Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Facts, Values, and Dark Beer

Over the last eight and a half years, since I first began writing essays on The Archdruid Report, I’ve fielded a great many questions about what motivates this blog’s project. Some of those questions have been abusive, and some of them have been clueless; some of them have been thoughtful enough to deserve an answer, either in the comments or as a blog post in its own right. Last week brought one of that last category. It came from one of my European readers, Ervino Cus, and it read as follows:

“All considered (the amount of weapons—personal and of MD—around today; the population numbers; the environmental pollution; the level of lawlessness we are about to face; the difficulty to have a secure form of life in the coming years; etc.) plus the ‘low’ technical level of possible development of the future societies (I mean: no more space flight? no more scientific discovery about the ultimate structure of the Universe? no genetic engineering to modify the human genome?) the question I ask to myself is: why bother?

“Seriously: why one should wish to plan for his/her long term survival in the future that await us? Why, when all goes belly up, don't join the first warlord band available and go off with a bang, pillaging and raping till one drops dead?

“If the possibilities for a new stable civilization are very low, and it's very probable that such a civilization, even if created, will NEVER be able to reach even the technical level of today, not to mention to surpass it, why one should want to try to survive some more years in a situation that becomes every day less bright, without ANY possibilities to get better in his/her lifetime, and with, as the best objective, only some low-tech rural/feudal state waaay along the way?

“Dunno you, but for me the idea that this is the last stop for the technological civilization, that things as a syncrothron or a manned space flight are doomed and never to repeat, and that the max at which we, as a species and as individuals, can aspire from now on is to have a good harvest and to ‘enjoy’ the same level of knowledge of the structure of the Universe of our flock of sheeps, doesen't makes for a good enough incentive to want to live more, or to give a darn if anybody other lives on.

“Apologies if my word could seem blunt (and for my far than good English: I'm Italian), but, as Dante said:

“Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.”
 (Inferno - Canto XXVI - vv. 112-120)

“If our future is not this (and unfortunately I too agree with you that at this point the things seems irreversibles) I, for one, don't see any reason to be anymore compelled by any moral imperative... :-(

“PS: Yes, I know, I pose some absolutes: that a high-tech/scientific civilization is the only kind of civilization that enpowers us to gain any form of ‘real’ knowledge of the Universe, that this knowledge is a ‘plus’ and that a life made only of ‘birth-reproduction-death’ is a life of no more ‘meaning’ than the one of an a plant.

“Cheers, Ervino.”

It’s a common enough question, though rarely expressed as clearly or as starkly as this. As it happens, there’s an answer to it, or rather an entire family of answers, but the best way there is to start by considering the presuppositions behind it.  Those aren’t adequately summarized by Ervino’s list of ‘absolutes’—the latter are simply restatements of his basic argument.

What Ervino is suggesting, rather, presupposes that scientific and technological progress are the only reasons for human existence. Lacking those—lacking space travel, cyclotrons, ‘real’ knowledge about the universe, and the rest—our existence is a waste of time and we might as well just lay down and die or, as he suggests, run riot in anarchic excess until death makes the whole thing moot. What’s more, only the promise of a better future gives any justification for moral behavior—consider his comment about not feeling compelled by any moral imperative if no better future is in sight.

Those of my readers who recall the discussion of progress as a surrogate religion in last year’s posts here will find this sort of thinking very familiar, because the values being imputed to space travel, cyclotrons et al. are precisely those that used to be assigned to more blatantly theological concepts such as God and eternal life. Still, I want to pose a more basic question: is this claim—that the meaning and purpose of human existence and the justification of morality can only be found in scientific and technological progress—based on evidence? Are there, for example, double-blinded, controlled studies by qualified experts that confirm this claim?

Of course not. Ervino’s claim is a value judgment, not a statement of fact.  The distinction between facts and values was mentioned in last week’s post, but probably needs to be sketched out here as well; to summarize a complex issue somewhat too simply, facts are the things that depend on the properties of perceived objects rather than perceiving subjects. Imagine, dear reader, that you and I were sitting in the same living room, and I got a bottle of beer out of the fridge and passed it around.  Provided that everyone present had normally functioning senses and no reason to prevaricate, we’d be able to agree on certain facts about the bottle: its size, shape, color, weight, temperature, and so on. Those are facts.

Now let’s suppose I got two glasses, poured half the beer into each glass, handed one to you and took the other for myself. Let’s further suppose that the beer is an imperial stout, and you can’t stand dark beer. I take a sip and say, “Oh, man, that’s good.” You take a sip, make a face, and say, “Ick. That’s awful.” If I were to say, “No, that’s not true—it’s delicious,” I’d be talking nonsense of a very specific kind: the nonsense that pops up reliably whenever someone tries to treat a value as though it’s a fact.

“Delicious” is a value judgment, and like every value judgment, it depends on the properties of perceiving subjects rather than perceived objects. That’s true of all values without exception, including those considerably more important than those involved in assessing the taste of beer. To say “this is good” or “this is bad” is to invite the question “according to whose values?”—which is to say, every value implies a valuer, just as every judgment implies a judge.

Now of course it’s remarkably common these days for people to insist that their values are objective truths, and values that differ from theirs objective falsehoods. That’s a very appealing sort of nonsense, but it’s still nonsense. Consider the claim often made by such people that if values are subjective, that would make all values, no matter how repugnant, equal to one another. Equal in what sense? Why, equal in value—and of course there the entire claim falls to pieces, because “equal in value” invites the question already noted, “according to whose values?” If a given set of values is repugnant to you, then pointing out that someone else thinks differently about those values doesn’t make them less repugnant to you.  All it means is that if you want to talk other people into sharing those values, you have to offer good reasons, and not simply insist at the top of your lungs that you’re right and they’re wrong.

To say that values depend on the properties of perceiving subjects rather than perceived objects does not mean that values are wholly arbitrary, after all. It’s possible to compare different values to one another, and to decide that one set of values is better than another. In point of fact, people do this all the time, just as they compare different claims of fact to one another and decide that one is more accurate than another. The scientific method itself is simply a relatively rigorous way to handle this latter task: if fact X is true, then fact Y would also be true; is it? In the same way, though contemporary industrial culture tends to pay far too little attention to this, there’s an ethical method that works along the same lines: if value X is good, then value Y would also be good; is it?

Again, we do this sort of thing all the time. Consider, for example, why it is that most people nowadays reject the racist claim that some arbitrarily defined assortment of ethnicities—say, “the white race”—is superior to all others, and ought to have rights and privileges that are denied to everyone else. One reason why such claims are rejected is that they conflict with other values, such as fairness and justice, that most people consider to be important; another is that the history of racial intolerance shows that people who hold the values associated with racism are much more likely than others to engage in activities, such as herding their neighbors into concentration camps, which most people find morally repugnant. That’s the ethical method in practice.

With all this in mind, let’s go back to Ervino’s claims. He proposes that in all the extraordinary richness of human life, out of all its potentials for love, learning, reflection, and delight, the only thing that can count as a source of meaning is the accumulation of “‘real’ knowledge of the Universe,” defined more precisely as the specific kind of quantitative knowledge about the behavior of matter and energy that the physical sciences of the world’s industrial societies currently pursue. That’s his value judgment on human life. Of course he has the right to make that judgment; he would be equally within his rights to insist that the point of life is to see how many orgasms he can rack up over the course of his existence; and it’s by no means obvious why one of these ambitions is any more absurd than the other.

Curiosity, after all, is a biological drive, one that human beings share in a high degree with most other primates. Sexual desire is another such drive, rather more widely shared among living things. Grant that the fulfillment of some such drive can be seen as the purpose of life, why not another? For that matter, why not more than one, or some combination of biological drives and the many other incentives that are capable of motivating human beings?

For quite a few centuries now, though, it’s been fashionable for thinkers in the Western world to finesse such issues, and insist that some biological drives are “noble” while others are “base,” “animal,” or what have you. Here again, we have value judgments masquerading as statements of fact, with a hearty dollop of class prejudice mixed in—for “base,” “animal,” etc., you could as well put “peasant,” which is of course the literal opposite of “noble.” That’s the sort of thinking that appears in the bit of Dante that Ervino included in his comment. His English is better than my Italian, and I’m not enough of a poet to translate anything but the raw meaning of Dante’s verse, but this is roughly what the verses say:

“Consider your lineage;
You were not born to live as animals,
But to seek virtue and knowledge.”

It’s a very conventional sentiment. The remarkable thing about this passage, though, is that Dante was not proposing the sentiment as a model for others to follow. Rather, this least conventional of poets put those words in the mouth of Ulysses, who appears in this passage of the Inferno as a damned soul frying in the eighth circle of Hell. Dante has it that after the events of Homer’s poem, Ulysses was so deeply in love with endless voyaging that he put to sea again, and these are the words with which he urged his second crew to sail beyond all known seas—a voyage which took them straight to a miserable death, and sent Ulysses himself tumbling down to eternal damnation.

This intensely equivocal frame story is typical of Dante, who delineated as well as any poet ever has the many ways that greatness turns into hubris, that useful Greek concept best translated as the overweening pride of the doomed. The project of scientific and technological progress is at least as vulnerable to that fate as any of the acts that earned the damned their places in Dante’s poem. That project might fail irrevocably if industrial society comes crashing down and no future society will ever be able to pursue the same narrowly defined objectives that ours has valued. In that case—at least in the parochial sense just sketched out—progress is over. Still, there’s at least one more way the same project would come to a screeching and permanent halt: if it succeeds.

Let’s imagine, for instance, that the fantasies of our scientific cornucopians are right and the march of progress continues on its way, unhindered by resource shortages or destabilized biospheres. Let’s also imagine that right now, some brilliant young physicist in Mumbai is working out the details of the long-awaited Unified Field Theory. It sees print next year; there are furious debates; the next decade goes into experimental tests of the theory, and proves that it’s correct. The relationship of all four basic forces of the cosmos—the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity—is explained clearly once and for all. With that in place, the rest of physical science falls into place step by step over the next century or so, and humanity learns the answers to all the questions that science can pose.

It’s only in the imagination of true believers in the Singularity, please note, that everything becomes possible once that happens. Many of the greatest achievements of science can be summed up in the words “you can’t do that;” the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics closed the door once and for all on perpetual motion, just as the theory of relativity put a full stop to the hope of limitless velocity. (“186,282 miles per second: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.”) Once the sciences finish their work, the technologists will have to scramble to catch up with them, and so for a while, at least, there will be no shortage of novel toys to amuse those who like such things; but sooner or later, all of what Ervino calls “‘real’ knowledge about the Universe” will have been learnt; at some point after that, every viable technology will have been refined to the highest degree of efficiency that physical law allows.

What then? The project of scientific and technological progress will be over. No one will ever again be able to discover a brand new, previously unimagined truth about the universe, in any but the most trivial sense—“this star’s mass is 1.000000000000000000006978 greater than this other star,” or the like—and variations in technology will be reduced to shifts in what’s fashionable at any given time. If the ongoing quest for replicable quantifiable knowledge about the physical properties of nature is the only thing that makes human life worth living, everyone alive at that point arguably ought to fly their hovercars at top speed into the nearest concrete abutment and end it all.

One way or another, that is, the project of scientific and technological progress is self-terminating. If this suggests to you, dear reader, that treating it as the be-all and end-all of human existence may not be the smartest choice, well, yes, that’s what it suggests to me as well. Does that make it worthless? Of course not. It should hardly be necessary to point out that “the only thing important in life” and “not important at all” aren’t the only two options available in discussions of this kind.

I’d like to suggest, along these lines, that human life sorts itself out most straightforwardly into an assortment of separate spheres, each of which deals with certain aspects of the extraordinary range of possibilities open to each of us. The sciences comprise one of those spheres, with each individual science a subsphere within it; the arts are a separate sphere, similarly subdivided; politics, religion, and sexuality are among the other spheres. None of these spheres contains more than a fraction of the whole rich landscape of human existence. Which of them is the most important? That’s a value judgment, and thus can only be made by an individual, from his or her own irreducibly individual point of view.

We’ve begun to realize—well, at least some of us have—that authority in one of these spheres isn’t transferable. When a religious leader, let’s say, makes pronouncements about science, those have no more authority than they would if they came from any other more or less clueless layperson, and a scientist who makes pronouncements about religion is subject to exactly the same rule. The same distinction applies with equal force between any two spheres, and as often as not between subspheres of a single sphere as well:  plenty of scientists make fools of themselves, for example, when they try to lay down the law about sciences they haven’t studied.

Claiming that one such sphere is the only thing that makes human life worthwhile is an error of the same kind. If Ervino feels that scientific and technological progress is the only thing that makes his own personal life worth living, that’s his call, and presumably he has reasons for it. If he tries to say that that’s true for me, he’s wrong—there are plenty of things that make my life worth living—and if he’s trying to make the same claim for every human being who will ever live, that strikes me as a profoundly impoverished view of the richness of human possibility. Insisting that scientific and technological progress are the only acts of human beings that differentiate their existence from that of a plant isn’t much better. Dante’s Divina Commedia, to cite the obvious example, is neither a scientific paper nor a technological invention; does that mean that it belongs in the same category as the noise made by hogs grunting in the mud?

Dante Alighieri lived in a troubled age in which scientific and technological progress were nearly absent and warfare, injustice, famine, pestilence, and the collapse of widely held beliefs about the world were matters of common experience. From that arguably unpromising raw material, he brewed one of the great achievements of human culture. It may well be that the next few centuries will be far from optimal for scientific and technological progress; it may well be that the most important thing that can be done by people who value science and technology is to figure out what can be preserved through the difficult times ahead, and do their best to see that these things reach the waiting hands of the future. If life hands you a dark age, one might say, it’s probably not a good time to brew lite beer, but there are plenty of other things you can still brew, bottle and drink.

As for me—well, all things considered, I find that being alive beats the stuffing out of the alternative, and that’s true even though I live in a troubled age in which scientific and technological progress show every sign of grinding to a halt in the near future, and in which warfare, injustice, famine, pestilence, and the collapse of widely held beliefs are matters of common experience. The notion that life has to justify itself to me seems, if I may be frank, faintly silly, and so does the comparable claim that I have to justify my existence to it, or to anyone else. Here I am; I did not make the world; quite the contrary, the world made me, and put me in the irreducibly personal situation in which I find myself. Given that I’m here, where and when I happen to be, there are any number of things that I can choose to do, or not do; and it so happens that one of the things I choose to do is to prepare, and help others prepare, for the long decline of industrial civilization and the coming of the dark age that will follow it.

And with that, dear reader, I return you to your regularly scheduled discussion of decline and fall on The Archdruid Report.


1 – 200 of 234   Newer›   Newest»
Patricia Mathews said...

Thank you. I think many of us needed that.

pyrrhus said...

Yes, when I was a small boy I found limitless pleasure in taking my primitive bamboo fishing pole down to the lake and fishing for whatever was available. Sometimes friends would join me and we would while away the day in aimless talk and just fishing. No technology that wasn't available 500 years ago.
When one of my sons and I hiked into a remote lake in the Rockies, some time ago, he just laid down in a convenient place and stared at the sky and listened to the wind and bird calls for half an hour. No need to talk. No technology.

Pinku-Sensei said...

Today, I found someone who, if he's not reading you, looks like he should be, as he has come up with nearly identical phrasing about our future to what you wrote three weeks ago. A press release from the University of Michigan titled Lean times ahead: Preparing for an energy-constrained future included this gem from environmental psychologist Raymond De Young, "Having ignored many opportunities for voluntary simplicity, industrial society may now face involuntary simplicity." That looks very familiar. The article went on to say that "the job for behavioral scientists will be 'to help people cope with the realization that everyday life may soon differ substantially from conventional expectations and to help them envision an alternative to their current relationship with resources.'" Isn't that what you are doing here?

As I wrote, if he's not reading you, he should be, and maybe you should reciprocate, if you aren't aware of De Young already. The press release includes links to his profile page and to an article in Frontiers in Psychology titled "Some behavioral aspects of energy descent: How a biophysical psychology might help people transition through the lean times ahead" in case you or others wish to follow through. De Young's CV indicates that he's been working on this subject for years.

Speaking of preparing people for lean times ahead, I caught a showing of the 2011 documentary "Prophets of Doom" on H2 (History Channel 2) Sunday. Among the featured experts were James Howard Kunstler, the late Michael Ruppert, economist Dr. Nathan Hagens, author John Cronin, and computer scientist Dr. Hugo De Garis. Each spoke about their scenarios for the collapse of civilization.

What I found most interesting was when they had mutually contradictory ideas about the end of industrial civilization and the resulting clash. One such was De Garis describing his fears of The Singularity. I didn't think that would go over well with the rest of the guests and particularly with Kunstler and Ruppert. Sure enough, Kunstler told De Garis that he thought that the resources and finances needed to support the research for artificial intelligence would dry up before the technology reached that point. The result was that De Garis came away convinced that the other issues were far more pressing than his particular worry. In particular, he became most concerned about water shortages. I suspect that if you had been on the panel, you'd have said something even stronger, as I recall artificial intelligence was one of three technologies you considered impossible or just utterly impractical in "The next ten billion years," the others being nuclear fusion and interstellar travel.

Pinku-Sensei said...

On another note, io9 posted an article about what looks like a false start for civilization, How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization. It describes the formation of mega-villages like Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Basta in Jordan between 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE, then their abandonment. Settlements of that size, which could have held thousands of people, were not re-established until Brak and Uruk were founded about 2,000 years later. Unlike later urban centers, which were abandoned because their populations outstripped their resources, one expert quoted in the article thought that they collapsed because their populations outstripped their belief systems. Now, that's an interesting thesis relevant to the project of your blog.

My journeys around the web have found two other items from Southern Illinois University that might be of interest to you and your readers. First, ‘Toil and Rubble’ will explore endings . It advertised a piece of performance art, “Toil and Rubble: Media in Ruins.” According to Lindsay Greer, a doctoral student in communication studies who co-directed the production, “this is a show about endings, resisting them, and in the meantime, living.” that topic sounds familiar; also, any relation? Second, an article germane to last month's "The Buffalo Wind," Researchers study bison return to Illinois. The Nature Conservancy has re-introduced bison to Illinois, trucking 30 animals from Iowa, Missouri, and South Dakota into the Nachusa Grasslands. The Buffalo Wind is starting to blow already.

Villager said...

Funny. The thought that civilization is going to collapse doesn't make me feel at all like joining a gang of warlords for some exciting rape and pillage.

And as far as life beating the stuffing out of the "alternative" - well, I haven't experienced the alternative so I can't say.

I think the dark side of our technological "culture" for lack of a better word is that it has created people with mindsets like Ervino's who can imagine violence and hedonism as the legitimate alternative to this empty scientism under which we now suffer in vacuous delight.

What kind of person claims that there is no need to be "moral" if everything is going to hell anyway?

Unfortunately I can easily believe that his POV is probably quite common and it will make the world an ugly place as the situation worsens.

I choose to think of life as an improvised dance on the rim of chaos.

That's my spry denouement anyway.

Joe said...

"It’s possible to compare different values to one another, and to decide that one set of values is better than another."

Yes, but that decision is still a value judgement, not a fact. There may be facts about the effect of different values, but there is no way to attribute intrinsic value to those facts except by the use of each individual's aesthetic sensibility. Thus, morality and art belong in the same category of human "knowledge".

Grebulocities said...

As a lover of IPAs and an, at best, tolerator of stouts, I would like to state that IPAs are clearly better than stouts. Therefore, your entire argument is false. I would like to cite as evidence New Belgium's Rampant Imperial IPA.

Its 8.5% alcohol content has nothing whatsoever to do with the conflation of facts and values in this post.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

I'm sure you're aware that Dante's Divine Comedy is an initiatic, or esoteric text. Allow me to point out that he reserves the Ninth Circle of Hell for those who violently attack the basic fabric of familial, civic, and religious happiness; he stood against the Pope in the controversy over feudal authority (the King or Emperor is part of the God-given order with his own sphere of sovereignty). It's probably pointless to elaborate other quotes, such as Nietzsche's remark that the 17th century was the last "cheerful" century, to cite evidence against the Singularists. Or Whitehead calling the 1600s the "century of genius", and so on, ad nauseum. Another more important point is that apparently the human race is dividing itself into those who are for Life, and those who are against It. I have a feeling that this primary distinction (which cannot be reduced to ideology, as the distinction is difficult to discern and cuts across traditional Left/Right or Good/Bad dichotomies) will play a foundational role in bringing about the Actual New World Order, which will probably have a lot in common with Tradition: you may see certain druids, neopagans and Christians finding more to agree on than their own co-religionists, and the secular liberals shrinking to near vanishing point, as people slowly give up the dream that Equality and Justice are the same thing. Just a thought...people will have to learn to see past the label on the box, or else we'll wallow our way down to the Ninth Circle. Where are we now, Circle Six, maybe? If the Mind and the World co-arise, then consciousness is more important to human happiness than technology, which is an aspect of consciousness.

Moshe Braner said...

Thank you JMG, well said. I hope that some day you'll also come around, as you once hinted, to talking about "the meaning of life", i.e., how one finds, or makes, meaning - since any such would be a value not a fact. But it may be a fact that most of us humans are meaning-seeking agents.

JimK said...

Scientific progress can continue forever, in a sense similar to the fact that one can travel east forever. Not that scientific progress will go in circles necessarily. But our competence at understanding and controlling the world is always very limited. As we achieve new capabilities, old ones are falling off the back of the truck.

Or another analogy: the earth and moon keep falling toward each other, essentially forever.

It can be looked at from a fact/value perspective. Values lead facts, because they point us to the better world that we are struggling toward. But facts lead values, because the facts reveal the pain caused by real problems.

It can be like a dog chasing its own tail.

zach bender said...

i would offer what i think is a somewhat different, albeit maybe parallel, take on this. mr. cus' argument supposes that what you might call moral restraints can be justified only in the context of a continual forward march of material progress. if we cannot continue to do the kind of science and technology toward which we have been working for a couple or three hundred years, then the whole project is off. setting aside of course how anyone might have justified moral restraints two or three thousand years ago, what the argument supposes is that the only meaningful progress to be measured is material. might one not instead suppose a culture in which people are still eating dirt and trying to chase down the occasional springbok, but in which there is a continual forward march of progress in exploring the human psyche or the nature of consciousness or in various modes of what western onlookers might call artistic expression, music, etc. i am thinking of toltec nahualism and aboriginal dreamtime here, for example. the druid comes close to this point -- may even be making this point in not quite so many words -- when he places dante's achievement in its historical context. contra mr. cus' argument, the world i do not want to continue living in would be the world in which scientism and technocracy have driven everything else out.

Kutamun said...

Yeah , Ervino man , it is a false dichotomy you have stumbled into there , brah . You know, a demonic bear pit set for you by a wily renaissance magician , or maybe you just latched onto a fragment of a vast work as there it were Objective truth , as the AD suggests .
Obviously the AD is one who is conversant with the Music Of The Spheres , he mentioned most of those readily accessible to us but you could throw in the Great Central Sun of Love , to help synthesize some of the others .
Once you do this you will soon find yourself sitting on the deck at your farm strumming your guitar swigging a cold king brown of home brew and wondering how they make sunsets so cheap !
Of course in the first instance we must bind this dualistic demon into an appropriately constructed ternary triangle in order for your mind to be set free. Yeah , if you come up with enough possibilities you will find yourself cruising pleasantly along the interstellar highway in your own purpose built unsinkable dodecahedron ; i reccomend playing chess every day and operating a rubix cube on a regular basis as a good way to get yourself started .
There are some really good doomer movies out right now with brilliant metaphors to describe and explore the typical psychological reactions people have to the end of an Epoch.
Lars von Triers Melancholia is among the most powerful of these , as one sister would like to get wasted the other insists on remaining at all times lucid and calm , and constructing a reassuring pyramid of safety for the children to dwell in. Do you have children Mahn ? Many of us peak oilers dont , which is what gives us the mental capacity to get around these dire times before most others even dare .
A recent Aussie West Australian home grown flick was " these final hours ", which painted a very grim picture indeed ; in all cases LOVE proves to be the best solution , and i believe this is what the good AD is offering you .....
After a while of singing the spheres the idea of going on a rape and pillage spree will seem completely foreign to you , though i completely get why a large slab of the population woupd consider this a viable option as terminal decline becomes apparent ; it is also a very archetypal response . Witness the good soldiery and citizenry of Berlin as the Red Army gathered totheir East , against distant thunder and rumble of guns could be heard the moans , screams and cheers of a normally buttoned up and devoutly upright people turned suddenly Promiscuous and Bacchanalian , such is the intimate relationship of sex to death , and grabs for power versus powerlessness..
Cheers Brah

Anthony Romano said...

Hi JMG, I've been reading this blog for years now but have always held my tongue in the comments section. Ervino's post struck a cord with me as I've struggled with the same questions he has posed. I have a few comments I hope will add to the discussion.

When contemplating the impending dark age I have found myself asking "If the future brings only mass disease, starvation, rape, and murder why bother having any hope for a better future?"

I think you've done an excellent job addressing Ervino's horror at the dissolution of scientific progress. I also agree with you that life can have meaning and value even without further developing our understanding of the universe. For instance, the people of the few remaining (relatively) uncontacted tribes living in the amazon probably leave lives full of meaning, and I see no reason to impose our culture and "progress" on them.

The above question is usually followed up by what I think is a meatier question. If human civilizations throughout history are locked into a cycle that leads only to mass disease, starvation, rape, and murder is civilization worth saving? Are human beings worth saving?

