Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Cimmerian Hypothesis, Part Three: The End of the Dream

Let's take a moment to recap the argument of the last two posts here on The Archdruid Report before we follow it through to its conclusion. There are any number of ways to sort out the diversity of human social forms, but one significant division lies between those societies that don’t concentrate population, wealth, and power in urban centers, and those that do. One important difference between the societies that fall into these two categories is that urbanized societies—we may as well call these by the time-honored term “civilizations”—reliably crash and burn after a lifespan of roughly a thousand years, while societies that lack cities have no such fixed lifespans and can last for much longer without going through the cycle of rise and fall, punctuated by dark ages, that defines the history of civilizations.

It’s probably necessary to pause here and clear up what seems to be a common misunderstanding. To say that societies in the first category can last for much more than a thousand years doesn’t mean that all of them do this. I mention this because I fielded a flurry of comments from people who pointed to a few examples of  societies without cities that collapsed in less than a millennium, and insisted that this somehow disproved my hypothesis. Not so; if everyone who takes a certain diet pill, let’s say, suffers from heart damage, the fact that some people who don’t take the diet pill suffer heart damage from other causes doesn’t absolve the diet pill of responsibility. In the same way, the fact that civilizations such as Egypt and China have managed to pull themselves together after a dark age and rebuild a new version of their former civilization doesn’t erase the fact of the collapse and the dark age that followed it.

The question is why civilizations crash and burn so reliably. There are plenty of good reasons why this might happen, and it’s entirely possible that several of them are responsible; the collapse of civilization could be an overdetermined process. Like the victim in the cheap mystery novel who was shot, stabbed, strangled, clubbed over the head, and then chucked out a twentieth floor window, that is, civilizations that fall may have more causes of death than were actually necessary. The ecological costs of building and maintaining cities, for example, place much greater strains on the local environment than the less costly and concentrated settlement patterns of nonurban societies, and the rising maintenance costs of capital—the driving force behind the theory of catabolic collapse I’ve proposed elsewhere—can spin out of control much more easily in an urban setting than elsewhere. Other examples of the vulnerability of urbanized societies can easily be worked out by those who wish to do so.

That said, there’s at least one other factor at work. As noted in last week’s post, civilizations by and large don’t have to be dragged down the slope of decline and fall; instead, they take that route with yells of triumph, convinced that the road to ruin will infallibly lead them to heaven on earth, and attempts to turn them aside from that trajectory typically get reactions ranging from blank incomprehension to furious anger. It’s not just the elites who fall into this sort of self-destructive groupthink, either: it’s not hard to find, in a falling civilization, people who claim to disagree with the ideology that’s driving the collapse, but people who take their disagreement to the point of making choices that differ from those of their more orthodox neighbors are much scarcer. They do exist; every civilization breeds them, but they make up a very small fraction of the population, and they generally exist on the fringes of society, despised and condemned by all those right-thinking people whose words and actions help drive the accelerating process of decline and fall.

The next question, then, is how civilizations get caught in that sort of groupthink. My proposal, as sketched out last week, is that the culprit is a rarely noticed side effect of urban life. People who live in a mostly natural environment—and by this I mean merely an environment in which most things are put there by nonhuman processes rather than by human action—have to deal constantly with the inevitable mismatches between the mental models of the universe they carry in their heads and the universe that actually surrounds them. People who live in a mostly artificial environment—an environment in which most things were made and arranged by human action—don’t have to deal with this anything like so often, because an artificial environment embodies the ideas of the people who constructed and arranged it. A natural environment therefore applies negative or, as it’s also called, corrective feedback to human models of the way things are, while an artificial environment applies positive feedback—the sort of thing people usually mean when they talk about a feedback loop.

This explains, incidentally, one of the other common differences between civilizations and other kinds of human society: the pace of change. Anthropologists not so long ago used to insist that what they liked to call “primitive societies”—that is, societies that have relatively simple technologies and no cities—were stuck in some kind of changeless stasis. That was nonsense, but the thin basis in fact that was used to justify the nonsense was simply that the pace of change in low-tech, non-urban societies, when they’re left to their own devices, tends to be fairly sedate, and usually happens over a time scale of generations. Urban societies, on the other hand, change quickly, and the pace of change tends to accelerate over time: a dead giveaway that a positive feedback loop is at work.

Notice that what’s fed back to the minds of civilized people by their artificial environment isn’t simply human thinking in general. It’s whatever particular set of mental models and habits of thought happen to be most popular in their civilization. Modern industrial civilization, for example, is obsessed with simplicity; our mental models and habits of thought value straight lines, simple geometrical shapes, hard boundaries, and clear distinctions. That obsession, and the models and mental habits that unfold from it, have given us an urban environment full of straight lines, simple geometrical shapes, hard boundaries, and clear distinctions—and thus reinforce our unthinking assumption that these things are normal and natural, which by and large they aren’t.

Modern industrial civilization is also obsessed with the frankly rather weird belief that growth for its own sake is a good thing. (Outside of a few specific cases, that is. I’ve wondered at times whether the deeply neurotic American attitude toward body weight comes from the conflict between current fashions in body shape and the growth-is-good mania of the rest of our culture; if bigger is better, why isn’t a big belly better than a small one?) In a modern urban American environment, it’s easy to believe that growth is good, since that claim is endlessly rehashed whenever some new megawhatsit replaces something of merely human scale, and since so many of the costs of malignant growth get hauled out of sight and dumped on somebody else. In settlement patterns that haven’t been pounded into their present shape by true believers in industrial society’s growth-for-its-own-sake ideology, people are rather more likely to grasp the meaning of the words “too much.”

I’ve used examples from our own civilization because they’re familiar, but every civilization reshapes its urban environment in the shape of its own mental models, which then reinforce those models in the minds of the people who live in that environment. As these people in turn shape that environment, the result is positive feedback: the mental models in question become more and more deeply entrenched in the built environment and thus also the collective conversation of the culture, and in both cases, they also become more elaborate and more extreme. The history of architecture in the western world over the last few centuries is a great example of this latter: over that time, buildings became ever more completely defined by straight lines, flat surfaces, simple geometries, and hard boundaries between one space and another—and it’s hardly an accident that popular culture in urban communities has simplified in much the same way over that same timespan.

One way to understand this is to see a civilization as the working out in detail of some specific set of ideas about the world. At first those ideas are as inchoate as dream-images, barely grasped even by the keenest thinkers of the time. Gradually, though, the ideas get worked out explicitly; conflicts among them are resolved or papered over in standardized ways; the original set of ideas becomes the core of a vast, ramifying architecture of thought which defines the universe to the inhabitants of that civilization. Eventually, everything in the world of human experience is assigned some place in that architecture of thought; everything that can be hammered into harmony with the core set of ideas has its place in the system, while everything that can’t gets assigned the status of superstitious nonsense, or whatever other label the civilization likes to use for the realities it denies.

The further the civilization develops, though, the less it questions the validity of the basic ideas themselves, and the urban environment is a critical factor in making this happen. By limiting, as far as possible, the experiences available to influential members of society to those that fit the established architecture of thought, urban living makes it much easier to confuse mental models with the universe those models claim to describe, and that confusion is essential if enough effort, enthusiasm, and passion are to be directed toward the process of elaborating those models to their furthest possible extent.

A branch of knowledge that has to keep on going back to revisit its first principles, after all, will never get far beyond them. This is why philosophy, which is the science of first principles, doesn’t “progress” in the simpleminded sense of that word—Aristotle didn’t disprove Plato, nor did Nietzsche refute Schopenhauer, because each of these philosophers, like all others in that challenging field, returned to the realm of first principles from a different starting point and so offered a different account of the landscape. Original philosophical inquiry thus plays a very large role in the intellectual life of every civilization early in the process of urbanization, since this helps elaborate the core ideas on which the civilization builds its vision of reality; once that process is more or less complete, though, philosophy turns into a recherché intellectual specialty or gets transformed into intellectual dogma.

Cities are thus the Petri dishes in which civilizations ripen their ideas to maturity—and like Petri dishes, they do this by excluding contaminating influences. It’s easy, from the perspective of a falling civilization like ours, to see this as a dreadful mistake, a withdrawal from contact with the real world in order to pursue an abstract vision of things increasingly detached from everything else. That’s certainly one way to look at the matter, but there’s another side to it as well.

Civilizations are far and away the most spectacularly creative form of human society. Over the course of its thousand-year lifespan, the inhabitants of a civilization will create many orders of magnitude more of the products of culture—philosophical, scientific, and religious traditions, works of art and the traditions that produce and sustain them, and so on—than an equal number of people living in non-urban societies and experiencing the very sedate pace of cultural change already mentioned. To borrow a metaphor from the plant world, non-urban societies are perennials, and civilizations are showy annuals that throw all their energy into the flowering process.  Having flowered, civilizations then go to seed and die, while the perennial societies flower less spectacularly and remain green thereafter.

The feedback loop described above explains both the explosive creativity of civilizations and their equally explosive downfall. It’s precisely because civilizations free themselves from the corrective feedback of nature, and divert an ever larger portion of their inhabitants’ brainpower from the uses for which human brains were originally adapted by evolution, that they generate such torrents of creativity. Equally, it’s precisely because they do these things that civilizations run off the rails into self-feeding delusion, lose the capacity to learn the lessons of failure or even notice that failure is taking place, and are destroyed by threats they’ve lost the capacity to notice, let alone overcome. Meanwhile, other kinds of human societies move sedately along their own life cycles, and their creativity and their craziness—and they have both of these, of course, just as civilizations do—are kept within bounds by the enduring negative feedback loops of nature.

Which of these two options is better? That’s a question of value, not of fact, and so it has no one answer. Facts, to return to a point made in these posts several times, belong to the senses and the intellect, and they’re objective, at least to the extent that others can say, “yes, I see it too.” Values, by contrast, are a matter of the heart and the will, and they’re subjective; to call something good or bad doesn’t state an objective fact about the thing being discussed. It always expresses a value judgment from some individual point of view. You can’t say “x is better than y,” and mean anything by it, unless you’re willing to field such questions as “better by what criteria?” and “better for whom?”

Myself, I’m very fond of the benefits of civilization. I like hot running water, public libraries, the rule of law, and a great many other things that you get in civilizations and generally don’t get outside of them. Of course that preference is profoundly shaped by the fact that I grew up in a civilization; if I’d happened to be the son of yak herders in central Asia or tribal horticulturalists in upland Papua New Guinea, I might well have a different opinion—and I might also have a different opinion even if I’d grown up in this civilization but had different needs and predilections. Robert E. Howard, whose fiction launched the series of posts that finishes up this week, was a child of American civilization at its early twentieth century zenith, and he loathed civilization and all it stood for.

This is one of the two reasons that I think it’s a waste of time to get into arguments over whether civilization is a good thing. The other reason is that neither my opinion nor yours, dear reader, nor the opinion of anybody else who might happen to want to fulminate on the internet about the virtues or vices of civilization, is worth two farts in an EF-5 tornado when it comes to the question of whether or not future civilizations will rise and fall on this planet after today’s industrial civilization completes the arc of its destiny. Since the basic requirements of urban life first became available not long after the end of the last ice age, civilizations have risen wherever conditions favored them, cycled through their lifespans, and fell, and new civilizations rose again in the same places if the conditions remained favorable for that process.

Until the coming of the fossil fuel age, though, civilization was a localized thing, in a double sense. On the one hand, without the revolution in transport and military technology made possible by fossil fuels, any given civilization could only maintain control over a small portion of the planet’s surface for more than a fairly short time—thus as late as 1800, when the industrial revolution was already well under way, the civilized world was still divided into separate civilizations that each pursued its own very different ideas and values. On the other hand, without the economic revolution made possible by fossil fuels, very large sections of the world were completely unsuited to civilized life, and remained outside the civilized world for all practical purposes. As late as 1800, as a result, quite a bit of the world’s land surface was still inhabited by hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists, and tribal horticulturalists who owed no allegiance to any urban power and had no interest in cities and their products at all—except for the nomadic pastoralists, that is, who occasionally liked to pillage one.

The world’s fossil fuel reserves aren’t renewable on any time scale that matters to human beings. Since we’ve burnt all the easily accessible coal, oil, and natural gas on the planet, and are working our way through the stuff that’s difficult to get even with today’s baroque and energy-intensive technologies, the world’s first fossil-fueled human civilization is guaranteed to be its last as well. That means that once the deindustrial dark age ahead of us is over, and conditions favorable for the revival of civilization recur here and there on various corners of the planet, it’s a safe bet that new civilizations will build atop the ruins we’ve left for them.

The energy resources they’ll have available to them, though, will be far less abundant and concentrated than the fossil fuels that gave industrial civilization its global reach.  With luck, and some hard work on the part of people living now, they may well inherit the information they need to make use of sun, wind, and other renewable energy resources in ways that the civilizations before ours didn’t know how to do. As our present-day proponents of green energy are finding out the hard way just now, though, this doesn’t amount to the kind of energy necessary to maintain our kind of civilization.

I’ve argued elsewhere, especially in my book The Ecotechnic Future, that modern industrial society is simply the first, clumsiest, and most wasteful form of what might be called technic society, the subset of human societies that get a significant amount of their total energy from nonbiotic sources—that is, from something other than human and animal muscles fueled by the annual product of photosynthesis. If that turns out to be correct, future civilizations that learn to use energy sparingly may be able to accomplish some of the things that we currently do by throwing energy around with wild abandon, and they may also learn how to do remarkable things that are completely beyond our grasp today. Eventually there may be other global civilizations, following out their own unique sets of ideas about the world through the usual process of dramatic creativity followed by dramatic collapse.

That’s a long way off, though. As the first global civilization gives way to the first global dark age, my working guess is that civilization—that is to say, the patterns of human society necessary to support the concentration of population, wealth, and power in urban centers—is going to go away everywhere, or nearly everywhere, over the next one to three centuries. A planet hammered by climate change, strewn with chemical and radioactive poisons, and swept by mass migrations is not a safe place for cities and the other amenities of civilized life. As things calm down, say, half a millennium from now, a range of new civilizations will doubtless emerge in those parts of the planet that have suitable conditions for urban life, while human societies of other kinds will emerge everywhere else on the planet that human life is possible at all.

I realize that this is not exactly a welcome prospect for those people who’ve bought into industrial civilization’s overblown idea of its own universal importance. Those who believe devoutly that our society is the cutting edge of humanity’s future, destined to march on gloriously forever to the stars, will be as little pleased by the portrait of the future I’ve painted as their equal and opposite numbers, for whom our society is the end of history and must surely be annihilated, along with all seven billion of us, by some glorious cataclysm of the sort beloved by Hollywood scriptwriters. Still, the universe is under no obligation to cater to anybody’s fantasies, you know. That’s a lesson Robert E. Howard knew well and wove into the best of his fiction, the stories of Conan among them—and it’s a lesson worth learning now, at least for those who hope to have some influence over how the future affects them, their families, and their communities, in an age of decline and fall.


Eric Backos said...

Dear Mr. Greer, Your Grace, &c.

Many thanks for your assistance in advertising our meeting last week. The first meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Chapter Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 was a wild success. Fully a fourth part of the assembled came after reading the announcement following The Archdruid Report. We have moved our forum to a more convenient location, and hope you could spare a bit of space for us again.
Stated Meeting: This Thursday at 6:30 PM in Cracker Barrel, Willoughby, Ohio at
I-90 & SOM Center Road. 6055 SOM Center Road, Willoughby, Ohio, 44094-9153
Look for the table topper with a green wizard hat printed on it.

Many thanks for your consideration.
The Members of GWB&PA Chapter 440 and Ruinmen’s Local 440
Ostendens Lucem Viridem

Varun Bhaskar said...


Brilliant as always. I also love the comparison with perennial and annual plants. our cities, if seen from above, really do look like flowers.

Thank you!



Tracye said...

A fascinating series of posts. I enjoyed reading your books The Long Descent and The Wealth of Nature and learned much from them. I will say that after reading this I will probably never look at, nor have the same respect for urban/suburban architecture again.

John Roth said...

Nice piece. I hope you’re going to expand on the notion that civilizations explore an idea to the point where they’re done with it. Possibly on the other blog, following on your concept of ideas coming from the “theosphere,” which change over time?

One non-essential point I’d like to quibble with: the notion that civilizations have a thousand-year lifespan. I’ve come across some work that expands the 80-year cycle documented by Strauss and Howe to a 400 year cycle (five 80-year cycles that are distinct stages of working out an idea.) This seems to fit with the industrial revolution, the modern corporation and the integration of banking into every facet of life. If this notion holds water, there might be a larger cycle of five or seven of these 400 year cycles that is the actual life cycle of a civilization, giving a 2000 or 2800 lifespan. The latter is intriguing, since it suggests a start of our civilization with the end of the Greek Dark Ages and the founding of Rome. In other words, the Axial Age would be the start of our civilization, not the Renaissance which the 1000 year time-span suggests.

JP said...

"Having flowered, civilizations then go to seed and die, while the perennial societies flower less spectacularly and remain green thereafter."

Well, the "seeds" of the Greco-Roman world found their way into Faustian civilization. Although I think of them more as deep etchings than can be read, rather than seeds or, pressed flowers.

So, future civilizations will use the seeds of this one. Or Egypt. Or any of the others.

I suspect you need perennial societies in order to get civilizations in the first place.

Jason Fligger said...

JMG: Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and your careful use of the terms "urban" and "civilization". I was glad to see that your use of the word "urban" was not necessarily synonymous with "city". I grew up in a rural area where civilization has grown farms to a superhuman scale and created desolate rural communities where a majority of the population now survives only with the aid of food stamps. I have met people in Detroit who, because of their daily contact with the failure of our civilization, are more in touch with realities of a human scaled natural environment than some rural dwellers who travel by car 20 miles to the nearest grocery store. For me, your use of the the words "urban" does not necessarily imply a geographic location as much as it embodies a set of values that places human simplification above the complexity of nature.

pygmycory said...

I don't think that civilization will go away over next few centuries, simply given how large the human population is. If the population goes down to 5% of the peak population, as you've suggested is likely elsewhere, 5% of the current population is still over 365 million people on earth. Earth's population didn't reach 1 billion until 1804, and was under 100 million during the bronze age, so there's still plenty of room in that number for many urban centers and the continuation of civilized life.

I do expect the number of urban centers and especially their SIZE to go way down, though. I suspect megacities won't work without fossil fuels.

You are also almost certainly right that much larger areas than today will be outside civilization, given the mess we're making of much of the planet, and the loss of fossil fuel energy for heating or cooling.

MIckGspot said...

Thank you JMG. I particularly like the way you define terms. MIchael

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, delighted to hear it. I wonder if barbarian looters ought to found Malevolent and Destructive Associations...

Varun, you're welcome and thank you. I just wish the flowers of today's urban society didn't smell so much like Rafflesia blooms!

