at least partly justified by religious experience, you know.

Ed-M, you might be interested to know that study after study has shown that expanding the freeway system inevitably creates more traffic problems than it solves.

Ric, fascinating!

Dagnarus, excellent! That earns tonight's gold star; it's a very clear, very cogent way to talk about a crucial distinction that contemporary industrial culture almost always ignores. Thank you.

Mindful, I understand. Like most geeky kids of my generation, I was in love with space travel from as far back as I can remember. Losing one's childhood religion is always a very challenging thing.

Island Poet, good! Yes, that's a very useful story just now. I'm less fond of the Mander book, but it's still good.

Agent, that is to say, the blues morphed into jazz due to a change in environmental conditions -- specifically, ready availability of chromatic instruments -- and that same transformation will likely work just as well in the other direction as conditions change. You can play first-rate blues on some very simple instruments, as I'm sure you know.

Ray, good heavens. I'd completely forgotten the Gamma World map, or for that matter what Gamma World called America. Quite possibly a case of subconscious recollection, though! As for your RPG, I'm delighted to hear about it -- once you've got it worked out, by all means let us know about it.

Moshe, exactly. These are the sort of things I call lullabies -- good to lull you to sleep, but not for much else.

John Michael Greer said...

SLClaire, thanks for the heads up. That's worth knowing.

Wadulisi, and it was a great song, too. ;-)

Center, true, but at least with a paper check you've got a paper trail, and a bank can still at least theoretically cash or honor a check even when the computer's on the fritz.

Catching Up, it's something more than 8 mb, as I recall. If you look for August Johnson's post, though, he's got it hosted on the Green Wizards Radio site.

Ahavah said...

Someone above asked, basically, if today's kids would be able to ring up your order without an electronic cash register. I can tell you, the answer is no. A couple of years back I stopped into the locally owned hipster coffee shop, with two college age girls behind the counter. It was a slow day, with storms in the area. I was the only one in the shop. Just as I finished grinding my coffee, the power went out. I sealed my bag and went to the counter and took out my cash. The girls looked at me funny, and said they could not ring me up. Didn't I see the power was out? "We don't know the price of the coffee." I pointed out the price was on the big chalk board behind them.... Long story short, I had to show them how to weigh the bag on the old manual scale, convert the fractional part of the weight to decimal, and multiply by the price on the board for my type of coffee. They had no idea even of a concept of the process! College age! Neither of them! I am afraid a lot of this generation is far too used to having a gizmo do all the work. They were apparently not capable of doing anything beyond plopping a bag on the electronic scale and pushing a number that told the register which type of coffee it was. Not a thought as to how to do it "in real life" ever even crossed their minds. They just expect technology to solve problems for them.

beneaththesurface said...


In my high school calculus class in the 90s, I was the only student without a graphing calculator because my parents wouldn’t buy me one since they didn’t think it was a necessity (having remembered learning calculus without one in their day). To deal with being different, I made some posters with handdrawn illustrations and handwritten quotes related to this. My teacher relunctantly allowed me to decorate the too barren walls with them. One of my posters read: “Optimize your learning capacity. Boycott the graphing calculator. Do it by hand. Or do it by foot.” (with my illustrations of a hand writing out a math problem, and then a foot holding a pencil and doing the same…). While now I’ve forgotten most of calculus I learned, at the time I felt that by being deprived of a graphing calculator, I learned it better than my peers.

Eric S. said...

" I take it the book didn't mention John Brunner's 1975 SF novel The Shockwave Rider, which had malware, computer viruses (he called them "tapeworms"), and hacker culture down cold."

It definitely gets a mention, but by 1975, networks were already around and computers were already getting infected. I was thinking about authors writing on the subject prior to 1966.

Juhana said...

@JMG: ...You call it "my" tribalism. I offered references from real world how splintering of civic society has started to form new, less civil identities in many areas of Europe I have visited. And that it might have some consequences for this Green Wizardry project on said areas. I kind offered proof for my point, nothing else. So I pointed to this ongoing splintering of civic identity and as a result, formation of tribal sense of "we" instead, as fact, not wish. Let's make it clear: I think classical civic society and identity build around ideals of civil society are far better than messy, old-school tribal chaos. But current responses of political/economical elites & suburbian white fencers to these signals are inadequate and harmful. They practically just close their eyes and ears, hoping storm doesn't hit them. That's cowardice, if you ask from me. Whole communities, native & immigrant, are practically abandoned to their own faiths. There are real incentives driving people in one end of spectrum towards sectarian identities. If one wants to steer boat to other direction, s/he should not whine about perfecty logical ways how people in hoods respond to these incentives, but try to change those incentives.