I think the answer to the latter part of the question is Yes. I still have hope in humanity. However, the first part of that question I don't have a ready answer for.

Rape, murder, and other causes of human suffering have always existed. But only civilization enables them to exist on such horrifying scales. Civilization is based on agriculture and not an insignificant amount of ink has been spilled calling agriculture the greatest mistake in human history (Jared Diamond's essay is a good starting point).

I don't think we can undue the discovery of agriculture (development is a better word than discovery, which implies its inevitability). So perhaps we are locked into civilization, and these cycles of horror and chaos.

I'm not sure how to wrap up those thoughts into a tidy point, but I am interested in your take on them.

As an aside, I've often thought about the environmental impacts of the coming collapse (how this all plays out ecologically), and it struck me that you haven't had much to say on that subject (unless I missed it). I have a few notions of my own. I've been waiting for at least tangentially related to that subject before sharing them. The closest post in memory was the "Buffalo Wind" post and the discussion it spawned. I can share them here in another comment, or save them a while longer (I don't want to derail the thread).

Much thanks.

Yupped said...

Thank you for these periodic pep talks that you sprinkle in between your posts. They are welcome, and this one was particularly peppy.

I'm guessing that Ervino is expecting something significant to happen when humanity finally scales the last heights of technological progress - some eschatological event presumably, rather than everyone just collecting their coats and shuffling for the doors. But even after unity with the tech Gods the coats will still be waiting. "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry", and all that.

Me, I like to dig, grow things, cook and eat food, tend my animals, read interesting books, walk in nature, drink beer, play my guitar and hang out with friends and family. Sleeping is good too. That stuff's pretty much all I do, once all the fluff is stripped away. I'll probably get bored with it all eventually, although hopefully by that time I'll be able to see the lights of home. So, you can give my regards to progress. Although I must say it is nice around this time of year when the central heating kicks in.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

If I may, I don't mean to say equality doesn't exist or is not important, just that it is not identical to Justice, or vice versa. Part of the problem with modernity is the simplistic, flattened view of complex moral issues. For that matter, not all forms of equality are equal: equality under the law is rather more important than economic equality, for instance.

onething said...

Merciful heavens, JMG, you think that there are no real truths and no real values? You mentioned, last week I believe, something about people keeping on taking advantage at others' expense, which is more or less an adequate definition of evil. Your preference for values such as justice, kindness and peace have no real standing in reality? If I prefer murder and thievery, that is quite equal in this universe?
As to Ervino, if he is still here, I somewhat understand his position, only I take it a lot further. My take is that this whole ongoing drama is something that I want to be part of, to watch unfold, to see how things end up, and that if I cannot in some way do that, then life is a meaningless cheat, in fact a tease. If my consciousness does not outlive the body, then what difference does it make if I live in an era that achieves some significant scientific breakthrough? What difference, really, to have been Sir Isaac Newton himself or a ditch digger? And if I recall Ervino even mentioned that someday we might solve the problem of mortality - through technology! I'm not sure if he means brains in a vat or something even more abstract. But imagine the vulnerabilities.

It makes me realize that the system which I suspect we have is quite ideal.

One thing I will say for Ervino, at least he admits that he wants to live, and for much the same reason that I do. Many of the scientism types deny it, and I never can fathom whether to believe such a thing.

Funny thing is, though, that kind of breakthrough into hi-tech immortality is probably a long way away and it is unlikely, even without any interruption looming, that Ervino himself would partake of it.
I can't help but note that much of his extreme angst would be relieved if he thought he did have a soul.
Well, I can recommend Bernardo Kastrup's Why Materialism Is Baloney. It might help, and he has a website as well, called Metaphysical Speculations. said...

Well said. I hoist my scotch to you in salute.

(and anyone who detests imperial stout *is* wrong. That's my value judgement and I'm stickin' to it) :)

Repent said...

"I did not make the world; quite the contrary, the world made me, and put me in the irreducibly personal situation in which I find myself. Given that I’m here, where and when I happen to be, there are any number of things that I can choose to do, or not do"

This is quite different from the new age religion perspective. Where all souls originate from the one, where all life is pure choice. We choose which sphere of life to join, out of the vast multiverse. We choose our parents, our country, our gifts, and our circumstances prior to birth.

Still you're point is valid; if all is choice, no one gift, such as insight, intelligence, talent, or what have you is more valuable that anything else. That is your major contribution and insight from tonight's blog essay.

It's worth complementing you for your work in educating, helping, providing insights to the public at large. One of your best posts was the 'Herding of cats', a skill which you clearly demonstrate here, providing people from the furthest divergent backgrounds a common form of reference with your concise and considerate weekly essays. I personally wait each week with baited breath each of your upcoming posts.

One comment the Italian poster suggested wasn't covered though, and this is a major something that I struggle with myself; how not to give in to the temptation of suicide in the wake of the collapse of society? All last night I was up thinking of the 'best way to go', should it be painless with a heroin overdose, or quickly by taking a swim in a crocodile filled river? Some of us won't make the cut for a mad max future. What have you to say with a courageous way to face the apocalypse?

gordon said...

An excellent post JMG. I had to smile as I read it while sitting here enjoying a nice porter.

Ervino is not alone in his point of view, I see it often. I think it is partly due to our culture's glorification of the individual. So many people seem to feel they are only responsible to themselves. They think that when their lives are over, that's it, they are no more, forgetting that a part of us lives on in our descendents just as we are part of our ancestors. We owe a debt to those who come after us. This is what gives my life meaning, and inspiration to keep on keeping on.

hapibeli said...

Right on dude!! Wish I had written that!! LOL!!

Vesta said...

Dear, dear beer. How much more has technology really done for us, since that great leap? Roof, fire, and beer make up the lions share of what technology does to improve the human condition. The rest is frosting.

bryant said...

“That’s true of all values without exception, including those considerably more important than those involved in assessing the taste of beer.?”

I’m not sure that this statement is factually true… assessing the taste of beer; that’s pretty important!

Also, Grebulocities is clearly mistaken when he says “I would like to state that IPAs are clearly better than stouts. Therefore, your entire argument is false. I would like to cite as evidence New Belgium's Rampant Imperial IPA.”

Milk stouts are almost invariably superior to IPAs, though I will concede Rampant is a great beer.

Seriously though, this essay, and indeed everything since you returned from your summer hiatus, is stunningly good; encyclopedic and closely reasoned! Thank you so much.

William Knight said...

I agree with much of your characterization of "scientific enthusiasts" who look to science as a new "religion" and source of ultimate meaning for their lives. I regularly engage in discussions with certain people holding this view who seem fairly oblivious about the many other spheres of human existence where science treads rather lamely if at all.

But prior to that, you made a characterization of science itself that I find puzzling. You posed a rather simple dichotomy between an extreme (and false) singularity on the one hand versus a rather boring filling in of details and novel "toys" on the other. I share your appreciation of thermodynamics and the limits of efficiency. But within those limits I still see a huge amount of potential and fairly earth-shattering evolution with respect to self-replicating molecular systems.

Currently, all existing life is based on protein molecular machines produced by ribosomes. It was not always that way of course, because some kind of non-protein life had to exist prior to ribosomes. And while proteins and associated biomolecules have emerged to produce truly exquisite and efficient systems for manipulating energy and matter, they are by no means the "final word" when it comes to possible ways of forming replicating molecular systems.

Now don't get the impression that I'm a nanotech enthusiast in saying this - I happen to think we humans aren't smart enough to produce powerful nanotechnology anytime soon, especially at the rate we're going. But that is beside the point I am making, which is that there are all sorts of possible ways of organizing matter and energy within the limits of thermodynamics that would not be considered novel "toys" or "trivial" developments if and when they came into existence. Previous biochemical developments such as ribosomes and photosynthesis were truly epic and world-changing, and there is every reason to expect similar molecular "revolutions" at some point in the future.

Diablo moreno said...

long time reader finally prompted to comment.
first though...thanks MJG for years of provoking and timely reading.
In contrast to Ervino... the thing that pisses me off about the future, is that I won`t be around to see how it all works out.
The changes ahead will cause so many variations in the way we organize our societies and express cultures that can that be boring and not worth being involved in.
"raping and pillaging" dose not even come close and if it did ...why did we ever come down from the trees!
Maybe it helps to think of our current society and culture as a work in process
and nowhere is it written in stone that its immutible.

John Michael Greer said...

Patricia, you're welcome. Just one of the services I offer!

Pyrrhus, exactly. Those are also part of the meaning of human experience.

Pinku-sensei, I saw de Young's paper -- if he's a reader of mine he hasn't written to me, but he may well have reached the same conclusions himself. They seem perfectly obvious to me. ;-) Many thanks for the links.

Villager, Ervino's reaction is actually fairly common in the twilight years of a civilization -- Vico calls it "the barbarism of reflection." If you've bought into one particular mythology about the point of human life, and that mythology falls away, it's all too easy for those too used to abstractions to think that all meaning and morality falls away with it.

Joe, of course. Values are values and facts are facts; each is important in its own sphere, but they can't be exchanged for one another.

Grebulocities, you're welcome to my share of the IPAs. I'm not a great fan of the sort of beer that has so much hops in it you can't taste anything else!

Matthew, it occurs to me that every civilization starts out in the first circle of mere unthinking passion and works its way down to the ninth circle of cold betrayal of fundamental human values, passing through each circle en route. I may work out the parallel in detail sometime; it's entirely possible that Dante intended it, as he was learned enough to be familiar with the classical discussions of anacyclosis. Thanks for a useful stimulus to reflection!

Moshe, you're welcome. I've been working my way toward that topic for most of the time this blog has been in existence, and we're not there yet. Still, all in good time.

Jim, my take is that each high culture sets itself a different task, achieves as much of it as its nature and the nature of the universe permit, and then dies and leaves some of its creations and discoveries to become part of the common heritage of humanity. Still, a more rigid cycle is also plausible.

Zach, fortunately for you, you don't have to look forward to such a world!

Anthony, in what possible sense does history lead only to mass disease, starvation, rape, and murder? Of course it includes those things; it also includes healing, joy, love, creativity, and much else. The blindness I see in so many people these days is the insistence that if life isn't perfectly good it must be perfectly evil -- which, if I may be frank, is hogwash, and particularly unhelpful hogwash in an age such as this one.

Redneck Girl said...

You said it beautifully! I would have 'gotten lost in the weeds' as usual!

I can't imagine why anyone would not consider the natural world a wonderful place to be, there's always something different, in plants and animals, such as behavior, coloration, even simply being out of place!

There's a small frog at the stable that has spent the summer hiding in an automatic waterer. It makes sense, moisture, stable flies for food, no predators! (Except the frog of course!) The stable owner moved it out to the pond several times and it always came back to the same stall four or five days later!

For me the natural world is endlessly fascinating, whether it's a common black bird hen with white feathers scattered randomly among its dark gray or a black bird male with white tail feathers hidden by two black outside feathers, the white only showing when the tail is fanned. Or last summer when I saw, what I later realized was a great horned owl, (uncommon here), perched on a sheathed power line. I got to see the buzzards migrating one morning on the cusp of fall. Thousands of them in great swirling kettles, catching an up draft before riding an air current to the next kettle, to climb again to a friendly current of air.

I don't need someone else's 'scientific discovery' to make my existence exciting. I MAKE MY LIFE INTERESTING AND EXCITING! Simply by being observant. I make life exciting by learning a skill like training a horse and having a horse other people appreciate and by extension I get a feeling of being a handy, worth while individual.

There are things it would be good to know but I can't know all of them because of lack of time or opportunity. So, I will enjoy my life, perhaps in a way others don't appreciate but that isn't my problem, it's theirs!


Joel Caris said...

Hi Anthony,

I have a question for you. Do you really think that any human society has ever existed that consisted of "only mass disease, starvation, rape, and murder?" Do you believe that the future we face will consist purely of these four horrors?

And do you believe that's what JMG is claiming? Because that's certainly not the message I'm getting from him.

I know of no society that has ever consisted purely of these occurrences. So far as I understand, all societies have included these four occurrences, but they exist alongside a whole host of other human experiences, some rooted in what most people would consider pleasure and others rooted in what most people would consider pain, and a good many others rooted in what most people would disagree about the value of.

Our current society contains mass disease, starvation, rape, and murder. It doesn't consist only of this.

I really feel some of the disconnect here comes from people imagining a future that consists of nothing but pain, misery, and suffering. If that was the future we faced, perhaps I would consider suicide, too. Luckily, it's not the future we face. There's a good chance that the coming years may hold a good deal more turmoil and suffering than we have today--though, let's be honest, we have quite a lot of that these days--but it will also hold a considerable amount of pleasure, joy, and transcendence.

I do think that's something that needs to be remembered.

I find it helpful, when I forget that, to go outside. Something usually catches my eye and brings me pleasure within moments, and it's most often something that will as easily exist in the future as it does today. It's a good reminder of how saturated with pleasure life in this world is, even if it also holds plenty of pain.

Brad K. said...

I read another assumption underlying Ervino's plaint: ambition.

For the most part, I find ambition as an artificial underpinning of the marketing foundation to the industrial society. Schools, employers, governments isolate people by imputing value to personal ambition. Corporations need the ambitious to compete, resulting in growing markets, sustained revenues, etc.

I find the post WWII GI Bill and President Kennedy's call for putting a man on the moon back in the 1960s ambitious (out-compete the Russians). The resulting drives to exploit government spending by universities made college so-called education a commodity, stripping many communities of the brightest of their children with blandishments about high paying jobs and positions of influence: personal ambition.

Newton, Sir Frances Bacon, and other foundations of modern thought flourished on much more "rustic" levels of technology than what was required to put a man on the moon. As for progress since the 1960s, I note that the technology we have today isn't putting men or women on Mars, or the Moon. Facebook and the iPod don't seem to be advancing science or our knowledge of the Universe.

I suggest that turning predator on our fellow man is a form of personal ambition run amok, even if it is a logical conclusion from the story marketers tell consumers every day.

Perhaps choosing to help meet the needs of our community, to raise a family in the image of the family that raised us, and to learn to know nature and the life around us could be sufficient to describe a worthwhile life. Think of entropy as the opponent, not what others have achieved.

Saturnboy777 said...

Ervino, brother, perhaps I can't offer just a few things that make life worth living: Imperial stout for one! How about the Beatles? A nice long toke, beautiful women,a first kiss, losing your virginity, the beach, Led Zeppelin I, II, II, and IV, yoga, tried meditation lately?... Family, children laughing, holiday parties...How about a nice, big, juicy cheeseburger made with 100% organic grassfed beef? Ice cream. Learn to garden or something dude. Read some books on permaculture. Study some of the mystical philosophies of the world. The whole raping and pillaging game is soooooooooo last millenium. Try focusing on being a blessing to those around you and being a loving, honest man of integrity. Those things take real courage...

John Michael Greer said...

Yupped, I've lived without central heating, in a climate where it got good and cold in the winter, and a well-built woodstove and good insulation are nearly as nice. "The coats will still be waiting" is a great mantra, by the way!

Matthew, so noted. I trust you're familiar with Alasdair McIntyre's After Virtue, or his other discussions of virtue ethics? His point that there is no one virtue that sums up all others, and that different virties aka modes of moral goodness can conflict with one another, strikes me as a useful counterweight to the simplistic moral thinking of our age.

Onething, the universe shows no sign whatsoever of caring whether or not you engage in murder and thievery. It's only individual conscious beings who concern themselves with such things. That doesn't make their concern meaningless, or irrelevant; it simply makes it part of the experience of being human -- an experience that always juxtaposes the universal and the individual. I'll take a look at the Kastrup book as time permits, though.

Tinfoil, thank you!

Repent, well, yes. I'm not a believer in the New Age, as I trust you've noticed! Still, you're right that the same principle applies to many different worldviews! As for suicide, that's a complex issue; I'm far too interested in the world to want to leave it any sooner than I have to, but I'm far from sure I'd pass judgment on those who have a different view.

Gordon, and that's also a very workable set of values! I don't have any biological descendants, but I also see myself as having a certain responsibility to the future, and that shapes a lot of what appears on this blog.

Hapibeli, thank you!

Vesta, with that attitude, you ought to make it through the crises ahead in good shape. Fire, a roof, and good beer: no argument, given those things, the others are a good deal less stressful. ;-)

Bryant, to each their own. Dissensus governs the realm of beer as it does so many other things!

William, there have been, what? Two of the sort of molecular revolutions you've described in the history of this planet. If there's a third, and it's by no means inevitable that there will be, it could as well be a billion years in the future. In the meantime, I suspect my characterization is going to be far more the rule than the exception. Still, a post or two on the future of technology is probably wanted in the next couple of weeks, so we can discuss this further then.

Diablo, why did we come down from the trees? Why, because the trees were getting sparse due to climate change, and there was food to be had in the grassland, of course. It wasn't in pursuit of any grand teleological purpose, you know!

Dave Z said...


Snoqualman said...

I suppose the word "comedy" has acquired a meaning in modern English somewhat different than it started with. But not entirely. The world may be going to hell in the proverbial handbasket, but is that any reason to lose one's sense of humor about it all? I would hope not. I think I can live quite well, thank you, without cyclotrons, synchrotrons, manned spaceflight, and much else. Maybe even better than with them.

Dave Z said...


Rape? Why not??

It disturbs me no end that rape is so casually lumped in with the 'might-as-well'. Just 'good, clean fun' when we've got nothing better to do... when Collapse frees us from 'restraint'.

Sisters, prepare to defend yourselves in terrible times - past, present and to come.

Brothers, let us learn to respect, partner and stand with our sisters in thought, word, deed and defense!

Ervino, I realize your 'why not' was likely an exaggeration to make your point. But ask yourself why THAT possibility comes so easily to mind.

To the rest of us, why are we not stirred to speak out?

Dave Z

Rita Narayanan said...

Progress for the First World is seen in Star Wars terms and for the Third world in terms of material development.

with due respect even the great Joseph Campbell an authority on mythology is seen holding his sermon in Skywalker Ranch in Napa (ref:JC Foundation films)....he speaks eloquently about SW being a modern equivalent of the classic myth. So subconsciously people in the West are attuned to a Space scooter Matrix nemo future.

Humans are geared to think that it is all about *US*, even talking about the environment and plants is not about *the thing itself* but about our need.....and yet we live in a world where people are so self-rightoeus about human rights :)

Thanks again!

Ares Olympus said...

This discussion is very important to me, and I'm sure it can go deeper, much too big for me to express, but I'll try.

First I find affinity inside for Ervino's pessimism, but I can, and I assume Ervino can also, in his more cheerful moods, easily sidestep it.

The first wider model I can take is Daniel Quinn's mythic Totalitarian Culture A, versus an older culture B, and tells a story of a great forgetting, so we can no longer imagine any other way to live, and only in "indigenous cultures" have clues for us.

On the other side I can consider Thomas Hobbs, and his mythic "natural man" who lived before civilization and whose lives were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

So on one side you may have a sentimental image of seeing humans as a part of nature, and on the other side firm defiance that requires humans see ourselves above nature, and that only culture keeps us above the immorality and suffering of the beasts.

I also saw this thoughtful article this week, talking about Trauma, how it can be passed on between generations.

The main thought I pulled out of it is to realize "trauma" may not be what we think it is. That is to say we can be traumatized by our successful avoidance of problems as much as our failures to solve them. So a sense of trauma contains "mythic realities" of how we think the world works, and how we think it ought to work, and doesn't, and all the bargaining we made to feel safe.

So its easy to see that "fossil fuel man" can represent not only a successful adaptation, but a successful avoidance of a "relational" way of seeing the world. Or seeing backwards, without our technological boundaries that make us feel in control and safe, we'd be FORCED by necessity to see mythic relations between us and the world.

So it's curious, you could see trauma in myth as superstition of people unable to master their environment, OR you could see trauma in myth as supertition that we CAN master our environment indefinitely.

In the political domain, Iowa elected a new Senator, Joni Earnst, and one of her ads noted one of her farm chores was to castrate young hogs, and that's what she'd do if she was elected to congress, the pun being cutting "pork" spending, but might also leave some male congressmen concerned about their masculinity as well.

But her peculiar laugh made me think perhaps she was traumatized by those experiences, and that ability to detach from her emotions also makes it easier for her to detach from compassion for the suffering of her fellow human beings, for good or ill.

Myself, I have a hard time imagining any parents would want their children of any age having the job to mutilate animals, but opinions will diverge, and maybe lessons like that teach something that urban children, with their pet goldfish funerals, will never know.

But back to the subject of meaning, I just tried to show these two sides - pure nature-insulated culture create a degenerate view of life, and pure vulnerability to nature's fury creates a degenerate view of life. Both degeneracies contain traumatic repression, and are only healed by the entry of the other.

The modern world has allowed the illusion of safety to encourage us to act irrationally, and fear prevents us from seeing our "relational selves" which can remain asleep.

Its like the "monkey trap", the monkey can't grab the fruit AND get his fist out of the hole. The moral of the story is supposed to be to see greed, but the real story may be that one monkey is in the trap, and another monkey set the trap, and psychologically we've set our own trap by our own success.

Svencow said...

Thanks for the post. I think the last full paragraph is especially powerful. I've struggled to explain my ethos to some of my friends who are still 'living the dream' and I think it will be a valuable rhetorical starting point for the future.

Bike Trog said...

Pillaging sounds like a young man's game. People with that much youth to spend may need something more exciting than whatever was already mentioned. I'm old and need sleep.

Tony said...

As someone whose choice of beer in a restaurant is "what's the darkest thing you have?" and as a scientist-in-training who has devoted the last three years of his life to dissecting the intricate molecular minutiae of yeast sugar metabolism in yet finer fascinating detail, I salute this post. I can hardly imagine doing anything else with my life (at least as a full career). I equally can't expect others to be nearly so enthusiastic.

Incidentally, the yeast do treat us well but give up their secrets ever so slowly...

-Tony B

Anthony Romano said...

JMG said: "in what possible sense does history lead only to mass disease, starvation, rape, and murder? Of course it includes those things; it also includes healing, joy, love, creativity, and much else."

Joel said: "I have a question for you. Do you really think that any human society has ever existed that consisted of "only mass disease, starvation, rape, and murder?" Do you believe that the future we face will consist purely of these four horrors?"

I see that I didn't express my thoughts as clearly as I had hoped. I did not say that history only leads to those horrors (a lot of other good stuff can happen prior to or during the awful stuff). Nor did I say that civilizations consist only of those things. I said that civilizations routinely lead to an endpoint (decline and fall) that largely consists of those horrors occurring on a mass scale.

It's the scale that civilizations enable that is the problem. Think of WW2, millions upon millions of people died, horrible, miserable deaths in barely over a decade, and it never could have happened without industrial civilization.

As I said I still have hope for humanity, and I wouldn't have that hope if I hadn't experienced joy, love, and compassion in my own life. People will find peace again.

But, if civilizations throughout history are locked into a destructive cycle that inevitably leads to resource overshoot and onto MASS starvation, MASS murder, etc. I pose the question, is civilization the root of the problem?

Are the benefits of civilization worth the cost? Is overshoot inevitable?

I don't know the answers to those questions but right now my answers are Maybe and Probably.

I hope that is a bit clearer. I'm not as cynical or blind to the joys of being alive on this beautiful planet as your responses seem to indicate. I just really wonder if there is a way for humanity to avoid the repeated messes we make for ourselves.


LewisLucanBooks said...

About every other day I use the frying pan my grandma brought from Russia, strapped to her bedding, not long after the turn of the last century. It gives me great pleasure to use it.

The other day I cracked an egg into the pan, and it was a double yokker! Not all that rare I know, but the first from my chickens. It made smile.

Now sometime in the future, the pan may be lost or the chickens die. But I'll always have the memory of that pan and those eggs. That memory will give me pleasure and make me smile. That's my call. Or, maybe I'm just easily entertained. Lew

D.M. said...

These are some of the things I was attempting to point out in last month's post at the Well of Galabes blog. Especially the part about people conflating their value judgements with some sort of "objective truth". Much better explained than I could have done. I can also second Onething's recommendation to read Why Materialism is Baloney, if Onething had not mentioned it, I would have.


I too have often contemplated suicide as an appropriate response to circumstances. Each culture makes its own value judgements on ending one's life voluntarily. I cannot remember the name of tribe Kastrup mentioned is his book Why Materialism is Baloney, but they viewed suicide as a means to improve one's life circumstances, an interesting viewpoint to be sure.

Scotlyn said...

IF "If Ervino feels that scientific and technological progress is the only thing that makes his own personal life worth living" were ALL... But he ALSO apparently feels scientific and technical progress is the only thing that makes the personal lives of others worth respecting. And, hearing that, my values recoil in horror.

Somewhatstunned said...

Before reading the ADR, I was pretty much predisposed to JMGs stance on these matters because of my previous reading of the British philospher Mary Midgely.

She is perhaps a bit dry for many readers - so I'm not recommending that anyone rushes off to read her, but I just can't help myself from citing my own sources and making a geeky reference note for anyone who comes across any of her books in a secondhand shop.

Spanish fly said...

I think that life, with or without synchrotrons, in peace or war, in the Moon or Earth, is a question of respecto for myself (for yourself) I agree with Frankie in this topic...

And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend I'll say it clear
I'll state my case of which I'm certain

I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets I've had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Yes there were times I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out, I faced it all
And I stood tall and did it my way

I've loved, I've laughed and cried
I've had my fill, my share of losing
And now as tears subside
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way
(Note: the following verses are my favourite ones)

Yes it was my way

Frank Sinatra

beetleswamp said...