Tracye, just one of the services I offer. ;-)

John, the problem with that theory is that it erases the fall of Rome and the ensuing dark ages, which exemplify the phenomenon I'm trying to discuss. Modern Western civilization picked itself up out of the dark ages in the century following 1000, so it's coming up on its millennium in the century ahead of us. Similarly, the post-Mycenean Greek dark ages ended around 600 BCE, and classical civilization ended with a bang not long after 400 CE -- I would describe Byzantium as something new, though rooted in the classical experience, and you'll notice that its history ran quite precisely from the fifth century to the fifteenth. The thousand year lifespan really does fit history better than the alternatives.

JP, of course. When a civilization goes to seed and dies, it's quite common for a seed to sprout again in the same soil, or to be blown by the winds of history to some other fertile patch elsewhere.

Jason, one of the common features of a civilization close to collapse is that it imposes urban modes of existence on its agricultural hinterland -- think of the vast slave-worked Roman plantations of the late Empire as a good example -- the ConAgra of that era.

John Michael Greer said...

Pygmycory, well, obviously I disagree with you. 365 million would be enough to support urban centers if all other things were equal, sure, but all other things won't be equal -- as I noted in the post, wild swings in climate, large regions contaminated with chemical and radioactive poisons, and mass migrations streaming across the landscape don't make for good conditions for urbanism. My guess is that the closest thing to a city you'll get during the bottom of the approaching deindustrial dark age is a cluster of villages scratching out a living in the husk of a former city, and supplementing their fields and herds by hacking salvage out of the ruins and selling the metal.

MickGSpot, you're welcome.

Denys said...

If you've enjoyed this three part series, please consider tipping our Archdruid. You will find the tip jar link on the home page of this blog in the upper right corner. The process takes less than five minutes and all amounts welcome.

Your donation shows that you honor and appreciate his work.

(And I do hope JMG posts this)

John D. Wheeler said...

While the question of whether the civilized mode of living is preferable is a value judgement, I think it is safe to say that a monoculture of a single civilization is objectively much less resilient than a diversity of civilized and other cultures. I shudder to think how much knowledge of alternative ways of living has been sacrificed on the alter of comfort and convenience.

Patricia Mathews said...

@John Roth - actually, you don't have to choose between the 400-500 year cycles (which in my observation come in pairs, to give us JMG's 1000 year cycles, and the longer ones you note. I've long thought we're looking at a fractal structure here, starting with one human lifetime and expanding to the MacroMegaCycles you describe. At the very least.

Jay said...

As a scientist in a corporate environment, I've often noticed a pattern related to the one you describe. Anyone who goes into a lab, tries new things, and measures them is bound to encounter corrective feedback on a routine basis. Management does not, as a rule, encounter corrective feedback and is rarely happy when the scientist finds himself obligated to supply it.

hcaparoso said...

JMG, dear Sir,
Your column is one of the high points of my week. It's a lot more uplifting than JMK or Cluborlov, even when it's kind of a downer. I lfind it safe to read, no racism or sexism. So thank you very much!! for all of your hard work.
My family and I went last weekend to Chaco Canyon, in NW New Mexico, and so I've been thinking a lot about the ends of civilizations. I wish I could talk to my family members about what is going on in our world, but they are all believers in Progress and don't see the end, even when it stares them in the face. They seem to think I am a paranoid doomsday type of person. Why save water, there's always more, why not use paper products, don't you know you have to wash dishes? Why use a clothesline, a dryer is so much more convenient. Gee, Ma, you really like to work hard, don't you Ma? Though, a funny story. Back in the 80's, when I was having my kids, I used cloth diapers and hung them on the clothesline, as we had no dryer, more due to poverty than anything else. I happened to be at a party with some kind of hipster types and they were talking about cool solar stuff so I interjected that I used a solar dryer. Wow, so cool, they said. How does it work? It's a clothesline, I said, innocently. Immediate loss of interest among the environmental hipster contingent. Wow, how could I be so uncool? The whole thing really cracked my husband and me up.
I see your points about those who live in cities and those who don't, and it seems to me that now all people live as if they lived in cities, even if they don't. Rural areas have been so colonized by cities. I lived in a very rural part of Ireland when I was a junior in high school, 1970-1971. It used to amaze me how unconsumeristic the people were, no one went shopping for pleasure!! My cousin there thought I was nuts because I thought it would be cool to go to Limerick sometimes. I never went, because I was 16 and didn't have transportation, but I just wanted to be in an urban environment every once in a while. I guess I liked the energy.
Anyway, thank you for this very special space, Mr. Archdruid Sir, I so appreciate it.

PRiZM said...

Something I really like about this model for civilizations helps me to better understand why peoples' values seem to ludicrous. An example from my personal life first.. my sister-in-law was recently provided with money by her mother for an apartment. It was done in hopes that my sister-in-law living on her own would get some "real life" experience, find a job and learn to provide for herself. Now only four months later, my sister-in-law is moving back home and she has decided that since her mother could afford to pay for her apartment those four months, that her mother should just give my sister-in-law that money.

In the USA today, and most likely around the world, a lot of people are angry at those who take, and demand hand-outs. While I would like to think that the value system of those who demand handouts is impaired, I am inspired to think by this series of posts that it is more a product of our current civilization and being so detached from seeing the natural world. Ultimately, one cannot blame current generations for their way of thinking.

Auriel Ragmon said...

"The history of architecture in the western world over the last few centuries is a great example of this latter: over that time, buildings became ever more completely defined by straight lines, flat surfaces, simple geometries, and hard boundaries between one space and another..."

On the other hand we have the 'works[ of Frank Gehry,

Jim Morgan
Olympia WA

casamurphy said...

Great post. I found it somehow calming and encouraging after my study yesterday of this paper published a the Proceeds of the National Academy of Sciences:

The paper compares the energy build-up in Earth's biomass (through the conversion of sunlight into chemical energy) to the trickle charge of a battery and outlines a formula to determine to what degree that portion of that energy useful to human is being depleted faster that it is being stored and furthermore how long given certain assumptions can current levels of this depletion be continued.

The paper is both well-laid out and very sobering. It concludes that the amount of energy available for the development of future civilizations will be very constrained.

Liam Jackson said...

Stumbling on, i supppose that simplification of ideas doesn't constrain bureaucratic or tribal complexity, as they wriggle within tighter boundaries. E.g urban planning bars nearly all livestock, but is very malleable for property developers cheating height & footprint limits. Another e.g., the relative merits of i-toy 5 vs. 6 are of great interest to some teenagers, but the advantage of being driven over walking is a closed subject. Maybe if i can identify an urban tribe that benefits from independent locomotion, say shoplifting bike gangs, hmmm... As a high school teacher and parent, its necessary to search for boundaries and doors to broaden horizons.

Lynford1933 said...

From Wiki: "On July 23, 2012 a "Carrington-class" Solar Superstorm (Solar flare, Coronal mass ejection, Solar EMP) was observed; its trajectory missed Earth in orbit." A direct hit would have simplified a lot of complexity.

On another topic: I am slowly changing from a completely mechanized woodworking shop to a hand tool woodworking shop. I have noticed a different feeling about the wood as I work. When I run a piece of wood through the table saw (3 or 4 seconds) there is no time to notice the quality of the wood unless I hit a knot or some other large anomaly. When hand sawing and planning a similar piece most every nuance of the wood is noticeable, how the grain changes from one section to another, minute differences of hardness and the tactile hardness of the wood surface.

I would imagine the same change of the senses will occur adopting from our present life to one less complex and closer to the earth. Since I am 82, it will probably be up to my grandchildren to notice. They are definitely of the machine age though they sometimes work in the shop. It will be something of a challenge to survive without the nearby store to make up for the poor garden like this year. The difficulty of the high desert gardening and survival cannot be overstated and they will probably leave for better climates. This will be the migrations you were talking about. We live in interesting times and it will get more interesting as the changes become more evident.

k-dog said...

We are living out an overdetermined process that is for sure. The industrial revolution made it so. The catabolic collapse of old ways of providing is certain. Climate change and resource depletion issues guarantee this and these issues will not be addressed by our civilization which has the most elaborate and false mental models of all time. The religion of growth ensures the insane and ever increasing momentum of city induced delusion. The practice of old ways which can no longer provide will continue. Ways which yield less with ever more effort will be maintained by our civilization. It is incapable of adapting. Those not lost in current zeitgeist groupthink need to all be making connections with like minds to have the best chances for survival.

John, you see it coming at us very well and I thank you for your insights. That you see things getting better in 500 years makes the bitter pill that now awaits a bit sweeter. I hope you are right.

I find irony in this weeks insights. Cities are huge groupings of people yet they wind up isolating us from each other. Yet the irony is that it is through groups that we have the best chance of having an influence over what the future brings us. Groups that must not isolate, but involve all in listening to the natural corrective feedback of adapting to a way of life that provides for our needs, keeps us whole, and which brings us a manageable future.

Mario Incandenza said...

The applicability of these ideas about the urban environment to modernist architecture is really uncanny. Modernism was explicitly and loudly devoted to an ideal of utopian progress. One of the great statements of the modernist approach to architectural design was Adolf Loos' 'Ornament and Crime,' where he writes stuff like: "the rate of cultural development is held back by those that cannot cope with the present,” and this gem: "Behold! What makes our period so important is that it is incapable of producing new ornament. We have outgrown ornament, we have struggled through to a state without ornament. Behold, the time is at hand, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, the capital of heaven. It is then that fulfilment will have come.”

So why was he so opposed to ornament? Well, because utopia is perfect - ideal, abstract, and, of course - etymologically speaking - no place at all. If you put ornament on your building, then it becomes something particular, something emplaced, something real; it descends from the realm of ideal forms. This is why the modernists were very big into abstract geometry (see Le Corbusier and Ozenfant's 'Purism,' for example, where they equate "purity" with geometrical abstraction and regard this as the highest aesthetic sensation).

Now compare this with the principles of traditional architecture in the West, where ornament was ubiquitous. And what form did it take? Almost always some sort of botanical form or another: the ecinthus leaves of Corinthian columns, the arboreal tracery of Gothic cathedrals. Gothic architecture in general, in fact, is absolutely reflective of the natural environment of northern Europe where it was developed. (Similarly, Islamic architecture reflects desert environment to which it is indigenous - e.g., domes that connote the vastness of the desert sky.)

So traditionally, architecture provided the very sort of stimulation which you describe as lacking in urban environments. But with Modernism, starting about 100 years ago, this knowledge has been forgotten - or discarded, perhaps. And this discarding is PRECISELY because of the progressive utopianism that came to dominate the practice. And bound up with this, too, was the metaphor of the machine. Le Corbusier famously called the house "a machine for living in."

Nowadays, architects don't know what the hell they're doing. They continue to revel in abstraction, but without any real conviction; you get the sense that they don't believe in the utopianism that motivated the modernist project in the first place, but they just don't know what else to do. Returning to the knowledge that guided builders for over two millennia, of course, is out of the question - that wouldn't be progress! And so the quality of the built environment continues to decay, a rather fitting metonym for the civilization as a whole.

Unknown said...

I think you mentioned in a previous post about the size of famous cities in Renaissance Italy. They came up with an amazing number of cultural and technical inventions given their modest size (in our eyes today). Is it possible that isolated rich communities in the future will maintain or start new civilizations?
On a totally different topic, I wonder if there is a universal law that prevents intelligent creatures for actually reaching beyond the physical limitations of their bodies and civilizations. Strugatskys have a novel about this, Stanislav Lem wrote about it (notice eastern Europeans are more aware of human limitations?). The reason for this thought is a recent article about quantum computers - apparently even if we could create them, they will only be a minor improvement over the current designs...

John Michael Greer said...

Denys, thank you. I appreciate tips -- that's why the jar's there, of course! -- and also the enthusiasm about this blog's project that tips demonstrate.

John, no question. The decreased resilience of monocultures is a matter of fact, not a value judgment.

Jay, no surprise there!

Hcaparoso, you're welcome and thank you.

Prizm, exactly -- they're reacting rationally to an absurd social environment.

Auriel/Jim, the thing about Gehry is that all he's doing is taking the rectangular-box design of standard modern architecture and giving it a funhouse-mirror twist to get people's attention. There's nothing actually innovative in what he's doing -- he's just as much a prisoner of the architectural status quo as the most unoriginal designer of shopping malls.

Casamurphy, yes, I've read it! It's brilliant -- a straightforward application of thermodynamics to the survival of industrial civilization, with conclusions that will come as no surprise to anybody who reads this blog.

Liam, exactly -- increasing complexity is entirely possible within increasingly narrow limits.

Lynford, even those who are being born today will have to leave the end of the trajectory to their descendants. It's a long road down from civilization.

K-dog, I don't believe in a manageable future, except in the sense that some people will manage to get by. Human beings aren't smart enough to manage anything as complicated as the future!

Mario, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for a fine case study in the (il)logic of contemporary industrial society. It's always embarrassing to look at the utopian fantasies of the past -- if only we get rid of ornaments, the new Jerusalem will be here? And of course it never shows...

jc foot said...

Sounds like someone has also been reading E.M.Forester's "The Machine Stops".

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, civilizations usually begin from a handful of urban centers in a mostly agrarian setting. The city-state is among the most reliably creative forms of human settlement! Until the world settles back down from the aftermath of our fall, though, I don't expect any cities anywhere to scrape by -- and the richer they are by modern standards, the more inevitably they'll attract armed looters.

As for a universal law of limits, of course. To begin with, the intersection of the power law and the laws of thermodynamics guarantee that no species anywhere will have limitless energy and other resources available, and the law of diminishing returns guarantees that technological progress will eventually grind to a halt if it doesn't hit the limits to growth first. The most parsimonious solution to Fermi's paradox, after all, is that limitless technological progress isn't possible.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your articles and your comments, Mr Greer!
I agree with hcaparoso - I enjoy this blog not only for its depth of philosophical analysis (it makes me feel smarter!) but because of the deep peacefulness that the author somehow transmits to me. I feel daily the anger and the sadness - the bus is stuck in traffic, more news about destruction etc. Wednesday evening (on the west coast) is a great night because of the new blog post on the archdruid, even better today with a full moon!
And thank Sandys for reminding me - I donated and I can't wait for the new book mentioned in the last week post!

Hawkcreek said...

When I was younger I used to hate the square box houses I saw everywhere. I always wondered why someone didn't come up with a better method of building shelter that would flow to fit into natural spaces. Straight lines don't fit into much except more straight lines.
Much later I became aware of ferrocement architecture, and fell in love with the curves. I did not build my last house with this material because it is extremely labor intensive, and I was too old to put in that much work. But I have always regretted that decision.
Ferrocement architecture is often called an Organic arcitecture.
I agree, and hope that someday many more homes are built using this method.

Jo said...

Greetings all, I have finally completed my contribution to the Space Bats contest. You can find it here:

William Hays said...

John, I'm retiring this week after four decades in transportation and municipal engineering. Your column struck a strong chord with me, especially regarding the artificial environmental in which most of us live. I recall giving a talk to a civic group on recycling some years ago and having a prominent attorney confide to me that he had never contemplated what happened to his garbage, only that "little men took it away." More recently I have struggled to convince fellow professionals of the consequences of a major mixed use development. After all, it was a "wonderful" project. Of course, the idea that such a development would merit inclusion in some regional public transit system was just "dreaming."

We cannot possibly operate this or any similar civilization on "renewable" energy, a fact I shared with a faith-based group this week. We might be able to envision an alternative future with very different land uses, development patterns, work force, and a hundred other changes, but our political leaders are instead debating Uber. I'm going to keep sharing and challenging and trusting in our younger generations to recognize the emerging realities. Meanwhile, I'll keep coming back here for the excellent wisdom you provide!

Dorda Giovex said...

Dear JMG and all,
One aspect of the fall of civilizations that could be better analysed here is that it usually happens in the years immediately following the "golden age" and relatively quickly.
In my opinion this is also an effect of generational dynamics.. at one point in time a civilization will spawn a generation achieving the optimum in resource extraction, use and transformation and disposal. This generation will optimize every aspect of the civilization... and burn it all. It will then blame the following generations for not being well off, organized, efficient, integrated as they were. It will see who come after, as they try to scrape a living and salvage something from the languishing great party, as negative souls incapable of keeping the buzz going.
It also seems to me that the golden age of a civilization actively favors people with narcissistic- psychopathic tendencies, like my father. They are the best in aligning to Utopia acritically and supporting it to the end with total disregard to consequences (my father for example truly hates environmentalists... While living confined at home at the center of his artificial empire). He does not see nature any more.. wants to solve a problem with pine needles blocking water by cutting the trees. There are countless examples of him and his peers creating lies and telling them to each other to collectively escape any responsibility and dumping it consistently on someone else so they can keep considering themselves "the good actually the best guys that ever lived".

Heian said...

Another thing about architecture that i find quite strange is the ekstreme need for a building to stand out and look completly different from everything around it.
Sometimes it looks like a godzilla just passed by and vomited up a bunch of building parts into a complete building.

When you get dressed, select furniture for your house, design a garden or flowerbed most sane people like that things match. You dont show up dressed in leatherpants, suit and tie and a SS hat on your head in a normal setting.
But with architecture thats completly normal, everything has to look different and frankly out of place and its viewed as a good thing.

Here is a article from norway. Family that wanted to expand a wooden house from 1912. And the goverment encouraged them to have a different style than the orginal building.
So the family took it to the extreme and built a gray concrete box. And it was praised as a good thing.

patriciaormsby said...

Part way through reading (and will go straight back). Your articles always make me think, and I want to write it down before I get busy or forget.

Every so often a media crew shows up at my door, the rural-living foreign Shinto priestess. They want to know why I am doing this. In recent years, I've had information to share with them that I consider vital. Japan's traditions have great value, especially as we face a future with diminishing resources, and we really need at least to have people who maintain some of these traditions so that the knowledge can be shared when it becomes critical to survival. But not only that. How many people surrounded by all these fine material goods technology brought us really call themselves happy? Even if they are so thoroughly urban that they have never ever heard that there may be trouble ahead, it frequently becomes obvious even to them that wealth beyond a minimum required for health does not equate happiness. In the past, people seeking spiritual answers would go to the wilderness deliberately. Jesus is just one. In the Edo Period of Japan, there was an entire industry built up around taking city people out to Mt. Fuji for a spiritual journey, and they made little replicas of the mountain back home so they could retrace their journey in meditation. I find the Fuji-ko liturgy to be highly evocative of what I see in my frequent treks on the mountain.

That's what I kept telling anyone who approached me with a camera and notebook. But that's not what they wanted to hear. The times I've made it all the way onto TV or into magazines, it's been puff pieces, where I was said to have had a yearning for some trivial aspect of Japan. On one TV show, I was specifically asked not to talk about spirituality but to say "I liked the miki (communion)."

Just before I moved out of Tokyo, I was questioned by the Federal Security Bureau on a trip to Siberia. For the life of them, they could not see why anyone would want to come spend time in Siberia. I had to be there on some materialistic quest (and indeed there were many such people with business visas). How could I explain to someone in Siberia what it was like to live in a fantasy society, a children's storybook world, all sanitized, with no connection to the basics upon which our lives depend, where people dropped their candy wrappers on the street because the candy wrappers were "dirty" and "nature" would take care of them somehow, trusting our government to keep the supermarkets full and the lights on (if they thought about it at all), where the most loudly contested issue at the time was that the rice the government had had to import because of a weather-induced shortage did not taste as good as domestic rice. Oh, they were furious about that.

