Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Progress Means

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report appears to have hit a nerve. That didn’t come as any sort of a surprise, admittedly.  It’s one thing to point out that going back to the simpler and less energy-intensive technologies of earlier eras could help extract us from the corner into which industrial society has been busily painting itself in recent decades; it’s quite another to point out that doing this can also be great fun, more so than anything that comes out of today’s fashionable technologies, and in a good many cases the results include an objectively better quality of life as well

That’s not one of the canned speeches that opponents of progress are supposed to make. According to the folk mythology of modern industrial culture, since progress always makes things better, the foes of whatever gets labeled as progress are supposed to put on hair shirts and insist that everyone has to suffer virtuously from a lack of progress, for some reason based on sentimental superstition. The Pygmalion effect being what it is, it’s not hard to find opponents of progress who say what they’re expected to say, and thus fulfill their assigned role in contemporary culture, which is to stand there in their hair shirts bravely protesting until the steamroller of progress rolls right over them.

The grip of that particular bit of folk mythology on the collective imagination of our time is tight enough that when somebody brings up some other reason to oppose “progress”—we’ll get into the ambiguities behind that familiar label in a moment—a great many people quite literally can’t absorb what’s actually being said, and respond instead to the canned speeches they expect to hear. Thus I had several people attempt to dispute the comments on last week’s post, castigating my readers with varying degrees of wrath and profanity for thinking that they had to sacrifice the delights of today’s technology and go creeping mournfully back to the unsatisfying lifestyles of an earlier day.

That was all the more ironic in that none of the readers who were commenting on the post were saying anything of the kind. Most of them were enthusiastically talking about how much more durable, practical, repairable, enjoyable, affordable, and user-friendly older technologies are compared to the disposable plastic trash that fills the stores these days. They were discussing how much more fun it is to embrace the delights of outdated technologies than it would be to go creeping mournfully back—or forward, if you prefer—to the unsatisfying lifestyles of the present time. That heresy is far more than the alleged openmindness and intellectual diversity of our age is willing to tolerate, so it’s not surprising that some people tried to pretend that nothing of the sort had been said at all. What was surprising to me, and pleasantly so, was the number of readers who were ready to don the party clothes of some earlier time and join in the Butlerian carnival.

There are subtleties to the project of deliberate technological regress that may not be obvious at first glance, though, and it seems sensible to discuss those here before we proceed.  It’s important, to begin with, to remember that when talking heads these days babble about technology in the singular, as a uniform, monolithic thing that progresses according to some relentless internal logic of its own, they’re spouting balderdash.  In the real world, there’s no such monolith; instead, there are technologies in the plural, a great many of them, clustered more or less loosely in technological suites which may or may not have any direct relation to one another.

An example might be useful here. Consider the technologies necessary to build a steel-framed bicycle. The metal parts require the particular suite of technologies we use to smelt ores, combine the resulting metals into useful alloys, and machine and weld those into shapes that fit together to make a bicycle. The tires, inner tubes, brake pads, seat cushion, handlebar grips, and paint require a different suite of technologies drawing on various branches of applied organic chemistry, and a few other suites also have a place:  for example, the one that’s needed to make and apply lubricants  The suites that make a bicycle have other uses; if you can build a bicycle, as Orville and Wilbur Wright demonstrated, you can also build an aircraft, and a variety of other interesting machines as well; that said, there are other technologies—say, the ones needed to manufacture medicines, or precision optics, or electronics—that require very different technological suites. You can have everything you need to build a bicycle and still be unable to make a telescope or a radio receiver, and vice versa.

Strictly speaking, therefore, nothing requires the project of deliberate technological regress to move in lockstep to the technologies of a specific past date and stay there. It would be wholly possible to dump certain items of modern technology while keeping others. It would be just as possible to replace one modern technological suite with an older equivalent from one decade, another with an equivalent from a different decade and so on. Imagine, for example, a future America in which solar water heaters (worked out by 1920) and passive solar architecture (mostly developed in the 1960s and 1970s) were standard household features, canal boats (dating from before 1800) and tall ships (ditto) were the primary means of bulk transport, shortwave radio (developed in the early 20th century) was the standard long-range communications medium, ultralight aircraft (largely developed in the 1980s) were still in use, and engineers crunched numbers using slide rules (perfected around 1880).

There’s no reason why such a pastiche of technologies from different eras couldn’t work. We know this because what passes for modern technology is a pastiche of the same kind, in which (for example) cars whose basic design dates from the 1890s are gussied up with onboard computers invented a century later. Much of modern technology, in fact, is old technology with a new coat of paint and a few electronic gimmicks tacked on, and it’s old technology that originated in many different eras, too. Part of what differentiates modern technology from older equivalents, in other words, is mere fashion. Another part, though, moves into more explosive territory.

In the conversation that followed last week’s post, one of my readers—tip of the archdruid’s hat to Cathy—recounted the story of the one and only class on advertising she took at college. The teacher invited a well-known advertising executive to come in and talk about the business, and one of the points he brought up was the marketing of disposable razors. The old-fashioned steel safety razor, the guy admitted cheerfully, was a much better product: it was more durable, less expensive, and gave a better shave than disposable razors. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the kind of profits for the razor industry that the latter wanted, and so the job of the advertising company was to convince shavers that they really wanted to spend more money on a worse product instead.

I know it may startle some people to hear a luxuriantly bearded archdruid talk about shaving, but I do have a certain amount of experience with the process—though admittedly it’s been a while. The executive was quite correct: an old-fashioned safety razor gives better shaves than a disposable. What’s more, an old-fashioned safety razor combined with a shaving brush, a cake of shaving soap, a mug and a bit of hot water from the teakettle produces a shaving experience that’s vastly better, in every sense, than what you’ll get from squirting cold chemical-laced foam out of a disposable can and then scraping your face with a disposable razor; the older method, furthermore, takes no more time, costs much less on a per-shave basis, and has a drastically smaller ecological footprint to boot.

Notice also the difference in the scale and complexity of the technological suites needed to maintain these two ways of shaving. To shave with a safety razor and shaving soap, you need the metallurgical suite that produces razors and razor blades, the very simple household-chemistry suite that produces soap, the ability to make pottery and brushes, and some way to heat water. To shave with a disposable razor and a can of squirt-on shaving foam, you need fossil fuels for plastic feedstocks, chemical plants to manufacture the plastic and the foam, the whole range of technologies needed to manufacture and fill the pressurized can, and so on—all so that you can count on getting an inferior shave at a higher price, and the razor industry can boost its quarterly profits.

That’s a small and arguably silly example of a vast and far from silly issue. These days, when you see the words “new and improved” on a product, rather more often than not, the only thing that’s been improved is the bottom line of the company that’s trying to sell it to you. When you hear equivalent claims about some technology that’s being marketed to society as a whole, rather than sold to you personally, the same rule applies at least as often. That’s one of the things that drove the enthusiastic conversations on this blog’s comment page last week, as readers came out of hiding to confess that they, too, had stopped using this or that piece of cutting-edge, up-to-date, hypermodern trash, and replaced it with some sturdy, elegant, user-friendly device from an earlier decade which works better and lacks the downsides of the newer item.

What, after all, defines a change as “progress”? There’s a wilderness of ambiguities hidden in that apparently simple word. The popular notion of progress presupposes that there’s an inherent dynamic to history, that things change, or tend to change, or at the very least ought to change, from worse to better over time.  That presupposition then gets flipped around into the even more dubious claim that just because something’s new, it must be better than whatever it replaced. Move from there to specific examples, and all of a sudden it’s necessary to deal with competing claims—if there are two hot new technologies on the market, is option A more progressive than option B, or vice versa? The answer, of course, is that whichever of them manages to elbow the other aside will be retroactively awarded the coveted title of the next step in the march of progress.

That was exactly the process by which the appropriate tech of the 1970s was shoved aside and buried in the memory hole of our culture. In its heyday, appropriate tech was as cutting-edge and progressive as anything you care to name, a rapidly advancing field pushed forward by brilliant young engineers and innovative startups, and it saw itself (and presented itself to the world) as the wave of the future. In the wake of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution of the 1980s, though, it was retroactively stripped of its erstwhile status as an icon of progress and consigned to the dustbin of the past. Technologies that had been lauded in the media as brilliantly innovative in 1978 were thus being condemned in the same media as Luddite throwbacks by 1988. If that abrupt act of redefinition reminds any of my readers of the way history got rewritten in George Orwell’s 1984—“Oceania has never been allied with Eurasia” and the like—well, let’s just say the parallel was noticed at the time, too.

The same process on a much smaller scale can be traced with equal clarity in the replacement of the safety razor and shaving soap with the disposable razor and squirt-can shaving foam. In what sense is the latter, which wastes more resources and generates more trash in the process of giving users a worse shave at a higher price, more progressive than the former? Merely the fact that it’s been awarded that title by advertising and the media. If razor companies could make more money by reintroducing the Roman habit of scraping beard hairs off the face with a chunk of pumice, no doubt that would quickly be proclaimed as the last word in cutting-edge, up-to-date hypermodernity, too.

Behind the mythological image of the relentless and inevitable forward march of technology-in-the-singular in the grand cause of progress, in other words, lies a murky underworld of crass commercial motives and no-holds-barred struggles over which of the available technologies will get the funding and marketing that will define it as the next great step in progress. That’s as true of major technological programs as it is of shaving supplies. Some of my readers are old enough, as I am, to remember when supersonic airliners and undersea habitats were the next great steps in progress, until all of a sudden they weren’t.  We may not be all that far from the point at which space travel and nuclear power will go the way of Sealab and the Concorde.

In today’s industrial societies, we don’t talk about that. It’s practically taboo these days to mention the long, long list of waves of the future that abruptly stalled and rolled back out to sea without delivering on their promoters’ overblown promises. Remind people that the same rhetoric currently being used to prop up faith in space travel, nuclear power, or any of today’s other venerated icons of the religion of progress was lavished just as thickly on these earlier failures, and you can pretty much expect to have that comment shouted down as an irrelevancy if the other people in the conversation don’t simply turn their backs and pretend that they never heard you say anything at all.

They have to do something of the sort, because the alternative is to admit that what we call “progress” isn’t the impersonal, unstoppable force of nature that industrial culture’s ideology insists it must be. Pay attention to the grand technological projects that failed, compare them with those that are failing now, and it’s impossible to keep ignoring certain crucial if hugely unpopular points. To begin with technological progress is a function of collective choices—do we fund Sealab or the Apollo program? Supersonic transports or urban light rail? Energy conservation and appropriate tech or an endless series of wars in the Middle East? No impersonal force makes those decisions; individuals and institutions make them, and then use the rhetoric of impersonal progress to cloak the political and financial agendas that guide the decision-making process.

What’s more, even if the industrial world chooses to invest its resources in a project, the laws of physics and economics determine whether the project is going to work. The Concorde is the poster child here, a technological successbut an economic flop that never even managed to cover its operating costs. Like nuclear power, it was only viable given huge and continuing government subsidies, and since the strategic benefits Britain and France got from having Concordes in the air were nothing like so great as those they got from having an independent source of raw material for nuclear weapons, it’s not hard to see why the subsidies went where they did.

That is to say, when something is being lauded as the next great step forward in the glorious march of progress leading humanity to a better world, those who haven’t drunk themselves tipsy on folk mythology need to keep four things in mind. The first is that the next great step forward  in the glorious march of progres (etc.) might not actually work when it’s brought down out of the billowing clouds of overheated rhetoric into the cold hard world of everyday life. The second is that even if it works, the next great step forward (etc.) may be a white elephant in economic terms, and survive only so long as it gets propped up by subsidies. The third is that even if it does make economic sense, the next great step (etc.) may be an inferior product, and do a less effective job of meeting human needs than whatever it’s supposed to replace. The fourth is that when it comes right down to it, to label something as the next great (etc.) is just a sales pitch, an overblown and increasingly trite way of saying “Buy this product!”

Those necessary critiques, in turn, are all implicit in the project of deliberate technological regress. Get past the thoughtstopping rhetoric that insists “you can’t turn back the clock”—to rephrase a comment of G.K. Chesterton’s, most people turn back the clock every fall, so that’s hardly a valid objection—and it becomes hard not to notice that “progress” is just a label for whatever choices happen to have been made by governments and corporations, with or without input from the rest of us. If we don’t like the choices that have been made for us in the name of progress, in turn, we can choose something else.

Now of course it’s possible to stuff that sort of thinking back into the straitjacket of progress, and claim that progress is chugging along just fine, and all we have to do is get it back on the proper track, or what have you. This is a very common sort of argument, and one that’s been used over and over again by critics of this or that candidate for the next (etc.). The problem with that argument, as I see it, is that it may occasionally win battles but it pretty consistently loses the war; by failing to challenge the folk mythology of progress and the agendas that are enshrined by that mythology, it guarantees that no matter what technology or policy or program gets put into place, it’ll end up leading the same place as all the others before it, because it questions the means but forgets to question the goals.

That’s the trap hardwired into the contemporary faith in progress. Once you buy into the notion that the specific choices made by industrial societies over the last three centuries or so are something more than the projects that happened to win out in the struggle for wealth and power, once you let yourself believe that there’s a teleology to it all—that there’s some objectively definable goal called “progress” that all these choices did a better or worse job of furthering—you’ve just made it much harder to ask where this thing called “progress” is going. The word “progress,” remember, means going further in the same direction, and it’s precisely questions about the direction that industrial society is going that most need to be asked.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that going further in the direction we’ve been going isn’t a particularly bright idea just now.  It isn’t even necessary to point to the more obviously self-destructive dimensions of business as usual. Look at any trend that affects your life right now, however global or local that trend may be, and extrapolate it out in a straight line indefinitely; that’s what going further in the same direction means. If that appeals to you, dear reader, then you’re certainly welcome to it.  I have to say it doesn’t do much for me.

It’s only from within the folk mythology of progress that we have no choice but to accept the endless prolongation of current trends. Right now, as individuals, we can choose to shrug and walk away from the latest hypermodern trash, and do something else instead. Later on, on the far side of the crisis of our time, it may be possible to take the same logic further, and make deliberate technological regress a recognized policy option for organizations, communities, and whole nations—but that will depend on whether individuals do the thing first, and demonstrate to everyone else that it’s a workable option. In next week’s post, we’ll talk more about where that strategy might lead.


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TJ said...

This post reminded me of an old essay by Wendell Berry on why he would not be buying a computer back when they first came out. (

For those that don't want to click, here's his list of requirements for replacing an older technology with a new one. I, for one, am on board with this thought process (although I admit I'm typing this from my laptop - which I haven't figured out how to get rid of yet).

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

I'll just assume that Wendell doesn't use a disposable razor...

Kutamun said...

After watching Hawkings "Theory of Everything " , it occured to me that the formulation of Einsteins Relativity and subsequently the advent of Quantum theory has made possible the manifestation of certain technologies .
In the case of relativity ;
Television , nuclear power and armanents , GPS sat- nav systems
In the case of quantum theory ;
Lasers , transistor ie personal computers , peds , mobile phones , by extension , the internet and social media such as this google blog ....
These technologies , of course , imply the subsidy of an underlying energy / industrial system to make them happen , and it is this which is now at risk . I feel it is entirely posiible that these equations have been known to past civilisations , lost and recapitulated by ours , with similarly disastrous effects to giving a four year old with ADHD the keys to the family BMW ....
What would the Grand Unifying THeory of Everything which links relativity to quantum mechanics ( the relationship between the four forces ) enable us to invent ???
Fusion springs to mind , also it has been suggested the ability to transcend space and time , together with the realisation that all things are linked , that we are wave forms springing from a unified field ..,
The ability to upload ourselves to a hard drive , email ourselves to a habitable planet in a parallel universe where a version of ourselves may then be 3- D printed ? ( i may already be there with these trippy thoughts , ha ha ) .
I think it is these matters that the folks at CERN with their Hadron collider are furiously pursuing , no doubt aware that we are , with our relativistic political , social and economic structures currently devouring the planet at a furious rate and inevitably headed toward civilisational collapse ..
Lets hope we dont succeed and let the four year old unsociable primate with serious behavioural problems loose in an ever expanding universe of Pure Abstract Potential !
Hawking himself has lately said he doubts this equation exists , though even the suggestion of it existing seems to have brought the possibility of God back from his relativistic demise
Check out Cloud Atlas for an excellent portayal of these quantum possibilities ...
Cheers mates
Kuta '

Lili said...

Interestingly, some old technologies are finding their way back to relevance whilst being branded "ultra-modern." Consider induction cooking, the first patents for which date to the early 1900s. My mother remembers participating in a demonstration of induction cooking on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in the early 1950s. The technology, though clean, fairly simple and very energy efficient, was not quite as versatile as other forms of cooking -- basically, you couldn't use an induction range with an aluminum pan -- and so it never found favor. Now however, with gas supplies dwindling and electric coils not as efficient, this new old technology is slowly gaining in popularity.

Other news in creative regress: 3 shaving establishments (as in a place where a gentleman can get a proper shave with a cut throat razor) have opened within a half mile of my apartment in the last five years and they are thriving, Harris Tweed, which nearly went extinct, is back with a vengeance. And just lately custom tailors shops are springing up in disused second floor locations around the neighborhood. All of which I consider progress.

Violet Cabra said...

After reading Stephen Buhner's Herbal Antibiotics and Herbal Antivirals once I've decided to go back and reread them. One thing that struck me is the richness of of possibility there exists with pastiche - cutting edge research on traditional uses of plants, combining various herbs from different corners of the globe to enhance effects, using tinctures for plants originally part of the the Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacopia etc etc etc

Something that likewise made me spitting mad is the fact that a) pharmaceutical companies aren't even developing antibiotics anymore because they are too effective and used only short term versus pharmaceuticals used to manage chronic conditions and b) the United States isn't researching the efficacy of herbs at all, except to mostly debunk them. Countries like Nigeria, are however, using their resources to learn about the subtleties of various herbal preparations. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that someone is doing this vital work, but am deeply troubled that it isn't considered credible in my country.

Progress does indeed appear to mean "where someone's vested interests lay" rather than "the greatest good for the greatest number." Unfortunately the definitions for "progress" and "utilitarianism" seem to be switched in too many people's minds.

On a related note, in the spirit of pastiche, I've switched over to using herbal supplements to manage my health, keeping western pharmaceutical medicine at a distance. I'm about 6 weeks into it full bore and so far so good. Not only do I feel significantly better but I also feel deeply empowered, and engaged much more intimately with my health and my life. "Progress" doesn't offer that, "progress" only really gives dependance on someone else's vision, someone else's truth and someone else's bottom line. No thanks.

Avery said...

I think, when people have these knee-jerk responses in these discussions, there is a basic, almost metaphysical premise at the base of the whole thing. It's about the meaning of life.

Take a very time-consuming technology you've brought up here, for instance: cutting weeds with a scythe. An objector would say to this, "You must have a lot of leisure time to be able to train yourself in using a scythe. Why aren't you at work?"

The deep underlying assumption is this: true "work" is not an activity that benefits you directly, but is something you do in order to get yourself some money, which can then be used to buy things you need/want. The end goal of your spent time is acquisition.

But the fellow buying the scythe needs to have a completely different view of things: time is not money, because time is life itself; and labor is not a means to acquire money but is itself a way for you to live. Training yourself in an outdated technology can be both work and pleasure.

("Time is life" is a quote on loan from Michael Ende, in his amazing book Momo)

Repent said...

I'm all for technological regress if it betters our quality of life.

I'd quickly turn off my computer and discontinue my internet if I had the opportunity to have more family picnics, family barbeques, more spare time to swim and look for frogs in unpolluted creeks. And I'd go to the beach more if it wasn't for a 2 foot ooze of algae slime everywhere. Sadly most of the family connections went over time as well. At this point I'd have no community outlet except for the internet. What went wrong?

At work they recently introduced a 'new' computer system. The new system uses literally 3 times as much paper as the old system. Myself, and many other coworkers argued in vain to management that the old system was better and we should go back to it.

The exact phrase you used above 'We can't turn the clock back on progress' was used by management at my company to defend the change. My department now uses literally 5,000 sheets of paper a day every day. This paper has to be bought, photocopied, processed, stapled, signed, returned, processed again, scanned back into the computer to capture the signatures, then filed. The files have to be stored off site by an outside storage firm. (Too much paper to be stored in our building) Also according the legal 7 year govt storage laws, we can't get rid of it anytime soon.

Another full time position had to be created just to assist with all of the additional paperwork procedures- this is progress?

I look forward to a simpler life; I feel despair when I think about business as usual continuing for much longer.

Shane Wilson said...

I've never felt so guilty for shaving before. Looks like learning to shave with a safety razor and soap or growing a beard is on my to do list...

druiddisciple said...

I find it remarkably sad that corporate financed advertising has been so successful in convincing consumers that "New and improved" always equates to better quality of life for the would-be purchaser. My own experience with technological regress seems to suggest, at least for me, that the exact opposite is true.

jcummings said...

Appropriate tech rocks! Its alive & well in Butte, MT at ncat (national center for appropriate technology). I believe
They have an energy wing and an agriculture wing. As a new small farmer, looking to ditch the industrial at model, I have found appropriate tech to be invaluable both by providing pragmatic tools with which to meet our "crash now, avoid the rush" type goals, and also as a guiding philosophy.

I guess I interpret some of this weeks and last weeks posts as - figuring out what are the best and most appropriate tech solutions to meet the needs of our day to day lives can be fun. I certainly think so.

Before discussing the awesome of picking up a safety razor or slide rule, we must, of course, assume that we can see a problem with business as usual ( in nutrition that's known as SAD: standard american diet - apt yes/no?) And second that we've been through the mental exercise of deciding said day to day needs are really necessary or whether we could live happily without them. (Re: luxurious beard...)

michael pulsford said...

It's not hard, I think, in the contemporary West, to get an old technology adopted again by some segment of society, for a while anyway. I think it's especially easy if adopting it gives them a way to differentiate themselves from other segments. We moderns always want to split off a new 'now' from what just was, and adopting a different set of tools from what were in recent use is as good a way to do that as any.

What's hard in that environment, I think, is getting a large segment to do anything, or to do it for long.

Vultwulf said...

I work in the software field, which has a great deal of hype for new features that render older versions obsolete. In one of my previous jobs, I worked for a company that was in a different business (a utility to be specific), in which the software was not a core part of the business. That company had some software that was written many years ago, and still working. From a functional stand point, it was not obsolete; from a commercial stand point, it was. This of course raises the philosophical issue of what is it that truly defines obsolescence. I have thought about it a great deal; including the areas I studied in engineering. We still use theories (both mathematical and scientific) that go back centuries, which are still valid.