In my farming class tonight we were talking about bio-char and how there are places along the Amazon that are super fertile because of ancient civilizations. Nobody knows how they did it and people are just starting to experiment with it again. It reminded me of how the Romans lost concrete and we only figured it out again less than 100 years ago. Maybe there will be an order of future scientists dedicated to recovering lost tech. That sounds fun and challenging. Now I'm going to the store to get an Imperial stout. Old Rasputin is my favorite.

Mark Sebela said...

This post brought to mind an essay I read awhile back by David Graeber.

Clover said...

I think this is just about one of the most poignant of your posts I have had the pleasure to read.

As an Arts student (English and History with a smattering of other disciplines) I am constantly asked why I've chosen that field, as if it should be obvious to me that it is somehow of no value to the future of the human race.

However, it is through studying history that I am able to come to conclusions about the future, like those you propose on this blog. It is through studying literature that I can experience something of what it was like to live in other eras, both bright and dark, and one thing I have noticed is that poetry never dies. Stories never die. No matter what else is lost.

Very much looking forward to this month's Well of Galabes post!

Oasis Walker said...

Reading this post, I remembered a scene in the movie 'The Last Samurai'. Once the lead character starts observing the people in the villiage, he notices and is impressed by the way in which the villiagers apply themselves to every task, seeking perfection and beauty in even the most mundane tasks.

The beauty of a traditional Japanese building, an old celtic broach, the vocals of Ladysmith Black Mombassa, my wife and kids, sunlight and storms.. a life worth living is made up of things such as these.

alnusincana said...

Finally a weeks reprive...
Two weeks ago I was told that facebook was the equivalent of dining on live tarantulas.
Also a commenter pointed out the problems with removing "friend", since all small pieces contribute something usefull to you.
I did take these points to heart and started the deletion process.
I have also taken steps to withdraw from technology by not having my mobile phone on all the time.

A few days before last weeks post, I had bought some silver coins. (30 to be exact, because I liked the symbolism...) my reasoning being that this could be usefull to aid my family in case of dire times.
Then I was told that what I had aquired was not a insurance, but rather a violence-magnet and a vehiacle for agnst and worries.
Not sure if it was a self-fullfilling prophecy, but I have fealth really uncomfortable with the silver coins now. And have started to look on all other signs of wealth (however moderate) that I do have, with increased discomfort.

I'm glad that this weeks essay wasn't a direct assault at my ego, because a third strike in such a short intervall would have been very taxing!

Jo said...

I have always felt a bit incompetent compared to all the clever people who comment here, but the advantage of having studied history and literature over science in this case seems to be a sure knowledge that individuals strive and thrive and find meaning under the most trying and awful of circumstances. And we have not just done this in the past, or in the future, but are doing it RIGHT NOW all over the world. There are millions upon millions of people living subsistence lifestyles, or on the streets, or in the middle of war zones, and they are also giving birth and dying and falling in love and learning about the world any way they know how, because we are all human beings and that is what we do.
And most of them live quiet lives, doing the best they can to bring up their kids, and the scientifically minded among them use their brilliant brains to make subsistence farming a little more efficient, or invent better plumbing systems, and the poets among them tell stories after a day of hard work.

This is how my great-grandparents lived, and the only reason I don't live the same way is because of a temporary glitch due to harnessing the power of some dead fossils and an accident of geography in which I was born in the right place to enjoy the spoils. We who are reading this are all temporary members of the earth's aristocracy, and we have some pretty toys to play with, and we are going to cry and stamp our feet when they are taken away, but the essence of what it means to be human - whatever that is for each of us - will remain the same.

Of course, if we are defined by our toys, we are going to be in a very hard place when we don't have them any more. So a good use of our down time now would be to pop out into the desert, or sit down under a tree like certain significant religious world leaders, and have a good think about who we are and what our lives mean.

But all the doom and hysterics about what our possible future is going to be.. is all a bit silly really. We forget that most of the population of the earth currently and throughout history, already have lived and are living the very lives we are panicking about possibly having to live in the future. It's terribly patronising to believe that the lives of everyone except the privileged in our own society don't have meaning.

We'll be fine. We are human beings. We adapt to our circumstances. That's how we got where we are. We don't need Hadron Colliders, space stations and other toys to be truly human.

thriftwizard said...

Dear Ervino, the Archdruid has offered you his wise and compassionate answer to your question. As a mother, I've heard your very questions from my own sons, and my answers will be as follows, when they are ready to hear:

Remember the magic of songs and food around the campfire? Remember the thrill and the glory of climbing the mountain to see the sun rise or set? Remember the exhilaration of mastering the surf, the beauty of the dawn chorus, the power of the running tide & the wind? Think on seeing your sister's smile, smelling the roses and feeling the warmth of the quilt your grandmother made.

Then fight your way out of the matrix carefully placed inside your head by TV, advertising, computer games & schooling. Forget the misery & shame engendered by not yet being able to afford the latest iPhone. That is not the real world; all the weapons & gadgets in the world do not have the power of the seedling that pushes its way through the concrete pavement. Life is not a choice between technological trinkets or guns & death, life is already within you and all around you, waiting for you to see it and embrace it.

Very few of the things that really matter depend on high technology. Spend some time working out what does matter, like community, good food for good health, and working with Nature rather than against her; we may well find we have enough battles on our hands to ameliorate & survive some of the damage the last few centuries have inflicted on our life-support system to waste much time fighting each other!

Ventriloquist said...

How shall we go on
he asked
If the future is so bleak?

Oh . . she replied
there will always be
of bright sunshine
that appear
within the gloom,
and we will live
for those.

Mister Roboto said...

Just a brief note before I comment: It would appear my little astrology-based prediction did not bear fruit. But no matter. The Uranus-Pluto planetary aspect about which I am primarily concerned will be in very close orb until the start of April, and Mars will interact directly with it once again before then. The Grand Cross back in April-May that contained this aspect was, in my estimation, what started the pot boiling.

My comment for this week: My theology says that this plane of existence is probably the lowest one on which it is possible for sentient life to exist. But I still think we're here for a reason, and that means we should "be here now" and take it seriously and embrace it. That it is pretty much just and illusion and a game doesn't rob it of meaning. Indeed, it has whatever meaning you choose to give it. So your choice is to either endeavor to be your highest and best self or allow yourself to be corrupted by the selfishness and ignorance of a world entirely too focused on the material aspect of life. What I have recently realized I need to do to propel me towards the former choice, is pretty much let go of everything I thought was appropriate about life in this place and time from back when I was a young man who took way too much for granted. (Holy mackerel that last sentence was mouthful!)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I'm not sure that any of the responses to Mr. Cus explicitly address what I take to be his fundamental concern. That people get satisfaction, pleasure and joy out of aspects of living unrelated to the pursuit of scientific truth may be beside the point. Mr. Cus is upset that the human race, having won and possessed for a time knowledge and understanding, is on the brink of reverting to ignorance.

When this happens on a societal scale, it is tragic. If there is no prospect of recovery, those who see it happening may well despair. This kind of despair can cause a person to think that the morality of their actions makes no difference, and that is one of the seven deadly sins in Catholic theology.

Some of you may have read a classic science fiction novel called Flowers for Algernon. The protagonist and narrator is a man of subnormal intelligence. He becomes an experimental subject for military research and is given the equivalent of a magic potion; for a while he acquires a genius level IQ. He begins to read books and have complex thoughts. He comes to understand that people he thought were his friends have been making fun of him. Then the effects of the treatment start to wear off. His intelligence gradually declines from high genius to low genius to normal, shedding skills and abilities, and for most of the decline he understands what is happening to him, until he's back where he started.

I'm not going to call every kind of systematic knowledge a science, but there are fields for scientific inquiry outside the physical sciences and there are methods of observation and testing of hypotheses that don't require fancy gear, as JMG pointed out a while ago.

Science is one of the things that human beings can do with our big brains. Perhaps it is not a cultural universal like music, but it is a fairly common cultural pursuit, not solely the province of one cultural line from the ancient Greeks to the Nobel prize committee. It's helpful to know how to recognize different expressions of it.

While developing the kinds of scientific knowledge that European-based scientific inquiry has gotten good at since the early modern period, our culture has simultaneously ignored, disrupted, misunderstood, suppressed, and labeled as superstition the sciences of other cultures.

Chinese medicine and various other systems for maintaining health are based on principles of vitalism that Western medicine abandoned centuries ago, for the excellent reason that the Greek implementation of that type of system killed people. As a result, the medical theories that replaced the theory of humors are unable to recognize or deal with the energetic systems on which medicine is based in (for example) India and China. You can get insurance to pay for acupuncture these days, but no explanation of how it works other than the placebo effect because the underpinnings are based on different assumptions.

Many aboriginal cultures had an understanding of ecosystems that Western life sciences are only beginning to grasp. Hindu and Buddhist psychologies, using hardly any method other than systematic introspection, are quite sophisticated. Many people are born with an ability to see or feel auric fields around anything alive; this is a natural perception which our culture ignores and fears instead of cultivating. Western biology is just beginning to notice that organisms communicate with each other by pheromones, electrical fields, and a variety of other interactions which are based in the physical world, not in any metaphysical woo-woo; other cultures manage to notice these phenomena without fancy apparatus.

The silver lining to losing the societal basis for progress in physics, chemistry and astronomy beyond the amazing work that our civilization has already done might be that it makes room for other fields of study and other modes of investigation, once some stability has been restored.

Odin's Raven said...

Some people are taking a longer term view of what is worthwhile and what can be preserved or redeveloped, without modern technology or science.

A new series has started on British TV about archaeologists and historians who are building a 13th century style castle in France, using the methods and wearing the clothes and living in the manner of the time.

It will take a generation to complete. They have found that it can be quite comfortable to live in a hut lying on bundles of reeds. Physical labour makes them fit and leaves them without the need for electronic entertainment or light beyond the central hearth, after a long day's work.

An American version has been started in the Ozarks.

Tourism makes such places profitable while the present conditions last. When the next generation needs to pull up the drawbridge, they will have abundant stores and plenty of crossbows and bolts. I would not be surprized if others are working on Kentucky long rifles!

Of course, if modern artillery etc disappears, but gunpowder returns, 'star forts' may again become a favoured defence of states strong enough to afford the huge costs. Here's some examples examples of how elaborate they could be. The defences around Lille, for instance, covered several times the area of the town.

When this civilisation disappears most of its discontents are likely to go with it.

There may still be a last gasp of value in the current education system. It seems that nowadays you need a PhD to be able to try to live as a medieval peasant. Some of their descendents may be among the Lords or poets of the future.

KidCharlemagne said...

Beautiful post this week! A healthy dose of perspective is always invigorating! On the apparent relativity of values I'll use what I hope will soon be an obsolete metaphor, this planet Earth at this point in its endless road trip is a vehicle that most living creatures have been content to be passengers merely enjoying or not the ride. But a tiny minority will always be intent on driving the vehicle and collecting the fare.

Using a corporate, globalist, neo Darwinist scientific reductionism meme They will continue to ferret out all the stowaways on Earth until their hubris runs out of fuel. Some monkeys are just smarter than others.

Marc L Bernstein said...

Science is just one of man's pursuits. Indigenous tribes often consider art to be their most important non-essential activity, along with ritual. In fact, art, ritual and practical science are often bound up together.

People everywhere like adventure and discovery as long as they are young and healthy, whether formal science is involved or not. We live on a large planet. There is still plenty to discover, whether we have fancy tools to aid us or not. Observational science involving field work requires little technology. If people are still around it might persist as well.

I do feel pangs of sorrow at the realization that we are nearing the end of a time in which important scientific discoveries are still being made, in fields such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, botany, paleontology, geology, genetics, etc.

In the hard sciences, technological devices are essential. Those sciences will be the hardest hit as civilization declines.

As you mentioned, the preservation of scientific knowledge will be an important activity during the declining phase of our civilization. In fact, all knowledge will be in peril.

jonathan said...

they've addressed the question in song: "what's it all about alfie..."; in film: "monte python and the meaning of life"; on bumper stickers: "he who dies with the most toys wins" and with bad tattoos: "born to raise hell".
your interlocutor has raised the basic question at the root of theology and philosophy; WHY ARE WE HERE? WHAT IS OUR PURPOSE?
the traditional answers of salvation, satori etc.will not suffice for the rationalist and so your interlocutor has substituted scientific progress, a more modern goal. he, and the rest of us must sooner or later ask ourselves if there is any purpose or if our presence in this universe is just the result of an essentially stochastic process and that such searches for the meaning of life are pointless.
maybe the best advice come from john lennon: "imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try".
cut loose from prepackaged goals. find your own way.

Andy Brown said...

Douglas Adams still has the most succinct answer to the question, what is the meaning of life? It's "42". Which has the great benefit of encouraging you to re-think the question.

Andy Brown said...

Ah yes, back to progress. In my more metaphysical moments I like to subscribe to a spiral mode of progress - cycles that nevertheless lead somewhere different. At other times . . . You know that old toy, the Slinky, the spiral of metal that will march down the steps. Have you ever seen what becomes of them when they've been played with too long or too roughly? Yeah, there's my spiral of human progress. I once took such a tangle, tied a string to it and hung it from the ceiling as a bit of art. At the time I just liked the way it looked. If I still had it today, I might use it as a device of meditation.

magicalthyme said...

Here on my mini-farm, the harvest is finally over. Last week, we had a quick taste of winter with a heavy, wet nor'easter that left us without electrity for 3 days and nights. Made it through tired from the extra work, but that was because I still had the afternoon/evening job to get too. My one evening at home I found myself wishing I could knit. It's on the list, along with drop spinning, for next year's education. But it seemed like the perfect way to while away an evening sitting in the dim light of a candle.

Pinku-Sensei, if you follow your own links to De Young's paper, you will find he quotes and links to JMG as a source. I read through part of his paper and then couldn't take much more. He states that that behavioral psychologists were behind the "green consumer" movement. My suggestion to him is get himself outside of his mental box by replacing the term "consumer" with "people" or "human being."

I have a vague memory of a time when at least on tv news people were called people, instead of consumers (or "human resource units). Personally, I resent the change.


thecrowandsheep said...

I do feel that there is more of a gray area between the value-fact binary posited by the archdruid. For example, in oh-so-ghastly medieval times, it was common to have to bring out your dead every so often due to the pure ghastliness of it all, and without the benefit of industrial scale incinerating procedures. Occasionally though, there would be debate over the fact as to whether someone was actually dead or not. In the linked film, there was simultaneously a difference in values in that one party clearly wanted the other party to be dead. The dead person though, he of a different value judgement, wanted to go for a walk. The whole snafu then had to be solved by a third party.

The point is that the scene in the film shows the squalor that everyone knows happens when you abandon, or are forced to abandon, industrial progress to the stars and beyond. Industrial progress does, however, have its own difficulties that still need to be explained away. Though in fairness, if an alien visited us and asked "what on earth is going on?", you could simply explain things by pointing out that the previous 100 years of development have been a wholly rational and lengthy scientific experiment soon to be published in Nature journal to determine which method of incineration works best under which conditions. For example, napalm works fabulous on post-colonial peoples hiding out in jungles, and on even the dastard jungles themselves. Lacking this knowledge, I would sure not have wanted to live in medieval times.

Sleisz Ádám said...

I think that your argument about the self-terminating nature of progress is valid. Nonetheless, I know persons - my former physics professor is one of them - who would disagree. Your vision about the absurd results of "completed" science would not convince them because they believe that research only finds ever better or more precise models of the universe. The "real" world is not comprehensible in its exact entirety, therefore our journey is infinite by definition.

I have been thinking (and also reading) about this for a few years. My professor's view can seem respectable if one looks at its humbleness, but it is still not something I can accept. I think that the essence of science does not lie in the outside world but in ourselves. It is not about the answers we get but rather about the questions we ask. There is no such thing as "better" or "more precise" model even inside the realm of science, the difference only depends on what we want to know. Composed in your terms, scientific progress seems to be a value judgement itself, and technological progress perhaps even more so.

The self-termination property of progress appears when humanity changes its questioning framework radically enough that one can not mistake it even deliberately.

Jerrica Benton said...

To me, it's always about choice. I haven't gotten many, or most, of the things I've desired in life. Health problems take a lot of career and family options away, and being LGBT *and* Atheist takes other, social options out of play.

But still, how you deal with things is a choice. I am often sad, and often angry. But - I don't look for people to hurt. You can build people up, or tear them down. I choose to build - *except* when people wrongly assert privilege, and especially when those people then assert "the victim card" when called on their behaviour. Again, when you choose to scattershot awful and destructive ideas, you are literally hurting others, right now. Build things, or break them.

In other matters, I dislike Dark Beer, but I'd be happy to buy you one, as long as I can enjoy my Asahi. :)

Strovenovus said...

Finally an interlude of sweet, sweet comedy-- in more than one sense of the word! Thank you!

Doom scrying makes provocative and entertaining reading, and I hope (believe) that you are sketching out the bleak landscape of the coming times not just to tear away the deadening veil of confident normalcy that hangs over our day-to-day lives, but also to create the setting for the steps that should be taken to start to pay back our indebtedness to those who follow.

Like Ervino, I often delight in understanding the world and the quest for knowledge. Yet I have also felt that the understanding we have achieved seems a bit hollow, because it is incapable of remedying so many of our collective problems, and it so often distracts from grappling with what is working and not working in my life.

As a recovering prophet of doom, I try my best to look for a path forward on every occasion. Recognizing the fragile and temporary nature of our circumstances is necessary, but I place more importance on redeeming myself through preparation and struggle.

I value all of your words, and your articles discussing paths of redemption the most.

Ervino Cus said...

Dear JMG,
first of all, a tongue-in-cheek gloss to my original post for anybody that will ever meet me in the near/remote future: I HAVEN'T ANY INTENTION TO PILLAGE/RAPE YOU, OK? The point in my question was a *philosophical* one, NOT a plan for my future actions.
I don't intend to be un-respectful to anyone with this gloss, but I had to defuse a little, considering some of the kind of replies to my original comment I received last and this week.
Beside this (and with the certainty that from now on I will, anyway, be subject forever to a special surveillance from any kind of law enforcement agency around the World... :-/ I have some consideration on your reply to my comment, if I may.
My main perplexity, if I understand you well, is that you equate "believing" in the techno/scientific method (from now on T/Sm for short) to others form of faith. But the point is exactly that using the T/Sm in approaching the Universe is NOT the same as using and irrationally-based "faith", but it is using an instrument based on sperimentation/proof/replicability-of-results, so its exact contrary. The T/Sm is what gave us all the good concrete things of our civilization (including things as "low" as systematical crop rotation, for example). The "bad ones" it have fathered derive, IMO, mainly from its applications "out of context" for personal/corporate/criminal gain and as an instrument of precise political/economical objectives. The typical base example of this is the Net and the ITC. If 95% of the people on-line pursue only mass sports and other similar things and use their smartphones to take selfies, this is a derivation of an "a priori" distortion in their approach to these media, an approach developed and inculcated by TPTB for their own personal purposes of keeping the sheeple "low". Idem est for the pharmaceutical/medical establishment, and so on. I understand your distinction between facts and values, but it seems to me that it has it validity mainly if not only at the *individual & personal* choice level. The taste in the matter of one preferred beer flavor is one thing, the choice in the modus operandi for, e.g., eradicating a disease is, IMO, a well different fish to fry.
In addition I, obviously, disagree on the "a priori" intrinsic limitations of the operative power our species can gain though the T/Sm. The upper limits you prospect is, it seems to me, a kind of consumeristic "Rapture of the Nerds" (cfr. the Doctorow-Stross same name novel), and limited anyway by some immutable "laws" of Nature. But one of the central points of the T/Sm is its epistemological self-correcting structuration (cfr, Popper et al.). If *now* our level of knowledge postulate that, e.g., the speed of light is an invalicable limit, or that the Plank constant is, even locally, unmodifiable, this don't mean that in the long run the theories and their applications will not change radically, and allow us to implement what now seems a violation of an absolute. It has happened before (e.g. the Newtonian physics evolved in and has been subsumed in the Relativistic one), and saying that it couldn't happen again... *that* is an act of faith.

N Montesano said...

Thank you, I liked this. Less concerned about "progress," personally, but do struggle quite a lot with depression over what we're doing to ourselves and other living things. Some days, a lot of sadness, anxiety, despair. It's worth remembering that that isn't new to the human experience, either. Although the weather may be ...

Ervino Cus said...

Pinku-Semsei, onething and Yupped objections, are, IMO, in the same vein: they object that *based on what we know now* the future evolution of the T/Sm will only be, in the best case, a refining of the actual techniques. But, IMO, this is the same kind of reasoning that where utilized in the late '800 to say that "all that have to be discovered has been" and now all we have to do is catalogue the discoveries already made. What I mean is that we cannot say what, using the S/Tm, will become of our species tomorrow (in a "Singularity" context, if you wish to use this frame of reference) based on what we, with our *actual* vision, can imagine. Limiting our approach to the future in this way lead to the "flying machines with flapping wings" of the late '800 popular iconography.
And, yes, I know that very probably I will be "pushing daises" from a lot of years if/when this will become possible, but, again, this is not about "me & my toys" as someone said last week, but about the evolutive possibilities of the entire human species.
Last but not least, where I totally agree with you is when you say "it may well be that the most important thing that can be done by people who value science and technology is to figure out what can be preserved through the difficult times ahead, and do their best to see that these things reach the waiting hands of the future". But this will presuppose that our species WILL have any kind of future in which this knowledge could be retrieved and used. And a collapse as the one you postulate (and to which I too, unfortunately, agree is in the making) makes this seems to me quite dubious (I mean: do you really think, for example, that the hundreds of nuclear reactors will all be disposed of in a regulate way when the push come to shove?).
I hope with this post to have made myself clear about why I ask "why bother" if our actual civilization become an impossibility due to the demise of our actual T/Sm-based system. In my opinion it is so hard to "falling back" (cfr. "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson) both from this T/Sm *present* AND from the kind of *future* the T/Sm paradigm could bring to our species, and so harsh the alternative that is realistically imaginable will supplant them, that I really don't see any reason in the awaiting struggle to survive, even if any kind of survival will be possible, to, at max, have a "quiet" life of sheparding to look at. "Testosterone poisoning", as someone said last week? Hubris? That is not for me to valuate: anyone is, obviously, free to have its own opinion of mine.
What I recognize now is that last week probably I made a "dialectic" error in using the "free pillaging for all" metaphor in my original post (it was an impulse post, not a planned one), but, again, it was ONLY intended as a "strong" example of to what IMO could become the "new normal" in some years (cfr. "Soft Apocalypse" by Will McIntosh; "A boy and his Dog" by Harlan Hellison, etc.), NOT my recommendation for a blueprint for future actions.
Ok, sorry for the long "rant", but I dunno if I will have in the next days time enough for following the flux of comments...


Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Heavens, JMG, Dante sounds deep: Ulysses not as conquering hero, but as a man of hubris! What a bracing Catholic antidote to the self-sufficient, theologically undeveloped, Ulysses depicted by the (admittedly in his own way wonderful) Victorian Tennyson.

I keep thinking that it would be good to get to know Dante, say by first reading an English translation, and then plodding through the Italian by (a) keeping a dictionary open and (b) keeping an eye out for similarities with French and Latin. (French and Latin I have, but Italian I lack.) I have an Italian friend who can give tips on pronunciation. The Italian lines would eventually have to be read out loud, indeed read aloud over and over to the point of semi-memorization.

Have you any practical tips to suggest, such as choice of English translation? The work scheme I am envisaging would require a literal translation, as opposed to a literary one.

Is there perhaps also some good scholarly commentary, in English, illuminating the more obscure of Dante's political and cultural allusions?

I suppose you would recommend starting with Inferno, from the very beginning, as opposed to dipping (say) into the middle of Commedia?

Are the illustrations of Doré true to Dante's spirit, or are they best ignored?

Am I right in thinking that this exercise would be worth while even if one did not get beyond one single Canto? (My thought here is that something of value is gained by reading even a small slice of an extended epic - as something of value is gained by doing just differential calculus, in the hypothetical sad case of a pupil without time for integrals.)

having today to think
of my own calculus studies,
and of the details
of impending-Dark-Age bookbinding,

Tom (= Toomas Karmo)
www dot metascientia dot com
Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com

Shawn Aune said...

JMG Said to onething: "the universe shows no sign whatsoever of caring whether or not you engage in murder and thievery."

I, as a bit of awake and aware universe, definitely do care.

The conscious bit of universe playing the murderee in this hypothetical situation probably cares a great deal as well.

onething said to JMG: "you think that there are no real truths and no real values?"

To onething: Love is not a value and neither is justice. They are categorical archetypes which most certainly exist no matter whether one values them or not.

Yes it is possible to quibble about the definitions of those archetypes and whether an event meets the archetype's categorical requirements but they don't simply disappear if we strip them of value.

Don Plummer said...

John, If you ever come to Columbus (sadly, you can't get here on a train, though), look us up and we'll treat you to a dinner at Barley's Ale House #1, where you can enjoy the best Russian Imperial Stout in the world--or at least in central Ohio. It's definitely my wife's favorite beer, although I have to admit I also have a taste for their rye-brewed pale ale.

You can try both, of course, or any of their other brews.

If you can't make it here in person, though, here's an excellent Ohio-brewed porter that you might be able to find locally:

will said...

Dear JMG - as you've often intimated, life in a post-petroleum, post-tech world can have its advantages - and if modernity has dulled our spiritual senses, then modernity's end could be advantageous indeed. Of course we're going to pass through a thousand gates of hell to get there, but viewed dispassionately, even that could prove to be a shriving experience.