In Siberia, at that point in time, friends were looking a bit skinny. When queried, they explained, "We have enough potatoes! You don't like potatoes? Well, then you lose weight." Virtually everyone in Siberia down to the FSB officers was involved in some form of food production, usually through their family's dacha on the outskirts of cities, and at least for the potato harvest. I was in Siberia for relief. Others from Japan were too, with one friend taking troubled youths for a month in summer to give them a grounding in healthful reality and a society in which people cooperated. The Siberians, for their part, would just laugh at us. They were jealous of Japan's material success, living as closely involved with capricious nature as they were, and could not see the price that had been paid by Japan to reach its level of development.

patriciaormsby said...

In continuation from my above comment, I want to bring up a topic perhaps peripherally involved, but I'll ask of anyone reading this, how many of you are aware of the heart-brain balance? I suspect very few, and the reason for that is that expressions using the word "heart" that go along with the stylized representation of the heart so beloved of teenage girls are considered non-literal: a messy, imprecise way of thinking. What I want to know is, are you aware of evidence that the heart is literally an organ of perception, not merely circulation?

My reason for this question ties in with re-establishing our connection with nature and with other people, and I have a friend who is much more an expert on this than I. I just want to see if there is interest.

Scotlyn said...

Thanks, as always. I'd just like to sketch in a few lines on the non-civilised side of human experience, as anthropologists have come rather a long way from the "stuck primitive" model, without the rest of the academy taking much notice. The first thing to say is that peoples living a materially simple lifestyle, as described by ethnographers over the past 200 years or so, were not unaware of the civilisations within a day or there's walk away. They, and their cultural forms, are more accurately understood as deliberate political/social/philosophical stances, or as well-formed "cultural refusals", than as "being stuck." As such, they are also, often, more culturally dynamic, and responsive than assumed, and the idea of their comparative cultural longevity may not be well-founded.

I'd also like to add that urban centres often have more "atomised" populations, individuals torn out of or otherwise shaken loose from family and community ties (once the defining characteristic of a slave), and I wonder if this doesn't add another layer to its peculiarities (ie, in addition to the distance from the natural world). People embedded in a web of relations are unique, non-fungible, necessary to one another... Atomised individuals in urban civilisations, so much.

KL Cooke said...

"On the other hand we have the 'works of Frank Gehry..."

I just googled Gehry. It looks like he's trying to collapse now and avoid the rush.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I find some consolation in the thought that although the cultural losses in a dark age are very large, they are not total. It's easy to imagine that humanity is starting over and over from zero, but that is far from true. Nomadic tribes often produce portable art that civilized people admire: jewelry, carpets, basketry, quillwork. Also epic poetry and fable.

Let's say the beginning of the human race came with language and the control of fire, regardless of whether it was homo sapiens or one of our relatives who did that. Most of human existence to date took place in the Old Stone Age, which lasted for hundreds of thousands of years if I'm not mistaken. Horticulture and agriculture developed independently in various places two to ten thousand years ago (maybe earlier in New Guinea). Several of those places developed writing systems a few thousand years after they adopted agriculture. Dark ages by definition lose the writing, but they don't lose the knowledge of gardening and animal husbandry. Where the climate and soil allow, the resumption of city life can happen relatively quickly, if the time scale one measures by is not a single lifespan but the dozens or hundreds of generations in which technological progress seems to have consisted of fancier flint knapping, better clothing and the invention of fishnets, dugout canoes and atalatls. Not that I'm dissing better clothing and dugout canoes; they can make the difference between life and death.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

There is one semi-fossil fuel that is renewable on a time scale that matters to human beings. Some future civilizations may have access to peat in limited quantities. If you leave a peat bog alone, in about a thousand years it will produce some more peat. A culture that can restrain itself from cutting down all the big trees might also refrain from digging up and burning all the peat.

Several years ago, someone mentioned the renewability of peat in the comments section and pointed out that there was a peat-fueled proto-Industrial Revolution in the Low Countries of Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages/early Modern Period. They didn't reach Peak Peat because they switched over to coal.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

My usual enthusiastic linking of TADR posts continues:-

ed boyle said...

I am enjoying my vacation in a more small town, rural setting on the German north sea. I take walks along fields filled with sheep and long windy beaches and nature reserves. This is quieting for the soul of a busy urbanite. I fiind time to develop new hobbies in listening to music or get closer to my family,otherwise hectically involved in urban life and entertainment, work schedules. We all live in our own little worlds(not like a family farm). In an urban industrialized environment relationships are atomized, our soul becomes alienated from each other and from itself. Since twenty years starting due to office stress I have developed routine of balancing myself through yoga, tai chi, esoteric sciences like astrological psychology, nutrition, etc. The human body is the last remaining natural environment in the urban setting where one can stop the positive feedback loop of the industrial ideology. The techniques for this were created in the ancient civilizations, by gurus, monks, hiding in forest ashrams and monasteries from the city. A city person does well to apply such techniques to remain part of his or her own nature and to understand other human beings in their essence, as only natural environmental component left. As well as music, literature, history, poetry I research internet blogs discussions to discover what other people in my age and situation have experienced emotionally and done about it. This is helpful like global village idea. Everyone has similar experiences.Alienation is reduced. I was researching heart chakra yesterday and talk about relationships and discovered highheart or thymus chakra between heart and throat chakras, which concentrating upon in the course of day and night I felt very strongly. This is supposed to regulate nexus between pure feeling in heart and communication in throat, giving a person a personal concept ofmeaning in life or intent. Every topic, including esoteric development gets boring after 20 years, but I never seem to stop learning about my internal nature. Regardless of the civilization this is the first principle we will always return to.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, you now say that cities don't have much of a chance in the future, but in an older article you seemed to claim otherwise:

Chloe said...

Regarding the consistency of the thousand-year cycle: somebody could probably have a lot of fun analysing the particular patterns of human demography that most likely underlie it, and it would be interesting to compare this to non-civilisations which collapse due to overshoot (e.g. in cases of colonisation) vs those which collapse for other reasons. You mention that some commenters gave examples of non-civilisations which did not last for a millennium, and I suspect that many of these fall into the same category as those civilisations, such as those of the Aztecs and Incas, which had a strikingly shorter lifespan - societies whose trajectory was cut short by clear external causes. On the other hand, the thousand-year cycle may not be the longest one in play; the histories of Egypt and China and our own connections to classical Greece and Rome may suggest something about chronological *families* of civilisations. Or perhaps not; beyond the thousand-year mark everything might settle down into a more linear pattern. (By linear I don't mean to imply any kind of direction, except through time, only that we wouldn't expect to see any larger repeats than already discussed and the histories of individual societies will be largely contingent on their own particular circumstances and inheritance from those before.) We only have the Holocene to go on, so it's hard to tell.

There's another, simpler explanation for the mental and cultural blindness to the frailties inherent in civilisation - not that the two are mutually exclusive - which is that generals are always fighting the last war, and people tend to stick to behaviour that has served them well in the past. That serves for modes of thought as well as actions. In an overarching sense, the consistent technological and economic expansion over the past two hundred years has negated the need to figure out *why* growth happens - so people not only fail to understand it, but fail to grasp that it requires an explanation. Hence the conviction that growth will soon return. (Cultures, like natural selection, have a bad habit of making predictions only on the basis of most recent events.) On an individual level, meanwhile, though it may look suicidal from the perspective of people who read the Archdruid Report, for as long as civilisation does exist the people arguing about iThing Six vs iThing Ninety-Two might well be acting in the most adaptive way available to them - until it's not.

Rashakor said...

On an individual level, you raise an interesting criteria that i would like to toy with a bit further.
There may 2 types of people ( i know that sounds so cliche!) depnding on how they intuitively view feedback loops:
- if they automatically think positive, as in positive feedback loops you are dealing with progress- minded person, or an urban dweller.
- if they automatically think negative maybe they will be open to the discussion at hand or they are a genuine primitive.

Twilight said...

This series was excellent, so clearly presented and it just fits perfectly with my own sense of things. I waffle between despising civilizations and loving some of the cultural products - the arts, primarily. I guess I love it at a distance, but as others pointed out there isn't enough room to admire it from afar any more!

Still, placing value judgements on it doesn't matter, as we don't get to choose and we're all products of what we've experienced. There isn't enough time in one life to experience all things, and I still believe one can find happiness and fulfillment in all manner of environments, whether urban or rural, or even in a dark age. Although comfort and material wealth can vary greatly.

@Mario - Thanks for a wonderful analysis of the relationship of these ideas to architecture (another of my life-long interests). It's a great confirmation of the ideas presented here, as well as helping to explain why everything built recently is so damn ugly.

Cherokee Organics said...


I'd forgotten just how enjoyable the Conan tale is. It is a very hard book to put down and alas even at near on 1,000 pages it will be finished all too quickly. Still it is the job of the entertainer to leave them wanting for more. Howard writes as if Conan is both a breed apart and very decisive and the nobles are a bunch of useless simpering dolts.

Pah! Honestly if I have set one more person straight on the real world limits of solar electricity, I think I'll scream. Interestingly too, there are more and more articles here recently about living with less. I spotted another one the other day with a familiar face: Jill Redwood. Jill is the real deal. Good on her. Respect. But dingoes kidneys, it’s a small world on the fringes.

I trust that you are finding the weekly solar PV statistics to be useful and interesting? People are always mildly in awe when they find out how little electricity a household can get by on when they look at the numbers, but really, they'd be hard pressed to tell during a visit here. And I know that this amount of electricity is a truly massive luxury historically speaking.

Yeah, agriculture tries to simplify things, which is a total disaster. I'm trying to complicate the natural systems here, not simplify them - what is wrong with these people?

I'm having a rather enjoyable rant! ;-)! I very much enjoyed your essay and wholeheartedly agree with your conclusions.



PS: I took last week off all work and social obligations and simply did what it takes to get the chickens into their new all steel chicken fortress which they really enjoy. This was despite getting snowed on (photos) - I didn't let a little bit of snow halt construction, although I was rugged up: Choking on Chooktopia. With the exception of the screws and cement, the entire chicken structure is comprised of recycled, scrap and down-graded materials. Scavenging and repurposing is a high art. Not many can do both.

Hi nuku,

Many thanks for your thoughts last week. Very interesting and insightful.

Hi MickGspot,

Yeah, some of the cover art of all of the pulp stuff is very good. Some of my Jack Vance pulp paperbacks have some amazing cover art too. I’ll check out Franks work. Thanks.

Odin's Raven said...

As things decline, how long do you suppose that the Sub-American era will last?

peacegarden said...

What a perfect metaphor, “non-urban societies are perennials, and civilizations are showy annuals that throw all their energy into the flowering process. Having flowered, civilizations then go to seed and die, while the perennial societies flower less spectacularly and remain green thereafter.”

Who doesn’t like the dependable hybrid petunias cascading out of the hanging basket, uniformly beautiful as we have been taught to “see” beauty? Those pesky weeds, though; so coarse and ungainly, so deep rooted and resilient, so not under our control.

I too like the perks of civilization; what else could I expect? But life is for living; making choices after careful reflection is so much more difficult than just reacting or following a familiar pattern. Reflection, then maybe more reflection, then action…sounds like Green Wizardry to me.
As always, thank you for the weekly challenge…it is one of my favorite things that make you go hmmm…



Stretching My Comfort Zone said...

So, this would have fit more closely with last week's post, but is relevant to the larger project I think. I ran across this prayer, written by Rabbi Terri Harris, that with very little tweaking could be titled "Call for Feedback (A Whole Systems Prayer)".

Creator of the Universe
preserve us from our own presumption.
Do not let us close ourselves into ourselves
but open us continually into you.

Let us be more in love with You
than with our notions of You.
Let us stop claiming to know everything
so that we may understand something.

Increase in us kindness,
Make us people who care
and who take care
who venerate the truth
and recognize each other.

Draw us with an irresistible beauty!

Thank you, JMG, for sharing both your searching and your finding with us every week!

carol.b said...

Responding to the comments on architecture etc., I think if you want to see complexity in contemporary culture you'll most often find it at the margins - Basquiat comes to mind - made by people for whom the ideal of simplicity quite clearly leads to a closed cage. This post sharply highlights the irony of simplicity as cardinal virtue in many sectors of contemporary culture - for example, it is absolutely dominant in the thriving world of "urban homesteading" if I may use that copyrighted term.

Martin McDuffy said...

Another great post and great series.

I would like to point out that there have been people who have voluntarily given up on civilization en masse, such as the people of Gobekli Tepe and seemingly the Anasazi of the American southwest. It is suggested that the former intentionally buried their city center and then departed, and that the latter found digging and maintaining miles of canals to be not worth the effort, and so abandoned it.

I only bring this up to say, that perhaps civilization is not inevitable, (and to be sure, many people fought and still fight fiercely not to be included in the project of civilization) and that it is possible for humans to learn the folly of such types of organizing ourselves.

RPC said...

One of the novel aspects of our civilization is the suburb. The cities of the past were compact (sometimes walled) and trailed off quickly into farmland. They had to, else the inhabitants could not have been fed given the transport available. Since we can ship even our most perishable produce around the world, cities are surrounded by vast arrays of pseudo-country estates. The inhabitants thereof in many cases think they're living in nature! Do you think this heightens the disconnect you're describing?
(OTOH, the suburbs have their charms. My kids were sword fighting (Yes, I let them play with sticks. Yes, they get scratched. Don't tell CPS.) and my son broke my daughter's sword. It was promptly renamed Narsil and lies in state on the sill of the carport, from whence I dare not move it. I suppose this makes my son Sauron, which would explain why he wants one of these.)

RPC said...

Do you really think our civilization is pushing 1000? I'd argue that medieval civilization ("Christendom") was a different animal in terms of its organization and goals from the Faustian civilization that began with the Renaissance, and so "our" civilization didn't get started until the 1400s.

k-dog said...

"K-dog, I don't believe in a manageable future, except in the sense that some people will manage to get by. Human beings aren't smart enough to manage anything as complicated as the future!"

Right, I mean manageable from a personal point of view. Not in the sense the future can be changed or mitigated. That is a fools errand. I mean manageable in the sense that right choices can be made so particular groups of aware individuals can manage to provide for their own basic needs. Adequate food shelter clothing and ways to maintain the cultural continuity of their chosen way of life. Management in regard to ones personal circumstances is all I mean.

George Coles said...

Another great series of posts, Mr. Greer. Thank you.
I would like to contribute this (admittedly utopian) thought:
"Forget the damned motor cars and build the cities for
lovers and friends." -- Lewis Mumford

Kirby Benson said...

This brings to mind an experience of several years ago when I traveled through Southeast Asia, India and Nepal for two months. When I came off the plane in Los Angeles and looked up and saw the "Welcome to the USA" sign I was immediately struck by the starkness of walls and the sharpness of the corners and the precision of all the angles. It was a cultural epiphany and I instantly thought West = hard and East = soft. Energetically two different streams of consciousness.



Spanish fly said...

'Like the victim in the cheap mystery novel who was shot, stabbed, strangled, clubbed over the head, and then chucked out a twentieth floor window, that is, civilizations that fall may have more causes of death than were actually necessary'

Grigori Rasputín as a good example...

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thank you, JMG and Mario, for remarks on current architecture.

We see the retreat from decoration, to which you draw
attention, played out in a vivid way here with the
three principal public projects in 21st-century Toronto.

In Google Images, one can
search for the three with the three respective strings

* Ontario College of Art and Design

* Royal Ontario Museum crystal

* Art Gallery of Ontario facade

The first of these three searches reveals an office-rooms
or classrooms box, purporting to be a gift
encased in wrapping paper, on high stilts. Here there is an
element of decoration, but it is parodistic: the
black dots on white background, on the exterior walls of this
offices-or-classrooms complex, are supposed to make the viewer
think of the rather drably patterned paper that one might buy on the
occasion of a friend's birthday, in a hasty visit to some
unpretentious retailer such as Dollarama.

The second of my three recommended
searches reveals a foyer in glass and steel, purporting to
be an (undecorated) crystal, such as might form on a hanging thread
during evaporation of a saturated solution of sodium thiosulphate.
Further probing in Google Images will make it clear that that foyer is
a deliberately contrastive, deliberately in-your-face jarring, excrescence on a
decorative Victorian or Edwardian facade. We see here an attempt less to
celebrate the Victorian-Edwardian heritage which comprises the bulk of the
Royal Ontario Museum than to injure it, as a window might be injured
through the deft hurling of a pebble.

The third search shows the facade, devoid of decorative elements,
from one of Canada's three pre-eminent galleries. Here the theme is not
crystallization of sodium thiosulphate (or some similar chemical), but
something like what the American motoring classes are pleased to
call a "fender bender" - we are to think of metal beams, originally
straight, suffering deformation through an unhappy imposition of forces.

Much public money was spent on these three projects.

Tom Karmo

www dot metascientia dot com

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thank you, JMG, for this week's arresting idea of an innovation in human affairs - a
dark age which, unlike previous dark ages, succeeds in being global.


Goldmund said...

John, your discussion of parallel civilizations in this week's post reminded me of an observation an elderly friend of mine, who spent his adult life working for the Forest Service out in Oregon once made. He noticed how Oregonians would brag about their trees and the beauty of their forests, while at the same time were absolutely determined to cut down the very last one of them. I've also noticed a schizophrenic tendency in our history that lauds and romanticizes wild nature (as well as Indigenous people) but at the same time is determined to wipe them out. The problem is that Native Americans refused to die like they were supposed to. They continue to survive, on the rez or on the fringes of urban society. And they are still despised, while their ancestors are celebrated and praised. There have also been counter cultures throughout our history (the back to the land movement in the 70s is just one of them) who abandoned much of the dominant culture's wasteful practices and "went native". These too have been vilified, ridiculed, and sometimes eliminated (like some of the boathouse communities on the Mississippi River near where I live). Yet, just like Native Americans, they refuse to die.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG: Perhaps you can add some detail, either this week or in some future week, on the prospects for urban life in a dark age? The example of Rome indicates that urban life can transmogrify in a zombie fashion. Rome never became a ghost town, and it never even shrank into a single village. Rather, it became a town (perhaps poorly integrated, under the aspect of a mosaic of contiguous villages), of a distinctively sick sort, with a population in Carolingian times of 20,000 or 30,000. (On the eve of the 410 A.D. sacking - the first of three big sackings - the population had been something like 700,000 or 900,000. The high civilizations of Athens and Florence were in cities of this same, Roman-dark-age, 20,000-or-30,000-inhabitant, scale. But the difference between classical Athens, or Renaissance Florence, and 8th-century Rome is radical, the comparable population sizes notwithstanding.)

When I say "distinctively sick", I have in mind the fact that the Forum was eventually pillaged by local people for its stone. It was not the Goths or Huns who reduced the Forum to its current half-dismantled condition, but locals - people who spoke a kind of Latin, and were duly mindful of ecclesial-cum-civil authority, but were indifferent to their civic heritage. We have here a culture which lives in a built environment and yet is a kind of "living dead": an uncivic zombie of a city, exploiting the mere material accoutrements of a now-departed civilization.