Many software companies exist by having the institutions, that use the software, pay maintenance fees for upgrades, bug fixes, and the like. So the addition of features makes the software more generally usable, while simultaneously increasing its complexity. At some point, complexity increases to the point at which the software can no longer be fully tested. This situation is, of course, the old dilemma of diminishing returns. What has made the less efficient software possible to function has been the increased power of the hardware. But at some point, the limitations imposed by miniaturization in conjunction with quantum mechanics will be reached. This is in addition to the increased energy requirement to produce this hardware. Now x-ray technology is being used to produce smaller chips; a process that is more energy intensive that the earlier processes using lower energy wavelengths of the spectrum.

I have seen many "next big things" come and go, as I am now in my 50's. I recognize the fundamental limitations. Even back in college, we read about the appropriate technology movement as assigned work in some of my classes. My father was in the marketing field before he retired, so the observations that reader Cathy made about marketing are true. I suspect that as resources become scarcer, older values such as durability, reliability, and functionality will become more important, and that the throw away culture we have adopted will go by the wayside.

August Johnson said...

@jmg – I still remember when I picked up The Waste Makers by Vance Packard 1960. It was the year 1975 at the ElCon Mall in Tucson, AZ at a library used book sale being held in the north end of the mall.

From the Dust Jacket:

“Consumption for consumption's sake... is rapidly being exalted into a virtue of its own right... through the capacity of America's productive system to produce more than we need, resulting in the increasingly frantic effort of industry, its promoters, marketers, and merchandisers, to persuade the buyer to waste more and more.”

I also have his other books, The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seekers and A Nation of Strangers.

I don't think many modern day Ham operators appreciate just how much of their own equipment the early hams made. Here's a 1914 book by Alfred Morgan, Wireless Telegraph Construction for Amateurs. This was already the third edition of the book! You made everything for your station, transformer, capacitors (then called condensers) , detector, coils, etc, from scratch, just bought or salvaged steel or iron strips and wire and a few other simple things. It's presented as you build these things and you will communicate this far. This book is a fascinating read. I have a reprint.

Yes, this was the day of spark and, get this, silicon detectors, but it worked and just about anybody who was somewhat mechanically inclined could build a radio receiver and transmitter that could communicate over significant distances.

Dylan said...

TJ, thanks for the Wendell Berry essay!

Today is the beginning of the season of Lent, and I've taken the plunge of going without email until Easter.

I've been curious for a while about why so many people of my generation (mid-twenties) fear phones and prefer texting/emailing each other. I find all the typing to be a lot of work.

Although I'm quite glad to have the use of a personal computer with internet access, for the next month and a half I'll be testing my hunch about the 'progressiveness' of email. Telephones are really the more complex technology; they allow for a much higher quality of communication as well as real-time feedback rather than shot-for-shot messaging. Email and texting are really just a re-invention of the telegraph, with the bonus of sidebar advertisements.

Since I use a cellphone but mostly leave it at home, I think I can say that today I've reverted to 1980's communication technology. One small step for man. (Still hoping that one of my friends will pen me a real letter and complete the 'great leap for mankind ;)

Pinku-Sensei said...

Happy Year of the Wood Sheep!

"The popular notion of progress presupposes that there’s an inherent dynamic to history, that things change, or tend to change, or at the very least ought to change, from worse to better over time. That presupposition then gets flipped around into the even more dubious claim that just because something’s new, it must be better than whatever it replaced."

That observation doesn't just apply to technology. It also applies to biological evolution and cultural practices as well. When I observed Darwin Day last week, I posted two cartoons showing how dinosaurs evolving into birds may have been a winner in terms of surviving the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, but it was a loser in terms of being the dominant group of land animals, at least in terms of size and position in the food web. The result was that the genes benefited, but the individual suffered. Progress? Not if you started off as one of the raptor dinosaurs and ended up as a chicken.

Ambiguity over what constitutes progress also applies to food practices. The American political movement that seems to be most supportive of traditional ways to grow and prepare food consists mostly of people in what passes for the Left in the U.S., who style themselves as progressives, along with some libertarians, who are "the other kind of liberal," while people on the right oppose them and are championing industrial agriculture and processed food, the new ways of doing things. No wonder you call them pseudoconservatives. That phenomenon makes no sense if liberals are in favor of the new and conservatives are in favor of the old. It does make sense if liberals, or at least, the Left, which is not exactly the same thing, is in favor of what benefits the average person, while the pseudoconservatives of the American Right are in favor of protecting and supporting the already rich and powerful. At least some on what passes for the U.S. Left appear to recognize that the old ways are better for the average American.

On a different subject, one of your readers asked you about K-waves last week and you replied that you should read up on the topic in preparation for writing an entry about economic cycles in the future. I have a recommendation for you, the writings of Michael Alexander, in particular his 2002 book "The Kondratiev Cycle: A generational interpretation." Not only does Mike write about K-waves, but all the other economic cycles running from the standard 4-year business cycle to up to the 40-year stock cycle. Full disclosure, I was his proofreader. On the one hand, I'm not completely objective about his book. On the other, I read the book in great detail several times, so I can vouch for the subjects my friend covered and its comprehensiveness.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

I certainly hope you publish a book on agriculture and traditional religions - that would be a fascinating study that I would definitely want to own.
For $25 dollar beer kit, with a few supplies I won't have to buy again, and three hours of time, my wife and I made 70 bottles of beer or thereabouts. It was fun, and the beer tastes good. Folks, the modern world is a huge RACKET. Wanna sell your home? It'll cost you half of what it's worth to hire gutter professionals, electricians, plumbers, concrete workers, decorators, and carpet men to fix things up "to standards" so the next couple can feel good about their turn to be fleeced by the parasites who "specialize" so well in what they do that they make five times an hour what you do. Wanna keep purifiers in your home? Be sure the FDA hasn't listed them as potentially "of concern", or your kids can be taken from you. It just goes on and on....for those who are younger, the RATE OF CHANGE of PROGRESS has sped up considerably - kind of like an orgiastic frenzy, as the vampire tries to suck every last drop of blood out of the victim, who is going into the death throws.

oilman2 said...

@ Avery...

Bless my mess but I so agree with you. The ONLY currency humans have is time - whatever we choose to do, we expend life-currency doing it. If we work to get money to buy things - sure, we are working. But we are just trading time for cash - the transaction is that simple for every one of us.

Last night, I had to visit my 82 yr old Mom in hospital. It was a 3.5 hour drive. I spent some life-currency taking the backroads instead of the interstate. I stopped in deep Malofia, turned down a dirt road, switched the engine off and simply laid back in the grass and looked at the stars wheeling overhead. Without city glare, incessant noise and light pollution, it sets the soul flying if you can let go and tune in.

Yes - I spent yet more of that precious life-currency and smiled the rest of the way to the hospital. Then I just had to laugh when my grandkid told me I should Tweet about it. Think next time she goes with me...

Cathy McGuire said...

This is definitely a post to send to those who are still hypnotized by the word "Progress"! And I'm glad my advertising class (well - half class, since I walked out after that session) had some benefit after all. :-)

Among my friends (admittedly we are the old fogies now) there is a lot more discussion about "new fangled" versus the old way, and most folks are not impressed with the new... but now the meme is "what can you do? you can't stop progress" (meaning we don't get a say in the upgrades and new models - which is true). Youth seems to love novelty, and accepts the new gadgets without looking at the downsides (the way we are all vulnerable to hackers is appalling! We don't have to be online - our medical, banking and tax records are!)but the older folk, who remember the simpler tools, are more pessimistic. And yet - it's such a struggle to back off without losing the ability to participate (The Seattle TV station KOMO has shut off the online comments section - you have to go to their Facebook and/or Twitter account to comment on their stories - and accept the privacy (!) terms of those services). But I'm still backing off, dropping one appliance after another as I see they are just expensive junk. (My house has only one thin rug and it can be swept with a broom, as can the wood floors).

One thing that stops many people is the maintenance issue. Sadly, most people I know would rather junk something or pay an exorbitant cost to an "expert" rather than be capable of fixing the various things they use. I have friends that would never touch a leaky sink, let alone replace a toilet gizmo. Heck, I've replaced a whole toilet - but most see the "ability" to let others do the work as a sign of personal "progress"... I see it as learned helplessness. They seem proud that they can't cook, don't do dishes, can't change a light switch, let alone make soap or raise their food. I'm not sure how that hypnotism can be overcome... I hope you’ll address that issue sometime.

pyrrhus said...

An interesting factoid, courtesy of Nassim Taleb in his great book Anti-fragile, is that the entire increase in life expectancy in the US can be shown to be derived from the decrease in smoking rates. So much for medical technology....

Cherokee Organics said...


Sara is clearly perceptive if she can enjoy the smiling face of a wombat! They are the most pleasant of all of the creatures in this part of the planet and also have the largest brain to body ratio of all the marsupials. Their only real hassle is motor vehicles at night, because people refuse to slow down. Incidentally, you can let her know that the word on Wombat Street is that the wombat collective are quite looking forward to the effects of peak oil on pointless and unnecessary night time vehicle activity.

Quote: "because it questions the means but forgets to question the goals."

I suspect that I'm a bit of a nuisance sometimes because I'm involved in a local garden group. My involvement isn't the nuisance bit, as I always provide a lot of energy and laughs; it is just sometimes that I question the goals of the group.

They sell plants at the local market and I ask them - and have been doing so for years - so what do you intend to do with the money that you are collecting on plant sales?

They always say every single meeting, "we'd like to get more people to join the group". So I always ask them why do you want more people to join the group - and the other hard question: how do you want to go about achieving that particular goal.

I'm going to be brutally honest here: all I've ever received from such questions are either silence, embarrassment or even incoherent mumbling answers.

It is a bit embarrassing too for people that have actually bothered turning up hearing that they want more members, because you have to ask the hard question: what about the people that are actually here and present? Needless to say that: their numbers are dropping like flies.

The problem isn't even specific to that particular group - it is a notable pattern in every single community group that I've been involved with across many years.

The only conclusion I can draw from that is that there is a sickness gnawing away at the core of our culture.

On a slightly different note, we were chucking around some ideas this week here about starting up our own group with clear goals and clear benefits for members. It is an interesting idea because many of the community groups that I have been involved with are co-ordinated and managed by older people and they are, to put it bluntly, stale and lacking in zest and membership is declining. What would be your opinion on that idea?


Cherokee Organics said...

I have actually walked away and gone off to achieve my own goals for reasons which run parallel to your own goals and for much the same motivations. However, people still try and put me into a box so that they can understand my circumstances. This morning I was indirectly accused - by someone I was actually helping out - of being a double income no kid’s kind of guy and the implication was that this was the source of his areas current lack of social cohesion and lack of community. Now I pointed out that houses are expensive in that area and it now takes two people working full time to afford to purchase in that area and thus he finds himself living in a commuter area.

Fortunately he is an older guy and I could easily take him out if I had to (hehe!), but it left me wondering whether other people - looking for possible scapegoats - think the same sorts of things?

Still advance warnings of trouble can give plenty of time for an appropriate course of action or planned response.

Incidentally, I just finished part 2 of your story. It is a real page turner and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. You have certainly hammered home the unpleasant realities of pursuing business as usual and the book is very consistent with the themes raised in this blog. I also note that the loss of local manufacturing capacity is certainly a sign that the end of empire is nigh. I was really surprised at the extreme level of specialisation of all the different units and the inherent inability to alter tactics to reflect changing conditions on the ground. Also Sun Tzu would have been appalled at the apparent lack of knowledge of the enemy.

Sometimes, I wonder whether our intelligence services concentrate far too much on data collection and not enough on analysis. There was a push here recently to get the population at large to pay for the collection and storage internet metadata for the usage of the intelligence services and people have been generally appalled at the cost (it aint insignificant). Apparently it is of some importance, but to me it is indicative that they're fixated on data collection as a goal as distinct from analysis i.e. the sort of things that we talk about here. A bit sad and pathetic really.

I think I'm rambling...



Cherokee Organics said...


Ooops! In all of that long rambling I completely forgot to mention my recent blog post about maintaining stuff (a good job for hot weather), spiders, (you'll like this one) gap filling in external walls, steel stairs are now installed, celever tree frogs, blue wrens and their roles in the garden eating all of the bugs and finally blackberries! All good stuff and lots of photos: The Fourth R

PS: Spare a thought for the northern part of Australia which is currently being hit by not one but two cyclones (with the city of Brisbane in the firing line):

Tropical Cyclone Marcia

They're big storms...

Gardener Green said...

You want to send a secure message you know won't be intercepted? Write out on piece of paper, put in an envelope, address it, put a 1st class stamp on it and drop in the mail box.

You want to be safe from credit or debit card fraud? Pay cash.

Bought a Italian marble mortar and pestle today. Nice feel, solid, heavy and stable and does a far better job then a spice mill (electric or mechanical). I can get exactly the amount of grind I want and it looks beautiful sitting on my counter. Oh; and it only cost $17 compared to $30 or $40 for a good quality spice mill.

JMG a great piece. Thanks again.

Myosotis said...

I wasn't willing to assume they'd read Dune, but I had a nice conversation along the lines of last weeks post at work. That really some things weren't so bad and can be fun. Started off when someone was talking about gas prices and I said I didn't think personal cars would be affordable for the likes of us long-term. I don't think I convinced anyone electric cars aren't going to fix everything, but we had a nice talk eventually. One it got there, I mostly tried to keep my dang mouth shut and just listen. :)

John Michael Greer said...

TJ, those are good rules, as you'd expect from Berry.

Kutamun, notice that you're assuming that a unified field theory is possible, and that we'll find it. People have been trying to craft one for most of a century now, without success. No law of nature guarantees that such a theory will be found at all, much less in our time. Thus counting your technologies before they hatch may not be a useful habit just now...

Lili, thanks for all these bits of news! I call 'em regress, and am delighted by them.

Violet, glad to hear it. Over and above the other benefits -- such as not getting toxic drugs that were approved by the FDA even though they have horrific side effects, a detail that happens more often than not these days -- anything that puts you in charge of your own health, rather than surrendering it to some for-profit business, is a source of strength.

Avery, good. Thing is, people I know who use scythes tell me that it doesn't take any more time than using a powered weed-wacker, not if you keep your blade sharp and know what you're doing.

Repent, that's progress. Meaning that it's precisely that sort of mindless worship of whatever's new that is sending industrial civilization "progressing" right off a cliff.

Shane, for heaven's sake, why feel guilty? I'd suggest instead feeling aggrieved that you've been deprived of a real shave, with hot lather and a good razor, for all these years, and let that motivate you to get a safety razor, a cake of shaving soap, and the other tools you need to remedy that state of deprivation. Of course, you could also try growing a beard... ;-)

Druiddisciple, my experience suggests the same. At this point, with the collapse of quality getting as blatant as it is, it might just be possible to get that message across.

Jcummings, yes, that's a large part of what the last two posts have been about. The notion of deliberate technological regress is a tool -- a very useful one -- to help get outside the one-way street of progress for its own sake.

Michael, true enough. The new factors in the equation are, first, that the quality gap is becoming so blatant, and second, that the ability of the system to keep on loading new layers of complexity is beginning to show signs of serious strain.

Vultwulf, we're of the same generation, and I've seen the same thing. My guess is that the culture of disposability will come to a halt just as soon as getting replacements starts to become problematic...

August, Alfred Morgan! There's a name I revered in my misspent childhood. The public library system had volumes 1-6 of "The Boy's First (through Sixth) Book of Radio and Electronics," which were all about how to take oatmeal tubs, lengths of wire, random household scrap, and the very occasional piece of old electronics gear, and turn out radios and other electronics gear with them. If somebody were to reprint those on acid-free paper, I think there might be quite a market -- I'd be first to order a set!

Ruben said...

I have an old unpublished post on shaving with a safety razor--part meditation and part instruction.

One of the things I noticed is that, while safety razors are cheaper and shave closer, they are harder to use.

And that is their best feature.

We have built a world in which most of us don't know how to do anything our grandparents would call important. We are adept at selling mobile phones from a kiosk in the mall, but can't plant and harvest a potato.

There are cars that parallel park at the push of a button. There are espresso machines that automatically make your coffee. Sewing machines have buttonhole attachments. Spell checkers, letter templates, and pre-made meals.

Anything that requires skill has relentlessly been removed from our lives--we have given the craft to the machine, and kept for ourselves the role of pushing the button or pulling the lever. And we wonder why so many people are on anti-depressants...

The safety razor takes skill. It keeps you firmly in the moment with the constant threat of that cold heat that leaves a hairline of blood. You have to study how your hair grows and map the route the blade takes over your face. You have something to look forward to, as you are challenged with the coup de maitre--the Master's Cut--under the nose.

I think the growing numbers of people embracing things from a better time shows that we may have reached Peak Meaninglessness. People are tired of it, and are taking up things that feel real.

John Michael Greer said...

Pinku-sensei, and gong hay fat choy to you as well. Thanks for the recommendation, and the cartoons!

Matthew, now if you can just communicate that to the rest of your generation...

Cathy, I'm coming to think that the sort of basic handyperson skills that allow you to fix a faucet or do other general household repairs may be a meal ticket, and possibly also the beginning of a lucrative career, in the very near future. If you can build a network of friends who know they can call you if something goes wrong, and you'll fix it for some sort of barter or what have you, you may be set. I trust others are listening...

Pyrrhus, I'd be interested in seeing some number crunching to show whether the increase in life expectancy is caused by the decrease in smoking, or simply correlates to that. Statistics are tricky things.

Cherokee, oh man. I've seen that in far too many places. An organization that focuses on trying to recruit new members, instead of making sure that new members have good reasons to join, is doomed. And yet so many organizations do exactly that, because it's easier than asking the hard questions about why people aren't eager to join or stay around once they've joined.

I'd encourage you to see if you can get something going with clear goals and clear benefits. Add a clear organizational structure that makes rights contingent on responsibilities, and make sure your organization can function if it doesn't get lots of new members in a hurry, and you may be able to accomplish something.

Gardener, sound advice. Thank you!

Myosotis, glad to hear it. If conversations like that get going more generally, there's a lot that can still be accomplished even this late in the day.

Ruben, maybe it was just youthful exuberance, but I didn't find a safety razor any harder to use than a disposable, and cuts are one of the hazards of any razor-based shave -- a block of alum in the medicine cabinet takes care of those instantly. Still, I hope you'll put up that post. As for "peak meaninglessness," that's a keeper -- would you mind if I used it, with credit, in an upcoming post?

Cherokee Organics said...


Many thanks for the excellent advice. Yes, it is an all too common problem. This is about the fourth community group that I've seen it in too.

As an interesting side note, after moving on from the first group that I became involved with, I've avoided active participation in the management of any group as I considered it to be a wholly dysfunctional system. I thought that it was just that particular group, but unfortunately it is just so common and repeated...

Much to think about as usual.

Benefits have to go both ways is my thinking.



Unknown said...

Dear JMG: Fascinating discussion. I had not thought of myself as a techno-regressive (I am sending this comment over the Net, after all), but ...

1. When I make coffee, I use a measuring cup to put the right amount of coffee into a filter paper, and the paper rests within a filter cone. I heat water in the kettle till it whistles, and pour the water into the filter cone. Within a minute or two, I have a big mug of strong, black coffee.

All of this is a far cry from the notion of single-serving packaged coffees, made with the aid of a device that costs several hundred dollars. Why on earth would I want to go the modern route? Why would I want to pay much more (capital and operating costs) for less coffee?

2. Vacuum cleaners .... somehow, I ended up with a "cyclone" vacuum cleaner that has to be disassembled in 4-5 steps to be emptied and cleaned after each use. And the manual says to wash (and let air-dry) the various filters and canisters in the vacuum. Whatever happened to the vacuums that used bags? I used to to empty the bag when the old one got full, replace the bag, and the vacuum was OK for weeks to come. No disassembly or parts washing needed.


Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Lili, is Harris Tweed the sort with random flecks of contrasting colors in it, and no obvious pattern in the underlying weave? My mother had a dressmaker sew me a skirt of that when I was a girl. I have been searching years for more. There was none to be had at Britex, the big fabric store in downtown San Francisco, nor at Stonemountain and Daughter in Berkeley, nor in Scottish gift shops, nor anywhere I could think of online.

If it's coming back, where is it coming back to? For the longest time I've been wanting a cape made of brown or forest green Harris Tweed.

Indrajala said...

"...make deliberate technological regress a recognized policy option for organizations, communities, and whole nations..."

This reminds me of Tainter's study. He suggests that almost no society in history has voluntarily reduced their complexity. The one exception he does cite is the Byzantines who simplified their state and army after losing much territory and resources. Any thoughts on that?

Odin's Raven said...

A Cage Full of Squirrels for the Archdruid

Here’s not just one, but a cage full of squirrels for the Archdruid. Not all are corporately Grey, some are militantly Red. Perhaps one or more may amuse you as well as me.

Mickey Foley said...

I, as well as many members of my generation, have passed the point of diminishing returns on corporate jobs. We don't need any convincing that the American Dream is now more trouble than it's worth. People younger than my 37 years seem even more receptive to this viewpoint.

But it's still much easier to stay on the conveyer belt of Progress and jump through the hoops it throws up. Ironically, the growing failure of the status quo is what holds so many of us in thrall to it. Escaping the assembly line requires time, energy and hope, resources that the vampiric Establishment is sucking out of us with increasing speed and appetite.

I'm convinced that what really keeps us in lockstep with Progress, though, is emotional dependence on the mainstream. We've lost the deep personal relationships with friends and family that can overcome our culture's materialist ethic. Instead of seeking emotional connections, we try to fill that void with sensuous pleasures, believing they are safer and more reliable than inconstant humanity.

For more ideas of this ilk, check out my blog, Riding The Rubicon.

ed boyle said...

Spengler says that civilzation peoples believe in causality, culture people belive in fate. One recalls the quote by Cheney that 'we will be making reality and you will be trying to analyze it and we will already be making the next reality, ad infinitum'. If we believe this quote as realistic internal view of TPTB, Bilderberger types and analyze history from inside the power clique not from fantasy patriotic history book we find it is realistic. Little guy sees fate as uncontrollable progress-which is the propaganda behind the sweep of history- and those up top trust in their fate-their star-to guide humanity-while decieving them for their own good. Whatever does not work out is ignored, rationalized away or claimed we planned it that way. Anyway attention spans are so short that today's news is irrelevant to relity tomorrow like with children. Reality is manufactured on the assembly line, history, past and present and future as well. Once TPTB have become convinced of your thesis it will be coopted. You will become minister in the govt. Progress will be redefined. GDP will give way to human wellness index. Will this change human nature? You want a power change, decentralization,, localization, deindustrialization,collapse leading to autonomy instead of alienation and slavery. Improvements like internet or printing press were revolutionary in their daysleading to mass informing of populace, creating revolutionary circumstances, now as then. They will contro intrnet as well. Freaks always wrote strange books. The mass media counts. Govt. Learns to control alt. media or discredit it(psychos, losers).

Whatever the result in the end if god forbid a JMG figure is Prez and the world is saved and brainwashed, convinced, of the proper way of seeing things then the underground dissenterswill chafe at the bit. It all goes in circles. After a while our cherished ideals will be bastardized beyond recognition. I recall the story of Sri Aurobindo. He was a prominent revolutionary but recognized that people never change and devoted himself to spirituality.