- we'll (re)acquire a sense of the numinous, of divine archetype.

- certainly our sense of community and our individual sense of responsibility to community can be enhanced.

- our relation to Nature and all her spirits and subtle energies can be enhanced, perhaps to a degree we can now scarcely imagine.

- with all this, our 6th and on upwards senses can blossom over time. Who knows what wonders that could bring?

I don't want to get all bubbly over this; as I said, the descent is going to be a howling chaos at times and I'm afraid that a lot of psyches are going to be broken. Still, a lot of spiritually hardy souls can emerge from the chaos; and the future need hardly be the ocean of despair that your Italian friend envisions - just the opposite, in fact.

Mr. Greer, I did want to ask you about David Spangler (who you may thank for introducing me to your writings). As you do, Mr. Spangler envisions a collapse of technological civilization, but he does, I think, foresee a possible "Change" of some sort - maybe not a complete heaven-on-earth Parousia, but an earth largely devoid of the base human instincts that have always plagued us. I don't want to take you too far off topic or for you to get too esoteric for this blog, but I was wondering if you're in agreement with your colleague Mr. Spangler on this matter of the "Change". I think if people like your Italian friend could see even a little light ahead - even if they might not understand it in the least - then they wouldn't be quite so quick to throw in the towel in the face of the harsh reality that's coming our way. Thanks! best, Will

trippticket said...

When I read Ervino's comment all I could feel was sadness for what must be the perspective of a great many people out there. When I re-read it to my wife she felt the same thing.

And when I read the bit about the imperial stout, all I could feel was sadness about the fact that it was only 10 am on the east coast of North America, and we still had a lot to do at the homestead today before we could get to the imperial stout.

hhawhee said...

I, too, share regret that we will inevitably end up in a place where "scientific progress" will no longer happen and much of our scientific knowledge will probably be lost.

However, it is the kind of regret that an adult feels at seeing a precious piece of pottery broken, not an existential crisis.

And let's remember that even right now, at the crest (or just a little beyond that) of Western science and technology, it's only a small minority of people who care or know about these things, and it's only a small minority who ever have. So what is everybody else, chopped liver? Are their lives meaningless? Maybe somebody should ask them.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thanks, Brad K., for highlighting
ambition as one of vices of our age, and pointing out that among the institutions fostering ambition are our schools.

Dogs, while teachable, are in their loyal, exuberant, woofing affection relatively free of ambition. The ludicrously named species Homo sapiens may profit from their example.

JMG, I hope that when you write your upcoming posts on education, you touch a little on Brad K.'s theme.

I think of it like this: Here we are in (as it might be) that hotbed of ambition, the 1990s University of Toronto, competing against one another, encouraged by the very structure of our academy to compete. So if reasonably conscientious, reasonably careful Toomas manages through dogged slogging to get an A+ in this semeter's astrophysics, and connscientious, careful, but younger Sabrina gets a mere A, then Toomas has SCORED! and Sabrina has kinda-sorta LOST! and Sabrina might now be less favourably positioned to get one of the limited number of PRIZES!

There is something diabolic in this pitting of student against student. The Greek "diabolos" indeed means something like "one-who-divides", "the Separator".

I would like to add here that when JMG writes about education, in upcoming weeks, he might additionally keep an eye on a different, but in obscure-yet-related ways related, problem - the problematic tradition, namely, of uniting in one individual, in the scary god-Professor, the innately opposed functions of teacher and examiner.

In a well run university, one person does the teaching, and a different one the examining. Then your teacher becomes your buddy, your assistant in preparing for the rigours of the examination room. Your teacher even takes on a personal and professional stake in your academic survival.

Anyway, enough of this.

having to do a good job today
on leather-bookbinding-preps
and on calculus,


Richard Larson said...

White skin is a benefit in a sun less environment as it is a detriment in a sun rich environment. Melanin has everything to do with climate + environment and nothing to do with brain power.

Ervino ought to take up a garden, results in a healthy living! Here is the last of the kohlrabi I grew coming out of a garden:

Agent Provocateur said...


Thank you for a thoughtful, insightful, and gentle reply to Ervino's comments. It was worth the detour.

Re. murder, rape, and pillage (MRP), since Ervino brought it up, I think a brief discussion of this mode of life might be helpful. The UN has run programs for people in war bands who make their living through MRP. Given the opportunity, most people are more than happy to give up on MRP if they really can make a living some other way. Some so called Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) programs have been more successful than others. The success of such programs depends largely on how realistic the alternatives means of making a living are.

Though I was involved in a DDR program that was not successful, my conclusion is still that humans generally only pursuit MRP as a way of life as a last resort. Few individuals actually want to be a murdering, raping, thieves … least of all those who already are. Of course there are exceptions; the leadership of such groups in particular. Ideologically infected groups such as IS or the US military may be regarded as other exceptions. But as a general rule, this is not most human's preferred mode of existence.

Why? I think it is because of all those other positive human values that make life worth living that you mentioned. I believe most people involved in MRP as a way of life know at some level that they have cut themselves off from those “other positive human values that make life worth living.” Hence the high rate of suicide and various emotional and psychological disorders among those who do or did engage in MRP.

So, though some values are purely a matter of taste, other are not. Some values lead to actions that really do have objectively verifiable negative or positive outcomes. In that sense, some values really are better than others. I regard this as an objective fact because it is objectively verifiable. Thus there are points where facts and values intersect. This doesn't mean I have to fall into thinking in terms of moral absolutes though: balance being one of those positive human values in emotionally healthy people. Nonetheless, this line of thinking does lead to a least a loose hierarchy of values.

In stating the foregoing, I trust I'm not contradicting you. Am I?

Now to more serious matters: re. Imperial Stout: First, it should be capitalized as I have done. Second, anyone who doesn't like it just hasn't drunk enough of it. This too is objectively verifiable!

zaphod42 said...

I think, good sir, that what those who serve the God of Science are interested in is control over, not knowledge of, the Universe. Hence, if we cannot gain greater control over externalities, then there is no HOPE. We are then but flotsam and jetsam in the space/time continuum. It is that, I believe, that frustrates, so, those who believe in Singularity, Progress and the like.

Of course, our projected and limited future does not create any certainty that the knowledge we now have will be irrevocably lost simply because it is impossible for every individual human being to possess her own iPhone, iPad, notebook PC or what have you. It seems likely that we may again see the day that the public library becomes one of the most important edifices in our village, and that preserving our knowledge becomes one of our highest priorities. At least one can hope.

The point is that there is always hope. At some point, there can only be diminishing returns from greater investment in knowledge seeking. We may already be there, and in fact likely are from the standpoint of energy requirements. And, while we may turn our gazes more inward, I am reasonably certain that we will also continue to explore. Consider that we know relatively little detail regarding our oceans, and are making new discoveries almost on a daily basis of new species, either extant or in the fossil records.

There is a good deal of doubt that we, as a species, will become starfarers, however much we might desire to be such. That remains uncertain, though, since all of physics has yet to be discovered. From what we do know, and notwithstanding the possibility of some breakthrough that will give us a way to cheat the limiting speed of light, is that travel over huge distances will in any conceivable circumstance require huge expenditures of energy. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Victor Vinge (who writes wonderful Sci Fi) seem to overlook the limits of finite resources, and project exponential growth to continue “far” into the future. The best we can say about such is, “We'll see.”

Despite the known limitations of resources available to humanity, we have only begun to explore human physiology – an arena that is quite close and can well be studied, and perhaps in some way mastered, with a good deal less energy output than a single trip to Mars, or even to the Moon. The benefits to mankind of a life span even modestly enhanced , if the quality of life is greatly so, cannot be overstated. I submit that our hope is to turn our gaze a bit more literally inward.

That the planet cannot sustain the absolute numbers of homo sapiens even presently living upon it is a certainty. That it could sustain human life in symbiotic harmony with the biosphere is equally certain. Whether it will or not is up to us, for a start, and to our progeny to determine.

Thus, my response to Sr. Erfino would be, rapacious anarchy will do little to preserve existing knowledge, and less to enhance human existence. Instead one should better strive to create avenues of hope, and help others to find them.

zaphod42 said...

Oops... The futurist's name is Vernor Vinge, not Victor. Victor would be the late Victor Stenger, who was a well known physicist, but not really a futurist. Vernor Vinge is a mathematician and computer scientist, and closely associated with Kurzweil's Singularity.

Cathy McGuire said...

Another wonderful post, thank you. I haven't been around here much because I have been unfortunately caught up in a nasty lawsuit that my crazy neighbor instigated to claim use of some of my property – I mention it both as an excuse for not participating and because I think it is relevant to your post today. Because what I see in this situation is a concrete example of what catabolic collapse looks like, how it is playing out. The fact is without a lawyer (which I cannot afford, which would cost more than the lawsuit loss would be worth) I have very little chance of proving what is both clear fact and accepted reality in my neighborhood – but which is not "fact" in the US legal system, which can twist all sorts of information into clever technicalities. And in checking the "legal safety net" of legal aid, and similar programs, I find it is mostly words and nothing of substance, similar to the social safety nets that others have found our empty promises.

For the last couple of months I have been upset and even bitter, but I am gradually coming to see that – because this is the face of catabolic collapse – this is a chance to practice learning how to adapt, and learning how to accept reversals without letting it crush me. I was discussing with August Johnson (he posts on this comments page) and his wife how this will happen more often, where we will be caught in systems that are broken (I'm going through some of this with the medical system as well) and that if we are not to be paralyzed by rage, despair and fear, we have to go through an inner shift where we start to accept that we cannot have it the way it was, and begin to plan our lives, as much as possible, to be more adaptable to random crises. Catabolic collapse will not hit everyone equally. I also see that the neighbor who has instigated this, who has poisoned her relationship with all her near neighbors over her sneaky, arrogant behavior, considers the small strip of land to be more important than relationships – and we all live in a low income neighborhood that will be first to be slammed with any hardships – is giving up connection for some power trip. I can just guess that she will not have the cooperation that I am enjoying from those same neighbors because I am treating them well and being honest with them.

As I work to prepare the legal documents myself (and try to gather written proof of crazy things like what kind of traffic went along a driveway for several years) and sort through what authorities I can ask for information, and psych myself up for the scary appearances in court in front of the judge who this week was clearly not interested in anything other than legalese, I have shifted my focus to my own inner growth and groundedness, practicing being able to find those moments of joy in nature, and my animals and garden, in the midst of this very difficult time. Also, I am trying to be an example of calm around my neighbors who want to rage at this arrogant neighbor, who want to battle and hurt her back – I have deliberately not answered her rage with rage, and I feel better for that. (And it also helped me yesterday with the four natural gas reps who came out, one after the other, to assure her I had not broken a gas line – she eventually was written up as a kook and a liar, and I was thanked for being reasonable.) And to respond to Ervino, the meaning of life in times of hardship comes from the inner relationship to soul or psyche and the outer relationships one has built. As someone who will be 60 next year, I realize that every human faces that question some point in their life, when they see death on the horizon, and they ask what is the meaning when it all ends eventually? Our culture tries to avoid this question, but it is unavoidable if you don't want to live in fantasy and denial until the end. Thanks again for a great post.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

1)De Young's paper Some behavioral aspects of energy descent: how a biophysical psychology might help people transition through the lean times ahead, linked at the U. Michigan press release website, includes in its reference list

Greer, J. M. (2008). The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Greer, J. M. (2012). “Progress vs. apocalypse,” in The Energy Reader: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, eds T. Butler, D. Lerch, and G. Wuerthner (Sausalito, CA: The Foundation for Deep Ecology), 95–101.

2)The Meaning of Life - or, more accurately, how to find it - is explained by the twentieth-century applied philosophy collective Monty Python's Flying Circus, working along Gurdjieffian lines:

One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person's soul. However, this "soul" does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.

A fuller discussion of this took place in this comments column in July 2010 - see

If the Pythons are correct, the search for life's meaning is not technology-dependent.

Tony f. whelKs said...

When I first read Ervino's post, and then again this fuller rendition this week, I realised there was a soundtrack playing in my head:

"There may be trouble ahead
But while there's music and moonlight and love and romance
Let's face the music and dance"

The question about 'why not join the warlords and go out in a blaze of rampage and pillage?' struck me as a cry of nihilistic despair. OK, so I may have less faith in the progress fairy (regardless of any roseate undergarments...) than Ervino, but the imminent demise of the current civilisation doesn't give me such urges. The quest for knowledge - whether seen as a noble venture or simply an artefact of human curiosity - is a programme I'd mourn if it ever went away, but I would not despair.

Someone once said despair is the greatest sin, the only one which cannot be forgiven. Previous commenters have already posted many things that will not go away just because the collapse of industrial civilisation will take away our favourite toys: sunsets, birds on the wing, children's laughter, music, inordinately lovely beetles, quiet contemplation, the gentle alchemy of barley and hops.... There is much to savour, even amidst death and disease and the loss of our status as putative starseed.

Back to Dante (and the only phrase of mediaeval Italian I have ever memorised):

"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi chi l'intrate"

which of course works both ways: to succumb to despair is to enter Hell.

If you can live in this world and hold on to some moral imperative, why not hold it in a declining world? Surely that would be the last bastion of humanity. By all means curse the darkness, but better to light a candle than to wreathe yourself in shadow. Some of the brightest lights of humanity have shone out in the darkest pits.

Rose Weaver said...

So beautifully stated, and wonderful to read this glorious morning after an exceptional night of Living and Breathing and Dancing with many Spirits while lights danced with me, the aroma of their scents permeating the Air and surrounding me with Passion, inflaming my heart.

This read warmed my soul as the sun rises this day. I salute you, Sir.

(And as I view the code I must enter to allow my comment, I smile... this is going to be such an incredible day!)

Unknown said...

Ervino's response to collapse is not atypical. Plus, he's Italian, living in the echoes of a culture that has already collapsed once before, and with a lot of less-than-pleasant subsequent history, making the Italians, by and large, a somewhat cynical and decidedly materialist people. (And before I hear outrages about ethnic insensitivities: a) I'm not the first person to have observed that; b) one of the ethnic strains to which I am heir came from Italy, and I've spent time there, so I have some right to speak of my own heritage (my other ethnic background is mostly Celtic ... but that's for another time), opinions may differ; and c) we Americans are also corrupt, just in our own special way).

Don't know if you've read much of Rudolph Steiner, but a century ago he was discussing the transition that humanity would be going through as we cycled -- once again -- from a more materialistic orientation, which we so overemphasized that we are now on the verge of committing species suicide, to a more spiritual one, in which a balance of things might prevail. This yearning has been building for well over a century, and particularly since the end of WW I. We see it all over the planet today, but it's still a minority who have put this at the forefront of their consciousness. Meanwhile, our feckless "leaders" are full on to our materialist dead end.

Steiner didn't predict any certain outcome -- that's a fool's errand -- but he did warn about some consequences if we didn't negotiate the inevitable transition well, namely the kind of barbarity that so many now fear. What he was really getting at, of course, was a meditation on the age-old questions of: Who are we, were did we come from, and where are we going? If one takes the view that we are primarily spiritual being who have manifest into a material plane, for reasons still open to interpretation, then conquering the far reaches of space is less relevant than how we live our lives spiritually in the here and now. Treating the people decently amongst whom we actually live is more important than researching nuclear fusion.

Of course, to speak of spirituality is to step into a mine field that can be thought to include all manner of religious dogma and new age nonsense. I guess one of the tasks moving forward is to arrive at a workable sense of what spirituality really means and how it could best be manifest in our everyday lives of food, shelter, medicine, etc. -- and even technology, such as it will evolve with our reduced resources. Exciting times, eh?

To return to Ervino, he is still locked into a materialistic orientation, and thus can't envision another way of moving forward that might be much more satisfying than Big Science and Big Technology ... like simply hanging out with family and friends, and enjoying a pint of that dark beer.

I suppose this is really a discussion for your other blog, but there you are.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Re science as a way of gaining knowledge. My own view, based on what I've seen of science as a grad student in chemistry a number of decades back is that the knowability of the universe through the medium of science has limits of an absolute sort. I remember some statement by Feynman that a particular piece of physics that he was working on concurred with the real world to some large number of decimal places. Very good. The chemistry that I was looking at, calculation of electron's location in an atom was quite good but calculation of an electron's location in a molecule where there was more than one atom affecting the behavior of the electron was not very accurate. The problem was fundamental. Quantum theory and the available math just were not good enough to deal with the problem. The best one could do was come up with an approximation. The fundamental problem was that reality is more complex than the theoretical models we form to explain reality.
These sort of shortcomings of science are normal and part of the game. You can make a fair living as a scientist in academia complexifying theoretical models to make them fit reality better.
This sort of thing isn't talked about in high school and you have to be at least in your junior year of college before you get to see some of the dirty laundry. By then you have enough time invested in your education to keep going in spite of the natural disillusionment that follows on seeing science close up. Another reason that scientists don't talk about shortcomings of science all that much is that weaknesses will become points of attack for religious fundamentalists. So yes, science has lots of parts that work but think about the idea that God made the universe simple enough and rational enough so that we humans could understand it perfectly.
We also need to keep in mind that very few scientists are deep philosophical thinkers interested in things like the limits of knowledge. These sort of questions are typically outside their domain of expertise.333

magicalthyme said...

I just woke up and realized the storm that knocked out my power was 2+ weeks ago, not last week. Time flies and all that. My final harvest was the sorrel, which stuck it out through multiple frosts. Last batch made a lovely soup.

This year I've gotten smart and started dumping my manure in piles just back of the gardens so it can compost in place. Much easier this time of year, when I'm past the harvest and the bugs are gone, but still before real winter sets in. Versus waiting for the spring thaw to bring it up a steep hill from behind the barn, when I don't have enough hours or days, and it's saturated so extra-heavy.

My takeaway was that some part of Ervino wants to join a violent gang and a pending Dark Age in a hundred years or three provides that convenient excuse.


HalFiore said...

609957Living in the SF Bay Area in the mid 70s to mid 80s and being, well, young and in my prime so to speak, and a heterosexual "liberated" from Judeo-Christian morality, in a place that attracted aggressive, "liberated" young people, and being part of a crowd that was all into New-Agey progressive psychobabble, I remember well a saying from the day: "What human beings do is have sex. Everything else is logistics."

Probably from some est person or the equivalent. Made sense at the time.

Bob Patterson said...

It may be that future circumstances compel one to follow Ervino's path. The idea that one can carry on with a civilized life in some oasis of ecological rectitude, surrounded by chaos is rather fanciful. There may be pockets of civilization, and some people may be able to journey to them. But all this is speculative.

Goldmund said...

I know that what gives someone pleasure (and meaning) is deeply personal, but it's hard to resist making value judgments (e.g. like this one: everyone I know, like me, who grew up in the suburbs wants nothing to do with suburbs today, so it's tempting to say that the invention of the suburb was a huge step backward for humanity), even universal "laws" when it comes to thinking about what we, as humans, gravitate towards. For me and my circle of friends it's the simple pleasures, the ones people have enjoyed for thousands of years, like a good beer or sitting around a fire with those you love, telling jokes and stories that give our lives meaning. These are the pleasures we look forward to anyway, and we tend to avoid experiences that require a great deal of money and travel time or huge crowds of people we don't feel we have much in common with. But then I realize there are many more people in my city who enjoy going to shopping malls, football games and driving their cars around or watching hours and hours of television and feel like I live in a bubble of sorts and my circle of friends are truly a motley crew of misfits. So I vacillate between cautious optimism and despair whenever I think about where humanity is heading, and the most challenging times are when the promoters of some awful development project triumph, as they often do, over those of us trying to protect some tiny corner of wild nature. I guess that's why I keep returning to blogs like yours- to be assured that the days of the true believers in "progress" are numbered. And of course there's always the simple pleasures- good friends, good beer and a walk in the woods (the ones that still remain that is)- that never fail to pull me out of my dark thoughts and remind me that there are indeed many things in this beautiful world worth living for.

daelach said...

Warbands show up when and if it is a viable option to be a warband in the first place. Plus that their formation proves that they are not hindered by moral constraints. So there is a point in that such moral values will be given up - namely by the warlords and their subordinates. Otherwise, we would not have to think about them, right?

Now the logic of "if you can't beat them, join them" actually has some charme, depending on what alternatives are available.

However, a warband is not about "kill as many people as possible" because unless they want to start a life as peasants afterwards, they must rely on other people to put food on their table. While a warband may commit atrocities, they are means and not ends. Otherwise, that situation would never evolve into feudalism - and history shows it does.

Dave Z said...

Hi JMG (and friends),

I've thought about my last comment (re RAPE) overnight, and realize that I may have come off sounding smug... especially in words to the effect of '...why are we not stirred to speak out.'

In my mind, I was definitely including myself among 'us'; mentally kicking myself for having skimmed by such an egregious conflation of 'fun' and 'rape' until my SECOND reading. I'm ashamed of myself that it wasn't by any means reflexive.

You've set a tone in your writing, which is largely reflected in the civility of comments. Yet we all share some of the disturbing attitudes shot through the 'civilized' world.

It seems to me that we've yet to reprogram ourselves to the radical notion that women are equal partners in the human project.

Let's put it on our bucket list, shall we?

Dave Z

MindfulEcologist said...

“…if you want to talk other people into sharing those values, you have to offer good reasons, and not simply insist at the top of your lungs that you’re right and they’re wrong.”

I find it fascinating that for all the stock our culture supposedly puts in facts and reasoning we are actually drowning in emotional appeals and spin. The pundits drone on about Realpolitik and the hard-nosed business acumen so richly rewarded by neoliberal economics as if these shared the same epistemological status as the scientific facts our engineering depends on instead of the value judgments that they actually are. They have the megaphone and seem to use it mostly to bluster about; assured they are intimidating any and all value systems that might differ from their own.

What is so fascinating is how it all needs to claim to be rational discourse yet lacks an appeal to evidence. Instead of an honest appeal for persuading individuals to adjust their own conscience towards the values they admire as best, we are confronted non-stop with deception, equivocation and manipulations of our fears around mortality and status (Plato’s old horses again).

It is funny; ecologies are all about relationships, many of which are between whole hosts of subjectivities. This is the primary “fact” we are confronted with if we look at life on earth buzzing with all its colorful biodiversity.

A few weeks back I asked if our culture could be accurately characterized by an extreme of meanness. Pulling on that same thread this post has me wondering if a real poverty of comprehension around values also characterizes our times. Have we so exalted facts – the property of objects – as the only “really real” that we have drove ourselves into a dead world where subjectivities are all illusions? Is this why the “natural world” has grown silent for so many?

I am going to be taking up the subject of reasoning and inference as understood by Bayesian probability on my blog soon. Thank you for the detour from the current cycle of posts to share your thoughts about these issues. There is much food for thought here.

Five8Charlie said...

Implicitly conflating "dark age" (which - I get it - we only call it that due to our own bias) with dark beer, and tying that to our value judgment preference for one compared to the other. Well done, sir!

jansprite said...

In contrast to Ervino’s wish to not live after technology is gone, I myself feel much the opposite. In fact, I think widespread rape and pillage are more likely if things do continue on their course; wouldn’t that prove to people that they are still alive in the artificial environment?
If technology just keeps going on and on (as seems to be the overpoweringly popular wish of the age) I would rather not participate. Already, I find myself impatient as to why it all hasn’t collapsed yet, even though I am so far from living sustainably that it frightens me even as I long for the end of the era. I have no illusion that I will survive the collapse, no hope that my children will carry on the genes, that the resulting cultures will be any better than the current one, or that if any of my ideas of how the world should be ordered were to be implemented they would prove viable. My desire is that somehow a small spark of consciousness, which once constituted my essential being, will remain somewhere in the atmosphere to observe how the scenario plays out (and the next one, and the one after that, etc.)

Charles Justice said...

It's interesting that the most useless information: particle physics, cosmology, rocket science, etc. is the most expensive too. How many billions did the last nuclear accelerator cost? This kind of science is likely to be jettisoned once the global economy collapses. But the scientific process itself, which is at heart a social peer-review process is in danger of collapsing along with the economy and this would have serious consequences. Think of the Ebola epidemic, without public health measures informed by science.

Minus science you have superstition and that can lead to serious wrong turns. I believe that the peer-review practices of science can be conducted with fewer resources, but there is a real danger that the scientific method could go the way of the dodo.

Twilight said...

I have found a logical error in today's piece, where you write: “including those considerably more important than those involved in assessing the taste of beer.”. Obviously, this is an impossibility!

I think there was a time when I might have felt somewhat as Ervino does, though perhaps not as extreme, but I had passed that point even before I found your writings. If we look back in time to the many civilizations that came before us (and I believe many we have not found yet, extending back further than we can document), how can it be that these people found meaning without science and technology if these are so essential?

To be honest, at this point I find the idea of understanding everything to be wearying, in the same way I feel about all the land areas having been explored and mapped. What a thrill it would be to have some mystery in everyday life! Yes, that comes with uncertainty, danger and risk, but comfort and security are not the same as meaning and fulfillment. In the approaching dark age, there will surely be less certainty about all things, but perhaps more mystery and the excitement of rediscovery.

Last, at 51 I have found that there is an awful lot to be discovered within, not just externally.

Eric S. said...