The fate of the Forum contrasts with the fate of the Athenian Acropolis. In Athens the Parthenon stayed intact until the 17th century, I would imagine for the bulk of this extended period because of the stabilizing influence of that new, post-Roman, civilization which was Byzantium. We indeed would have an intact Parthenon to this day, except that some 17th-century, post-Byzantine, military people used it for the storage of gunpowder.

I suppose that if our impending global Dark Age does not come on too quickly, people equipped with powerful digital computers will be able to figure out how to reassemble those scattered marble fragments on the Acropolis into the original Parthenon. It is a mere matter of jigsaw puzzle assembly, such as has in the case of the disintegrating Qumran scrolls been solved. :-)

now having to go back to studying maths-physics,


((((PS: I say "maths-physics" because my own response to the impending Dark Age
is to dabble a little in Latin, but more fundamentally to try to set up
a maths-physics tutoring business, and eventually to write some minor physics-of-radio
papers helpful to hams.

Tom = VA3KMZ ))))

Christopher E Johnson said...

JMG, I have been reading your blog for a long time, so thank you for your insights here. I spent my childhood living with nature during my childhood in Upstate New York. My brother, mother, father, and I had a small garden in the back yard, and a free flowing creek behind the yard, so I knew where food and water came from. Then my family moved to suburban Buffalo, and later suburban Baltimore, where my experience living with nature directly conflicted with my social experience of living in American suburbia, where people thought I was crazy and had no problem with bullying me as a reminder.

I reacted to doubling down on my studies, and coming to the conclusion that suburban American culture is both scientifically and morally disgusting, a culture of insanity and slow death. So, I invested my time and energy in an effort to make urban American culture a more sustainable place. Sadly, however, when condensing my four years of living and working in Baltimore, the urban poor there are really not looking for the truth they are just living in an angry victim mentality. So no urban farms, no sustainable transit, just anger.

The anger among the inner city poor, justified or not, led to the election of a president with partial African heritage. This, in turn, caused anger among suburban whites. The leaders of these suburban whites are now governors and congress people, people who are doubling down dirty on the American suburban projects.

I am looking forward to hearing your insights on the direction of the reactionary side of the lowland East Coast of America, which is a mental and moral swamp I have watched some of my best friends get sucked into. I left that place, after seeing the writing on the wall, two years ago, and am currently completing a year of teaching English in Taiwan with less student loans and more fiat monetary savings. It is way too late for me to collapse before the masses do in America, but I want to try to do the same thing in the Philippines as I will soon be headed there to marry my girlfriend and turn her family farm into a sustainable operation. However, I know the weather there in our warming world will be more and more sweltering. I know the human population in the Philippines is multiplying more quickly than the fantasies of a Caucasian teenage suburbanite loitering and wasting away outside a gas station shop along the future Hogan-Trump-Christie Memorial "Parkway" in the "Exurban Shale Oil Acres of Ignorance" subdivision. Somehow, though, I feel more confident collapsing into an uncertain rural lifestyle on the outskirts of urbanizing Manila, and trying to make the best of it, than I do investing my confidence in places like Baltimore.

pygmycory said...

Are you saying that you expect population to drop by more than 95%? Just wondering how you'd place 365 million people across the landscape without some of them ending up in fairly large clusters, especially given that some of what is available today will be underwater, desert or otherwise unsuitable for supporting even low-moderate populations.

Also, how large a settlement constitutes a city? I'd been thinking 50,000+ minimum.

Cassiodorus said...

If your working guess is that urban centers are mostly going away over the next one to three centuries, are there implications for cultural conservation? I recall in the past you've had reservations about a rural Lindisfarne approach. Do you have any new thoughts on urban versus rural conservation strategies?

Thank you for all your work!

aiastelamonides said...

JMG, thank you for this! I didn't comment last week because I was temporarily beyond the reach of the Internet, but this week's post has clarified your ideas and more or less reconciled me to the Cimmerian Hypothesis (or it to me). I still have disagreements with some of the points made in passing (which I will therefore allow to pass), but not with the central idea.

I find your vision of the future unpleasant only in that I won't be around to see it all. All that philosophy! All that history! All those songs and stories and heroes of renown! And, once a couple more generations of civilizations come and go, the way that the study of civilizations' declines and falls will change their courses- as the all-knowing Cecil Adams once wrote, "the act of observing disturbs the observed." Imagining specific possible futures only makes the hunger sharper, of course.

In not unrelated news, my entry for the Space Bats contest is as done as it is ever likely to be. It is set in the 33rd Century, in the early phases of the slow decline of the West's first successor civilization in eastern North America. I have tried to make it relevant to some of the themes of this blog, although there are many other influences, and to take it in an imaginative direction. It is my first serious attempt at writing fiction since, I think, an assignment way back in 7th grade (I got an A, for what it's worth). I hope you enjoy reading it and will consider it for the anthology:

One more thing- when do you place the beginning of our own civilization? If we were using the usual vague sense of the word, I would say the first half of the 9th century, with the Carolingian Renaissance and the first coalescence of Western Europe's major political units, but by the urban development criterion that is too early.

escapefromwisconsin said...

A lot of what you're saying has been confirmed by psychology. You're probably familiar with the acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic). Increasingly psychology is unveiling ways in which people in these societies differ mentally from the standard models of human cognition, to show that we are the *exception*, not the rule:

To highlight one domain in which American undergraduates differ from most other populations in the world consider a neutral category like visual perception. Looking at the figure below, which horizontal line, "a" or "b", would you estimate is longer?

A: <----> b: >----<

If you chose "b" than you are in line with a substantial number of Americans (both undergraduates and children) who chose the same one. In fact, both lines are identical in length. This has become known as the Müller-Lyer Illusion, named after the German psychiatrist Franz Carl Müller-Lyer who first discovered it in 1889. However, if you show the same two lines to people in many non-Western societies (particularly hunter-gatherer societies) they will be more likely to identify the two lines as identical.

Why would Americans be so susceptible to this illusion? Our environment. Most Americans are raised in a society where horizontal lines and sharp corners make up much of modern architecture. The brains of American children (and, presumably, most children in highly industrialized countries) have adapted to make optical calibrations as a result of their unique environment. The San and many other small-scale forager or horticultural societies don't grow up in a manufactured environment so their brains are unaffected by such illusions.

A similar difference can be found in what psychologists call "folkbiological reasoning." Cognitive scientists testing children drawn from U.S. urban centers (where most universities are located) have developed an influential developmental theory suggesting that there is a cognitive shift that takes place between ages 7 and 10. As Henrich and colleagues state in their paper:

"Before age 7, urban children reason about biological phenomena by analogy to, and by extension from, humans. Between ages 7 and 10, urban children undergo a conceptual shift to the adult pattern of viewing humans as one animal among many."

This shift has been considered a process that all human children go through. The problem with this reasoning, Henrich points out, is that it only applies to one subset of children: those who live in urban environments. Similar cognitive tests of children in Native American communities in Wisconsin and among the Yukatek Maya communities in Mexico showed none of the empirical patterns that the American urban children displayed. The answer, of course, is that urban children grow up in an impoverished environment where they will rarely, if ever, interact with animals other than humans (with the occasional dog or cat kept as a pet). This is a very different environment from many non-Western societies, and certainly from the one our remote ancestors lived in.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Another thing I wanted to add is that Robert E. Howard's fiction is particularly apropos for a blog dedicated to the proposition that oil production will peak and lead to a downfall of industrial civilization. From Howard's Wikipedia page:

The oil boom in Texas was "one of the most powerful influences on [Howard's] life and art", albeit one that he hated. Howard grew to despise the oil industry along with everyone and everything associated with it. The oil boom heavily influenced Howard's view of civilization as a constant cycle of boom and bust in the same manner as the oil industry in contemporary Texas. A town such as Cross Plains was built by pioneers. The boom brought civilization in the form of people and investment but also social breakdown. The oil people contributed little or nothing to the town in the long term and eventually left for the next oil field. This led Howard to see civilization as corrupting and society as a whole in decay.

Celine Patrick said...

Public Service Announcement from the Green Wizards Forum:

There will be a Northish/Eastish Maine Assembly of Green Wizards & Ruinmen (Local 207) on Monday, the 10th of August 2015, at the Coastal Cafe & Bakery located on Route 1 in Searsport, Maine. The meeting will begin at 4pm, all are welcome and encouraged to attend! Refreshments in the form of artisan breads and pastries, coffee, and tea will be provided by the Cafe's resident Green Wizards (we're the majority here...), who are beyond excited to have some sane companionship in this season of oil-powered touristic excess! Dearly hoping anyone & everyone nearby can make it, as there should be some new faces for the few of us who have met up previously. For further directions or inquiries please seek out the "Hey, Mainers!" thread on the Green Wizards Forum site, or send an email to if you'd prefer.

Side note to JMG: Thank you for all that you have done, and continue to do, in the space of encouraging and connecting us all. I know I am not alone in laying on your doorstep a great many positive changes in my own life (both inner and outer), as well as a great many wonderful "meatspace" relationships that I would not otherwise have had opportunity to embark upon. You have the sincere and heartfelt appreciation of all of us here who find in your words and ideas the strength and wisdom to face the world we are in the process of inheriting from our parents. Your wisdom continually inspires us to ask the hard questions, do the whole systems analysis, and hopefully make better decisions for the long term in our little corner of New England.

C. Kelley

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
And then there were Tweets!
Everyone’s last chance perhaps to sell something in the imaginary elevator shaft between floors– a billion business plans each in a sound bite? More ephemeral than the thousand lost golf balls the poet talked about before the last war. ;-)

Seriously though for the future; I think well of possible diverse versions of refugia perhaps like Ladakh, even if in the last three decades global industrial phenomena have broken in to the hitherto remote Ladakh society. Even if future such remnant societies were to lack a cultural epicentre like Ladakh has ‘Tibet’, I would be happy to think of descendant children growing up in such cultural environments.
See Norberg-Hodge’s popular book ‘Ancient Futures’:

I have also a compendium book of a large & detailed human-geography study: Crook & Osmaston Eds. ‘Himalayan Buddhist Villages’ on Amazon. ...)
Apart from special cases like Ladakh, though, I am aware that agrarian societies can get just as far adrift from the realities and sufficient corrections available from the non-human world, and as tied up in the complex dynamics of status and advantage trumping both observation and common sense, as we do.
Phil H

Bill Pulliam said...

Hawkcreek -- ferrocement construction requires two materials that depend on concentrated energy inputs - iron and cement. There will doubtless be abundant scrap iron available for centuries, though as time goes on and it becomes more valuable its preferred uses will narrow down to things that can't be substituted with, for example, wood. And cement, sure there is lots of scrap concrete, but that is useful only as rough building blocks. The active ingredient in concrete (cement) is a manufactured, not naturally-occuring item. So I don't see how ferrocement is practical once cheap cement produced and distributed by fossil fuels stops being widely available.

Sure, these technologies are ancient, but they were not used on a mass scale for houses, farm buildings, etc. until the industrial era.

Fabian said...

John Michael,

I know this is a bit off topic, but have you seen the scenario that Solomon over at SNAFU has been publishing about a possible war between the USA and China? Goes well with your scenario in Twilight’s Last Gleaming, even though his vision of how the war would play out is quite different:

Martin B said...

Frei Otto was an architect and structural engineer who created organic shapes using tensile and membrane structures. He is probably best known for the roof of the Munich Olympic stadium.

I attended a lecture of his, years ago. A very interesting chap, and extremely bright. But his techniques were never widely used; I suspect because any building larger than a mud hut with a thatch roof is difficult to weatherproof if not built of simple plane surfaces.

Agent Provocateur said...

JMG and Ursachi,

Concerning whether large cities are, all things being equal, a good bet or not:

The concentration of human habitation in civilizations seems to follow a power law such that if one plots the logarithm of population size of cities, towns, and villages against the logarithm of the number of such cities, towns, and villages (in a sufficiently large geographic area) one gets a nice straight line with downward (negative) slope.

I understand this basic relationship exists independent of the technology supporting the habitations. An industrial culture has a steeper slope because it can draw resources from further away and so maintain higher population densities. A non-industrial culture has a gentler slope because it cannot. But both have the same (more or less straight line) downward slope to the right i.e. a few large mega cities and progressively more but smaller other population centers.

Concerning quality of life and city size: determining “quality of life” involves a value judgment and so is a divergent problem with no absolute solution. That said, the amenities a large city offers over a smaller city increase rather slowly with population size (if I remember correctly about 15% increase for every doubling of population). So even with no change in the future, a moderately sized city or large town is all one really needs to take advantage of what civilization has to offer and avoid most of the immediate its problems.

As overall population decreases due to less energy being available to feed everyone, we should expect the slope of the population density curve to decrease and eventually revert to something closer to a typical non-industrial civilization profile. The right end of the curve is more fixed than the left however. Rural areas can become less populated, but the possible drop in absolute terms is much less than on the left (large cities) for the simple reason that there are already fewer people in rural areas by definition.

The conclusion is that its is the biggest population centers that will likely depopulate quickest. Rapid change generally involves more hardship. Given its the large population centers that will see the most change; they are not the optimal place to be. On the other hand, going from having a few neighbours to none out in your rural doom-stead would be pretty traumatic too.

I'm thinking the sweet spot, to take advantage of the many remaining advantages of civilization in the short term, is probably some place well above (current) sea level, within the orbit (by rail or water) of a small city or large town. I think this is what JMG implied in his 2007 essay. Whether rural is better than urban in this context is another matter.

I'm guessing any apparent contradiction between this week's essay and that of 2007 essay is the result of the time frame. The last few essays have addressed, among other things, the fact that in the long run most cities are doomed to be a lot smaller or even cease to exist entirely. In the short run (our lifetimes), only some of the contraction in population will take place. The 2007 essay addressed strategies people tend to assume will be good for this short term. JMG conclusion was that remote doom-steads are not necessarily a great idea.

The fact that cities will disappear as such in the long term does not contradict the suggestion that living in or near smaller cities or larger towns is a good strategy in the short term (meaning most if not all of the rest of one's life).

druidovik said...

I have never heard anyone make negative comments about the work of Architect Gaudi and the City of Barcelona. Yet, his style never been emulated anywhere else. In fact, everyone I know loves it and want to see more of it.

It seems to me as an interesting way or a'compromised' to bring aspect of the natural world into a civilisation.

My first comment ever here, so I just to thank you for your writing (both blogs) and you'd be very welcomed in Ottawa if you happen to pass by.

Mark said...

Joshua Slocum wrote in 1890, "The Voyage of the Liberdade", and on pg viii, has this:

"Be the current against us, what matters it? Be it in our favour, we are carried hence, to what place or for what purpose? Our plan of the whole voyage is so insignificant that it matters little, maybe, whither we go, for the "grace of the day" is the same! Is it not a recognition of this which makes the old sailor happy, though in the storm; and hopeful even on a plank in mid-ocean? Surely it is this! for the spiritual beauty of the sea, absorbing man's soul, permits of no infidels on its boundless expanse".

This seems a useful metaphor for our time, and to the point, in my mind. After the resolute have made it through the hard centuries, then, in the philosophies to come, let there be a place of honour for the spiritual beauty of the world.

Fabian said...

Martin McDuffy said:

"I would like to point out that there have been people who have voluntarily given up on civilization en masse, such as the people of Gobekli Tepe and seemingly the Anazasi of the American southwest."

We have no idea why Gobekli Tepe was abandoned. It's still a great mystery and one that may never be solved. As for the Anazasi, they were hit by a severe, prolonged drought of the type that periodically hits the Southwest and that the Archdruid has been talking about (you may want to go back and read last week's blog post). Their civilization collapsed largely because of that. I doubt there was much voluntary about it. There is also clear evidence of mass starvation, internal warfare and large scale human sacrifice and cannibalism during the last days of the Anasazi.

Your comment reminds me of some of the recent revisionism about the Mayans, especially The "Maya Forest Garden" by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh, which claims the Mayan civilization didn't really collapse, the people simply developed a sudden passion for voluntary simplicity and voluntarily left the cities to return to a state of nature. In reality, as the Archdruid has pointed out, there is evidence of mass starvation, extreme malnutrition, political infighting, revolts by the masses, large scale warfare and massive ecological degradation which accompanied the collapse of the classical Mayan civilization.

To me, your comment about the Anazasi and Ford and Nigh's claim that the Mayan civilization didn't really collapse seem more like a classic case of projection by middle class Western liberals, who see peoples like the Mayans and Anazasi as acting out their fantasy scenario that the people of our civilization will suddenly become enlightened and adopt voluntary simplicity en masse. It's whistling past the graveyard, pure and simple.

John Michael Greer said...

JC, why, yes.

Unknown, you're welcome and thank you.

Hawkcreek, I appreciate ferrocement, but it's actually very energy-intensive. All things considered, I prefer stone, wood, brick, adobe, cob, etc., all of which can be shaped into elegant curves and biomorphic forms -- check out the inside of an old Gothic church someday! -- and can be used with very modest energy inputs.

Jo, got it and thank you -- you're in the contest. Drop me a not-for-posting comment telling me how you want your name to appear on it, and we're good to go.

William, that's got to have been a very hard row to hoe; forty years ago, a lot of people were still trying to talk sense about transportation planning, and I gather that that's sort of trickled away since then. Congrats on your retirement!

Dorda, that's an interesting point, but I know a lot of people from the generations that got to enjoy America at zenith, and your father may not be a representative sample, you know.

Heian, ugh. One of these days I need to do a post about the hatred of beauty that's become so deeply entrenched in modern culture.

Patricia, oh, I know. When I lived in southern Oregon, and did a lot of interfaith services as the local token Druid, I got media types buzzing around at intervals. Did they want vacuous puff pieces? You bet. Did they want to hear about anything that mattered? Of course not.

Scotlyn, of course nonurban societies are culturally dynamic and responsive. Do they have dark ages at regular thousand-year intervals?

KL, I wish he would. To my eyes, Gehry's buildings manage to be more ugly than standard lumpen-Bauhaus modernism, which is saying something.

Unknown Deborah, true enough, except for one quibble -- writing is not always lost during a dark age. It's fairly common, if literacy is well distributed in the pre-collapse civilization, for it to become the skill of a small minority, but to stay in use; think dark age Europe, for example.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, that's a good point. On the other hand, if they leave it alone, the distant descendants of chipmunks will have coal to burn when they get around to becoming an intelligent species!

Rhisiart, diolch yn fawr!

Ed, spirituality is the one limitlessly renewable resource...

Ursachi, for the time being, small cities are probably a good place to be for many of us, as I pointed out in the post you mention. At the bottom of the dark age, they probably won't still be there, but that'll be a problem for our descendants several centuries from now!

Chloe, oh, granted. Scholars of some human civilization ten million years from now, looking back over the panoply of the past, might be in a good position to set out large-scale trendlines for the rise and fall of families and superfamilies of civilizations. Since civilization is less than ten thousand years old, we're in the very early days of its historical evolution!