I honestly believe that energy trap and limits of environmental carrying capacity have ended religion of growth for good. At the same time I honestly believe tightening economic situation shall drive people even more towards sectarianism, because from their point of view, that reaction actually makes sense. That was what I tried to say with that Rotherham example. It makes sense from their point of view, and why should they care about other people's ponts of view?

So if you have any recommendations how to maintain civic society, please tell them. Maintaining and supporting local cross-community projects is one way, I know that, take my word for that. They just don't reach those who really should be reached. So I am pessimistic and dissapointed, not sheering, while describing situation that is facing many communities from where I know good, honest people, in many different countries. So it's not "my" tribalism; it's accelerating trend among large areas of First/Second World nations, and nobody is doing practically anything to offer different options. So shouldn't I be worried? Shall some "inner goodness" of mankind manifest itself first time in history, so logical endgames shall be totally different this time, with no bigoted raping, pillaging and murdering when shared identities (like religion) finally crack up for good?

It's just maddening that those in high places really don't care. Current liberal democracies were build upon national and civic identities, which rises not from blood-bounds but from shared civic values and memories. It's not perfect, but far better than other options from real world. Now this shared identity is only fading memory in large areas of so-called cililized world, and they really don't care. "Polyphonia", they call it. "Richness of values". Well, my experience, real personal experience, is that if nothing bounds people together, they behave like in those hooliganism videos. I call it a fact; for someone elese it might be unpleasant opinion.

beneaththesurface said...

RE: digital communication required at contemporary jobs

In the library department where I work, most of the staff are in their 20s and 30s, including myself. This summer one 68-year old librarian retired. I was sad to see her go, as she was my favorite co-worker. Despite the fact that libraries have become computer and digitally dependent, she was not. The reason for this wasn’t just her age, but a developing neurological condition she has where she has trouble reading words on computer screens (somehow more problematic than on paper). It was impossible for her to become to reliant on computers, despite increasing pressure that she had to in order to fulfill her job requirements. Yet, she was always the most helpful librarian at the reference desk. When someone came in and asked for books of a certain kind, she immediately would have lots of ideas that none of her co-workers would know about. The catalog of her mind was far superior than an online catalog or any computer help. It was hard for her to read email, so she had thousands of unread email in her Inbox. Yet her younger tech-savvy co-workers could never match the warmth of face-to-face connections she had with patrons.

RE: cell phones

One of many things I lament about cell phones is how it’s changed the way people plan. It is easier not to have a cell phone when everyone else doesn’t have one than to not have one when those around you do. When I didn’t have a cell phone, when I was arranging to meet people somewhere, I’d have to force them to agree on the exact location and time, and fallback plans if we couldn’t find each other. Nowadays people assume others can call and text to find out details when they arrive. It used to be that if I was running late, people were more understanding if I wasn’t tmmediately able to let them know that. In recent years, people expect that I will call if that’s the case. Another annoyance of mine: apartments with no doorbells.

I was the last person in my circles to remain cell phone – free. A few years back though, a friend lent me a cheap prepaid cell phone to use for a specific purpose. When I gave it back to her, she said I could just keep it. In a way, I wish that hadn’t happened and I hadn’t agreed to keep it; I had enjoyed the shock when I’d tell people I didn’t own a cell phone (unusual for being in my 20s at the time). I started using it for occasional purposes though – on trips, for example. I primarily use my landline phone, and only give the cell number to a few people. I also try to turn it off most of the time. But still, I miss being able to tell people I am cell phone free.

Bogatyr said...

Well, well. This week has certainly taken me down Memory Lance.

@William Fairchild, Ray Wharton, et al. I also have fond memories of Gamma World! It was only ever a mild diversion from AD&D for my friends and I, but fun all the same. There were a lot of post-apocalyptic themes floating around at that time. We were all expecting to be nuked by the Soviets, after all. A little ironic, considering where I've ended up.