I imagine once our side has won as PO is inevitable we will decry this as progress, i.e. as preordained fate, by the gods no less. The word progress=fate, we just renamed as science is the new name for religion. Life gets lost in translation. We think we are different from our parents and one day we look in the mirror and see a long forgotten face. Einstein is Jesus. Spengler and Toynbee talk about synchronous points in historical cultures. Don't get too caught up in your own propaganda.

Anyway, end of being downer. I liked article about old ways of heating body not air at that other PO eco blog whose name I forget. Keep enthusiastic. Concrete reality and helping people get through now with hope is great.

Spanish fly said...

True believers in progress are amazing. Some time ago, I knew one of them. We were talking about
bikes. I showed him my new bike, customized to my taste. However, he noticed that modern mountain
bikes were outdated in several technologies...For instance, brake pads and derailleurs are pulled
by, oh my god, towropes made of steel, instead of whatever remote controlled device.
OK, I said, towrope works without batteries; it's an advantage if you are cycling in the wild
and/or shops are closed...
Remote control? What distance between handle bars and rear/front brakes?
This nonsense reminds me the carmakers obsession for filling cars with a panoplia of electronic
fetishes. pretending they are making better and newer products.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Hello JM! A link to my post on MediaLens Message Board about today's post:

Hwyl fawr! :)

Phil Harris said...

JMG and All

Ah… shaving…

It is 60 and more years ago, but our dad used a safety razor with a blade that he re-sharpened using a leather strop which hung on the handle of the airing cupboard next to the basin. The razor assembly was hinged, and opened to hold the blade in both the cleaning and stropping modes. Each blade had a single sharp edge, but came with the other side protected by a thin sleeve of metal that helped in the assembly. When finally the blade could be stropped no more, it still made a useful fine-cutting tool; the protected edge directly held and pressed by fingers.

Then he cycled to work as Chief Clerk at the bank, arriving home again after the bank had balanced the ledgers at the end of each day.

But we relied entirely on lots of coal for heat and hot water – and coal served also to make the town gas that mum used for cooking and made the electricity for the lights, radio and the ‘hoover’. And then there were the million miners, but in my childhood they could have been as far away as China. Our Thames Valley smogs nevertheless sometimes crept under the door having closed down all travel including walking; every bit as bad if not worse than Beijing is nowadays. And our half-tech (modern) local sewage system had already killed the chalk stream beloved of Victorian Nature writers and painters. The Great Wen of London stretched as far to the east as my imagination in those days could comprehend.

So the cutting-edge alternative technologies came in the 1960s like sun-up with hope and promise for the soul. So it goes. I guess it was sometime in early Thatcher-Reagan that I finally stopped shaving. ;-) I wish now, however, I had looked after Dad’s shaving kit, though we keep a pair of high quality durable scissors that with luck will more than see me out.

Phil H

Michele said...

As a teacher, I am evaluated on how well I use technology in my classroom. Of course, administration defines technology as the latest gizmo on which they spent a ton of tax payer money. Which means in order for me to get an effective rating, my students have to have a laptop, tablet or smartphone in their hands and I have to project something from my computer to the screen in my room. But if you think about it, a chalkboard and chalk is (was) technology. I wonder how my principal would react if I explained that when my students use paper and pencil it is advanced technology compared to slates and chalk?!

Stein L said...

There are many ways of judging progress. Sometimes we don't see all the consequences until we are suffering from them.
Consider electrification. It came to the mountain valley where I sit now about 100 years ago. I read in a book about the valley that in one farm house, the grandmother hid in a cabinet under the stairs, as the electrical light was switched on in the kitchen. She was certain it would bring doom upon the house.

You'd be hard pressed to find people who are against electrification these days - we should still consider the lengths we're willing to go to in order to secure electrical power, and we should also question the extent of its use.

The other day, I came across an interesting fact: electric lighting is killing an enormous amount of insects. Instead of resting at night, they are swirling around outdoor lamps until exhaustion. In the German city of Kiel alone, street lighting is killing many hundreds of millions of flying insects each season.
Why care? Because birds and other creatures rely on a supply of insects. Because the insects perform a number of necessary "first economy" tasks that we can't afford to perform ourselves.

Migrating birds are also at risk. Their paths cross areas where there are large oil platforms, and the flocks are attracted to the bright lights in the night. They begin circling the platforms until they drop into the sea from exhaustion. Platform operators have begun switching off the lights when a circling flock is detected, this sometimes sends them on their way again.

My point being: today, progress races along on many fronts, and tremendous changes happen almost as a matter of course, without any real forethought as to the consequences. JMG has mentioned slide rules a couple of times. I can remember getting my first electric calculator back in 1975 - little did I know that forty years later, the ability to do simple sums mentally would all but disappear, as people stopped calculating in their heads.
That's a minor consequence. But the electrification of information, and the delivery of same, has also had other pernicious effects for us. We have become sedentary, seated, immobile, in front of screens. Instead of traveling to information and community, we have information brought to us, and pretend to be parts of communities.
The consequences are huge. All that sitting is literally killing people, and adding huge burdens to health care.

And it's making people very unrealistic about continued access to vital information.
We are becoming increasingly dependent upon the supply of electricity in order to maintain a highly complex information interchange society that fractures the moment the supply is interrupted.
David Byrne, the musician, reflected upon watching hordes of Manhattanites wandering the streets looking for somewhere to recharge their devices after Sandy. He called them Recharge Zombies, and it was a very apt description. When your life revolves around having information brought to you, and your sense of community being online, you literally become a Zombie when your "lifeline" is cut.

If the level of technology we are taking for granted is unsustainable; highly precarious because of complexity; and very likely on the wrong side of Overshoot, then it would be madness to rely upon the continued maintenance of that state. Yet we forge on, driven by magical thinking into believing that "something will come along that will fix things."
That's a dangerous strategy when complex, interconnected systems are operating on today's planetary scale, where you can't isolate yourself from the downstream negative effects.
We're all downstream today.

I have no doubt that we will regress to a less complex, more sustainable, more repairable technological state. Whether that process is forced upon us by circumstances or something we voluntarily begin working towards, remains to be seen.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

@Violet: I gave up on Western pharmaceuticals some time ago, apart from vitamins and mineral supplements (if they count as pharmaceuticals) and a very occasional generic pain-reliever. And of course, even one of those can be had as a herbal analgesic, directly from Willow twigs.

Also - as demonstrated repeatedly - hypnosis and acupuncture can provide fully effective, maybe even more effective, anaesthesia for major invasive surgery; as good as the currently-used artificial-coma-inducing drugs and gases.

These days, instead of going anywhere near the Angiotensin Converting Enzyme Inhibitors and Statins from which the Big Pharma crooks are reaping big financial rewards, supposedly to 'control' - though never to cure! - my high blood pressure and blood-lipid levels, which my harassed GP would try to get me to take, if I saw him more often, I use instead a suite of homoeopathic remedies prescribed by a homoeopath who is also a good friend; together with home-grown and home-extracted pure cannabis-oil, taken in lentil-sized quantities by mouth twice daily. (Never been interested in cannabis as recreational drug, because I never liked being high)

My health, particularly in the hypertension and arthritis departments has been noticeably better since I made the shift. Though of course, every case is uniquely particular. But that's been my personal experience. I also use doses of two or three grams - sic! - of vitamin C, taken at about four hourly intervals, to help my immune system fight back any time I feel under attack from an infectious illness. That seems to help with some considerable muscle too. Naturally, despite my age, I have no truck at all with the alleged Winter flu 'immunisation' vaccines which have been fraudulently 'tested' and aggressively marketed recently. Worse than useless, as the whistleblowers are now revealing.

Cheers Violet!

Kenaz Filan said...

I'm shopping for a straight razor: the latest crop of disposable razors are utterly ineffective and leave me going over my face multiple times with all the attendant razor burn. So I can definitely identify with your example -- especially since I have a good deal of face and head to shave.

At some point I may even invest in a shortwave radio and see about getting the requisite licenses. Having an emergency means of communication is a Good Thing and I agree with your contention that shortwave radio is more likely to survive post-Peak than the public Internet.

And I'd also like to start encouraging those who have land to plant Papaver somniferum. Opium poppies are not illegal if they are used for display and if you have them around it's a trivial matter to extract morphine from them. While morphine is most famous today as a drug of abuse, it's still the gold standard for pain relief and one of the strongest treatments for diarrhea you can find. (There's a reason why 19th century physicians used the abbreviation GOM -- God's Own Medicine -- when prescribing morphia or opium).

Given the complexity of today's healthcare system I'm guessing that crash is going to be an ugly one. Consulting a 19th century pharmacopeia or two and setting up a medicinal garden might prove very useful when the inevitable strikes.

Tony f. whelKs said...

Glad it's not just me who finds the 'new and improved' things generally more shoddy and less effective than their tried and tested predecessors. All this talk of old tools etc has come at an interesting time - only last week I was helping a friend hang a new door, and whilst fitting the lock we were using tools that he had inherited from his grandfather, including a keyhole saw that was well over a hundred years old. When I get around to breakfast later, I'll be frying my eggs in a pan that must be a similar age - it was originally one of my grandmother's wedding presents. I'm over 50 myself and I'm sure it will see me out.

I think the first time I came across the idea that 'progress' (TM) wasn't an inexhorable and inevitable force of nature was in one of John Seymour's books back in the '80s, probably 'The Ultimate Heresy'. He explained quite cogently that if you're about to step off a precipice it isn't really 'progress' to keep going in the same direction, but in fact it's time to turn around and find a different path, even if it means retracing your steps.

One of the worst aspects of 'progress' is that prior technologies can fall into abeyance. One particular failure of 'progress' here in the UK has cheered me considerably, namely the roll-out of digital radio broadcasting. It just hasn't gained traction in the listening public, so there is talk of even abandoning the technology. This seems sensible to me, because I had visions of all the old AM and FM radios being discarded just in time for the collapse of industrial civilisation. In my post-crash visions of future tech, I could easily imagine the old VHF FM and SW AM receivers still being available and small-scale, local broadcasting could continue to some extent with home made transmitters. But if the listeners only had digital sets, well, the putative post-crash broadcasting sector would be strangled at birth. Anything that prevents the older AM/FM radios being dumped has to be a plus. TV here has now gone totally digital, but I don't really care for TV ;-)

On another front, I totally endorse Cathy's point about 'learned helplessness' when it comes to repairing things (which reminds me, I must get around to fixing the boiler, the shoddy plastic filling tap broke. Luckily, I had a eureka moment in the bath last night, and now know my junk box contains what I need to repair it better than it was before...) It has become so much the accepted norm that something 'better' will be available soon, so why not just ditch the old and 'upgrade' when it breaks down? Mind you, I am a bit ambiguous about this, as some of my income derives from fixing things that other people have learned to be helpless about.

These last three posts on ADR have been particularly pertinent, and I believe 'As night closes in' is the real 'money shot' for the whole project to date, to the point that if someone asked which one post to read, it would be the one I'd recommend. Anyway enough waffle, time to apply some heat to my 100-year old frying pan...

jonathan said...

progress as a post hoc rationalization for whatever technology succeeds in the market place is a thesis that goes a long way to explain the multiple dilemmas that we face today. to that thesis i suggest a corollary: the successful technologies, from the disposable razor to nuclear energy, are those that create the most negative externalities.
consider wendell berry's list of requirements for a new technology via tj above. every one of his 9 requirements can be summarized as a new technology should create less externalities than the technology it is intended to replace.
external costs, those costs such as waste disposal, air and water pollution etc. are costs that the producer avoids by dumping them on the public. larger and more centralized producers create more such costs than small, diffuse producers. the large producer can therefore reduce it's costs dramatically and compete more successfully economically.
the foolish and short sighted push for ever more progress can be understood as a continuing shift of costs from the producer to society. they are then ignored until it's too late to do anything about them.

mr_geronimo said...

About tech regression: This January I tinkered with old-school computer systems: asm, the ancient unix text editors, that kind of thing. Back to the 80's. It was difficult, but rewarding, fun. Controlling all the devlopment process, all tools, by yourself made me feel proud as a craftsman.

Professor Diabolical said...

To run upstream of the subject here, I'd like to make a shout-out to a modern material for all manner of low-tech uses: double-walled poly greenhouse panels.

Something like clear corrugated cardboard, they are light, strong, structured, and relatively inexpensive. Although not as long-lasting as glass, they are also not breakable, far larger, lighter, and allow big savings on the frame. Old market gardens were littered with broken cloches, panes, and pots, which is not economical.

What would one use them for? Greenhouses, obviously. Chicken coops or tractors (who need maximum light to lay). Far larger cold frames. Porch enclosures. Large dehydrating racks. Light-passing weather-buffering garden fences. Small "tents" or shacks in the woods. Whatever you like.

What's needed to make them? Well, orgo chemistry of course, and lots of energy. Extruding equipment with very fine temperature control. Oil or gas as feedstock at the moment, but really these are not very high challenges and I'm sure a motivated regional manufacturer could overcome them, as the resulting collected solar is a net energy gain for the region. Could probably be made with converted corn plastic and a steam engine with a sintered-cast nozzle on a blacksmithed machine. But we don't face those problems yet. Go ahead and look and use a few at home.

That and the passive solar, self-raising wax pistons that open greenhouses. Or chicken coops. Or hot attics. Or over-steamed hot water collectors.;ft_corrugated_sheets_panels.html

Greg Belvedere said...

Great post. I have noticed this trend with most of the products I see out there and I find the disposable razor a good example. At the moment I have a beard, but I was thinking of getting a safety razor before I grew it.

Another great example of this trend is a product called the swifter. Basically, some marketing people decided they could make money if people constantly had to buy disposable parts for their brooms and mops. All they had to do was convince them of their convenience, or something. I never understood them.

I find the questions you pose, as well as those from the Wendell Berry essay important when comparing technologies.

Lastly, a scythe can be quicker than a weed whacker. As shown by this short video of them side by side.

gwizard43 said...

@TJ - thanks for reminding me of that Berry piece, and of his list of criteria - this was timely for me.

On the subject of shaving, a safety razor is a great choice; however, I'd suggest those interested look into using a straight razor. Not only do you have the advantage of not needing replacement blades, but a good one can last generations, becoming a father-to-son heirloom.

In addition, like the safety razor shave, one can create a simple ritual when shaving with a straight razor, and I have found that, in this process of regression and simplification, consciously choosing our rituals - instead of mindlessly performing the banal or even pernicious ones common to our culture - can be a very beneficial thing.

Either way: Happy shaving!

Note to JMG: some of us were not blessed with the ability to grow a decent beard, let alone a luxuriant one! For us, I suppose, some solace in a simple shave must needs suffice! :)

gwizard43 said...

P.S. For anyone interested in straight razor shaving, go to duckduckgo (or your favorite search engine), and search on 'the art of the straight razor shave' - you want the PDF that will pop up, written by Christopher Moss.

trippticket said...

Isn't the definition of "insanity," rather than "progress," the insistence that doing things the same way will yield different results this time?

I've really enjoyed the last few posts, and I wanted to comment last week, but got busy chopping wood, or planting fruit trees, or some such thing that I'm not supposed to enjoy, but do anyway.

I just want to say that one of the most thrilling aspects of our low-tech life is the slow recognition, friend by friend, get-together by get-together, that our life isn't miserable. Shocking, right? In fact most of them would rather come to our place than any other friend's house. Why? I don't know, maybe because it's quieter, looks more hand-made (because it is), the food is better with interesting ferments and preserves to try out, the lighting isn't as garish (all 22W of PV lighting that we employ, plus oil lamps and candles), there are 1000 books to read, the firepit is incredible, carefully built out of chunky local rock, guests are less often completely absorbed by their Jesus phones, and so on. Its more real I think.

Our family's health and general sense of well-being may play a subtle psychological role as well. Despite all the "backwardness" of our lifestyle, and the "obvious hardship" it should provide, my wife and I are14 years deep into our relationship, and more in love every day, while our friends' marriages are disintegrating one by one, year after year.

My mechanic is fascinated with us, after picking me up to get my car after a day's garage work, and learning about how we live. "Did you know their bills are less than $300 a month?" Used to be less than that. We've been indulgent lately!

It's fun having this effect on other people. And it's a blast to live this way. And I really appreciate your comments on this thread.

Robert Carran said...

Thanks for the shout out to old style shaving! I use a straight razor, myself. And, yes, It's a much more pleasant experience than the plastic throwaways.
For quite a while now, I've been tending to think more aesthetically than environmentally "ethically". As in the shaving example: I'm not trying to save the planet by reducing plastic use, it just seems more sensible and pleasant to use a straight razor. I have a relationship to the razor because I care for it and sharpen it. It's something to do rather than something to get done and out of the way.
Seems like so much of modern technology is based on getting things done and out of the way rather than to have a pleasant time and truly relate to the task or the tools used in the process. This is how I think of technological regression - it's finding the processes that can provide a connecting experience. The reason we are so able to trash the planet and each other is that we have lost these connections.

Thomas Edison said that necessity is the mother of invention. He was a capitalist pig trying to make loads of money. It's the other way around... invention is the mother of necessity.

trippticket said...

By the way, I just finished reading your introduction to spiritual ecology, and found it very satisfying! My first meditation on the Law of Wholeness focused on my chainsaw, and I was amazed by the length and intricacy of the supply chains involved in creating and maintaining it, as well as the length of time I was able to maintain focus on the topic, compared to the miserable experiences I've had trying to hold an Eastern style empty mind. A real pleasure!

Chris Farmer said...

Thanks for pointing out the dark underbelly of political and economic forces that lie behind the choices that seem to define progress for our culture.
I've always tried to point out that the word "progress" by itself is simply an incomplete concept. The complete concept would require the speaker to say "progress toward xxxx" and thus to actually name the specific goal toward which they are trying to move.
This is similar to another English word that also gets used as an incomplete concept - "consciousness". I have too often heard people say that some shift in "consciousness" is right around the corner. I have always asked "consciousness of what? Consciousness of where our food comes from? Consciousness of our impact on the world?"
"No", they sometimes say. "Consciousness of how we are all connected."
As if the source of our food and our impact on the world isn't part of our connection to everything.
Oh well.

SweaterMan said...


A delightful post this week that has direct application to my current dilemma!

Our library is beginning to look at a possible conversion to RFID’ing all our materials. Adding an RFID tag to each item will (theoretically) allow faster check-in processing of items by staff, easier inventory and finding of materials, and faster check-out by patrons.

As the IT guy for the library system I should be 1000% behind a project like this, right? Curiously, I’m ambivalent about the whole idea after sitting through several demonstrations from vendors. While I do see some benefits, I’m just not convinced that we really, really need to do this; not to mention that it’s an ambitious and costly ($500 K) project to boot.

Of course we could do it cheaper and in phases and reap less of the benefits initially, but then the whole project takes longer to complete, and bollocks up our workflow during any transition.

Oh well, “waiting is”, to use a famous quote, and I’ll continue ruminating on it. With your permission I’m going to definitely send a link to this week’s post to members of our team, and emphasize the … the … ephemeralness of the efficiency that we’re trying to achieve with this project.

And as for shaving, I just returned to it after cutting off my beard (gasp!). Purely vanity on my part – virtually everyone told me it made me look much older since my beard came in entirely grey and didn’t match my brown hair! But I learned the art of shaving from my grandfather and have been hooked on safety and straight razors ever since I started growing whiskers. An additional bonus (for travelers, anyway) is that a good bar of shaving soap is much easier to take through security systems than a can of goop that may arouse suspicions and mark one out for more scrutiny.

HalFiore said...

I stopped using shaving cream so many years ago I don't remember it. I also don't use fancy shaving soap and a groovy little brush. I use whatever soap is handy and my hands. Work up a good lather in your hands and work it into your face (after proper conditioning with hot water.)

I don't, however, use a "safety razor." I remember too many lacerations from back in the day when that was the only option.

My non-disposable razor might as well be called disposable. It is a cheap plastic handle to which expensive, and very disposable 3-bladed cartridges are attached. Shaving roughly twice a week, giving the blades time to recover between uses, means that I can make a blade cartridge last for over a year.

Lately I have grown a beard. Not sure if it will last, but it at least means I will get even less use on the blades for trimming. When the time comes to replace, an old-fashioned safety razor might do the trick quite well.

But on that, I noticed that the "progression" in blades was not linear. I made the switch to double-blades probably in the 70s. It was a definite improvement over the single as far as the loss of blood was concerned. When the triple came out, I scoffed, but my son, who was just learning to shave at the time, went out and got one. I tried it and was sold. Just a much closer, comfortable and safer shave for me. So naturally, when someone came out with the quadruple, I had to try it. It was worse than the original single.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Perhaps there is a point to the intelligence services' emphasis on collecting data rather than on analyzing it. That point would be raw power and complete control, not prevention of attacks.

Cardinal Richelieu once famously said, "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him." How much easier to hang a man if you have not just six lines, but all his heedless email and on-line posts?

Andy Brown said...

Another post full of thought-provocations - thank you. You've scattered nuggets throughout.

What strikes me about the conversation around this blog is what it says about the "appropriateness" of technology. At this historical moment there seem to be two, often parallel issues when it comes to the value of alternate technologies.

The more obvious one is the technologies of getting things done - the value in the toolkit for accomplishing stuff. When people think alternatives it might be better in the here and now, like a safety razor - or better on the down-slope like vacuum tube radios - and so on.

The second one might be called the technologies of extrication. (You note that many of our technological suites will fall away whether we will it or not, but you are doing more here than trying to preserve fragile tech heritages.)

Much of the excitement among people actually weaving the awnings for your Butlerian carnival - has to do with using technologies or the mastering of technologies of extricating themselves from a highly unsatisfying (if still seductive and insistent) dominant culture with its out-of-our-control technologies and religion of progress. Same goes for the cognitive habits you develop here and the spiritual practices people bring to it. At this moment the value and appropriateness of "regression" are one part the tech of getting things done and one part the tech that helps us to extricate ourselves. I think there's a wonderful synergy there, and I intend to think on that some more.

Steve Maxson said...

I went back to mug and brush and double edge blades some time ago--there is a revival in interest in these things going on in a minor way, probably thanks to the internet. You can now buy good double edge blades online now! (I also bought a better razor than my old Gilette "Fat Boy" from 50+ years ago--my age is showing). If you ever take up shaving again, ahem, the Mitchell's Woolfat Soap from England is the best ever :|

I have reset my eating habits to those of a bygone era as well, having gone "paleo" or grain free, very careful about the types of fats I eat, etc. There is a lot of hard scientific evidence in support of this type of diet--from the biochemists and emerging medical literature. Think reverting 10,000 years in your diet!