Rashakor, fascinating. I can imagine administering such a test, and handing out horned helmets and swords to anyone who scores high enough on the barbarism index... ;-)

Twilight, exactly. Human beings are pretty flexible, and a lot of the clutter that surrounds us in today's civilizations really doesn't contribute that much to happiness, much less to wisdom.

Cherokee, I tend to think of Howard's Aquilonian nobles as a bunch of yuppies in expensive business suits. The simpering-nitwit tone is just so perfect! Conan, on the other hand, would appreciate the weekly PV statistics, and so do I.

Raven, I don't think we'll get a sub-American era, as that would require the US to be the imperial center during the twilight of industrial civilization, and I really doubt it will be.

Peacegarden, you're welcome and thank you.

Stretching, thank you for this. These lines in particular...

"Let us be more in love with You
than with our notions of You."

...could use being brutally burned with the business end of a branding iron into the buttocks of everyone who insists that the divine isn't allowed to manifest to anybody outside of some particular dogmatic straitjacket!

John Michael Greer said...

Carol, the sort of urban homesteading that impresses me most is the sort that's simple in terms of resource use rather than in terms of geometrical structure, visual appearance, etc. A comfortably sloppy retrofitted home with a solar greenhouse tacked onto the south wall, vegetables sprawled all through the garden beds, and a big untidy compost heap isn't easy to draw using straight lines and simple shapes, however low-cost and low-footprint it may be!

Martin, that is to say, you're hoping that eventually everyone agrees with your personal judgment call about whether civilization is a good thing or not. I confess I have my doubts.

RPC, I'm not an impartial judge of suburbs; I grew up in suburbia and loathed it with a passion as far back as I can remember. I enjoy cities, I enjoy rural areas, but suburbs -- gah. So I'll let less biased judges consider suburbia's virtues and vices! As for the distinction between medieval and modern civilization, it's an interesting point that many civilizations have that kind of double structure -- think of classical civilization, which was (very, very roughly) five hundred years of Greece followed by five hundred years of Rome.

K-dog, okay, gotcha. No argument there. I'm just way too used to people saying "a manageable future" and meaning a future that does what they tell it.

George, now if only lovers and friends had more influence on the market economy than automobile manufacturers...

Kirby, thanks for this! That's a very good example of what I'm talking about.

Spanish Fly, the funny thing in that case is that it took all of that to kill the guy. He was poisoned, shot, stabbed, beaten, and thrown in the half-frozen Neva river..and the autopsy found that the cause of death was drowning.

Toomas, I recall a very funny and acerbic passage in Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories" where he contrasts ugly buildings in Faerie, which are ugly because they were built by wicked beings whose evil expresses itself in their architectural choices, and ugly buildings today, which don't even have that excuse. The hatred of beauty that pervades modern life is on display in those buildings.

Goldmund, oh, absolutely. Americans love to romanticize the things they destroy, and lose it completely when something that's supposedly been destroyed and so can be safely romanticized pops up again saying, "I'm not dead yet!"

Toomas, I'll keep that in mind. Time and resources permitting, I want to chase down some materials on what happens to urban centers during and after collapse, and try to integrate that into the larger model.

Christopher, one of the reasons I live up in the mountains is a desire to stay out of the lowland urban East Coast! Remember, though, that most of that area is going to become uninhabitable over the next century due to sea level rise, and even before the oceans roll in, collapsing public health and the ongoing dissolution of the rule of law will drive dramatic depopulation through outmigration and simple deaths-over-births demographics. What you saw was a temporary condition, to be followed by abandoned ruins hammered by the waves.

Pygmycory, the great majority of the 350 million will be engaged in intensive subsistence agriculture in those areas still capable of supporting it, and the conditions under which they'll be laboring will not be such as to provide the necessary surplus for large cities. Most of the rest will be in the areas that won't support field agriculture, supporting themselves as nomadic pastoralists, tribal horticulturalists, or hunter-gatherers, which don't produce such surpluses either. Dark age societies generally abandon the urban form completely as economically unsustainable -- in fact, many dark age kings traveled from place to place so that the economic burden of the court wasn't placed on just one region.

John Michael Greer said...

Cassiodorus, good. My reservations about rural Lindisfarnes center on the fact that it's way too early in the game for that. Right now, and probably for the lifetime of the youngest people reading this blog, small cities in the midst of large agricultural regions with a stable water supply are probably the best bet. It's when we get further on down the road that Benedict of Nursia leaves Rome and heads for Monte Cassino, Kobo Daishi leaves Kyoto and heads to Mt. Koya, etc.

Aiastelamonides, got it -- you're in the contest. As for the origins of modern western civilization, I'd date it to the emergence of Romanesque architecture in the tenth century, the first distinctively western, international architectural style.

Escape, thanks for the psychology details! I'd ran across this and then misplaced it. Also for the details on Howard's bio -- I wasn't aware of his attitude toward petroleum, and it makes me even more of a fan. ;-)

Celine, delighted to hear it! It occurs to me that I should work out some way to issue charters, membership cards, etc. for branches of the Green Wizards Benevolent and Protective Association and the Ruinmen's Union...

Phil, the thing is, agrarian societies can only drift so far before the harvest fails and everyone starves. That's the negative feedback holding them to some degree of ecological balance.

Fabian, no, I hadn't seen these. Many thanks!

Martin, that was also the problem with Buckminster Fuller, and a lot of other high-tech architects. Vernacular architecture seems like a better bet to me.

Agent, exactly. Thank you for getting it.

Druidovik, I'd noticed that as well. You'd think Gaudi's popularity would inspire emulation, but no. Many thanks, btw, and I'll certainly post something if Ottawa ends up on my travel plans!

Mark, it's a good approach.

Fabian said...

@ JMG:

Agree wholeheartedly about Gehry and his ilk. “Starchitects” like Gehry, Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhas, Peter Eisenman and IM Pei with their grandiose but hideously ugly exercises in narcissistic exhibitionism have done much to turn our urban environments into a source of mass insanity (ye gods, I am starting to sound like Jim Kunstler!).

@ Druidovik:

I love the work of Antoni Gaudi! He produced such amazing buildings, which were as much works of art as they were functional. Sadly, he was eclipsed by the modernist school of architecture (Bauhaus, Corbusier, etc).

Another architect I really admire is Christopher Alexander. He has made many of the same criticisms of modernist architecture, Western urbanism and the Faustian mindset that the Archdruid has. His book ”A Pattern Language” is one of the great classics of architecture and has influenced a great many other fields, from computer software design to ecology. I would also highly recommend his other works, including “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, “The Timeless Way of Building” and “The Nature of Order”.

Here are some other Alexander related links:

New World Economics has some really good stuff as well and has some great pictures of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona.

Erik Buitenhuis said...

Do you hold out no hope, then, that humanity might find a way to combine the negative feedback and stability with intermediate amounts of the products of culture?

Renaissance Man said...

Thank you. So, I suppose the answer to the poorly-formed question that sparked in my mind two weeks ago, viz., why we keep repeatedly creating civilizations when our most basic and reliable mode of existence is small settlements and tribes, would be that the very thought process that induces a tribal culture to start along the urban path precludes any sort of ideological governor-mechanism that would prevent eventual expansion to full urbanization and subsequent collapse.
Crossing the threshold from small settlements to towns inevitably leads to cities thence to urban centres seems to create that increased complexity which gives rise to increased opportunities for individual expression and a sense of freedom, or at least the sense of potential, for the individual.
Were I living in a Saxon village, in a life tightly bounded by law and social factors, there are a very limited number of potential speciality jobs to be done and very little leeway for exploration and very little exposure to new sources of inspiration. But with increased population and increased concentration, formerly part-time jobs, for instance, making boots, become full-time occupations, and thus the number of specific, specialized occupations rises. Moreover, those occupations produce more comfortable standards of living, along with status of achievement, and intellectual challenges. Concomittantly, the apex jobs, at the top of the social pyramid, become more expansive, requiring ever more assistants, which gives rise to more opportunities for individuals, so a relatively simple government structure under William I, becomes significantly more complex by the time of Henry VIII.
Life gets more interesting and the possibilities beckon.
Seductive; a devil's bargain, since, even as these individual possibilites open up, they close off the means by which disaster may be averted.
Your observation about architecture took me a moment... then I realized from archeology that Vikings, for example, did most of their work in bays in the living quarters of the longhouse, all together, sharing space and time. 500 years later, all these jobs were separated into different workshops, and within different workshops, different tasks were separated into separate rooms. Today, a huge number of us work in a hypercomplex world of individual cubicles with only virtual connections and this is presented as the only jobs worth having.

sgage said...

@ JMG,

"...pops up again saying, "I'm not dead yet!""

Puts me in mind of a certain Monty Python skit... 'bring out your dead, bring out your dead'...

Revelin said...

A wonderful series, again.

Re mental constructs/environment/feedback loops:

When the Romans arrived in Britain, they found long-standing ancient roads that went out of the way to circumvent a forest, loop around a hill, follow a river bed, or what have you. Prime exponents of the-destination-not-the-journey mindset, the Romans cut through, bulldozed, paved and created the straightest lines possible for their military. Linear thought begets straight lines begets linear thought begets...

Is there a case for the environment shaping the human mental constructs which then shape the environment in turn? Religion, say: If you live near a majestic inaccessible mountain shrouded in clouds and mist, your gods may well be there. If you’re in the desert and the law of the land is a brutal survival exercise in which you need the strong tribal chieftain to secure food and water, then your god is harsh, merciless and patriarchal. If you’re in low, verdant, fertile land with abundant water, then your gods dwell in a forest, or in an oak tree, or with the river nixies. If you worship the divine in nature, then your religious temples are of nature. Later your mental constructs make an appearance and you achieve a degree of separation and your temples become about shifting stones or piling up boulders to build a mound, but still roofless, open. As you hunker down and separate further, the temples become enclosed, roofed, more ‘artificial’. On a somewhat flippant side note, always found it ironic that the sky-god daddy religions went for dark temples where you couldn’t actually see the sky.

I can see the stone circles and other European megaliths surviving another few centuries, and then a few more (although, granted, some of Britain’s will likely be submerged). Those cold, bank-HQ-housing glass-and-steel phalluses of modern architecture, be they in London, Dubai, Manhattan or Singapore? Not so much.

pygmycory said...

Hmm, so relatively high population, quite poor, doing lots of subsistence agriculture in fairly small plots. That sounds rather like 1990s Rwanda.

I can't help wondering if population might end up going rather lower than 5% of maximum, given the scale of the current population compared to pre-fossil fuel populations and the amount of damage being done. Still, intensive organic agriculture is quite good at feeding people on small plots of land, so maybe 5% would work out as a minimum.

Revelin said...

Something you may find amusing: My father was involved in the discovery of oil in Libya in the 1950s, serving as advisor to the then royal government, working on drafting Libya’s first petroleum law etc. He told me of the occasion when he and the US charge d’affaires went to inform the king (Idris I) that the Standard Oil consortium had struck black gold. The old king replied: ‘I wish you had found water. Water makes men work. Oil makes men dream’.

Robert Mathiesen said...

In Byzantine Christendom, emotions were thought to be seated in the bowels (the gut, broadly speaking), as also generally in the Bible and early Christianity (cf., e.g., "the bowels of compassion"). Knowledge took place in the heart (and definitely not in the brain), as did knowledge's lesser surrogate, thought. And in this world-view, there is a superior kind of knowledge that is *not in any way* mediated by the senses, nor again by logic and reason and words, but only by a sort of "direct perception"of the way things really are, which wholly surpasses the capacity of human language to express, however learned or eloquent the speaker (or writer). -- Nor, to juge by my own experience and that of others, is this "direct perception" limited to Christian mystics. But the Byzantine Christian accounts of it seem uncommonly clear to me and uncommonly insightful. Irénée Hausherr, La méthode de l'oraison Hésychaste (Orientalia Christiana, vol. 9/2, no. 36, Rome, 1927), edits and translates into French the clearest and most important of these accounts, the treatise "On the Three Methods of Prayer," falsely attributed to St. Symeon the New Theologian.

Patricia Mathews said...

If the Green Wizards & Ruinmen's Guild ever opens a branch in Albuquerque, here's one Failed Scholar who would be very pleased to join them for meetings.

Renaissance Man said...

As an aside, if you do want a good explanation of at least one reason why modern buildings became so ugly, may I suggest Stephen Pinker's book "The Blank Slate - The Modern Denial of Human Nature"? I found it to be quite enlightening about many aspects of late 20th Century culture that have always caused me to experience severe cognitive dissonance.
I have noticed around Toronto that a large number of condos are being built in art-deco style, or at least something more elegant and decorative than brutalist-minimalist-soviet style so fashionable 40 years ago or the chaotic-confusion style, of which Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gery are two of the starchitect poster-boys.
(BTW that crystal is the absolute worst design for an exhibition gallery ever conceived and executed. It is a colossal waste of space.)

John Michael Greer said...

Fabian, I wouldn't be too worried about sounding like Jim. You could do much worse.

Erik, eventually, it's possible. Civilization is so new that it may just be a matter of working the bugs out -- just as the tendency of early agrarian societies to strip their topsoil and perish has been gradually being countered by good agricultural techniques (or was being so until the coming of fossil-fueled agriculture), the tendency of civilizations to crash and burn may be amenable to some kind of eventual fix. That said, evolution's pace is very, very slow.

Renaissance, exactly. Complexity and specialization are marvelously successful over the short and medium term, until they undermine the basis for their own survival.

Sgage, why, yes, I was thinking of that too. ;-)

Revelin, remember that the deities you're calling "sky gods" shed their atmospheric dimension long before they became the focus of missionary religions. The physical sky is a distraction if you're worshipping an abstract deity like those of the Middle Eastern monotheisms; you only want access to the sky if your sky god is still rooted in nature, the way (say) Zeus is. When an ancient Greek wanted to comment on wet weather, he or she would be likely to say "Zeus is raining." Can you imagine a modern Christian saying "Jehovah is raining"?

Pygmycory, yes, or like any other mostly rural Third World society. That's fairly common in nonindustrial agricultural societies, though it's common for such societies to evolve ways to maintain minimum plot sizes and export or otherwise get rid of surplus heirs -- say, endless border wars with the nearest nomadic tribes. Could it get below 5%? Sure, if the damage to the biosphere, climate cycles, etc. is enough to cut the supply of arable farmland below the level that would support that.

Robert, true enough. The concept of nondiscursive, nonsensory knowledge is pretty widely distributed, as I recall -- one of many common human experiences that our civilization works overtime to exclude.

Patricia, I'll have to get some paperwork from Melumi for failed scholars, too!

Renaissance, a contest for worst exhibition space ever would be one very tightly fought competition! Worst library would get a blizzard of entries, too, though the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library is a real contender.

Ray Wharton said...

@ JMG and Celine, Patrica, and Eric

I am interested in putting effort into a Green Wizards Hedge here in Fort Collins, or for that matter a Ruinman's Guild. A charter that I don't pull out of my own rear would be useful, for the same reason that certain groups in times past made up external justifications for their charters.

Some time ago I read Inside a Magician's Lodge and emailed you JMG about how hard it would be to use those techniques as the foundation for a school of what today I would call green wizardry. The idea at the time was... overdetermined as you pointed out in a reply to that email. Since then I have minded carefully interest in such things around here.

There is major interest in what some folks are calling a permaculture guild, then they go on to clarify that they mean permaculture in addition the other techniques which basically have been termed 'green wizardry'. I have made some ground work on starting something I have been calling a Hedge of Wizards (Green having a less than useful connotation here in the mile HIGH state). There are even four members, and I can think of several folks that are interested. Still trying to come up with an adequate but still minimalist structure. Based on a strong positive response to a comment I made here a while back relating the 12 step programs to fossil addiction I started by trying to loosely model traditions off the 12 traditions, not very satisfied by how that turned out I opened 'Mystery Teachings of the Living Earth' and have been trying to write a Hedge Wizard system based on seven ideas modeled on some aspect of one of the seven laws which seems relevant to the limits important to the kind of group I would want to be a part of.

I am unsatisfied with what I have come up in my efforts to develop a seven 'spell' system. My daily meditations from now until the new moon are set out to explore different angles on this matter. I am yet unsure how that exploration will head, there are very divergent matters to think about.

The moral of this whole tale is that I am very passionately interested in a Green Wizards charter program, and have only not participated in the internet forum because my screen addiction is poorly managed enough with out addition of another page to check periodically. If there is anyway that I can contribute to this coming to be I offer them!

Ray Wharton said...

Here, I offer one version of the seven spell system I have been working on, its inadequacies are still sever, but I hope that it has some merits enough to be of use to others in developing simple buy sufficient formal structures for defining the role of a green wizard.

1. Of Tending. Tend to the needs, abilities, and virtues of fellow Green Wizards, and together to tend to social and natural communities you participate in.

2. Of Plenty. Send abundance to where it will be appreciated, turning scarcity to plenty.

3. Of Shelter. That a delicate working not be disturbed, when Green Wizards cross paths they may invoke shelter to discuss workings and quests in a space where other topics are not for the time welcome. These topics generally would include ideology and judgment of the behavior of ones not present.

4. Of Oaths. A Green Wizard may have a name within their hedge, and if they speak by it they are bound to honesty, both in reporting and in declaring intentions.

5. Of Guidance. A working dear to the hedge should have one Wizard trusted to guide it and responsible to all consequences of the working.

6. Of Boundary. The workings of another Wizard are not for you to promote, advertise, or blab about generally with out their explicit permission. Workings are done for their ends, not for attention.

7. Of Learning. If the hedge does not as a group address a matter or teach a subject you are interested in, address it personally as part of your own maturation by seeking your own study until you are able.

If one or two ideas from this list are of benefit I would be thrilled. In my study for interest I have found that it is useful to not invoke reminders in my generation of experiences with work or the authorities of our society. Simplicity in formality is favored. Ritual is held in diverse esteem, ideally there should be flexabulity for each charter to select its relationship to ritual, silliness could be very advantagious in this matter with out sacraficing function . Concerning initiations, brilliant topic, but not for this venue.

Grokrah the Green of the Fort Collins Hedge of Wizards.

Melissa M. said...

That Ontario College of Art and Design is hard to beat, but I have to submit my local monstrosity, the California Academy of Sciences. Not so hideous, but a spectacular fall from grace. My childhood haunt went from a series of content-rich rooms and halls encircling a courtyard that would take two days to thoroughly cover, to a barren (but 'green'!) husk that could be seen in half a day. (of particular note is the before and after difference in the floor plans)

May the planners and designers be subjected to popular-culture tackiness equal to their own offense...

streamfortyseven said...

@Bill Pulliam - Actually, there's a kind of concrete which doesn't require fossil fuel inputs, and which is far longer lasting than today's concretes. It's known as pozzolano, and it's made using a certain kind of volcanic ash and salt water. It is so strong that it doesn't require iron reinforcement. The Pantheon, built by Hadrian 2000 years ago, is one of the more well-known examples of the use of this material. The concrete docks at Rome's ancient port are another example, and pozzolano was also used to construct Roman roads, many of which survive to this day.

mgalimba said...