(part 1)

I usually find some way to whittle my words down to 1700 characters, but I just can’t find a way this time without losing the thoughts I’m trying to convey. I hope you’ll excuse a 2 part post this week. I never put much faith in Progress. My thoughts on human meaning and purpose are articulated pretty well in E.O. Wilson’s book “The Meaning of Meaning,” ( which doesn’t require any more purpose to existence than to live, contemplate the world, and use as much as we can of the one truly unlimited resource nature has given us (imagination). This series has been making me face another narrative that I didn’t even know I clung to as much as I do. The myth of the seedbearer… I’ve always looked at the future and the past as being linked together with the present… that our actions today radiate outward, and that what good we do now might manifest itself in some future age. It’s a myth that you opened this series with, by telling the story of Atlantis in your essay “a time for seedbearers.” I remember then commenting on the fact that this isn’t Atlantis… that there’s nowhere to go… and that our world is crumbling down around us now.

This series has shown that it’s even more complicated than that. The rest of my life will be spent among the concrete of a decadent and dying civilization with no fertile soil to plant any seeds I might be bearing. That’s going nowhere in my lifetime. Even if I were to live another 50 years, I’d never see a dark age, and even if the next wave of crisis is just around the corner and I live, the world on the other side is just a battered and bruised but functioning version of what we have now, as concrete and monolithic as ever. Once the concrete finally crumbles away, there’s the bare bedrock of a fallen civilization for centuries waiting for a layer of topsoil to form so a new civilization can take root. That puts an insurmountable distance between now and the time any planted seeds will ever even have a chance to germinate.

Thomas Mazanec said...

Primates aren't the only animals to show curiosity...a mongoose would give Curious George a run for his money, and an otter would put both to shame!
I hope we get that Theory of Everything before the would be so tragic if our Industrial Civilization died before fulfilling it's Purpose (IMHO). Than focus on preserving it.

Eric S. said...

(Part 2)

It’s not a crisis of meaning of life for me so much… At least I don’t think so… It’s more a crisis of finding a purpose to conversations like the ones that have been going on here for the last 8 years. Is contemplation of the future merely a matter of curiosity? Or is there more to it than that? What is the role of would-be seedbearers when history unfolds at such a slow pace with so little continuity between ages? There are plenty of people gardening and handcrafting whose worldview is full of consciousness shifts, aliens, and interstellar exoduses, and there are plenty of people thinking deeply about the future we’re facing without making the slightest effort to behave accordingly. The work of green wizardry, conservation, etc. could be just as easily framed in the language of simplicity for its own sake, and the importance of behaving ethically toward the living systems that support us. That would make thoughts of the future purely academic, which is fine… it’s an interesting topic, and the future is a wonderland for the imagination. But are there any real advantages to be gained from thinking about the shape history will take beyond our deaths? To draw on the imagery of your other blog, what use is it to contemplate what happens when the unicorn emerges from the shadow when no one alive will ever see one or even venture beyond the dragon’s hoard? Is it that the unicorn is already out there in the crawlspaces of the shadows waiting for us to seek it? Are there cracks in the concrete of our civilization where the bedrock of the dark age is already being covered with the topsoil of the future? Over the last 8 years, many of us have been gathering seeds: learning skills, gathering concepts or methods or technologies that may mean something someday. Is this merely for the enrichment of the present and our own benefit in hard times? Or are there places out there where even without roads or maps pathways to tomorrow might be found? Do the frontiers we sail to as we flee the Atlantis of our age lie inward this time?

Eddie Tennison said...

" I did not make the world; quite the contrary, the world made me, and put me in the irreducibly personal situation in which I find myself. Given that I’m here, where and when I happen to be, there are any number of things that I can choose to do, or not do; and it so happens that one of the things I choose to do is to prepare, and help others prepare"

Hear, hear! I raise my glass to you, sir.

My donkey said...

If we can accept that different people have different values, why can't we accept that some (or perhaps a great many) people have no values?

Last year in your essays discussing Nietzsche, the idea was put forward that the human pscyche required the cosmos to have meaning, purpose, or value of some sort. And if it somehow lost those attributes -- or never had them to begin with -- the result would be so terrifying or mind-shattering that humans would be forced to invent replacements.

Really? Why? Over the years I've become completely comfortable with the idea of a universe that has no meaning, purpose, or value. And it's not scary or sad or anything; it's just the way it is. Similarly, human evolution, like all evolution, is directionless, non-progressive, and has no goal. I'm fine with all of this.

If I enjoy life (and I do) it's because I choose to impose values on it; it has no values of its own. And death is no more frightening than going to sleep each night, an event that registers zero on my Fright Scale. As Billy Preston sang 40 years ago, nothing from nothing leaves nothing. And there's nothing wrong with that.

avalterra said...

I'll take a good hard cider. But I am surprised that a Druid would not mention Mead!


onething said...

Dave, we have spoken out, maybe you missed it. And Ervino, I think you didn't really answer my question as to your own moral stuffing, which included the point that the only real morality is internalized, i.e., NOT dependent at all on outside circumstances or even one's local culture.

Then again, JMG, internalizing morality, while in my belief system evolves mostly from long experiences of karma, is also helped by actually analyzing things philosophically, taking seriously ideas such as good and evil and what makes them so - which would seem not to exist in your worldview?

The universe shows no sign of caring, you say? Well, the universe is an entity of very large patience, and very long game plans. As one who believes in the subtle realms, can you imagine that something like karma might be operating? Sure, the universe is so large it can accommodate evil, and for very good reasons, no doubt. But does that mean there is no real difference, or that there is no reaction to the good one puts out or the bad?

Matthew mentions Life. I like that because it sort of works (though not as well) even for atheists who believe in a completely rudderless evolutionary process. See, in that world, the only thing at all of value is Life and its progress. All those actions that we seem more or less hardwired to call good are life-promoting. Even to cause stress is anti life. (Where it fails in an atheistic system is that perhaps it would be completely acceptable and indeed fully fit and successful were the Chinese, say, to wipe out all others and have the entire planet to themselves.)

Those actions which we call evil cause waste and loss of life, whether directly and quickly, or slowly through stress, disease and so on. Those actions are also parasitic, in that they must feed off of something, and are not therefore self-sustaining. Because evil is not self-sustaining, I have come to the conclusion in the deepest yin/yang sense that evil is not the equal of good, that good is therefore fundamental to existence.

To call all values relative and a matter of choice with nothing important to underpin that choice in my opinion is a dangerous philosophy. Another major problem of evil is that it is a more restricted state of consciousness. Because the perpetration of evil involves either intention or (usually) simply lack of awareness of other beings in a deep way, i.e., lack of compassion. Compassion means "to feel together." If you lack that, your consciousness is in a lower, less knowledgeable and more unaware state.

It's not for nothing that what Christianity calls sin, Buddhism simply calls ignorance.

Renaissance Man said...

Thank you for this post. Something in it helped snap into place a very personal issue I’ve been pondering for quite some time. Not the answer, mind you, but at least I can formulate the correct question.

Stacey Armstrong said...

Your posts, more often then not, send me back to my books. My sense of humour was in fine form this morning when I exclaimed that I had a poetry emergency! While I do feel the limits of my literary education often, they can also be of great service. The notion of the "reliable narrator" is a useful garment to don, especially when visiting the circles of Hell!

I have a few questions about the existence and cultivation of curiosity. While I have no shortage of curiosity, I have found it in short supply in others. In your travels, have you come across ways to transplant or cultivate curiosity?

My other musings of late after wandering through the comments here have been about the benefits of considering reincarnation as a possibility. Perhaps it's too big of a leap to talk about it here, but it occurred to me that if you think your chances of being reborn as a brassicas, a fox, or (oh the horror!) a woman are high you might take better care with your dealings with all three.

Marcello said...

It seems to me that a lot of people are barking up to the wrong tree(s).

First how many people actually find life meaning in the pursuit of "‘real’ knowledge of the Universe". My guess that's scientists, a few "nerds" and few others; I certainly I know nobody who does.
If the Russian experience is any indication probably very few, if any, of the above will go on a murderous rampage when the labs get closed anyway.
As for myself I am pro-science as it gets and I actually got to crawl over the electron smasher in Geneva back in the days. When that place will be turned in a source of scrap metal (or flooded and forgotten) I have no plans to pull a gun to my head or to anybody else for that matter.

So I would say that if you are cowering in a corner in fear of being murdered/raped/tortured to death by somebody who did not get his fix if nuclear physics articles you can relax.
When things will get rough you will have in fact a decent chance of being murdered/raped/tortured to death by criminal gangs, unemployed mercenary troops (security contractors in modern language) and other such human staple the mention of the "weak nuclear force" is likely to draw a blank stare from.

And are those, presumably well fed, sheltered, clothed etc. claiming to be suffering under the rule of scientism writing from some alternate reality in which August Comte and the likes got their way?

Alas in my reality people can, if so they wish, still find joy, happiness and fulfillment in the beheading of those who do not follow their particular denomination of Islam. Or in the sermons promising fire, brimstones and eternal suffering to anybody not toeing a certain particular version of christianity. Or yet again in the rewards offered by gang life. Science, it appears, has not put an end to the diversity of human experience.

Marcello said...

"Rape, murder, and other causes of human suffering have always existed. But only civilization enables them to exist on such horrifying scales. Civilization is based on agriculture and not an insignificant amount of ink has been spilled calling agriculture the greatest mistake in human history (Jared Diamond's essay is a good starting point)."

Isn't the same Jared Diamond who has figured out that you have greater odds to die of violent death at the hands of another man in such societies that you would have had in Europe during WW2?
Apparently Panzerkorps, bomber wings and automatic weapons were not quite as successful at making life short for the average individual as pointy sticks backed by unrestrained instincts. Naturally civilization solves some problems and creates others, as most thing actually do.

Robert Carran said...

i'm disappointed in JMG's reduction of facts and subjective opinion. It seams sadly dualistic and simplistic, and i wonder if it isn't a fatal flaw in his entire philosophy. The "it's delicious" example in his post regarding imperial stout (with which I agree, particularly the Samuel Smith's version) could be considered fact in a way. There is a clear difference between quality beer, art, and music, and crap beer, art and music. Just because some people don't recognize it does not necessarily mean it's entirely subjective. Sure, it is subjective in the sense that people must taste it in order to qualify it. However, I think there is a non subjective quality of high quality, in art, music, beer, what have you that is written in the context of our existence. Just because you can't scientifically quantify it doesn't mean it isn't real.

Kaitain said...


It struck me as I was reading your latest essay that Ervino Cus’ post sums up the mindset of the Religion of Progress exceedingly well and why that mindset is seriously misguided. Like you, I subscribe to a cyclical view of history, and this is simply the latest cyclical downturn. Ours is not the first civilization to self-destruct from its own internal flaws and there will be many cultures and civilizations that will rise and fall long after the Faustian civilization has become the subject of dimly remembered myths and legends. Just because the particular path that our civilization chose turned out to be a dead end doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, nor does that fact mean that life is no longer worth living.

To me, the sort of whinging that I see from Ervino and others that life isn’t worth living because a certain type of “progress” turned out to be ephemeral and unsustainable and that this somehow justifies suicide and/or barbarism is a form of abject cowardice and I find that sort of attitude to be downright contemptible. Rather, my role models are the pulp fantasy heroes created by writers like Robert E Howard and Michael Moorcock, who face great adversity and hardship and know they will probably lose in the end but persevere and try to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

Kaitain said...

Words of wisdom from Monty Python…

Incidentally, I have heard that this is the song the crew of the British destroyer HMS Sheffield sang as they watched their ship sink after being hit by an Argentine missile and they were in their life rafts waiting to be rescued.

sgage said...

@ zaphod42

"Futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Victor Vinge (who writes wonderful Sci Fi) seem to overlook the limits of finite resources, and project exponential growth to continue “far” into the future. The best we can say about such is, “We'll see.”

One of my favorite aphorisms over the decades has been this: Trend is not Destiny.

It was coined by a wonderful writer named Rene Dubos. I recommend his writing to all. 'So Human an Animal' won him a Pulitzer Prize, but my favorite of his is 'The Wooing of Earth'. It's about how some beautiful and beloved landscapes have developed over centuries by the interplay of humans working with the ecosystem, and not against it.

John Michael Greer said...

Hmm! I admit I wasn't expecting this one to field so lively a response on the comments page. With well over a hundred comments already and more coming in by the minute, I won't be able to respond to everybody this time. All those who posted a comment of thanks or agreement, consider yourself individually thanked!

I do have a few more specific responses to make, of course.

Brad, ambition -- or more precisely, a Faustian will to power -- is hardwired into the ethos of the modern world, and yes, I think it underlies some of Ervino's response.

Ares, I'm far from sure I'd agree with Quinn's frankly simplistic claims about history, but you're right that there's not much to be gained either from an arrogant disdain for nature or a sentimental attempt to get "back to" nature. I'm fond of Orion Foxwood's comment on that latter: "Back to nature? Who said y'all could leave?"

Tony, no offense intended, but I hope the yeast hold onto their secrets. Some degree of mystery is worth having in the world.

Anthony, thanks for clarifying. In that case, the question you're asking -- "is civilization worth it?" -- is a question of values, not of facts, and thus can only be answered by each individual on his or her own terms.

Stunned, I've had Midgely on the to-read list for a while now; thanks for the encouragement to move her higher on the stack.

Beetleswamp, one of my major goals with this project is to make life easier for that future order. As for Old Rasputin, I wish I could get that here in Cumberland! The microbrew revolution, alas, is only just getting started here.

Alnusincana, I hope I don't mess you up further next week!

Unknown Deborah, if I read Ervino's comment correctly, it's not the loss of knowledge but the inability to keep adding to the stock of specific kind of scientific knowledge we value today that upsets him. Preserving knowledge is an easier task than pressing endlessly onward against the law of diminishing returns!

Rita said...

When I attended the University of California at Davis, in the late 60s the newest toy of the physics department was a cyclotron. It sat, gently humming, right next to the university pig barns. Wonderful juxtaposition. (UCD started as the agricultural station of the UC system. By the time I attended the majority of students were in Arts and Letters. I was both pleased and dismayed to note that the new cattle barns seemed architecturally superior to the new dormitories.

Rita R.

Jerrica Benton said...

@Marcello - I am *not* "cowering in fear of being raped" by a science nerd. What I *am* is dreadfully sick of society's flippant attitude towards abuse and sexual assault, as typified by your attitude displayed here. I'm guessing that you don't say such things face-to-face to women that you know. I am dismayed by these statements, the uncaring attitude, the dismissal for your fellow humans.

I see that I am wasting my time here.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Ervino,

Mate, I feel compassion for you. It must be a hard thing to see your worldview disolve before you.

I was also a bit unclear how you associate progress and morality?



Cathy McGuire said...

@Toomas: re:Dante – I have an old translation, the Caryle-Wicksted prose version, which is okay, but of course fairly hard to get if you don’t know 14th century (?) “current events”. The book I find the most enlightening is Helen Luke’s “Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy”, which focuses on it as a metaphor for an inner journey of growth. She uses and recommends Dorothy Sayers and Barbara Reynold’s version(s) which are in poetry, which is lovelier to read. :-) It’s not a book for everyone, but I think you’d like it, Toomas, given what I’ve read from you before.

Melanie Bruce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert said...

@onething @JMG It's often been argued that without God there is no objective basis for morality. And therefore morality being subjective is reduced to mere opinion. That was Nietzsche's argument. Ergo many say we need to believe in God to protect society from evil. But isn't human understanding of God or the Gods also subjective? Does God make us in His image or vice versa?

London Rain by Louis McNeice

The rain of London's pimples
The ebony street with white
And the neon lamps of London
Stain the canals of night
And the park becomes a jungle
In the alchemy of night

My wishes turn to violent
Horses black as coal
The randy mares of fancy
The stallions of the soul
Eager to take the fences
That fence about my soul

Across the countless chimneys
The horses ride and across
The country or the channel
Where warning becomes toss
To a place where God and No God
Play at pitch and toss

Whichever wins I am happy
For God will give me bliss
But No God will absolve me
From all I do amiss
And I need not suffer conscience
If the world was made amiss

Under God we can reckon
On pardon when we fall
But if we are under No God
Nothing will matter at all
Adultery and murder
Will count for nothing at all

So reinforced by logic
As having nothing to lose
My lust goes riding horseback
To ravish where I choose
To burgle all the turrets
Of beauty as I choose

But now the rain gives over
Its dance upon the town
Logic and lust together
Come dimly tumbling down
And neither God nor No God
Is either up or down

The argument was wilful
The alternative untrue
We need no metaphysics
To sanction what we do
Or to muffle us in comfort
From what we did not do

Whether the living river
Began in bog or lake
The world is what was given
The world is what we make
And we only can discover
Life in the life we make

So let the water sizzle
Upon the gleaming slate
There will be sunshine after
When the rain abates
And rain returning daily
When the sun abates

My wishes now come homeward
Their gallopings in vain
Logic and lust are quiet
And again it starts to rain
And falling asleep I listen
To the falling London rain.

Ric Steinberger said...

Your "Here I am" in the penultimate paragraph reminded me of the last words of 38 Sioux. Before they were hanged they shouted their names and "I'm here" in their native language.

The story is told here:

and here:

Perhaps we all would be better off if we focus more on being here, now.

William Knight said...

Ervino: on the limits of the T/Sm as you call it, Wolfgang Brinck has made some good comments. The limits of theoretical physics always gives me a good chuckle. Forget about relativity and quantum mechanics and consider just classical mechanics, which can predict with absolute perfection the trajectories of multi-body systems, provided of course they are limited to systems of 2 bodies or less.

But I would add a little about other fundamental limitations of T/Sm, which took me some time to fully appreciate, even though they may seem rather obvious to others from non-scientific backgrounds. One main point is that T/Sm works best in material environments that are reasonably well-defined, observable and reproducable. Things like physics, chemistry, molecular biology. But further away from the concrete, when you get into stuff like psychology, politics, economics, art, literature, etc., TS/m isn't so hot. Sure you can still employ observation, hypothesis, experiment and reason, but it becomes MUCH more difficult and confusing, and consequently we don't see anything like the incredibly successful, powerful and general scientific theories in physics and chemistry.

And the fact that TS/m may be epistemologically self-correcting doesn't help this limitation.

Also consider that even mathematics and logic, among the most solid pillars of T/Sm, are not empirically or objectively true, but instead are cognitive constructs that emerge from the structure of the human brain. Their correspondence with any external reality is only assumed.

We may try to apply empirical observation and reason to understand the brain, language and consciousness itself, but science and reason quickly drown in psychological and philosphical mazes of ill-defined meaning and infinite recursion.

Far in the future, if we are still around, our current science may evolve into future epistemologies without such limits. But if so, I suspect they will be considered as different from our "science" as it is from the pre-rational belief systems of our past.

John Michael Greer said...

Raven, Kentucky long rifles are still being made here in the US, and star forts an order of magnitude or two less complex and expensive than Lille's were standard in eastern North America from 1600 to 1800 -- we had one here in Cumberland. I'm definitely going to have to do a post on the nature of deindustrial warfare, aren't I?

Marc, exactly -- and it's the fact that knowledge will be lost unless somebody steps up to the plate to preserve it that motivates this project, in large part. More on this as we proceed.

Jonathan, and the answer I propose, summed up in simplest terms, is "the world doesn't supply you with meaning or purpose. If you want those, you have to create them yourself."

Crow, I'm still trying to figure out if your comment was meant satirically or not.

Sleisz Ádám, the problem with that kind of infinite regress of progress is that after a certain point, it becomes a matter of "do we really need to work out the mass of the absurditron to more than three hundred decimal places?" The law of low hanging fruit applies; the further any line of research proceeds, the less dramatic the discoveries it can make, and the sooner you're left with button sorting activities.

Jerrica, you're on -- I'm not a great Asahi fan, though I grant it's better than standard American yellow beer.

Ervino, you're right that I equate your faith in science and technology with other forms of faith, and you've provided a good clear demonstration of the reason why. You've avoided the core of my response -- the distinction between facts and value judgments -- and just repeated your insistence that the values you personally assign to science and technology ought to be treated as facts rather than values. That's a very common habit of religious people, you know.

When you claim that science and technology are the only things that give meaning to human existence, you're making a religious claim, a claim about value and purpose, and it doesn't matter how many claims about facts you heap up around it -- it's still a value judgment, and your personal value judgment to boot. As long as you insist that that judgment is an objective attribute of science and technology, in turn, you'll stay stuck in the trap you've backed yourself into, staring despair in the face.

Interestingly, a closer reading of Dante might help here. The damned souls in the Inferno aren't being held there at demonic gunpoint; they're there because they aren't willing to reconsider the disastrously flawed value judgments that landed them there. They're capable of remorse but not of repentance; if they could repent -- that is, consider the possibility that their value judgments might be mistaken, and act on the basis of that consideration -- they'd feature in the Purgatorio instead. Lacking the willingness to see their value judgments as subjective, and thus potentially erroneous, they remain stuck in the state that they're in, which is simply the state they were in when they were alive.

SCjelli said...

I wanted to chime in that I see the sort of Heroic view of science as a shared endeavour benefiting humanity more often in publications for the 'public understanding of science' as a sort of frame. I think that many in the sciences don't think about it either because there is complete identification with it or because they have been resigned to the belief that there is not an alternative framing story.

sgage said...


"Lacking the willingness to see their value judgments as subjective, and thus potentially erroneous, they remain stuck in the state that they're in, which is simply the state they were in when they were alive. "

Wisdom. Attend!

David said...

I placed a small sign above my desk at work today, inspired in part by yesterday's post and in part by an essay I recently read on the domination of thought today by neoliberalism. It says "Price is not Value. Efficiency is not Justice. Wealth is not Virtue." The point was to remind myself of those assumptions buried so deeply in our worldview that they remain invisible me to us. I think that when we are able to ask "is this true?" about many of these statements, we will find ourselves liberated from the dark cloud of gloom that haunts us when we contemplate the current collapse and the subsequent future. I am hardly orthodox in my faith, but I do believe that one particular wandering prophet from Galilee had it right when he pointed out that "one's life does not consist of one's possessions"...which I would assert includes our treasured beliefs about humanity's mastery over nature and other aspects of the myth of progress, generally.

John Michael Greer said...

Toomas, Dante is very deep. I'm not sure which English translation to recommend -- the Ciardi translation is my favorite, but it's poetic rather than literal. I read Latin, so Dante's Italian is fairly easy so long as I have a dictionary for the unfamiliar words. I don't recommend Dore, or any of the other illustrators: Dante is his own best illustrator, with your imagination for the palette. I'd encourage you, given those of your interests I know about, to pick up a translation soonest and dive in!

Shawn, of course. The murderer, the murderee, and other members of the community or society affected by the murder all care, and have good reason to care. That's what's implied by saying that such judgments are irreducibly individual; every individual is constantly confronted by the question, "What does this mean to me, and should I care about it?" My point is that the world doesn't hand them an answer to that question.

Don, thank you! If I ever get a speaking gig in Columbus, I'll have that in mind -- no doubt I can arrange to catch a bus from the nearest train station there.

Will, David and I disagree on that point. I think he's confounding the planes, and expecting a metaphysical reality to manifest on the plane of physical reality, which is one of history's consistently bad bets. Still, he has the right to his vision, as I have to mine.

Toomas, that's a worthwhile point, and will want to be addressed when I begin my sequence of posts on education. If I don't remember it, please do bring it up then!

Agent, you're not contradicting me, no. You've demonstrated what I've called the ethical method: participation in murder, rape and pillage (MRP) reliably leads to severe psychological problems, and the negative valuation most of us put on having severe psychological problems thus transfers to MRP, adding confirmation to the commonly held ethical claim that MRP is a bad thing. That's still a value judgment; it still requires an individual, or a collection of individuals, to make it; but that sort of thing is what I was talking about when I used the example of racism in my post. The fact that values are subjective doesn't make every value equal to every other.

Zaphod, oh, granted. There are whole realms of knowledge to be sought in directions that our current science and technology dismiss as uninteresting, or even as nonexistent. That's another reason why Ervino's value judgment is hard to defend!

Mistah Charley, thanks for the details!

Unknown, why, yes, I've read quite a bit of Steiner. What troubles me about Ervino's sort of argument is not that it's materialistic -- in fact, in some ways it's not materialist enough; he's stuck on an abstract principle, having dismissed "mere" biological existence as suitable only for plants. In Steiner's typology of evil, that's Luciferian evil, not the materialist Ahrimanic form of evil.

Wolfgang, true enough. More broadly speaking, the gap between science as presented to the lay public and science as actually practiced promises to open up into a chasm that may eventually swallow the whole scientific project. More on this in an upcoming post!

Magicalthyme, I think you're misjudging Ervino. Antinomian acting out is a very common human response to the collapse of the structure of meaning and value in which a culture lives its life; it's not a matter of longing for the chance to commit barbarism, but the explosive emotional aftermath of culture death -- and to my mind, at least, it trivializes what Ervino is trying to say to reduce it to the sort of claim you've suggested.

Unknown said...

Meaning of life for unfortunates blinded by science. . .

Five minutes after installing a feeder for the first time at my latest rental, hummingbird appears.

Seriously kicks higgs boson butt

JMG, thanks for your perspective

Rain Waters

jean-vivien said...


the idea of Karma is interesting... Still it would imply that good and bad interact with each other, therefore obey even very vaguely some form of universal laws ? Maybe not, since that would imply values do exist outside of the subjective realm. Still you refer to good as being a more enlightened state of perception than bad, and maybe there is some kind of law regarding how good vs bad do play out in terms of human consciusness, if not in the realm of facts.

@My Donkey
"As Billy Preston sang 40 years ago, nothing from nothing leaves nothing. And there's nothing wrong with that." That is a judgement of value. I wonder though what insights we can get from meditating on it ?

@Twilight, Eric S.,
the comments do hold some real gems lately. Thank you.