I am still something of a futurist, in the sense that I think that in the fullness of time we will go into space in a significant way. But the Challenger disaster showed us that conventional rockets are probably not the way to do this on a big way. But, perhaps with the Theory of Everything, or whatever they call it then, we will find a way to "hum" from planet to planet without the roar of any dangerous rockets. The energy and materials economy of that era will be vastly different than most futurists can imagine today however. I think this view is wholly compatible with your ecotechnic visions of the future--and of course the existence of a future for us all depends on us not blowing ourselves into extinction in the turbulent times of the near future.

An aside on the life expectancy thing. The British 1850 census and modern censuses indicate that if you lived to 50 back then your descendants today would only have a couple of additional months life expectancy today at age 50. Mostly we did away with childhood illness (or almost, in the case of measles), and so on, so that more people make it to 50 today. Chlorinating water was the big step in that direction by the way--most of the kings of England, for instance, died of some form of diarrhea, which we can infer was from bad water. The third leading cause of death in the 19th century was pneumonia, and I have had my shots. It would not take a lot of residual technology to overcome the leading causes of death in the 19th century. Incidentally, childhood cancers did not occur back in 1850, not ever! They are a byproduct of modern pollution.

Yupped said...

In the 5 or so years that I've been homesteading, I've seen several real benefits from using less technology. I'm physically much fitter, I'm mentally calmer, I know how to do a lot more stuff and I need a lot less cash money to live. Which has all added up to more happiness.

At the same time, I'm aware that dialing my life all the way back to that of an over-worked 19th century farmer is probably going to make me miserable in a different way. So there's a balance to be sought and we're each going to have to do that in our own way, in our own location. Because I'm mostly simplifying my life right now, technology decisions are fairly easy: which ones can I stop using?

But thinking about how to use technology to save time and labor is a more difficult decision-making process. How to cut grass is a good example. Years ago I assume my ancestors grew food and plants on what would become a "front-lawn". Then at some point they were able to buy more food from the store, so they now had a "lawn" to worry about, which they may have scythed or borrowed a sheep to graze or something. Then maybe my grandfather bought a push reel mower and later upgraded to a very basic gasoline mower. Then my Dad upgraded to a hover mower, then a self-propelled push mower and finally to a mini tractor-mower. What was the "right" place to stop at? My current mindset says keep more garden space, use a push reel mower on the paths and let the rest grow to meadow. But I confess to a nagging feeling that if I was my overworked grandfather that power mower would have looked quite tempting. Although without the cheap energy sources, the temptation wouldn't have arisen.

Nastarana said...

Harris Tweed available again. There went my budget for this year!

For all tailors and sewers who might be reading this, Harris Tweed fabric is available from Harris Tweed Hebrides in a nice selection of colors and plaids for 40 pounds sterling/about $US60.00 per yard. 4 yards would be $240 for a winter coat that might last you a decade, even adding @20 for the interior construction materials--you have been buying those as they turn up 2nd hand, naturally--and $20-%50 for lining, a coat made by someone else at bought at a dept. store or fancy boutique would cost twice as much and last half as long. Harris Tweed is a heavy fabric and might not be the best choice for a full length coat, but for jackets and capes I venture to say there is nothing better. BTW, the plaids are not traditional tartans, so no one is going to call you out for pretending to be of Scottish heritage if, like me, you are a Heinz 57 of vaguely English and German descent.

Lili, I wonder if revival of tailoring means we might have local fabric stores again sometime.

Violet Cabra, the doctor can't cure the cold or flue, "because it is viral", but my bottle of elderberry syrup can. And even the fancy, schmancy bottle from the all-organic, we onlu use wildcrafted company costs less than one Dr. visit. Go figure.

AntEater said...

I've been following your blog for quite a long while now but haven't been motivated to comment. This particular post brings to mind the essay "Energy and Equity" by Ivan Illich. One though (of so many) that really stuck with me is the idea of the time cost of transportation.

There's quite a bit involved in his thoughts, but you can do the calculations in your own life to see how much this form of progress is actually costing you. To get your actual rate of travel, you need to add up the time invested in labor to acquire the money necessary to purchase a motor vehicle, it's maintenance, the legal requirements and funding the necessary supporting infrastructure. All of that goes on top of the actual time you spend in motion. When you divide that into the number of miles traveled, it turns out that often you're actually moving much, much slower than you could with the time budget involved in bicycling the same distance. Progress in speed comes with many, many other negative social impacts which are detailed in his essay, such as the exploitation of others.

As I grow older I'm finding more and more of our progress may not have yielded a true net improvement in life, at least not for the majority and not when considering some of the changes created in our society as a result. Often the negative outcomes are delayed, externalized, hidden, denied and/or simply ignored outright.

Back to lurking now.

D.M. said...

Speaking of double-edged safety razors, what a synchronicity, as I should be getting my safety razor, razors, soap, and brush in the mail shortly. I went through the same arguments myself about why I should switch, namely that it is much cheaper and gives a better shave than all the current junk on the market, plus it all of it has a classic look about it. I simply grew tired of paying the exorbitant prices for the replacement cartridges.

I can draw parallels in the IT industry when a new piece of software comes out, especially a new operating system, always touted as better then the previous ones on the market, but inevitably it is not all that great due to bugs, incompatibilities with older software and an overall change to how the operating system is used. These things take about 6 months to a year before everything is ironed out into a solid piece of software. Heck Windows XP was out for a while before it was replaced, but is still being used in many places with China being chief among them. This all just goes to show how disruptive new technologies and the like can be, and not in a way that people normally react to change, and then eventually adjust, sometimes there is no complete adjustment, and it just get worse from there.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Gardener Green: You want to send a secure message you know won't be intercepted? Write out on piece of paper, put in an envelope, address it, put a 1st class stamp on it and drop in the mail box.
Actually every piece of mail is now photographed as it goes through the machines - so they are tracking to/from at least (similar to tracking cell phone calls)... the PO is getting "modern"...but I still agree with your advice.

Zack Lehtinen said...

I love this series of posts. I am someone who uses smartphones and laptops, but I have also bought a pen I love (a "space-pen"! Ooooh! New and Improved! Shiny and modern and space-age! Yet still all but "left behind" by "progress" away from ink-and-paper) and an old but very-functional manual typewriter...

I recently requested and received for Christmas a corn/ grain hand-grinder, and hope to own a scythe one day soon...

I study and now finally own a property on-which I can practice and experiment with permaculture, and have been growing (doubled by the second year, then grew by another third last year) my garden each year, and have an orchard of eight young trees thus far (two each: pears, peaches, apples, plums)...

As you with this 'blog, JMG, I embrace current internet technology for its properties of connecting people virtually cost-free (to the user), and wrote my recently-completed book on my iPhone and laptop in combination (yes!, my iPhone!)-- yet I engage a critique of newfangled "progress" that has me agreeing-with your last two posts, and most of what you communicate in your 'blog which I have been reading consistently (weekly) for around (over?) two years now...

I have recently completed a novel, self-published via CreatesSpace/ Amazon (another perk of current technology which I appreciate for its accessibility to those who want to communicate but are not yet "established" or wealthy), very much describes and embraces the opportunity of embracing simpler technologies-- Schumacher's "Intermediate Tech"-- and attempts to weave a story which showcases how positive/ enjoyable/ simply-good it can be to adjust in this way.

Echoing much which you have written, as well as much by Charles Eisenstein, about the value and importance of creating "new stories" to live-into, and about the value and importance of "green wizardry" and "ecotechnic" approaches, I have delved-into my own background as an English BA and NYC-trained screenwriter/ actor to put a priority on contributing "new myths" to assist in the necessary Transition(s)...

I don't claim that I have (successfully) abandoned the techno-industrial "middle class" American standard of life, and I am aware that I take much for granted and don't make all of the shifts that I see and belive to be urgently necessary... But I hope to improve in these areas, and in the meantime to make as significant a positive contribution as I am able. Especially with three children of my own, my concern about their future has been front-and-center for me ever since my (first) daughter was born back in 2002-- and I am frequently shocked by the preponderance of what you describe eloquently, JMG, particularly surprised when exhibited by fellow-parents of young kids: the unwillingness to even acknowledge, respond to, these sorts of issues or communication about them.

A free sample of the opening of my novel can be read at:

-Zack Lehtinen

Reach farther. Dig deeper. Seek truth.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks, JMG - I agree that being a "jack of all trades" has an upside in this decline, despite the push toward specialization. What's interesting are the folks who prefer the "licensed experts" - not because they might do it better, but because they can be "held accountable", theoretically available to fix any complaints. But that is becoming more and more untrue - I think a turning point will be reached when most folks realize the "guarantees" aren't worth the pixels they're written with, and that a local source, a known friend or neighbor, is much more accountable - IF one learns the delicate skill of working out a problem with a real human being! That is one skill many people have lost, preferring to let an official referee "resolve the issue" - only that doesn't happen anymore. Like "progress", the myth of "justice" or "corporate guarantee" is based on very old history. For those of you who remember I'd been in a weird lawsuit with my neighbor (who suddenly dropped it 2 weeks before the court date), I wrote it up, with statistics about legal aid:
Pro Se Means You're SOL

And my post decline novel (about regress, intentional or otherwise) continues at:

Tony said...

By deconstructing technological regress into technological suites you add yet another wrinkle. This being that just as ultralight aircraft were unknown in the forties, a completely valid technological suite might not even exist yet and it is up to the tinkerers and scientists of the world to figure them out.

Heres hoping for enough such people looking in enough places.

As a grad student working in metabolism research I find myself in my dayjob thinking that biotechnology already allows all sorts of interesting things good and bad and that over the coming centuries it could spawn some interesting durable easy things. No guarantees, but its good to have as many angles covered as possible.

Zack Lehtinen said...

I was pleased, after writings own recent comment, to see the excellent comment posted by Avery which includes a mention of people's attitudes to the use of a scythe:

"But the fellow buying the scythe needs to have a completely different view of things: time is not money, because time is life itself; and labor is not a means to acquire money but is itself a way for you to live. Training yourself in an outdated technology can be both work and pleasure.

("Time is life" is a quote on loan from Michael Ende, in his amazing book Momo)

Very inspiring sentiment: time is life itself.

GHung said...

I'm not so surprised that this series of essays describes the philosophy I attempted to employ when designing and building our home. Tried, true, and keep it as simple as possible; good enough but not crossing a complexity threshold requiring complex supply chains to operate and maintain. Avoid planned obsolescence. Some features:

Passive solar: Ancient technology requiring only glass, a stone floor (or other thermal mass), proper solar orientation, designed for seasonal variation, and thick curtains for cold weather. Not much to go wrong there, and the best investment I've made. It just works.

Lots of insulation, offset framing to prevent thermal bridging.

Passive cooling; again, very old technology: Operable windows, including windows high in the structure to naturally vent warm air; screens, and the common sense to open/close windows when needed. Windows oriented to make use of prevailing winds.

Gravity flow water; pumped from a spring to a tank buried on the hill above the house. Currently solar-pumped, but could be pumped using wind, a tramp, or other methods, even by hand. Water flows back to the house providing a constant 35 PSI. 2400 gallons storage, total; enough to supply days/weeks of water needs, if pump fails.

Ceiling fans (early 20th century?) I bought the basic, robust fans without the fancy circuitry and remotes. Operated by wall switches; reversible by flipping switch on fan motor.

Large (1600 liter) hot water storage tank, heated with solar and wood. Provides domestic hot water via a coil of copper pipe in the top. Also supplies hydronic radiant heat to floor - zoned; again, very old/simple technology. I remodelled a home built in the 1920s that had heat pipes in the plaster walls; still working, and the Romans had warm floors.

Wood heat to supplement solar; around as long as we've been playing with fire. I saved my parents' old soapstone unit, pre-EPA, and added a simple copper heat exchanger to the top of the fire box which circulates water to/from the big hot water tank using a small pump. Will also thermo-syphon if pump fails. Non-pressurised system! (Never put a closed-loop, pressurised system on a wood stove.) A welcome side effect is that the heat exchanger condenses unburned wood gasses which drip back into the fire to get burned. Keeps the emissions down and stove pipe very clean. This strategy, of course, requires a constant supply of wood, which we have on the property.

While we do use modern technology to control some of these functions (pump controllers, etc.) virtually all of these systems can operate manually, with a bit of human intervention (the horror!), and someone paying attention. I've intentionally avoided 'set-and-forget' systems that can get one in trouble or give one a false sense of security (see modern home security systems vs. having an alert dog).

Participating in the functions of the homestead is greatly rewarding; making things work, reaping the benefits; knowing that if I built it, I can maintain and repair it, and that I'm not utterly reliant upon complex, top-down systems and supply chains. Perhaps not as 'efficient', but not a lot to go wrong. In my world, good enough beats the heck out of diminishing returns, especially when ongoing financial inputs can be avoided. It's the financial thingy that's going to bite most folks in the rear.

Matt said...

There seems to be quite a resurgence of old time shaving going on, characterised as "shave how your grandad shaved" (straight razor) and "how your dad shaved" (safety razor).
A search of the web demonstrates clearly, though, how even simplification can become a vehicle for selling more stuff - sites full of variations on the same safety razor, at premium prices.
But there are alternatives. I picked up a 70s Gilette safety razor from feeBay for just a few pounds.
There are also good some good videos on shaving with a safety razor, if you would rather not trust entirely to trial and error.

Brian said...

My own small example similar to the safety razor is the can opener. My mother always used an electric can opener growing up, and I swear they broke maybe once a year, so she'd always go out and buy another one.

When I moved out on my own, I bought a simple mechanical can opener. I've had the same one for decades and it's never once failed to open a can, needed to be replaced, or not worked because the power was out.

Brian said...

On a related note, here are some amusing examples that remind us the future's not what it used to be:

Jon said...

I bought a straight edge razor. It gives a good shave but is time consuming so I rarely use it now. I will have to get a safety razor.

I grew up at a time when my parents and grandparents remembered the depression. My mother made some of her own cloths and my father could repair anything. And often did. I just assumed that simple was better and things were there to use until they broke... then you fixed them. I remember the first time I had one of those new fangled VCR's that broke down. I brought it to a repair shop, had it fixed, and then something else broke on the way home. The shop basically said it was a piece of crap anyway and couldn't be fixed. Something inside of me died that day.

To paraphrase Smedley Butler, progress is a racket

I think we've also reached 'Peak Longevity.' In the nineteenth Century, human life expectancy increased by about 100 percent. That was do mostly to sanitation, clean water and healthy food. Since then medical advances have only contributed an additional 20 percent or so.


Angus Wallace said...


I got rid of my electric shaver about 5 years ago (they're an even bigger racket than disposable razors) and bought a double-edge razor. Partly for environmental reasons and partly for thrift. I love it, and would never go back. I usually shave just after showering and don't bother with lather, etc. Very simple.

Hi August,

Thanks for the reference to Wireless telegraph construction. I found this link to a complete online version (including a pdf), which others might find useful:

Hi Cherokee Chris,

Thanks for the comments re garden group. I've passed them onto someone who'll find them helpful.
Funny, I've always thought of the DINK (double income no kids) as a category not a pejorative! ;-) Of course, there are many ways of passing things onto the next generation -- having kids is just one of them (and by itself doesn't count for much ;-)

I've been putting more insulation up in the roof this week. Now there's a task that is harder than it sounds! I keep coming back to it, but I do love the phrase "easier said than done" -- there's so much meaning in those four words!

Cheers, Angus

Harry J. Lerwill said...


We implemented a similar electronic system a few years back, but managed to integrate electronic signature capture so actually reduced paperwork! It only costs about 1,000 times the original pen and paper system, and provides an excellent income stream for our vendors via licensing!

I find myself in the odd position of producing a very energy-efficient and sustainable product --an old fashioned telephone directory of local businesses --whilst relying on the modern smartphone to make the advertising sales. What's even more ironic is the smartphone, with instant web search, is used to argue that the telephone book is obsolete.

I see the Yellow Pages as an icon of appropriate technology: a suite of technologies from the printing press to the traditional telephone, that can facilitate trade on a local level, on a very small energy footprint.

I assess new technologies to see if it provides at least the same return on investment as our telephone directories. I have yet to recommend we sell an electronic advertising product - none have shown anywhere near the cost advantages of a hundred-year technology - and that's not taking the energy and carbon footprint into consideration.

Edward said...

@ Repent:
When computers were first marketed to the masses, they were saying that computers would lead to the "paperless office." What really happened is that computers allow us to use more paper, faster.

Johannes Roehl said...

The disposable razors (or even more those double/triple/quintuple bladed thingies that really suck if one wants to shave a beard of 3-5 days) are a great example of progress getting something worse. I'd also strongly recommend the old-fashioned safety razors + soap and brush because it really gives most men a better and more comfortable shave.

However, the "Fall" was in some respects the introduction of the safety razor more than 100 years ago because it made men dependent on a supply of blades! Of course, shaving with a straight razor was difficult enough that almost everyone who could afford it would rather visit a barber.

I am somwhat clumsy with my hands so I never tried a straight razor but there is a growing community going back to and cultivating this even older (and more sustainable) method! Although some razors are luxury items there are still comparably plain ones made and sold and if one learns to handle, strop and sharpen them they will keep for a lifetime and more.

Rashakor said...

I grew up will the proverbs "on n'arrete pas le progres!" And "Science sans conscience n'est que ruine de l'ame".
I find them both appropriate to the discussion.
The way interpreted the first was always that evolution will follow its own path, winding, without much direction, some thing will improve, others will go bonkers. In french at least the sentence is always pronounced with a wry sarcastic tone and a roll of the eyes.

The second sentence attributed to Rabelais, is to remind that man is always part of the equation of science/knowledge/technology and that forgetting that only leads to ruin both of the soul (whatever that is) and apparently of other things too.

Ps: a new dream job opportunity is moving me west to Oregon. The only thing making me hesitate is your departure and apparent repudial of that area.
Would you be willing to remind us what lead to your departure from the PNW?

william fairchild said...


It is heartening that you took on the advertising industry. They are a key component to understanding why this culture is locked in the myth of progress and pointless consumerism. If there was a devil in human form, I think a good candidate would be Eddie Bernays who applied his Uncle Sigmund's understanding of manipulating the mass subconscious to making money and invented the ad industry. Goebbels later applied it to the furtherance of the Third Reich, and this is not a coincidental connection in my mind.

There are more examples of an unneeded product being hyped to the public than I can count. One example: Lysol. In the 20s Lysol ran a series of ad campaigns promoting a Lysol douche as a way to correct "feminine odor" that might cause her to be an old maid. Others promoted a Lysol douche as birth control. The razor business ran ads featuring a fetching lass in a summer dress with her arms raised and pointed out that their razors could get rid of "unsightly hair". Dixie Cups were marketed as sanitary, replacing personal, folding, reusable cups. The porn industry is directly responsible for the fetish of men and women shaving and waxing the nether regions.

I used to run a vacuum repair and sales shop. So I can tell you that (with the exception of those who are overly sensitive to allergens) the HEPA filtration is a marketing gimmick. The more layers of filtration you add to a vacuum system, the less the airflow, the less the cleaning power. Add to that, they lock you in to buying $60 plus filters every six months at the least. As most of the newer units are all plastic, the lifespan of the machine is a few years at most. Oh, and "amps" are used as another marketing racket. The size and design of the fan (again- airflow) is far more important, but it ain't sexy.

The much maligned Kirbys and Electrolux are far better, although I recommend the older models. Kirby went self-propelled with a transmission (prone to failure) and the Lux went to a plastic shell (prone to breakage) Royal however, still makes its all-metal units. It is the same basic design since the 40s or 50s, is easy to work on, and virtually indestructible.

I once rebuilt a 40s Kirby model 505. When the elderly lady brought it in, it still ran, although the bearings screamed and the carbon brushes arced) When I was done, it was good for another 30 years.

I have repaired friends and neighbors machines many times. I have often thought of going back into the business (and appliances) as a plan B.

But I suppose the day will arrive when the electric grid is unstable, and wall-to-wall carpet will be replaced with wood and throw-rugs. Maybe I need to coppice some ash and hickory and plant broom-corn as a plan C. Regression indeed.

Glenn in Maine said...

Greetings, I have been using a safety razor since I started shaving. Further, I capture all the slivers of soap from the shower when they get too small to handle and pop them in a ceramic mug, eliminating waste. The brush is my grandfather’s (genuine badger) and looks brand new. I’ve noticed recently that blades are becoming harder to find, dull faster, and are much thinner than years past, so planned obsolescence penetrates ever deeper it seems. Not to worry, however, as I also salvaged my grandfather’s straight razor, strop, and whetstone against the day when recyclable safety blades are no longer available, though I am reluctant to attempt the feat I must admit.

One resource your readers may appreciate is the Lehman’s Hardware online catalogue: for all sorts of old-timey tools, gadgets, and supplies (Amish-oriented), if only for ideas and inspiration to hunt down original equipment at a flea market.

Edward said...

JMG: Bicycles are a good example of your point. Quality steel frames are now made only by small volume independent makers. The large volume of "high end" bikes are either composite material or aluminum, neither of which can be repaired. I crashed my steel framed bike and put the rear end out of alignment. I took it to an independent frame builder who was able to simply bend it back into alignment. That crash would have destroyed a composite frame, or rendered an aluminum frame unusable and unrepairable.

As far as the moving parts, many of them are not servicable any more. Wheel bearings use sealed cartridges instead of cup and cone bearings that can be taken apart. The old style bearings require overhauling about once a year, with new grease and a new set of loose ball bearings. Total cost is a couple dollars. While the cartridge bearings do last longer, when they wear out, they need to be replaced at considerable expense. Chances are, the manufacturer changed the design and you have to buy a whole new wheel hub.

It produces a lot of satisfaction to take a 30-year old bike apart, clean and lube the parts, put it back together, and know that it will last another 30 years.

Ed-M said...

Hello JMG!

Two back-to-back posts that are your best ever! I particularly liked the example of the safety razor. Those things were durable. But now? It appears one must go to a men's specialty store in a gentrified row of women's shops which all used to be run-down stores that catered to the population of a Negro or White [Underclass] slum. Assuming it's still there and not replaced by yet another women's boutique. Here in New Orleans that shop would be Aidan Gill. Come to think of it, I haven't seen ads for the store in the local alternative weekly.

Such are the vicissitudes of the Great God Progress. (HA!)

Hi Chris!

Missed you guys last week, but I just reviewed last week's post and the start of the comments thread. What you're saying of a 30% burden of taxes and required insurances is, for us in America, is getting off lightly! Here one can shell out over *half* of one's income on federal income tax, old-age tax (soc security and medicare), state tax, county and city taxes, car insurance, home owner's insurance, and now PRIVATE health insurance. Those of us in the 50th to 75th percentile get to enjoy the highest burden and reliably vote Republican, and never get relief from these actual and quasi taxes! Not that they would get relief if they voted Democratic, either... jess' sayin'.

omerori said...

Did anyone mention Google Glass?

Johannes Roehl said...

@Ruben: Are you talking about a straight razor? It seems generally acknowledged that shaving with such a beast does take some skill! One can find ytube videos (apparently legit) where a guy shaves with a razor sharp hunting knife.

But the safety razor with double edged disposable blades only takes a little more skill than the modern plastic ones. I think the main problem is that one has to unlearn some habits acquired when being used to the modern light plastic ones.

Jeff Williams said...

Greetings JMG and ADR forum.

I’m a long-time ADR reader, first-time poster who’s enjoyed The Archdruid’s various writings--particularly The Wealth of Nature and Green Wizardry. Those books and forums like this are helping me come to terms with LESS, and take small steps toward that goal. So thank you, all.

The snippet regarding ebooks in last week’s “Butlerian Carnival” resonated with me, as I’ve worked in book publishing for almost two decades. Part of my job these past seven years has been to accept ebooks as the inevitable march of “progress,” while simultaneously I’ve despised them.

Although I don’t broach the subject often with colleagues, I’m met with incomprehension or guffaws when I say that a century from now people will most likely be using some sort of mechanical typesetting to create printed works, but we’ll need to preserve that technology now. Maybe it’s high time I backed away from the screen and contributed to doing just that.

This week’s post reminded me that the obsolescence and shoddiness of products, planned or otherwise, is directly tied to the fallacy of an infinitely expanding economy. Appropriate tech makes complete sense in a sustainable, steady-state economy, but is inadequate to fuel a growth model based on compound interest, quarterly profits, increasing consumption, and geometric human population growth.

I procrastinated, hemmed and hawed past the deadlines for the ADR short story contests, but was determined not to miss The Great Squirrel Case Challenge of 2015. I’m pleased to submit my entry, which can be found here:

Best regards.

RPC said...

I'm going to try a little logic here. Progress is motion toward a goal. A free market by definition does not have a goal (else it would not be free). Therefore, to the extent that a society is based on a free market, that society cannot progress.
I think the mistake our society makes is that it assumes the goal is our present situation; therefore all the more or less random changes that led to our present state are by definition progress!

Justin Patrick Moore said...

One round lump of quality shaving soap in a ceramic dish lasts me well over a year. Granted, I don't have a ton of facial hair and only shave 2-3 times a week. Still the experience is better. I was gifted an old safety razor my brother-in-law found in an attic. It was gunked up, but easily cleaned off with some toothpaste and brush. The revival of this stuff is "trending".

Paula said...

Funny you should use shaving; my husband and I switched to old-fashioned safety razors over ten years ago when I realized what an ecological disaster modern shaving is. Now he's sporting a luxuriant beard as well, but still feels the need to clean up his cheeks every couple of days or so. His shaving vessel is loaded with leftover soap. Now that I am using a homemade deodorant that works way better than the expensive but necessary clinical strength stuff that gummed up my safety razor I can go back to it.

One caveat about safety razors, though, is the fact that they are 'unforgiving', as my husband put it, and downright hell on your shins and knees. You can't rush a safety razor.

And in the interest of saving money and carbon, we ordered a box of a hundred blades, which should probably last us the rest of our natural lives...

onething said...

Hmm, but what was the shaving experience like for the Roman man?

Everyone wants to solve problems at the outer level, when the real problem is that people are idiots who don't think.

Says Cathy, "They seem proud that they can't cook, don't do dishes, can't change a light switch, let alone make soap or raise their food. I'm not sure how that hypnotism can be overcome... "

It'll be overcome very quickly, once somebody does their thinking for them and passes it down the meme chain.

Says Pyrrhus, "An interesting factoid, courtesy of Nassim Taleb in his great book Anti-fragile, is that the entire increase in life expectancy in the US can be shown to be derived from the decrease in smoking rates. So much for medical technology...."

Well, naturally I am willing to hear him out, but on the face of it, a little thought tells me this is cherry picked data. What about the decrease in child mortality that began over 100 years ago? How is that affected by smoking? The increase in longevity is already leveling off and will continue to plummet. Today's 80 and 90+ year-olds got the max benefit. They were born during a time when nutrition was high as was sanitation and some basic medical care. But America is now a sick nation, smoking or no. Today's kids and youth don't have a chance to match the longevity of their grandparents. It's already too late for them, even if they were to change their ways, which isn't really even possible.

Paula said...

Oh- something else that may be of interest to you: for health reasons I went on the paleo diet, which contrary to popular myth is actually vegetable-centric, not meat-centric, although it does require animal protein inputs. But you lose grain, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and legumes. It occurred to me a month after making the lifestyle change, because that's what it truly is (and losing eleven pounds the first month) that besides allowing one to cut off all ties to the industrial agriculture machine because you're no longer eating from that poisoned trough, with the right planning and some chickens and rabbits, people could conceivably grow all their own food, or most of it, anyway. I've been working on teaching myself how to feed us from the yard since 2008 and this year I'm going to try to step up my game by putting more of the yard into production and doing a better job of planning and planting for fall and winter vegetables. Besides being a healthier way to eat (see The Paleo Approach, by Sarah Ballantyne, PhD for an in-depth explanation of how human digestion works, including the interaction of the immune system and hormones with digestion and health, etc.), I really think that it's the way forward for food security and self-reliance. This year will be a big experiment in that direction; hopefully, it will be a solid step toward it.

william fairchild said...


I always remember my Dad saying "K.I.S.S. keep it simple, stupid" He used a safety razor for years and years.

kayr said...

I very much enjoy your essays. None more then this one. After having run my noise painfully into cultural mythology on more then one occasion, I find myth a pretty powerful force. Who doesn't want to be part of something larger and more beautiful then themselves? I think it takes a fair amount of effort to step back and realize your participation in a myth, any myth and you are going against the flow. Even with the practice I feel I have had, I still find myself hooked. I guess practice makes perfect for getting unhooked.

I R Orchard said...

Avery: The scythe is symbolic of the move forward to the past. Not only do they create more jobs, but they're inherently 'green'. I found a stall at a local farmers' market sharpening a sickle. He had a miniature anvil hammered into a block of wood and was gently tapping the cutting edge with a ball-peen hammer. He said it produces a wickedly sharp edge and doesn't sacrifice any metal the way grindstones do. Back in the day agricultural workers had the same gear and spent part of the smoko time tending to the implements.

Repent: It was clearly a VERY badly designed computer system. It's axiomatic that a good system reduces, even eliminates paper use. Who-ever employed that bunch of turkeys needs a rark up.

LewisLucanBooks said...

It may sound over the top, but I love my old safety razor. As I've always had a pretty full beard, it doesn't get much use. But, I do clean up under the chin, on occasion.

I inherited it from my great uncle. He gave it to me when I started to shave. Some company (Gellette?) gave them away in the thousands to WWI soldiers. It's brass with a nice bit of green patina in spots. Comes in it's own little case. It's just so elegant. You twist the bottom and two wings open at the top to insert the razor. I have also discovered that the blades last just about forever if I wipe them off after use and keep them dry. They can also be sharpened if you rub them, back and forth, on the inside of a glass. It gives me such pleasure to use it.

@Cathy - Unfortunately, my rental came with a lot of carpet. Shag, no less :-). And, three dead, rather high tech looking vacuum cleaners. Pulling them apart, giving them a good cleaning ... one needed a belt replacement (available hanging on a rack at my locally owned hardware store) and voila!. Two perfectly good working vacuums.

What drives me crazy about modern plumbing is that you used to have a leaking faucet? Remove one screw and replace a washer. Now? The new improved washerless faucet. Which has to be entirely replaced. Talk about planned obsolescence. I have a friend who's a lot handier at that job than I am. I swap him eggs for that task. Lew

Neo Tuxedo said...

Remind people that the same rhetoric currently being used to prop up faith in space travel, nuclear power, or any of today’s other venerated icons of the religion of progress was lavished just as thickly on these earlier failures, and you can pretty much expect to have that comment shouted down as an irrelevancy if the other people in the conversation don’t simply turn their backs and pretend that they never heard you say anything at all.

There's a third possible reaction: the claim that these technologies would have fulfilled their promises if they'd been funded properly, but they weren't funded because they wouldn't put enough money in the pockets of the people doing the funding. (Cf. the story of J.P. Morgan refusing to fund Nikola Tesla's broadcast-power experiments because he wouldn't be able to put a meter on the broadcast.) At its extreme, this leads to the notion put forward by Waves Forest (most elaborately in his SubGenius pro-fiction "Bob" and the Oxygen Wars) that these technologies are being deliberately suppressed by THEM, whoever or Whatever THEY ultimately are. But that might be more suited to the Well than to a blog nominally concerned with the phenomenal world.

Lynford1933 said...

It is easy enough to take the blade out of a hand plane and shave with it. Shaving hair on the arm is a test of sharpness. A simple wood holder would make it similar to a ‘safety razor’ and better to shave. This would be better than using any of the power tools around the shop. I too have a beard but unlike our host use a low tech scissors to keep it manageable.
It is nice to move back in time in the fall. One gets an extra hour of sleep. The move in the spring is terrible and the lack of sleep is noticed most on Monday morning, the worst possible time. I suggest doing away with the spring part of that ritual and in a dozen years it will be light all night long and think of all the electricity we can save. For the much too serious here I better mention, that’s a joke.
We will do modern things until we can’t. Then we will make accommodations to maximize happiness and minimize effort. We are a lazy bunch at best. I am an old guy and remember well how to live in the ‘50s and before. My grandsons are smart enough to pick up on growing food as I have them working in my garden between texts and tweets.
I’m sure the irony is not missed that we are using the Internet for an intellectual discussion about going back to living at an earlier time. It should be noted that we have twice as many people in the US to feed and entertain as we did in 1950. “If half you people would go away, we would get along fine.” I will certainly be in the half that is to go away, but now I have work to do in the shop. Cheers. Lynford

CoCargoRider said...

Great article as usual, but I will have to disagree with the razor analogy, but then I am biased and do not shave, so neither works for me:)

Cherokee Organics said...


I usually sleep very soundly, but last night I decided to put some quality meditation time into the whole "groups" problem and spent several hours in cogitation. The outcomes from that meditation are:

- People who are clearly unable to accept the concept of limitations will no longer be able to bend my ear about their financial problems. I will simply cut them off. Nuff said;

- I'm going to head in towards the big smoke and join a few groups there to see if any of them are actually well managed. I basically need more experience before setting up a group. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd certainly appreciate them? and

- It seems as though a thorough reading of Roberts rules of order may be time well spent.

One of the commonalities that struck me was that in all of the various groups, the leadership clearly lacked the ability to lead and yet at the same time were unable to recognise that fact and let go of that role. The groups in turn become senile (is that the correct word?). Yes, after summer comes winter is my thinking, before another summer rolls around.

One of the guilty pleasures that I enjoy, is that after my earlier experience with the big end of town, I now solely work with small business. That is where the leaders are in the community as those people live week to week by their decisions and they hold themselves accountable for the actions of their businesses as do I. It is very inspiring and a breath of fresh air after the la la land of the big end of town.

PS: Please spare a thought for the people of Queensland as the cyclone coming in from the east has been upgraded to Category 5 and will make landfall this morning. The winds are estimated to be up around 295km/h (183 miles/hour) - that is not good and is about as big and nasty as it gets: Tropical Cyclone Marcia: Storm strengthens to category five off Queensland, evacuations ordered



Hi Angus,

Well done. Only those that do, know. Yes, that is a hard job - I used glass fiber batts and they work well.

I hadn't thought of it as a pejorative either but I'm only usually caught off guard once...

daelach said...

Funny that safety razors get highlighted - I'm using them, too (produced in Russia). Precisely for the mentioned reasons. Besides being cheaper and better, safety razors are also easier to sanitise. Just disassemble the device and rinse the parts. Try that with the "system shavers" - no way. Pieces of skin and hair keep stuck inside, and that organic matter will rot in the moisture of a bathroom. No wonder that this infectious mass leads to pimples.

Shaving soap isn't just cheaper, it works better because it is real soap, i.e. alkaline. So it softens the hair to be shaved, something canned foam doesn't do. Canned foam is to shaving soap what winter strawberries are to real strawberries, a surrogate.

On the other hand, the safety razor was indeed a better product that the razor knife - the proof is that men were able to shave themselves with the safety razor while it took a specialist (the barber) to get shaved with a razor knife.

An interesting side-note: Why did so many men suddenly turn to shaving at all? Well, because beards didn't work well with gas masks, and the latter turned out to be a necessity in the chemical warfare of WW1. Before, soldiers usually had beards.

@ Shane: Actually, using a safety razor is really easy. There are just some things to pay attention to:

- decide whether you want an open or a closed style razor. Open ones look like a comb, closed ones have a solid ridge. Open ones are better suited if you may have to deal with some-days-beard, and they don't take away all the foam by the first brush. Closed ones are a bit safer. I have always been preferring the open style.

- use hot water (soak a flannel in it and put it on the face) for about a minute. Meanwhile, use the brush to make soap foam. Apply the foam to the face and let it soften the skin for half a minute or a minute. Hint: take a hot shower (start with your face), then shave.

- Do NOT press the device onto the skin. NEVER. This will result in some bleeding. If you think you have to press it down because it doesn't work, either your blade is blunt (hint: avoid W*lk*nson blades) or you have to proceed to the next point.

- you must find the right angle between device and skin yourself.

- do NOT shave across the grain, at least not in the beginning. Shave with the grain first, then in a 90° angle to the grain.

- clean your face after shaving using cold water.

- stop possible bleedings using an alum stick (I did need it initially some times, but that will pass with more training).

- disinfect with aftershave.

Mike in Cincy said...

Well put. I'm afraid I've reached the conclusion that the stuff I gotta give up is pretty much money and oil. I don't see a way around it. And I'm serious.

Gwaiharad said...

I think "peak progress" has already long happened in the musical tradition known as Western classical music.

For millenia, music had been built around a single "keynote", or tonal center ("do", for anybody who's ever sung in a choir, or watched The Sound of Music). Composers, from Hildegard von Bingen and Josquin des Pres through Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al., down to Stravinsky and Debussy, followed the basic idea of having one note that is "home", that the music spirals out from and then returns towards.

In 1908, along came Arnold Schoenberg. He threw out the concept of the tonal center, and gave all 12 notes of the chromatic scale equal importance. Revolutionary! Truly this is the music of the future! What, you don't enjoy listening to it? Then you must be an un-cultured, un-educated Luddite! (Or a Nazi, or a Communist, they didn't like it either.)

In Schoenberg's footsteps, composers like Alban Berg and John Cage started writing works that can only be described as "weird". (4'33", anyone?)

Meanwhile, other composers (notably Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sergey Prokofiev, Aaron Copland) kept the ideas of tonality and melody. Guess whose works are more performed today?

Also, guess what works composed in the last ten years sound like? The vast majority are tonal, in one way or another. It's not a complete throwback - there are a lot of new styles and techniques being incorporated - but the idea of "progress" in the direction of atonality ultimately failed to pan out.

Today, most composers seem to draw inspiration from whatever they happen to like, and then try to combine those elements into something they hope will speak to others. Pure innovation is not so much valued anymore, at least not outside very academic circles. And composers borrow un-ashamedly from "pop music" and other sources.

The whole thing is a rather apt (if abstruse) metaphor for technology, IMO. Segways might be the innovative personal transportation of the future, but I don't see people riding them around campus. I do, however, see bikes with LED lights on them, and occasionally carbon-fiber frames. Or I could use more examples from music, looking at the instruments themselves - laminated soundboards, various composite materials, new alloys, onboard pickups for electronic amplification, better key configurations, etc. But the bicycles, and the musical instruments, do pretty much what they've always done. Old technologies, new embellishments.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, exactly. People will invest their time and effort in a group only if they get something back from the investment.

Unknown Lee, I don't drink coffee -- it gives me migraines -- but if I did, I'd do it the simple way, and not waste the time, money, etc. on the fancy machines either.

Indrajala, Tainter's quite simply wrong. Look at China's deliberate abandonment of a maritime empire in the 15th century, Japan's abandonment of firearms and withdrawal from international trade in the Tokugawa period, Britain's relinquishment of its empire after the Second World War -- well, I could go on. Scaling down complexity is a step that a great many societies have taken in the past; it's only unthinkable to those who refuse to think about it.

Raven, fair enough -- you're in the contest.

Mickey, I think there's more to it than that, and will be discussing the matter further as we proceed.

Ed, it's easy to insist in advance that nothing can be done, and that also makes an effective self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't find such things useful, but if that's your drink of choice, by all means.

Fly, that sort of thinking just makes me shake my head. "Who cares if it works? It's not brand new enough!!" Gah.

Rhisiart, thanks for the link!

Phil, unfortunately it was the wrong set of alternative technologies. There are good ways to heat water, etc., that don't require devastating the biosphere, or the local streams for that matter.

Michele, that's bizarre. I suppose they don't bother to evaluate the technology and find out whether it actually helps with the process of teaching...

Stein, good. What I'm suggesting -- or more precisely, the point toward which I'm working in this series of posts -- is that if we start the process deliberately now, it's going to be a lot easier on everyone when regress becomes a matter of necessity.

Carnegie said...

On the excellence of old technologies:

My mother and I were meeting at the coffee shop and talking about coffee and dictionaries.

She had gotten a Keurig for Christmas, and now she is wondering what the point is. It takes no longer to brew a good pot the other way, and anyway the machine was relatively expensive and dependent on some sort of microprocessor she cannot repair. K-cups are a right silly concept. There aren't single-serve at all. There's concentrated-enough coffee in them for two or three cups (in fact, the first cup always seems too strong), but the machine doesn't have an option to use the cups for a pot, so you end up making multiple single cups, re-boiling the water each time, or (gasp!) throwing away a perfectly good cup of coffee after only one cup.

Similarly, at the coffee shop, there was a COLOSSAL unabridged Webster's dictionary. I'd only seen one at libraries and never gotten to hold on before. It was absolutely fantastic, with all manner of illustrations, footnotes, and keys for reading. Sort of like a combination dictionary-encyclopedia. However... it was near one hundred years old, and I made a couple tiny tears in the yellowed pages simply by turning them. I thought, "oh no! And they're out of print! And the Oxford ones just stopped printing as well!"

Are there any colossal dictionaries still printing? My future children are unlikely to be interested, but it could certainly be a worthwhile end-of-life comfort.

People who are re-learning the Press: I hope you give these grand books some consideration. How wonderful they are to hold and read -- much like a paper Wiktionary or Wikipedia!

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I've received several emails from people whose comments aren't getting through. If your comment didn't include profanity or the like, it probably got eaten by Blogger -- that's been a continuing problem for a while now. Please give it another try.

Kathleen Quinn said...

Back in the late 80s-early 90s I spent a good deal of time poking around the north of Ireland, at that time occupied by the British Army and very much a war zone. I remember being impressed that the young nationalists with whom I spent my time learned to read and write Irish so they could communicate with their incarcerated comrades in a way that the authorities had a hard time decoding. Even though use of Irish was eventually banned in prison communications, Irish remained very much what one friend described to me later as the language of rebellion. I’ve shared that story with my kids, who have determined that cursive writing in English might serve the same purpose in the near future, as it’s no longer being taught in most schools--at least not the ones around here. Put it in an envelope with an address and a stamp and voila! Our own “language of rebellion.” Not that I’m fomenting rebellion or anything…;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Kenaz, no question, those who shave their heads as well as their faces have even more to gain from old-fashioned shaving technology!

Tony, that's a Seymour book I hadn't heard of -- will have to chase it down. His books on organic gardening are among my treasures.

Jonathan, that's a fascinating theory. If I understand it correctly, what you're suggesting is that the driving force behind much of what gets labeled progress is the ease with which complexity allows costs to be externalized -- loaded onto the community or biosphere as a whole -- in order to increase profits. Hmm, and hmm again. That's going to want some close study and thought, but if you're right -- and the concept passes the initial sniff test -- that may be absolutely crucial.

Mr. G, if that's the style of retro that appeals to you, by all means!

Professor D., be careful -- when you say that polyethylene is more economical than glass because glass breaks, are you factoring in the entire supply chain of both products? If not, your analysis isn't useful in the kind of whole systems assessment that needs to be done.

Greg, that's a good point.

Gwizard, of course -- and for those who simply prefer beardlessness, too, a safety razor and soap is a blessing.

Trippticket, you do realize, don't you, that having fun with less technology is far and away the most radical thing you can do in today's society? Congratulations, you dangerous subversive. As for the relationship between insanity and progress, did I say they were two different things?

Robert, that's a good point -- technology in the service of getting things out of the way. One problem with that attitude, of course, is that if you take it to its natural extreme, being alive is one of the things you get out of the way.

Trippticket, glad to hear it. Discursive meditation, to give it its proper name, really is better suited to a lot of Western minds, which is why -- until the Theosophical Society popularized Asian mind-emptying meditation in the West -- nearly all Western spiritual traditions used it.

Chris, excellent! You get today's gold star for engaging in the taboo practice of thinking things through. You're quite right, of course; "progress" implies a "toward what?", just as "consciousness" implies an "of what?"

Sweaterman, by all means send it around. I'll be interested indeed to hear how many members of the team recoil from it like a vampire being offered a plate of garlic aioli.

sgage said...

@ Yupped

" But I confess to a nagging feeling that if I was my overworked grandfather that power mower would have looked quite tempting."

Of course it was tempting. That's why we're where we are now. We know what our grandparents did not.

Phil Harris said...

JMG wrote:
"Phil, unfortunately it was the wrong set of alternative technologies. There are good ways to heat water, etc., that don't require devastating the biosphere, or the local streams for that matter."

That was actually my point. We can't go back to the Britain of my childhood that ran on coal, whatever the many virtues of mum & dad and some well made tools and radio programmes. I think that was why Schumacher's alternative approach in the 60s and 70s got such a hopeful response from so many, including me. It felt like some kind of answer.
I knew I could manage on my bicycle roaming the countryside and trying rough apple cider in remote country pubs. Some of the low cost domestic vernacular buildings I visited needed their walls rebuilt only about every 800 years.

BTW - can I put in a good word for the Shakers? Some of their achievement especially furniture seems one of the high points of our civilisation - or of humanity over the millennia come to that. A different but perhaps comparable appeal to say the Lascaux cave art, of which Picasso said of his own and modern achievement: "We have discovered nothing".


avalterra said...


Well, did it. I know I am way behind a lot of people on this blog but better late than never. The wife and I have moved from a city of 650k to one of 8k. Little farming community. I have a solid job in the area and my wife can continue to do her's telecommuting.

Next step integrating into the community and starting the garden. Also I am going to look at making my own Mead.

Woot! This is very exciting!


Shane Wilson said...

I wonder if you envision the powers that be and their supporters getting ever more punitive in efforts to "enforce" progress upon people, by law or other means of force, the way Communism got punitive as it became apparent that the "glorious workers paradise" was not going to be.

sgage said...

All this talk about shaving and such... I have to confess - I still don't understand why men shave. I mean, how normal: I'll drag a piece of sharpened steel across my face every day! Somehow that strikes me as odd, and always has, but oh well. I know Bill P. understands, and JMG too, no doubt.

And as for having a beard, people talk about 'growing a beard' as if it's something you do. It is not - it is something you allow - it grows by itself. NOT having a beard is something that you do.

On an amusing note, I got a small cut on my forehead somehow while playing with my dogs in the very deep snow here in the NH woods. When I went to the corner store this afternoon the cashier lady (a friend) asked me what happened. I (who have had a full beard these past 40 years) said "oh, I just cut myself shaving".

It took her a while to process this before we all had a good laugh...

Men, consider just letting your beard grow. So easy! You can keep it neat and trim if you need to with just a pair of scissors.

william fairchild said...


With all due respect, the free market has several goals. The ability for entities and individuals to buy and sell goods and services without interference by govts., social institutions, communities, or democracy. The conversion of the natural world into products and then profit. The transfer of wealth from the populace to the elite. The enclosure of any remaining commons to facilitate all of the above. To channel Wendel Berry, a free market is a collection of individuals and corporations who sold their moral allegiance to a pile of money. The markets goal is to become a bigger pile of money by any means necessary. Another thing straitjacketing this culture is the deified status of the free market. If it is not a market solution it is verboten.

Yupped said...

Hi Cherokee Chris,

On groups: about 10 years ago I spent a good bit of time working with various small community groups. I was coming out of my intense corporate career years and decided I wanted to do some "giving-back". Seems embarrassing in retrospect, but anyway I spent time with three small groups, doing local environmental stewardship type projects.

I was a project manager by trade, and can get quite goal-oriented and specific and directing. At first the groups loved this, thinking I was going to help them get things done. They usually stayed with me through the phase of me writing up detailed goals and plans for particular projects, but then mostly edged away from me when it came to me asking them to do things, and more so when I complained that they weren't doing said things. At first I tried various methods of asking nicely. But when this didn't work, I usually ended up trying to do the activities myself, with the eventual result that I had to get out of that space after a few years, exhausted and a little embittered.

Recounting the experience to a wiser colleague a few years later he opined that small community groups are often full of collegial and friendly personalities who are interested in the fellowship and community, and who aren't really there to get things done. Or if they are they want the process to be very smooth and consensual. My driven style was just not going to work there. OTH, I would expect larger, higher profile groups to be much more interested in getting things done, and would have a higher contingent of personality types that can handle a more structured and driven process.

Looking back on my experience from the distance of a number of years, I now realize it was a good for me, helping me to realize that there is a great deal of benefit in just slowing down and vegging-out sometimes. So I guess it's all about the style of people in the group, not so much the goals of the group itself.

Kyoto Motors said...

Wow. the comments come in faster every week it seems...
Thanks as always for the great post. I'm still only halfway through, but I thought I'd chime in before the list hits 200+
You've hit the nail on the head, once again. I've been pointing out to people for some time now that
it is a habit of free market corporate ideology to proclaim that it's the people who decide whether a product, technology or development is better, and therefore representative of progress [This is part of the "invisible hand" malarkey...] Then they'll turn around and pour billions through Madison Ave and do whatever it takes to influence the "objective consumer". Progress is obviously a construct of the dominant players in the market place.

John Michael Greer said...

Halfiore, if that works for you, great. I used to enjoy the hot lather I got from putting a splash of water from the teakettle into the mug and whipping it up, having splashed my face with plenty of ordinary hot water first.

Robert, that's possible -- but I wonder how much of it is simply the common mental tic these days that leads people to pay more attention to collecting data than to understanding it.

Andy, "technologies of extrication" is a fine coinage, and a concept worth contemplating. Thank you!

Steve, two things I've learned about diets, mostly from living in a society (ours) that's profoundly neurotic about food, is, first, that different people thrive on different diets, and second, that making any serious, sustained change in diet, no matter what the change might be, makes most people feel better for about six months or so. If the paleo diet makes you feel great, wonderful; you might revisit it toward fall and see if it's the diet itself, or simply doing something different and being more conscious about food.

Yupped, the crucial thing to my mind is treating it as a decision you can make, rather than just doing what you're told to do by the media.

AntEater, excellent. Yes, that's a crucial point, and it's also a good example of a broader issue, which is the whole-system cost of any given technology in terms of any variable you care to name. If it's cheap to buy the initial unit but you pay buckets for supplies, it's not cheap; if it's fast to use but takes lots of time to clean and service, not to mention to earn the money to pay for it, it's not fast; if it's green and sustainable in terms of its effect in your home and yard but requires huge amounts of pollution and resource depletion elsewhere, it's not green and sustainable. Getting that through some people's heads takes work!

DM, I've got Windows XP on both my computers now -- that's the standard software that the techs at the local used-computer shops load onto reconditioned machines, for good reason. Enjoy your soon-to-arrive safety razor!

Zach, congrats on the publishing project, not to mention the rest of it. At this stage of the game, all (or almost all) of us have to have a foot in both worlds; the point to watch is which way you're shifting your weight.

Cathy, oh, granted. I wonder how long it will take before some enterprising young legal assistants set themselves up offering "we can translate out of legalese" services in storefronts, to provide exactly the kind of services that many lawyers provided before the industry got so greedy.

Tony, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for catching on to one of the next steps in the discussion well in advance.

Ghung, exactly. It's already biting a lot of people in various sensitive locations, and the teeth are clamping down more tightly every year.

Matt, glad to hear it!

Cathy McGuire said...

LOL - I just read about 85 of the comments here while on hold for Social Security - it took 45 minutes to get a person... ah, progress! :-}

@ Raskashor: When you get to OR, be sure to contact the Pacific NW Green Wizards group! I, personally, wouldn't be anywhere else but OR.

@Lewis: Yes, I found that out about the old/new faucets when I replaced my kitchen one - I specifically asked for metal, but it's a piece of crap plastic w/"metal look" - and guaranteed to break in a year or two. I need to get up to Rejuvenation Hardware in Portland and get a real one.

John Michael Greer said...

Brian, I'll second the recommendation. My wife and I still use the hand-operated can opener we bought, used, before we got married going on thirty-one years ago. As for the Gizmodo link, no argument -- they just don't make futures like that any more...

Jon, I hope that what died inside you that day was blind faith in the mythology of progress!

Angus, well, there you are!

Johannes, I tend to clumsiness -- very common with Aspergers syndrome -- so never had the courage to try a straight razor back in the days when I shaved. I don't expect ever to need a shave again, but should that change, I plan on trying a professional shave from a capable barber at least once.

Rashakor, the very short form is that the left coast was (a) very expensive to live in, (b) increasingly crowded, and (c) deeply invested in (or infested with!) a hypocritical faux-green self-righteousness that I found overwhelmingly tiresome. Oregon was one of the two places I used to see gargantuan SUVs bearing bumper stickers saying "Live Simply That Others Might Simply Live," and it's also where I walked past a house with a lavish solar panel system on the side of the roof facing the street, which happened to be the north side, so that everyone could see it as they drove past in their overpriced hybrids. Those are only two small details out of a much broader cultural milieu. Of course the fact that I could buy a house where I live now for 10% of what an identical house would have cost me in the Portland area had something to do with it as well!

William, in your place, I'd definitely start planting broom corn, and learning to make brooms the traditional way. Did you know that producing fine handmade brooms can be a tolerably lucrative craft already?

Glenn, well, there you are.

Edward, I'm glad to hear that there are still firms making good sturdy steel frames!

Ed-M, back in the day, a lot of people shopped by mail -- might be worth trying that as an end run around boutique culture. I'm told that good standard safety razors can be had easily from a number of mail-order houses, on and offline.

Omerori, that would be shooting fish in a barrel! You're right, though, that as an example of a technological revolution whose time is never going to come, that one's hard to beat.

Ruben said...

Thanks for the prod JMG, I have now posted Skill, joy, and shaving.

And please do use Peak Meaninglessness. I look forward to seeing where you go with it.

John Michael Greer said...

Jeff, good to hear from someone in the publishing industry who gets it. I'm waiting for somebody with mechanical skill and a bit of entrepreneurial flair to bring out a simple, inexpensive tabletop printing press for a reasonable price -- there's a substantial market for that right now, such that old presses have been bid up to preposterous prices recently. Also, very good -- you're in the contest.

RPC, okay, that one deserves one of my very rare second gold stars in a single evening. Excellent! And quite correct, too -- akin to the bizarre way that evolution gets redefined as progress, so that what's a random process of adaptation to circumstances suddenly becomes a teleological movement toward "the better" -- than what? Nobody says.

Justin, there you are!

Paula, I was hoping we'd hear from the distaff side as well. Good -- and of course natural deodorants also don't include large doses of aluminum, which has been implicated in Alzheimer's.

Onething, thank you for "Everyone wants to solve problems at the outer level, when the real problem is that people are idiots who don't think" -- a fine summary of the problem! I'd encourage you to get someone to put that on the business end of a branding iron and apply it liberally to those who need to learn it.

Paula, as I mentioned to another paleo-eater above, I've noticed that any dietary change seems to make people feel better for around six months. I've also noticed that the more forcefully people evangelize for a diet, the more people seem to have serious problems if they stay on it -- the pale, gaunt, gets-every-cold-that-comes-through-town vegan who's constantly pushing the vegan diet on everyone he or she knows is a tolerably familiar type these days. I hope the paleo diet doesn't attract the same sort of behavior!

William, your dad was a smart man.

Kayr, it's definitely something that takes practice, and sustained development of the skills of self-knowledge as well. After all, if it were easy to see through the myths of industrial society, would we be in this mess at all?

Lewis, doesn't seem over the top to me at all. A good tool deserves affection!

Neo, oh, granted -- I should have included the paranoid response as well.

Lynford, true, but if some of us stop using modern things before we have to, it's going to make it easier to have non-modern things, and people who know how to use them, around to pick up some of the slack.

Shane Wilson said...

Regarding empire, the U.S. seems to be choosing the "stomp on the gas for maximum impact/effect" route. I'm reminded of what you wrote about escalation in Twilight's Last Gleaming. Out with a bang, for maximum effect, I guess

Shane Wilson said...

Paleo functions as a religion for those I know into it.(secular humanism by any other name.) I'm reminded of JMG'S posts a while back on eschatology, progress, and apocalypse. The whole paleo thing reeks of the whole veneration of Hunter/gatherer, the supposed Eden that we fell from when evil civilization came along. The irritating thing is that a lot of these people think they're venerating nature, when, in all reality, they're venerating Man, just like any other secular humanist/athiest. (Descending from soapbox) My problem with paleo is that you have to basically divorce yourself from your culture regarding food, since wheat and other forbidden products are essential parts of the European and Middle Eastern diet for millennia. Rejecting industrial agriculture is one thing, divorcing your culture's food heritage is another.

The other Tom said...

There are other phrases of "thoughtstopping rhetoric" I dread to hear, besides "you can't turn back the clock." Some of the most ominous words are "well, we have to do SOMETHING!", which is usually a prelude to a muddled foolish response to a problem which may or may not exist, when the appearance of solving problems gets more points than thinking it through and possibly just leaving things as they are.
My mother used to volunteer at the polling place in the small town where I grew up in Connecticut. After the 2000 election with the hanging chads they had to "do something," so legislation was passed to pay for electronic voting equipment. The mechanical lever machines were scrapped after at least 60 years of flawless service.
I just went back and reread TJs comment with Wendell Berry's nine requirements to be met before replacing old technology with new, and the electronic voting machines fail every requirement. The old machines were easily understood and fixed by someone local, but try finding a software expert on the premises at 5:00 A.M.
I remember pointing out to people that we were solving a problem that didn't exist and the usual response was that the old machines were so obsolete they were embarrassing.
I think the words "well, we have to do SOMETHING" are a kind of corollary to the Religion of Progress.

olduvaiguy said...

"In what sense is the latter [safety razor and shaving soap], which wastes more resources and generates more trash in the process of giving users a worse shave at a higher price, more progressive than the former?"

The "progressive" version consistently requires more embedded energy.

This seems to be true of shaving kits and financial instruments.

Whether or not one can pick-and-choose what to keep of wildly different levels of embedded energy [Odum] is not at all obvious to me. Rather, I think otherwise, that a simpler society will shed items and processes according to their embedded energy. At least over a decade scale. Societies tend to processes and technologies running at the same emergy.

Nor is it obvious to me that the 1/10 of 1% will get to play with their SIVs and CDs when ATMs and the internet start to fail.
Some of the complexity requires scale. The big banks will give way to the Jimmy Stuarts and the loan sharks.
My guess is the technology of downslope will not permit a much wider range of embedded energies than the upslope.

The politics of the downslope will certainly exacerbate the disparities, but not enough to keep the ATMs lit when homes go dark.

How that plays with surveillance, the NSA, the mass media - probably lots of fear to manipulate. Which is why already anyone stepping outside the conventional mainstream is a terrorist. From the POV of the hive or the NYPD, that is certainly true.

Hedges writes of the "monastic option" (or Asimov of the 2nd Foundation) - the dying empire won't tolerate that.

John Michael Greer said...

Rider, I'm not arguing -- but I recall the difference vividly from my youth, when I still had that habit.

Cherokee, up until the 1960s you could still find books in the US about how to run a meeting, how to get ready for your one-year term as head of a lodge or club, how to organize clubs, etc. Might be worth seeing if you can find something of the sort on your side of the planet. As for Queensland, ouch -- not good at all. I hope everyone in harm's way has done the smart thing and evacuated.

Daelach, I didn't even think of the sanitary dimension, but of course you're quite right.

Mike, if you're ready to do that, do it. "Collapse now and avoid the rush" is still the best strategy I've found.

Gwaiharad, the entire notion that art "progresses" deserves to be mocked by an Irish bard until the earth opens at its feet and swallows it once and for all. The Iliad was not rendered obsolete by Beowulf, nor is a painting by Leonardo outmoded because of Rembrandt -- and of course that's equally true about music. As fas as Schoenberg et al. are concerned, I've long admired the satiric book on culture that noted that orchestras play 20th century avant-garde music when they want to dispense with the inconvenience of having an audience.

Carnegie, have you considered getting into printing yourself? If something you value is going to happen, it's probably going to happen because you did it, you know.

Kathleen, excellent -- long live the cursive revolution!

Phil, okay, I missed that -- though I could certainly handle a bicycle tour drinking local cider. I found myself quite unexpectedly developing a taste for Somerset scrumpy while visiting Glastonbury last June. As for the Shakers, no argument there!

Avalterra, congratulations! That's got to have been a big step, as well as a very important one. BTW, I owe you an apology, and a public hat tip -- when I was putting together the Squirrel Case Challenge, I didn't remember off hand who'd suggested it and couldn't find the comment you'd made -- admittedly I was in a hurry, due to page proofs on two book projects that had to be done at the same time. I'll remedy that when the results are announced.

Shane, in some areas it's already happening -- look at the legal persecution of organic gardeners, alternative health care, and so on. I expect it'll accelerate for a while, and then collapse as other problems become far more pressing.

Sgage, no argument there. And -- ahem -- ladies, no need for you to practice the same bizarre habit either, you know.

Kyoto, I've noticed that. A year ago, I was still getting maybe half a dozen comments Wednesday night before I went to bed -- now it's 20 to 30. BTW, "Progress is obviously a construct of the dominant players in the market place" is a very nice, terse summary -- thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, excellent, and many thanks.

Shane, the publisher and I sweated all the way through the process of getting Twilight's Last Gleaming onto the bookshelves, since half the things I was talking about seemed about to happen! As for the paleo diet, yes, I've seen a certain amount of the same strident intolerance for disagreement out of the paleo scene that's made the whole issue of vegan diets so dreary; my wife has celiac disease, and half the online celiac forums are swamped with paleo trolls who go in for hate-filled personal abuse the moment anyone fails to follow their dietary dicta.

Other Tom, excellent -- yes, that's a good one to keep in mind. "No, we don't" is often a very wise counsel!

Olduvaiguy, it's a complex issue. A society may choose to keep one technology with relatively high embedded energy going while letting a lot of others drop, because the one it saves fills an important economic niche and can't be replaced without major discontinuities. A society may also scrap technologies that it could theoretically save, again for social reasons. As for the monastic alternative, there I think you're wrong; the elite is just as bad at systems theory as the rest of us, and once the shrinking of the pie of goods and services becomes too obvious to ignore, my working guess is that the elite will be delighted by neomonasticism and the like, thinking -- however mistakenly -- that this means that there'll be more for them.

Kaitain said...

JMG Said:

Oregon was one of the two places I used to see gargantuan SUVs bearing bumper stickers saying "Live Simply That Others Might Simply Live"

Would the other place happen to be Seattle? I live in a small town in Washington State and where I live Seattle liberals are hated almost as much as their California counterparts, which is not surprising given their well-earned reputation for hypocrisy, self-righteous posturing and know-it-all arrogance...

Ruben said...


I—like Paula—found safety razors to be a steeper learning curve than you have had. To this day, after shaving with them for years, I find a lapse of attention is quickly punished.

Mark said...

In the song, Paradise, by John Prine, progress:

Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

Wendell Berry called it "desecration".

bdy1 said...

A while back I started thinking of yoga and meditation as technologies and my practice kinda took off.

SunsetSu said...

City Light, Seattle's electrical utility, had two big power surges on our block on Tuesday. The surges fried my dishwasher and washing machine, both of which have computers. Many of my neighbors also lost appliances, including furnaces (electronic thermostats.)Fortunately, when my thermostat died a few months ago, I resisted buying the fancy computerized Nest (made by Google) and opted for an old Honeywell thermostat, which came through fine, as did my dryer, which is 40 years old. I hang up everything to dry in my basement in the winter and outside in the summer. I'm not going to replace the dishwasher, but I do want a washing machine. replace the washing machine with something simple that doesn't have a computer, but I haven't been able to find anything. Does anybody know where to get a computer-free washing machine? My grandmothers had old-fashioned machines with rollers to squeeze out the water. Their clothes seemed to get pretty clean.

Ray Wharton said...

The questions raised by questioning progress are the exact questions that convinced me to presue a philosophy degree in college instead of following up my youthful interest in science. I wanted to know what should be invented, before I started inventing things. Academia being what it is I didn't get the degree, but conversations with a few good old philosophers helped with the problem so much that I decided to drop on and start working on organic farms.

I like this printing press conversation, my skills are not well suited for bringing anything to market, at this point in time, but I will start studying the issue when I am not up to my arm-pits in mycology and biodynamic research. A couple of folks I know have skill enough to put together a, if only I could find the right motivation.

Also look here, fellow printing press interested people! Its a good topic to start thinking on.

Mark Rice said...

On the topic of "progress" than is not -- The Germans have a word for improvements that make things worse:


Mark Rice said...

I have a hard time accepting needless complication a progress. Sometimes I see bragging about an increase in complication.

A classical example is Intel touting about how their new chip has 10 times as many transistors as the old chip. But the new chip does very little extra for this 10x increase. This is not something to brag about.

william fairchild said...


"If that abrupt act of redefinition reminds any of my readers of the way history got rewritten in George Orwell’s 1984—“Oceania has never been allied with Eurasia” and the like—well, let’s just say the parallel was noticed at the time, too." This made me smile. That you would insinuate our leaders, country, us ourselves, could be guilty of "doublethink". Shocking indeed!

Oh and if anyone doubts that "the market", the ad industry, this culture (industrial civilization) has become anything less that parasitic, or cancerous- two words: planned obsolescence.

Crow Hill said...

A propos this post,couldn't resist mentioning the French tongue-in-cheek saying "On n'arrête pas le progrès. La bêtise non plus." You can't stop progress. Nor stupidity.

Dear JMG, thanks for shining your weekly light on contemporary events.

KL Cooke said...


"I've been curious for a while about why so many people of my generation (mid-twenties) fear phones and prefer texting/emailing each other. I find all the typing to be a lot of work."

I'm not of your generation, but I know why I prefer texting. The voice quality of a cell phone is very poor compared to a traditional handset. The issue is not with the the phones themselves, but rather the transmission technology. The sound is mechanical, difficult to understan, and very harsh and grating to my ear.

When people call me and want to chat for any length of time, I find it a taxing experience.

KL Cooke said...

Harris Tweed

Cherokee Organics said...


Ahhh. I know some of those out of the way dusty second hand book shops where the stock stays the same decade after decade. They are where I picked up some of the more difficult to find Jack Vance books so that the collection is now complete. Old pulp fiction like that is as rare as hens teeth and it is in surprisingly readable condition.

I will check them for that particular instructional book over the next couple of weeks and let you know what the outcome is. Incidentally - and I see there is more to your comment than meets the eye - why the 1960's? There is a cultural meme in there somehow?

Hi Deborah,

I'm not sure whether it is a down under thing, but I just checked ebay here and you can buy the Harris Tweed by the metre here. It is listed under: "Harris Tweed - Curtain / upholestry fabric". But brace yourself, it is expensive stuff.

It was very common back in the day for men's hats here. Gaffer's hats is what I believe Tolkien would have called them and I was going to pick one up myself until Brad Pitt started wearing them...

Make that cape lassy!



Gloucon X said...

As with so many ideas here, they all assume a man of leisure with ample time and space, not the real existence of chaotic Americans. In real America, the clunky shaving mug gets knocked to the ground and breaks into pieces one too many times in the morning rush. It doesn't fit in the medicine cabinet like a can of shaving cream and so competes for limited space with wifey’s cosmetics in a tiny crowded bathroom. The regrettable result: progress triumphs.

Scythe of Relief said...

As far as diet is concerned. It may help to have a little bit of redundancy built into the, 'on board food larder'.

That is my excuse anyway. ;-)

Cherokee Organics said...


Yeah, Queensland's doing it tough today: Tropical Cyclone Marcia: Central Queensland towns devastated as storm tracks across state

and photos: Cyclone Marcia in pictures

The wind gusts were measured at 205km/h (127 miles/hour). The photos were pretty telling of the damage.

Thanks for your thoughts for them. It is a long, long way from here and they reckon by tomorrow morning the cyclone will be downgraded to a tropical low.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Yupped,

Many thanks for your experience. Avoiding the passengers whilst still getting things done is a tough gig.

PS: Thanks for your larger background story too. Interesting stuff. And I wonder to myself whether you have considered a succession plan for your homestead / farm / small holding? The previous issues seem to be of some value to that question. Dunno.

There has to be a way to get buy-in for members in a group, so more research in both the field and in books is clearly in order.

The process has already begun and it is yielding interesting results.



Dagnarus said...

When reading this post I immediately thought about the current progress being made in the field of televisions
(short story the TV records your conversations and sends them to a third party)

The thing is that immediately after reading about them it occurred to me, why would you want a smart TV? Even assuming you both don't mind having your private conversations recorded and want to watch television, why would you want a "smart" TV, what does this buy you over remote control?

It then got me thinking about "smart" grids, which as far as I can tell, the only smart thing about them is that they do there metering moment by moment, so if the wind dies down for an hour the electric company can immediately jack up the price. Of course I think there meant to be some other stuff about making the grid more stable, but I get the impression that a lot of that is a red herring, in order to sell the thing to environmentalists. I would also assume that hackers would probably disprove the new smart grids reliability if they so chose.

Thirdeyerune said...

@ Ruben.
"Peak Meaningless"! Indeed! I couldn't agree with you more. This sums up a lot for me about the world we're in and how I'm reacting to it.

Thirdeyerune said...

While probably not intended to be the primary take away of this weeks post, you are always motivating more than you know. I've been intending to get a straight razor for some time, but have procrastinated. Not any more! I'm now waiting for the delivery of razor, soap, brush, mud, and wet stone. Went with the wet stone for now. I may get the strap in future. Now, if I can just keep from cutting my throat.

I'm old enough to remember using a safety razor from my grandfather's cabinet. I didn't like shaving under the nose. Given the razor's dementions, it was a tough area. I hope the straight razor will be more effective in this area.

I have to say that I'm feeling frustrated by having to learn so many regression skills on my own. Both of my grandfathers have past and my dad just doesn't care. The past ways are rediculous to him. Now I wish I had cared more when the folks (grandmothers too) were still alive.

Tye said...

Personally, my faith in technology has been restored!! There is now a robotic zipper to ease the agony of the manual struggle.

Stein L said...

Years ago, I got a car alarm with engine immobilizer installed in my Jeep. I went skiing with my then ten years old daughter. On returning to the car, I saw the alarm had gone off.

According to the instructions, that wasn't a problem. Two pushes of a button on the alarm-control on my keychain, and I would be set.
But the immobilizer wouldn't deactivate, and the engine wouldn't crank.
Late in the day, getting darker, cold outside. I placed my daughter in the car, sat down to read instructions using my headlamp.

OK - under the hood, there was supposed to be some buttons to be pushed in a specific sequence, on the alarm unit itself.
Nope. That didn't work either.

In the end, I disconnected the wires to the battery poles, hoping this would let me regain control. Fortunately, I had the appropriate tools.
That worked. So it was a kind of "have you tried switching it off and on again" solution.

This happened in the late 90s. The next day I went straight to the garage that had installed the alarm and told them to rip it out, telling them why.
"Yes, there have been some problems with the CPU. Sometimes it doesn't accept the override."

After that experience, I have been very critical when it comes to products with computer control of functions. At the farm, I like to keep things basic, and repairable by me.
The other day I read that the top models in the Mercedes brand have twenty million lines of code for the navigation, climate and entertainment center. Twenty million lines of code ...

It's not a question of whether we'll regress to a more sustainable and repairable level of technology. It's a question of when.

Leo Knight said...

A few days ago, I made the mistake of buying a "smart" phone. We have to move, and needed a phone pronto. Also, the work computer I use to access the internet will become unavailable to me. A Metro PCS store opened just up the block, so I stopped in. I selected the cheapest phone they had, but all they offered were smartphones. I thought I might be able to use it to check e-mail, Google, etc. So far, no luck. The little keyboard screen that pops up to type has such small keys that I constantly type the wrong thing. I tried for about two hours to log into my Hotmail account, and gave up in frustration. Ditto Google. At least it works as a phone. And it has a compass app! How did I ever live without that? At least I'm not stuck in a contract. I plan to "upgrade" to an old school phone with real keys, perhaps along the lines of a Jitterbug, and try to search for a used/ refurbished computer, as soon as funds allow. Sadder, but wiser.

Denys said...

Six years ago when the children were 8 and 6 we started volunteering at the local historical iron furnace site. It is all volunteer run and they taught us how to sew the clothes (1820's Federal style), cook on a fire, herb gardening, weaving, candle-making, paper-making and some black smithing. We've learned that many of these skills are mastered by doing them (temperature and humidity can do a lot to ruin something - and being totally out of air conditioning and thermostat controlled environments is a real experience!).

Our favorite time at the furnace events was just prior to opening at an event when everyone was busy walking around in their historical garb, children barefoot running in the grass, and the smell of cooking fires in the air. It is truly special to step back in time like that and live it, if only for a few days a year.

Denys said...

Question - I've been playing with the idea for two years now of starting a blog to record the experience of living back in the time of my great grandmother (1890-1980). I remember her from my childhood and she left quite an impression. She raised four children on her own during the 1920's and 30's, her husband passed away from tuberculosis probably from working at the asbestos brick making factory.

Is this the kind of thing you are talking about when you talk about going back? My children are 14 and 12 now and it would be endlessly entertaining at least to me to turn back the clock on them. We homeschool so the opportunities are endless.

Shane Wilson said...

Thanks to your previous posts, I now regularly play the game of "spot the hidden Christian eschatology in (given) belief system" or "find the God the atheist is worshipping" Sometimes, it's just too easy (Orlov, Russia)

David said...


I'm not caught up on the comments for this post as yet, so I'm not sure how this will fit into the general thrust of current discussion, but I saw this "story" posted in the financial pseudo-news and felt it ought to be shared with the group.

My immediate (mental) response to the writer/speaker was, of course, "how about living differently?" But no, the "answer" is to work harder and double your salary so that you can make it into the elite class and be saved. (Until the pitchforks come, then you're not...)

This is what passes for thought these days.

Ed-M said...

Which, JMG, is what I gathered from the other commenters above. I have a beard, but I still need a razor to keep the edges from getting all raggely.

Chester said...


Lots of cross-over between this week's post and a book I'm currently reading: Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins by Andrew Cockburn.

While much of the book is focused on how the strategic and legal framework for "targeted assassinations" came to be, the author also casts a critical eye on the way that technologies like the Predator drone rose to prominence in military strategy.

He describes a military in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that is so eager to embrace a new vision of combat that they never stop to consider whether the new technologies they are rushing to implement are even of value. The Predator, as the obvious example, is a deeply flawed weapon system that fails utterly in the face of even moderate weather, has targeting systems that he likens to "looking at a battlefield through a straw," and that completely undermines the chain of command by allowing on-the-fly meddling in battlefield tactics from the upper echelons sitting back at base or even in the U.S.

He describes Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan where the commanding officers continue to make flawed strategic decisions based on the belief that the Predators offer them God-like awareness of the battlefield, even when offered conflicting strategic observations from a pilot observing the battlefield with his own eyes in an AC-10 Warthog. Not surprisingly, this strategic tunnel vision results in the deaths of several American service members.

To me this highlights an even more fundamental conflict than that of appropriate tech vs. the junk of progress. That is, the conflict between so-called "advanced" technology and human beings themselves.

As Cockburn says: "The ensuing battle featured almost all aspects of the remote-control high-technology approach to war, notably the abiding faith in remote sensing as a substitute for the human eye. The results were instructive, if tragic."

I'm looking forward to picking up "Twilight's Last Gleaming" next to check out your vision of how this plays out in our next non-asymmetrical field of battle.

Karl said...

Reading Paula's comment about the Paleo diet reminded me of one criticism of it, which is related to an earlier post in your series. Namely, that the big problem is that it involves re-enactment (of something that didn't happen).

At the time I first saw this criticism come up, I thought it was false; but I didn't think through why the author of a book (Paleofantasy by Zuk) would think that it is a telling criticism to make.

Thinking about it some more today, the thought occurred to me today that re-enactment involves a type of re-enchantment.

And so any type of perceived "re-enactment" is going to trip the circuit of people who are sensitive to re-enchantment, even if they don't understand what type of magic is going on.

Does that make sense?

Shawn Aune said...


It is my belief that the search for the unified field theory or an equation to describe it is being severely hampered by the fact that consciousness isn't considered a fundamental force along with gravity, the strong force and the electro-weak force.

Scotlyn said...

JMG (and Cathy)... Thanks for a wee bit of nostalgia... My 79 year old father still uses his safety razor with mug and shaving soap for a ritual that starts his every living day, and as a child I remember finding the whole thing very soothing to watch, almost hypnotic...

Avery & Oilman - I have been playing around with different ways to price treatments in my acupuncture clinic. Money is losing its cache, though I still need some. Also, people around me, who would appreciate a treatment are often both too poor to afford full price & too proud to accept a reduced price (a sort of whiff of "charity")... And of course that denies me opportunities to practice my art.

This morning I was musing that it would be equally fair if I offered an hour of my time for as much as that person can themselves earn in an hour (leaving the determination of that amount entirely in their hands). Putting that in the frame ye suggest, "time is LIFE," would make it much easier to explain no charity is involved. It stands to reason that the dollar it takes ten minutes to earn is worth so much more than the dollar that was earned in ten seconds. (Or euro, but they may not be sticking around long...). Thanks for the thought!

Peter Robinson said...

Some time ago, in a moment of weakness, I bought a weed whacker. Not being a fan of the gasoline engine, I bought an electric model powered by a rechargeable battery. After having fully charged the battery, as instructed, I found that I got about 15 minutes of whacking before the battery was completely depleted. It then needed 9 hours to recharge. I returned it to the store, complained about ridiculous engineering and got my money back.

New technologies may be better than the technologies they replace or they may be worse and, as so many are, driven entirely by the greed for profit. However, don't under-estimate simple incompetence. An engineer who designs a weed whacker that needs 9 hours of recharging for 15 minutes of work is incompetent. As the old saying has it, never attribute to malice that which may be adequately explained by stupidity.

Which leaves me with a load of weeds to whack and I'm thinking of learning to use a scythe. However, my original idea of wearing a large black hoody while doing so has been criticized as likely to cause concern to senior citizens out for their morning walks.

Nastarana said...

SusetSu, check out Lehman's, mentioned above, for washing machines. They even have a wringer washer, made in Mexico. My mother washed on a wringer Maytag for years, as did I, until they became unavailable.

Pinku-Sensei, I am an organic gardener, for about 20 years now, and avid farmer market shopper. I also participate on internet food and gardening fora. I can tell you that the follks who care about food sovereignty and local resilience are coming to the painful realization that the far left and the Democratic Party are no friends of our movement.

Under a Democratic admin, USDA remains, for all practical purposes, a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto Corp. The label GMO initiative lost in Oregon by 800 or so votes, where it was conspicuously not endorsed by that state's popular senator, who handily won reelection in a Republican wave election year. The shocking abuses documented in the film Farmageddon seem to occur as often in Blue states as in Red, and one could go on.

jonathan said...

i think you have the essence of the idea exactly right. for example: large food producers routinely are the source of nasty disease organisms, salmonella, e-coli, shigella etc. there has never been any response other than voluntary recalls and wrist slap fines. imagine what would happen to a restaurant that served food causing illnesses. actually, there's no need to imagine. try a search for "restaurant forced to close".

there are at least two reasons why this occurs.
1. blackmail. why are coal companies allowed to slice off mountain tops and dump the debris into the valley below? they say: if you make us stop it will cost jobs. the same refrain can be heard anytime any large organization is pressed to raise wages, reduce pollution or act in any socially responsible way.
2. diffusion of responsibility. when something terrible results from a failure in large institutions you can always expect to hear some variation of "mistakes were made". note the passive voice. no individual has been prosecuted as a result of the massive financial and housing meltdown of 2007-08 despite clear evidence of fraud and forgery. no general motors employee has been charged despite unmistakeable evidence that failures of the ignition switch were known and covered up for years. the examples are endless.
in sum, size and complexity encourage destructive behavior since it reduces the costs to the enterprise by shifting them to the public. will there ever be a carbon tax which would shift some of the costs associated with hydrocarbons back onto the producers of coal, oil and gas? my magic 8 ball says "outlook not so good".

Glenn said...

Regarding location

JMG seems to have lived in areas with a high proportion of people with excessive income and foolishness. (I lived in Ashland, OR 1978 - 1980 while attending college) This is not universal in the PNW. Also, his job is very portable as he is a self-employed writer.

We live in a very nice rural community outside Port Townsend WA. We are surviving below the Federal Poverty level on my Coast Guard enlisted pension. We have followed the no debt, large garden strategy, and still spend about $540 USD a month on groceries for 3 people.

Our land cost $57K in 1999 for 8 acres, it is currently assessed at $115K. We could have got more land for the money in say, Idaho. But I've lived inland, and have to live where I can smell salt water. Likewise, my wife can't stand to live in town, any town, however nice, or we'd be in PT. So we have paid a premium to maintain our sanity.

Unemployment here is running between 9% and 10%. Still, my brother manages to make a modest living as a carpenter (as I do, when we need money for improvements).

My point is, do not be dissuaded by the experiences of other people unless you know all their circumstances and how they may or may not relate to your own.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Clay Dennis said...


As a Native Oregonian who has lived here all but 4 years of my life I can agree with some of what JMG has to say. Todays Oregon is a very diverse place with very different geographic cultures. JMG's experiece in Southern Oregon is typical of that area ( Bend Also) which is influenced by California Transplants on big budgets. The mid valley ( Salem, Albany) is essentially midwestern in character. Then there are the old logging towns which are much like appalachian resource extraction towns and then there is Portland. Portland within itself is culturaly diverse with the crowd JMG's dislikes occupying the Southwest Suburbs, while North and North East Portland is poplulated with a growing population of young people actively returning to crafts, food, art, etc of an earlier era while attempting to go car-free. But one thing that JMG has right is that Portland has become expensive , but such is the price of it's current trendiness. I figure it won't take much sliding down the curve of collapse to flatten housing costs. But, mother nature does seem to be favoring us as the climate changes. No Polar Vortex Here.

Violet Cabra said...

Rhisiart Gwilym, thank you for sharing your experiences and encouragement. I find it incredibly heartening when other people find success managing their own health.

Bright City said...

Dear JMG,

This is my first comment, though I have been reading your blog devotedly for several years. It has transformed my world view and made me feel like an alien in the company of nearly everyone I know, all of them bright, knowledgeable believers in progress. I live in the center of the universe, Silicon Valley, where the streets are full of people with their heads bowed over their iPhones. I am very fond of my computer, but I have refused to get a "smart phone" of any kind, because they give me what I don't want (constant availability) and don't give me what I do (good sound quality and simplicity). I like the idea of choosing older and better technologies, but it seems to get harder all the time. I've heard recently that the phone company is thinking of phasing out landlines since "nobody uses them any more."

Quite a few people in this area have big rooftop PV systems, all of course tied into the grid. I like my small, portable, all-in-one (battery and inverter included) solar panel. Charged up by a few hours in the sun, it will run my laptop for more than nine hours. I know it depends on high-tech materials for its manufacture, but its simplicity and effectiveness make it feel like something that conforms pretty well to Wendell Berry's nine rules, posted by this week's first commenter. You can see it here:

I look forward every week to your smart, wise, entertaining essays. Thank you.

RPC said...

william fairchild: it's a rhetorical device and if you were a true believer in the free market and progress you'd have walked right into the trap. So either there is no progress (horrors!) or we have to admit the "free" market was designed by someone for some purpose, and so can be changed or replaced if we wish to change the goal!

Varun Bhaskar said...


I've been using story telling to convince people of the truth of our time. Turns out traditional fables are much more compelling than the trash dished out by Hollywood, and New York. Score one for the old roads of progress!


I hope you're doing okay I'm Queensland. I heard you guys got hit by two bad typhoons recently.



Patricia Mathews said...

@ K.L. Cooke re texting vs talking - I ask people to text me on my cell phone. I read a lot better than I hear.

I told my Spanish teacher once that I do have trouble sometimes taking in information through my ears and asked how you said that in Spanish. He said "Estoy un poco sordo."

beneaththesurface said...

"That heresy is far more than the alleged openmindness and intellectual diversity of our age is willing to tolerate..."

That line made me think of my public library workplace. The library profession prides itself on its values of intellectual diversity and anti-censorship, yet quite ironically--so often silences and is hostile to viewpoints that question contemporary technological trends in libraries.

I'm currently having a dilemma of how to deal with one of four work goals I'm required to complete this year, which I will be evaluated on. It's entitled "New Technology." I am required to pick a technology on a list, learn in depth about it (how it is used and would enhance library services), write a report on it, and then do a project-based program that incorporates or promotes the technology. I looked at the list of technologies, all of which I thoroughly despise, think are making the library a worse and less resilient place, or at best, am simply not passionate about: Social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), ActivTable (this large iPad-like table that has recently invaded and debased our children's section), 3-D printer, electronic resources (e-books), mobile apps, etc. I do have the option of proposing a new technology not on the list to do instead (but it would have to be approved by my manager). It annoys me that general programming (such as book clubs, story times, etc.) do not even count for my performance evaluation this year, yet this one kind of program will.

I don't believe the implicit cultural mythology underlying this goal. I'm thinking about how to complete it in a way that is true to my values. Several ideas:

1) I could think of a technology not on the list that might enhance library services, and not the kind one usually thinks of as "new" technology--something lower-tech. I'm not sure what that would be. When I see the word "technology," my anthropologist-self thinks of a wider definition than the popular connotation: a paper book, fork, and wheel are all just as much technologies as a computer or mobile phone.

2) If I somehow get stuck with having to do something on the list, I could complete the goal in a subversive manner. For example, it greatly annoys me how much hype occurs around 3-D printing at the library. All the library programs and articles promoting it give a very one-sided view. If the public library is a place that truly tolerates intellectual diversity and debate, then there should be room for dissenting opinions about 3-D printers. Perhaps I could do some sort of program that counters its endless hype.

3) If my manager is inflexible in whatever ideas I come up with, then I can be courageous and refuse to complete the goal (risking getting the lowest evaluation score for it). There's no reason I need to go along with it all.

If any of you have any fun ideas of how I should respond to this work task, please let me know! I'm still trying to figure out what I should do. There may come a time when I decide I'm better off leaving this library system to more freely pursue deindustrial library goals, but in the meantime, I at least want to be true to myself while I continue to work here.

Annette Simard said...

@Clay Denis: I lived in the Ohio River Valley from fifth grade through high school. I currently live in Cottage Grove Oregon-since 1980's. When I went back to my fortieth high school reunion and spent some time touring West Virginia back country I was struck by how similar the look of the land, and the feel of the small extraction economy based communities are to Oregon's.

I hope to meet you soon when we have our green wizards meeting tjis spring.


Scythe of Relief said...

I detest the saying "You can't stop progress", that you mainly get from politicians, when some big monopolised development gets pushed through. Even when the majority of the community is against it.
My normal response is. "No, You can't stop progress from destroying itself, and maybe us with it".
But maybe I could come up with a better come back using these words of yours. Even though it is most likely fall on deaf ears.

"“progress” is just a label for whatever choices happen to have been made by governments and corporations, with or without input from the rest of us. If we don’t like the choices that have been made for us in the name of progress, in turn, we can choose something else".

And by the way, I know I may have been pushing it, with some of my comments to your blog. Sorry, I have a sense of humour, that may sometimes offend without me being totally aware of it.


team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I like the anecdote about the advertising guy promoting an inferior product. I once heard advertising described as the art of creating a need or manufacturing an inadequacy. If someone comes along and builds a better mouse trap then they don't need advertising and marketing because the product will sell itself.

If, on the other hand, the product is expensive, marginally effective, has numerous and dangerous side effects, like some pharmaceuticals, then you need to advertise it heavily. And not just to the market, you also need to promote it to the doctors or they will go with an older and cheaper product with an established history.

Since the goal of advertising is to circumvent the rational mind and manipulate the target audience into needing something they never needed before, the best defence is to actively understand the nature of the manipulations. There is a great game for this called "THE PROPAGANDA GAME" from the 60's and it basically teaches about fallacies of logic through examples from marketing, politics, used car sales men, etc.


Dwig said...

Please pardon the off-topic comment:


In reply to a comment of mine in the "As Night Closes In" post, you said:

I would love to discuss this topic with you, with Phil H, who posted last week about the possibility of children corresponding with a post-collapse character (possibly via ham radio), and with anyone else who would be interested in sharing ideas. I am going to the Green Wizards forum right now to try to find an appropriate spot to start a thread.

I'd enjoy that discussion too. I'm on GW as "Dwig" (surprise); drop me a message. (I tried sending you one, but there are several "heathers" there.)

Ruben said...

Gloucon X said...
As with so many ideas here, they all assume a man of leisure with ample time and space, not the real existence of chaotic Americans...The regrettable result: progress triumphs.

Gloucon, if your real existence is chaotic, I have taken one of the core messages of this blog to be change your real existence.

An incredible idea I know. But, simplification is not optional, whereas joy is.

chubasco said...

I have a French p38 equivalent (doesn't guild so it will last forever). I look forward to using it. Even the mechanical ones with the crank are frivolous and unsatisfying in comparison...

Shane Wilson said...

I think maybe JMG said that one of humanity's evolutionary advantages was it's ability to make use of a wide variety of foodstuffs. Therefore, I'm suspicious of any voluntary dietary restriction besides eliminating industrialized processed food. Seems like giving up an evolutionary advantage. Also, in a time of decline, food scarcity, or famine, I'm doubtful of people's ability to maintain their restricted diet. Therefore, they seem to be a luxury of those who can afford to be so selective.
I'm also reminded about what JMG said about the misunderstandings about evolution, namely, that Hunter/gatherers are "less evolved", "more primitive", "arrested in time" humans. That Hunter/gatherers are just as evolved and modern to their societies as we are to ours. A friend sent me an article about a guy who performed a fecal transplant with a San bushman, hoping to reset his gut biota 10,000 years. All I could think about reading it was, "how could you explain what you were doing and why you were doing it to the San bushman who's poop you'd unknowingly swapped? You supposedly want to return to the lifestyle of a guy who would find your actions totally baffling and incomprehensible." Granted, I know fecal transplants perform very useful functions for people with gut problems, but I'm not sure that returning your gut to Eden is a solution to a medical issue.

heather said...

Both the re-enactment and the blog sound interesting and useful. I'd definitely read it, and maybe subject my own kids to some re-enactment re-enacting. :)
--Heather in CA

changeling said...


I was thinking of this post and post "mentat wanted, will train.". As you know from your's other blog I picked some exercises and practices that vastly improve focus and control over one's attention.

And this happened: one of the lecturers during previous semester basically told or implied all questions that appeared on the exam. Yet, something around 1/3 of all students failed the first time they were offered this test.

So, I wonder - how far even attention or basic learning skill (like paying attention) are damaged by modern technology? I know some school teachers that are complaining about drastic drop in attention spans of children with smartphones.

Ps. Yes, I'm a millennial who doesn't own a smartphone. Never liked them.

latheChuck said...

Last Monday night, as the cold spell here in Maryland continued, a friend called me to ask advice for his frozen water supply plumbing. "Just go into the crawl space under your house with a small electric space heater, or light bulb, and warm it up."
"INTO the crawl space?" he was horrified.
"OK. Then just sit down and wait for me to get there." Ordinarily, it takes about 30 minutes, but because we were starting to get significant snow, it took me an hour. To make a long story short, I showed him where his service cut-off valve was, in case the pipes leaked when they thawed. I explained why his garden tap should be open, and that line shut off from the crawl space, so as not to trap freezing water between two valves. I re-installed the foam- board insulation that was supposed to line the concrete-block foundation. I located a disconnected sanitary drain that was dumping raw sewage into the crawlspace! And the heater(s) eventually thawed the pipes. It took an hour or so.
"How can I ever thank you enough for coming out in this storm, and rescuing my house?"
"I'd like to take one of your antique inkwells."
"That's ALL?!? I'd have given it to you just because I know you'd use it."
"And I'd have crawled under your house anyway, just because I knew you needed it."

It's a very nice inkwell, a cube of crystal with beveled corners, and a faceted hinged lid. And it does have a little less ink in it now than it did when I first filled it, because I've been keeping my ham radio logbook with a dip pen.

Mike T. said...

As it pertains to diets, form follows function. It reminds me of a garden, or a building, or just about any other design…as long as you design for function, good form will almost always follow. A lot of diets are geared toward form…”I need to lose weight.” Eat things that are farmed, raised, fermented, and processed responsibly and health will follow. You won’t be 120 pounds soaking wet, but you will feel good and likely live with more energy, which by the way, helps with the farming and raising of good food. Oh, and also, tending the garden and raising the animals is often significant exercise to burn excess calories, should you need to shed the weight. This should be intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer…even Blind Freddy…

Screaming Sardine said...

I love this post! (First time commenting; I've have recently begun following your blog). I feel a sense of peace when I'm not around all the high tech gadgets. I like the old style ways. I haven't had a washer and dryer since 2008, though there have been times since then that I had the money to buy a set. I feel more of a connection to my clothes when I wash them by hand.

As to health, I try to be proactive. I don't care for allopathic medicine; it has always made me sicker. Like others have commented, I prefer herbs. I also make sure to drink kefir and apple cider vinegar everyday. It helps keep the doctor away. ;)

Thanks for your blog, JMG.


Cathy McGuire said...

@Clay Dennis: Then there are the old logging towns which are much like appalachian resource extraction towns
LOL! Yup; live here; know that well!!
BTW - we're waiting on your input as to when to hold the PNW gathering - check out the forum or check your email!

John Michael Greer said...

Kaitain, yes indeed it was. My wife and I used to live just south of Woodland Park Zoo -- it was quite something, hearing the lion roaring in the night -- right next to the Wallingford neighborhood, which is nearly as eco-yuppie a place as Ashland ever was. That's where I first saw that bumper sticker on an SUV -- and no ordinary SUV, either; I don't recall the model but it was huge and, by the way, brand new.

Mark, thank you. Prine's always worth a listen.

bdy1, it can be a useful way of thinking!

SunsetSu, sorry to hear about the surges! I don't know what's available these days, but there used to be shops in Seattle that reconditioned and resold old appliances -- one I patronized a few times, up on Capitol Hill, had the engaging name "Reasonably Honest Dave's" -- and that might be a place to look for a washer with a simple mechanical timer.

Ray, I'll be discussing printing presses at more length in an upcoming post. If somebody were to go into business manufacturing a good sturdy basic tabletop printing press that could handle 8.5"x11" paper, for a reasonable price, my guess is they'd be swimming in orders pronto.

Mark, the German language is great that way! As for complexity as a sign of "progress," too true. "Ten times as many things that can go wrong!"

William, no argument there!

Crow Hill, and the two have much in common...

Cherokee, good. In the US, it was in the 1960s that young people stopped joining lodges, clubs, and other voluntary organizations, and so the sort of handbook an aspiring Freemason, Jaycee, Garden Club member, or what have you would need to learn how to run a meeting, etc., lost its market. I may see if I can track down a good book or two along those lines and see about getting a small publisher with access to the Masonic market interested -- we're getting a lot of young members these days, and they could use it. BTW, glad to hear that apparently nobody died in the Queensland storm.

Gloucon, with all due respect, those may be the lamest excuses I've heard yet. Put a cuphook into the bathroom wall and buy a tin cup to hang from it, if that's really what concerns you.

Scythe, current notions of "healthy weight" are mostly a product of fashion, plus a diet industry that makes billions of dollars a year convincing people they're too fat. The human body is good at storing away calories for future reference, and yes, a few more pounds can make hungry times easier to live through. (BTW, if you want me to put your other comment through, please delete the abusive language about fat people, and resend it. I know you may not have meant it that way, and that sort of language is very common, but this blog doesn't allow hate speech about body weight, any more than it allows the same thing aimed at race, gender, or anything else.)

Dagnarus, I prefer no TV at all, but if you have to have one, one that isn't straight out of 1984 is probably a good idea!

John Michael Greer said...

Thirdeyerune, a lot of us are in that position these days. I know, that doesn't make it any easier! I wonder if it might be possible to work out ways for old people who know these skills to teach them to young people who want to learn them.

Tye, I want to see what happens when the robot's little onboard computer crashes while somebody's wearing the thing. I notice it was designed by a guy from MIT, which just kind of figures.


What a great idea. What could possibly go wrong?

Leo, I hear stories like that all the time. It's one of the reasons I think progress has passed into the point of negative returns -- for everybody but the shareholders, that is.

Denys, where's the site? It sounds like the kind of place I'd love to visit. As for the blog, my guess is that you'd have a large and appreciative readership as soon as the word got out. Yes, that's the sort of thing I had in mind, and I think your children will thank you when they're grown for having that kind of upbringing!

Shane, delighted to hear it. Yes, sometimes it's really shooting fish in a barrel.

David, and of course nobody's supposed to notice that everyone else is trying to do the same thing, and there aren't enough positions for more than a small fraction of the current middle class. As people do notice that -- and they will -- things are going to get interesting.

Ed-M, to each his own. I never had a problem with raggedy edges!

Chester, thanks for this. I'll have to read the book -- it sounds like a very solid case study in what happens when people forget that it's not enough for a new technology to be progressive, exciting, avant-garde, etc. -- it also has to do the job it's supposed to do...

Karl, it does indeed make sense. Reinventing a past that never was can be a very useful strategy, if it's done deliberately and with a cold eye to the downside; if it's done for emotional reasons by people who can't keep the fantasy separate from the reality, it's a reliable source of ghastly consequences.

Scotlyn, glad to hear it. With regard to your acupressure skills, have you explored barter as a possibility, exchanging either goods or labor? A lot of people do that these days.

Peter, that sounds about right! You might also look for what's called a brush whip or grass whip -- it looks vaguely like a golf club with a serrated cutting head on the business end, and can take out weeds, grass, and light brush quite effectively, when swung in your best Arnold Palmer imitation.

John Michael Greer said...

Jonathan, thank you. I'm going to be riffing off that concept at some length -- with a hat tip, of course -- in a post in the very near future; I think you've caught hold of a crucial point which I'd missed in my earlier analysis. If progress (that is, increasing complexity) functions primarily as a way of pushing off costs onto other people while monopolizing profits, then... Hmm. That implies some very messy consequences for the whole system in the long term. More on this soon!

Glenn (if I may), of course! Rashakor asked about my reasons, and I gave them; I hope he's also asking people who like the Pacific Northwest and plan on staying there, so as to get a balanced view.

Bright City, many thanks. While I have my doubts about PV as a long-term solution, for the time being, it's a good choice -- and a simple, small, portable system like the one you've linked to sounds like an even better one.

Varun, delighted to hear it. Traditional fables are traditional for good reason -- they teach things worth learning, and as you note, they're also much more interesting than the shoddy modern product.

Beneath, I wish I had something to suggest. As long as library science remains locked into this bizarre technofetish, I suspect you'll be stuck having to fight tooth and nail to hold onto any scrap of what libraries used to be -- which is something considerably more useful to the future than what they're being turned into. I'll have a response to that to propose, down the road a bit, but I don't know that it'll help you much.

Scythe, good. Blind faith in the invincibility of progress is right down there at the core of the modern mind, and getting anyone to shake off the trance is a real challenge, but it's worth the attempt! (BTW, no, I wasn't offended -- I know that the old-fashioned rules of discourse on this comments page take a lot of getting used to.)

Tim, thanks for this! A fun game for the whole family...

Chubasco, and that's also an option!

Shane, no argument there; a lot of fancy restrictive diets are lifestyle accessories of the privileged. Use a mirror to look in your mouth sometime and you'll see the classic dentition of a full-time omnivore: generic incisors in front; carnassials for tearing meat just behind them, where herbivores all have a gap with no teeth at all; low-crowned molars with rounded cusps for grinding the widest possible range of plant-based foods. Ours is a very flexible species, right up there with rats and cockroaches, and like rats and cockroaches, we eat -- and thrive on -- anything that doesn't run away too fast.

Changeling, that's certainly been my impression -- a huge number of people these days literally can't follow a sequence of clearly described steps, because too much e-technology use has given them the attention span of a gnat.

onething said...

Today we had a funeral. She was 79, one of the old hippies. I've known her many years, although not well. She picked an inconvenient time to die. Yesterday was the coldest day of the winter. About 5 degrees at the warmest in the afternoon. (That would be -15 celsius.) Various friends from a few miles around came through miles of snowy roads up to her almost inaccessible place, walking the last 1/4 mile with shovels and picks, and dug her a grave. The local funeral home is pretty cooperative and brought her in a coffin from the hospital to their funeral home, where some friends put her coffin in the back of their truck. She didn't have any family here, although her sons made it in today from Texas and Florida.
We buried her on her land, way up in the hills, next to her husband. Except, it isn't really her land now. She got too frail to be there herself and took a subsidized apartment in town a couple years back, and sold her land to one of the guys there.

When we checked out the hole which had been dug yesterday, it was a bit too small, so a couple guys went down with picks and struck at the frozen sides till we shaved off a few more inches.

There were no officials around. I said that I would rather dispense with even a coffin, and just be buried in a shroud to compost as quickly as possible. Others a greed, and so we joked about it, saying since no one is here watching us, why even use her coffin? Why not save it, pretend to bury one another in it, and then reuse it, since they're expensive.
I thought a coffin was a legal requirement, but now I am not sure.

John Michael Greer said...

LatheChuck, nicely done. A metal dip pen, btw, or a quill?

Mike, and you may discover in the process that stamina and strength actually have less to do with thinness than our current cultural habits of thought presuppose. This gentleman is the great Louis Cyr, one of the strongest men who ever lived -- the guy could, and did, pick up a draft horse on his shoulders and walk around with it perched there. (He also pushed a loaded railroad car up a grade, and a variety of other classic strongmen stunts.) You'll notice that he wasn't exactly thin!

Sardine Tracy, thank you! I had the same experience repeatedly with mainstream medicine, for what that's worth -- like a lot of other people, I got into the alternative health modalities because I was tired of getting sicker from prescriptions than I'd been when I went to the doctor.

Scythe of Relief said...

Don't worry, those of us with a few more pounds, may have the last laugh. Lol
I think it may pay to have a little bit of redundancy built in.

"Back in June of 1965, a Scotsman weighing 207 kilograms, described as "grossly obese" and hereafter known only as Mr A B, turned up at the Department of Medicine at the Royal Infirmary in Dundee.
He was sick of being fat and wanted to lose weight by eating nothing and living off his body fat. He told the hospital staff he was going to fast flat out, whatever they said, so they may as well monitor him along the way.
He ended up fasting for one year and 17 days — that's right, he ate no food at all for over a year. He lived entirely off his copious body fat, in the end losing about 125 kilograms of weight."

I do think the 'paleo deit' does have some merit if you are not too fastidious about it.
It is basically a low carb diet. And the low carb diet seems to have some good research behind it.

You don't have to give up dairy with low carb. I could not give up my kefir milk. It is so good for 'gut health' (the research on gut health is going exponential BTW)

Kefir is also good way to keep milk without a fridge, and we use it to make bread & pizza.

Anyway, I think 'paleo' is not a diet for serious downshifters. Lol

Scotlyn said...

JMG, gift and barter are already integral to my life and my practice, but not everyone raised in a money economy can easily grasp these concepts. There is a learning curve... And what excites me is the idea that if you can re-calibrate a person's "money" against the amount of lived life it took them to earn it, I think it might help some people to begin to make that transition. I had this idea already, but Avery helped firm it up instantly with the phrase
"time is life"!

btw, thank you for acting on an awareness of fat shaming, which in my experience is extremely damaging to those at its receiving end, and is rife in the healing professions, too. In my opinion, it is no part of a healer's work to add to a person's suffering with stigma or shaming.

Onething, shroud burial is part of the Muslim tradition,and I believe Ireland has recently made a change in its ordinances to facilitate these. A move also welcomed by a different eco-burial constituency.

Kevin Jarvis said...

YCS said...

I think it's pretty apt to link this:

Like Salman Rushdie's prophet indeed.


Kutamun said...

Gday Shawne Aune ...
I looking at The Vitruvian Man and all i could think was "the kingdom of god is within you " ... I am sure the TOE is being well guarded by a fair few ornery wizards and i hope it remains undiscovered to our civilisation as collectively we have not the wisdom to handle such power fascinates me that much of our technology has in theory at least sprang from some meditating physicists intuiting certain numerical and algorithmic sequences ...ironically once the rubble of our unsustainable trajectory has stopped bouncing people will have more time to contemplate the portal to the unified field that this planet of which we are an appendage represents ....

Denys said...

@Heather - thank you for saying you'd read a blog like that and try some things!

@JMG - the site is Joanna Furnace and their website is The 1790-1820 reenactment weekend is the weekend after Labor Day each year, so Sept 11-13 this year, all day each day from 8am-5pm. If you want to experience it fully, you could set-up a tent on the hill and demonstrate an old-time skill. By the way, if you drive 10 miles down the road you are in Mennonite/Amish country and can shop in stores that still have handwritten price tags.

daelach said...

Regarding complexity - that's the system point of view. Now switching over to the user, it translates in consuming more time. You have to keep the stuff up to date (or run the risk of security holes - see the BMW connected drive issue I mentioned last week). That's why I don't want a smartphone. One more operating system and applications to take care of.

There's the good old engineering concept of "KISS" - keep it simple and stupid. A story from a Russian aircraft manufacturer who was constructing a fire extinguishing aircraft: It should fly over some water surface, e.g. a lake, take in water and automatically shut off when the reservoir was full. The engineers tinkered with sensors, actuators and stuff, which in the end would have cost as much as a whole wing. "Too expensive", the management said, "go back to your whiteboards and figure out something cheaper".

So the engineers came up with welding a u-shaped tube onto the top of the reservoir plus a rearview mirror for the pilot, so when the reservoir got full, water would splash out of the tube, the pilot would see it and go off to the fire place. No electronics, no actuators, no maintenance items, just simple physics. Russian technology usually lacks the refinement of Western products, and under good conditions, Western products are mostly superior. But under harsh conditions, the Russian things keep operating while Western stuff just fails.

Now when I had completed my wool blanket poncho, I found out that in winter, the forearms got cold. I thought about sewing some arm warmers, but elastic tissue would not keep the wind off while rigid tissue would not go over the hand AND sit tight. A buttoned solution would make me stick with the other clothes.

In the light of what I just told, I sat back and asked myself "how would a Russian solve this?". Then I remembered that the Russian military did not have socks for the soldiers until 2013; instead, they used foot bandages. Easier to manufacture, one-size-fits-all, can be cooked in boiling water if made from appropriate material, the wear can be split to different points because it can be wrapped around the foot in several orientations. The drawbacks are that you must carefully wrap them or else you run the risk of rubbing, plus that they work only when combined with solid shoes.

So I got some loden panel, cut it to stripes of about 10cm by 145cm (4" by 57"), wrapped them around the forearms and put the upper end under the last-but-one winding. Problem solved.

Mikhail Kalashnikov (yes, THE Kalashnikov!) once said: "Everything relevant is simple, and everything complicated is superfluous."

Greg Belvedere said...


I would go the subversive route and do option number 2. Use the criteria in this blog post and from the great Wendell Berry essay from the first comment here to take a look at 3D printing or ebooks from a whole systems perspective. Make the case that librarians need to think critically about technologies and communicate this to the greater public, rather than passing on unexamined hype. You might get some resistance, but you might also convince some people. Though I know this is a long shot given my experience with average public library supervisor/administrator who wants to color within the lines.

You could also do a very tongue-in-cheek promotion of a technology. Perhaps nobody would notice, like when a major news source links to the Onion.

You could also do either option and structure the program in a way that highlights the shortcomings of the technology.

Tye said...

My old Maytag finally reached the point of massive breakdown. I looked at used machines with mechanical timers but they were almost as expensive as some new ones. So at Home Depot I found simple Hotpoint for $350 with a mech timer--one of the last I could find anywhere sans computer. It has no bells or whistles but the timer will be replaceable in 10-15 years (if they are available).
When I was a kid I read a book called "Travels With Charley" that described The author's (John Steinbeck) camper trip across America with his little dog--Charley. His solution to clothes washing was to fill a bucket with water and soiled clothes and a little soap. At the end of a day of bumpy roads, viola, clean clothes!

Moshe Braner said...

Peter Robinson said: "An engineer who designs a weed whacker that needs 9 hours of recharging for 15 minutes of work is incompetent."

- I disagree. It's a viable compromise, given the (questionable) goal of designing a battery-operated "weed whacker". They could easily sell the thing with a faster charger, but that would reduce the battery life even further than the 15-minute discharges already do. They could lengthen the battery life (both in minutes and in years) by using a larger battery - but that would make this handheld device significantly heavier.

Batteries have their limitations, the current loud cheerleading chorus for electric car vaporware nonwithstanding.

Re: computerized washing machines. I really don't need a "smart" refrigerator or light bulb, but I love my (European front-loading) computerized washing machine. Its smarts make it far more efficient, e.g., it only fills with as much water as the load needs. It may not be sustainable in the long run, but it's one of the best things we can do with the technology at the moment. If and when the electricity supply gets too intermittent and with damaging surges, the thing to do is to unplug the "smart" (and other) appliances when not in use, to protect them from damage.

Re: "smart TVs". The Samsung model that "listens" instead of using a "remote" is a special case. The "smart" part is not that, it's the (now common) feature of recent TVs, being able to show videos that are streaming from the internet. If your TV does not do that by itself, you can buy an add-on device for $50 that does that. I have a jaundiced eye about the wanton waste of bandwidth that is now in vogue, but if one picks contents carefully, streaming videos can be informing and entertaining in a good way, while the broadcast contents of non-"smart" TV is uniformely rubbish.

Re: a zillion "lines of code" in a car: Somebody bought a Chevy Volt (plug-in hybrid car) and took it apart - search online for the resulting article with many photos. They found that it has about 100 (!) separate computers (microcontrollers) scattered throughout the car.

heather said...

@ Dwig (and anyone else interested in discussing educating kids for and through collapse)-
I've started a discussion thread on the Green Wizards forum under the Twelfth Circle, Critical Thinking. Hope you will join us there!

@beneaththesurface- Perhaps you can start a program which uses the iPad table in the children's section as a technology for suspending a blanket, underneath which the children can have a "story fort". Works every time at my house. Maybe add the additional technologies of a beanbag chair and battery-op (solar?) lantern- they'll be lining up to get in! The computer embedded in the tabletop can be used to manage the signup list, and maybe as a timer for beeping when it's time to switch fort users. (Sorry for sounding flip- I really do empathize with the rotten situation you are in.)

Thanks to whoever suggested the Propaganda Game (sorry, I can't find the comment at the moment for proper attribution). I'm going to check it out.

--Heather in CA

Wolfgang Brinck said...

I would like to suggest that if we wanted to plot progress vs. time, we would have to have some measure of progress and that it could perhaps be expressed as the number of new technologies introduced in a given time period. Perhaps, the number of patents issued in a given year might be a useful measure of progress. There might be other useful measures of progress such as perhaps the number of scientific papers published in all the world's scientific journals in any given year.
In any case, I would guess that if we plotted progress by whatever metric we chose, against time, we would get a curve very much like the Hubbard curve. The Hubbard curve is of course the plot of oil production vs. time and resembles a nice bell shaped curve.
As Ugo Bardi has pointed out, the Hubbard curve might not be entirely accurate for total world energy production. Bardi has proposed the concept of the Seneca cliff. The idea is that growth of energy production is more gradual than decline of energy production and will be a lot more rapid on the way down than on the way up.
The correlation between progress and energy consumption might be questioned, but if there is a correlation, then we could expect progress to peak somewhere near the peak of oil production and decline afterward, giving us peak progress.
Absent energy, progress stalls. But progress as in the religion of progress is expected to be ever increasing. And in Ray Kurzweil's sect of the religion, progress will even go through something like the rapture of the Christians, something he calls the singularity.
Peak progress like peak oil does not mean the end of progress, it simply means that there will be less progress every year with less cheap energy available to fuel it.
Believers in the religion of progress will object that progress does not need energy to move forward, that isolated individual in garrets or garages or basements can still be moving progress forward. But at what rate will they be able to do that. Lone individuals in garrets will not build Hadron colliders or space programs.
Regardless of what progress means to people, it might be useful to define it is such a way that it is measurable and can be plotted vs. time.

Shane Wilson said...

Idk, JMG, but I think that morbid obesity driven by industrial junk food and sedentary lifestyle is the bigger threat. Obesity rates have shot through the roof in Western countries and beyond as processed junk food became common. Besides, permaculturists like Chris (I've seen your videos) and others I know are pretty fit, I'm guessing based on active lifestyle and diet.

Doctor Westchester said...


Expanding on Jonathan's points a (hopefully useful) bit:

1) The corporate organization has always been about dealing with fobbing off externalities. Originally it was created to limit the liability of funders to only their investment; at least that is the standard story. Now it often means that no one is a part of one has any personal liability or risk except being fired, if the corporation is big enough.

2) A lot of "progress" is being driven by attempting to fight the jaws of diminishing returns. There is no other way to maintain these large corporate structures that have been designed to exist on growth. However diminishing returns is of course winning and in response there goes more and more middle class (corporate) jobs.

I don't remember you that have written something centered directly on the concept of the corporation and it implies in terms of what our stories are, although much of your work touches on it, in many cases rather strongly. This might be a good topic for a post, especially if you have (as usual) a good fresh take on it, or even a old take that has been forgotten (also as usual).

pg said...

Well done!

Iuval Clejan said...

The different suites of the technium are like the different rings in Tolkien's story, all under the control of the One, which is Empire (yes, with a capital E, because the master meme transcends the particular implementations). Have you seen the documentary The Century of The Self? It's all about how advertizing used psychological theory to control the masses to make profit for those who control the means of production. If that control shifts to everyone in a way that honors democracy and face to face interactions, Empire is weakened. But we need a different kind of technology for that, mostly pre-industrial technology. If a village can't be conntrolled by economic means, then the only options left are military or religious. The former is not as likely in the decline of a particular empire because there are too many villages to control and the military gets spread thin. The latter can be fought with consciousness and alternatives (which is what you are doing here to fight the ROP)

pg said...

Story from Dutch language class at U Bonn in the 1980s: old man who's been carpentering, refining, his own coffin over years....

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