Hello JMG,
I'd like to second the sentiments of an earlier commenter, that I enjoy your blog for the intellectual content, but even more for the kindness and humanity - the heart - that imbues your entire enterprise. Thank you for making it so!

Here's something from the agricultural journalism world on a projected 10% reduction in growing days for farmers due to extreme heat.
I don't think it will be as simple as making a choice, but personally I'd choose the dangers and discomforts of barbarism over the soul-death of urban civilization anytime. The only prospect worse than collapse is non-collapse i.e. the continued trajectory towards a virtual, machine-enabled existence for humanity in a continually degrading environment.

Cherokee Organics said...


That is very amusing, but they really don't come across well at all in the story. Incidentally too, Conan rules his kingdom using the various maxims and guides that both Sun Tzu and Wu Tzu provided. I've only come across snippets that mention how he rules his subjects but you get the impression that as he was simple requirements, the burden that he places on his subjects is minimal.

Thank you very much about the PV statistics!



donalfagan said...

Architects are really taking it on the chin here. In my opinion, the machine-age aesthetic caught on because less hand craft, more machine craft, and the reduction in costs therefrom appealed to the people financing the buildings. There was a sort of natural selection, if you will, favoring architects that could make elegant buildings without employing legions of highly-skilled, methodical, union tradesmen. The problem of course, is that few architects can make the spare international style, modernism, or post-modernism actually look good. When executed by lesser talents, classical beaux-arts buildings may be awkward, but the detailing is still good. In the hands of lesser architects, modernism just looks drab and the detailing makes you want to steer clear lest you tear skin or clothing. But now very few clients want to pay for well-detailed buildings, and the craftsmen have died off and been largely replaced by assemblers.

When I went to Barcelona, there were avenue after avenue of gorgeous row houses in the 19th century section. Some of them were fairly sober historical styles, but many were playful designs in what they called the Catalonian modernista movement, and the best of those were by Gaudi. So it isn't accurate to say that no one else was doing what he did. There was a parallel Art Nouveau style practised around the world and the arts and crafts or craftsman style also took place around the same time. Look up Stickley or Greene and Greene, for examples. FL Wright's best work seems to have craftsmen elements, and his worst work seems to tend more towards international style.

nuku said...

Yes! Right on the money with your comments on modern archeticture. Here in New Zealand we also have a plague of literally box-shaped houses and commercial buildings with stripped down, completely bland, hard-surfaced, sterile interiors.
Many so-called architects site these totally non-organic forms in the midst of areas of grand natural beauty. The resulting disharmony between built structure and its surroundings is painfull and sad.
Two books which illuminate your comments are: “From Bauhaus To Our House“ by Tom Wolfe, and “The Failure Of Modern Architecture“ by Brent C. Brolin

Patricia Mathews said...

And since you've also been talking of Chthulu, here's a take on the mythos or our times. Not fictional; 'ripped from the headlines'. He and his now lurk on the Internet.

Patricia Mathews said...

And I think we remember how Rwanda solved its overpopulation problem in our own lifetimes. A very nasty intertribal civil war, complete with massacres aplenty. And when the dust settled, "what have we done? We must have been crazy."

Pat, news junkie since 1945.

hcaparoso said...

Too funny!! And I was thinking of the parrot sketch,"He's not dead, just restin'!"

hcaparoso said...

@Patricia Mathews,
I live in Rio Rancho. Would you, and anyone else in the general vicinity of Albuquerque, like to get together? My name is Heather Caparoso. It would be wonderful to meet up!

Matthew Sweet said...

Off-topic. I've been a regular reader for several years now. My wife has been very much into Wicca and witchcraft for most of her adult life, although she would categorize herself as non-practicing these days. Anyways, yesterday we were sitting in the living room playing with our daughter and I was glancing through some of her old books that she recently put out on our bookshelf. I picked up a copy of the 2000 Llewellyn's Almanac, and who should I discover amongst the list of contributors but JMG himself. "But of course" I remarked to myself. We were very amused to discover this common thread, and we enjoyed your article entitled "So you want to be a real magician" (possibly from the 1999 edition, my memory escapes me).

pygmycory said...

With reference to awful architecture, there is a building at the university of Victoria that was designed after the human brain. It is almost impossible to find some of the classrooms and laboratory space in there, and the students had a running joke that the architect was doomed to haunt the building forever, trying to find Cornett 122B. (122A and 122C exist, 122B does not)

A friend of mine had a curse "whoever designed this ought to be made to use it", which she aimed at anything badly designed, but especially computer-related. I thought it was awesome, and promptly adopted it. I thought some of the people on here might appreciate that one.

pygmycory said...

That had occurred to me about Rwanda too. Another example I had thought of was pre potato-famine Ireland, although half the problem there was the large landowners and their English overlords. When the plots people are surviving on get too small things can really get nasty whenever something like a blight or drought hits because there is no room for error.

I'd expect that to be one of the mechanisms by which population goes down before hitting bottom, actually.

sgage said...

@ hcaparoso

"And I was thinking of the parrot sketch,"He's not dead, just restin'!"

"He's not dead, he's just pining for the fjords." :-)

Good ol' MP...

HalFiore said...

Ha. For worst library, and for more functional reasons than aesthetics, I nominate UC Davis, Shields undergraduate library. At the height of the "expand we must" craze of the 80s, they effectively abandoned the much more reasonably-scaled existent library: shaded, masonry, oriented toward the east; with a stucco and glass monstrosity that features a perfect solar box cooker situated on it's western facade (and entrance.) This in the Central Valley of California. It will be unusable in the summer after cheap air conditioning becomes unavailable. Form doesn't necessarily have to follow function, but it ought to at least have a passing acquaintance...

Varun Bhaskar said...


I would love to float a Green Wizards Charter here in Madison. We have plenty of them around, but they go by various other names.

I'm pretty sure Madison's main library would be a shoe in for the top ten of worst designs.


I'm copy pasting the whole list for future reference.



Patricia Mathews said...

@hcaparoso - send me your email address and I'll get with you. Mine is on the print Green Wizard list - with the wrong spelling. My email address is:

PMATHEWS55-at-MSN-dot-com. Note: M-A-T-H-E-W-S, one and ONLY ONE "T".


P.S. Driving out to Rio Rancho from the University district has become close to a deal-killer for me, unfortunately. Osteoarthritis in the left hip and knee. Grrr...

Sven Eriksen said...

Thank you again, for another very valuable perspective. I knew deep down that it wasn’t coincidental that my favorite two forms of relief whenever the pressure to take part in acting out the collective stupidity becomes too overwhelming are ADR and Conan novels. One thing I’ve noticed about the artificial environments discussed here, and the people who (spiritually and intellectually, as well as physically) inhabit them is that the more they seem to “work”, i.e. the more they actually succeed in sheltering their hapless inmates from any experience of real world, the more the whole thing gets imbued with a kind of angry pride. Whenever you find yourself in such a setting there is always an undercurrent of anger and fear aimed at coercing you into not displaying any genuinely human behavior or expressing any awareness of anything that is actually going on anywhere. It’s… well… just frankly disturbing…

As for a prime example of our culture’s pervasive hatred of beauty: Norwegian authorities recently banned semi-trailers styled with art from driving on the nation’s highways, if the artwork portrayed beautiful women…

Hugo Costa said...

Hello John, I usually visit your blog but this is the first time I comment. What do you think about the possibility of Bhutan maintaining its integrity or, at least, suffer major disruptions much later than others such as the US? Its government is trying to make the whole country organic but it's being difficult to resist the pressures from its people to 'modernise'. I reckon that that country can be more resilient than others. The two factors that I see as a threat are climate change and, especially, mass migrations from countries like India or Bangladesh. It's surrounded by mountains but mountains cannot stop desperate people. What's your opinion? What other zones of the globe (if there's any) might suffer less serious disruptions?

Sven Eriksen said...

How good of you to bring that up. Would you be surprised to learn that the heart figures in the western spiritual and mystical traditions to a much greater extent than in their eastern counterparts, and that it is recognized as the seat of perception? The centers in the head, by contrast, are linked with kind of non-sensory, non-discursive awareness that Robert brought into play a little further down the list of comments, i.e. they don’t have anything to do with “thinking” (and certainly not the kind of mechanical regurgitation of culturally imposed narratives that passes for thinking in our society). It would be great to have your friend’s perspective on this, too.

MIckGspot said...

Time to architect a new dream.

nuku said...

Re concrete: In most kinds of concrete other than pozzolano, sand is a major component. One would think that this is one resource in abundant supply, but it turns out that even this humble material is being fought over in places like India and China. Peak Sand?
See this:

John Michael Greer said...

Ray, the difficulty from my end is to keep possession of a charter from turning into a claim of unearned authority or a source of political nastiness. Both of those happen way too often in the esoteric scene once charters and their implied authority come into play, and I could all too easily see the same thing get under way here. I'd frankly prefer it if the Green Wizards Benevolent and Protective Association were to remain at least half a joke, a wry label used by people who would be doing the same things anyway without the framework.

Melissa, that does look good and ghastly -- and the dumbing down seems to be a popular trend also.

Mgalimba, you've brought up a very important point, and one that's probably going to be central to next week's post. What happens when the only options offered by the existing order of society are business as usual and collapse, and business as usual is unbearable and getting worse?

Cherokee, one of the things that makes barbarian warlords popular in eras of collapse is precisely that compared to the cost of supporting a sprawling imperial bureaucracy with its armies of parasitic functionaries, supporting a warlord and his court in the style to which they aspire is actually a really good bargain.

Donalfagan, oh, I know. Architects are simply one part of a dysfunctional system, and get to choose between cooperating with that system and not making a living. With regard to Gaudi, though, I didn't mean to suggest that nobody was doing the same thing back in the day; I've simply noticed that despite all the praise lavished on Sagrada Familia -- and deservedly -- how many of today's architects are borrowing ideas from it, rather than from modernism?

Patricia, funny. Me, I'd draw a hard distinction between Cthulhu and Google; I like Cthulhu because he and his minions are so overwhemingly biological, inhabiting the realm of instincts and dreams. What makes Google loathesome to me is that it reeks of the hubris of the allegedly rational conscious mind. As for Rwanda et al., well, yes, and that's likely to be part of the scenery on the way down, too.

Matthew, now there's a blast from the past. Yes, when I first broke into print I was more or less part of the Llewellyn stable of authors, and contributed to several of their annuals, before we hit a parting of the ways for a while.

Pygmycory, that's definitely a keeper. I know a woman who spent a year in a dorm designed by Walter Gropius. It was almost unlivable, and the students who had to live there agreed that Gropius should be condemned to live in one of his own buildings for all eternity.

Halfiore, that sounds like a contender. If Jim Kunstler hadn't already done the same thing, I might consider a "Really Sucky Architecture of the Month" column or something.

Varun, if charters ever come into play, I'll keep that in mind.

Sven, okay, you've just made my day. If the Archdruid Report can stand beside Conan stories as a defense against the violent absurdity of modern life, I feel that I've actually accomplished something! Hmm; I'm imagining a short story, "Conan and the Archdruid"... ;-)

Hugo, I don't know the Bhutanese situation so am not really qualified to comment. Please keep in mind that I've never lived outside of the US, and the world already has too many clueless Americans trying to tell the rest of the world what's going on.

Mick, no, there I disagree. Trying to architect (is that a verb?) a new dream is like trying to design a new tree. The dreams that matter are the ones that emerge organically, by their own innate logic, not the ones we try to manufacture. A world of made, as e.e. cummings said, is not a world of born...

Erik Buitenhuis said...

That said, evolution's pace is very, very slow.
Well, yes, genetic evolution is very slow. Some time ago you suggested we think about what we would try to keep from our times for the use of the ecotechnic future. I would suggest that what you've been talking about these three weeks is one of those things. Memetic evolution is potentially a lot faster than genetic evolution. Still slow, but faster. So I think this needs to be turned into a cultural meme. That's what you're doing here, to be sure, but as I started to suggest last week I also think that the scientific method could be of value in that process. So if your experience shows you need an institutional affiliation, find someone who has that to collaborate with? In my experience, if you offer to do the majority of the work, it's not difficult to get others on board. I'm sure you can find someone with more relevant experience than me as a coauthor.

Jo said...

Let's face it, this is the kind of house we all really want to live in:

I do want to thank the commenters here for your frequent wonderful book suggestions. Thanks to you I have recently read Harlan Hubbard's 'Shantyboat Journal' - his account of building a shantyboat with his wife, and sailing and living in it for eight years, living off the river and the land in the 1940s.

Also, William Coperthwaite's 'Handmade Life' which is a wonderful treatise on the importance of working creatively with brains and hands and creating a life on a very human scale.

It is very encouraging to think that so many courageous people have just up and left our society and made their own way, and to read about them gives a sense of the glorious possibilities for all of us to swim against the current..

MIckGspot said...

JMG said "Mick, no, there I disagree. Trying to architect (is that a verb?) a new dream is like trying to design a new tree. The dreams that matter are the ones that emerge organically, by their own innate logic, not the ones we try to manufacture. A world of made, as e.e. cummings said, is not a world of born... "

Perhaps architect is too strong a word, the idea is to envision alternative realities for the purpose of adapting, surviving or just plain having fun while trying to make them happen. Within that realm, dreaming works for me. I dreamed of having a garden in my back yard and now do (of course actions in physical world needed to happen for it to be so, but it started with a dream).

It is difficult for me to imagine I'm just blown about by winds of change. Perhaps that is what is truly happening? None the less, I may delude myself into trying to pin down what is really happening now then imagining some other sorts of futures and trying to attain them. Somewhat like mass marketing. To architect a dream.

I think, many people (will be/are) looking for replacements to the prevailing reality belief systems. New constructs will emerge and/or be constructed to meet this need.

As the chorus to the old song (row row row your boat0 goes "MERRILY, MERRILY, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream"

Thank you Archdruid for sharing your understanding.


hcaparoso said...

Monty Python, miss those guys!! Nice to find another aficionado! "Pretty Plummage"!

roland said...

this might be off topic, but it is important.
It is offical now: western civilisation is dead.

just thought i'd share that with you.

on another note, i'd like to throw the name Hundertwasser into the discussion about architects. Just to show things could have been done differentely.

latheChuck said...

An un-sustained project in "sustainability": I recently had the opportunity to assist a college ham radio club with some antenna work, which took place on the flat roof of a campus dining hall. On our way to the antenna zone, we passed the "rooftop vegetable garden". It was A Great Idea: grow food upstairs; eat it downstairs! Learn how food grows! Eat it fresh! Shade the roof, to demand less A/C! Decorate your planters with bright, happy designs! According to the web site, it's a project with sub-projects for both faculty and students.

According to what I SAW, on the other hand, it was a wasteland of recycled containers overflowing with dessicated weeds. The greenhouse was only a frame around some planting bins, with a heap of polyethylene photo-degrading in the summer sun. The compost bins were empty. The web content dated to 2011, so maybe they got more than a single growing season out of it, but I have to wonder: didn't anyone realize that a college campus is more-or-less deserted during the summer? Who would tend this garden in June, July, and August? The answer, it seems, is "no one".

At home, however, I have picked about 25 lbs. of tomatoes from just six plants, with more on the vine, having used no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, in a spot that's lucky to get six hours of direct sunshine.

D. Mitchell said...

I am trying to convince my husband of the joys of hand tools. I took woodshop in the early 90's for 2 years. We were never allowed to use power tools because of "insurance liability issues" and we were 10-12 years old. We made awesome things from little jig saws, C clamps, miter boxes and hand saws, and screwdrivers, and augers. We planed by hand and sanded by hand. I love working with wood. My husband just wants to get the project over and done me it's like art. When I can run my hand over a piece and it is smooth without linseed oil or polishing, I know I did alright.

Scythe of Relief said...

Howdy JMG,

Have enjoyed this series immensely.

I was listening to this podcast with David Holmgren the other day.

It is one of the best interviews I have heard with David. And what I found particularly interesting in this interview is, how he explains how most ecologist after Howard Thomas Odum, ended up suffering from reductionist thinking. Although that may be changing.

It made me think, would barbarians be better ecologists?

Cheers, and enjoy a locally brewed dark ale or three on me.;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Erik, no question it would be good to get these ideas going as memes -- and that's why I post to this blog weekly. The academic industry is the last place that's going to embrace this sort of thinking, and the last place that would do anything constructive about it if they did embrace it. It's outside the official academy, among the quarter of a million people or so who read this blog every month, that I hope to get traction for ideas such as these.

Jo, you'd be surprised how much diversity there is among green wizards when it comes to preferred housing type. That's certainly one very pleasant option, but it's far from the only game in town!

Mick, to my mind it's not a choice between 'architecting' and being blown about by the winds of change. Somewhere in the middle is the way of the sailor, who feels the wind and sets his sails to it, or the way of the herbalist, who finds something new growing in the garden patch and decides whether to compost it, transplant it, or change the garden plan to make room for it.

Roland, is absurdity a good measure of culture death? As for Friedensreich Hundertwasser, oh, granted -- and he's not the only one. There are a lot of creative talents out there on the fringes -- but they're not the ones who get the contracts to build most of our built environment.

LatheChuck, yes, I've seen that sort of thing way too often. Abstract gestures in the direction of something useful, unaccompanied by any sort of meaninful process or follow-up.

D. Mitchell, one way that often works is to have much more fun doing woodworking than he does. With hand tools, that isn't hard.

Scythe, nah, barbarians simply live ecologically. You've got to separate yourself from a whole system in order to study it scientifically, and that's not really part of your barbarian skill set. When it comes to separation, they tend to concentrate on separating heads from bodies and loot from any available source, and that's about all!

steve pearson said...

This series of posts reminds me of an aspect of urban alienation from natural forms and negative feedback loops that I see on a daily basis. Even in the finest of weather, which is the norm here in Hawaii, about 90% of the cars one sees have their windows closed. Obviously they have their air conditioners on and most probably their stereos. Many are probably talking on cell phones and, if they need to find a place they don't know, looking in up on an electronic gizmo. Most of the roads are dead straight and much of the time traffic is in gridlock, so there they sit one by one in their shiny, little, well maybe not little, sensory deprivation systems, for which most of them have payed $25 or $30,000.
At least, when I did most of my driving, one had to open the window if one wanted air, and figure out a map or stop and ask someone if one didn't know where one was going; and the roads were generally more curvy and fun.
cheers, Steve

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Ray Wharton--Regarding your adequate but minimalist structure for a Hedge, here are some general observations based on my experiences in small to medium sized voluntary interest groups. This might be basic stuff you learned before I was born; if so I apologize.

One of the early leaders and visionaries of a group I belong to remarked, "Those who show up are the members. Those who do the work are the leaders. Everything else is (mild expletive)." This is a useful maxim for a group in its start-up phase. Later on, it won't be adequate as a governing structure.

Some people are doers, some are thinkers, and some are only here for the beer. It's good to have both regular discussions and work projects with a near term completion date to keep the first two kinds of people interested, while preventing the good timers from becoming burdensome.

If religious or quasi-religious ritual is important to maintaining the group identity, a member who is a good writer is valuable. Tedious ritual will drive people away.