@Don Plummer: Funny that you should mention the online Geiriadur. I actually built the first version of that back in 2001-2, at the then University of Lampeter. After I left, the people who followed me actually stripped out some of the functionality I had included, making it less useful imho, and I don't think anybody ever really bothered to update it. Ever since, it's carried on in limbo - too well-known to just ditch, not cared about enough to develop. Sad, really.

greatblue said...

The Master Conserver handout file that August Johnson posted is the collection of original scanned handouts, not searchable. A few years ago I converted the scans to text and graphics pdfs by chapter which are searchable. I sent an email to one of the Green Wizards admins. Maybe we can establish (re-establish?) a library of docs through the Green Wizards website.

Juhana said...

@Shane: Well, my opinion is that my country is peculiar mix of Western and Eastern influences. If you ask from more international-oriented people in Helsinki, they see things other way probably. In Joensuu-Kajaani- Rovaniemi axis, in north and east of the country, they are thinking very locally instead. Yet, I am only individual and cannot speak for others in this matter.

We are not Slavic, but not Germanic either. Finno-Ugric speakers are splintered around coniferous forest area from Bay of Bothnia to surprisingly distant areas in Siberia. Historically speaking we probably are descendants of minority language group working said area as semi-nomadic slash-and-burn agriculturalists. That method of farming is well remembered and practiced in small scale even today by many people I know here, so it has deep history among this language group.

Being first part of Sweden, when it was hard core kingdom instead current mess, and then belonging to Russian empire during czars as Grand Duchy of Russian Empire kind of gave taste from both sides I believe, that have mixed uniquely during independence.

Like I have tried to say, I have no strong political passions. I just believe that European Union as it has emerged to be is horrible mistake, that it's current policies are even more dysfunctional than those of US. There are very good local networks in place around Europe, but now they are forcibly trying to centralize and federalize this continent, as at the same time so called "peak everything" problems make advantages of these policies non-existent. So I think that our nation has hangman's noose around neck, and other end of the rope is attached to sinking sip that is EU. Localization and having strong, peaceful trade relations around Baltic sea and Bothnian Bay-area would be far saner road. And as self reflection concerning your comment: I am sure there are lot I am missing and misunderstanding, and there is always chance to broaden percpective for every member of our species. Yet, if I notice some symmetry and causality in real world, I am not saying Emperor has clothes if I clearly see he does not, just because current ideology and political correctness dictates so. That concerns also hot topics like future consequenses of mass immigration and energy depletion.
I hope I have now cleared air after last week and answered to surprising reactions I raised then, now we probably should give way for actual topic of this week..?

greatblue said...

Newcomers to this blog might also be interested in a list of books for green wizards (247 books) that were suggested either by JMG or blog commenters circa July 2010. Amazingly the list is still there and it is at

Cliff said...

I'm an ardent science fiction fan, and I knew as soon as I read the BBC article that it was silliness. Science fiction simply isn't anywhere near as influential as its proponents believe it to be.

I chalk this up to the idea that SF has to be for some purpose, and that it can't simply be art considered on its own merits.

The Mundane movement, which insists that its writers avoid tropes like interstellar travel, has the same problem. It faults the genre for encouraging people to treat Earth like it's disposable, and proposes to rectify the attitude.

As far as the larger issue of the narrative of progress goes, I fell out of love with it for sentimental reasons, rather than the objective reasons you lay out here.

I saw that "Progress" has no way to measure things like imagination and empathy and beauty, and what it can't measure, it considers to be nonexistent.
Or to put it another way, Progress promises that in exchange for stripping away religion and all sense of the sublime, you can get a future full of iPhones and strip malls, as far as the eye can see.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi SLClaire,

Beware, once a person has a lump sum, they become rich pickings for the financial planning industry.

That transferring of people from defined benefit schemes to accumulation schemes goes on here to. Sometimes you have to be onto everything in life.

By the way, what happens if the company becomes bankrupt?

Defined benefit schemes such as the one your partner is being talked out of are very rare beasts down under these days. Mostly governments.



Phil Harris said...

Fellow Brit Phil Knight points out that England (after its own unification by Norman Conquest) during the emergence from our Dark Ages, engaged in constant warfare both within the Island and the wider British Isles (Ireland). The modern history marked by unification with Scotland, however, in my view was less about ending 'internecine warfare' than about negotiating the geopolitics of the more powerful emergent nations and Empires of Continental Europe. Scotland, and to a lesser extent Ireland, was always a potential 'backdoor' for any regime change in England favoured by a larger Continental power.

I live in an area that experienced centuries of degraded conditions because of this unresolved geo-politics. Think Balkan-like atrocities, and read some bleak Border Ballads in a land that now radiates peace. Even without the old local warfare, the area suffered of course in subsequent centuries much continuing rural poverty and saw its own versions of ubiquitous mass emigrations in the 19thC.

My point is not to make much of the portents of Scottish independence (referendum) for resumption of local conflict, but to see the larger shapes of history, as JMG asks of us.

It was clear to me witnessing the recent conflicts in Ireland that the key to even partial resolution was the achievement of quarantining the main force of mainland British politics, and critically at the same time similar drivers within USA politics and those of independent Eire.

The options for the British Isles seem to me to remain fluid for some time and to depend on resolution of the re-organising of Europe as a whole, and that will necessarily include Russia. The EU seems an unlikely model for future configurations and can only be regarded, at best, as provisional.

I look for ways of safeguarding personal, familial and communal peace in a beloved land. I see signs and portents that encourage me, though the big question remains open, of course. As JMG suggests, there is no guarantee any attempt will work. That was what my story in the new anthology was about: a question.

Phil H
(writing within 5 miles of the Scottish Border)

nuku said...

JMG: Re addiction to “virtual realty“ and the digital world. Apprently Steve Jobs Apple’s genius of “devices” wouldn’t let his own kids have ipads and encouraged person to person conversation around the dinner table. See this article:

exiledbear said...

re: Smartphones

Smartphones are like the Rings of Power. Even the good side used them, but sparingly and for specific purposes.

And always remember there's the One Ring out there, that will "find all and bind all in darkness" (direct translation of the dark speech) at any moment.

Violet Cabra said...

JMG, Just so you know, the gold star you gave me has been a remarkably effective magic talisman, bestowing upon me the confidence to have an intense conversation with a friend about the implications of the end of the American Empire and the unsustainability of the internet in a time of economic decline. Thank you.

The incongruity of scientists proclaiming a need for faith and alternative religious leaders saying “let's acknowledge reality as it is” seems part and parcel of the major choice that affluent West made in the Reagan/Thatcher years to ignore all limits to growth and instead go on faith in the civil religion of Progress.

Of course, religions that stand outside of the orbit of Progress will often tend towards countering this civil religion at its most vulnerable point; it's own irreconcilable dogmatic fallacy of claiming the scientific method as the source of its Truth whilst demanding raw faith from its adherents.

On a personal note: For about two years I've began to have an accelerating crisis of faith. My experiences of the world failed to conform to what was demanded to validate my belief system, essentially Progress as defined by the New Age. During this time I carried a secret seething anger. Just recently I realized that, indeed, I'm angry at the collective choices that were made in the 1980's and are still being made today. Deeper still, I'm angry that reality isn't “progressing”. I'm angry at reality for not being what I thought it should be.

I'm a pretty mild-mannered, albeit eccentric person. I don't think of myself as “angry,” but there it is, hiding under my sense of self, a fury not too different from what Gil Scott-Heron explores in “Whitey on the Moon” although less realized and less articulate. The collective fallout from progress' death-spasms horrifies me. The ideas of violent ethnic division, tyranny, scapegoating etc as responses to cognitive dissonance are seeming less and less abstract to me.

On the bright side this week, which had a heavy harvest workload, saw me reading How the Irish Saved Civilization, your book Decline and Fall, and Humblebee Bumblebee which all offered radically different approaches to dealing gracefully with our changing times. The last book, especially, stole my heart, and it appears building a bumblebee nest is quite simple...

Ed-M said...


Actually I knew that already. But somehow that knowledge never seems to diffuse among the general public, who insist that the road be free of traffic, ideally for each motorist IMO, it should be empty of all other cars than hers/his. Yes. I really do believe people tend to treat the public highway as their own personal driveway, provided and in theory kept up free of charge.


A sexual exploitation scandal by Pakistanis, and the police just swept it under the rug?! Some people weren''t doing their job. On top of that, I heard that in some UK cities and towns, the police force has been privatized. Which means the beat patrolman doesn't report to a unionized public employee like himself as in a government police force, but rather some managerial flunky working for a hired, private security firm whose CEO is even more concerned about political correctness than would be a normal chief of police. Keeping up appearances, you know, and for God's sakes DON'T do anything that may cause the company to lose the contract!

The working class whites of Rotherham and other UK towns SHOULD organize their own informal vigilance squads.

Ed-M said...

@ Thomas Daulton, re: your comment about Christianity not having a meme that is not human-centric and supportive of nature,

Although I agree with JMG on this one as far as the mainstream of Christianity is concerned, there were outside currents or "heresies" that regarded nature as something better than as the Devil's Playground or a combination larder / disposal pit or something that was doomed to the flames come the Apocalypse. Sometimes those "heresies" got into the mainstream of thought, only to be done away with by the 9th or 10th Century in favor of Original Sin and focus on Christ's Sacrifice (hence all the crucifixes). You'll find this in Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.

Phil Knight said...

@Phil Harris,

I wish I could be as sanguine as yourself. In the past, even social malaise that was wholly generated within England, notably the Civil War, created victims (actually most of its victims) in Scotland and Ireland.

If Britain is finally going down the economic plughole, there is going to be the same kind of social disruption and violence that there will be everywhere else. No matter where it starts, no part of these islands is going to be able to hermetically seal itself off from the consequences of this. Britain is, after all, a very, very small place.

Historically, prior to the Union, periodic explosions of extreme violence were the norm in Britain, and the worst ones had very little to do with external geopolitics. Think of the War Of The Roses, for example. That was "our" business as usual and that, I believe, is what we will be going back to, even in the very unlikely event that some fig-leaf of the Union can be preserved. It may be a fair distance in the future, but the process toward it has its own momentum now.

I personally think the idea that we are moving towards a peaceful Europe of mutually-respecting little states, nestled in the warm embrace of Russia (and using gold-backed currencies!), is simply another End Of History myth, but with a pseudo-benign identity-based nationalism replacing Neoliberalism. This general schema seems, by stealth, to have become the proto-civil religion of the peak oil blogosphere. It's a very strange belief system, and one whose full ramifications haven't even begun to become apparent yet.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Shane Wilson and others:

Eastern Europe is not (and never has been) the same thing as Slavic Europe. This mistaken belief is one of the more toxic consequences of the hopelessly dumb standard "world history" narrative that has prevailed in US schools throughout the 20th century. A fair number of our own geo-political blunders are due to that misunderstanding of history and geography.

First of all, Eastern Europe is by no means wholly Slavic. Hungarians, Romanians and Albanians are not Slavs. The whole northern part of the former Soviet Union is packed full of peoples who are not Slavs. And so on.

Second, Poles, Czechs, Moravians, Slovaks, Lusatian Sorbs, Slovenes and Croats are Slavs who are not and never have been part of Eastern Europe. The dividing line between Western and Eastern Europe coincides roughly with the line dividing Roman Catholic Christianity from Eastern Orthodox Christianity as it was established in the 11th and 12th centuries. But in the US Slavic countries and languages began to be an object of large-scale academic study only during the Cold War. US School histories of the world still often reflect the old ignorant attitude that Europe ends with Germany and Austria ...

And third, language/culture and ethnic or genetic background do not line up all that well anywhere in Europe. Any number of people who now speak Scandinavian languages have Saami or Finish ancestors. The ancestors of vast numbers of Russia speakers spoke no Slavic language at all before the 1600s. And so forth. One should take a lesson from Franz Boas's studies of the First Nations in the Pacific Northwest of North America, which showed that boundaries between different language stocks did not line up with boundaries between different cultures, and that neither set of boundaries lined up very well with boundaries between different genetic heritage. In short, "race," language and culture are not inherently connected.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ JMG and Juhana re "Your trabalism":

It is, of course, not Juhana's own personal tribalism, but a tribalism that has ancient roots and is becoming stronger and stronger in Northern and Eastern Europe. Juhana is only calling our attention to it. He is right to do so, and if anything, he understates its strength. It seems to me to be so far advanced now that Europe (as a unity or as a Union) is finished forever, without any possibility of averting that future. It is probably going to be partitioned between Greater China and some sort of loose configuration of Islamic states, and the two or more future variants of "Western Civilization" (if it survives at all) will almost certainly be unrecognizable to our descendants 300-500 years from now. Beethoven and Bach, alas, will be as lost to that world as the old melodies of the Bay Psalm Book are to us now in the United States.

Bruno Bolzon said...

JMG, it seems to me that there are two general ways to plan one's life, considering the realities of peak oil. The first is follow your suggestion and collapse now, and use the surplus resources that are still available to learn the necessary skills for the coming hard times.
The second is to escalate, double down, go all in. What is really happening with the world is that there is a narrowing frontier instead of an expanding one - every year more people are plunged past the poverty line, and there are less opportunities available for the rest. So, one can simply choose to make the most effort possible to remain inside the narrowing circle. If the borders are contracting, one can avoid the harsher aspects of post-peak oil life by remaining amongst the rich few.
I admit that I'm living somewhat mixed between the two - I own a car, use it sparingly; bought and apartment on the third floor, close to where I work; am very fond of the internet and own a lot of gadgets; travel by jet every year; etc. So far, my philosophy is that it is good for me to enjoy these fruits of fortune while they last, and try not to be too attached to them. The extravagancies of the industrial age won't last into my forties, most likely (I'm on my twenties). But they are here now, so I see no reason to forsake them. Meanwhile, however, I better try to get prepared to live without some of them.

Michael Petro said...

In the midst of this appropriately acquired depression I am experiencing (some of the reasons for which are excellently expressed in your essay,) I wanted to note with cheer your mention of "You Will Go To The Moon."

I had been "busted" in Kindergarten for reading a Highlight's article on JFK (there were no pictures on the pages I was stalled on, so I was sent to the principal's office to read the article aloud to her.) Early on in 1st Grade I was called upon to read YWGTTM aloud to my classmates - no doubt as some sort of "inspiration" of achievement, which instead backfired and created a chasm of alienation between me and my 'mates that lasted all the way through elementary school.

Also, since I had not yet received instruction on things like "tion" pronunciation, I assumed that the "white donut" was a "space stateeyon," much to my embarrassment.

Thanks for excavating that little memory. :)

Ray Wharton said...

@Redneck Girl

Thank you for the advise on the magazine, life permitting I will look into it. It is a time of quickening, since my last post the place where I have been camping was sold to developers. 5 acres of farmland is going to be transformed into ample parking.

So it goes, tomorrow I will get all of my stuff to a new place, and start wandering. The bike cart will have to wait for an opportunity to use a welder, but I think I can get enough couch surfing options.

@ beneaththesurface

Preach it about those darn cell phones! They are the most frustrating technology I know. I have a healthy fear of the next step of decline, but if it, please Gaia Mari, takes a bite out of cell phone use I would endure much for that!

Cherokee Organics said...


I reckon the larger technological superstition that is at play in our culture is that our technology can somehow triumph over the environment. Entropy makes short work of our technology and that is the really sad thing about it all. Twas but over in a fleeting moment.

Only to leave us back where we started - but only all that much poorer.

We could have made different choices in relation to technology and perhaps one day we shall, but we didn't as instead we chose the easy ride.

Don’t know where that came from…

PS: Large companies here do something similar to my previous comment to avoid employee liabilities. They simply spill their staff - which apparently - refers to the practice of sacking or making long term staff redundant so as to avoid costly long service leave liabilities and conditions. They can later reoffer them employment, although it tends to lead to a mercenary and uncertain culture.

Personally, I have little trust and faith in them and so try and reduce my exposure to their machinations as much as possible.



. josé . said...


Have you had the opportunity to listen through the entirety of this week's episode of The Extraenvironmentalist Podcast?

The first half, of course, is another great interview with the Archdruid, which I've already recommended to all who are willing to listen. (Fewer and fewer of my family and friends, unfortunately.)

The second half is another interesting example of coincidence, as Chris Martenson - using somewhat different language, of course - takes on the fact that our current society is suffering from a severe technological superstition. He also does a good job of describing the situation.

(In the heart of his interview, he also explains why fewer and fewer of my friends and family are willing to listen to such podcasts or read such weblogs.)

Neo Tuxedo said...

Violet Cabra refers to

the major choice that affluent West made in the Reagan/Thatcher years to ignore all limits to growth and instead go on faith in the civil religion of Progress.

Emphasis added because I still believe that's the crux of it. The Reagan/Thatcher years. (That slash has a very different meaning in the parts of the Internet where I spend most of my time. And now that I've put that mental image in your head, it will never completely leave. You're welcome.)

We had a Cold War to win, and by gum, if we didn't use those resources, the International Communist Conspiracy was going to, or something. Like all propaganda that works over the long term, it had a kernel of truth in; the Soviet Union was never as much of a threat to the American Way of Life as the official flannel indicated, or even as much of a threat as it wanted to be, but it wasn't for lack of effort on their part.

And since heavy industry in general, and the fossil fuel industry in particular, felt as threatened by the environmental movement as they had by the ICC, they found it very easy to conflate the two, and to encourage the Great Wad to make the same conflation.

It may sound like I'm saying that was the only factor in how this civilization is now falling, but I'm not. I'm not even saying it's the biggest factor, largely because I'm not sure how one would quantify such a thing. I'm saying it was and it a definite and bodacious factor, and if you've talked about it in any real depth, I'm afraid I've missed it. (If you've missed it, I'm guessing it's because it's too specific to this civilization, as distinct from the general pattern of how civilizations rise and fall.)

RPC said...

"at least with a paper check you've got a paper trail, and a bank can still at least theoretically cash or honor a check even when the computer's on the fritz." I use three banks for various purposes; over the last few years they've all migrated to scanning and then shredding received paper checks. For a fee, they'll e-mail you a scan of a check; otherwise all you get is a check number and amount. Progress...

RPC said...

Cherokee said, "Only to leave us back where we started - but only all that much poorer." That triggered a memory - The Fisherman and the Fish! The petroleum engineers I know are like that poor fisherman rowing out onto the ocean again and again because no matter how rich we are, it's not enough. And we end up back in our hovel by the sea, but knowing we could have had happiness if we'd just stopped wanting more.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

The religion of progress dies hard:
"This would be the theme of maintaining, which is the characteristic element, the essential foundation of the concept of the law of constancy. It is opposed to the theme of progress, and there already exists a literature about it that is an entire philosophy. Those who frequent poets will recognize in Baudelaire one of the ancestors of this point of view, and one of the creators of the sensibility that it sets in motion. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam continued its spread, and we can see it with little difficulty in the works of Flaubert. Finally, M. Remy de Gourmont summed it up with his law of intellectual constancy. It is this theme that I set myself to culling out from among the biological views of M. Quinton as the one most fertile in philosophical consequences. This theme of the maintenance of a fixed state that unfavorable circumstances have a constant tendency to destroy brings, in fact, if not an absolute proof, at least considerable support to the philosophical concept to which I have attached myself, to wit, that existence doesn’t support any explanations in terms of a moral finalism. In assigning a positive goal – that of a reaction in the face of a threat to organic evolution combined with transformations in the human milieu realized by intellectual play – the biological explanation removes much of the likelihood and probability from those messianic concepts according to which transformations in intelligence and sensibility presage an era of happiness and perfection, or at the very least correspond to a positive amelioration of the human condition. This forward march is no longer anything but a marching in place, if the ground moves in the opposite direction to the steps of the marcher. The belief in progress, in the embrace of happiness and perfection by future humanity, appears now as nothing but an illusion, useful perhaps for the maintenance of the status quo, if it is true that man deploys a greater effort in the hope of an indeterminate happiness than he would for the preservation of a state which he often declares himself dissatisfied with. M. Nordau’s theory of history provides confirmation through this way of seeing things, whose pessimism is only apparent, and which manifests itself only to those to whom it seems that a justification through moral ideas is the sole possible justification for the fact of existence."
Our idea of sacred progress was generated in violence like all others, and then the rationale is that it now contains this violence. If we look hard enough, we see that it is the illusion of Progress rather than actual results itself which makes the system run. The global system remains predatory, just like the systems it "evolved" from.

Avery said...


Hate to butt in again, but this is a real factual correction. It is orthodox Christianity that embraces the natural world and its creature. I don't know what you are describing but it is not something that would be familiar to any Christian. On the contrary, belief that Satan created the world is a heresy called gnosticism. I worry that this heresy will return with full force during the intensification of the oil crash.

Also, "memetics" is pseudoscience and doesn't belong in a discussion of comparative religion or history.

«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 259   Newer› Newest»