@Cathy McGuire
A society treating its virtues as it were vices is morally in decline. Facing what we fear instead of denying it or bargaining with it is a skill which we need pretty much all along our lives. Doing this and the best we can is already quite brave.

We are so obsessed with material consumption that we forget how what we feed our bodies with can influence our mental states, and the same goes for the activities we practice.
In general, just like it is hard to describe a map only with words, or to only talk about carpentry and DIY, finding meaning is a skill which requires practical, hands-on activity. The perception of meaning, to me, does not feel only to be a metaphysical percetion, but also a practical attitude. The contact with nature & observation wherein is one of the aspects of that practical skill, a lot of other aspects of that skill will be recovered as we are required to get our hands dirty more often.
And storytelling is also a pretty good tool for finding meaning in things.

John Michael Greer said...

Daelach, the thing most people don't recall in ages like this one is that warbands have their own morality, in which loyalty and courage are the core values. Those are far more practical in warband times than the virtues we tend to find more appealing now.

Ecologist, that's an excellent point -- so much of what passes for rationality these days is in fact rationalization, running interference for blind passions and the crudest biological cravings.

Charles, we'll be talking about that shortly. You're quite correct, of course, that there's a real risk that science as a living practice could go extinct in the fairly near future.

Eric, as I see it, the myth you're discussing isn't the myth of the seedbearer, but that of the seed planter and the tender of green shoots. The seedbearer comes before then. Can you envision gathering the seeds and passing them on, in the hard knowledge that you will never know if your actions made a difference or not? That takes an unusual kind of courage and a freedom from what certain magical traditions call "lust for result." If that's not your path, understood, but that's what I'm discussing here.

Donkey, I didn't say that human beings are compelled to invent replacements for God; I said that as a matter of historical fact, what Nietzsche called the death of God -- the collapse of Christian faith as the guiding ideology of Western societies -- was followed by a flurry of attempts to come up with a secular replacement for him. The capacity to see values as something created by individuals and applied to the world, rather than as objective realities about the world, took a long time to develop, and many people still have trouble getting there -- as, for example, Ervino, with his secular religion of science and technology.

Avalterra, I'm not a great mead drinker, nor particularly fond of wine; a dry cider is great, but please, no sweet ciders! Druidry is like that, too -- as diverse in its beliefs as it is in its beverage choices.

Onething, I didn't say that good and evil don't exist. I said that they're value judgments made by individuals, rather than objective facts. It's one of the weirder superstitions of modern thought to think that "subjective" means "nonexistent." You've stated a particular set of moral beliefs and values which you hold, which center on life; those beliefs and values exist, and (presumably) motivate your actions and choices, which is as it should be. My beliefs and values differ from yours in important ways, and mean as much to me as yours do to you. We could spend any amount of time going around and around some pointless argument about which set of beliefs is "true," or we can recognize that our beliefs differ because we're different people, viewing the cosmos from irreducibly different perspectives. I consider the latter more useful -- but of course that's also a value judgment, and you may consider it more useful to try to force your view on other people!

Stacey, the cultivation of curiosity -- hmm. And again, hmm. That'll take some serious thought. As for reincarnation, that's been a Druid teaching for a very long time, and I certainly hope it's true -- the world is far too marvelous for me to be satisfied with a single trip through it.

Marcello, well, yes, that's also an issue.

Robert, I'm aware that my take on facts and values annoys those who like to think of their own value judgments as universally applicable. It's easy to talk about quality as an objective reality, but the devil is as usual in the details; quality is always relative to some set of standards, which are inevitably cultural constructs built atop biological foundations, and what counts as crap in one age or society may be considered the zenith of quality in another. I'll be discussing more along these lines in a future post, for whatever that's worth.

John D. Wheeler said...

@Ervino - The only thing I would grant about this age versus all future civilizations is that ours is almost certainly the most profligate, WASTEFUL one that will ever appear on the face of this planet. Between resource depletion and pollution (esp. heat), there just isn't that much room to top us and still survive.

Also, concerning "success" of the Progress of Science, I have heard an apocryphal story that the people searching for the Higgs-Boson particle were warned that there was a danger that they would create a particle that would attract every other particle in the Universe to it, thereby collapsing all of space and time. When they couldn't disprove it, they basically said, "No guts, no glory."

Brian Weber said...

I disagree with those commenting that inventing civilization and/or agriculture was humanity's great mistake. We can all look around us, and look into the pages of history, and see written both goodness and evil. For whatever reason, it seems right now Western civilization (not to mention much commentary on this blog) is focusing on the evil; perhaps this is part of the process of delegitimization that takes place as a civilization starts to roll over. But I dispute that civilization itself is responsible.

I can't recall exactly where but I recall a passage in guns germs and steel (which I read with disgust way back as an haute liberal back in my grad school days) that the most common way to die in those pre agricultural societies that we've studied well enough to know about murder. Not that there were all that many murders, maybe one every few years, but there weren't that many people either. At some point in life, someone is likely to get angry or jealous enough at you to try to hit you over the head with a rock.

Now I wouldn't take just one claim like that at face value, but after thinking about it for years, and doing a great deal of other reading, I basically believe something like that is true. Eg if you want to encounter some real nightmare material, read about Comanche warfare---you'll find out that if you think it takes an agriculture-based civilization to produce *really* fantastic cruelty, you're mistaken.

Point is, I really don't think civilization is particularly better or worse as far as ethics go, it's just more visible, as a result of historical records, and therefore more criticizable. We didn't invent greed, rage, self - serving behavior, privilege or oppression with agriculture. With large societies fed on one kind of material surplus or another, we just transitioned to statistical (larger scale), rather than personal good and evil.

By the way, for those of you looking forward to decline because it means a better, perhaps ecotechnic world in the far future, I see nothing in the historical record that suggests the next civilizational cycle will be any more friendly, just, equible, or even environmentally conscious than we are. Yes, truly it might, but it might not. Having, for instance, abolished slavery this time around, I think it's no better than a coin toss that the next great civilization, ecotechnic or not, won't be thoroughly slave-based. Though judging from history it most likely wouldn't be race - based slavery. But who knows. I think one, of many, reasons so many people cling to the "religion of progress" is that it promises some kind of a path to actually realize the goals of equality, wealth for all, a better environment, etc. But when the board is tipped and the pieces go flying, a la 5th century Europe, there is really no telling how it'll shake out.

Patricia Mathews said...

Light beer for the summer time
Dark beer when it's cold
Cider for the autumn months
Advice as good as gold
"Yea!" cried the Viking, sitting in the hall,
But Odin's mead of Poetry's the finest drink of all."

D.M. said...

Reading through the more recent comments here makes me feel like I am reading through your Well of Galabes blog. Keep it up everyone, these are conversations that need to be happening, at least in my opinion anyway.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

It's interesting that the word "relative" actually in older English, connoted, not something arbitrary and unfounded, but actually "relating" to that which it was attempting to describe. Hamlet, for instance, says "I need grounds more relative than this". A lot of the subjective/objective problems stem not merely from dichotomized thinking in general, but from loss of the awareness of individuality and transcendence: if God is absolute, albeit unknowable in the scientific sense, then the real work of the soul begins, which is neither "subjective" in a modern sense nor "objective" in the Enlightenment sense.

Mark said...

Every year at first snow, I pick up "The Name of the Rose" by Umburto Eco. 1988 was the first year, and it was after seeing the movie, which means the movie wasn't bad. Last week the first snow fell here.

Spoiler alert: The greatest library in 14th C is burned to the ground, because among other things, it's a labyrinth, and so inaccessible to those who would have put out the fire. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, is a follower of Roger Bacon, and believes in the scientific method. A lot of philosophy is discussed, amid the human dramas, which is where philosophy belongs, has agency. In brief, a tragic loss for William, and those who's emphasis is on the study of nature through empirical methods. Which post modern science has subverted and perverted due to blinding ambition, into the manipulation of nature for the centralization of wealth and power. Post Modern Science, no better than superstition, I'll not mourn the passing of.

The comments about trauma I would like to call for more reflection on, consideration of, it's a question to keep in a pocket and not loose.

For example, C.H. Gordon, in The Ancient Near East, tells of how before monotheism, people worshipped the local Earth Goddess. Darius was the first military strategist to conquer, then move people away from their Earth Mother Shrines and shuffle them around. About the most traumatic thing possible, it had the effect of confusing the conquered. Could it also have caused a neurosis leading to ecological crisis? Conditions that still prevail there in "the cradle of civilization" and all such places where human population is not in balance with nature?

IMO nature recovers from trauma more quickly than human communities, if left to itself,and not at all if traumatised human beings are left "in control".

Stephen Heyer said...

Sort of an interesting article at

In it Annalee Newitz argues that:

“In a sense, agriculture was a technology that came before human civilization was ready. It gave humans the means to grow into large settlements and proto-cities. But we'd spent tens of thousands of years as nomads before that, and weren't yet ready to abandon our ancient beliefs that no family should ever accumulate more than its neighbors. As a result, our earliest experiment with urbanism ended in failure. When the going got rough, with bad harvests and disease, humans preferred to abandon their nascent urban creations because we had not yet developed a social structure that would allow us to cope with the difficulties of city life.”

I kind of wonder if something like that is happening now, I wonder if our political and social systems are utterly incapable of dealing with the bewildering, complex, near Godhead science and technology, not to mention parasitic financial system, we already have, let alone the accelerating rush, the mad race against collapse, to birth, if not a singularity, at least an event horizon by the middle of this century.

In other words, I wonder if a lot of the problems we are running headlong into, such as resource depletion, are problems a better, more effective political and social system could deal with fairly easily.

Oh yes! And there are some offers of such “superior systems”. I have contacts who hang around the edges of what some (conspiracy enthusiasts) might call the Illuminati and solutions do get suggested, the problem being that even they baulk at the question of what happens to the surplus population, which is most of it.

NOTE: I just noticed that Pinku-Sensei has already posted on this article. Still, great minds and all that stuff…

John Michael Greer said...

Kaitain, excellent. The ethos of pulp fantasy was borrowed unchanged from the literature of the most recent round of European dark ages -- read Beowulf and you'll find most of Conan the Cimmerian's value judgments on their native turf -- and equivalent values are standard in dark ages, because they work. "Here is the age in which you have been born," say the Norns; "here are the horrors of that age, and they are many. How many of them will you vanquish before one kills you?" The hero reaches for his sword and says, "As many as I possibly can."

Melanie (and Varun), yes, we're aware of it. The server that hosts our site is down with technical problems -- no firm date for when it'll be up again, but it shouldn't be long. Melanie, if you put through a comment marked not for posting with your email, or send something to the AODA email list, I can certainly answer any questions you may have.

Robert, thanks for the MacNiece poem! Nietzsche's take on morality was actually a good deal subtler than that, but we can talk about that some other time.

SCjelli, that's an interesting point, and one that'll bear exploration.

David, excellent. Have your coworkers noticed the sign yet?

Patricia, brilliant! That earns you tonight's gold star, for inspired parody.

DM, agreed. The new Galabes post will be up tomorrow, on schedule!

Matthew, excellent. One of the things I've tried to do here is redefine "subjective" and "objective" in more useful ways, as "relating to the properties of perceiving subjects" and "relating to the properties of perceived objects" respectively. Prying those words loose from the frozen muck that's half swallowed them in recent centuries strikes me as a useful step.

Mark, it's certainly a question to consider, but unless I'm much mistaken, Gordon's quite wrong. The Assyrians and Babylonians were using deportation as a political weapon before Darius' time -- the deportation of the Jews to Babylon was only one example of many. What's more, the Near East had been through a blender of invasions, migrations, and repeated civilizational collapse for many millennia before Darius' time, so the Persian deportations were hardly the first trauma of the kind in that region. So I'd give a wary eye to such explanations.

Stephen, oh, I'm sure that eventually problems of the kind that are wrecking our civilization will be old hat, easily remedied. Then they'll come up with new problems that will do the same job in ever more novel and remarkable ways. Such is progress... ;-)

Brad K. said...

@ John Michael Greer,

You told Charles "You're quite correct, of course, that there's a real risk that science as a living practice could go extinct in the fairly near future".

Charles referred to peer review as the essence of science. I might consider peer review to be a bit more esoteric. I consider the essence of science to be the six-step process. I encountered the six step scientific method, of stating the problem through verifying that the problem is solved, in junior high science and then in the US Navy as "six step trouble shooting". And I think enough folk have been introduced to the concept of isolating the goal or problem into components involved, adapting or correcting the system, and then evaluating the result will pass into folk lore. Peer review, to me, places undo emphasis on the last, evaluation step, and focuses on a specific practice peculiar to this industrial age.

That is, I think peer review as practiced today can pass away with the industries and debt-based wealth of today, with few losses. The six step scientific method as an approach to problem solving and exploration, though, will persist.

thecrowandsheep said...


Sorry, it was 100% satire but 0% skill.

What is the opposite of an Archdruid's gold star? I humbly accept a hermit's fart.

Nathan said...

I've been away from the Report for a few months and glad to be back! In my time away I have made a discovery that has certainly impacted my life: Buddhism. I say this not as some kind of pitch or cajoling attempt to get everyone to walk the Dharma path but as a story about personal resiliency.

I found this most recent post at it's core about our capacity for inner resiliency - a concept that I know of from Joanna Macy and the Transition Town movement. I've heard this time of human history called many things from brilliant to impoverished. One of the most useful descriptors for me has been "brittle."

This brittleness is very apparent to me in the industrial farming approach of monocropping. Where large tracts of land are planting to one single crop (usually corn or soy where I live). This defies ecological sense as the farmer has just created the ideal conditions for their pest 'enemy' to enter and destroy their crop. From the insect pest's perspective this enormous field is full of their favorite food and since there seems to be an inevitable correlation between food availability and population growth...well the inevitable happens. Cue the introduction of increasingly toxic chemicals and we can fast forward to today's mess of externalities writ large across our world.

This process of monoculture is considered to be 'efficient' and this efficiency is given a double plus good value judgement by the dominant members of society. This process is highly brittle for what I hope are obvious reasons. The activist and global leader on food sovereignty issues Vandana Shiva says we have "Monocultures of the mind." This to me is a powerful insight. The same techniques we use in our agricultural fields, the same love of a certain brand of efficiency, the same linear strategy for dealing with life are also present in our inner lives.

For me, enter Buddhism. In this system of thought I find a deep practice that brings me away from the monoculture mind and, moment by moment, brings me in sharp contact with complexity. This practice is building my inner resiliency. And as this weeks post points out so powerful it is our ability to flexible, agile and adaptive in mind that will to a large extent determine our ability to thrive in any situation. Whether it's a bleak view of a post-carbon world or some scientific utopia.

So my suggestion to those readers who are in the grip of fear about the future - I am beginning to loosen that grip but it surely has a powerful hold on me yet! - is to build your inner resiliency. I would put this pursuit at least equally important to any external resiliency you are working on like solar panels, canning, re-skilling etc. In fact these practices, when approached with the intention of building inner resiliency form a positive feedback loop and enhance each other.

Thanks for the space and the spring board for expression Mr. Greer!

magicalthyme said...

JMG, you view Ervino's statements as a philosopher from a relatively safe distance. I view them as somebody who survived physical abuse from birth, assault by relative strangers twice and stalking three times, all when civilization was humming along and the abusers were doing very nicely and stood to lose a lot if caught. Since my own world stepped down hard in 2000, I've noticed a uptick in crimes by sharply emboldened criminals, including 3 years of 24x7 harassment by a registered sex offender and his gang of thugs, my identity stolen by former colleagues and a vice president with access to pension information, my property trashed 3 weeks after I moved here and attempts made on my horse's and dogs lives by neighbors. Oh, and poisoned by an employer who's well was no good and knew it but didn't bother to notify employees even after having been fined and cited by OSHA.

During my 60+ years, I've had plenty of dreams die a hard death, in some cases deliberately destroyed by the very people who should have been protecting my back and helping me.

"Why, when all goes belly up, don't join the first warlord band available and go off with a bang, pillaging and raping till one drops dead?...

doesen't makes for a good enough incentive give a darn if anybody other lives on."

I take such statements seriously because I have had direct experience of people happy to act on such beliefs as long as they thought they could get a way with it.

I simply can't afford to cut any slack to people who hold such beliefs nor can I presume they don't mean what they say.


Tony f. whelKs said...

Robert has raised an interesting point that has long troubled me: " It's often been argued that without God there is no objective basis for morality." I'm still not entirely sure what I believe, metaphysically, so put me somewhere on the spectrum between agnostic and atheist, for the sake of argument.

I'm not of the 'stromg atheist' position, though ('I postively believe there is no God') and am closer to the 'weak' position ('I don't positively believe there is a God [in any of the forms that believers have presented to me]'). Hence, it should be obvious why I am troubled by the notion that there is no morality without God, because it is a claim that I am not capable of morality.

There is a whole mess of ideas swirling around in this nexus, and certainly I have come to the general understanding espoused here that one's values define (or at least shape) one's morality and meaning.

It often surprises me when believers cannot themselves answer their accusatory question to atheists: "if there's no God, then what stops you from indulging in MRP?" They totally overlook the possibility that one may stop and consider one's own way in the world, that there is an empirical answer to the conundrum. The implication is that without the 'fear of God' they themselves would not be constrained. Their own 'morality' is nothing more than obedience, yet they claim the moral high ground.

I would argue (and, yes, this is my value judgement, YMMV) that a superior morality arises from grappling with the realities of human existence, from thrashing out competing claims and interests, from attempting to find and codify a system of values and morals which give meaning to one's life.

In contrast, the religious notion of 'morality is a set of rules handed down by God, therefore obey or expect some serious smiting' precludes this real grappling with existence. It is a place of fear, whereas I believe the questing atheist, without this constraint, can independently come to a genuine place of love. In my value system, actions driven by love have a greater worth and meaning than those driven by fear. I suppose, in a way, the religious attitude towards morality is infantilising in that it removes agency and loss of faith can result in a moral vacuum. It's in this sense I concur with JMG's analysis that Ervino is treating 'science' as a religion - its absence would precipitate a moral vacuum due to having relied on a (failed) extrinsic value system.

I've come to believe that value systems need to be intrinsic and are an essential part of deriving a resilient sense of self and meaning. Implicit in such a value system is that it can never be complete - situations, temptations, whatever - will always arise that had not previously been encountered or considered, but by being self-willed, the independence of thought (beyond 'WWJD?') exists to test one's values against that occurence.

Of course, it's possible for amyone to develop a corrupted set of values, and that's not restricted to non-believers. Sometimes the 'God-fearing' are that in name alone, their main motivation being instead to become the feared themselves. It's probably redundant to recount here the litany of clerical crimes or the excesses of zealots.

So, in short, morality, values and meaning are all perfectly capable of existing without God - and without scientific industrial civilisation.

Nomadic Farmer said...

Thanks for this. Its a good word.

I think I'm going to have to brew Dark Ages Imperial Stout sometime soon in honor of this post. Good thing about imperial stouts as opposed to lite beers...they store a long time.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thanks, folks, for suggestions regarding Dante! I now have fully three communications (two from this publicly visible blog, and one in private e-mail), all now duly archived in that scary repository of mission-critical-information, my full-tower Debian GNU/Linux "KGB Machine".

It is good to read JMG affirming that Dante can be faced on the strength of Latin courses and an Italian-English dictionary. Here it occurs to me that the task is a little like reading Beowulf. The printed page at first looks looks as hopeless as Sanskrit ("Hwaet we gar-dena, theod-kyninga thrym gefrunon" or similar). But then, perhaps under guidance from a prof and a preparatory semester in Whitelock's Anglo-Saxon reader, we see that it is English after all. ("What we have heard of the spear-Danes, of the valour of kings", or similar - I am getting this roughly right here, admittedly working from a memory of the 1971/1972 school year.) My thought now is that Dante's Italian can be regarded as a developed and mutated Latin.

Anyway, we shall see what we shall see.

not really expecting
a reply from anyone
in response to
this particular posting,


Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com
www dot metascientia dot com

heather said...

LewisLucanBooks, I wonder if your grandmother ever stood in her kitchen, looking at a double-yolker in her pan and smiling too? And perhaps some day some younger relative or friend of yours will do the same?

I have found everyone's "life worth living" comments very, very uplifting. I smile thinking about Redneck Girl and her frogs and buzzards, and Yupped digging and tending and strumming his guitar, and all the others who have found beauty in small things. I am also inspired by those who love the big, flashy, complex scientific endeavors- my daughter is enthralled by space exploration- and I hope they can come to peace with the idea that they are beautiful but ephemeral, passing as our fossil wealth collapses just like wildflowers pass as summer's heat comes in.

When I read JMG's title- Facts, Values, and Dark Beer- and saw that he was responding to Enviro Cus's comment from last week, I thought that he was making a similar list of things that make life worthwhile. I thought, yes, I see; there are facts about the world that it's enriching to know about, and the process of finding them out is pretty cool too (I know, value judgments). But really, that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant across the universe, and not able to be exceeded (as far as we know), or that the creatures at the foot of the oak tree in the forest live in an incredibly complex interdependent web that just "works"- how can you not be wowed, and find that knowledge adds to your life's value? And then on to those values- for me, engaging in the work of repairing the world, sharing joy and easing unnecessary suffering, connecting with others- those can give us each our purpose. And of course beer, or whatever your small pleasures are (I prefer my grains and yeast in hot, crusty bread right from the oven)- those will exist without cyclotrons, as many here have pointed out. These points have all been made here, but it was such an enriching experience to read JMG's post and see so much more to think and meditate about, so much more growth to make by reading his actual thoughts and those of everyone here. (I was also arrested by the passage beginning, "Here I am. I did not make the world…") I guess this is just a long way of saying "thanks" to all the posters here, and to our host. This week, and in general, this is the Best. Blog. Ever.
--Heather in CA

patriciaormsby said...

I don't know if this is the general case or not in America, but within my own family, it was my parents' generation, with their childhood in the Great Depression, that seemed to have the most faith in scientific progress. They either blithely ignore the signs of trouble ahead, or get terribly depressed, bitterly blaming all the irrational right-wing fools for ruining our chances for a brighter future. They were very upset when I took up a spiritual faith, though I managed to explain it to my father to where he could see my point, which was that it was not about "believing in magical genies," but about "perceiving the natural world," upon which we could basically agree, in a way which was more enjoyable and fulfilling. In other words, I presented my new faith to him as another form of "progress."
The people that I associate with in my own generation have been aware of looming problems with the progress narrative for most of their lives. We started with our parents' perceptions of a technological future, but the beautiful rainbow we grew up enjoying had at its end not a pot of gold--a friend in academia lent me his "binoculars" when I was about ten--but an incredible junkyard with rivers of toxic effluents. We doggedly pursued technological solutions, at first believing in them, but gradually becoming disillusioned.
I admit to not knowing my own generation in the US too well. The English speakers I have chosen to associate with over the last few decades have morphed from environmentalists into survivalists, or perhaps it was environmentalism that changed, trying to play the capitalist game in order to be more effective at changing society. My friends and I became aware that the conservatives we had derided so long were the only ones actually walking the environmentalist talk. We went out and made friends with them.
Relatives my own age in America still believe in the power of technology to improve life, but I think they have less invested in it emotionally than my parents' generation.
In Japan, oddly enough, it is quite the opposite. Folks in their seventies and eighties are more pessimistic about technology and open to talking about what they are starting to see as an inevitable collapse, and it is the post-war generations that are in love with technology and do not want any mention of looming issues. The more intellectual among them withdraw into a depressed funk as the signs of trouble become impossible to deny.
Perhaps it was differences in the general trend of the economy and society in their youth that led to such different perceptions. You were talking about differences in individual perceptions, and I realize I am talking about shared perceptions among groups with similar experiences.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Several writers on this blog have been touching on the possible future decline or collapse of science.

While much of science requires expensive equipment, the highest reaches of maths and physics are, paradoxically, low-budget. It is one thing to be searching, at prodigious CERN expense, for the Higgs Boson. It is a different, and higher, thing to be developing the mathematical and conceptual framework within which CERN calculates and explains. Here the workers leading the trek are not Higgs or (to cite an earlier generation) Gell-Mann, but rather Schrödinger and Heisenberg. Their distinctively high realm of physics was pursued with some success in the early 1900s, using scant equipment.

One key circa-1920 experiment within the high realm is the wave-particle-duality demonstration that Young's Two Slits yield a diffraction pattern even when the illuminant is so feeble as to pretty much preclude more than a single photon's passing through the two-slit screen at any one moment. This key experiment was done in the primitive Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, with at most a few hundred dollars' worth of gear - in essence, just a lightproof box, and some feebly glowing thingie, and a photographic plate.

Indeed the foundation for quantum mechanics itself is in the analysis of functions of a complex variable. Here we have theory that can only be developed a priori, outside the lab, and therefore with budgetary outlays confined to the low cost of paper and pencils.

I would some day like to ask some prof about the long-standing miseries surrounding quantum mechanics (is the "Copenhagen interpretation" right or wrong? were Einstein's suspicions of Copenhagen well-founded?). Could it be that some of these miseries are due to the Physics Department's using some not-quite-adequate maths - using complex variables where our remote descendants will say, instead, "Oh those stupid people from circa 2000 A.D., ignorant of those mainstays in the mathematical training of anyone past the age of puberty ever since 2915 A.D. or so, namely the Linear Wimple and the Covariant Tonsure; those circa-2000 Ancients were as dim as the circa-476 A.D. Romans, who rendered numerical methods impractical by writing 'XLVII' and the like for '47' and the like, and who insanely conceived of the integers as bounded from below by the integer 1."

If there are confusions in the framework of quantum mechanics, it will possibly not be lab work that uncovers them, but pure-maths work.

Physics work of the highest order can continue in a climate of financial and technological collapse, should we want it to continue.

At the same time, I share what I think is JMG's feeling, namely that something will go wrong, with highest-order physics abandoned for some dark cultural reason outside the realms of finance and technology.



Johnny said...


I wondered if you'd read Spinoza's Ethics and what you made of it.

He certainly deals explicitly with the combination of monotheism and secular thought. I was never sure how technological progress fit into the picture though. He says explicitly that it's not wrong for people to do anything they want to nature as they are an inseparable part of it, but he also never says that it's right either.

Your central message here this week that value judgments are subjective points to some of the issues I was struggling with as I was reading him.

Also I should say that I was simultaneously reading A World Full Of Gods, which makes me think you would say it's fine for him to believe anything he wanted to believe, but I still thought I'd ask! =)

Eric S. said...

@JMG: Thanks for that, and yeah, you’re right. There’s a lot of mythic restructuring to do. No matter how hard one tries, it’s almost impossible not to get occasionally infected with apocalyptic thinking and condense the entire journey to the future into a few powerful mythic images: the ten plagues of crisis, the wilderness of the Dark Age, the Canaan of the ecotechnic future, the Ten Commandments of sustainability, the golden calf of humanism, the flaming pillar of the living earth guiding the way...

I can relate to the people who are facing the end of progress in a way… we’ve achieved so much, there’s so much intellectual wealth our culture has produced, and the loss of that truly is tragic. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the ideas behind things like the Transition movement and get overcome with a desire to create the future we want without recognizing that we just don’t have that sort of power. We’re used to that power… We’ve been molded by the cult of innovation and ingenuity that has defined our age. It would be nice if the innovation that drove the industrial revolution could carry us all the way down, but it won’t. We have to find a new story, a new kind of courage, and a new inspiration. To draw from Dante, I’m reminded of my favorite passage from my favorite book of the comedy:

“Such had he become in his new life
Potentially, that every righteous habit
Could have made admirable proof in him;

But so much more malignant and more savage
Becomes the land untilled and with bad seed,
The more good earthly vigour it possesses.

And into ways untrue he turned his steps,
Pursuing the false images of good,
That never any promises fulfil.”

Purgatorio XXX

I think that could make a good epitaph for us, don’t you?

daelach said...

@ JMG: Yes, warbands have their moral - BUT this isn't a universal one. Means, they make a strong difference between in-group and out-group. The consequence is while they will faithfully stick together at least in combat, they will not hesitate to kill those resisting them.

Second, precisely because they are a warband, they have a hierarchy based upon perceived strength. Any leader or sub-leader showing weakness must expect to be challenged by his own men. That's why they can't afford showing weakness.

The consequence, as can be seen already today in red-light-districts: if a pimp has some actually minor quarrel with a "civilian" over e.g. who came first to the parking lot, the pimp's reaction may seem totally out of proportion, involving just beating down the civilian - or worse. The reason isn't (only) the pimp's over-inflated ego, but if others see him giving in to a civilian, they will conclude that if he is weak enough not to be able to deal with the civilian, so they might try their luck preying on his position.

Now that would become a much harder conflict for the pimp, so beating down a harmless civilian is the easier and safer option for him. There are complex social dynamics to be considered here.

Another thing adding up to atrocities: while a warband would be economically wise not to kill too many of the peasants they want to conquer, they could make up refraining in numbers by increasing the cruelty. Instead of just slaying identified troublemakers, they might rather impale them. Torture one, frighten dozens.

Or as history shows, even just killing any resistance might be a strategy in order to have rumors spreading and making others thinking twice about whether daring to resist - the Vikings killed even the monks at Lindisfarne, the consequence being that later cities just surrendered and paid everything they had.

Good example btw., considering that the Vikings got hold in the Normandy under king Rollo the Viking) and assimilated by the time, his descendants becoming the Dukes of Normandy and after Hastings, kings of England.

However, a least for now, firearms are still widely available - at least in the US. In other countries with no right to have firearms, it is only the criminals (means: future warbands) and of course the state (means: other future warbands) who has them in the first place, so the game might play out quite differently.

Firearms have changed warfare to the advantage of the defending position because the defenders can prepare and build up cover, plus that they can clear the open range surrounding their position while not yet under attack. WW1 shows that clearly. WW2 showed the counter-concept, but that relied on tanks and air support - which, due to their resource demands, are unlikely to be available as long as firearms will.

I myself wouldn't see my place as a warband leader, lacking enough charisma for that post. However, a place as strategic lieutenant might be an option to consider. That is, if the much more comfortable and safe place inside a local and fortified community should happen to be unavailable. Since warbands live, well, upon war and this business isn't exactly a secure one, it would be only my second choice.

I find it a bit strange that the phenomenon of warbands seems to be considered only as a phenomenon from the outside with the perspective of maybe becoming their victim (or preventing that). The modern West's victimisation at work here. Basically, that is also a factor why this civilisation is going down - Nietzsche has written quite some lines on that. The will to prevail being lost is the will for life being lost, the culture soul dying and even putting a moral medal on it.

daelach said...

@ Robert: no, it is not strictly true that we need gods for developing social codes (moral). Game theory can also be a good source here, especially when it comes to solving the usual "tragedy of the commons" problem.

For example, at least in-group, it is a good idea to outlaw people from killing one another because otherwise, the result would be either the war of all against all, or everyone would put so many resources into self-protection that the economy would collapse because the resources for necessary activities would not be there anymore. You can't effectively sow and harvest crops when lying in a sharp shooter cover all day long.

Likewise, all societies know codes for how to deal with situations which practically are most likely to lead to disputes. Personal property, intersexual relations, honour, common goods. The codes are not all the same cross-culturally, but they are always there.

The reason why they are always religious rules is simple: because philosphy and rationalism never have founded a culture, they only take over the nest made by religion. New cultures are always founded in a religious phase, and the only way of introducing rules in a religious society is, well, religion.

So, one thing is sure: in the dark age ahead, the rules sooner or later will be religious ones because the second religiosity will take over. Plus that the collapse of the rational phase has never actually inspired trust into that rationality.

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, I'm far from sure you're right; I think the scientific method can be saved, but it's going to take individuals willing to do the necessary work to make that happen. More on this in an upcoming post.

Sheep, nah, I'm notoriously bad at catching subtle jokes; I think it comes with the Aspergers.

Nathan, for the same reason that there are no atheists in foxholes, there tend to be few in dark ages. If Buddhism works for you, by all means!

Magicalthyme, fair enough.

Tony, no argument there. It's only in a narrow range of ethical traditions that ethics start from the words "Thou shalt not" and go from there, and there are plenty of rigorous ethical positions that require no supernatural sanction at all. That said, in a society that's used to relying on claims of divine sanction, the collapse of those claims can lead to quite a bit of antinomian acting out.

Farmer, delighted to hear it! Dark Ages Imperial Stout sounds like a brew I'd love to try.

Patricia, individuals exist in communities, and draw most of the raw material of their thinking from their communities, so it's far from an irrelevant point.

Toomas, good. I'll be discussing that shortly.

Johnny, I haven't tackled Spinoza yet. I find it impossible to skim a philosopher; once I start reading one, I want to read everything he wrote, multiple times, plus a selection of critical and biographical literature, to get in under the hood of his or her account of the world and make sense of it. That's a time-consuming process! I'll doubtless get to Spinoza eventually, but right now Schopenhauer is the focus du jour.

Eric S., a fine epitaph.

Daelach, very few ethical systems are universal in practice, even when they claim universality in theory. Warband ethics are more obviously non-universal than most! As for taking a more active role in warband culture, well, let's just say that middle-aged, middle-class intellectuals don't tend to do well in that environment. I know people who will probably do very well once warband formation gets going beyond the border zones, and I'm poorly suited to compete with them, so that's not the model I have in mind. I'll be talking about that, too, in an upcoming post.

daelach said...

@ Brad K:

"I suggest that turning predator on our fellow man is a form of personal ambition run amok"

You can afford that stance only because in a more or less working state, you have contracted away the institutional violence via the state's violence monopoly in the overall social contract. But just because you have contracted it away and you don't have to get your own hands dirty, that doesn't mean it isn't there or isn't necessary. However, that contract relies on the whole intermediary system - which is going away, see last week's blog entry.

In that case, if you want to keep your stance, I see basically two options for you:
a) becoming a victim of those who don't share your stance.
b) renegotiating the contract with different people - i.e. the proto-warrior class of your proto-community.

In case b), you better don't tell them things about fellow man if you don't want them to laugh you out and/or terminate the contract with you, which would throw you back to option a).

Even in failed areas, there are people who take over that kind of institutional violence. If someone has done something seriously wrong, he might get one of them after him, in which case his ticket can be considered stamped. The most appropriate term for them I've come across is "border lords". There are few of them, and they are not the ones making a big show. Quite the opposite. But it takes only a look in their eyes for the petty crooks and scallywags of such an area to know they better retreat - because they don't share the same league. That may sound like fantasy nonsense, but it isn't.

Yanocoches said...

It occurs to me that the propensity to conflate values and facts and confuse the traits of each results from the way that the human psyche responds to and filters information through emotional reaction, e.g., I like/don't like dark beer. One has created a value, like/don't like, from a fact, this beer is dark with a distinctive taste, aroma, appearance mediated through the senses causing a reaction/value. It seems that we filter and respond to both facts and values with emotion--acceptance, rejection, indifference and all the possible nuance of these reactions. Someone might react with the same repulsion to the value that corporations consider continual growth and profit to be a good and to the fact that cats will catch, bat around, kill, and eat mice in the middle of the living room. The repulsion is the same in both cases, but what causes the repulsion in one case is a value and in the other a fact. Facts and values can cause an identical emotional reaction which may contribute to confusion of one with the other.
This confusion is increased when something that everyone in a culture agrees on is a fact, e.g., the earth is flat, is proven to be false and not a fact at all. And likewise when a value evolves into something quite different over time, example the definition of marriage. Facts and values can change over time and can produce the same emotional reactions, and thus they have some common characteristics.
It seems that what produces the most stress is the loss of a particular fact or value. We are attached to our facts and our values and when either are threatened or lost, we tend to act out, become hopeless, disillusioned, wonder what's the point. It's not a question of defining so much what is a fact and what is a value, it's learning to accept that facts and values will change over time as will everything else, and how are we going to respond to that loss, by turning to "rape and pillage" or something else? Are there any values and facts that are stable enough to see us through the great changes? Or is it more a question of developing an emotional stability that will allow the weathering and survival of losses of values and facts along with much of everything else that we currently hold dear and that form the foundation of our daily lives?
Long time reader. Thank you.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

It is of course true that aesthetic preferences are subjective. (JMG cites beer.)

But consider the speech of the "salt of the earth" who read hardly anything beyond Reader's Digest - the people working hard for the welfare of their kids, operating their trucks and cash registers, sometimes watching a bit of tv to unwind.

It will be generally admitted that it is here, as opposed to the refined realm of the archbishop's palace, that wisdom pushes its way up with a special vigour, as dandelions push upward through asphalt.

There is in this community a gut sense that questions of ethics differ from questions of aesthetics.

I imagine a tattooed, clumsy Ashley being dumped by a rather cruel, dim Kurt. Ashley's pal Marcie is proposing a delicious revenge, in which Ashley publishes Kurt's lovemails on the Web, his naughty photos included. To this Ashley (well brought up, by hard-working parents) says, "No Marcie, that would be tacky."

The point here (as indeed is clear to Ashley) is that the proposed line of action is not "tacky" as putting mustard onto strawberries, or serving a beer of the wrong flavour, is "tacky". Ashley's deftly chosen t-word is here ironic, signalling that the relevant issues transcend aesthetics.

I will make this same point with a second example, now citing middle-brow tv.

Around 1980, the BBC dramatized a piece of kinda-sorta serious lit, and simultaneously of kinda-sorta Tom-Clancey-genre entertainment, le Carrés Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (The dramatization can be viewed on YouTube.)

Toward the end of this so-called "mini-series", the MI6 mole, whom I here call simply "PQR", gets exposed. PQR explains to the relevant MI6 case officer his reasons for having for some decades worked from within London for Moscow Centre. He presents his choice of allegiance as a matter of aesthetics - it is somehow that the democratic West is grungy, rather drab, in its approach to life, and that the Party is what stimulates. He finds the Party attractive in the manner of (I add my own simile here, while retaining PQR's meaning) a fine beer.

We, including people who would not have time or patience for high intellectuality, find PQR in a special way disturbing. It is not that PQR is a traitor. No, it would have been understandable, and in a way admirable, had PQR proved a Leninist fanatic, willing to sacrifice all for an eventual Dictatorship of the Proletariat. What renders PQR uniquely chilling and contemptible is his relegation to the realm of aesthetics a matter that belongs to a different realm.

Siding (I speculate!) with Dante, I would ultimately like to defend something like the objectivity of moral (as opposed to aesthetic) values, urging that decisions in ethics are taken with reference to human good. I would like to spell out the concept of goodness in terms like this: as we can eventually see from observing the concrete life of an apple tree, what would constitute an insult to the tree, so we can, by inspecting humans in their historical concreteness, work out what would constitute an affront to the dignity and worth of a human. (It would be helpful to use of the Russian novelists and other literature, etc, and also to draw on field anthropology, political history, etc - on a lot of the stuff taught in the Arts Faculty, as opposed to the Dept of Physics.) One would therein work out some concrete conceptions of what the scary rabbi calls "having life, and having it in abundance".

For such a task, I admittedly lack the requisite skill and energy. Here I will only say that some initial suggestions on how to proceed in such a humanistic project might possibly be gleaned from the posting made in the last day or so on this blog by Matthew Casey Smallwood (in discussing the "real work of the soul", in a posting timestamped "11/20/14, 8:29 PM").

hoping nobody gets upset
by this mildly critical


Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- I of course agree with your points 100%, had the same thoughts when I read the original comment, and think you presented your arguments with great clarity. However, this occasional process you use of singling out an individual comment and its poster by name, and making a direct rebuttal to him/her the core of your next post, makes me a tad uncomfortable. You've only done it a time or two that I recall, but I have always cringed a bit when it became clear that was the theme this week. I'm not sure why, maybe it feels too much like the School Master calling an individual student to the front of the class to elaborate upon his errors and make an example of him. It seems like you could make the same points without singling out one individual reader to be the focus of your rebuttal.

Greg Belvedere said...

Great post as always. There is another popular point made by the followers of the god of progress and those who argue for space exploration: we need to find a new home because we can't live on the earth forever (asteroids, ecological changes, sun burning out, etc.). Though popular at the moment because of the movie Interstellar, this argument ignores the limits to technology discussed here previously. Not to mention the very narrow conditions humans can live within and host of other problems.

Anyway, this brings to mind a classic example in science fiction of progress failing by succeeding: Asimov's short story The Last Question. Though I doubt fans of progress see it that way. In the story mankind fulfills all the techno dreams. We colonize the galaxy and achieve immortality. But most people spend their time hibernating, probably because their mentality of progress tells them their is nothing worth experiencing. When the universe finally winds down the AI recreates the big bang with a genesis style rehash. Very amusing.

I agree, with the general sentiment here. While life affords us many sorrows, it also gives many pleasures. Most of them are rather simple in my opinion (according to my values).

As for beer, I enjoy darker brews. I find overly hopped IPAs a good example of how Americans think they can never have enough of a good thing. Jerrica and JMG, Asahi makes a black beer that I rather enjoy when I'm lucky enough to be in a Japanese restaurant that serves it.

And just for good measure I feel inclined to leave this quote from Boethius that sums up my feeling that the good always seems mixed with the bad. Sometimes referred to as the Coincidencia Oppositorum if I'm not mistaken.

"It's my belief that history is a wheel. 'Inconstancy is my very essence,' says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like but don't complain when you're cast back down into the depths. Good time pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it's also our hope. The worst of time, like the best, are always passing away."

jonathan said...

to all seeking the meaning of life in a glass of beer:
a shot of jameson's followed by a pint of guiness. repeat as necessary.

Anselmo said...

The commentary sent by Ervino shows a sickly lack of vitality, that I hope can be motivated by a transient crisis in his life.

What would have happened if his ancestors, or the ancestors of any of us would have had such lack of encouragement facing any inconvenience?

On the other hand, your commitment to disclose problems related to the depletion of cheap oil, is a generous and philanthropic work for which I have great admiration and respect, and for me is an incentive to make a parallel effort in an incomparably modest scale: translate to the Spanish some of your posts and uploading these in the “Foro Oil Crash”. It is a task to which I address with many much enthusiasm than knowledge of the English, and with a painfully lack of literary skills , but I think that is a good ting that your posts will be accessible to Spanish speakers. I'm currently translating the posts from your early years and, I must say, it is a task that I find very rewarding.

Ed-M said...


Missed you last week due to family obligations. Being poor, I asked if they could get me train tickets. They got me plane tickets, of course! Beggars can't be choosers you know.

You reply to Enrico is... Interesting, to say the least. Yet I have an abiding, deep pessimism that due to the masses' emotional overinvestment and faith in eternal progress, when progress finally falters for all to see and IC begins to collapse, everyone will start fighting each other like starving rats -- well most everyone, the minority will continue to act kindly and charitably and morally towards one another, and will be viewed as chumps and losers, and will be singled out as targets along with the usual scapegoats.

Hope I'm wrong, but didn't Rome experience extreme chaos with the looting, raping and pillaging by warlords who came with it? Either way I probably won't live to see it.

Bogatyr said...

I also spent my childhood in a much simpler time. If that was what we went back to, that would be fine with me. Many of my Russian students grew up in the USSR, and they miss it; they say it was a simpler time, when relationships and conversation were highly valued. Now, they say, everyone has more things - but everyone is stressed and angry. Others. younger, grew up during the collapse of 1990s. They don't miss that time at all, and say they realise how wonderful, but how fragile, today's affluence is. Sadly, we're more likely to revert to their childhood than to mine.

Much talk here about how warlords and warbands will behave. I'm wary about using the analogy with the post-Roman age here. The warbands that ravaged the old Roman Empire weren't created by ex-citizens; they were from the outside, and had strong tribal structures and traditions that pre-dated their, erm, 'warbanding'(?).

That's not so much what most of us will face. A more realistic proposition will be along the lines of what Selco saw during the Yugoslav wars - take a look at his posts on gangs.

Don't rely too much on the assumption that if you have skills the warbands will take you on board. If they already have someone, you're out of luck. Plus, if the gang is made up of people who have lost all conception of what their future might be, they won't be thinking about it, or planning for it. They'll be assuming that they'll die soon, so what the hell. And if they're thinking that about themselves... as JMG says, there'll be much "quite a bit of antinomian acting out".

Nathan, good to see you back. Buddhism has been a great help to me as well.

JMG: "I know people who will probably do very well once warband formation gets going beyond the border zones, and I'm poorly suited to compete with them, so that's not the model I have in mind. I'll be talking about that, too, in an upcoming post". Looking forward to that one...

BoysMom said...

Ervino, you are perhaps suffering from a lack of history education: you say "The T/Sm is what gave us all the good concrete things of our civilization (including things as "low" as systematical crop rotation, for example". Many, many technological advances happened before the scientific method, including plumbing, which happens to be my personal favorite technology, and in fact, the crop rotation you mentioned predates the earliest recorded experimental science by about 7000 years, if wikipedia may be trusted. Concrete and plywood were both used by the Romans. Even gunpowder predates the scientific method. May I suggest that you will be less pessimistic about the collapse of our current civilization if you will learn a bit more about earlier cultures?

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

Does this mean then that the major social changes of the 20th century - universal suffrage, the civil rights movement, end of apartheid, equal rights for LGBT etc - are not necessarily progress as in "we have gone from worse to better", but rather changes that are merely aligned with the values of their times?


Melissa Hanafee Whitcomb said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

Greetings from a long-time reader, first-time writer! Your essays are one of the high points in my week, where I can look forward to a well-reasoned point of view, usually with the added bonus of bits of history lesson that I never learned in school. The points you made in today’s essay are very much in keeping with what I have read in the previous years.

Today I read Mr. Enzio’s question a little differently than you. As I read your essay, it seemed to me that you were addressing (and refuting) the idea that without technological progress, there is nothing worth living for. I interpreted Mr. Enzio’s question more along the lines of “without that which inspires us, what is there to live for?” As you note, many things are greater than us and inspire a sense of awe, and many great achievements across all field are done in the service of that which inspires, be it Science, Art, Love, etc. However, if one is unable to switch one’s way of experiencing awe, of connecting with the greater Universe at large, then the fall of civilization is more like Lucifer’s fall: completely being cut off from the Divine.

So, to me, I read the question as, “When cut off from my experience of Connection, in a life that is more painful each day, what reason is there to NOT cry out `I am my own God` and lash out as I please?” I read on many sites how it is necessary to adjust our expectations and perceptions, but I don’t hear a lot about HOW to do that (or why). What are your thoughts on the subject?

Thank you for your time and consideration!

P.S. If you already answered this elsewhere, please forgive me; I haven’t had time to work through all 151 comments yet.

P.P.S. Full disclosure: I have a degree in Physics, self-identify as a GIANT geek, was raised Marian Roman Catholic, left the Church at 13, have studied every religious and magical system I could get my hands on, kept what works and discarded what doesn’t. (“Works” in this sense is defined as “producing a noticeable or tangible effect via a mechanism not yet understood by science.” Yes, I’ve experienced some things I can’t explain, and that’s great. I find myself able to switch value systems between the experience of the Divine as union with Nature and experience of the Divine as experienced via higher math, but I have no way of teaching or sharing it. Here’s hoping you do!) :)

onething said...

Well, Robert, your poem made some good points, coming to the realization, at least, that morality ought not to hang upon fear of a disapproving God. But even Jesus made the point that you are not moral when you refrain from sin, if you desire to do that sin.

But to say that life is what we make it (as the poem says)is fine so far as it goes - but I like to try to understand things at their fundamental levels.

Morality is the same for us all, it is a matter of mercy and respect for other beings, for some reason deciding to care about someone else whom we have good reason to suppose experiences life somewhat as we ourselves do, and not wanting them to suffer. But it is questionable to me if even that is truly possible if we really did lack souls and really were nothing but chemical colliding. I suspect that compassion actually arises from a soul dimension in which the boundaries that separate one being from another are more flimsy.

At any rate, I do not see any real shame in committing genocide in the atheistic, scientism belief system.
But if the universe is conscious, and if all existence can have only one explanation or source, it means nothing is actually separate, and there are no actions without repercussions to oneself anyway. If you murder someone and you will both be reincarnated in the future, what then?

onething said...


Why, of course good and bad interact, and very likely obey some sort of laws...I do think values exist outside of what you are probably calling the subjective realm, but I don't know that there is an objective realm. There is, however, a reality bigger than the one my mind seems capable of perceiving at this time, I don't have control of it or much access to it but I am part of it.

As far as human consciousness, I think in terms of contraction and expansion. I mentioned above that I don't have access to a larger reality, but there are times and ways that people do access it, via certain plant medicines or death, or perhaps meditation and altered states - and this is an expansion.
Evil tends to be on the side of contraction. Fear, for example, greatly restricts the mind causing it to shrink in its area of attention. So it is sort of concentrated. This is why we think of happy states as sort of airy and free - they are expansive. I mean that literally.

Daddy Hardup said...

Dear JMG

I was delighted to see you commending Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the virtues. Reading MacIntyre has helped me to make sense of the moral confusion of my life and of the world around me.

I detect many parallels between his thought and yours. You are both preoccupied with the collapse of civilisation and the need to conserve the heritage of the past and sustain it into an uncertain future. MacIntyre is concerned more with the moral confusion of modern bureaucratic society, while you are preoccupied with its material collapse through reckless resource depletion, but I see these approaches as complementary (and you both cite Benedict of Nursia as a model!)
I noted a very MacIntyrean passage in ‘The Long Descent’, in which you described how oil wealth has corrupted democracy, and the need to rebuild it from below through civil society bodies such as the Oddfellows. It’s through organisations such as fraternal lodges, you argue, that people learn to practise mutual aid and democratic deliberation.

MacIntyre’s account of ethics as a group activity, a moral tradition developing through time as a constructive argument among members of a community engaged in problem-solving, I find plausible and instructive. Does belonging to a community of Druids inform your moral outlook in this way? Does writing this blog and responding to comments? In light of your remarks in ‘The Long Descent’, I’m puzzled by your emphasis here on moral values being specific to the individual and their perspective. Could you explain, please?

I realise you have a lot on your plate here, so I’m happy to wait until another post for an answer. In the meantime I’ll continue to enjoy your weekly dose of sanity in a crazy world.

Many thanks & best wishes
Alan Paxton

onething said...

JMG, my dear, but if good and evil are value judgments, than how do you say they exist?

Now, I take Truth seriously, and I readily admit that she is too big to be grasped easily or pinned down, but at the same time, if we are so quick to give up, how to hone our wisdom? When I ponder things, I try to weigh them somehow, as to their veracity. This is not a goddess for the faint of heart.

I'm saddened that you perhaps imply I would force my views on others. There is One who is good, and that One does not use force. (No doubt one of the reasons you think the universe is indifferent to what we do.)

Janet D said...

The video "Why I Think This World Should End" by Prince Ea has been going viral via FB. A 4 minute 13 second message addressing things related to this week's topic (IMHO).

Why I Think The World Should End

Someone forwarded it to me and I showed it to my kids. My 12-year-old son watched it and cried and said "This is the first thing that I feel has been truly honest and yet has still given me some hope", which then made me cry. We then had a very straightforward conversation about the realistic future and choices, hope, and despair.

What is so interesting is that the video has (currently) 49 million+ views. It is particularly popular among the young. While I remain somewhat cynical about the potential overall success of his message, I think the fact that 49 million viewers have connected with his message tells you something.

John Michael Greer said...

Yanocoches, of course there are facts and values that can hold good through the crises we face. It's just that they're not particularly popular right now!

Toomas, I think you're mistaken to equate subjective moral perceptions with esthetic experience -- two very different modes of human experience, which is why those who conflate them, as you've indicated, tend to get strong reactions from the rest of us. The modern habit of demeaning subjective experience as somehow unreal and irrelevant is to my mind a major barrier in the way of making sense of human life.

Bill, I do it maybe once every two years. In this case, I asked and got Ervino's permission, and he indicated that in fact he was eager to have me respond to his points at length.

Greg, the fixation on heading for other planets also serves as a covert justification for trashing this one, which is my main problem with it.

Jonathan, a very Irish response!

Anselmo, glad to hear the translation project is proceeding well!

Ed-M, some parts of the Roman world were ravaged by warlords. Other parts weren't. Even in the parts that were ravaged by warlords, the level of ravaging varied dramatically from place to place and from person to person. More on this as we proceed.

Bogatyr, nah, unless you've got a very narrow range of skills you don't want to be taken on board by a warband. You want to be left alone -- and that's also something that can often be arranged. More on this, too, as we proceed.

SMJ, the changes you mention are the political consequences of changes in values. Do you consider them shifts from worse to better? I do, as it happens, and so do a great many other people; for us, they count as improvements, and for many of us, improvements we're willing to work hard to defend. That's how value judgments function in the moral and political life of a community.

Melissa, I caught that dimension of Ervino's post, and tried to respond to it by pointing out that if your sole source of inspiration comes from technocentric daydreams, you're probably going to facing a world of hurt as industrial civilization unravels. Fortunately, there are many things that can serve as sources of inspiration -- and it's wise to choose your inspirations with an eye to the realities of your historical period.

John Michael Greer said...

Daddy H., a community is made up of individuals. Each individual has his or her own values, but these are inevitably informed by growing up in a community, interacting with other members of the community, and so on. Each individual still has to choose, on the basis of those collectively informed values, what personal choices to make regarding values and what to do about them. Does that make things any clearer?

Onething, you seem to be suggesting that if something is a value judgment, it doesn't exist, and therefore that value judgments don't exist. I assure you that they do; in fact, if you reflect on your own thinking, I suspect you'll find that you make value judgments (including "this is good" and "that is evil") all the time, and that they have a powerful influence on your thoughts, words, and actions. In what possible sense can it be said, then, that those value judgments don't exist?

Janet, fascinating. I'm not at all surprised that it's had a potent influence among the young; a lot of young people I know are very clear about just how deep a mess we're in. Still, you're right that it's a good sign.

Kyoto Motors said...

it's interesting, the "involuntary simplicity" concept plays into the hands of the ruling class who impose austerity, so there's a knee-jerk reaction from the Leftist/ activist types who insist that austerity is purely a matter of oppression and injustice. Of course they're not flat out wrong, but they may well have unwittingly positioned themeselves alongside many otherwise strange bedfellows in a broader culture of entitlement; a constituency who must now come to terms with the mismatches between expectations and reality in the (waning) age of abundance...

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- since I've been reading your blog for eight years, I guess my estimate of "a time or two" was a bit on the low side!

About avoiding being noticed by warbands, I hope you will address not just that specific but the larger enveloping issue of camouflage in its broad sense -- the "art and science" of appearing inconspicuous, non-threatening, or even invisible to those who might view you as either threat or prey. This has been much on my mind ever since moving to the hinterlands where you are both more exposed and more interconnected than you are in academia, urbia, or suburbia.

Comically, where I live, one thing that assists in this sort of social camouflage is to wear camo...

Unknown said...

Dear JMG, I stand with your view against Ervino's. Humanity has created beautiful art and loving human relationships, and has made connections to spiritual Truth, long before our current technological/economic climax.

Some other writers have covered similar ground, even at the height of the Cold War. Recall Walter Miller's "Canticle for Leibowitz." That book is a story of a descent into a new dark age, followed by a new Renaissance, followed by a greater and more lethal technical climax. Even within that awful cycle, it makes a real difference: to choose to be a destroyer and a thief, or to be a seeker after Truth.


Crow Hill said...

Excellent post and comments. Thank you.

@yanocoches "Are there any values and facts that are stable enough to see us through the great changes?"

Could anyone recommend books or films for children and teenagers that would have helpful stories for them if they had to go through future difficult times as described in the Archdruid Report?

Pentrus said...

I doubt that scientific discovery will stop if most of our current technology becomes unavailable. If that happens intelligent people will find ways to advance science; they will simply have to adapt to lower tech ways to do it. Will be go to the planets or manipulate matter at the quantum level? No. But many scientific discoveries can still be made as they were for thousands of years before the fossil fuel age. New astronomical discoveries can be made with modest telescopes and optics that can literally be hand fashioned. We may not be able to splice genes and manipulate the genome, but there are ways to study human genetics that, even though modest by current standards, can produce new knowledge in that field. Mathematics can be advanced with little more than pencil and paper, or whatever the writing technology might be in the future. Music and art can continue to evolve since it did for millenia prior to the hydrocarbon age. There is so much that can be done without the aid of electricity or vast bureaucracies that it boggles my feeble mind. And then there is the development of human relationships and humankind's relationship to our environment. I am surmising here, but perhaps a slow-down of technological development will allow those kinds of relationship building to "catch-up' after a couple of centuries of break-neck technological growth. My biggest concern is, if there is a collapse, that much of the fundamental knowledge we have accumulated these last few centuries may be lost, hindering the development of science, the arts, and agriculture in the future non- or low electric age. But the good news is we can decide to learn basic skills in order to preserve knowledge and advance it in the future (for example, re-learn how to use a slide rule, how to grow more productive gardens using naturally produced fertilizer, construct low-tech scientific instruments), become educated in useful technology, and work to make our minds and bodies stronger. Doing such things would allow us to live a rich and rewarding life in an age where we are the masters of technology instead of being slaves to it. Yes, life might be shorter, but I think it is possible that it can be a good life, especially if you share it with family and good friends. I know this post may sound trite, but I am 60 and have no intent give up. I am trying to relearn how to garden (with mixed success), how to build simple structures, how to make do with less. Will I ever be completely independent from the current technology? Perhaps not soon (unless it is forced upon me). But I figure each small step makes me better able to transition should the need occur. It has been said many times by many people, but knowledge, once obtained, doesn't weigh anything or cost anything after the initial investment.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for writing this. I was a bit annoyed by some of the responses last week, but like the transition from pale ales to stout infused beer the responses reflect a journey which can be travelled if one has the stamina and fortitude.

It is just rather unfortunate that there are so many people that have to travel that particular journey and of boy are they going to crack it, when they realise what is in front of them.

What disturbs me greatly is the what happens next scenario for those people. Ervino displayed a tendency to want to lash out in anger. As an interesting side note, I doubted very much that he would as I felt at the time that his words were empty air. Most people have family and friends with which constrain that sort of rabid behaviour - and the do unto other rule is always at the backs of their minds. Who said: those that live by the sword, die by the sword?

Galbraith summed it up nicely when he wrote: "All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership." Wise words from someone who lived through tough times.

Incidentally the last chapter of the book is Galbraith talking about democracy and I suspect the realisation that he had been swallowed up by the process of congressional committees. There is a feel of sadness and realisation of impending irrelevance to the end of that book. After autumn, comes winter...



PS: There is a new blog post up with photos showing exactly what the mountain would look like if the volcano erupted! Plus all of the usual shed, plant and rock stuff: Every single drop

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Cathy,

I feel for you. Sorry to hear about your plight.

As a bit of advice, you have to remember that the legal system is merely a system that seeks to administer itself, so go not to it seeking justice, but remember that process is everything.

Hope that helps.

Incidentally, many years ago, I lived in a house that was built in 1890. It was a beautiful old house and I rebuilt it by hand from a shell of bricks. At one point it had no floors and only one power point – which made for interesting living!

Unfortunately, it was surveyed originally in 1890 and the house was built slightly on the neighbours property and they were built on mine etc... all the way down the street.

This crazy situation came to light because I had to apply for a permit to rebuild the rear of the house. Now, current GPS locations and lasers etc. are much more accurate than what went on in 1890.

Needless to say, it got down to the fact that I had to purchase the small parcel of land from the neighbours for a hugely inflated sum which I could not afford.

So, I simply walked away from it, despite the hassles it caused with the construction. The whole situation was just weird and common sense did not prevail.

I'm sorry to hear about your troubles, but some people are just sharks - and they inevitably move on from your location because Douglas Adams pointed out in the Hitchhikes guide to the galaxy what exactly happens to such types: Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Look under the heading marketing division.

It sounds humorous but such rebalancing things took place in Rwanda not that long ago... That is why the sharks have trouble fitting into a community, because in a resource constrained environment, any advantage to any one particular person, comes at the expense of others.



Kutamun said...

Raping and pillaging , Warbands got me thinking about Sicily for some reason and from there straight to the Mafia , their nature and origins , in particular , the original template for Vito Corleone , which is suspect was Calogdero Vizzini of Villaba . ( fascinating bloke ) I supose this is relevant to Ervino being an Italian as well . Turns out they were the workers and landmanagers for absentee nobles who may have owned large parcels of land while living in Paris . I see this same phenomenon in action today as the wealthy realise they need to convert their paper wealth to tangible assets but lack skills , local connection and a sense of community . It was these conditions exactly that allowed Calogdero and his mates to extort part of the farm / share of the profits for themselves . Curious thing about them was they were never a father to son - familial structure ( though this became the case later in America ) ; they were specific to a certain locale . The local Don was always a local lad born and bred , literally thrown up by the earth . Basically started as a parasite on the rich , which later adopted some of the nobilities manner and bearing for their own ( ala the barbarian / roman imitation ) .This is what made it so hard for the authorities to figure out who was running the show and how it was structured. Generally all their concerns centred around agriculture and the local hierarchy , and the marketing of local produce into outside supply chains , this was mainly what they were concerned with controlling , and Vizzini it seems always made sure it was done fairly and the peasants were given land , violence being used as a last resort , though uncompromisingly once enacted . Most likely still going on today , and i have observed similar behaviours in the local farmers around here who are most unsympathetic to absentee landlords who may need to hire equipment / skills ; far more accomodatimg to people who actually live here with no outside income . Seems they lost their way and became common gangsters ( drugs , prostitution , executions ) after shipping out to the new country and becoming urbanised .

Stacey Armstrong said...

@Toomas, JMG

Your exchange has circled upon the very place that I have been stuck for more than a decade. The closest I have come is contemplating ways to expand our ability/desire to generously listen to each other.

George Eliot, called this the sympathetic imagination. One of her reasons for taking up novel writing was the belief on her part that the right sort of novel (ethical, realist, quotidian) could activate and exercise the 'sympathetic imagination' in a reader. While I wish this was true, I remain sceptical. The compelling thing about Eliot and her work is that she valued the scientific method while still placing a great deal of value on subjective human experience. The reason I asked about curiosity earlier is because I thought it might be a different place to put my pry bar. The more recent writings on emotional intelligence do not have the same resonance for me as the eighteenth and nineteenth century. I suspect I would have been a blue stocking if given a chance! From the thread in this discussion it occurs to me that it would be impossible to legislate 'sympathetic imagination' or novel reading for that matter. It is work taken up by individuals, probably in a solitary fashion. In the realms you outline this week, I would hazard to say religious quest. So is Eliot's sympathetic imagination a secularised version of the notion of soul?


SMJ said...

Hello JMG

I also consider those changes shifts from worse to better and it pains me slightly to think that, being expressions of value judgments, there may well come a time when those changes get reversed. It makes me think of the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) - here in the UK, there is a big drive underway to prosecute people who commit FGM. I find FGM repugnant at many levels, but I'm also aware that this is just my value judgment rather than anything universally undeniably correct. I guess what we have is the value judgment of UK society disagreeing with the value judgment of cultures where FGM is the norm. Which makes me think of Dmitry Orlov's work on communities that abide - one of his observations was that successful communities have a mechanism for excluding those who don't share their values.


Bogatyr said...

@Bill Pulliam With regard to "the "art and science" of appearing inconspicuous, non-threatening, or even invisible to those who might view you as either threat or prey", you could do worse than read a few entries on Selco's blog, which I mentioned previously. His category of posts on Basic Survival covers a lot of material on this topic, and was worked out in a genuine collapse situation.

Robert W said...

Thank you; I too needed your perspective, from another fellow here in the Free (Ha!) State of MD.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Sorry, I am not understanding what the mistake is that JMG says I have made.

JMG writes: Toomas, I think you're mistaken to equate subjective moral perceptions with esthetic experience -- two very different modes of human experience, which is why those who conflate them, as you've indicated, tend to get strong reactions from the rest of us.

This does not seem to be an accurate paraphrase of my blog posting.

Firstly, I do not hold that moral perceptions are "subjective" (JMG's words, with my italics added: "Toomas, I think you are mistaken to equate subjective moral perceptions with esthetic experience"). I do not affirm the subjectivity of moral perceptions. On the contrary, I question it.

Secondly, I do not equate moral perceptions with aesthetic perceptions (JMG's words, with my italics added: "Toomas, I think you're mistaken to equate subjective moral perceptions with esthetic experience"). On the contrary, I contrast them. I do not say, as it were, "5+7 equals 7+5"; rather, I say, as it were, "5+7 is unequal to, is a thing contrasted with, 5/7." This was the point both of my reference to the imaginary Marcie and of my reference to PQR in le Carré's BBC dramatization.

It is possible that JMG did not here select quite the right verb. It is possible that in paraphrasing me, he did not mean to write "mistaken to equate subjective moral perceptions with esthetic experience" but "mistaken to fooooooooo subjective moral perceptions with esthetic experience", for some different verb "foooooooo". This kind of thing happens to all of us when we have to do a great deal of writing, at rather high speed, to deadlines. ("As we recollect, on this sombre morning, Sir Winston Churchill and the Bottle of Britain...")

- Seeking to forestall other misunderstandings on the part of anyone, whether JMG or JMG's readers, I should perhaps also spell out a little my ideas on the apple tree, human good, and the classic Russian - or other - novelists (even though, admittedly, JMG does not address himself, in his reply to me, to those particular ideas).

By scrutinizing how an apple tree lives, we see that some things serve its good and others detract from its good. We might possibly see, for instance, that excessive spring watering promotes shallow root growth. Similar observations can be made with respect to pollinators, grafting, and the like.

My idea is that although humans, possessing emotion and intellection, are more nuanced than apple trees, broadly parallel principles apply. We see, for instance from the classic novelists, how people can be coarsened in a disastrous marriage or brought to a redeeming self-knowledge in a disastrous marriage. Again, we see how they can be brought to cowardice by their innate psychological limitations (as Uriah Heep is in David Copperfield) or to courage even in and though them (as the wonderfully batty Betsy Trotwood is, in the same novel). It is hard to learn these things, but they can be learned, and so people often say, "Well, I got quite a lot out of that film" (or novel, or stage play, or whatever) - not, "I was entertained," but "I got a lot out of it - I learned something." What is "learned" are things not about Uriah Heep and Ms Trotwood as such, but about the so-often elusive nuances, the so-often-overlooked concrete facets, of human goods, such as the goods of self-knowledge and courage.

Anxiously, hoping this helps,


www dot metascientia dot com
Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com

onething said...

Well, JMG, things are said to be maya, not because their very existence is the delusion but because they are unreal in the metaphysical sense, i.e., they lack a permanent form and dissolve and morph endlessly.

So, in a metaphysical sense, I speak of something being real if it has some logical structural basis that would make it true in almost any imaginable context.

I see good and evil that way.

But of course there are many things that will be called good or evil that cannot really withstand the test of honest scrutiny and/or are simply preferences, and many times something we might label a good, such as honesty, must be sacrificed for a higher or other good.
Thus, Wisdom.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

@Stacey: Sorry not to be able to help you a great deal with Eliot and curiosity. The best I can do is make some peripheral comments, hoping that these are better than nothing.

(1) On Eliot: Eliot is an outstanding example from the novel-writing tradition. I found Middlemarch superb when I read it 40 years ago, though now I do not remember much beyond the terrible sterility of the scholar Casaubon who is central to her narrative. Here I would offer the suggestion that however Eliot herself described her aims, one appropriate description is at any rate that she was deftly shining her flashlight on this and that part of the vast, tangled, intricate thing (we might think of it as a big oak tree) which is human good. What, concretely speaking, can human good consist in? Casaubon, by his terrible, minatory, negative, example, suggests to us one part of the (many-faceted, intricate, in some areas potentially unexpected and unsettling) answer.

(2) On curiosity: The cultivation of curiosity is part of human good. We can see how it might be best cultivated by seeing how it currently gets damaged, by schools and parents, in children.

I recall someone offering, in print or on the Web, as an example of the supposedly pointless and foolish questions children should be discouraged from asking, "Why is the sky blue?" This of course is an eminently askable, and indeed an eminently answerable, question. The answer raises nice points in physics, elucidated by Victorian physicist Rayleigh, as one can see from Googling on "Rayleigh scattering".

Rather generally - I offer this thought not just for Stacey, but more generally - one way of dealing with our current mess is to remind oneself that contemplation of the mess is instructive. Casaubon, through his negative example, tells us something about human good. So do our shopping malls, as we for example contemplate that negative exemple-du-jour, our corporate prostitution of Christmas. So do our schools, since they illustrate for us how not to treat children. The educational value of the recent American Presidents, and of the team led by Vladimir Vladimirovitch, is immense. (Vladimir's team is bafflingly applauded this year by Mr Dmitry Orlov. Has Dmitry been bought, in one of those common contemporary kommersant transactions? Russia repays study in lots and lots of ways, even four or five generations after Tolstoy.)



Morgenfrue said...

@Crow Hill

I remember reading as a teenager a girl's diary from the war in Sarajevo, which made a big impression on me (though I no longer remember what the title was).

My oldest child is only three, but we've read Blueberries for Sal (McCloskey), and talked about how they saved the blueberries for the winter, and then we went out and picked blueberries and made jam.

In a few years I hope to read the Little House books with her.

I would love to hear others' suggestions!

latheChuck said...

Here's a brief quote from DeYoung's paper (which is available in full at no charge): "It is a researchable question whether the promise of eudaimonic well-being derived from responding well to a drawn-out energy descent can be made to overcome the hedonic pleasure gained from pursuing business-as-usual for as long as it lasts. This raises another confounding issue to be dealt with. Meaningful behavior can contribute to eudaimonic well-being, yet to have that effect it seems crucial that the choice to act be autonomously initiated (Ryan and Deci, 2000; Ryan et al., 2008; Venhoeven et al., 2013)."

I think he's trying to say that you can ENJOY the practice of "collapse now, before the rush".

latheChuck said...

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

Martin Luther

Our knowledge of tomorrow can only be a prediction, and to predict a singular event can only be speculation. A robust strategy does not impose unbearable costs in the presence of any possible outcome. (See Wikipedia "Robust Decision Making.)

Hedonistic excess in the face of imminent catastrophe is unlikely to be robust.

Dan the Farmer said...

1# Light DME
1# Amber DME
11 oz. Dark DME
8 oz Black Patent Malt
8 oz Chocolate Malt

Simmer Black Patent and Chocolate malts at 140°-160° for about 80 Minutes, then pulse in food processor and add to boil.

Boil all malt and extract for 1 hour with 1 oz Challenger and add 1/2 oz Fuggle at the end of the boil.

Adjust initial gravity to 1.056. Cool and put into carboy. Pitch with Safbrew S-33.

Final gravity (8 days) 1.026, including 1/2 C priming sugar. Result is ~4%-4.2% alcohol. Yield was 20 bottles.

I call it "Fear of the Dark".

dltrammel said...

Here is an interesting bit of future history.

"How the Middle East's First Nuclear War Happened"

Cherokee Organics said...


I've been hand mowing in the hot sun today and have had plenty of time for meditation. Actually, I find work about the place here to be quite meditative.

I was meditating on the subject of why people have the investment in progress that they do. It was displayed a few weeks back in the awful sentiment: So, we're not going to get off this rock?

My gut feel says to me that the faith is placed in science and progress because otherwise those same people would have to re-evaluate their relationship to nature. My thinking is that if you have faith that science and progress will save you in the future from the mistakes of today, then it'll save you a whole lot of worry.

If on the other hand, like me, you don't believe that progress and technology / science will save us from the mistakes of today, then you have to find different ways to interact with the biosphere. This involves limitations and acknowledgement of your actions which may be harmful. No easy thing, I can sort of see why some would end up despairing.

What do you reckon?



Cherokee Organics said...


Oh yeah, another long standing weather record was just broken in Queensland: Longreach breaks November heat records with 11 day stretch of temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius or 104'F

What's going on?



Moshe Braner said...

Looks like George Monbiot has been reading here too. Or maybe not. But he's recently written a nice debunking of the fantasy of "escape to space rather than stop destroying this planet".

As he put it: "Technological optimism and political defeatism: this is a formula for the deferment of hard choices..."

Ed-M said...

Cheeses, 189 comments already!

JMG, yes, you are exactly right. Not all of Rome got devastated in the 5th Century CE by the Barbarian Invasions. The east side particularly lucked out. But there was devastation enough, plus the prohibitions, at the end of the 4th and turn of the 5th to cause Panhellenic (Pre-Christian) culture death.

On a note more related to last week's post, Marxian Economist Richard D. Wolff has concluded the because Capitalist culture has been exporting jobs abroad to China, to India, and to Brazil, the West's role in globalization is to be the consumer. Until the money runs out, which leads to collapse. Which is what is happening now; and the Capitalists are trying to stem the collapse, only in their minds spark off an economic renaissance, by doing the exact thing that caused the initiation of the collapse in the first place! Wolff's answer is Workers' Self Directed Enterprise. Now he probably thinks this will spark a renaissance, although he doesn't come right out and say it, but he does say it would be a revolution in our economic arrangement. Me? I think it might be the only thing that might stem the decline, ie, slow it down.

Ed-M said...

Durn it! Forgot the link!!"capitalism-in-decline-and-worker-cooperative"

Glenn said...

There have been a great many glib references to brewing in the comments.

Recipes for brewing beer or ale vary from those similar to Dan's, commencing with; "Take a gallon of hops flavoured malt syrup" to "Sowe a peck of bere (2 row barley) on foure rods of good soile".

This applies to many other crafts we practice, from carpentry and smithing to spinning and weaving. We buy lumber, iron, yarn or wool. We buy our tools and take classes or teach ourselves the skills, perhaps with the aid of books.

In the future, as in the past; we will have to make our own materials and tools from scratch, or from specialists such as shearers, charcoal burners, foundry men, woodcutters and sawyers. And we will mostly learn skills by apprenticing, either formally or from our parents.

In the next century or two there will be myriad tools to re-make and a host of skills to re-learn.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Shane Wilson said...

Regarding the law of diminishing returns as it relates to scientific inquiry, that was the main reason I was turned off from pursuing graduate school/a PhD in psychology. Most of the current research is so arcane, involving such minutiae, that it bored me. And the statistics used in contemporary research were so complex as to be inscrutable to me.
I think JMG is right to recognize the power of loss of faith in people like Ervino. It is my experience as I go about my day to day life that there are far more people holding his beliefs than the small fraction of us who have accepted our future. It's precisely this dark energy that I find to be palpable in modern American society that makes me convinced that something similar to what happened in early 20th century Europe, if not worse, awaits us right around the corner. Even among my ecologically aware friends practicing permaculture, there seems to be a lack of awareness of consequences/the true scale of time--e.g. that permaculture will "save" them from the consequences of overshoot/limits to growth

onething said...


Apparently you decided not to put through my post regarding FGM, but I would like to know why as it did not have profanity?

Because it still needs to be said and could be redone.

JML said...

JMG, the comment you quoted from Ervino sort of reminds me of when Christians say that without God and the promise of heaven for the righteous there is no reason to follow any moral imperative and that this world is eternally damned without the promise of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps he believes that, if technology and science had more time to progress, humanity could create heaven right here on earth. I believe progressives call this worldly-heaven "Utopia".

Unknown said...

JMG, I am new to this site and to this discussion, so it may be that the writers I recommend are already old hat here.

Nevertheless, I wanted to cite:

- Pitirim Sorokin was a sociologist who was exiled from the USSR, and came to Harvard and founded their sociology department. The book of his that I've read (and never forgotten) is "The Crisis of Our Age." He used long-term data to characterize the evolution of Western civilization: from Sensate (materialistic) under the latter Roman Empire, to Ideational (spiritually centered) in the early Middle Ages, to Idealistic (the latter Middle Ages, I think), to Sensate (the modern era, now in decay). In the period between the World Wars, Sorokin foresaw the collapse of modern civilization and its eventual replacement by a more spiritual culture (Ideational or Idealistic).
2. Another early prophet of decline was Rene Guenon, the Sufi mystic and traditionalist metaphysician. I recommend "The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times," a warning of the increasing materialism and soul-destroying quality of the present era. I used Guenon's work in "False Dawn," my own critique of secular and New Age utopianism.

Lee Penn

«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 234   Newer› Newest»