To ensure long term survival, designate an officer or a small body (whose composition is well defined) as the ultimate buck stopper. This officer or body has authority and power to curb abuses and to kick out anybody who threatens the survival of the organization. If this officer or body exercises authority arbitrarily or unwisely, the people it kicks out or drives out will just start another organization, no real harm done. But if the organization lacks anybody with such authority, various kinds of rot can spread unchecked and destroy it.

squizzler said...

Your Cimmerian hypothesis is compelling. However I am inclined to think it might not be the distortion of society’s model of the world as its fragmentation: we are all so specialised, cogs in the machine, we cannot hope to have a rounded view of the complicated world we live in. I got the impression your earlier poster “Renaissance Man” have might be grasping towards this.

You refer specifically the built environment, and how it tends to isolate us from the natural environment and shapes us for good and bad, which is something I am reasonably well read in from my training as a town planner. I think there exist plenty of templates of society that could be built to avoid this trap and disprove the hypotheses, we don't (or didn't) have to build modern comfortable societies that are destined to fail through the way you describe. Permaculture, as the name suggests, is intended to be the civilised, comfortable human habitat that addresses these problems. Earlier, Ebenezer Howards Garden Cities are a late 19th century attempt to address the problems of urbanisation and isolation from the natural environment (great idea, but of course his principles were taken outside by commercial land developers, given a good kicking, and remade as suburban sprawl). Anyone interested in permaculture should read Garden Cities of Tomorrow - a peaceful path to reform, this guy had it sussed.

I was once watching a programme about the alleged settlement that existed in pre columbian amazon basin (their enduring legacy is a soil called terra preta (black earth), containing char and other improvers, much more fertile than the natural amazon basin soil) and an ariel photo was overlaid with a plan of how archeologists thought the settlement was laid out across the landscape. It consisted of modest clusters linked by roads. I nearly dropped my tea because it looked just like a garden city. If it hadn't been for European diseases then maybe this pattern (human ecology to borrow the term from this blog) would have survived long enough to be documented for future reference before, doubtless, modern commercialism knocked it on the head.

Which leads me to wonder, would a civilised (ecotechnic, to borrow your term) society at peace with itself and the ecology, and don’t bring about their own collapse, always fall prey to a more aggressive society not constrained by considerations long term viability and hence prove the hypothesis correct?

KL Cooke said...

Off topic, but pursuant to our host's novel Twilights Last Gleaming...

It seems the much discussed F-35 fighter is about to be deployed.

This is the aircraft with which we hope to maintain air superiority in the interests of global dominance.

"Although the official price tag for the program is $391 billion, recent reports have estimated that the total cost to the Pentagon will be closer to $1.4 trillion, making it the most expensive weapons program in American history."

"The online publication War is Boring reported this week it had obtained a leaked report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter authored by a test pilot, who described the F-35 as slow-moving, cumbersome and difficult to maneuver."

And to top it off...

"...the F-35 program "has been hacked at least three times" and that most of its computer chips are manufactured in China and Taiwan, potentially leaving the plane vulnerable to computer viruses or backdoors granting Chinese hackers access to the jet's systems."

Guard your gold and hold your jewels.

Sven Eriksen said...

Granted, John, the two of you should totally gang up on Thoth-Amon and his minions one day. Say, didn't you actually publish a book about swordsmanship once?

Scythe of Relief said...

Yes, 'ecological solutions' barbarian style!

Of course JMG. It was just a funny concept I had in my head, rather than a serious question. And another shameless plug for David Holmgren's work (again) before that.


Cherokee Organics said...


Well it just may very well be a good bargain and certainly, it is not as if the powers that be here are not seriously considering lifting the sales tax on most items (would you believe they exclude some financial products from that tax?) from 10% to 15% (it is called the Goods and Services Tax or GST here)?

Ahh, what would Conan say to such matters? I thumb through the recent pages and find this choice quote which pretty much defines Howard's thoughts on the matter which finds its expression in the fictional voice of Conan:

"You sit on satin and guzzle wine the people sweat for, and talk of divine rights of sovereignty - bah! I climbed out of the abyss of naked barbarism to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely as I spilt that of others. If either of us has the right to rule men, by Crom, it is I! How have you proved yourself my superior?

I found Aquilonia in the grip of a pig like you - one who traced his genealogy for a thousand years. The land was torn with the wars of the barons, and the people cried out under suppression and taxation. Today, no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects, and the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world."

Incidentally, Conan was at that point in the story held in chains by rival kings and a sorcerer to boot! By Crom, he's got some fighting spirit that character!

On an interesting side note there has been an federal politician down under embroiled in an expense claim scandal whom amongst a few similar abuses chartered a helicopter at $5,000 to get from one city another minor city about 70km away just to save a few minutes when the fast train to that destination would have cost under $10 and taken only a few minutes more. It is not a good look at all.

And in another case of bullying down under the Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes who is exceptionally talented and had quite the career has had to take leave because he was being seriously booed by some people – or sections of the crowd - whilst he was on the football ground. I feel for the guy because he has used his status to highlight issues surrounding and challenging the dominant narrative in relation to Aboriginal issues and oh boy has he copped it, or what? It is a very tough thing to challenge the dominant narrative and I'm not sure I'd have what it takes to do that. Respect to him.

You wrote about that particular choice a few months ago. It is a tough road and sometimes I reckon on that road, if you win, you may also lose.



Cherokee Organics said...


Just forgot to mention this, but when I look out from this eagles eyrie, way off in the distant SW horizon I can see the Brisbane Ranges - just north of Geelong. Now for all sorts of reasons, the Brisbane Ranges have very poor soils, are not very high in elevation and are in a bit of a rain shadow. It is a tough school for a plant living in the Brisbane Ranges.

But do you know what? Those ranges also have the greatest diversity of wildflowers in the entire state. The difficulties for the plants living in that mountain range breeds a great deal of diversity and that is pretty much how I see the future. Strict limitations will be a breeding ground for diversity. It is really only the current usage of energy that can manage to dominate a culture so. It is a shame that so many interesting and well adapted flowers get snuffed out of existence.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Heian,

"a godzilla just passed by and vomited up a bunch of building parts into a complete building"

Haha! Too funny! Excellent description.

Keep up the good work. I try hard to make simple sheds here look very attractive and people seem to enjoy the effect.



Gunnar Rundgren said...

<DEAR JMG, I guess you don't have too many Mongolian readers? I am also not Mongolian, but happens to be there on a job. A few observations: The empire of Djingis Khan was not a localized thing, it spanned an enormous land-mass, linking almost all non-American civilization in some way. Ironically, this was the result of a pastoralist culture. I am myself amazed by that, as I tend to agree with you that nomads hardly build those kinds of civilizations - and ultimately the Mongols were assimilate by the Chinese subjects instead of the other way round. Mongolia shows a lot of examples of what happens when a civilizations collapses. It was part of the Soviet Empire and in agriculture they had mega-farms with fairly intensive production. At the time of my visit, I see remnants of Holstein cows in the nomads´herds, and all the fancy breed from the Soviet times have been mixed into a hardy local bread. Interestingly, the supposedly traditional herders I visited last night were less than traditional than I believed. Both man and wife were born herders, but had lived in the city and worked, she as a dressmaker and he as a driver (incidentally he was also a colleague of you of sorts, a shaman). But at retirement they took up herding instead. People seem to be able to move in and out of the civilization to some extent. Meanwhile, I am aware of that those moving out of the prevailing civilization are often strongly dependent on it, or on the scraps of it.

DaShui said...

Another take on the historical cycle:

Bill Pulliam said...

Scythe Re: HT Odum, not really anyone who came before or alongside him in the field was any more systems-oriented in his or her thinking either. In fact, the general trend in Ecology as an academic discipline has been towards bigger pictures. In an earlier era it was often defined simply as the study of "the distribution and abundance of organisms." Many people now studying the entire global interconnected hydrosphere/atmosphere/geosphere/biosphere ecosphere, a trend that dates back far into the 20th century, so it's not a new thing. I don't think Holmgren's criticism is necessarily well-founded.

Joseph Ashenbrucker said...

Shine, Perishing Republic
by Robinson Jeffers

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence;
and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly
long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught – they say –
God, when he walked on earth.

MIckGspot said...

TY for the sailing metaphor JMG. I have a new dream to build a sailboat this winter then relocate to Lake of the Woods next spring for new adventures in my autumn years.
So shall it be!

Caryn said...

Thank You again, JGM for a thought provoking read for the week.

In my personal opinion, Architecture as an art form (and creation of a functional piece) is almost always playing on nature: A comparison or contrast of nature and the surroundings of any given building. The reason modern architects usually place their square cement cracker boxes in the midst of a gorgeous and purely natural setting is the sharp juxtaposition of the absolute natural and absolute artificial. The balance has to be right, the placement of the box or boxes within and next to the natural feature, (tree, waterfall, desert expanse, sky expanse, what-have-you). As a purely visual piece, (It's subjective, yes) I personally love them when they're well thought out and well executed. There is no ornament, because the surrounding nature is the ornament. These buildings don't work at all in an urban or suburban environment. Even when they are plopped down in a suburb, they're ferociously covered with trees and bushes to try and capture that juxtaposition again.

I think this aesthetic is not meant to be as permanent a structure as ancient buildings were meant to be. The point is not to last for eternity, but to capitalize on the present, (in terms of a building that would be a few generations, no?) I don't think they build them to last forever to make their mark (like a tom cat!) on history, but to please the current population.
So the idea of a building's longevity is also a subjective goal.

The architects were probably also just having a bit of a play with the cool new materials they could use, that their forbearers couldn't. And just like fashion, we get bored of old looks and we tend to like shiny new things.

No defense for a buildings lack of function or unliveability; OK, other than, well, how functional or livable do you need it to be? I got my undergrad degree at ASU, in theatre design, and so: spent all of my class time in Frank Lloyd Wright buildings which are like Dr. Seuss drawings, very cool to look at, against the desert backdrop, but ALL suffer from functional problems. 'Epic Fail!'. OTOH: we got our work done, life went on. They could have been more functional, but were probably at least as functional as a Hobbit House, probably more so, and not THAT much worse than a standard box-shaped classical building. The trade-off was living with the 'Art' of the building. Of course, like every other student, I complained but honestly, for me it was worth it. For someone who didn't care about art, or just didn't like that style, it probably wasn't.

Caryn said...

Ugh so sorry, too wordy again!

Part 2:

It appears I'm the only one here, but I actually like Frank Gehry's stuff. I love that it's playful and weird. It plays with our expectations of scale. A crumple of aluminum foil or a warped tin box is not new or exciting to us, but a GIANT building of one is. I wouldn't argue that this playful, weird architecture is worth the time, energy or resources it took to build it, maybe yes, maybe no, but I still find them fascinating to look at. Playing with scale, as an artist has always held a fascination for me, like a warping of reality, a doorway to another more magical world. The artificial boxes juxtaposed in wild nature is, for me, another doorway.

Of course, (maybe it doesn't even have to be said), as with any artwork - when it is being watered down the 2nd, 3rd, or thousandth time, by a commercial designer only out to make money - it's a sad, pale image and it doesn't really count as 'art' (so, IMHO, not really worthy to be a part of the discussion)- any more than a Walmart knock-off of a Macy's knock-off of a Zara knock-off of an Alexander McQueen dress isn't really 'art'. I know: It's subjective, but arguably, the original McQueen IS art, the Walmart version would not be considered so by anyone - even by the designer who was tasked with translating it for mass market.

Oops, running out of battery, gotta sign off. Having a blessedly unplugged summer for the most part.

I may add more tomorrow, if I think of anything.

Thanks again, JGM & fellow commenters. I love learning from you all. :)

Bright City said...

Chris said: "Pah! Honestly if I have set one more person straight on the real world limits of solar electricity, I think I'll scream." I could use some talking points for this problem. My family includes two strong solar advocates. I too am pro-solar--who would be anti-solar?--but when faced with the "We can power the world with solar!" and "We have the technology to do it right now!" kind of thinking, I need more factual ammunition. Chris, what do you say to "set people straight"?

Also: On current architecture and its disconnection from the natural world, see the wonderful books of Christopher Alexander, especially "The Timeless Way of Building."

weedananda said...

Esteemed Archdruid,

You wrote: 'Original philosophical inquiry thus plays a very large role in the intellectual life of every civilization early in the process of urbanization, since this helps elaborate the core ideas on which the civilization builds its vision of reality' Any chance you might elaborate on this point? I'm intrigued to know more regarding your take on the philosophical underpinnings of our civilization which emerged in its early stages (10th - 13th centuries?).

Thanks so much for all the work you do and to all the earnest members of this community who comment so thoughtfully each week. I usually read through all of it several times and learn so much. It's an amazing 'food for thought' feast -- I'm profoundly grateful and appreciative.

Sylvia Rissell said...

I have been trying to come up with a group ritual to plant the idea of willingness to live simply, do what you need to get by, and encourage a willingness to shrug off first world problems.

"I am not too good to drink water." (group drinks water)
"I am hungry enough to eat greens." (not sure how this part works)

It needs a third part... Maybe something about shoveling poop.

It is yours if you need it!

Jo said...

@ Cherokee Chris: re your comments about the wildflowers which flourish on poor soils - Tim Flannery made the same point in one of (?) his books - that the temperate climates and well-nourished soils of Europe and the damper bits of North America have what he call 'weed ecologies' - most plants will grow in most places there, while the very old, leached soils and harsh climate of Australia and other marginal landscapes have niche ecologies - plants that have had perforce to develop extreme adaptations to local conditions, and don't tend to flourish anywhere else.

Rooibos tea, for instance, my new favourite, only grows in a small discrete region of South Africa. No-one has succeeded in growing it anywhere else in the world, for reasons unknown. And now the changing climate is threatening its very existence. So I think it cuts both ways if you are using this as an analogy - yes, limited resources can make for a fabulous flowering of creativity, but on the other hand, weeds cover so much more ground and don't die out like delicate snowflakes when conditions change...

However, I do see your point. I am thinking of all the amazing vernacular architecture that was born from necessity - the cliff-cave villages in Turkey, yurts in Mongolia, underground dug-outs in Cooper Pedy, and the elegant chicken houses made from recycled iron not far from your own back door:)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Bright City,

Well if you had to rely entirely on solar PV, then your city may not be so bright. I've been running daily statistics for the solar PV here and you'll note in the blog entry: Worst day Eva (sic), that one day around about the winter solstice the system generated only 0.375kWh. Now I don't use a whole lot of electrical energy here because those sorts of days can be common and are due to very heavy cloud and rain. With 23 panels installed (and there is no limit to the amount of panels that you can install with an off grid solar power system - unlike grid connect systems) you can quickly see that I would require 10 times those 23 panels just to make 3.75kWh. Thats 230 panels that is! It is not cost effective.

All I'm saying, is that if you are gambling your future on solar power you should be deeply afraid. Just sayin... Solar power is great, it just won't provide you with your current electricity usage - our expectations can not be met should fossil fuels become unavailable.



Scythe of Relief said...

Ah yeah Bill,

I did say most ecologists, and that it may be changing. I still found you comment interesting though.

It maybe better to listen to the podcast, than have me clumsily try and articulate it.


Dagnarus said...

On the subject of Civilizations marching Disney lemming like to there own oblivion. It seems that one of the major problems which faces all societies is that there members have free will. For example the people who make up a society all have the capacity to choose to leave that society, whether it be because of a slight, ambition, lack of interest, etc. For this reason I would argue that any successful society must find a method of ensuring that it's members use their will in only a limited way, E.G. not to leave the society, not to subvert the institutions of the society, etc. The methods to do this can be coercive, or remunerative. I would argue that this necessity often leads to a situation where a large societies needs to change course, but there is no consensus amongst the members of the society where that course change should be. Because there is no consensus amongst the members of the society, the society finds itself in a catch 22 where it must change course, but the act of changing course will likely tear the society apart. Looking at our own global civilization if we were to acknowledge that our current economy is to large to be supported by our finite planet it is unlikely that we would have consensus on what to do, it seems more likely that people would seek to use whatever leverage they have to ensure they keep theirs, and the necessary cutbacks should be made by others. While it might be in the best interests of everyone to work together to decrease our collective footprint in an orderly way, everyone has freewill, and this means that anyone can choose to go against this to maximize there own individual benefit. I think this is why everyone keeps running towards destruction, everyone already has consensus on that course, everyone has already been trained to agree with it. Therefore as long as we keep continuing along that course the society which we depend on to live will continue to exist. This probably less of an issue for smaller societal units as it is possible to get everyone together in a single room and have them nut things out.

Phil Harris said...

JMG wrote: “Phil, the thing is, agrarian societies can only drift so far before the harvest fails and everyone starves. That's the negative feedback holding them to some degree of ecological balance.”

Yes, I come from a line of English agricultural labourers; one 19th C family famously reared nine children. Agrarian societies are notorious for high or very high fecundity. (That is a high fertility rate per woman. Some hunter gatherer cultures seem to manage a lower or much lower rate.)

The study that I cited of remote Buddhist communities in Ladakh suggests a potential for population increase but also records specific adaptive cultural factors other than contraception that mitigate fertility rate. These matters could be worth our consideration going forward to an Ecotechnic society, there being no Utopian prospect! Being human is always going to be hard work.

The other trick for any of us born into an agrarian society is to survive childhood, especially infancy. In Ladakh those who survived into adulthood, however, could expect quite good health– healthier probably than the typical American, being completely free of hypertension for example. And there was no evidence of malnutrition. It all seems like useful data in my opinion.

Specifically considering your point about harvest failure: regional rather than strictly local storage of 'surplus' grain - 'seven good years' and so on - does require more cultural organisation. Sometimes putting it into the hands of religious organisation (a more balanced supra-order?) seems to have helped the ups and downs. There seems to be a case for thinking about a more religious insurance obligation. England broke through the original 'carrying capacity' population ceiling in the 18th C and we have never caught our breath since; and the process went global.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jo,

Tim Flannery is an outstanding ecologist. And that observation makes perfect sense too.

I feel for your Rooibos tea plants and have only just become aware of that particular drink recently. It is a bit embarrassing to mention, but I first heard about it in the delightful book series: "The number one ladies detectives agency", which is truly a thoroughly enjoyable tale. Most of the characters in the story which is set in Botswana drink the Rooibos tea, although there is a bit of contention later as it is revealed that some of the other main characters prefer the more traditional western teas. Rooibos tea is a refreshing drink. But I digress.

Soils are very different across the planet and there is such diversity in them, that we would never quite know what we are losing. Even here soils can vary wildly across a space as small as 20 metres. You'd be amazed and I've been looking at that today as a few fruit trees had to be moved and it does not hurt to transfer soil from one area to another here.

Of course, you are absolutely correct and I mourn for both when they are lost. We are all the poorer for it, but we just don't know it. However, nature is much tougher than we can ever imagine.

Thanks and that is high praise indeed!



Patricia Mathews said...

@ Sylvia - anyine who has ever been a mother under less-than-ideal conditions knows the 3rd one. "Well, *somebody* has to clean up this mess! Come on, kids, let's see who can move the most chicken droppings the fastest without spilling any."

("Awww, Mom, do we HAFTA?" "Do you want breakfast? Then you hafta."

Quin said...

Stretching My Comfort Zone, just a quick correction -- the prayer was written not by "Rabbi Terri Harris", but by "Rabia Terri Harris", Rabia being an Arabic name. Reading other pieces by her reveals that she clearly writes from a Muslim perspective. Of course that certainly does not reduce the meaning or impact of this moving prayer.

The other Tom said...

If civilizations crash and burn as a result of an "overdetermined" process, maybe our politics is a symtom of our delusional thinking. The language and ideology of our politics are models of thinking separated from feedback in the natural world. If politics is the settling of differences with words instead of other weapons, I would think politics is present in any group, including hunter-gatherers. In a politics with feedback from nature, a "conservative" would advocate preservation of our post-Ice Age environment, the status quo. A "progressive" would be able to distinguish between mere political correctness to silence dissent from the prohibition of language that only debases, inflames, spreads cruelty and undermines community. Change would never come for its own sake, any more than words for the sake of words. Change would come only because it works better. Bowdrills have been used for millennia, the same way, because the technology works.
I think a non-delusional politics would express a creative tension between the old and new within this immediate feedback. The only valid ideology would be what is already field tested.
It's easy to imagine a future society, more local and earth based, that views 21st century USA with the same dismissive condescention that characterized our view of the natives. Where we viewed natives as superstitious, they will view us as psychotic.
Of course, this is all speculation on my part, as I have never lived anywhere but contemporary North America.

MIckGspot said...

Sylvia said "t needs a third part... Maybe something about shoveling poop. "

How about self transport (at least for those who are able and not quadriplegic or with some other malady).

"I am fit enough to walk or bike to the store rather than drive."

GreenGoth said...

@ Tom Karmo, and others - if you haven't happened upon it yet, check out James Howard Kunstler's "Eyesore of the Month" devoted to modern architectural monstrosities; his readers contribute some of the "winners" as well. (I read his blog entries regularly, appreciate his commentaries on suburbia, the economic shell game and the coming collapse, etc. but gave up on the troll-ridden comments as they are not moderated; DEEPLY appreciate JMG's deft handling of this forum, keeping discussion civil, inspiring and informative!)

Another "starchitect" I abhor is Thomas Mayne, having the great misfortune of spending the last years of my career working in one of his "award winning" buildings in downtown LA. He should indeed be sentenced to life without parole inhabiting the Caltrans District 7 building, or probably any of his other monstrosities. We were stuck in that 13-story glass cube farm with so much glare on our computer screens we had to hold up folders with one hand to shade our eyes & computer screens and type with the other, while sweltering in the resulting greenhouse conditions with insufficient air conditioning. (Windows were not designed to be opened, of course, and the metal "scrim" exterior that was supposed to sense light conditions and raise/lower the cheese-grater metal panels over the windows never worked correctly.) Management insisted no window blinds could be installed as it would "impair the architectural integrity" of Mayne's design; in the first several years, frequent tours of admiring architects & their students from around the world came through, disturbing our work. Any who thought to ask the inmates what we thought of the building came away with a blazing earful, and directives were sent out telling us not to speak negatively about the showcase building. Good luck with that - unionized civil servants can & do speak freely, and management had to give way on installing blinds (at enormous expense) after the unions threatened legal action over the poor working conditions.

@Caryn, KL Cooke, etc. -- a couple decades back, I was looking at an early rendering in the newspaper [yes, how quaint, but even now I still subscribe to print news!] of Gehry's design for the Disney Concert hall in downtown LA. My 2-year-old daughter, in my lap, pointed at the picture and pronounced with childlike wisdom, "Broken!"

Gaianne said...

Architecture! A good way to push our buttons!

Whereas Modern Brutalism (think the concrete boxes from the 1960s) seems to say: “We don't care!” post-modern Starkitecture suggests to me a darker message:

“Earthlings! David Icke is right, and you have been conquered by hostile space aliens. Space lizards, if you like—though lizards are more benevolent than you know, and that term is an insult to us both. No matter! Survive if you can! We will be watching—and laughing.”

Indeed starkitecture sends a bold message! But can it live up to its message? Most of these buildings are rotting from the weather even before they can be inhabited. Maybe the buildings will succumb like H. G. Wells' Martians in “The War of the Worlds.”


jean-vivien said...

Seen today on Reuters' front page :
Podcast: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be the future, but is that a good thing?
US Influence in Asia is faltering as countries turn to themselves

It basically echoes what we have been discussing here regarding the military might of the USA, except it does it on the front page of the world's biggest US-driven press agency. And without the starry pointed hat ;-)

The F-35 is a good example of an abstraction : lockheed has been trying to produce the ultimate physical manifestation of a very general abstraction (by engineering standards), of the fighter jet. Worthy of interest is how this abstraction was produced : by corruption, greed, national interests and jumbling together incompatible requirements. Have we reached Peak Abstraction too ?

Inside the podcast on the F-35, they were, among other things, discussing the "virtual reality" helmet for the F-35's jet pilot. I remember that 20 years ago virtual reality was all the rage. And now it is pointed out to be a bad thing ! It has evolved into a watered down version coined "augmented reality". Reality doesn't seem to want to augment us, though...

So basically, abstractions live pretty organical lives, by abstractions' standards of course. Granted, those standards rank pretty high on the abstract, obviously. But yes, they do get born, sometimes in messy ways, mate with other abstractions (fighter jet + virtual reality), then mature, and as they come into contact with reality, they die (fighter jet), or grow old to die a slower end (augmented reality is virtual reality enjoying its stay at one of Abstractionland's luxury nursing home). They also fight together (fighter jet vs drones). There are also symbiotic relationships between abstractions : the tension between fighter jet and drone strike is what keeps the abstraction of air strike alive. Unfortunately the contact with the physical realm is not always sufficient to bring the realm of the abstract back to a more adequate connection with the physical realm.

jean-vivien said...

And some abstractions are used by humans to hide from the feedback provided by the physical realm :
I wonder how the feedback from reality gets hijacked in the process to the abyss of human ignorance...
Nothing that hasn't been already mentionned on this blog, though.

Bill Pulliam said...

Scythe -- nah, I'll pass on the bandwidth. I'm quite familiar with Holmgren's work. Wherever he started from, he is now selling a product that has come to resemble a pyramid scheme.

casamurphy said...


Very poignant. Added to the momentum built into civilization you describe is perhaps the genetically hard-wired attributive of many people to ignore calamities judged to be sufficiently far enough into the future.

Here is an interesting article about that:

Ed-M said...

Well I'm late to the discussion but since our favorite Archdruide barbarien mentioned how architecture has gotten uglier and uglier in the modern era (Robert Venturi has a LOT to answer for) I'll mention two ugly things that were built here in New Orleans in the 1950s and a new one that's almost finished.

Plaza Tower (designed by Wesley Peters, of the Taliesin Institute). This is Exhibit "A" for LeCorbusirer's dictum "And let us beware of American architects. For proof:..."

Parking deck on North Rampart St. Street View. This is downright hideous.

The new VA Medical Center: an immense monstrosity that has consumed 12 city blocks. Front side, back side. The latter view is far uglier than the front side; and, I'm afraid. far more typical of how this center will interact with the city.

Bob Patterson said...

Seldom is the necessity of growth/progress discussed as a condition to rationalize loans of large sums of money. How else would you pay the interest on the loans? This is the source of the growth/progress myth. Today, it appears what is happening is disaster capitalism (see Naomi Klein), wherein banks foist lots of inappreopriate loans (financed with etherial paper money) on nations or corporations, these loan head towards default, then are tranferred to sovereign wealth funds (to insure the banks), and the central banks/IMF direct the borrower to liqidate any solid assets to repay the phony loans. So...taking paper money created out of thin air, and ending up owning valuable assets.

Bob Patterson said...

I am seriously opnsidering a book about the absurities of life nowadays. I even have a title. "The Price of WOW". So much of what we deal with day-to-day has so little to do with the actual utility of things. Example: a man's watch. Since men are not supposed to wear a lot of jewelry and are pretty much limited to classic styles of clothing, the watch is considered the primary way to show (real or supposed) success, wealth status and taste. I wear a Casio, water-resistant, quartz calendar watch that retails for $15 on Successful people used to wear Rolexes (with oversized dials recognizable at a great distance) Recently Apple introduced it's weatch, having many functions (although you can't read your email...yet) for anywhere up to $10,000. for the gold version. Is it 900 times better? The same illustrations can be applied to clothing (Armani!), cars (Aston Martin DB 10!), champagne (Cristal!) and even buildings (Gehry! or Trump!). Indeed, in architecture the need for WOW has exceeded the need for the normal functioning of a building (keep the rain out, keep occupants heated or cooled). Naomi Klien has written some great stuff about corporations creating a brand as a cocoon to purvey various comodities. Here is a real aburdity for you. I know a man who is hired by people in the Bay Area that own exotic cars, to drive them (once they are equipped with kots of cameras) to their limit. So not only does the owner have a car that is not suited for the city, but has video proof of how "badass" his car is (without him driving it).

Bob Patterson said...

Taken to its ultimate extreme in the world of military procurement, the "Price of WOW" certainly applies to the new F-35 fighter plane, that dispite a lot of tech innovation and expenditure ($500 mill./plane)is evidently not able to outperform an F-16 from 20 years ago.
Presently, there is a massive PR campaign to overcome this slight deffiency. But it really does not matter, because these deficiencies will be the basis for various "upgrades" or even replacement with an even more expensive plane.

Cherokee Organics said...


Have you heard the old joke about economists?

- What do you call an economist that makes a prediction? Wrong.

To lend support to the above joke, in this particular instance I must quote Professor Irving Fisher who trying to explain away his complete lack of prescience in relation to predicting the stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. Apparently in November 1929 he suggested that the whole thing had been irrational and hence beyond prediction. Do you reckon that suggestion was an act of sophistry? Dunno. Maybe the study of economics is not really about people at all – who are quite often irrational? Again, dunno.

Anyway, moving along to the present day and I noted an article in the paper this weekend: Economics feeling the bite of declining demand.

My favourite quote from the article: "It's likely the subject is perceived by students as more intellectually demanding, with less well-prepared students preferring business studies". That comes across as sour grapes. The author makes a number of good arguments about declining student numbers for economic studies at universities, but one thing I read about years ago in relation to marketing and I've never seen a good reason to doubt this maxim:

- Whatever you do, do not rubbish the opposition as it only brings attention to them as a potential and viable alternative, especially when things are not looking good for you.

I thought that you may find the article to be a very useful data point.

Also, I'm mildly surprised that the author of the article - whom I usually enjoy - may not have considered the aspect of economic feasibility in relation to the economics profession itself? Just sayin, but I try hard not to put my customers out of business as that is bad for my own business.

Very interesting times.



onething said...


"What I want to know is, are you aware of evidence that the heart is literally an organ of perception, not merely circulation?"

Yes, vaguely, and yes, I am interested.

Scythe of Relief said...


Holmgren is definitely on top of the permaculture pyramid when it comes to balance.
He has always spoken out about the overselling of permaculture as a solution, and always seems to welcome criticism of his work. And he has clearly stated that there are other ways, and they don't have to be labeled as permaculture.

It is pity there are not more well grounded and humble bigger picture thinkers like him.


roland said...

"is absurdity a good measure of culture death"
Dunno. I was't really that serious about it, but now that you mention it...
Maybe absurdity can be a leading indicator?
After all a preoccupation with absurdity is not conducive to good decision making.
The wheels fell off because some time ago someone decided getting new fluffy dice for the rearview mirror is more important than checking the wheelnuts.

What would be a good measurement of collapse?

Caryn said...

@ GreenGoth:

Haha! Awwwe! I like that Disney Concert Hall! It reminds me of 'Fantasia' & 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', when the brooms dance around. The real test IMHO, however would be: Are those curved walls applied strategically to produce pitch-perfect acoustics for the music being played inside? (I've never been inside or attended a concert there, so I don't know); Or do they fight the function? Did the sound engineers have to 'fight' the form with tons of interior buffers and walls to get the acoustics good enough?

& yeah, I'm not a fan of Thomas Mayne. Aesthetically, IMHO, those are by and large: "Broken" indeed. It sounds from your experience with the Caltrans D-7 building, it is broken in more than just aesthetics; Quite a different thing than my minor inconveniences with the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, (in point of fact, his music buildings at ASU do have pitch perfect acoustics from every single seat in the houses, no costume or wardrobe spaces, which is kind of a 'fail' for a theatre, but great acoustics).

@Bob Peterson: Thank You for mentioning Naomi Klein's economic explanations in 'The Shock Doctrine'. Another book I found even more explanatory was John Perkins' "Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man". A lot of people don't like this book because he's not a good guy. He's one of the baddies who helped scalp developing countries and expand US hegemony; but his explanation of how the whole IMF, World Bank shell-game has been played again and again is well, TOO plausible to ignore and very, very clear.

In terms of the "WOW!" factor in Architecture: I think architecture is also an art form, so I don't see a problem with it, unless, it sacrifices it's function beyond minor inconveniences - like GreenGoth's experiences with the Caltrans Building. I do see how, as per the discussions and knowledge of this forum, the State we are in, it can be a debilitating waste of resources which few entities can really afford now. A "WOW" factor is by it's nature ephemeral. So, it's questionable how wise it is to invest the massive sums needed into designing, engineering and erecting an actual public hall or even a private home built for that passing fancy.

Scotlyn said...

To be more precise - your contention is that non-civilised "societies" may endure longer than the 1000 years that civilised societies seem to enjoy. That is to say, it would not make sense to contend that they don't fall into dark ages, as, by definition, if they are not literate, they are all "dark" to history...

The question then, is, what does this continuity comprise? What counts as "a society"?

Is it continuity of subsistence methods, of cultural beliefs/ideas? Of social arrangements? Of what, specifically? And, other than subsistence method, which leaves its track on the world, how could such social continuity be ascertained?

There is no way to dispute that such continuity is possible, of course. But on the other hand, is it safe to assume that succeeding generations whose subsistence methods resemble one another necessarily share similar beliefs and ideas?

In other words, the idea of a non-civilised society (which you are using as a foil for discussing the features of the civilised societies that you have actually studied in detail) remains vague enough that goalposts can be moved in discussing its features.

So, the "unpindownable" nature of the idea that non-civilised societies endure will continue to niggle. But, none of this, I'm happy to say, takes away from the strength of your central argument.

MIckGspot said...

Bob Patterson Said " But it really does not matter, because these deficiencies will be the basis for various "upgrades" or even replacement with an even more expensive plane."

Why not a Trillion dollar plane Bob? Dosn't even have to fly, just look cool and have a great business case and maybe a new ray gun.

Bob Patterson said...

MickG - You caught my point completely. The manufacturer no longer cares if the plane functions, just as long as the checks keep getting cleared. Have youn oticed how the number of planes, ships, etc. are being purchased? Some have said that if the cyrrent trends continue, the entire defense budget will buy 1 plane, 1 ship and 1 tank.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Scotlyn--I think your point has merit, but non-literate societies are not totally dark to history if they have literate neighbors. They receive visitors for trade or diplomacy and sometimes those visitors write accounts of their travels. IIRC, we have an account of a Viking funeral from a Muslim writer. It's pretty rare for another literate traveler to visit the same area centuries later and for both accounts to survive, so additional data are required to establish cultural continuity.

Other information on non-literate societies before modern times mostly comes from archaeology, and archaeology is full of inference from the material culture to the nonmaterial. However, religious stability is a good indicator of general social stability. Many religions generate recognizable artifacts such as continuity in burial practices, consistent iconography, or ongoing use of a religious site without major modifications. There are other cultural indicators in the artifacts, such as domestic architecture, which gives clues about family structure and the extent of class differences. JMG isn't claiming that these societies are static and unchanging, only that they undergo major disruption less often.

Unknown said...

JMG - I submitted (and resubmitted) a comment a few days ago for your "End of Dream" essay. Either you never saw it or you rejected it. I submitted my comment using my Wordpress "Oildepletion" userid. I also just joined your member list as "Peak Understanding" and checked the box to enable getting email messages. If you did reject the comment, I would sincerely appreciate knowing why? I'm a long time reader of your books and blog and definitely not a critic.

silvanus0@yahoo said...

Yes, the concrete babies" have far too little contact with the "real

world" travelling only from one urban island to another. environments

seem to discourage over-harvesting but encourage over-planting.

Individual polities, governmental forms, dynasties tend to have a much

shorter life-span, perhaps a couple of centuries or so, and of course

the life span of the career of one body, an individual manager, like

you or I, is even shorter still.

Cultural Syrianism, Persianism, Druidism, are alive and well today long after their "civilized phase" heavily concentrated on a narrow land base, have burned out. This concentric phenomenon, a college of druids who publish online, people responding from town on a weekly trip, could use emblems, like a centuries-old Doug Fir sheltered in tent-greenhouse in a place such trees don't normally grow, like Pike's Peak in Colorado, like a family of board games modeled after the incomparable master-piece "Civilisation" by Sid Meyer except focusing instead on the development of the land- base itself, herding the clouds across the continent ever farther inland, thus increasing annual rain-fall and allowing regions to be dominated by ever greater classes of plant life, to give people at younger ages some inkling in the most general terms of what our lives are about.

Just a thought.

Kyle Schuant said...

"Modern industrial civilization is also obsessed with the frankly rather weird belief that growth for its own sake is a good thing"

This is because of income disparity. If you have a society with rich and poor people, well the poor will wonder why they have to be poor, ad it will occur to them that one way to stop being poor is to seize the wealth of the rich, which the rich aren't too keen on. So then you need one or both of two things,

a) a culture that explains why the poor must remain so, and/or
b) growth

A caste society like the hindu or the old serf system in europe said the poor were poor and must put up with it. A liberal free (sort of) market economy like Australia's will have growth - and it must have growth, because growth gives the poor hope and makes them put up with the rest of the system.

Somewhere like the US actually mixes the two. The poor are poor because they're lazy, and they have too many children, who they bring up to be lazy. They're an Untouchable caste. "But anyone can rise up out of poverty!" the rich cry. And mostly this is true - anyone can, but not everyone can.

Well, not unless we have an infinite energy source and resources. Hmmm.

The belief that growth for its own sake is a good thing is the necessary result of the rich-poor gap.

SamuraiArtGuy said...

John, spotted this item on the topic of collapse being granular and uneven... the demise of the White Flint Mall in Rockville, MD, the Baltimore/Washinton suburbs. As usual among the corporate elites, their differences are settled with battling lawyers.

"Though sales at the mall began to rebound after the plunging during the economic collapse, Bloomingdale’s informed White Flint in 2011 that it would be closing its store. At 260,000 square feet, Bloomingdale’s constituted around one-third of the entire mall. According to testimony, many of the other stores apparently relied on visits from Bloomingdale’s customers to keep their own businesses afloat." - Washington Post.

Part of my take is that Lord & Taylor's Market, upper middle class urban/suburban folk, is a market that is being not-so-slowly destroyed. I, and no one I know shop there.

Surreal Drone Tour: