Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Cimmerian Hypothesis, Part Two: A Landscape of Hallucinations

Last week’s post covered a great deal of ground—not surprising, really, for an essay that started from a quotation from a Weird Tales story about Conan the Barbarian—and it may be useful to recap the core argument here. Civilizations—meaning here human societies that concentrate power, wealth, and population in urban centers—have a distinctive historical trajectory of rise and fall that isn’t shared by societies that lack urban centers. There are plenty of good reasons why this should be so, from the ecological costs of urbanization to the buildup of maintenance costs that drives catabolic collapse, but there’s also a cognitive dimension.

Look over the histories of fallen civilizations, and far more often than not, societies don’t have to be dragged down the slope of decline and fall. Rather, they go that way at a run, convinced that the road to ruin must inevitably lead them to heaven on earth. Arnold Toynbee, whose voluminous study of the rise and fall of civilizations has been one of the main sources for this blog since its inception, wrote at length about the way that the elite classes of falling civilizations lose the capacity to come up with new responses for new situations, or even to learn from their mistakes; thus they keep on trying to use the same failed policies over and over again until the whole system crashes to ruin. That’s an important factor, no question, but it’s not just the elites who seem to lose track of the real world as civilizations go sliding down toward history’s compost heap, it’s the masses as well.

Those of my readers who want to see a fine example of this sort of blindness to the obvious need only check the latest headlines. Within the next decade or so, for example, the entire southern half of Florida will become unfit for human habitation due to rising sea levels, driven by our dumping of greenhouse gases into an already overloaded atmosphere. Low-lying neighborhoods in Miami already flood with sea water whenever a high tide and a strong onshore wind hit at the same time; one more foot of sea level rise and salt water will pour over barriers into the remaining freshwater sources, turning southern Florida into a vast brackish swamp and forcing the evacuation of most of the millions who live there.

That’s only the most dramatic of a constellation of climatic catastrophes that are already tightening their grip on much of the United States. Out west, the rain forests of western Washington are burning in the wake of years of increasingly severe drought, California’s vast agricultural acreage is reverting to desert, and the entire city of Las Vegas will probably be out of water—as in, you turn on the tap and nothing but dust comes out—in less than a decade. As waterfalls cascade down the seaward faces of Antarctic and Greenland glaciers, leaking methane blows craters in the Siberian permafrost, and sea level rises at rates considerably faster than the worst case scenarios scientists were considering a few years ago, these threats are hardly abstract issues; is anyone in America taking them seriously enough to, say, take any concrete steps to stop using the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer, starting with their own personal behavior? Surely you jest.

No, the Republicans are still out there insisting at the top of their lungs that any scientific discovery that threatens their rich friends’ profits must be fraudulent, the Democrats are still out there proclaiming just as loudly that there must be some way to deal with anthropogenic climate change that won’t cost them their frequent-flyer miles, and nearly everyone outside the political sphere is making whatever noises they think will allow them to keep on pursuing exactly those lifestyle choices that are bringing on planetary catastrophe. Every possible excuse to insist that what’s already happening won’t happen gets instantly pounced on as one more justification for inertia—the claim currently being splashed around the media that the Sun might go through a cycle of slight cooling in the decades ahead is the latest example. (For the record, even if we get a grand solar minimum, its effects will be canceled out in short order by the impact of ongoing atmospheric pollution.)

Business as usual is very nearly the only option anybody is willing to discuss, even though the long-predicted climate catastrophes are already happening and the days of business as usual in any form are obviously numbered. The one alternative that gets air time, of course, is the popular fantasy of instant planetary dieoff, which gets plenty of attention because it’s just as effective an excuse for inaction as faith in business as usual. What next to nobody wants to talk about is the future that’s actually arriving exactly as predicted: a future in which low-lying coastal regions around the country and the world have to be abandoned to the rising seas, while the Southwest and large portions of the mountain west become more inhospitable than the eastern Sahara or Arabia’s Empty Quarter.

If the ice melt keeps accelerating at its present pace, we could be only a few decades form the point at which it’s Manhattan Island’s turn to be abandoned, because everything below ground level is permanently  flooded with seawater and every winter storm sends waves rolling right across the island and flings driftwood logs against second story windows. A few decades more, and waves will roll over the low-lying neighborhoods of Houston, Boston, Seattle, and Washington DC, while the ruined buildings that used to be New Orleans rise out of the still waters of a brackish estuary and the ruined buildings that used to be Las Vegas are half buried by the drifting sand. Take a moment to consider the economic consequences of that much infrastructure loss, that much destruction of built capital, that many people who somehow have to be evacuated and resettled, and think about what kind of body blow that will deliver to an industrial society that is already in bad shape for other reasons.

None of this had to happen. Half a century ago, policy makers and the public alike had already been presented with a tolerably clear outline of what was going to happen if we proceeded along the trajectory we were on, and those same warnings have been repeated with increasing force year by year, as the evidence to support them has mounted up implacably—and yet nearly all of us nodded and smiled and kept going. Nor has this changed in the least as the long-predicted catastrophes have begun to show up right on schedule. Quite the contrary: faced with a rising spiral of massive crises, people across the industrial world are, with majestic consistency, doing exactly those things that are guaranteed to make those crises worse.

So the question that needs to be asked, and if possible answered, is why civilizations—human societies that concentrate population, power, and wealth in urban centers—so reliably lose the capacity to learn from their mistakes and recognize that a failed policy has in fact failed.  It’s also worth asking why they so reliably do this within a finite and predictable timespan: civilizations last on average around a millennium before they crash into a dark age, while uncivilized societies routinely go on for many times that period. Doubtless any number of factors drive civilizations to their messy ends, but I’d like to suggest a factor that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been discussed in this context before.

Let’s start with what may well seem like an irrelevancy. There’s been a great deal of discussion down through the years in environmental circles about the way that the survival and health of the human body depends on inputs from nonhuman nature. There’s been a much more modest amount of talk about the human psychological and emotional needs that can only be met through interaction with natural systems. One question I’ve never seen discussed, though, is whether the human intellect has needs that are only fulfilled by a natural environment.

As I consider that question, one obvious answer comes to mind: negative feedback.

The human intellect is the part of each of us that thinks, that tries to make sense of the universe of our experience. It does this by creating models. By “models” I don’t just mean those tightly formalized and quantified models we call scientific theories; a poem is also a model of part of the universe of human experience, so is a myth, so is a painting, and so is a vague hunch about how something will work out. When a twelve-year-old girl pulls the petals off a daisy while saying “he loves me, he loves me not,” she’s using a randomization technique to decide between two models of one small but, to her, very important portion of the universe, the emotional state of whatever boy she has in mind.

With any kind of model, it’s critical to remember Alfred Korzybski’s famous rule: “the map is not the territory.” A model, to put the same point another way, is a representation; it represents the way some part of the universe looks when viewed from the perspective of one or more members of our species of social primates, using the idiosyncratic and profoundly limited set of sensory equipments, neural processes, and cognitive frameworks we got handed by our evolutionary heritage. Painful though this may be to our collective egotism, it’s not unfair to say that human mental models are what you get when you take the universe and dumb it down to the point that our minds can more or less grasp it.

What keeps our models from becoming completely dysfunctional is the negative feedback we get from the universe. For the benefit of readers who didn’t get introduced to systems theory, I should probably take a moment to explain negative feedback. The classic example is the common household thermostat, which senses the temperature of the air inside the house and activates a switch accordingly. If the air temperature is below a certain threshold, the thermostat turns the heat on and warms things up; if the air temperature rises above a different, slightly higher threshold, the thermostat turns the heat off and lets the house cool down.

In a sense, a thermostat embodies a very simple model of one very specific part of the universe, the temperature inside the house. Like all models, this one includes a set of implicit definitions and a set of value judgments. The definitions are the two thresholds, the one that turns the furnace on and the one that turns it off, and the value judgments label temperatures below the first threshold “too cold” and those above the second “too hot.” Like every human model, the thermostat model is unabashedly anthropocentric—“too cold” by the thermostat’s standard would be uncomfortably warm for a polar bear, for example—and selects out certain factors of interest to human beings from a galaxy of other things we don’t happen to want to take into consideration.

The models used by the human intellect to make sense of the universe are usually less simple than the one that guides a thermostat—there are unfortunately exceptions—but they work according to the same principle. They contain definitions, which may be implicit or explicit: the girl plucking petals from the daisy may have not have an explicit definition of love in mind when she says “he loves me,” but there’s some set of beliefs and expectations about what those words imply underlying the model. They also contain value judgments: if she’s attracted to the boy in question, “he loves me” has a positive value and “he loves me not” has a negative one.

Notice, though, that there’s a further dimension to the model, which is its interaction with the observed behavior of the thing it’s supposed to model. Plucking petals from a daisy, all things considered, is not a very good predictor of the emotional states of twelve-year-old boys; predictions made on the basis of that method are very often disproved by other sources of evidence, which is why few girls much older than twelve rely on it as an information source. Modern western science has formalized and quantified that sort of reality testing, but it’s something that most people do at least occasionally. It’s when they stop doing so that we get the inability to recognize failure that helps to drive, among many other things, the fall of civilizations.

Individual facets of experienced reality thus provide negative feedback to individual models. The whole structure of experienced reality, though, is capable of providing negative feedback on another level—when it challenges the accuracy of the entire mental process of modeling.

Nature is very good at providing negative feedback of that kind. Here’s a human conceptual model that draws a strict line between mammals, on the one hand, and birds and reptiles, on the other. Not much more than a century ago, it was as precise as any division in science: mammals have fur and don’t lay eggs, reptiles and birds don’t have fur and do lay eggs. Then some Australian settler met a platypus, which has fur and lays eggs. Scientists back in Britain flatly refused to take it seriously until some live platypuses finally made it there by ship. Plenty of platypus egg was splashed across plenty of distinguished scientific faces, and definitions had to be changed to make room for another category of mammals and the evolutionary history necessary to explain it.

Here’s another human conceptual model, the one that divides trees into distinct species. Most trees in most temperate woodlands, though, actually have a mix of genetics from closely related species. There are few red oaks; what you have instead are mostly-red, partly-red, and slightly-red oaks. Go from the northern to the southern end of a species’ distribution, or from wet to dry regions, and the variations within the species are quite often more extreme than those that separate trees that have been assigned to different species. Here’s still another human conceptual model, the one that divides trees from shrubs—plenty of species can grow either way, and the list goes on.

The human mind likes straight lines, definite boundaries, precise verbal definitions. Nature doesn’t. People who spend most of their time dealing with undomesticated natural phenomena, accordingly, have to get used to the fact that nature is under no obligation to make the kind of sense the human mind prefers. I’d suggest that this is why so many of the cultures our society calls “primitive”—that is, those that have simple material technologies and interact directly with nature much of the time—so often rely on nonlogical methods of thought: those our culture labels “mythological,” “magical,” or—I love this term—“prescientific.” (That the “prescientific” will almost certainly turn out to be the postscientific as well is one of the lessons of history that modern industrial society is trying its level best to ignore.) Nature as we experience it isn’t simple, neat, linear, and logical, and so it makes sense that the ways of thinking best suited to dealing with nature directly aren’t simple, neat, linear, and logical either.

 With this in mind, let’s return to the distinction discussed in last week’s post. I noted there that a city is a human settlement from which the direct, unmediated presence of nature has been removed as completely as the available technology permits. What replaces natural phenomena in an urban setting, though, is as important as what isn’t allowed there. Nearly everything that surrounds you in a city was put there deliberately by human beings; it is the product of conscious human thinking, and it follows the habits of human thought just outlined. Compare a walk down a city street to a walk through a forest or a shortgrass prairie: in the city street, much more of what you see is simple, neat, linear, and logical. A city is an environment reshaped to reflect the habits and preferences of the human mind.

I suspect there may be a straightforwardly neurological factor in all this. The human brain, so much larger compared to body weight than the brains of most of our primate relatives, evolved because having a larger brain provided some survival advantage to those hominins who had it, in competition with those who didn’t. It’s probably a safe assumption that processing information inputs from the natural world played a very large role in these advantages, and this would imply, in turn, that the human brain is primarily adapted for perceiving things in natural environments—not, say, for building cities, creating technologies, and making the other common products of civilization.

Thus some significant part of the brain has to be redirected away from the things that it’s adapted to do, in order to make civilizations possible. I’d like to propose that the simplified, rationalized, radically information-poor environment of the city plays a crucial role in this. (Information-poor? Of course; the amount of information that comes cascading through the five keen senses of an alert hunter-gatherer standing in an African forest is vastly greater than what a city-dweller gets from the blank walls and the monotonous sounds and scents of an urban environment.) Children raised in an environment that lacks the constant cascade of information natural environments provide, and taught to redirect their mental powers toward such other activities as reading and mathematics, grow up with cognitive habits and, in all probability, neurological arrangements focused toward the activities of civilization and away from the things to which the human brain is adapted by evolution.

One source of supporting evidence for this admittedly speculative proposal is the worldwide insistence on the part of city-dwellers that people who live in isolated rural communities, far outside the cultural ambit of urban life, are just plain stupid. What that means in practice, of course, is that people from isolated rural communities aren’t used to using their brains for the particular purposes that city people value. These allegedly “stupid” countryfolk are by and large extraordinarily adept at the skills they need to survive and thrive in their own environments. They may be able to listen to the wind and know exactly where on the far side of the hill a deer waits to be shot for dinner, glance at a stream and tell which riffle the trout have chosen for a hiding place, watch the clouds pile up and read from them how many days they’ve got to get the hay in before the rains come and rot it in the fields—all of which tasks require sophisticated information processing, the kind of processing that human brains evolved doing.

Notice, though, how the urban environment relates to the human habit of mental modeling. Everything in a city was a mental model before it became a building, a street, an item of furniture, or what have you. Chairs look like chairs, houses like houses, and so on; it’s so rare for humanmade items to break out of the habitual models of our species and the particular culture that built them that when this happens, it’s a source of endless comment. Where a natural environment constantly challenges human conceptual models, an urban environment reinforces them, producing a feedback loop that’s probably responsible for most of the achievements of civilization.

I suggest, though, that the same feedback loop may also play a very large role in the self-destruction of civilizations. People raised in urban environments come to treat their mental models as realities, more real than the often-unruly facts on the ground, because everything they encounter in their immediate environments reinforces those models. As the models become more elaborate and the cities become more completely insulated from the complexities of nature, the inhabitants of a civilization move deeper and deeper into a landscape of hallucinations—not least because as many of those hallucinations get built in brick and stone, or glass and steel, as the available technology permits. As a civilization approaches its end, the divergence between the world as it exists and the mental models that define the world for the civilization’s inmates becomes total, and its decisions and actions become lethally detached from reality—with consequences that we’ll discuss in next week’s post.


1 – 200 of 211   Newer›   Newest»
mathprof said...

I have always intuitively felt what you have said in this post. Something just isn't 'right' about living in an urban environment. Of course, whenever I express this feeling to others, I am the weird one. Go figure. Great post as usual.

Yupped said...

These days I note that even our rural settlements, at least in the US, are tending to look quite uniform: same stores, strip malls, gas stations, food outlets, etc, etc. I remember years ago, when I first migrated to the US, talking to someone about how weird it was that all of the small towns were being made over to look like each other. He said that standard development was the only way to bring consumer choice to all communities. Nonsense on stilts, obviously; but there was surprisingly little resistance to this steady process of standardized development across the US, and also in the UK now. Actually, I still believe that across local communities there will be lots of particular adaptations to change, but it will all have to be done well away from the main highways and strip malls. Communities will fall back on their natural assets, once they remember where they are, necessity being the mother of invention.

And speaking of being detached from reality, I heard this guy interviewed on the radio earlier this week. Most amusing. Apparently because Elon Musk's money and determination produced an expensive electric car, this demonstrates that humans can indeed colonize Mars. Or something like that.

Angus Wallace said...

That's a very good observation, JMG.

I've been reading a great book recently by Tristan Gooley: "The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs". It is a great read, and he is explicit about the amount of information that native peoples obtain from their environments (and the way city dwellers are obtuse to it).

Speaking of dealing with water deficits, my work to prepare for an el-nino (dry) Australian summer continues. I've set up a worm farm to process kitchen water and direct it to my fruit trees, and have done similarly with washing machine grey water (but without a worm farm). Seems to be working well so far, and will hopefully decrease the load on our rainwater during our 5 month dry season. I've written about it here:

washing machine grey water details

On another note, I recently discovered a blog, Bountiful Energy, whose author aims to "debunk" peak oil as a concept. I think he makes some good points (such as that the EROI of fossil fuels is lower than commonly considered because of the low efficiency of their combustion, while the EROI of photo-voltaics is higher than commonly considered because a significant part of their embodied energy is contained in the aluminium racking with is easily recyclable). My feeling is that, if he is right in his arguments, then we're headed for the brown tech future scenario (a la Holmgren). I'd love to her others' thoughts on it though.

Cheers, Angus

Ben said...

I know you're not done tracing out this thought process, so I may be jumping ahead to next week, but I'm thinking that civilizations are not the only human societies that crash and fail spectacularly.
For instance, the Easter Islanders weren't a civilization, at least in the Latin sense, by the definition presented. Yet they ignored their negative feedback warnings in quite a dramatic fashion.
Also, it seems to me that the original immigrants to Australia committed a very thorough mega fauna extermination with, as far as we know, only hunter-gatherer sized tribes.
OTOH, maybe the ruins of a 40,000 year old Aussie Las Vegas exist somewhere out there, and it ran on fresh pressed platypus oil. I'm looking forward to part three.

Avi said...

JMG, as Gurdjieff said, we all live in a waking sleep, the illness runs much deeper...

Bill Pulliam said...

Bingo! It's unhealthy and unwise for a human mind to interact only with the contructs of human minds! And yet every "technological advancement"coming down the pike just tightens the circular interactions ever more...

Pinku-Sensei said...

So it seems that what Richard Louv calls Nature Deficit Disorder is not just a developmental problem for children, but potentially an existential threat to society, especially when combined with the diversion of thought to the demands of civilization. It makes me thankful that my parents took me to Yosemite every summer and sent me on hikes with the Boy Scouts when I was young. That way I could get a good dose of nature when it would still do me some good.

One of the apparent ironies of your pointing out that nature is more information-rich than human-built environments is that one of your recipes for "collapsing now and avoiding the rush" is LESS, with the final S standing for stimulation. It looks like the problem isn't stimulation per se, but the artificial stimulation of entertainment delivered by modern technology. Nature by itself can be very stimulating.

On the other hand, you're being perfectly self-consistent when you point out that everything humans encounter in their built environment was concept first. It fits with your disagreement with Platonism and Neoplatonism that you've expressed on your other blog. There may be an ideal form of every man-made object, but there certainly is no such thing for features of nature.

I plan on incorporating both of those points when I take my classes on field trips in the future, even when my students and I tour a farm. Everything may have been planted by humans, but it's certainly a more natural environment than a city.

Grebulocities said...

Haven't you heard? Southern California just received a bizarre July rainstorm, causing flash floods and shattering rainfall records for the entire month of July in a matter of one or two days across the region. Clearly this means that all the worrying about the drought there was much ado about nothing, and they will be able to go back to enjoying their golf courses and almonds. It's clearly not a sign that the world's climate has shifted into chaotic territory or anything.

Lynford1933 said...

Thank you for another description of the reality of city and urban awareness. All of us reading here are of the city type just by the fact that we are here using the internet. The models we will present here in type are city models, some well thought out, some not so much. Even those of us who are prepping in our own way are only slightly aware of "nature". My model while preparing for the changes you mention is to chase after enlightenment as best I can.

“Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers. While I sought enlightenment, the mountains were not mountains and the rivers were not rivers. After I attained enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.”

From my studies, it seems after enlightenment there is reality as above with the twist of an ability to see reality like your hunter gatherer. We shall see. Again, thanks for the insight.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Probably the most potent of those mental models is the economic system - a system that converts everything into an abstract monetary value denominated in tokens and exchanged in a market. The rise of market fundamentalism (aka Neoliberalism) declares that this system is capable of solving every problem once the price of every blade of grass, grain of sand, and drop of water on earth is accounted for. I doubt it's a coincidence that this system developed in the urban areas of Europe by the people who fled the countryside (the "Bourgeoisie"). Economists insist that everything we need to know about the world can be determined by studying monetary flows and exchanges, and no other science is valid. This leads to ideas like, for example, a high enough price will call forth more resources, resources are infinitely elastic and substitutable, externalities are the exception, people are rational, and technological innovation can overcome any problem. For people whose food comes from a supermarket and whose every need is catered to by paying some corporation or another, you can see why this model is the only one they are likely to believe.

peakfuture said...

I've been listening to the 'You Are Not So Smart' podcast, and it brings up some interesting psychological bits on all the ways the human mind can deceive itself. Dave Cohen, at also has some interesting takes on this.

Perhaps, we need more education (real world, that is) in the way humans really work and interact, for everyone. What would be the best way of doing that? Is it even possible, due to the conditions that exist? Modern cities aren't conducive to real interactions; life in small towns and communities probably works better with our original brain software.

The way the brain works and the way we process information as humans seems to be the key to the way things are; it has always boggled my mind that so many folks can be so blind, and continually ignore reality. Although my own background is in the nuts-and-bolts of engineering, it is these "softer" sciences/disciplines that might be more useful going forward.

Rural and farming folks are not stupid, by a long shot. You've got to be adaptable, think long-term, and really know a lot to survive.

Vincent said...


This comic strip acerbically serves up some farcical refuge from the corner we’ve backed ourselves into as we slide towards decline in The Looming Threat

John Michael Greer said...

Mathprof, of course you're the weird one. "Weird" means "different from the rest." It doesn't, on the other hand, mean "wrong."

Yupped, the urbanization and standardization of rural culture in the US is to my mind one of the most dismal events of recent decades, not least because it's helped to reinforce the mental monoculture that's dragging us down. As for the Musk toady, oh, granted -- the range of excuses people will come up with to keep on clinging to the dying fantasy of progress toward the stars is really impressive, in a bleak sort of way.

Angus, thank you! Thanks also for the book tip and the graywater link. As for the Bountiful Energy blog, well, I've seen all kinds of arguments along those lines; I'm waiting for someone to explain why, if renewable energy has such great net energy figures, it's only viable when propped up with massive government subsidies -- the same issue, incidentally, that makes me doubt the identical claims made for nuclear power. If it can't pay for itself, and it can't, there's got to be something wrong with the enthusiastic claims.

Ben, of course other human societies fail spectacularly. My point is that civilizations always do, after about a millennium, while many (not, please note, all) noncivilized societies sustain themselves in relative stability over much longer time spans.

Avi, so? If in fact we do all live in a waking sleep, that still doesn't explain the fact that civilizations crash and burn in a millennium while many noncivilized societies last much longer.

Bill, nicely summarized!

Pinku-sensei, good. Notice that artificial stimulation is by and large louder, faster, and more heavily loaded with cheap emotional stimuli than natural stimulation, and thus tends not only to drown out the latter, but also to numb the mind and the senses so they don't notice the latter at all.

Grebulocities, funny. Most of the world's most barren deserts, by the way, get sudden rainstorms now and then that cause catastrophic flash floods. Nice to see the California climate getting into sync with its future... ;-)

Lynford, chasing after enlightenment, or however you want to describe the goal of the spiritual quest, is a very traditional move in times like these, and has much to recommend it.

Escape, that's a big one. The myth of money, the myth of the machine, the myth of progress -- those are among the main the delusions that are pushing industrial civilization straight over the cliff.

Peakfuture, no argument there.

Vincent, funny -- though I'd be more impressed with Tom Tomorrow if he'd also lampoon the Democratic nonresponse to climate change, too.

Yucca Glauca said...

Amazing post!

Based on the logic of this post, I'd like to suggest that primitive skills could be an important study for aspiring Green Wizards.

To be clear, primitive skills refers to the collection of skills that are seen as belonging to the stone age. There is of course a major bias in this definition: Most of these skills were preserved from peoples who are still around, or were until recently, and happen to not fit the definition of civilization that was used in this post. These skills are thus no more a part of the "stone age" than the computer I'm typing on, though it is true that they are extremely similar to what is theorized about stone age technology.

These skills are hard and inefficient. Most of them are not likely to be things a Green Wizard would actually use, and the notion that humans will suddenly start relying on these belongs to a certain type of apocalyptic fantasy. So why would they be important to know?

Because on a scale of civilized-fantasy to reality-of-nature, these skills represent the extreme of dealing with the complex and non-anthropocentric realities of the world outside of civilization. Thus learning these skills can be seen as a direct way of overcoming the unhelpful habits of thought that pervade modern society--remedial barbarianism, if you will.

I hung around Primitivist circles before making it here and, despite the annoying apocalyptic rhetoric, the reaction people often had after learning the basics of primitive skills was nothing short of an existential crisis. The skills of appropriate technology are more practical for a gradual decline, but because of this, it seems to me like they might not be quite as useful in breaking away from over-civilized habits of thought.

So, I'd encourage all aspiring Green Wizards to learn the basics of primitive skills. You don't have to spend years mastering them well enough to actually be able to live off of them, just get the basics down. Primitive skills schools often teach these in a couple week-long intensives, and in my experience, that's enough to cause profound changes in how you think. They can also be learned much more cheaply if a little more slowly from books, local groups, and the internet.

Leo Knight said...

As usual, a thought provoking essay. Somewhere I encountered the term "economic autism" which referred to economic actions largely divorced from any real world considerations. Money talks, and if it tells people to pollute a river, bulldoze a forest, or impoverish vast numbers of people, well, the incentives were clear. Can't ignore those incentives.

You also remind me of stories about online games like Everquest and Second Life, where players spend vast amounts of time and money building up purely illusory gains. On writer tracked down the player of a very respected and accomplished game character. The player was homeless. She lived in a tent, with few possessions beyond her laptop, on which she played Everquest.

I also think of the Heaven's Gate cult, hypnotized by the promise of escape from this vale of tears to a Star Trek life aboard an alien spaceship. Of course, the entry fee was physical death, but hey, eggs...omelets.

streamfortyseven said...

Interesting. I, too, see Business As Usual continuing on until it can't. What's a bit frustrating is that "environmental crusaders" fly on jet aircraft across the country and the oceans, dispersing tons of carbon dioxide at high altitudes where it will persist for years, without a second thought about it. I wonder if they know what they're doing to the environment; I suppose if they did, they'd take trains or ships.

One of the things I do in the fall, winter, and spring, is go out hunting rabbits with a pack of basset hounds - I'm a whip with the pack, there's a huntsman and several other whips as well. Think foxhunting, but on foot. Once the hunt gets going, I seem to switch into a different kind of awareness. My senses get sharpened noticeably, I can hear people talking 100 feet away, smell tobacco smoke and shaving lotion at that same range, hear rabbits moving, and tell which direction they're going, tell by the way the hounds are barking whether they're on rabbit, fox, or deer (and I can usually smell a fox), if they're going the right way or wrong way on a scent trail, and so on. It's a total shift in awareness and it's like flipping a switch. Oh, and while I carry a whip, I rarely if ever use it, unless the pack has run riot on a deer, and then it's used to make noise to get their heads up and off the scent trail, and send them back to the huntsman. This sport was invented 1000 years ago by monks in France, who also developed the basset hound breed. Of course, the only trails in the woods are those made by deer - and you want to know where the buck is with his harem and steer clear of that area...

Avi said...

JMG, Gurdjieff does provide many examples and explanations of how and why civilisations have collapsed through the ages. Here's a relevant chapter from "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson":

deedl said...

Thanks for that interesting post. I have to add three things.

Firstly although our western society developed the skill of rational thinking over millenia, it is simply not how the brain works. The brain is what computer scientists would call associative memory. It compares the pattern of the sensual input to known patterns and accesses the information connected to those known patterns. It his very effectiv doing this. Rational thinking however is formalizing all inputs and then deriving as much new infomation as possible using rules of logic. While rational thinking is done quite ineffective (ab)using only a small part of the brain for it, thinking in patterns and associations is the way the brain works. Since rural and urban people develope completely different patterns and associations, of course they can not understand each others ways of thinking.

Secondly i want do add a comment to "the map is not the territory". It is quite common that in the Information age people lose the connection to the "territory". A common anecdote is the guy who runs his car into a river, because his navigation system mapped a ferry as a road. In traffic i often have the feeling that the better the graphics on the navigation systems screen are, the less people actually watch the road while driving. I recently talked to a guy who developes computer systems that interchange information to make stuff supposedly more effective (e.g. health data in hospitals). I told him obout observational errors and asked him if they assume that every information their system contains is always true. He said "yes".

Thirdly, when talking about modeling the world, it is impossible not to talk about verification and validation. Simply said, the first is testing if your model fits your data and the second is testing if the model fits your needs. When conducting rational science, the models developed by research are always verificated, but never validated, because science itself has no purpose that can be used as a validation benchmark. So all the scientific knowledge we have gained in the last centuries is true, and we know that because we have some very good scientists. But we do not have a clue if all of this is any useful. Of course validation is a job for engineers, because they use science to find solutions for real purposes, however that is just theory. If I (as an engineer) validate my work and tell my boss that what our department does is the wrong approach for the problem, we should dissolve the department entirely than i get told that this is not of my concern. So i do not see who in this world actually validates all the nonsense we are doing.

economicilliteracy said...

JMG - I also wonder if there's a cognitive negative feedback loop at work.

As you've noted, we all walk around with a model of the universe inside our heads; it's the required adaptive mechanism to prevent us from drowning in the complexity of the world. Like all models, it's by necessity an over-simplification of complex systems, and relies heavily on relevance filtering - knowing what to ignore (i.e. to not model) is a critical success factor. Presumably the hominids who decided to not model the behaviour of leopards on the savannah weren't fortunate enough to share their genes with the next generation, but the ones who made the cognitive step of not attempting to model the significance of individual leopard spots did.

The required cognitive feedback loop allows the model to be updated from real-world experience; if you've never seen that particular four-legged animal before, but it turns out to have a desire to chase and potentially devour you, then updating the model to categorise it as a predator and invoke the "run away!" response is a useful adaptation. But the thing that civilisation allows us to do is to adjust the environment to align with our model, rather than aligning our model to account for changes in the environment; in effect, it weakens the cognitive feedback loop at the individual level.

As it turns out, my professional experience has brought me into contact with a wide range of people who end up having their cognitive models challenged by on-the-ground reality, and over the past decade the percentage of those people who simply refuse to adjust their internal models to reflect the way the world works has (in my experience) risen dramatically.

For a normally-adjusted human being, the feedback loop should go outside context problem -> consideration and reflection -> explore solution space for possible responses -> address problem -> update model to reflect reality. Unfortunately there are now an increasingly large number of people who seem to go outside context problem -> cognitive dissonance that reality doesn't accord with the internal model -> get grumpy at Universe for not conforming to model -> take no steps to adjust or change model. This is maladaptive, to put it mildly ... but in my experience, an increasingly common response mechanism amongst far too many people. And the more people who buy into this dysfunctional mode of thinking, the more likely that the negative effects you describe will come to pass for the civilisation concerned.

One of the most perceptive and concise commentaries on the difficulties of modelling a complex world (albeit in a very different context) is this one, which I've quoted to many people for more than a decade:

"Our technology increasingly obscures the relevant criteria with the irrelevant, overlaying illusory and ill-fit simplicity on genuinely and meaningfully complex problems. We replace people with numbers, and data with summaries, and paragraphs with quasi-graphs, until we're left with shiny Go/No-Go toggles, and then hope that flipping a coin will count as wisdom if we just do it with a firm enough hand. We push decision-making up the hierarchy while information drains down it. Our systems for progress and compliance will fail in the long term, not just because over-modeling embeds dysfunction and engenders systemic fragility, but more crucially because over-modeled systems untrain their most important users long before they can afford to. The executives make bad decisions based on misconsolidated numbers, and the people who know what the numbers misrepresent slowly forget how to make better ones."

And thank you for your insights and wisdom in this blog.

MayHawk said...

Many years ago, oh this would have been late 70's early 80's, my wife and used to go to the Oregon coast and the Dunes National Recreation area but away from all the dune buggy activity. There were many miles of dunes which were still close to pristine then. I wanted to spend a few days alone camping in the wild areas away from all the nature trails and managed areas. I put together a back pack with enough supplies and water to be out for a couple of days and started heading out.

I couldn't do it. Once I got a few hour out I had to turn back. I was inundated with sensory and non sensory stimuli. I had entered a place I was totally unprepared for. I could feel presence and spirits and energies all around me. And a lot of it felt unfriendly. I found it terrifying.

That more than anything showed me what happens when the urban suddenly meets the wild and you can't read the messages.

Vesta said...

It's maybe unsurprising that when we try to apply ourselves to civilization we fail in short order, since our brains have co-evolved with long-lived non-civilized cultures. Evidence that our brains don't develop properly in built worlds is abundant, and it isn't helping civilization this go-round. But even without civilizational retardation, perhaps we've just never had the chance as a species to develop the brains or culture required for civilization. And not just because we haven't been at it long enough for the meat to evolve, but also because civilization externalizes so much that feedbacks for cultural selection can't possibly function well. Civilization is not only unnatural, but also un-cultured.

John Michael Greer said...

Yucca, I'd tend to agree, and for several additional reasons as well. First, primitive skills require you to work with raw materials in their rawest form: lump of flint, rock hammer, chunk of tree branch, length of sinew, here's your new stone axe. That's a great way to get out of the wholly abstract and interact with the sheer reality of matter. Second, there's a certain degree of confidence that only comes from knowing that you could be plopped down without gear in a trackless wilderness and still be able to do okay, and that confidence is worth having.

Leo, I honestly expect Heaven's Gate phenomena on a large scale in the years ahead. The Rapture business seems to point that way very directly; when somebody tells his kids that Grandma went to heaven to be with Jesus, most people know what that means. It would not surprise me in the least if a lot of Americans found some excuse for suicide as the least uncomfortable way to keep not dealing with the future...

Stream, millions of years of ancestors laid down the patterns in consciousness that give you that awareness. That's one of the reasons I favor hunting -- it's a way back to some of the basic roots of our humanness.

Avi, so noted. It's been quite a while since I've read Gurdjieff, and I'd forgotten that bit.

Deedl, three very good points. Thank you in particular for the distinction between verification and validation, which I don't think I've encountered before, and which is crucial.

Economicilliteracy, excellent! Yes, that's exactly where -- or one of the places where -- this is going.

MayHawk, thanks for sharing that experience. For most people, the journey back to communion with nature is best taken a step at a time.

Vesta, a case could be made that civilization is just too recent to be stable. Give us another two or three million years and we may get the hang of it.

KL Cooke said...

"Primitive skills schools often teach these in a couple week-long intensives, and in my experience, that's enough to cause profound changes in how you think. They can also be learned much more cheaply if a little more slowly from books, local groups, and the internet."

Take, for example, a lifestyle based on hunting large animals with a stone tipped spear and clothing yourself in the hides. The Clan of the Cave Bear might have been a good story (I didn't read it), but I'd sure as hell would hate to try living it. I notice the Inuit switched to aluminum hulls, outboard motors, snow mobiles and rifles as soon as they came available. I wonder if they'd be any better than the rest of us at switching back?

Nbxl said...

I made the conscious decision NOT to buy a house in the part of my home country, the Netherlands, that lies below sea level. Though that part is the economic powerhouse of the Netherlands (the Amsterdam - The Hague - Rotterdam area located in the west of the country, called the "Randstad"). When I discuss the topic of rising sea levels with fellow Dutch, my arguments are laughed away. For sure the government will come up with some solution, the Dutch have always batlled the sea, people in this part of the country could have a lifeboat stored at their attic, I was jokingly told...

Rita Narayanan said...

The mental models spoken about are also about modern devices of *social engineering*...on the face of it, very compassionate & egalitarian but natural models are not in sync with modern liberal values.

Shamanistic and sophisticated civilisations afford individual deviation from type to exceptional people not the mass model.A culture of mass individualism also bulldozes quality paced mobility is based on superficiality as against intense growth (which pays the bills by creating comprehensive ground).

It is by no means certain that nature would prefer mass comfort(democratised) as against the medieval town where a distinct cathedral/Fort/palace stand out.....

I think that the mindset people have today where the poor are just waiting for the first ticket to El Dorado is going to be the biggest issue...traditional societies did not expect free lunches or rights but accepted inequity.Mythological ground may focus on character/leadership but it was hardly the storming of the Bastille trot. Untempered ambition (which is greatly encouraged today) was seen as greedy/morally degenerate.

Cheers :)

KL Cooke said...

"I was inundated with sensory and non sensory stimuli. I had entered a place I was totally unprepared for. I could feel presence and spirits and energies all around me. And a lot of it felt unfriendly. I found it terrifying."

My mother had a similar experience in Montana, when she was a girl back in the 1920s. She claimed to have encountered Pan one evening in the forest. Not as a vision, but as a presence.

ed boyle said...

Humans, like say dinosaurs, are going linearly into their specialized niche. We are becoming autists. I think of the comedy detective series monk, where the detective is somewhat like the 'rain man' figure, everything has to be in a straihgt line, sterilized, etc. and I see this a not atypical, considering my German housewife. This might be advantageous for a housewife, certainly birds, squirrels, beavers, bees, ants, have nests, colonies, etc. with model parameters and genetically forced, preprogrammed behaviour. In higher animals there seem to be behaviour differentiatin base on sex, ethnicity and personality type(I analyze it using personal horoscope).

I am now reading a history of ancient times and he discusses in the forward the different theory of individual causing history or the structure of society and the masses creating a flow, i.e. systems analysis. Since we are biological and infinitely complex as individuals, despite an incredibly rigid, oppressive environment, the one genius can break down the whole system, matrix style. Truth will out. This is nature. However this genius perceives simply a slightly highe level of complexity, which in its turn becomes the oppressive societal matrix in turn, newton, einstein, jesus, mohammed, buddha, keynes. Thought itself seems to be the problem. We live from constructs. Games , art, creativity he discusses in the book. Seemingly meaningless we need to live in a fantasy world where we invent the rules. Shocking at the start of the book is the description of the massive variety of nonstandard sexual relationships common in primitive societies before monogamous marriage got its way. Another example is dealing with old people. They hung themselves at 70 or were killed and eaten. Dying of sickness without a ritual eating of oneself was considered shameful. This must have reflected earlier experiences having weak people eaten by predators.

Scotlyn said...

I recently came on the most exquisite description of one of the driving forces behind our inability to stop violently the world that sustains us, and the people and other living things we share it with, and it turns out to be a mental model: Debt. From the pen of David Graeber, near the end of "Debt, the First 5,000 Years":

"...what's so pernicious about the morality of debt: the way that financial imperatives constantly try to reduce us all, despite ourselves, to the equivalent of pillagers, eyeing the world simply for what can be turned into money - and then tell us that it's only those who are willing to see the world as pillagers who deserve access to the resources required to pursue anything in life other than money. It introduces moral perversions on almost every level."

He had earlier outlined the twisted history of Cortes and his band of ravagers in Mexico, but with a detail I hadn't heard before, which was that they were a band if debtors... And the feedback from the pursuit by their creditors overcame every other feedback, including human empathy,moral beliefs, the long term benefits of a gentler approach, etc

I'm enjoying the irony in the fact that it is our particular version of civilisation, driven in part by the debt-imposed need to "grow, appreciate, progress" (sound familiar?) that turns out to have the pillaging imperative baked into its cake, and that barbarians may be the ones to ultimately free us from it.

KL Cooke said...

"That's one of the reasons I favor hunting -- it's a way back to some of the basic roots of our humanness."

Agreed. Too bad there isn't much game round anymore. Pollution and habitat destruction. There's enough for a little sport hunting, but if we tried to go back to the woods en masse, even the feral pigs would be wiped out in short order.

Same with fishing. I fish the inter-tidal zone on the Northern California Coast. Much of it has been shut down because the fish were disappearing. Now they only let you fish in places where they're aren't any. If I had to live on what I can catch, I'd either die of starvation of mercury poisoning.

Stuart Jeffery said...


Personally, my feeling is almost the opposite to your hypothesis of nature's complexity being stronger than civilisation's monotony.

Civilisation seems to use increasing complexity to overcome emerging issues rather than nature's approach of adaption and minor die out. I.e. too many rabbits and foxes thrive until balance is restored - nature strives for balance. Civilisation's approach to too many rabbits might be to introduce a new disease that would add complexity and instability.

Along with the need for energy in civilisation (i.e. White's Law), the Achilles heel is the ability to manage complexity.


Repent said...

In my opinion, there is at least some hope that society will rebuild after a dark age has past. Today competition rules the world, however it has led to unsustainable wealth gaps, resource over exploitation and with increasingly less winners than there are losers a system, where mathematically financial collapse is baked into the cake. When growth stops, debts can't be repaid with interest and the game is up.

Compare this with systems based on symbiosis. Biting ants live inside of otherwise defenseless plants, and when a herbivore tries to eat the plant the ants run out to bite the invader. In return, the plant provides a safe home and a food source for the ant colony. Traditional human agriculture can be similarly symbiotic, we take care of our select plants, fend off weeds and herbivores, and the plants provide for our food needs. Competition is a win-lose situation, where symbiosis is a win-win situation. What we need to do is to develop a symbiotic culture. You help me, I help you, we advance together in a decentralized altruistic system of mutual benefit. Clearly a better way than anything we've tried so far. Does every household need a vacuum, or could one vacuum be shared with four households with no reduction in carpet cleanliness? The possibilities are almost endless.

In regards, to your other point cities vs. nature, you clearly are correct with this proposition. I've even heard of politicians wanting to evacuate people from all the remote areas to cities so they can be better cared for with greater access to services; and of course, this would result in reduced costs to the government for things like remote doctor visits, utility service abandonment and such. Somehow, things that are considered failure in modern living, still seem to have an intrinsic charm which is missing from planned static city living:

I'd like to see a return of aesthetic charm, and authentic living.

Stein L said...

I swear this is true. Farmers' newspaper here notes that there's a movement abroad for grass fed cattle, and dairy products from same - preferably from cows in open pastures. Our dairy companies nearly all swear by having their cows in milk farms, eating pellets and being milked by robots, in the name of efficiency.

The newspaper wants to know whether we can switch to grass fed open pasture methods here, and gets in touch with "experts". These state that, yes, it should be possible.

You'd think so, given a few thousand years of prior evidence in support of the practice. Those in charge of dairy production here, businesses and farmers' organizations, have their heads so far up automation, rationalization, spread-sheets, efficiency and lowest cost feed, that they've long ago stopped realizing that the cow comes from nature and belongs there. Literally, they call cows "production units" in their various reports.

It's a fair bet they wouldn't know how to milk a cow if the electricity went.

Peter Attwood said...

There are lots of likely causes given for the steady rise in autism diagnosis, but the divorce from the discipline of nature discussed her certainly seems to be one that I had never considered.

Ares Olympus said...

When you titled it "A Landscape of Hallucinations" I didn't expect it to be literal material deception of our unnatural orderly forms of cities, making us less aware of reality which supports what we see. But its not the cities that confuses us, but what keeps the cities running - energy! With more energy we really can keep doing less with more, or slightly more with a lot more as the case may be in diminishing returns.

So I escaped one confusion, how we have the wealth and affluence as we experience, and so when I learned fossil fuels were the source, and they were finite, all bets were off for my security. I was just depressed to learn we'd have to wait until after 2030 to run low on oil, before I heard of peak oil, that happily brought up that date a couple decades.

And further I understand that money as status is the point of confusion that drives this social species, and that money seems to grow in proportion to how much energy we can consume, and when energy peaks out, we have to rely on debt to grow to compensate and keep economic growth alive, and so same problem, but more difficult to see what's behind the money. And Chris Martenson taught me "Assets are variable, while debt is fixed", so net worth is a delusion because everyone can't sell at the same time.

And the trickiest deception is the idea we can plan for the future, that money can be invested in the present, and produce more money in the future, which we can retire upon, while if you're SURE the economy must crash, no investment is safe, and yet as long as we believe the future can be managed, we can obliviously allow "experts" to invest our money into the speculation casinos.

But we do have an advantage over past civilizations that fell. We have global connectivity for the moment, so even with the impossibility of comprehending the frantic energy of 7 billion humans, if you want to know something, and if you're a bit careful you have access to a million lifetimes of information to explore, and connect to like minded people who can see the problems and predicaments we face together, and there's a possibility of acting before necessity absolutely demands it, and when our connectivity fails (or as it falls back to a tiny fraction of humanity), there will be scattered people everwhere aware and ready to act, even if in new isolation.

Still the virtual world perhaps offers unlimited chance to DECOUPLE mentally from the natural world, it also offers voices that can break our hallucinations, as Jesus said "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear."

And Dostoyevsky offered in his fiction "We are all responsible to all, for all, apart from our own sins." and "Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and draw men's souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die."

Its depressing to see we can't change the course of a runaway train, but we still have responsibility to keep a part of humanity above our lowest parts, and change what we can change, like the Serenity Prayer suggests.

Direct observations to nature might teach us that better than Wikipedia, but it doesn't hurt to start from the highest aspirations of humanity before giving up and falling into superstitions and taboos that guarantee our fear and ignorance.

Ideally there's no need to demonize any one side for being incomplete, like this poem I attempted to hold a tension of two opposites holding humanity together.
The City:
where brick and concrete lie,
where people come to feed,
where time races and culture rises,
where wealth and influence may grow.

The Country:
where woods and pastures lie,
where people come to work,
where time seasons and culture deepens,
where health and relations may grow.

Between these worlds, We search for our garden.

Doctor Westchester said...


The following announcement seems quite complementary with this week’s post…

For all readers of this blog in New York City and the surrounding region the long awaited NYC Green Wizard Meetup will happen next week!

Date and Time: Wednesday, 7/29 starting at 6:00 PM

Place: Darbar Indian Restaurant
152 E 46th St. between 3rd Ave & Lexington Ave., NYC, NY

Any questions please email

Lou Nelms said...

It is important to distinguish between primary, secondary and even tertiary nature. Even in rural environments very few people have any contact with primary nature. Today's modern farmer has very little contact with primary nature. Essentially none. The farm which many people associate with nature is an extremely altered environment. Whatever remnants of nature existing in spaces that could not be plowed or grazed are depauperate of native species and are highly degraded. Many farmers in the Midwest used to pheasant hunt. But the monocultures of corn and soybeans have wiped out much of the grassland habitats these "Chinese ditch chickens" needed for food and cover. Some farmers still deer hunt but this experience is a far cry from requiring real hunting skills as it is more or less bringing the factory to the woods with its dependence on modern technologies that many mistake for the primary event. The commercial significance of the hunt to society, including the glory of trophy, ranks higher in value than maintaining the woods for its own sake.

And what is the attraction of this degraded secondary nature to even the non farm rural inhabitants? When many now perceive that primary nature worth a visit is some far away place where access is now affordable only to those with the means to invest in airfare or many gallons of gas to distant places on the map. Through commercial intermediaries and again, with all the required gear and technologies to check the boxes between point A and point B with little time to stop and absorb whatever this primary nature may offer in small detail. And of course this primary, pristine nature is often itself degraded in the process of development to make for comfortable access for the masses. Paradise lost as they say. The idea that natural experiences even in degraded places can be had for free close to home is lost to many.

Another key element in the resiliency of civilization should be considered: the development of hierarchy in human societies. Anthropologists have proven that the most stable and resilient social and cultural unit consisted of the band of not more than about 60 people. With demographic growth hierarchies evolved, adding niches to niches. We should ask whether there is not some ingrained resistance to this development in the mind of man? That there is something within each of us or at least some of us that resists hierarchical development beyond the tribal level into chiefdoms, states, nations and empires? Is this our own human nature to resist? To throw the monkey wrench? To be subversive? Do some of us hear this call? And if so, does this lead some of us to be non conformists? And there are certainly many forms this can take. Nature selects for divergence, for diversity. Even within the narrow confines of advanced civilizations, is there not some deep seated natural tendency within man himself to knock it all back to a sustainable, resilient level? To resist both the rise and the fall? To which civilization resists with might and power. And its obfuscated god for the subduing of subversive spirits?

Odin's Raven said...

Perhaps its seasonal? Maybe civilizations are like fruit or flowers on the tree of life. Trying to make them permanent or preserving their withered remnants is futile. 'Make way for others, as others have made way for you'?

Tony f. whelKs said...

The reference to civilisations being like hallucinations reminded me of the dear departed Joe Bageant, who used to refer to the USA as The Hallucination from his Mexican exile. Although he was referring to the cultural constructs, you have made a good case for the the actual physical constructs also being hallucinatory - a concretisation of human intellect. The map is indeed not the territory, and that's a maxim useful for keeping a grip on our own cognitive bias, however it seems that 'civilisation' is a programme that attempts to force the territory into conformity with the map du jour.

Our attitude to map-making is that it is a process of collating information, that is to say we imagine the map as something being built up. Perhaps it is truer to say in fact that it is actually a process of eliminating information. In this sense, we imagine a map as [paper PLUS information], and forget that it is actually [territory MINUS information].

Using real cartography as a metaphor for the broader concept of general mapmaking, we can see that different maps of the same territory can be very different depending on what has been omitted. To a large degree I would also argue that map-making is a way to actively filter out the system view of the territory. A topographical map is very different to a political map, where lines represent either contours or electoral boundaries. By seperating the territory into a range of maps, functional linkages cannot be seen. How many maps would one need to align to explain the sharp change of vegetation cover that marches across the island of Hispaniola, for instance?

Map-making is a process of selecting information, and the selection can be driven by various imperatives, some benign, some more malign, for instance forbidding the inclusion of climate change on the map of Florida.

Phil Harris said...

I have been following James Hansen for 30 years now: good, very alert guy, & does good science when proposing hypotheses.

Despite Hansen jumping up and down all this while, the 'meme' of "perhaps one metre by 2100", seems to have been the consensus understatement of the last 2 or more decades. Just now I prefer JMG's impressionist sketches. London will manage 3 feet but not ten feet. So it goes.

Phil H

Denys said...

Prescientific societies are those that will be scientific in their next stage of development , showing they are on the road to progress and joining us on our journey, the only true and right path. One of the observations of most Peace Corps Volunteers is that whatever assignment they are given to do in a developing country, they realize that the host country nationals already know how to do it pretty well for the conditions - agriculture particularly - and PCV's have nothing to "teach". The biggest obstacle to changing conditions for local people is often a government of who acts like a colonial power pulling all the wealth out of the country and living in luxury.

Question - is this lack of mental development due to lack of nature correctable? I would think it is given how adaptable our brains are. Growing up I had no sense of direction. It was common to go to the mall on the weekend as a family and I could enter a store and when leaving not know if I had to go left or right to continue to the next store. It was that bad. Immediately after college I backpacked through Europe for 4 weeks and that seemed to solve the issue. Walking outside in human scale cities and countryside allowed me to draw a mental map of the area and compare it to the paper map I carried and when I got lost, I quickly found my way again. A few months later I joined the Peace Corps and I still marvel at the fact I could navigate miles on foot through land with no roads to someone's homestead. And get back to where I started without getting lost. My sense of direction has stuck with me 25 years later and I can navigate well in any territory without a map.

Aron Blue said...

As someone who has lived in NYC her entire adult life on, shall we say, an artistic income LOL, I think the experience "on the ground" in a city is not quite as far from nature as it is for people with a little more money to separate themselves. I can't get in a car-- I have to deal with other humans (also a natural phenomenon) a lot. And they do weird chaotic things. A lot. My clothes get dirty just from being outside. We don't have a garden because of the rats. It's an ugly, brutal nature, but I feel like I get a fair amount of negative feedback from something like the natural world here in my corner of New York.

sunbindsblackstone said...

Archdruid Greer:

I have lurked for over a year and decided to go against my customs by joining these conversations that you so expertly facilitate and moderate.

That said, I wish to learn what human tendencies you think motivate the formulation of maps like the Yugas detailed in Sanskrit scriptures and the Ages of Man in Greek lore.

I tend to view concepts like these as mental technologies made and used by different human groups to organize their seasonal observations and cultural memories of the rising and falling of dead predecessor societies. Sometimes, however, if my mood sours, I often become, in an esoteric sense, a Kali Yuga literalist.

To your knowledge, do these tales of waning communal and personal power, whether cyclical like the Yugas or linear like the Ages of Man, tend to arise more frequently in civilized--aka urban!--societies and their successors than in non-civilized societies and their successors?

Your statement in the comments' section of this week's post about a seemingly fixed lifespan of urban societies prompted my consideration of this mortal inevitability as a possible force in play during the formulations of doctrines of decay.

beetleswamp said...

I skipped The Wolf of Wall Street when it came out because I didn't want to support the celebration of people who destroyed so many lives. Finally I had a chance to check it out for free and it brought to mind a documentary from years ago about a poor village in Africa where some of the young men revolted, stole a cow, and ate it. To the surprise of the film makers, the older villagers decided not to punish the youths, but let them spend time out on their own until they understand why it's important to have a community. In our society we never get that right of passage, and are instead plagued with toxic levels of spoiled menchildren who are pampered, coddled, and rewarded for their selfish behavior. At some point the culture started to confuse virtue with vice, and now there are multiple industries including Madison Avenue "magic" being used to hide all the signs and symptoms of negative feedback.

Karuna said...

@ JMG and Yucca Glauca I wonder if you and ADR readers know about the wilderness awareness “lineage”, a loosely connected group of “schools” based on the work of a second generation of mentors that seek to recreate the earth-based tribal village culture that human beings lived in for most of history. Founded by Jon Young and his mentor Ingwe in 1983, and with loose ties to the tracker Tom Brown, the movement has spread and been nurtured by local groups all over the US. They bring a profound and healing connection to nature to the children, adolescents, and adults in their communities. Their curricula usually include tracking, nature observation, survival skills like fire making and shelter building, etc. They use storytelling, reverence, and ceremony to encourage the natural spirituality that recognizes the sacred power inherent in birth, death and the turning of the seasons.

I’ve gratefully witnessed the journeys of many children and adolescents within the wilderness awareness community. The Waldorf class I taught for 8 years did a vision quest towards the end of their time with me. These adolescents, the oldest in the camp, were treated like the warriors in a tribal village before a hunt- excused from chores, mentored in survival skills, then sent off to for a 36 hour “solo” with no food or fire except what they could provide with a bow drill. The whole community gathered to see them off and to sing them back and hear their stories when they had finished. The maturity, gratitude, and wisdom in their reflections will stay with me always.

My own son was rescued by the mentoring he received from our local wilderness awareness group. At the age of 10 he was heading for trouble- a combination of ADHD tendencies, a problematic relationship with his dad and an impending divorce. Several men in this group stepped forward to provide him with inspiration, mentoring, and summer Internships/jobs starting from the time he he was 13. Once when he had treated another child badly, they sent him off alone to tend a fire for half a day with a ceremony to welcome him back to the community afterwards. They provided him and his age mates with a rite of passage/vision quest that involved a night alone on a local mountainside complete with a visit from a mother bear and her cubs.

Now at 21, he can build a bow drill fire in all weathers, construct primitive shelters and forage/fish/ hunt for food. He will head for the nearby mountains for a few days with nothing but a tarp and a fishing pole. He mentors children in primitive skills both at the summer camp he attended since the age of 10 and in an after school program in a nearby inner city. While he somewhat dismisses my Green Wizardry attempts (I’m part of a network that grows much of our food, and experiments with rocket stoves, solar dehydrators, tiny houses, etc.), I feel he’s in a good position to thrive if/when the SHTF. For any readers who want to raise resilient children or connect to nature themselves, I can’t recommend these programs too highly.

Here’s a link:

Nathan Donaldson said...

I remember how Spengler pointed out how the architecture of a civilization gets it's initial inspiration from nature: Egyptian Pyramids are desert mountains, Greek Temples are little islands, Gothic Cathedrals are like walking thru a forest of tall trees.

Bill Blondeau said...

JMG, if I may restate the core thesis of the article, to check whether I'm grasping this rightly:

Our species evolved in a natural environment characterized by subtle, highly complex system dynamics. We then proceeded to construct physical and mental environments that are not only much simpler than any natural system (predisposing us to hubris), but which are comparatively deficient in negative feedback (thus subtly sabotaging our inborn learning processes.)

If that's a reasonably accurate, two questions arise.

First: If our built environments are deficient in negative feedback, does that imply an oversupply, or at least a dominance, of positive feedback? Systems dominated by positive feedback tend to be oscillators; the simpler they are, the more strongly they find loudly resonant frequencies. Could this be affecting our minds as well: a throb or pulse or rhythm of our civilization that is more mechanical and less differentiated that the changing rhythms of nature? If so, what might that be doing to us?

Second: would this insight have Fermi's Paradox implications about tool-using civilizations on other worlds? Or is that a giddy bit of overreach?

Brian said...

I understand the basic premise you're presenting, and I'm interested to see where your argument is headed; I hope it's not simply in the direction of "village good, city bad", the basis of so many Victorian melodramas and Rousseau's noble savage dream. Naturally we adapt to whatever habitat we find ourselves born and raised in, and a person who's lived in a city her whole life will not have the skill set that an Amish farmer has, and vice versa. After all, country tourists visiting NYC for the first time are completely overwhelmed by the noise, the bustle, the constant assault on the senses. Not just because there's more or less than at home, but because it's so different than what they're accustomed to.

(I'd also say that we didn't stop "evolving" 10,000 years ago; the notion that we did is the basis of the paleo-diet fallacy.)

That being said, history certainly does demonstrate the blinkered thinking and refusal to face certain realities of every civilization, and the greater adaptability of small groups. But I think that relatively greater adaptability usually demonstrated itself as the ability to simply get up and walk away from a bad place/situation. When a hunter-gatherer group exhausted the game in one area, they went elsewhere. When a drought dried up the river, they walked to another river (or vanished). When a hostile group attacked, they fought back or ran away. A huge part of the inability of an urbanized civilization to do that is simply inertia and investment: a civilization is necessarily large and ungainly, not small and light on its feet. And while a tribal unit can pick up and move from one river or savannah to another, a city can't pick up and go to some empty city. It needs to drag all its civilization along with it, or vanish into the forest.

And all that being said, with the way things are going, being small and light on your feet is definitely going to be advantageous in the very near future.

RPC said...

Okay, you've got a testable hypothesis here. There seems to be a class of civilizations that are exceptions to your rule. I'm thinking here of ancient Egypt, Edo Japan, perhaps Byzantium. These seem at least to have been capable of continuing indefinitely, but in the event were wiped out by sudden massive invasion. How would you work these into your model?

Andy Brown said...

A fascinating and convincing theory. There’s another related reason for the fragility of civilized cognitive modeling that you might consider adding to your analysis.

We did research many years ago for a labor union that was interested in convincing workers to take more of an active role in improving working conditions in their factory/industry. The thing they were up against, as we told them, was that each worker functioned within a “work box” – within which they were very clever at getting their work done, or shirking as the case might be, and they would generally take responsibility for making changes and improvements in small ways, etc. But the larger context of their work box was entirely outside of their control or conception – and unlike the labor organizers regular workers treated their working conditions as pretty much a fact of life – a kind of physical cosmos that just existed without any expectation of (or tolerance for) input from them. The worker’s task was to figure out the rules for succeeding in their little corner of it – and understanding the extent and limits of their scope for action.

The riddle you are trying to solve in this essay is why uncivilized life-ways seem less fragile than civilized, and while I think you’re right that a built environment creates a sort of intellectual ineptitude, I think an even more important factor is that nature looks after itself better (more durably) than civilization can.

Whatever delusions we decide to pursue (and non-civilized people can certainly rival us in that) when the context that supports our own box of models is “nature” – we have a fairly limited ability to completely wreck the external system with the tools of non-civilization. Nature goes about it is business willy-nilly, and humans have some leeway to react or not react to whatever reality testing is getting through. In the case of civilization, on the other hand, whether or not we understand, take responsibility for, or manage to maintain that external context of human-built civilization takes on an entirely different character. For a civilization to rise in the first place it presumably must have (by luck or design) a decently robust set of positive feedback loops, internal coherence, homeostatic habits and so on. (Much like nature does.) But as the context of civilization starts to falter, and we follow the very human habit of thinking and acting within the limits of our much smaller box of models – then there is no particular reason to expect that civilization is going to continue to repair and adjust itself successfully – especially if it comes down to our abilities to take that on intentionally. In other words – both non-civilized and civilized humans are generally content to treat the larger context of their lives as a given – beyond their influence and understanding. But the robustness and resilience of the natural world is more durable than that of a civilization. Every human culture could be placed upon a spectrum based on their own mixture of natural plus human-built. You describe civilized urbanites occupying one end of that spectrum, and that puts us out on a limb without nature’s resilience to give us any grounding.

zaphod42 said...

Interesting post, J.M.

Several years ago, I read an item in one of the "sciency" magazines about a study to determine limits to human recall of names and faces. Right now I don't have time to look it up, it may have been in a "Mind" issue. If anyone knows where to locate it, it is timely to this discussion.

IIRC, (always an issue, at age 72) the study shows that there seems to be a practical limit of between 400 and 600 names and faces we can recall at any one time, and when we exceed that every 'new' name/face basically causes an 'old' name/face to 'vanish' from our memory.

If true, that would hold implications concerning natural limits to numbers in a true community of humans, e.g. the size of a tribe.

Thanks, as always, for enlightening and enlivening my week.


Erik Buitenhuis said...

Kull wahad.

Please send this to a scientific journal on cognition.

Daergi said...

I've been enjoying this current thread of discussion. A question that comes to mind is why? We have a few thousand years history of humans repeatedly pulling themselves out of their natural surroundings to arrange themselves into highly-structured, urban societies that then crash and burn. What madness or discontent or drive makes us leave a relatively stable state, in harmony with our surroundings, to go off and construct squalid, festering, doomed-to-fail empires? While living in urban centers deprives us of a healthy connection with the environment we evolved from, being in that natural environment seems to compel us to organize ourselves out and away from it. Having lived primitively in the woods at different times in my life and also having lived in cities, I sometimes imagine my experience to be like a yo yo - traveling towards the one world and being yanked back towards the other.

I wonder if the answer to my question has something to do with population density. The smaller, more stable communities humans evolved in work because we evolved to be successful in groups of that size. When groups became too large they usually split, but that presumes the existence of territory to expand into. Civilization is what's cobbled together to meet the needs of a denser population that has no vacant territory to expand into. Civilization then would be a slapdash affair meant to cope with the refugees of overly successful reproduction and inter-species competition. Our urban centers are nothing more then than fancy refugee camps. We make them grand to disabuse ourselves of the nature of our predicament. Their violent collapse not much of a surprise because of their nature. And the rise of new urban centers a certainty as long as the numbers are there to prevent a return to smaller, more workable communities.

Scott Nance said...

JMG -- I think you've hit on an important point -- the impact of our environment at a neurological level. But you could take your analysis a logical step further. The people in our society who are by and large making the major decisions are not only operating in urban environments, where as you point out there is much less sensory input than in nature, but in offices. Working in an office myself, I realized some time ago how incredibly barren offices are in terms of sensory input. There's no smell, little noise, bland visual surroundings, and a constant temperature. I compared this to my grandfather's experience as a farmer, where, even doing something prosaic like moving his cattle, he was surrounded by a sea of input. It's possible, given the poverty of offices as sources of stimuli, that the brains of decision makers (and all of us who work in offices) have somewhat rewired themselves accordingly. I think we're seeing the unfortunate results of that now.

Cathy McGuire said...

Another wonderful post! I've noticed how artificial urban areas are, as I've gradually moved from one of the most urban (NYC) step by step down to a fairly rural area where the closest mall is 25 minutes away (yeah!) I've also experienced the profound change when I got rid of the tv, stopped going to movies and even buying shiny magazines, got an ad blocker for my computer (thank you Ghostery!) - the drop in over-stim and brainwashing, added to the move into Nature (albeit on a small cultivated homestead)changed how I see the world. And - of course - put me at odds with all my suburban/urban friends and family. Their response to Nature is both laughable and tragic. Anyway, I've probably told this before, but the two most shocking responses I'd heard were from children I'd taken on their first field trips - to county parks (not the wilds by any means). A five year old asked, about the trees we were passing, "is this real real or fake real?" (Thank you Disney - NOT!) and a 12 year old looked up at Bridal Veil Falls (huge) and asked, "Do they turn that on up there, or does it turn itself on?" She just couldn't grasp the idea of a waterfall! Sadly, living in Nature doesn't guarantee anything. My 8yr old neighbor is so hooked on video games that he is rarely outside, and seems totally uninterested in the natural world, though he still likes coming over once in a while to feed my chickens and rabbits.
Thanks again for your cogent observations.

jonathan said...

jmg- you make a compelling argument yet one that does not entirely explain historical observation. as jared diamond has pointed out so effectively, societies without cities, from the easter islanders to the viking greenlanders, have failed spectacularly too. these societies lived in close contact with the natural world and still ignored the catastrophic outcomes that eventuated from their decisions. diamond posits that cultural factors were at work. people chose to "go down with the ship" of their culture rather than adjust their life styles to reality. the same point could be made about the human caused extinction of the mega fauna of north america and australia. did our ancestors fail to see that coming despite sharing their environment with the animals they were killing?

others, notably evolutionary psychologists, have suggested that the human brain evolved to respond to immediate threats--the rustle in the grass--but is largely indifferent to longer term threats. in a sense this is just the ancient nature/nurture dispute in which you seem to be adopting some aspects of the diamond position i.e., that because these are cultural decisions, people can downshift or collapse intentionally and beat the rush despite their cultural baggage. economists would look at the same phenomenon and call it discounting, in economic terms, the future; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

despite the emphasis on cultural factors in the analyses of the social sciences, it's hard to discount the possibility that our collective shrug over the environmental and economic damage that we are inflicting on ourselves may be due, at least in part, to the hard-wired responses to threat perception that are our evolutionary inheritance.

Bill Pulliam said...

When I moved to rural America 13 years ago, you still saw a few kids wandering the roads with their cane poles looking for fishing holes. They disappeared pretty quickly. Now the kids are hard-wired to their "wireless" devices and game consoles, same as the rest of the nation. The old-timers say that these woods used to be full of people. Now if there isn't a road for the 4-wheelers, and there isn't an active logging crew, there's not a human to be found.

But it is older than that. We spent the 1990s in Colorado, where large portions of the youth and young adults did spend much of their recreational time outdoors. But they viewed the wilderness as a playground, a massive outdoor gymnasium. They were increasingly into gear (the higher tech the better) to conquer the wild and prevent themselves from actually having to interact with it. Flannel-clad hikers in waffle-stompers looking at the trees had become merely anachronistic obstacles to the free movement of mountain bikes. And trust me, nothing on this front has gotten any better in the intervening decades.

But on the other hand... when we moved here 13 years ago nobody had chickens. Many people do now. Vegetable gardening has made a resurgence. But chickens and tomatoes are only half-nature. They are also products of human intelligence, albeit biological products. They are designed (by human minds) to be maleable to our desires and provide for our needs. True wild nature is their enemy, they do not survive long in it without human protectors.

latheChuck said...

Re: climate change: There was a story on NPR a day or two ago about the psychological impact of climate change research on climate change researchers. That is, how do they manage the anxiety of forecasting hard times ahead? Well, they don't share it with their families, for one thing. I listened carefully to the story, and the one thing I did NOT hear was "they make lifestyle changes to reduce their personal impact". No, they still fly in from all parts of the globe to assess the impact of people flying in from all parts of the globe.

k-dog said...

A most excellent description of our predicament, thank you. As you say "None of this had to happen. Half a century ago, policy makers and the public alike had already been presented with a tolerably clear outline of what was going to happen if we proceeded along the trajectory we were on." But as changing the trajectory was not advantageous to policy makers and certain of the well heeled public, policy makers artfully redefined reality to something more in line for what they like to do. That being massive resource extraction and profits.

Your speculation that the city makes people stupid because it is an information-poor environment is interesting. Going with it further part of this city induced stupidity is an inability to apprehend a difference between that which is real and that which is the product of fantasy. This weakness has been exploited to maximum advantage by policy makers to enhance their own social position. The city redefines reality in such a way that the human mind mistakenly believes that alternate realities are as real as the natural environment that the city, but not the people living in it, directly experience. Our entertainment industry sees to it that the distinction between reality and fantasy becomes ever more muddled.

The truth is that there is but one reality and when she (Mother Nature) is abused and taken for a fool she becomes very cruel. Not literally cruel but she has rules and she follows her rules; her own physical laws. She is not a mathematician but she balances equations. Human fantasy can't change her rules and humans lost in fantasy can't learn from mistakes. Such humans have lost standards needed to judge experience by and they can't balance equations even if they know the math to do it. Thus we are on the road to ruin.

Myriad said...

Somewhere in our evolution, it seems that trusting an unreliable mental model became more conducive to survival than doubting it or taking the risks inherent in discarding the model for some alternative. The phenomenon of people holding to their models despite significant amounts of disconfirming evidence is well known and well documented. Most emergency room workers, for example, know with certainty, from direct experience, that things get busy and "crazy" around the time of the full moon. With equal certainty, they know that the statistical studies that show no such correlation must be wrong somehow. (Notably, though, an emergency room is far from a natural environment, nor is typically situated in one. If it were, there would be an obvious reason to expect some extra activity at those times: more people taking advantage of the light to travel and work at times they'd otherwise be in bed.)

Similarly, the girl with the daisy is likely to ascribe any resulting negative feedback to choosing the wrong flower ("I had a feeling that the one to its left was the correct one to choose, but I unwisely ignored it") or mishandling the petals or, as my sisters did, simply pick another daisy until she gets the answer she's looking for, rather than discard the model. At least, for a while. I wonder whether the real reason that method of divination gets dropped is not the negative feedback (which is less than 50%, considering the cases where the answer is correct by chance, the cases where the girl's own subsequent behavior self-fulfills the flower's prophecy, and the cases where one never finds out one way or the other) but the absence in our culture of a compelling and pervasive narrative insisting that it works and suggesting why. It's not as though the parity of randomly derived numbers can't be used to divine whether an influence is active or passive in a situation. (Starting about a month ago I've been learning and practicing geomancy, as you once suggested to me.)

With the utmost respect, I'll just gingerly mention that confirmation bias is a tricky topic in this setting. The implication that confirmation bias becomes more prevalent or more consequential when people interact with artificial surroundings is plausible, though, at the very least. A reasonable paraphrase: what nature expresses first-hand is more convincing than people or human artifacts can be.

latheChuck said...

Re: negative feedback. I hope the phrase is well understood in its engineering sense, but I've met enough people who say "negative feedback" when they mean "personal criticism" that I thought I'd add a few words to JMG's explanation. The sense of "negative feedback" as "criticism" has just enough truth in it to be confusing, but if you take criticism to be a pejorative term, the confusion is compounded. Something that I used to marvel at, as a child, was the way that I could be riding in a car on a two-lane country road and see a car approach from a mile or two away. It was always coming "straight for us", yet we always passed a few feet apart. Each driver was steering with "negative feedback": too far to the center, turn toward the shoulder; too far to the shoulder, turn toward the center. The action is the opposite of the observation (hence the feedback is negative).

On the other hand, positive feedback is something almost always to be avoided (in engineering)! House too warm; make it warmer? Too cold; make it colder? Driving close to the shoulder of the road, turn toward the shoulder? One use for positive feedback is in re-affirming a marginal choice: Having decided that the house is just a little too cold, turn on the heat for a guaranteed minimum period of time, because heating plants do not perform well with short cycles. Positive feedback works on a personal level, too. "You've served a fine meal!" encourages the cook to continue doing so, and possibly to improve.

Great essay, JMG!

Myriad said...

@MayHawk, I had a similar experience once, in an east coast dune area. Except it was mosquitoes surrounding me, instead of (or perhaps, in addition to) spirits.

Dan L. said...

Compare a walk down a city street to a walk through a forest or a shortgrass prairie: in the city street, much more of what you see is simple, neat, linear, and logical. A city is an environment reshaped to reflect the habits and preferences of the human mind.

What's interesting to me is that while human beings do seem to try to render their built environments as simple, neat, linear, and logical -- that doesn't actually seem to be the logic by which cities operate. Consider Christopher Alexander's argument in A City Is Not a Tree. Mathematical trees -- cascading hierarchies -- are very well suited towards the sort of cognition engaged in by civilized human beings, but the elements of cities seem to actually cohere according to rather more complex and organic logic.

I think the hypothesis you relate in your concluding paragraphs is very compelling, but I wonder if the tendency for civilized peoples to underestimate the complexity of their own built environment and insistence on using inapplicable tree-based models to understand it might also contribute to the decline of urban societies. Ironically, it might even be that exposure to the natural world is needed to train human beings in the mental models needed to understand the dynamics of the urban environment.

Hawkcreek said...

I liked your statement on the relative information densities of rural and urban areas. I was thinking that since some of the most important information in our evolutionary past comes from movement (movement of predators or prey), our natural inclination is to focus on that movement, and to do so with the part of our brain that is most apprehensive.
This might explain some of my paranoid behavior when I leave my hill and go to town to shop?
Just too damn much movement. I love Starbucks and good dark draft beer, but I always love getting back to my hill.

Kyoto Motors said...

Perhaps my baseball analogy last week was premature. I found this week’s post really went deep into the heart of matters…Shall we say this home run went outside the stadium? (-:
What you’ve raised in one post here touches on so many themes from past posts. The issue of prosthetics (and the law of diminishing returns) comes to mind when thinking of the skilled rural angler vs. the suburban recreational counterpart using ridiculous technology to accomplish the same task … Taken even further, industry has come up with that heinous practice of drag-net fishing and other methods of wiping out entire swaths of marine ecosystems, under the banner of progress, of course.

Kyoto Motors said...

...From another angle, you’re speaking of some profoundly basic principles in spirituality with respect to the inter-connectedness of all things – a concept that will often leave the Cartesian (urban, techno) mind completely baffled. The urban, and especially the stimulated, simulated technological spectacle of the 21st Century serves as a series of blinders, which brings us back to the Situationist concept of social and political power derived from the disconnect from Nature…
The oneness of things is a hard thing to grasp – particularly if you are using the Cartesian tools and methods of “grasping” rather that experiencing oneness through other means. I concur whole-heartedly that experiencing Nature first hand is inherently fulfilling in this regard.

Caryn said...

Wow! Just Wow. This is one of those essays that keeps me so hooked on this site; A real face-palmer, (as in, why didn't I see that before!? It's so obviously there!).

So 2 things in reply:

I just recently read a novel about a boy growing up in Manhattan - that was not the meat of the story, but while reading,I was distracted, I couldn't stop thinking of the question of children growing up in, developing in and spending their whole lives in that uber-urban setting. WHY?, as when my kids were babies, My husband and I, and every other parent we knew instinctively, irrationally, thought, "NO. They HAVE to have some nature around them. We HAVE to be someplace where they can spend SOME time in a bit of wild". Irrational because as young adults we ADORED Manhattan, loved it to bits. We knew plenty of 'City Kids' who seemed perfectly fine, it's rationally a perfectly acceptable way to grow up; yet there was an overwhelming primal draw to provide them with some sort of natural access. We didn't even question it. Almost every parent I've ever discussed it with says they felt the same. They don't know why or question it either.

We settled on Hong Kong, partly because it provided us with both - uber-urban wherein we could actually make a living with our 'civilized' skill sets, yet on the south side - right on the beaches, some tame, some wild, inlets and coves to swim or row to and walking distance to the country parks, wherein there is shockingly more wildlife than one might imagine, (wild boar, wild dogs, civets, snakes, snakes, snakes). Then we chose this uber-rural US home, (I'm sitting in right now) in Wyoming - Nothing much to do, No strip malls, no traffic light, no fast food, Only one supermarket with scant, ugly, homegrown fruit and veg and the best tasting beef, buffalo and elk you've ever dreamt of. My teens seem to stay busy and happy outside all the time. The latest 'toy' is a scythe for the pasture). Although on hikes far from the roads, I'm just like May Hawk - know your jungle, don't overdo it, when you know you're in over your head. Learn to read the tracks and scat slowly, carefully. When we used to be able to afford to come also in the winter, it was even more so - covered in snow, far less "to do", yet we couldn't keep them inside for 5 minutes.

Interesting, given your (face palming) explanation of how our brains have developed for millennia to learn from nature. I, (and I would hazard to say so many like me) never thought of the cognitive dissonance, the disconnect for ourselves - but when having babies, when those parental hormones are surging - it was like a clarion call - "Get out of the city!".

Lawfish1964 said...

Another great post, JMG!

Picking up on the LESS concept, in particular, the stimulation aspect referenced above, I have noticed that being in nature is very stimulating. It is scallop season here in Florida, so on the weekends, my family and I are generally foraging around in the grass beds for those delicious little critters. It's both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Here we are, invaders of their world, yet we can look at it as though we belong there. There is so much life and so many different forms of life. The only sound you hear is the sound of your own breathing. It's practically the antithesis of artificial stimulation.

I've also gotten much more in tune with the seasons as a result of gardening and fishing. I now know when it's time to catch certain fish, where they can be found and what gets them to bite. That came from years of just doing it. Straight observation and trial and error. It feels good to gain that kind of skill. I see so many people with boats that cost half what my house cost and they can't catch anything. It's as though they figure they can buy being a good fisherman. Not until you put down the toys and start paying attention to the sea, the tides, the currents, the look of the bottom, etc.

Looking forward to next week's installment.

dfr2010 said...

Partially inspired by this week's post, but mostly inspired by the frustration with nature refusing to "co-operate" and doing its own thing:
Chickens do not follow plans
Feel free to chuckle, especially those of y'all still in the city! LOL I've said before that keeping chickens keeps me humble.

Caryn said...

The second:

Slightly off topic, but actually very pertinent and interesting to this ongoing discussion,. I think you, JGM and the other guests here will find it worthwhile, and it's a short read with good pics. I just ran across this:

A tiny, very hostile tribe on a tiny remote island in the Bay of Bengal, who have been Hunter Gatherers for estimated 60,000 years. Officially a part of India, but the Indian Govt. has made it illegal to go within 3 miles of their coast. The few who have inadvertently washed up on their shores or near it, was lucky to get out alive. Not much is known about them, (I've no idea how observers settled on the 60,000 year estimate), because no one has been able to get close.

An interesting possible example of simple, 'uncivilized' society lasting through time. I sincerely hope there is enough high ground on that little island; If so, they may last another 60,000.

Oh, and forgot to say: JGM: Thanks again for sharing your insight and clarity. This was fantastic.

Kyoto Motors said...

…And then there’s the matter of “psychology of previous investment” as coined by JHK, who is a champion of the well-designed urban environment, and who regards suburbia as the manifestation of disconnect and downfall. He’s probably right in that these things are matters of degree. Perhaps if the current civilisation could satisfy itself with small-scale cities and towns, we’d have a workable mode with a system built to last. But you might as well file that one under “wishful thinking” along with all the technologically grandiose utopias that will never come to be either. We are largely invested in the techno-urban industrial paradigm to such a degree that it’s hard to over-state it. And it is precisely because the mode of living in this Relativist environment is individuality (i.e. disconnectedness) that we don’t really pick up on the messages that the greater whole is sending us.

Kyoto Motors said...

As a final thought, I’d like to leave you with this anecdotal tidbit:
A teacher of mine (who was originally from South Africa) once related to me that the People of the San (or the Kalahari Bushmen), when brought into the urban environment, had trouble perceiving right angles and the vertical lines of Western architecture (!?!) As a completely foreign phenomenon, these lines made absolutely no sense to them. Anyone who is the least bit familiar with this people’s ability to survive the desert climate (and again, Wade Davis is a great place to start), knows that it’s not due to a diminished capacity of perception on the part of these folks either…

patriciaormsby said...

@Mayhawk I implore you to try again, but as JMG says, do it one step at a time. The next time you have a chance, go out only as far as you feel comfortable. Then sit down, and in your heart, introduce yourself to all the beings you sense around you--the plants, rocks, clouds, mountains. Listen with your heart for their response. Perhaps you felt their hostility because you failed to introduce yourself. Never mind you're a city guy--you're human! The fact that you felt this is valuable and indicates you have not lost the ability to sense this.
The first time you go, don't try to stay the night. Just make friends. Then, perhaps next time you can go a little further. If you continue, later on you may feel ready to take the big step of staying all night all alone in a wilderness. The first time I did that, I was truly terrified. But now, it is like being home. You interact all night with the forces around you. Then you become one with them.
If you haven't read Stephen Harrod Buhner's works, I can recommend The Secret Teachings of Plants.

@Lynford, I would disagree with you about the people inhabiting JMG's blogs. I feel a great degree of rapport with them, whereas the dyed-in-the-wool city folks do not understand me at all (and vice versa). You are right, though, that civilization has reached its tentacles nearly everywhere, especially with young people worldwide all hunched over their devices. I would argue, on the other hand, that shutting off civilization at this time is as good an idea as turning your back on a thrashing tyrannosaur in its death throes.

gjh42 said...

Re the Bountiful Energy blog: Some of his points about there being alternatives to oil are valid, though obviously overlooking some associated costs. However, he seems to sufer from the same thing he accuses "post-oil doomers" of, namely a failure to produce evidence:

"This group has all the hallmarks of pseudoscience. It has never produced any risky, falsifiable predictions which were confirmed by subsequent evidence, not even once."

I suppose if you limit the group to the past few years, you might be able to say this, as long-range predictions don't happen overnight, but counting the Limits to Growth authors makes the statement ridiculous.

indus56 said...

Fruitful post, as always. I'm not sure I understood JMG's contention to the effect that "[o]ne question I’ve never seen discussed, though, is whether the human intellect has needs that are only fulfilled by a natural environment." I don't think he would have meant that the issue itself hasn't been addressed--it would be of central interest to ecological psychology, ecological theories of mind, bioinformatics, eco- and biosemiotics. For the latter, see the work of Jesper Hoffmeier (e.g., 2008):

" That the species of this world are products of evolution is a fact we no longer have to defend, and thus we no longer need to agree on some unitary, simple mechanism to justify its belonging inside well-established scientific knowledge. Rather we should try to grasp the evolutionary process on Earth as a multifaceted play of creative life processes. That such a process has ultimately created intelligence is a striking fact.... Biosemiotics, by positing interpretation in the center of its focus, necessarily admits semiosis as an inescapable feature of life and claims that semiosis (i.e., sign action, 1 see below) was the root-form of intentionality and intelligence." (p. 253)

A particularly good early example of these lines of thinking is the work of ecological philosopher Paul Shepard in such works as _The Subversive Science_ and _Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence_ (1978). Shepard makes a powerful case that animals are a particularly vital resource in early child development, particularly in our capacity to model other minds and ways of being in the world. He makes the broader point that the exquisite plasticity and complexity of human minds is itself the product of ecological diversity, and the range of beings with which we have evolved by interacting with. Human-centric or human-only environments are, on this view, dangerously impoverished as resources for our mental health and cognitive flourishing.

If JMG means, instead, that he hasn't seen this line of thinking extended from ecological concern to the question of civilizational collapse, I think we could argue that it's at least implicit in the work of Catton, one of his heroes.

In Shepard's Thinking Animals he links the development of our brain capacity beyond that of other primates as an artefact of the expansion of our range and repertoire from forest omnivore to include grassland predator modelling. Others--Merlin Donald's _A Mind So Rare_, for example, make the argument that the special spur to our cognitive development was emergent human culture. Not civilization, but increasingly complex and materialized expressions of sign-making and interpretation.

I think we can still endorse JMG's overall argument about the detrimental isolation of civilization from its more-than-human matrix (Norretranders provides powerful arguments along these lines as does Bateson) without omitting from the overall portrait particular ecocidal and civilization-destroying forms of cultural organization--late-stage capitalist globalization being one.

JMG himself is an exemplar of the millions if not billions of people who are or could be persuaded that massive change is called for and would choose differently on a terrain of choices configured differently. The recent referendum in Greece might be read in any number of ways, but one is of a people pushed to the wall and prepared to defy the diktats of these elites only to find that option traduced and foreclosed upon by overwhelming financial power.

Jason Fligger said...

I have pondered the notion of what constitutes "natural" for a good portion of my life and wonder if the separation between "natural" and "unnatural" isn't a bit cloudy. For humans to do unnatural things, we would need to be somehow separate from the natural world. We would need to be "special". My belief is that there is nothing special about humans-we are just part of the universe. As I have state here previously, I carry this view even further to the extent that the distinction between myself and a rock is meaningless when these "distinct" entities are viewed at the subatomic level in space. So if humans are not special, if they are not ever really separate from the universe, how can they do anything unnatural? Viewed this way, our manipulations of matter and energy are merely the universe "playing with itself". That is not to say that this self play isn't destructive to some eddy's of organization within the universe. Yes, the effects of this game will be tragic for our little eddy. But I believe that when this eddy is completely disrupted and our organism has been destroyed, some new energy eddy will arise in the universe and a new game will ensue. Throughout the universe, creation is the product of destruction (or the reverse). Does any of this make "me" happy? Absolutely not. I love being as a human on this planet to which my body is so well adapted. I have two children that I love very much and I work every day to teach them things that I hope will help them survive in the "natural" world. But, deep down inside, I know that we are part of a infinite organism that cannot be concerned about our consciousness. I love this planet and all that it contains and I would like it to be here forever. But I know that that is not possible.

As an aside, it has not escaped my notice that Stephen Hawking and a number of other members of our "intelligentsia" seem to have given up on our Earth and have turned their attention toward the techno-utopian promise of inhabiting some other planet. These "geniuses" think they are special. I suspect that that a lot of people will put money into these escape schemes and enrich a few swindlers. I doubt that any will escape the aftermath of "the games" that we are currently playing with our planet.

indus56 said...

Thought these quotes from the conclusion of Tor Norretranders' _The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size_ might be welcome here:

Consciousness, civilization withdrawing from the world...

"Information is a measure of unpredictability, disorder, mess, chaos, amazement, indescribability, surprise, otherness. Order is a measure of the opposite. Consciousness does not consist of very much information and regards itself as order. It is proud that by discarding information it can reduce all the disorder and confusion around it to simple, predicatable laws for the origin of phenomena. Civilization consists of social and technological organization that rids our lives of information. As civilization has progressed, it has enabled the withdrawal of consciousness of the world. (p. 410)

The Age of Composure of Consciousness...

"But consciousness has also reached the age of composure. Through conscious studies of man and his consciousness, it has become clear that man is much more than his consciousness. It has become clear that people perceive far more than consciousness knows; that people do far more than their consciousness knows. The simulation of the world about us, which we experience and believe is the world itself, is made possible only through systematic illusions and reductions that result from discarding most of the unpredictable otherness that imbues the world outside us." (p. 410).

A mighty living system that has caught life...

“Inside us, in the person who carries consciousness around, cognitive and mental processes take place that are far richer than consciousness can know or describe. Our bodies contain a fellowship with a surrounding world that passes right through us…but is hidden from our consciousness. The body is part of a mighty living system, which totally forms and manages a planet that has caught life..." (p. 410-411)

Roger said...

JMG, up here too, knowledge and enlightenment only exist in places with tall buildings.

And few things ignite me to fury faster than some allegedly "educated" urbanite looking down on country people or small-towners - ahem - like me.

I'll give an example. About 15 years ago one of our august "national" publications noted that the students in my hometown (a small, out-of-the-way place) consistently scored highest in the province on certain academic tests.

My-oh-my the astonishment this incited. I mean, how could these hicks outscore city kids? Once, ok, flukey things happen. But this?

Never mind that people in such towns need skill sets in occupations that involve making and growing things that city-dwellers find magically appearing on store shelves, that involve more than spreadsheets and meeting rooms. How can it happen that there's also competence in stuff that only city people are supposed to know?

And so reporters went on an expedition to the place. I'll bet they expected some TV-land "Hooterville" with tabacky chawin' morons in coveralls. You know, Mr Druckers and Jethro Bodines and Ellie May Clampetts all around.

And they asked about the nature of the town and schools. A real head scratcher so let's hear from the cretins themselves: "Everybody knows everybody". And somebody opined that there's a "woven-ness" to the place. "Woven-ness", I'll bet that wowed the reporters.

The answer? Realistically there's no one answer.

In any case, a long article was the result, wonderment at such a sociological phenomenon, the interviewees and objects of this implicit scorn guys I grew up with and, by extension, "expats" like yours truly.

Imagine, if the place with such high academic results had been a neighbourhood in Ottawa or Toronto, NOBODY on the newspaper would blink. But THAT place????? Where people get dirty, where people bathe after work as opposed to before?

This is just ONE example. This is one of the last allowable bigotries. I've seen hot-shot pundits on national TV talk about urban areas where people are "educated" as opposed to our version of fly-over country where people supposedly aren't.

I've seen another of our eastern-based, self-described, "national" publications write about an arts centre in a western city. In this case in-your-face bigotry: the writer asked the person he was interviewing but isn't this "red-neck" country? And they didn't mean "red-neck" as a compliment. Can you imagine if the arts centre was in a small town?

Alex said...

".. civilizations last on average around a millennium before they crash into a dark age, while uncivilized societies routinely go on for many times that period."

Would it be unreasonable to ask you to supply a list of civilizations and uncivilized societies to support this claim? As you've noted before, history doesn't contain that large of a sample size to begin with. Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies" covers many, but I think they would all land in the first category (and, broadly, would support your thesis). So what's in the second category? Nomadic tribes that are unified in language and custom?

SLClaire said...

One of the things which seems to be a big difference between me and most of the other city and suburb residents that I know is the latter's apparent ability to remain content while spending nearly all their time inside a building. I have never been able to do that. Being inside too long (for an entire day or even just several hours) causes me to become anxious, scattered, irritable. To reduce that I need to spend a period of time outdoors, and preferably a significant period of time, every day if possible. I haven't been able to understand why so few other people seem to have that response. Your post might just be the model to explain this.

Twilight said...

So simple, and in hindsight so obvious! It's kind of like the things that happen to confound our efforts on an almost daily basis in a rural life - usually never see it coming, but in hindsight it usually seems like they should have been obvious!

Consider an urban society without that regular feedback showing you're not so damn smart after all, with the accumulation of years and generations, multiplied by the sheer population of a city. It's easy to see that after 200 years or so a society could get pretty far off track and grow to believe all manner of nonsense. Far enough off track that even if it should be realized that things have gone very wrong, there aren't enough people who've had effective training by nature.

David said...

"One question I’ve never seen discussed, though, is whether the human intellect has needs that are only fulfilled by a natural environment." What do you think of Paul Shepard?

Carolyn said...

If anyone likes to read thrillers, Paolo Bacigalupi has an excellent one out recently, The Water Knife. It's set in the American Southwest after the drought has ground on for perhaps another ten years or so. The individual states are in a bitter, brutal fight over the dwindling remains of the Colorado River, and much of the story takes place in Phoenix, which is overrun with migrants from Texas trying to escape the drought and hurricanes, and resembles present-day Juarez. What I really love in my fiction is the worldbuilding, and Bacigalupi does an excellent job of weaving into his story all the big and small ways that the ongoing environmental crisis shapes the day-to-day lives of his characters.

Choice quote: “If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely f***ed ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”

Warning: it's pretty bleak and violent stuff, not to everyone's taste. Quite a page-turner though.

Architrains said...

Hooboy, quite a bit for an architect in training to think about in these last two posts. I don't have any argument (architecture is a generally indefensible profession), just some observations that back up the theory.

For starters, I've always had more affinity for vernacular buildings than "high design," which is part of why I'm in historic preservation. To me, a limestone farmhouse in the middle of the prairie is a stronger symbolism of civilization and human intellect than Manhattan island.

The other observation is how far down the rabbit hole of the technology-as-god hallucination the building profession is. I was having trouble with formatting text in a drawing due not to a lack of skill or experience on my part but due to the hyper complexity, and a coworker said that together we would overcome the technology. I pointed out that was kind of a backward way to approach it, but it just shows how the mental model that technology makes life easier drowns out the diminishing returns, and doubly so when your entire thought process is based on modeling. It doesn't help when limits to growth are making everyone too busy to take a step back and think anything through.

The last observation is a saying I came up with after watching "adults" interact in the office environment, that I feel fits with the idea from last week of barbarism as the base state: "professionalism is the thin veneer that keeps the monkeys from throwing feces."

Somewhatstunned said...

This weeks post seems appropriate for outlining something I've been noticing lately.

I do think, that even now, a basic feeling for, an impulse towards, the natural world (green stuff, critters, 'outside') is present in most people (how could it not be?). But, at this current point, that positive impulse is very often distorted and expresses itself in forms that can be, at best, less beneficial than it might be, and at worst, actively damaging.

I have spotted a number of examples of this - here one that's been exercising (pun!) me recently.

Part of the "natural world" is one's own body (of course!) and so walking, running, climbing, swimming, cycling, done out-of-doors, are all lovely, healthy, intrinsically good and a plenty of people want to do them. Using one's muscles is a very intimate way of experiencing the truth of one's connection to the rest of nature - that's why it's satisfying even if it hurts a bit. These activities are not, in principle, damaging and the world could, in prnciple, sustain a huge amount of them. Except that in our current cultural setup pretty much everything comes with a huge side order fossils fuels and many find it impossible to imagine things any other way.

So, for example, someone takes up running and they drive to the local fun runs, or maybe they join a club (social - another positive natural impulse) and copy what the keener people in their club do by flying to 'collect' marathons all over the world. Or - another positive impulse - they decide to raise money for a charity so take part in organised 'challenges', which inevitably start with flying to some exotic part of the world to climb or kayak or cycle something or other. Who could say it's 'bad'? And yet ... and then there's the ton of fancy kit that beckons. So if 'outdoor activity' becomes a serious 'hobby' the default involves burning oil. Nobody is being a 'bad' person. All originates from good impulses. Yet the focus of the activity slides from connection to consuming, and it shades into just stomping all over things.

Vicky K said...

The primacy of the activities of both hunting and gathering on our perceptual biases is one of my favorite hobby horses. Adding to the anecdotes is the chapter in The Omnivores Dilemma where the author goes wild pig hunting. He describes the change in perceptions and values and then the return to civilized values and a certain amount of shame at having been caught up in the killing and enjoying the victory of success.

Tracking and mapping locations in space are major activities that are ignored when discussing a lot of what our brains are primed to do. Children playing hide and go seek are a simulation of what our wilder kin do when roaming the landscape with a purpose. I might argue that the basis of some meditation techniques is to simulate these mental tools to make a shift to a more intense awareness of sensory input. In other words, a lot of spiritual yearning is for these primal states of being.

Urban life turns the map into the linear street scape rather than the space and landmark method of the less civilized or even rural population. Getting instructions from the rural locals invariably includes landmarks rather than street numbers or exact instructions regarding distance. When I lived in the Barrio I also noticed that the locals [who tended to be more out and about than us cubicle jockeys] were extremely aware of what was going on just by the sounds of cars they recognized or a glimpse of person walking. Even when indoors they still stayed tuned to local activities. So even in an urban setting the use of perceptual methods akin to hunting or gathering is seen in sub-cultures where keenness of sight and hearing are highly valued. Yes, this is gang territory. Our thugs are sometimes more attuned than your average educated person.

Sleisz Ádám said...

Firstly, thank you for this thoughtful post!

Secondly, I could not resist the temptation to participate in the 2015 Space Bats challenge. Here is my link:

I hope some of you will enjoy the story.

Steve from Lakewood said...


One explanation I have for the failures of civilizations to adapt is simply from the existence of the elites. As a teacher, I heard from others and more or less confirmed for myself that only about 2% of students are really creative problem solvers, perhaps 15 or 20% are what I call "infrastructure", i.e., people who can take the ideas of others and implement them by following instructions and making minor adaptations. The rest are of varying degrees of usefulness. The British Empire managed to get by for a while on the younger sons of its nobility--there were enough of them to have a pool of creative problem solvers which enabled them to get by, and they had a culture that encouraged the younger sons to establish themselves in the military or colonial activities. Also, their military and colonial administration were meritocracies to some extent--I recall reading that their military, for instance, figured that 1 in 22 was a natural leader who would emerge if a unit got badly bloodied in combat. But at home they were not a meritocracy and eventually this doomed their empire.

So the idea is that after a while you wind up with an oligarchy in which there are insufficient persons of creative ability, not enough new blood of ability coming into the elite ruling class which becomes increasingly reserved for the children of existing privilege.

Sort of like the Kennedy, Bush and Clinton clans dominate our political landscape--people who will follow the old traditions. Even though our business may to some extent be a meritocracy (some would say of sociopaths), the innovators of that fraction of society will not allow any creative "trouble makers" to emerge in the candidates for high office. I think you can guess that I don't hold out much hope for the elections next year--my bumper sticker says "Why settle for a lesser evil, Cthulu for President." (With a brief nod to your other blog.)

Denys said...

So my comment about prescientific societies on the road to progress was an allusion to your work and hopefully seen as such and not an assertion on my part of some new thought.

I really should comment after my morning walk when the brain cells are more functional :-)

Matt Wallin said...

This week's post broadened and expounded on a topic that has been on my mind of late: the cultural phenomenon of video gaming (especially by adults). Like many in this culture, I played them as a young person. I now find them so, so incredibly boring, even stifling when compared to being in the outdoors, gardening, or being engaged in a woodworking or telescope project in my shop. It seems a fairly recent phenomenon that there are these legions of adult gamers and I have pondered many times what this intuits about our culture that adults would want to spend so much of their time in a totally artificial and predefined fantasy environment. I can only posit that there is a comfort to be found in the rule-based and finite nature of videogames for these people. I have to wonder whether these people have missed out on experiencing nature to such a degree that they now seek to control their existence even further than that allowed by just living in a completely human-built environ, they now live in a built environment for the mind. This pheonomenon will surely have ramifications, previously, I feel like adults put down these kind of fantasy environments when they came of age and engaged with something resembling reality. What I see so often now is that many, many "adults" just continue to live ensconced in these fantasy worlds. While I feel like I am much more nature oriented than most of the people who surround me, I thank you for spurring me to think more deeply about the ways in which this city, this built environ, shapes and influences my thinking and values.

Brian Kaller said...


Thanks again. I’ve been ruminating on this myself lately -- how we in the modern world have become surrounded by the artificial, in many subtle ways that we don’t usually think about. Electric lights became increasingly ubiquitous over generations, until we lost our intuitive sense of time and seasons. Chemicals in food slowly came to dominate flavour, until we forgot what things really taste like. Many of us learned politics from a yelling voice on the radio, sing songs we heard over loudspeakers and know only the jokes we saw on social media. We describe physical space in terms of driving a car through it.

I’m still having trouble, though, with your idea: that civilisations decline when their inhabitants rely on human abstractions rather than the natural reality. I agree that’s a major factor in our society, due to our vehicles, electronics, chemicals, media, and other things, but the Sumerians or Olmec didn’t have those things. Most people in those civilisations remained farmers, and even kings back then lived closer to the natural world than most cubicle workers today; for example, they had to experience the same weather as everyone else, with no air conditioning or glass panes. They had cities and palaces, but they were much smaller than people imagine -- the average new US home is the size of the Biblical Temple of Solomon, and their cities would be villages to us.

I grant you the parallels in, say, military overreach or resource exploitation, but I’m having a harder time seeing the parallels in purging the natural world from everyday life. I hope you don’t take this as another “It’s different this time” argument – you know I agree with you on most things – but this is one way in which our culture seems quite unique.

Also – if you don’t mind my being argumentative – how do we know that foraging societies have lasted longer than civilisations without collapsing? In other words, how do we know that most tribes didn’t decline and fall just as badly and often, but left no cities behind to make their collapse apparent to subsequent generations?

Thanks again,

Brian Kaller
County Kildare, Ireland

madtom said...

This post takes me back years to the one memorable moment in a TV program about the Japanese public's response to some environmental issue or other. Of course the studio crew went out onto city sidewalks to interview "people in the street", and one young woman responded with a condescending smile that of course she didn't care about those environmental issues, because she lives in the city.

Angus Wallace said...


My feeling is that our economy is a long way from providing meaningful information about the "true cost" of the various energy options. Attempting to compare the cost of renewables versus fossil fuels is difficult because of all the hidden subsidies of fossil fuels. (Having said that, this does not mean PV is a silver bullet! Also, as has been discussed many times already, peak oil and energy constraints are but one facet of our society's overreach. If we secure more sustainable energy supplies, it will likely just exacerbate the other environmental crises we're causing -- hence my comment that such a future looks more like Holmgren's "brown tech" scenario.)

Hi gjh42,

Agreed. He is trying to be objective and removed, but with mixed success. The big flaw in his thinking is that he underestimates the impact of environmental crises. I wrote about that here:

i realised my links for grey water and worm farms broke. Here is the direct link for those interested:

Cheers, Angus

William Church said...

It is surprising to me that intentional or not this miniseries of posts is treading ground that relates to the Riddle of Steel.

I admit to being a big Conan fan. :o


John Michael Greer said...

KL, so? Nobody's suggesting that we all go back to the Pleistocene. (Well, I suppose some neoprimitivists are, but nobody here.) Having some skills and some experience is not the same thing as trying to do the thing full time.

Nbxl, that's a classic example of what I'm talking about. Given the amount of sea level rise already baked into the cake, the Randstad is going to be undersea, probably within the lifetime of children already born. Is anyone doing anything in response? Of course not.

Rita, I grant that modern industrial societies pay a lot of lip service to egalitarian ideas. I'm far from sure that their actual behavior is noticeably different from the societies of the past -- well, other than that we're a little better at offshoring our human rights abuses.

Ed, don't diss the dinosaurs -- many of them seem to have been extremely flexible in relation to environmental change, and they lasted a good many millions of years longer than we're likely to.

Scotlyn, fascinating. Bring on the barbarians, then!

KL, you need to get out of California more often. Over on this end of the continent we're in no danger of running out of deer, feral pig, etc. -- and again, nobody's talking about everybody feeding themselves all the time that way.

Stuart, I'd encourage you to get past oversimplified models of nature (the fox/rabbit thing is one of these) and do some reading in ecosystem ecology, to get some sense of the spectacular complexity of food webs, nutrient cycles, etc. in real ecosystems. They really are much more complex than human civilizations.

Repent, of course there will be new societies, and indeed most likely new civilizations, after the dark age is past -- there almost always are. I'm far from sure that they'll be any more consciously symbiotic than the last set, though.

Stein, I don't doubt it at all. We get that kind of absurdity on this side of the pond, too. And of course you're right about milking -- a simple, pleasant skill that almost nobody gets to learn nowadays.

Peter, interesting. Since autism spectrum disorders routinely show up very early in life, if not from birth, you'd have to figure out a causal mechanism that would take effect that soon.

Ares, when it comes to global connectivity, I'm with those who see it as one more source of distraction -- thus not an advantage, but the contrary.

Doctor W., may a good time be had by all!

John Michael Greer said...

Lou, to my mind, a rural landscape that's been plundered by agribusiness is very little more natural than a city street, while some other forms of farmland can be full of wild nature. The question to ask, when you look at any landscape, is this: how much of what you see was put there by human activity, and how much got there by natural processes?

Raven, oh, I think a case can definitely be made for keeping the pressed flowers of last season's civilizations -- the Greek and Roman classics are exactly that, of course. That said, the seasonal metaphor works fairly well, yes.

Tony, true enough. Bageant's term is dead on; I've long felt that "America" -- the country most citizens of the United States think they inhabit -- is an imaginary country, as mythical as Oz.

Phil, I'm pretty sure the IPCC has been pressured to downplay the speed of sea level rise. Think of the impact on London property values...

Denys, good question. Your experience suggests that some aspects of it may be.

Aron, but it's certainly not the kind of feedback your nervous system was evolved to process, and it's much cruder, louder, and less information-rich.

Sunbindsblackstone, to my knowledge, sequences of ages that decline are found solely in societies that have emerged out of the collapse of a previous civilization. You get all kinds of shapes of time in uncivilized societies, but I don't know of an example of the ages-that-get-worse model.

Beetleswamp, I skipped it, too, and will continue to do so! I think the model you've suggested, though, makes a lot of sense.

Karuna, no, I wasn't familiar with it. Thanks for the heads up.

Nathan, exactly. Every civilization starts with ideas borrowed from nature. What in nature does walking down the streets of a modern inner city remind you of?

Bill, yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. Your first question -- yes, and we'll be discussing that next week. Your second? Maybe; it could be argued that every intelligent species evolves in a natural environment and is thus poorly fitted to the urban or urban-analogue environment necessary to build the infrastructure and technology for space travel.

Brian, "good" and "bad" are value judgments, and always presuppose "good for what?" and "bad for what?" That is to say, no, we're not going there.

RPC, okay, let's take a look at the data. Ancient Egypt went through three dark ages -- the First and Second Intermediate Period, and whatever they're now calling the time of troubles that followed the collapse of the New Kingdom. When things got pulled back together afterwards, the result was still recognizably Egyptian, though there were radical changes at each transition. (China has a very similar history.) The Edo period in Japan lasted just over 250 years and followed a dark age; we have no idea what it would have done given another 750 years of uninterrupted development. Byzantium is a more interesting case; I've argued (in my essay about catabolic collapse) that it was saved by the rise of Islam, which forced Byzantium to downsize fast enough to survive. Any questions?

The Croatoan 117 said...

The U.S. Military conducted a study several years ago that somewhat ties in to this week's post. They found that the troops who performed best at spotting IEDs were either from rural or inner city backgrounds. Thanks for another thought provoking essay.

Gary Heidenreich said...


I've been reading your blogs for ~ 3 years, have read several of your books.
Often, I think that how I feel about someone's overall philosophy is whether I would want to go to dinner with them. Many, most, I would not. JMG, I would buy you and your wife dinner if I ever get the chance.

Thanks for your sincere efforts.

Don't know about the Druid's philosophy.

Gary Heidenreich
Roman Catholic

AA said...

JMG, a propos your comment below:

"Avi, so? If in fact we do all live in a waking sleep, that still doesn't explain the fact that civilizations crash and burn in a millennium while many noncivilized societies last much longer."

The people of the Gurdjieff school attempt a wakening from the incessant process of daydreaming and the process of unbidden and disconnected ideas that flood the mind of modern man. There's a recognition that the problem has become worse in today's era and that our great-grandparents were more "grounded." They were more grounded because they had to deal with their natural environment to a greater extent, rather than the artificial environment you refer to.

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, interesting. Yes, that can be worked into the overall model.

Zaphod, a case can certainly be made for a natural human community size, though it's also true that people seem to be able to reinvent that in a great many different patterns of settlement -- the old-fashioned urban neighborhood might have around that many people, for example.

Erik, I don't have an institutional affiliation so they'd chuck it in the trash. I've tried that game before! Thanks anyway.

Daergi, that's one way of looking at it, but human population numbers aren't an independent variable -- they depend on a galaxy of factors, with access to food and water among the more important. Not every human society has population increase hardwired into it, and in fact you get situations like the classical Mediterranean, where the population declined steadily for centuries on end. I'll offer my proposed explanation shortly.

Scott, yes, and that's also a part of the whole picture, since decision-makers in every civilization routinely insulate themselves from unwanted stimuli to the greatest possible extent.

Cathy, that five year old deserves a treat -- to have grasped the difference between "real real" and "fake real" at that age is a feat, and promises well for the child's future. As for the waterfall, I know a lot of urban parents in places surrounded by mountains who have to explain to their children that nobody made the mountains -- they're just there.

Jonathan, you've fallen into the same logical trap as Ben did last night. I'm saying (a) all civilizations implode after lifespans averaging a thousand years; (b) uncivilized societies can last much longer than this, and some have; and (c) there are features of civilized societies that may explain this. I didn't say, please note, that all civilizations crash and burn and no uncivilized societies do!

Bill, that's sad. Oddly enough, you do see kids here in Cumberland heading down to the river with fishing poles, so I wonder how regional a thing we're discussing.

LatheChuck, exactly. It's as though their office building was on fire and they sat around as the flames neared them, discussing how to get someone else to call the fire department.

K-dog, yes, but it's not just policy makers. It's far more general than that.

Myriad, oh, granted. What I'm talking about could very well be phrased in terms of a tendency for artificial environments to amplify confirmation bias.

LatheChuck, exactly. That's why I tried to define it in the post.

Dan, of course -- there's a difference between a city as representation and a city as functioning human ecosystem. What makes a city dangerous to the intellect is that it visually, and sometimes through other senses as well, reiterates the tacit presuppositions of the culture back to its residents. Its actual mode of functioning need not have any relationship to its appearance.

Hawkcreek, a plausible hypothesis!

John Michael Greer said...

Kyoto, hey, I figure if I just keep swinging, eventually I'll put one into orbit. ;-) You're right, of course, that this week's post ties into a lot of things I've talked about before; in a very real sense, this entire blog is an attempt to put into words a single thought about the relationship between humanity, nature, and history.

Caryn, that's fascinating. I wonder how common that is.

Lawfish, Ernest Thompson Seton used to say that there were two ways to go into the woods: (a) spend vast amounts of money on all kinds of manufactured gear, etc., or (b) know what you're doing. The latter is always the better option!

dfr2010, chuckle indeed. Chickens are a good model for the rest of nature, in that sense.

Caryn, clearly they know what they're up against. I wish them well!

Kyoto, yes and yes -- the psychology of previous investment is a huge issue here, and many thanks for the anecdote about the !San -- I'll have to see if I can track that down in a published source, and cite it.

gjh42, clearly he doesn't read this blog; I make predictions regularly, and talk about the ones that did and didn't pan out. Here's a falsifiable prediction relevant to that blog: whenever anybody says "renewable energy is going to take off and become economically viable by X date," they're wrong, no matter what the date is. I've been saying that in specific cases for some years now, and it may as well become a general rule.

Indus, the fact that I've never seen a question addressed doesn't mean that it hasn't been addressed; it simply means that if it has been, I haven't seen it. One of the reasons I phrased it that way is precisely that I knew that any of my readers who had seen the question addressed would let me know, for which thank you.

Jason, "natural" is a label with a galaxy of potential meanings. I specified repeatedly in last week's post what I was talking about: for the purposes of the present discussion, an environment is natural if most of the things in it were put there by nonhuman actions and processes, and it's unnatural if most of the things in it were put there by human beings. I don't claim that as a general definition for all purposes, just as a working meaning for the present discussion. Okay?

Roger, yeah, we get the same sort of thing on this side of the border. Gah.

Alex, you can find a good list in the first volume of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. As for the definition, I've already given it: for the purposes of the present discussion, a society is civilized if it concentrates population, wealth, and power in urban centers, and uncivilized if it does not do so.

SLClaire, well, there you are!

Five8Charlie said...

Greetings Mr Greer-

I realize this post is about larger issues than mere modeling by itself, but I thought you might enjoy two other comments about modeling that contain the same warning as Korzybski’s “the map is not the territory.”

"All models are wrong, but some models are useful" - George Box

"The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers" - Richard Hamming

I happen to do computer models as my day job. Before some presentations I have shown
René Magritte's image of a pipe, with the words in the picture "This is not a pipe". I think it's good to jar the audience a bit about what modeling actual is and what it can and can't do.

Thank you for the always thoughtful, jarring posts!

MIckGspot said...

I love my little city of Minneapolis where forbearers did a good job of inserting loads of green space and the city is blessed with many lakes, rivers and creeks.
Every day I take about a 20 mile bike ride, today I stopped at a peat bog about 15 minutes ride out of our center city then biked another 20 minutes to Cedar Lake for a swim. It is rare for me not to see what some would consider wild creatures on my city journeys (deer, eagles, mink, muskrat, fish, herons, coyotes).
In grade school, I used to trap mink and muskrat in the city lakes with my friends, we had lots of fun and could make a few bucks to boot (in full compliance with hunting/trapping regulations).
I can only imagine what kind of an uproar that would cause if kids trapped in the city now.
Human children are creatures I rarely see around these urban wild areas, they used to be all over not long ago.
In fifth grade (1968), the school I went to offered a firearms safety courses (then a requirement for those under 16 to go hunting). After the last classroom training course we had to qualify at a shooting range to get our safety certificate. Everyone brought their guns to school that day and we all packed up into a school bus and went off to the range. This was at an intercity school in Minneapolis where any kid with a piece of plastic that is gun shaped today may cause a SWAT team to be called, an international news story to sprout and herds of legislators promising to outlaw plastic. The point of this has to do with hallucinations, where things that were once quite ordinary have been converted into ideas of horror (kids getting gun training) and highly risky items to all of humanity hardly rate a nod (climate change, etc).

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, excellent -- yes, that's exactly where this is headed, so you get tonight's gold star.

David, I'm not familiar with him. Can you recommend a book or the equivalent?

Carolyn, I've heard a lot of good things about his work, though I'm not a thriller-with-lots-of-blood fan so haven't read him myself.

Architrains, I'd like to see "Together, we can overcome the technology" become a meme! Not to mention your basic rule of office behavior, which is true enough to be inscribed on a stone tablet somewhere. Thank you!

Stunned, good. Very good. The old Neoplatonists used to claim that every evil was caused by a distortion of the desire for the good, and you've offered some persuasive evidence for that.

Vicky, in my limited experience of thugs, they have to be better attuned than their prey -- like any predator -- and so have returned to a lot of old adaptations, including the basic tribe-and-band social structure. When the rest of us are gone, their descendants will be around.

Sleisz Ádám, got it and thank you! You're in the contest.

Steve, well, yes -- this is more or less the same as my theory of elite senility. The thing that fascinates me is how many people who don't belong to elites are staring just as blankly at the oncoming train.

Denys, yes, I figured that out. No problem.

Matt, good. I'll be touching on that in next week's post.

Brian, those are good questions. I don't happen to know a great deal about the Olmecs, but the lives of the upper classes of Mayan city-states were spent in and around urban centers, in which nature may not have been as thoroughly eradicated as we've managed, but in which meaning-bearing structures created by human action were far and away the dominant presence. The farmers didn't make the decisions that doomed the Mayans to collapse, btw; it was the people who lived in the big stone palaces and spent their days in a round of ritualized activities far removed from raw nature. As for the longevity of nonurbanized societies, there's solid evidence of extensive cultural continuities among Australian aborigines, tribal village peoples of New Guinea, etc., etc., that only make sense if you presuppose a largely uninterrupted history.

Madtom, and of course the rice she ate, the water she drank, and the air she breathed was all manufactured for her in an urban factory. Sheesh.

John Michael Greer said...

Angus, granted, the economic measure is far from an exact proxy, but it's less subject to fiddling than the ones that usually fill pro and anti papers. Thus if something is supposed to produce ample net energy and yet it's only viable with massive government subsidies, something's definitly wrong with the numbers!

William, well, we started with Conan, didn't we! "That which does not kill us makes us sustainable."

Croatoan, thanks for the data point!

Gary, thank you! There are quite a few Christian Druids, by the way -- for the life of me, I have no idea how a Christian can read the first chapter of the Gospel of John and not come away with a sense of the sanctity of Nature as the handiwork of the Logos. "All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made."

AA, interesting. I wasn't aware of that.

Charlie, thanks for those! Magritte should be required viewing at the beginning of any PowerPoint presentation...

MickGSpot, no argument there. If you want to watch American craziness at its craziest, watch how we treat our children.

Alexandra said...


Your hypothesis feels intuitively right and really resonates with what I observed as a university lecturer in archaeology. (Among other things, I taught Rise of Civilization. We--grad students and professors--often lamented that we were not also allowed to teach Fall of Civilization. For some reason, the university administration wasn't interested in that.) Over the years, each new crop of students seemed to be less and less able to perform certain basic cognitive processes such as logical inference and pattern recognition. I was continually amazed that more of those kids didn't get dead, and I felt like it should be recognized as some sort of disability. Of course, our educational system--like the civilization of which it is part--is a sinking ship, which is part of why I bailed. As you said in last week's post with your language-learning analogy, there are specific windows in childhood for learning specific things. Miss the window and you've missed your shot in this incarnation. In this sense, it's not at all surprising that so many of us are unable to see, let alone fix, the mess we've made.

Suddenly I am all the more grateful to my parents for raising me in the country and taking me hiking and camping, and all my dad's attempts at making his own beer and goat cheese and the resulting explosions. But though I am a huge fan of "primitive" technologies (and in particular "Neolithic" ones, given our social context), I don't think learning them or getting "out in nature" can fully bridge the cognitive gap. Learning these skills is an improvement on what's currently in our mental toolkit, and increases the likelihood of surviving collapse, but without the full cultural and, as you rightly point out, natural context, it can't teach us the kind of cognition that non-civilized societies have. (And to be clear, I don't think that you, JMG, are saying that, but I have heard others suggest it.) I am afraid that only natural selection can teach us to think outside our box now.

Curiosimo said...

I read with great interest in your explanation of how humans use mental models to understand the world. Ever since I first heard of this, I have always felt this was the very basis for any kind of intelligence including anything something as simple as an earthworm. Once one sees this, then a lot of the so called hard problems of intelligence become matter of fact, "oh of course". Creativity? The mind is a creation engine, creating mental models pervasively, Dreaming? Model creation disconnected from the senses, Consciousness? A self referential model of oneself. People ignoring apparent facts? When a fact doesn't fit into one's mental models, it is discarded - there simply is no place to put it. The ability to make predictions? Existing mental models played out into the future.

Connecting ones models to reality takes vigilance an constant validation against new data, It's easy to get complacent and drift off in the comfort of ones worldview reinforced by agreement with all of the mental models of those around you.

Candace said...

Your essays have me wondering about the human capacity for denial, I've mostly heard "denial" referenced in terms of addiction.  I came across this book "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker.  His thesis being that what sets humans apart from other species is our ability to ignore the inevitability of our death in the face of our awareness of that inevitable end.  (I'm not sure how anyone knows for certain that other species are not aware that they must ultimately die.). I'm going to read the book, mostly because I am wondering if our willful lack of response to the problems facing us is due to the lack of negative feed back in our environment, and thus enhancing our ability to ignore those negative consequences. As we are more adept at warding off famines and plagues we forget that we don't actually control death or the lack of it's prevalence in our immediate experience.  The idea that we can put off death for a long time or even "over come" it in the literal rather than spiritual sense, seems to get positive feedback from video games and from other cultural expressions.  You can just start the game over and optimize your character so that it has the attributes necessary to succeed in the manufactured environment.  Our popular characters never get killed even in the face of all of the common causes of death.

Anyway thanks for the thought provoking essays!

jonathan said...

jmg- i fully grasp your point. the question i'm asking is whether the failure to act in the face of slow moving disasters is cultural, and therefore subject to change or if it is the result of evolutionary factors. in the latter case there is little probability that any significant number of people will ever be equipped to respond in a meaningful way. perhaps to put it more baldly, one can reason with culture but is helpless in the face of hard-wired response. culture can change. note the huge reduction in public smoking and random dog droppings.

Crow Hill said...

JMG: Thank you for putting into words many of my own thoughts in this week’s post.

In the comments section you say that you favour hunting: while I agree that hunting engages the person hunting in nature, in our time where our civilisation is already putting severe and even fatal pressure on wildlife, putting additional stress by hunting seems not to be a good idea.

John Michael Greer said...

Alexandra, oh, granted. We'll learn to think outside the box the hard way, when the box goes away.

Curiosimo, the mental model called "mental models" is one of the most useful models I know, no question!

Candace, that's a crucial issue. A great many cultures and spiritual traditions consider coming to terms with our own mortality an essential part of maturation -- and the lack of that is among the major reasons we've got so many overgrown toddlers in contemporary society.

Jonathan, duly noted. For what it's worth, I think we're dealing with a both/and rather than an either/or situation -- that is, both biological and cultural factors play a role.

Crow Hill, it depends very much on local ecological realities. East of the Mississippi, for example, due to the lack of large predators, deer are abundant enough to damage local ecosystems, and hunting is a way to bring their population back into balance. Similarly, over much of the country, feral pigs have become a massive and ecologically damaging presence, and keeping their numbers down contributes to the resilience of the rest of the environment. Does that mean that all hunting everywhere is appropriate? Of course not -- but it does mean that some hunting in some places actually contributes to the health of ecosystems.

William Lucas said...

"The human mind likes straight lines, definite boundaries, precise verbal definitions. Nature doesn’t."
This reminds me so much of Alan Watts with his 'prickles and goo'. I've referred to him before in these comments. Please don't feel that I'm pushing his wagon. But I come across so many similarities in your writing, JMG.
I hardly comment these days, but I'm always mulling over what you say. I never miss a post.

Cherokee Organics said...


I've worked six days in a row now (with another tomorrow) so as to complete the new chicken run and enclosure before the serious wet weather hits. I wasn't joking when I said to you a week or two back that I'm only just keeping ahead of the seasons here.

Fortunately, for construction purposes, this week has been drier than usual (as well as last month), but in keeping with the theme of this week's essay I will try and describe the world here as I saw it late last evening and perhaps commenters can get a sense of the differences between being immersed in nature or being immersed in an artificial environment and overly concerning themselves with abstractions.

Most nights, either Sir Scruffy or Scritchy the dogs’ want to do a boundary check on the farm, so off we trundle out into the cold night. Winters here are not like winters in many parts of the world. It is cold and chilly for sure, but it is rarely frozen.

Last night, the clouds scudded past the small crescent of a moon that was low on the horizon. When the moon is low to the horizon here, it has a sickly yellowish glow to it. Needless to say it didn't produce much light so Scruffy and I ambled through the orchard in the dark - hoping not to crash into any fruit trees. Scruffy alerts me to any nearby animals. Dogs as well as all of the other animals of the forest can sense for example a wedge tail eagle from a long distance away so it always pays to listen to what the dogs have to say to you about the forest and its denizens.

Last night was a warm night, which during winter can mean that a change in weather is on its way. A light wind rustled the leaves at the very top of the tall trees, whilst also failing to make its presence felt at lower heights. The forest was alive with sounds. Owls can be heard in the distance stalking their prey calling: Boo - Book over and over again off in the distance and from various hunting grounds too. The screech of the Powerful Owl, lets you know that the real boss of the night time is around. Tree frogs and toads call out in pleasure at the future rain and they too are worthy of listening to.

During winter the night time insects are quiet, but the wallabies bouncing off and away from Sir Scruffy and I and into the safety of the surrounding forest makes a sort of thump, thump, thump sound. I hope not to accidentally one day approach a grey forest kangaroo bull as they are much bigger problem than I am, and I'm uncertain as to whether they'd stand their ground or not. Sir Scruffy is usually wary of their kind and he will steer me to safety in the night.


Cherokee Organics said...

Wombats are generally shy creatures and the sound they make is a crashing through the vegetation. Wombats actually literally do crash the vegetation and it is to their kind that the job of keeping the forest open falls to. The next day in the sunlight, all you will find in your vegetable beds is foot and claw impressions, although that is preferable to the impressions in the soil left by the very large wallabies and their tails as they bounce into the garden beds and sup on the choicest organic vegetables!

The air smells itself smells warm and moist for this time of the year with the background of smells of vegetation and moulds and also with the immanent change in weather conditions there is almost an electric charge to the air. Cold nights are clear nights, but the warmer nights produce a hazy film of moisture putting the milky-way slightly out of focus.

Later that night as I slept warm and toasty inside this human constructed cave, a thunder storm rolled in and the night sky lit up with flashes of lightning, crashes of thunder and half an inch of rain. And I knew in my heart that these weather conditions were almost a full month earlier this year than expected and wondered what it all meant for the coming summer?

And that is the sort of thing that goes on day to day in nature and is missed by people that allow themselves to be overtaken by concern for abstractions.



PS: I've got a new blog entry up discussing the construction of the new chicken enclosure and all weather run: Sunday Promises. Next to the house, this chicken construction is one of the most complex structures that I have ever built. The complexities arise because of the need to foil the dastardly rats and field mice which currently enjoy the free and easy feed in the original chicken enclosure. Enough, is enough I say! Oh yeah, there was a light frost at the farm this week, peak wine bottles has been averted and I observe one of the locals performing slash and burn agricultural techniques. It is all good stuff and there are lots of cool photos. Enjoy!

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
In Britain we still have a quaint definition of a City. It is a town with a Cathedral. (Although originally founded as Roman Catholic in the Middle Ages, these are Anglican Cathedrals. Modern RC Dioceses were only re-established after 1850). The original towns of course were rather small because they pre-dated urbanisation; the latter arises from industrialisation and/or trading rather than from small manufacture. There have been others elsewhere going back to Antiquity, but London is the exception that proves the more general rule in pre-urban agrarian civilisation. It was a successful trading hub and grew enormous in what was still a relatively small country even at the end of the Middle Ages. (London grew from a minimum of 50,000 in 1300 rising to circa 350,000 by 1642, rising even more rapidly to 650,000 by 1750 when England still had fewer than 6 million people. Incidentally, infant mortality was so high in 17th & 18thC London that the city’s population would have declined, not increased, if it had not been for inward migration. That could have done something for the growth of our modern mentality perhaps.)

Except on the Scottish Border our old Cathedrals survived into modern times relatively unscathed, even through the Civil War and religious disturbance. (Monasteries and their Churches were something else.) The cities they overlooked were of course not always happy places. I can remember in the still pre-commuter rural south, slums next to and in some cases belonging to the Ecclesiastical Authority, despite the exquisite mediaeval architecture and the solemn and joyful bells sounding out the day. However, I also remember a poem I wrote after being in a mid-morning workaday old Cathedral City and seeing a cat asleep on a doorstep. The doorsteps stuck out on to the pavement in the old streets. I inverted the logic and called the poem “The Cat Preserves the City” rather than the Cathedral. I guess I also had in mind an exquisite chalk stream flowing into the City boundary where small children dammed ponds and fished for tiddlers with jam jars.

Phil H

Denys said...

JMG commented - "I've long felt that "America" -- the country most citizens of the United States think they inhabit -- is an imaginary country, as mythical as Oz."

Mind shattered. It exists because we as a group keep doing actions that create it - the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem at the sports games, flags flown for every tragedy, and the continual drumming by the media and politicians that we are exceptional, free, and a gift to the world.

To strip this Amercian myth off my life and just look and what is actually around me.....ack. That's a shock.

Don Hynes said...

The Sound of Wind

The streets are a right angle maze,
clouds blocked by building after building,
the river showing as the space between;
this morning we rise before crow
and leave with hummingbird.
In the distance the sound of wind
and the low thrum of salmon
bumping along gravel.
The mountains will rise, blanketed
with the last of winter snow,
the ocean spreading before us
with grace and turbulence,
everything in motion,
even the great stone islands
with pulse too slow to see.
We move with the current,
unchanging and ever changed,
a flick on the horizon,
a speck of human life
alive in the awakening.

Patricia Mathews said...

OK - we now have two factors in civilizations being trapped in their own delusions. Either the majority of the population is urbanized, or, those who aren't are all powerless peasants with no voice in the top-level decisions. I'm thinking now of early modern England and France; pardon the History 101 oversimplification here.

When a king of France was able to command the nobility to come to and live at court, and made his court the center of all power, that trapped them in the hall of mirrors and helped pave the way for the French Revolution somewhere down the road. The English nobility, gentry, and squirearchy had a strong presence and a serious hand in decision-making well into the 19th - even the 20th - century. They'd go to London for The Season and sit in Parliament while their wives introduced their daughters to society, at best. They had the English Civil War indeed, and it had its share of bloodshed, but it was nothing like the French Revolution

Incidentally, while the link vanished when my former computer crashed, there is an essay by a bright young man and self-identified geek explaining why high school is such a pit of pettiness and uselessness by comparing it to the French court, and pointing out that both are holding pens for a segment of the population the decision-makers want neutralized. For what that's worth; it makes as much sense as any.

And the Icelandic Republic, which by your definition (and I agree) was a very successful barbarian state for a while, fell apart when chieftainships could be bought and sold, and individual landowners held multiple chieftainships, according to Norse expert John Lindow (in a classroom lecture at UNM,where he was a visiting scholar). Snorri Sturleson did so himself, while deploring the decay that followed the practice. I don't think Sturleson saw that the centralization this entailed was just as bad; he was thinking in moralistic terms (people have become greedy... wolf age, axe age...)

Patricia Mathews said...

@Alexandra - I have been wondering for some time why I have been getting A's in the classes I take every semester as part of my retiree package. (I know. Greedy geezer sucking up resources the young need. I won't quit, but if anyone notices this and corrects it, I won't fight it, either.) I had put it down to grade inflation, which assuredly does exist; to 50 years of experience in the world, such as it is, and to the fact that my intelligence is almost entirely verbal. I have a flair for words, and that's it.

It never occurred to me that my classmates, many of whom (since the Xers aged out of their college years) will not say a word in class unless something or somebody breaks the ice, and sometimes not even then, might not have the skills needed to follow college-level work, or, as you noted, think their way out of a paper bag. The gods know all too well, and my friends and family can give you chapter and verse, that I'm no paragon of common sense or reason (thought I try from time to time), but this is ridiculous.

donalfagan said...

These last two posts remind me of the book, Mosquito Coast, such as when Charlie ruminates that despite Allie’s grand talk about doing what was natural, his father was more interested in bending nature to his will than being in harmony with it:


The film wasn't bad, but there's a lot more in the book.

I wonder if girls plucking daisy petals are really interested in the result, or are just taking part in a game/ritual with friends? Kind of like singing, "Jane and Kevin sittin' in a tree ..." to see which pairing of names gets a reaction.


Your comment reminds me of the description of young men not finding a passage to adulthood in Robert Bly's Iron John.

@Easter Island

There is a counterargument to Jared Diamond's description of an internal collapse:

Eric Backos said...

Posted to archdruid: Dear Mr. Greer
Last night's meeting of the Green Wizards' Benevolent and Protective Society, Chapter 440, was a resounding success. A full quarter in attendance came after reading the announcement in your forum. (OK... So there were only four total. But that's more than me alone.)
Thank you for your aid. A regular meeting may develop. (Well... I hope so.)
Again, thank you.
Eric Backos
PS - sorry if you get multiple copies. Tech issue.

Stacey Armstrong said...

When you begin to dismantle the stories that your life is built around and begin to build a new story, keeping some of the old (with or without irony), how complex can it be without going a little mad? In my experience a very humble simpleton emerges! A realisation that desires and pleasures can change over time has been an odd buttress to incorporate into the new building. And here I am enjoying chard stems and relishing pulling buttercup from a mint patch.

Each time you reference your love of the pulpy books of childhood I am reminded of my own pulpy childhood. But it wasn't science fiction fantasy it was the thirty or so books written by L.M. Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame. Her Emily of New Moon books likely still form a great part of my mental models. There is still much of value there to keep moving forward - an orphan girl living in a small community who counts many individual trees as friends and wants to write something from her whole self. The natural world is not a literary trope in her work. There is also always the sense that inside of a small community you have to do the work of getting on with things with the people who show up.

I don't know if you are familiar with Kenneth Burke's work but his essay "Literature As Equipment for Living" is a kind of pulling buttercup from the mint patch for me. It gestures towards a discussion that happened here a month or so ago about what books or stories can do in descent. And he says quite calmly " what I want is categories that suggest their active nature. Here there is no "realism for its own sake." There is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare." So my girl in the meadow has two (or more) other daisies and the first one plays a little like yours. The second goes " I love him, I love him not" and the third one goes " I love me, I love me not."
Best to all. Stacey

Daergi said...

I didn't think I was suggesting that population increases as an independent variable not contingent upon any factors, or that it is hardwired in (Though Catton, in Overshoot, paraphrasing Darwin said, "The cumulative biotic potential of any species exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment.") I was pointing out that when population did increase, at a certain size, groups typically did split to keep from getting too large. I've read different explanations as to why. Including control, where above a certain size small group control mechanisms breakdown. To continue to function, control structures have to become institutionalized - the church for example. How the brain is hardwired provides several theories. For example, people have a limit to the number of individuals they can recognize as familiar. Past that point, when a new person is added as familiar someone else falls off the list; a very limiting factor to the size of an intimately connected group. Linguistics are different for small groups and even math - how small groups understand quantity and numbers. Carrying capacity of the group's territory is a factor.

The individuals in a raising population that cannot separate and maintain smaller group numbers must change, quite literally, everything about how they interact, feed themselves, govern themselves, conceive of themselves, count, they no longer intimately recognize all the members of the group living around them and so on. Dense population is anathema to the way humans evolved. While admittedly melodramatic to say "refugee camp", civilization is the patchwork of constructed, sometimes somewhat arbitrary (very little overbearing, lumbering bureaucracy in a small tribe), fixes meant to keep a larger group cohesive when the brain wiring we evolved with in small groups doesn't translate to the dynamics of the larger group.

"Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations" might offer some explanation of declining population in classical Mediterranean. Spoiler Alert: they despoiled the fertility of the land.

Always eagerly awaiting your next installment. Thank you for the thought provoking prose.

Spanish fly said...

Hello, doomer friends, hello John.
American politics are so exotic for we, europeans...but under differences, it's the same song in our countries.
This year we had regional elections at Spain: my "conservative" big bosses went home (no pity for them...) and I had new bosses, from socialist party, lefties and so on. Oh, don't worry, they are civilizated and polite socialist, European style...
They have renamed my office (former Department of Agriculture) "Rural Development and sustainibility". So, our new socialist authorities think that rural spanish places are under-developed: hurry up into the modern world!
My new super-boss is an agricultura engineer, he is politically correct (in european terms) so he says in press interviews that he is very worried about climate change."Sustainibility"=consolation prize for the green buddies of socialist government...
He also says (oh my dear) that genetical engineering is good for local agriculture. He compares ecologist prohibitionism with spanish inquisition (in private). He also likes big dams and great irrigation projects to be competitives. Oh, he promises more Brussels money to make these nightmares...err...dreams to be made realities.
It's the same language that you used to listen in "conservative" political chatter, except for typically leftist obsessions with public interventionism (oh, the socialist god named "big state")
Former "consejero" was corporate and eurocratic puppet; the new one, er...he is the same monkey dressed in silk (OK, this is a spanish joke that I cannnot traslate very well).

Interview with the stateman(in spanish)

Meanwhile, it has been a very hot summer here. A lot of fires have burned woods and wheat between old and new regional government (oh serendipity!). I was near to travel in ambulance from my little field, luckily I realied that I was beginning to suffer a heat stroke and I retired to a near irrigation pond with a big water bottle.
A few fruit tres died and a lot more suffered with insect plague, more aggresive this year; I suppose this "wacky" heat summer has made stronger. I have worked hard to contain them without using chemical poisons.

onething said...

I'm thinking that the behaviors of the elites is at least as important a factor as the artificial environment, esp as some have pointed out, in the past the cities were like big villages closely connected to the rural and the farmers.

BUT -- I think that artificial environment, for the elites, actually includes the hierarchical structure of the society. It's a subtle point, because human beings themselves are obviously completely natural (living creatures) but for the elites, other human beings are like built walls and paved streets. In other words, there are two built structures; one is the actual buildings, the other is the social arrangement, which is also a "built" psychological structure, and it insulates.

Travis said...

John Michael, thanks for another great post. I particularly appreciate you giving word to the distinction between the city mind and the rural. My family and i live rurally by choice. My wife and I grew up going back and forth between city and country. At this point I can not even imagine living in a city of any substantial size.
We live in a little town in Oregon 30 miles south of Eugene. The most impressive thing for me , is how well I can now see the differences between city and country life. I can see that (not in all cases of course) the city caters to human wants and desires to an extent that the need for knowledge of how to create things for ones self becomes superfluous. It numbs (out of lack of necessity I suppose) the part of a human that reads and adjust and evolves with its felt experience, giving precedence to the mental constructions.
The idea of the city dweller as the pinnacle of human intelligence, and the rural human being a drooling fool I find erroneous to say the least.
Most of my neighbors and people of this area, are highly skilled and integrated into the immediate environment to a degree that many "sophisticated" city dwellers may never even come close to knowing.

valekeeperx said...


Great post once again. Seems you always put into words many of the thoughts that have bounced hazily and lazily through my mind over the years.

Thought I would mention Jean Liedloff and her book, The Continuum Concept, again, since it seems applicable. This time with a bit more background. (I hope this does not violate the ground rules. My apologies if so.)

As a young woman, Jean spent some time with the Yequana in the Amazon, which inspired her to write her book. She was not a “scientist,” and did not go for any kind of study or academic purpose. Through a series of occurrences, she just wound up in the Amazon. At any rate, she particularly observed the way that the Yequana cared for and raised their children. Based on her observations, she felt that we in the West have deprived ourselves and our children of very evolutionarily important inputs right from birth and on through childhood. These deprivations, she surmised, were likely a source of much angst, neuroses, mental illness, and ill-behavior amongst civilized people.

I found it to be an interesting, fascinating, and heart-breaking book.

Best regards to all.

Christopher Carlisle said...

I live in a small town in south Mississippi, and grew up in the rural counties round about, in which I have hunted, fished, and hiked for the better part of 35 years; so I fancy myself something of a country boy. In the past year, I've spent a good deal of time exploring the swamps and bottomlands of the Pascagoula River basin, terrain a bit unlike that of the pine uplands I've spent most of my time in, and have experienced something in those swamps that has rarely happened in all my time in the wilderness elsewhere: I've gotten lost on several occasions. I simply don't understand the lay of the land there. Streams and sloughs flow in directions they shouldn't, and sometimes change direction in different seasons. It's almost embarrassing, and would be funny, if it weren't almost life-threatening on occasion. Driving to work yesterday, with this week's essay fresh on my mind, really helped bring home to me the dumbed-down environments we humans have created for ourselves in our urban landscapes, and the potentially huge reservoir of untapped raw sensory ability left to atrophy in each of us. Learning how to reactivate and use those abilities is a continuing challenge for me, one which more and more of us will face, like it or not.

Christopher Carlisle said...

Here in south Mississippi, feral hogs have become a big problem: their feeding activities damage fragile forest floor ecosystems, and they compete with native wildlife for food. Interestingly, I have learned that they will also attack and kill fawns on occasion, and eat the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Current hunting efforts seem not to be having much of an effect, though the increasing population of coyotes and their hybrids may help.

Dammerung said...

I still can't help but think of myself as a city person. I love the variety of humanness available in cities that you just can't find in smaller environments; you can't get Phô at 3:30 in the morning in a small town in rural Louisiana. Do you think there's anything positive to be said for cities, and can we assume that cities of perhaps more modest size will continue to be an extant organizational structure for human beings even through the centuries of crisis?

Greg Belvedere said...

Your post from two weeks ago made me think you would bring it around to negative feedback.

One word comes to mind that expresses what you are outlining in detail here: Babylon.

I think of Babylon as the manufactured environment and everything that goes along with it that keeps people disconnected from nature and trapped in the rat race competing with each other and chasing manufactured desires. Of course this emphasizes the negative aspects. Cities do have some good points, though personally I prefer more rural settings and agree with your take on the suburbs. They feel like cemeteries filled with mausoleums to me.

I entered this world the day Bob Marley left it. So I have always felt a strong affinity with his music even before I learned about this synchronicity.

Babylon your throne gone down

Howard Skillington said...

As you develop this hypothesis it certainly feels true at a visceral level. In that light, your observation that “uncivilized societies” have historically proved relatively durable and stable while urban cultures predictably collapse into savagery makes perfect sense.

Our species’ most critical ability is our evolved capacity to respond purposefully to changes in our environment. To exploit that capacity each of us requires a data base of what is normal, what are the signs of imminent change, and what are the possible vectors of change we need to be prepared for – all information from which modern urban dwellers are almost entirely insulated.

If your most practical “skill” is manipulating a spreadsheet on a laptop, or convincing clients that you know how to outsmart the market, then you are even less equipped to adapt to the natural world than the Roman citizen who took pride in being able to manage his toga gracefully. In either case, you’ll have no clue how to put together a basic shelter or when to plant a garden.

How ironic that our very definition of “advanced” is really just a measure of the degree of our remove from the basic knowledge of the natural world than is our only defense in times of collapse against the long downward slide that leads to a dark age.

RCW - said...

From .Dr. Mercola,:

Grounding or Earthing is defined as placing one's bare feet on the ground whether it be dirt, grass, sand, or concrete (especially when humid or wet). When you ground to the electron-enriched earth, an improved balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system occurs. The earth is a natural source of electrons and subtle electrical fields, which are essential for proper functioning of immune systems, circulation, synchronization of biorhythms and other physiological processes and may actually be the most effective, essential, least expensive, and easiest to attain antioxidant.

I've found grounding to be quite therapeutic, when MD's climate allows it April - October, even on my postage stamp sized 1200 sf of silky soft grass. City folk, 35 miles s/w in Baltimore, have a tougher time of it with so little grass growing.

MIckGspot said...

JMG said "If you want to watch American craziness at its craziest, watch how we treat our children."
This morning a 4 year old boy joined me for a three mile dog walk. I'm rehabilitating a young American Pit Bull who was rescued by our local human society and the boy wanted to come with.
The boys mother was perplexed that her son may go on a 3 mile walk, after all that is what we have cars for and he is so young. Well she packed him a lunch and 16 ounces of Juice which were never used as the whole trip was less than an hour.
The boy did very well handling the young dog which is twice the boys size and quite active. I gave the boy a stop watch to time how long each block took to walk and was surprised that he could not yet calculate time and his number recognition was quite poor.
22 minutes at our half way point, I asked the boy how long it may take for us to get back home? He said 22 minutes.
Children have a tremendous ability to learn but often lack the opportunity as parents are so engaged in delusion they simply hand the child a device to play with.
I encourage anyone who has the inclination to help children develop any capability no matter how small it may seem. They are the ones who will have to bear the brunt of the slide down Hubberts curve and per my observations are poorly prepared.

jean-vivien said...

Have you noticed how the stock markets have been jittery lately ? I suppose it works like a rubber band. You can pull on it, when you let go of it it will come back to its initial shape. You can do that again, and it may stretch a little further... repeat for enough times, and guess what happens to the poor rubber band.
You know that something's wrong when even the failure of hallucinations does not get the attention it deserves. Believing in hallucinations to be real may be bad enough, and you are assembling one of the explanations on why people fail even to notice that their supposedly real abstractions are failing.

Varun Bhaskar said...


This makes perfect sense. People who have, by the power of numbers, held nature at bay for several generations will eventually lose touch with limitations to their ability. After all if an empire can dam and divert rivers it stands to reason that they empire controls the rivers, right?

I've noticed this in my own conversations with people, where the normal response to my suggestions that there are limitations is usually met with some logic based on pure math. My favourite phrase that I've started running into to "correlation does not equal causation," and the best response I've come up with is that "ecosystems rarely have linear causation."



Rita said...

I'm not at home to look up the name he gave it, but Robert Anton Wilson proposed a "law" explaining the stupidity of elites. The basics are that no one tells the boss the truth. The more layers of bureaucracy the worse the problem as each person takes the semi-palatable version of the situation that their underlings have given them, polishes it up a bit and passes it up to their boss. So the king basks in the notion that "my people love me" even as the tumbrils are being dragged up to the palace wall.

Folk wisdom backs this up with tales of wise kings who disguise themselves and go among the people to learn what they really think. Or of foolish kings or princes who get the same lessons by accident when they are temporarily stripped of their identity in a Prince and the Pauper scenario.

But the suspicion that bosses don't really want "honest feedback" is reflected in an apocryphal tale I originally heard told of Vlad the Impaler. I realized that one could substitute any ruthless, powerful ruler for the same lesson (Mafia Godfather, Lenin, Attila, Caesar). The tale has two wondering wise men (monks, lamas, social scientists) accept the ruler's hospitality. He asks each of them to tell him the truth about how the people see him. One flatters like crazy: the people say you are firm but fair, a guardian of our values, you suppress crime,the nation is prospering, yada yada. The other proudly speaks truth to power: they call you a tyrant and a monster, a thief and a murderer, no man feels safe in his home or secure in his property. you are ruining a once proud land. The tale concludes--he executes one man and promotes the other. Which man had which fate?

Patricia Mathews said...

@Spanish Fly - "Same monkey, dressed in silk" has an English, or t least US, equivalent from a rock song of 40 years ago. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Cherokee Organics said...


Just thought that I should add the point that: The unforgiving regularity of urban life also acts to reinforce the belief that the abstractions are reality. It is a twisted form of ritual.

To do anything different from what is expected of you in an an urban area (regardless of your age or personal preferences) is to risk being chucked off the island. It is a real concern for people and there is not much in the way of tolerance for difference. That issue in itself indicates to me just how brittle the system is.



MIckGspot said...

Christopher Carlisle - about being lost outdoors when you know your way around the woods, water appearing to flow the wrong direction, etc. Happened to me several times and I found the experience frightening. Not because I may have to spend some extra time in the wild but because I thought I was loosing my mind.
Last time I pulled out my compass which started spinning because of the Iron bearing rock all around. Finally my Brother In Law honked the horn, I was about 10 ft from the forest road and 40 ft from the truck.
My Irish grandmother would attribute such things to the "Farie", bands of invisible creatures who took pleasure confusing people.
I thank my grandmother for providing me such an excuse and entities to blame other than myself.

Ray Wharton said...

Since last weeks post I have been dwelling on a few thoughts about this whole topic of the damages of city life. Questioning what kinds of environmental changes seem most problematic, and what is mostly harmless. A specific question became a critical one in this process. When does a city stop driving people mad?

I suspect very strongly that ruins are not so prone to driving people into the madness of the civilized, and that only the active living city has that power. If this is the case it would shift the operative distinction from natural versus artificial environments to wild versus tame environments. A tame environment is almost precisely an environment stripped of its power to enforce feedback upon its tamers.

This fits with my sense of homeless people I know who live in cities, though many live with serious mental issues, this is adequately explained by a mix of selection bias and the societal disconnect of living in a place which is tame for many people but very different for you, and in many cases the homeless (and the disenfranchised more generally) seem to be less seriously afflicted by the particular madness of the person who lives in a controlled environment. Also, I have observed that intelligent species like oyster mushrooms suffer senescence after being expanded too many times in highly controlled conditions, but even in extremely artificial and unorthodox conditions that are not highly controlled the strain seems to maintain health. Both of these observations make me suspect that it is possible to maintain sanity in a human created environment, simply not in an environment that one controls. I would argue an organism cannot thrive in an environment it has too much control over, problems in the mental plane would always grow septic.

Of course many of today's cities are already in a strange cusp of this condition, they are becoming not wild but feral. Shaped by humanity, but our intentions can not be heard over the accelerating blight. The damage of living in a echo chamber of your own ideas is lessened when the mental patterns in the buildings offer far less to be inspired by than any living this making its way through this shattered landscape. Yet, as the resources are still connected to artificially manipulated flows much of the issue remains, and what's more other species are today early in establishing the customs of what ecosystems may one day cover over the bed rock of civilization, thus the lessons of mature ecosystems are especially fragmented.

John Michael Greer said...

William, you're welcome to cite Alan; I read a lot of his writing back when I was building wind turbines and learning how to double-dig organic garden beds. I'm not surprised you notice the echoes.

Cherokee, one of the things I find most striking about your narrative is the role of the dog. That's something primates are surprisingly good at -- baboons in the wild like to hang out with gazelles and impalas, who hear and smell better than baboons do and will often alert the baboons to a predator long before they spot it themselves. The baboons return the favor by driving away the smaller predators. Humans and dogs seem to have worked out the same sort of mutual-assistance pact a long time ago.

Phil, did the cathedrals get there first, or did towns get cathedrals because they were large enough to support a bishop and his diocese?

Denys, I know. It's interesting to me that most other nations don't seem to need the constant patriotic incantations -- possibly because their inhabitants live in actual countries rather than imaginary ones.

Don, thank you.

Patricia, when I was in high school I wrote an essay comparing the student government to the puppet governments the Soviet Union installed in the Eastern Bloc nations of Europe. I'm sure you can imagine how well that went over! That said, a Versailles analysis makes at least as much sense, if not more.

Donalfagan, haven't read the book (or seen the movie), but that sort of mismatch between verbiage and action is all too familiar.

Eric, glad to hear it!

Stacey, I'm not familiar with Burke, and clearly will have to change that.

Daergi, populations can do plenty of things when they get too large for their environment: they can split and expand into new territories, but they can also take other steps ranging from changing marriage customs to adopting human sacrifice; they can also collapse and undergo the necessary dieoff to get back in sync with the carrying capacity of the environment. The latter's the thing, I think, that too often gets left out of these analyses.

Spanish Fly, yeah, we had exactly the same experience when Obama took office promising to reverse all the policies of his predecessor, and proceeded to do a first-rate imitation of the third and fourth terms of George W. Bush. This time around, we've got a whole clown car full of monkeys eager to wear silk!

Onething, that's a very good point. Thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

Travis, whereabouts south of Eugene? My wife and I lived in Ashland for five years and used to travel north now and then.

Valekeeperx, thanks for the tip; I'll put it on the get-to list.

Christopher, I know the feeling. Growing up in the Puget Sound country of Washington state, I'm used to visible landmarks on the skyline; plop me in the Midwest or the Great Plains and I lose my way almost at once. Very disconcerting. Here in the north central Appalachians, fortunately, there are plenty of landmarks on the skyline!

Dammerung, there's quite a bit positive to say about cities, and I'll be saying it in next week's post. The fact that urban societies breed dark ages at regular intervals doesn't mean that urban societies are worthless, after all.

Greg, yes, that's a pretty exact translation into Rastafarian. You were born the day Bob Marley died? Okay, now I'm feeling old. ;-)

Howard, the irony is delicious if dark. Labels like "advanced" always beg the question, "advanced toward what?" In the present case, the answer is pretty consistently "toward the next dark age."

RCW, another way in which our organisms are designed for nature, not for artificial environments...

MickGSpot, I hope he gets the chance to join you again. As the twig is bent...

Jean-Vivien, why, yes, I have. I've also noticed that commodity prices and shipping rates are dropping like a rock. The economic crisis does seem to be arriving pretty much on schedule.

Varun, yes, and I've also noticed the tendency of people to scamper to abstractions in order to get out of the way of inconveniently concrete realities. It does add a certain on-the-ground verification to my thesis.

Rita, yes, that's Hagbard's Law, which saw some discussion here back in 2009. You're quite right that it plays a significant role; I suppose a case can be made that the senility of the elites is massively overdetermined.

Cherokee, hmm! That makes sense -- and invites an analysis of civilization as a structure of rituals meant to evoke some desired but imaginary state of affairs and banish the real world of nature.

Ray, that's true -- if anything, ruins are an antidote. I suspect it's because nature has her way with ruins, with visible results.

onething said...

Greg Belvedere,

You might have mentioned that Babylon is a Rastafarian term that denotes all the negatives of ultra civilized life, like working for "the man" and is contrasted with Zion. It often largely does mean city and rural, but not exactly. I have often thought that when I drove down into the city to my job at the hospital I was going down to Babylon, leaving my Zion.
To be fair, country folk also make fun of foolish city slickers. I guess that what you don't know about looks pretty shallow because it's not what you spend time delving into. The more you dig into a topic or an environment, the more there is to know.

Janet D said...

I have little time to post now, but follow regularly and enjoy the comments. This week's post brings to my mind the following quote from Richard Louv:

"The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world...” I remember hearing Jon Young say he thought this was true because every child born today was going to need to operate at the level of genius to be able to cope with the future they are facing.

I second the suggestion of someone above about (for those so inclined) exploring the deep nature connection movement / wilderness awareness. My kids attend a one-day-a-month wilderness program, as well as summer camps when I can schedule them. They love it and are very familiar with dirt, tracking, fire-building, and shelter-making. Another list of wilderness organizations can be found at:, but Google can work as well. I've done my time with these programs, too and highly recommend adult immersion as well.

And finally (a little less on-topic), for those who could use a look at the lighter side, I recommend looking at the following (from Ugo Bardi's blog):

The History of Humankind in Six Frames (Photos)

It actually made me laugh out loud.

KL Cooke said...

KL, you need to get out of California more often. Over on this end of the continent we're in no danger of running out of deer, feral pig, etc. --

Good deal, 'cuz 40 million of us are liable to crash the barbecue after the three-day grocery shelves run out. ;0)

KL Cooke said...


"... note the huge reduction in public smoking and random dog droppings."

I note the former, but not the latter. In both cases it's a matter of public shaming. Smoking in public is high on the list of frowned upon anti-social behaviors. And a good way to not think about the emissions from one's automobile.

But I spend a fair amount of time at the beach, where people like to run their dogs off-leash. Because everybody else is watching, these people will diligently pick up after their pets, using a little plastic bag. But when you get up to the parking lot, you see where they've dumped the bag on the ground when nobody was looking. They're not about to put a bag of dog-do in their nice clean cars.

steve pearson said...

I have been involved on & off for quite a while with a group in southern CA teaching wilderness skills to teens and some a bit younger,with a lot of the Jon Young, Tom Brown lineage, as it were.Several of our staff had worked with one or the other or both, and Jon Young did a weekend workshop on our land.
I mention this in the context of the urban conditioning of children's minds,spirits, beings, whatever. Originally we were dealing mainly with at risk kids, many court mandated. None of us but the director knew the kids individual histories, but I gather many of them were pretty horrific.Most of these kids had never been out of the city.Granted, this was about 15 years ago and video games were not quite as ubiquitous.
However we would usually start with a group of 22 or 23, whom we would work with for a month or so, beginning and ending with a weekend camp out.Five or six would usually freak out on the first camp out, some not making it through the weekend.Probably 10-15 would get some benefit from the program, and for 3 or 4, it would turn their lives around, and they would develop a passion for nature and wilderness skills.
I mention this, not to seek praise for our program, but to bring up the differences in the kids' reactions.I don't know what differences there were in individual backgrounds between the kids who couldn't or didn't choose to break their urban molds and those who did; I just find hope in the fact that some were able to, and satisfaction if I was able to assist their process. I guess, too, that many of them had never had adults in their lives that they could trust.

heather said...

While I agree with both your observation that most kids are poorly prepared for the future we are leaving them, and your encouragement to the readers of this blog to help the kids around them develop their potentials, I would reassure you that it's quite developmentally normal for a 4 year old to have a hazy sense of time and to have limited numerical calculation skills. Don't despair too soon. With encouragement and experiences like those you are offering your young neighbor, along with his normal maturation and growing ability to handle abstractions, these skills will likely develop just fine over the next couple of years. Yay for long walks with dogs and caring adults, boo for too much time with "devices"!
--Heather in CA

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks. I got the chickens into their new enclosure tonight - after dark too! They were not happy ladies that their original hen house had been totally pulled apart.

The dogs are indispensable here and they really do earn their keep (which doesn't cost much at all now that I make their food from scratch - that has been a big learning experience). That description makes perfect sense to me.

Yes, the repetitive nature of the ritual is a dead giveaway. Why else would it be so unrelentingly repetitive, other than to reinforce the dominant narrative? Things on the farm are much more fluid in terms of work as you have to take nature into account.

Gotta bounce as it is late here.



Johan Alvbring said...


When I read this, I thought about your earlier scheme figuration-abstraction-reflection. That's an inner process; what you're talking about now sounds like the corresponding outer process. The inner process is a process in the minds of the civilization's inhabitants (and creative minorities), who progressively focus their attention less and less on direct experience and more and more on their own thinking and it's products. Correspondingly, these products get turned into external objects, leading to increasingly urban environments.

What you called a lack of negative feedback can then be seen as the neglect of figuration in the later stages of civilization. The figurations are there, they are settled, and the mind starts from them in the process of abstraction and reflection. That the figurations only ever represented a part of the world, and that the world itself may change (as in ecological change) isn't picked up since the process of figuration has been abandoned.

Of course, I'd say it's a mistake to say that either of these process is the main one. They reinforce and delimit each other. The urban environment provides the figurations and abstractions that the process continues to work in. In Spenglerian terms, perhaps we might say that the central image of the culture provides an axis around which the inner and outer processes intertwine, like the twin strands of DNA.

Well, that's my -- rather abstract! -- take on this.

Phil Harris said...

JMG wrote: "Phil, did the cathedrals get there first, or did towns get cathedrals because they were large enough to support a bishop and his diocese?"

Like most things it gets complex and more interesting the more one looks into it.
I guess the short answer is that the Cathedral and the town were both supported by the agrarian hinterland (a network actually, connected with other networks) and relied on the network capability to sustain at least some surplus production (net) over time. And they evolved and probably co-evolved.

Winchester when I first knew it (when car and personal vehicle access was still restricted to a minority) was relatively small. One could walk out of the town in most directions.
It had been a Roman town in an agricultural area that had generated and traded surplus food (grain) in pre-Roman times for hundreds of years. The Saxon post-Dark Age expansion and Ecclesiastical structures (both organisational and physical) are described here.

'City status' became a legal technicality to some extent I think - there are other towns that had similar arrangements with for example Abbeys that never became 'Cities'. I think of Tewkesbury and Romsey for example. In some cases in Saxon times the religious community seems to have come first and settlements expanded from these nuclei at the end of the Dark Age - as in the case of Romsey.

I do not know enough of ecclesiastical economic history (and history period!)nor of their corporate structures and relationship with secular ownership of land, but ecclesiastical authority had a lot to do with food storage. For example the yet not well understood relationship of late-mediaeval barns such as this one outside of the already at that time very large settlement of London suggests several PhD studies. (Incidentally the barn and village is threatened by proposed extension of London Heathrow Airport).

Phil H

Jo said...

Dear JMG, thank you eversomuch for including an elegant answer in your essay this week to my question last week as to why country folk are considered stupid by city folk. Such service!

This week I have been reading EF Schumacher's 'Small is Beautiful' for the first time. It is an extraordinarily prescient book to have been written in the 1960s, and I imagine it informed your own thinking? I can see many of the seeds of the discussions I read here in Schumacher's thought.

What interested me particularly in the light of this week's essay were his thoughts about convergent and divergent thinking, and how they pertain to the civilisation/barbarian dichotomy. Convergent thinking being of the sort that narrows down a problem to a logarithm with only one answer, and divergent thinking fanning out the possibilities and creating a complex and intricate model of various potential outcomes, including the possibility of holding opposites in elegant tension.

As I have mentioned before over the last few weeks, I am fascinated by the process in which 'improved' technology actually makes life both more complicated and less rich and nuanced. Living in nature requires constant re-evaluation and flexibility - divergent thinking, while urbanisation allows us to 'control' nature, reorganise it into straight lines, and simplify it, so that our brains don't have to constantly work so hard - convergent thinking.

Schumacher says, "All divergent problems can be turned into convergent problems by a process of 'reduction'. The result, however, is the loss of all higher forces to ennoble human life, and the degradation, not only of the emotional part of our nature, but also... of our intellect and moral character. The signs are everywhere visible today."

zentao said...

Hello John Michael,
I very much like where these posts are going; you are deftly weaving a great narrative. I would like to add a bit to the discussion.

The first is to expand on the nature of our hard-wired cognitive abilities. We take so much of this amazing gift for granted but really we need to admit that it is actually like the part of the iceberg below the surface – it is really the majority of what we are. The unconscious is remarkable and here we are so proud when we get a little bit of conscious sphincter control.

One fascinating aspect of the unconscious is the amount of communication that it is responsible for. The body language, in particular, with universality of gestures is very interesting. In fact, the full range of communication extends to energetic as well. One has to wonder at how much is going on given that languaging is probably 6-8 bits when our full processing capability is orders of magnitude greater.

What happens in civilization? Well, we’ve decided that all sorts of aspects of body language are either socially awkward and need to be suppressed. One just needs to sit at a business meeting and observe to see this in practice. Or better watch a hipster get ready to go out; I’ve never seen anyone pay so much attention to communicating “I couldn’t care less about what I am wearing” through choice of pants, shirts and shoes…

So civilization is taking millions of years of evolved processing and then adds layers of OCD-like bad code over top. Is it any wonder that civilization starts to seriously wander after a few generations of this practice?

Kate said...

JMG, Thanks so much for this post's topic. It is dear to me, the benefits to mind, body, heart and soul of really engaging with nature. Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle brought this topic to the mainstream years ago now. It has helped those of us who have always been involved in nature to understand why so many others act the way they do, and to know that it is now a multi-generational part of our culture, unfortunately. The question is where can we find our way back into nature, when so many of us are actually afraid of it.

I've worked for many years in the public park sector, planning and "designing" parks for public use and education. My colleague and I have tried to change how access to parks and the nature to be found there can be offered and allowed. You can find hints of what is needed in Louv's books, but there are other useful sources such as Lepage's Parks for Life, Jon Young's Coyote's Guide to Connecting with Nature, Paul Shepherd, Norberg Schultz and Alexander's A Pattern Language, among others. Hints can also come from tribal and other rural life ways, and our own yearnings when out and about.

It is abundantly apparent that we need much more than a walk in a manicured park where we must stay on the trails and touch nothing, or where we just drive through and "camp" in our RVs. We had worked to bring into our parks, or some of them, a number of new approaches, such as leaving your car at the gate, lots of trails in loops and to destinations and features, primitive tent camping at near, middle and far distances, places to hunt and fish, places where kids can build forts and nests , bringing in storytellers and artists instead of Interpreters and much more. This is a huge topic, a huge need and a huge challenge in the face of the status quo management of most park agencies of any scale. Perhaps, as budgets continue to shrink these things will creep in under the fence, but it would be so much better to consciously make it happen and to join with park users and the communities in doing that. Thanks so much for your amazing insights.

PRiZM said...

Synchronicity.. I just watched the Ted Talk of the Day which happened to be about .. an explanation of the rise of humans beings. The talkers conclusion was that humans are able to live in a fictional world, which allows us to more easily work towards common goals.

This idea relates with so many of the ideas from this blog, and especially this weeks posting.

One point in particular from the Ted Talk that I found interesting was how the speaker wanted to say we are entering a phase where there may be a biological separation of classes due to technology making humans redundant. Thus some humans, those of a higher caste would further separate from those who are less. This sort of fits in with the thought which onething made, how different hierarchies psychologically separate buffer/distance themselves from the real world even more so than lower classes. I think this separation has always existed, just in different forms/terms. Civilization/barbarians. Owner/slave. First-world/third-world. Humans always find a way to psychologically distance themselves with realities they don't want to have to deal with. As is often the case, a third point needs to be included in order to connect these dualities..

avalterra said...

As always, fascinating. I will point out that JMG's theory accords nicely with Robert Howard's own view - the state of "barbarism" cannot be fullt re-learned as an adult. It is something one must be born into (preferably over many generations). From "Beyond the Blackwater":

Balthus had had a good look at his companions in the fort before they slipped out of the stockade and down the bank into the waiting canoe. They were of a new breed growing up in the world on the raw edge of the frontier—men whom grim necessity had taught woodcraft. Aquilonians of the western provinces to a man, they had many points in common. They dressed alike—in buckskin boots, leathern breeks and deerskin shirts, with broad girdles that held axes and short swords; and they were all gaunt and scarred and hard-eyed; sinewy and taciturn.

They were wild men, of a sort, yet there was still a wide gulf between them and the Cimmerian. They were sons of civilization, reverted to a semi- barbarism. He was a barbarian of a thousand generations of barbarians. They had acquired stealth and craft, but he had been born to these things. He excelled them even in lithe economy of motion. They were wolves, but he was a tiger.


Andropos Nebulus said...

Enjoyable essay this week. I wasn't going to comment, but I had an idea that might be of interest to some, and I think complements the Archdruid's ideas here. JMG's idea that separation from nature----with its endless play of structure and non-structure, randomness and order, living and non-living----keeps us cognitively and emotionally grounded has indeed strikes me as quite powerful. In fact this has been studied at least a bit: there are longitudinal studies on children who've been raised with free play in nature (who have some woods to run though, etc), and as adults they show different palette of personality traits, such as higher openness, empathy, and IQ.

Anyway, my thought is this. There is an argument to be made that the world of stuff is only about half the world we inhabit; the other half is our relations with the human being around us. I'm not saying this is 100% correct, only that it has a strong argument behind it. After all your survival and reproduction (particularly for males!) depends on your group every bit as much as it does on non-human factors, and on your various positions and functionings within your group's dominance hierarchies (in humans, groups have multiple, overlapping dominance hierarchies).

In modern society we've not only removed ourselves from nature, but also, even in crowded cities, from natural interactions with the humans around us. My suggestion, in complement to JMG's ideas this week, is that the thinness and artificiality of our human relations is similar to the thinness and artificiality of our material surroundings. And that this is also a common feature of civilizations, and has been a problem of like proportions.

Andropos Nebulus said...

A follow-up thought or two on why.... if I may be allowed!

Obviously nature must change within cities, but why should our relations change or become more artificial? I would say we build cities largely *because* city-scapes are artificial, therefore predictable, therefore easier to survive in. But we must survive our fellow humans, too, and we want our relations with them also to be predictable (for instance we'd like for dealing with shop-owners and government functionaries to be predictable). So civilizations -must- develop fundamentally arbitrary rules of conduct and modes of relation. Without these, we just wouldn't be able to function with lots of people around that we don't personally know.

Evidence? Just think of your own reaction when you see someone acting unpredictably, say on the subway, or in front of you on the sidewalk, or driving. You think (understandably!) that there could be trouble, and you try to avoid the situation. Or think of how you react if the store doesn't open at the usual hour. Or think of when a "customer service" person doesn't follow the usual script but instead seems rude....or on the other hand is *too* personal and asks how church went this week or something. You get frustrated or just plain weirded out.

So without *some* system of restrictive, artificial norms, civilization couldn't exist (to some extent they're necessary in non-civilized cultures, too, I know). But civilizations appear typically to exaggerate this necessity, maybe because without an external check (as appears almost totally absent now) such systems become self-sustaining and self-evolving, and separated from their foundational raison d'etre.

And such norms are indeed arbitrary and confining. Just now, as our culture seems increasingly fractured and stale, they seem ever-more deeply confining, don't they? And we bristle with rebellion.

I'd also suggest that in today's advanced societies, the situation is even more exaggerated than usual, what with cubicles, social media, and our various *extremely* abstract ways of dealing with each other.

For instance posting to an Archdruid's stream on Blogger. Try explaining THAT to a Mongol.

rabtter said...

Rita's description of Haggard's law reminds me of a limerick I saw about 30 year's ago. Sometimes satire is the purest form of truth.

DEMO Project

In the beginning there was the DEMO Project. And the Project was without
form. And darkness was upon the staff members thereof. So they spake unto the
Division Head, saying, "It is a crock of [expletive], and it stinks."

And the Division Head spake unto his Department Head, saying, "It is a
crock of excrement and none may abide by the odor thereof." Now, the Department
Head spake unto his Directorate Head, saying, "It is a container of excrement,
and is very strong, such that none may abide before it." And it came to pass
that the Directorate Head spake unto the Assistant Technical Director, saying,
"It is a vessel of fertilizer and none may abide by its strength."

And the Assistant Technical Director spake unto the Technical Director
saying, "It containeth that which aids growth and it is very strong." And lo,
the Technical Director spake unto The Director, saying, "The powerful new
Project will help promote the growth of the Laboratories."

And The Director looked down upon the Project, and knew that it was good.

Cliff said...

I had the fortune of growing up in a very rural area of Western Colorado (the nearest stoplight was a two hour drive away), and I developed an awareness of and appreciation for the beauty and vitality there. More than that, I was aware that the natural world has an inherent worth all its own, completely independent of whatever use humanity has for it. When I grew up, I realized most people I met didn't have this awareness at all.

When I go back to my hometown, I feel like I'm returning to the real world, and when I leave it for my home in Phoenix, I feel like I'm returning to a false world.

All that being said, it seems to me that a lot of the local population have no real awareness of the natural world. My hometown is a busted old mining town, and the prevailing attitude is that the earth is worth only what you can rip out of it, and there's a lot of bitterness, ignorance and despair that's grown in the wake of the mining bust.

So any new environmental sensibility that might come about probably will not be coming from that part of the world.

Ed-M said...

Well being a formerly employed civil engineer I don't have to tell you that literally everything in our built environment started as a mental concept in somebody's brain somewhere (CEO to COO: "I want a new headquarters office just ten minutes from my house"), but I am telling you all anyway. From the initial concept there are generated concept plans, preliminary design plans, midterm and final design plans, respectively. These plans can run anywhere from a single 8-1/2 by 11 page into the hundreds of 24" x 36" sheets depending on the size and complexity of the item to be built. Mind you, all this design and drafting work on the more complex projects cost quite a bit of change. And all this hallucinated infrastructure, once built, requires maintenance, and sometimes that requires the services of an architect and a team of engineers. Worst of all in my opinion is trying to figure out how to repair a very large building that has gone through several decades of neglect followed by a flood and hurricane!

FiftyNiner said...

I will try to keep this brief because I am battling a debilitating case of shingles. I won't try to cite the many people here who added threads to my thinking, along with your powerful essay. but you have led us into an essential feature of society now and the way that those of us who are old enough remember that it used to be. The following is a disjointed series of observations: When my mother died six months ago I had the strange experience of running into friends in the next few weeks when I was out running errands who were not aware of my mother's passing. To a person they felt embarrassed that they had not known. They did not know it, but I was embarrassed for myself because I was aware of so many in the community who had died in the past year that I had only acknowledged on the funeral home condolence pages. (I live in a rural community with two small towns of combined population less than 400 and at least 18 people have died within the past ten months!)
This is the South and just a couple decades ago it was all so different. When my dad died in 1987, the house immediately filled up with people and food, food, food! When mom died I depended on my best friend in the community to quash the food. She did not understand completely, but she did it because it was what I wanted. The food to the homes of the dead is one Celtic tradition that I am glad to see come to an end.
I have more to say and will tie this all together, but now the shingles demand a break.

Thomas Prentice said...

Hello, Your ArchDruidship. I wondered if you were familiar with the Dark Mountain Project and their concept of "Uncivilisation" over in England. I just stumbled on it last week ...


The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.
- From Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Manifesto

The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.

"The Project grew out of a feeling that contemporary literature and art were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises. We believe that writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality, and in questioning the foundations of the world in which we find ourselves.

What is 'Uncivilisation'?

As well as being the name of our manifesto and the festivals we organised between 2010-13, Uncivilisation – a word we think we coined – is a concept indelibly associated with Dark Mountain, and it has been interpreted in different ways. Some people, for example, have interpreted it as a political term – a call to destroy civilisation. This is not quite what we had in mind when we began to use the word, though we can see why it might sound that way.

For us, Uncivilisation is a process: the stripping away of forms of thinking and ways of seeing which might be termed ‘civilised’ – those associated, for example, with the illusion of control, the restriction of reality to that which can be measured and managed, disconnection from nature, the enthronement of a particular kind of rationality over other ways of knowing and feeling, and the like. The art, writing and culture we see around us is, we believe, over-civilised. As an alternative, we propose a form of cultural engagement which is rooted in place and time, takes an ecocentric view of the world and is not taken in by ephemeral promises of growth, progress and human glory.


Bob Patterson said...

It seems to be a fact of modern democratic politics, that it only pays to address a crisis that has started or is in progress. If you suggest action to address a crisis that is predicted, you will always be shouted down by those denying the crisis. And they will carry the day. If no crisis comes, then they were correct, if a crisis does comes it was due to
unforeseen, unavoidable circumstance.

sgage said...

@ Thomas Prentice

" I wondered if you were familiar with the Dark Mountain Project"

Our good Archdruid is indeed familiar with the Dark Mountain Project, and has an essay in Dark Mountain Book 1. :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Janet, I suspect Louv's right -- which implies some very unwelcome things for those who aren't nature-smart in the years ahead.

KL, you're welcome to come work as stoop labor in the fields of Kentucky and Georgia -- and I suspect that's what a lot of Californians will end up doing. Ma Joad, thou art avenged...

Steve, at least you can get through to some of them.

Cherokee, glad to hear that the hens are guarding their new fortress. Now we'll see what the rats can come up with this time!

Johan, excellent! Yes, the two schemes are flipsides of the same process.

Phil, interesting. A much more organic process of coevolution, then.

Jo, you're welcome and thank you! Yes, I read a lot of Schumacher back in the day, and my book The Wealth of Nature is more or less a continuation and further development of his ideas.

Zentao, interesting. Yes, that would also factor into it.

Kate, glad to hear that I have readers in the park sector. Yes, consciously weaving that sort of thing into parks, while there's still funding for parks at all, could help quite a bit.

Prizm, interesting. I notice, though, that the speaker hasn't noticed that robots can only be built and operated in societies with ample supplies of really cheap energy and resources, while human labor doesn't suffer from that disadvantage -- and since our supplies of really cheap energy and resources aren't all that ample any more, I wouldn't bet on the long-fantasized "end of work" scenario at this point.

Avalterra, true enough. Howard paid more attention than a lot of people realize.

Andropos, that's plausible, and follows on from the point that Onething made earlier. Yes, the abstraction and artificialization (if that's a word!) of the human environment goes hand in hand with the same process in the nonhuman environment.

Rabtter, funny.

John Michael Greer said...

Cliff, it would be worth knowing what precisely fosters or hinders the growth of that kind of nature awareness.

Ed-M, exactly. Whether Plato is right about the world as a whole in suggesting that the idea precedes the experienced reality, he's certainly right about everything human.

FiftyNiner, ouch! Best wishes for a prompt recovery.

Thomas, if you'll visit this page on their site, you'll spot a familiar face.

Bob, interesting. A little more analysis, and you might have a theory of the suicide of democracy.

PRiZM said...


No, he didn't use systems thinking in coming to a conclusion about our future. He did use systems thinking when developing his idea of how the world is all a fiction based on other fictions, and I found that point of his in common with your idea of "A Landscape of Hallucinations."

He then realized his point about how caught up we all are in by using the modern fiction of "progress" in thinking that humans are likely to be made redundant by technology.

But the point which from it all I found most interesting is how humans consistently like to use psychological devices to distance themselves from the real world. And that device ultimately is our fiction of it.

Cherokee Organics said...


Well yes of course, the rats are far more intelligent than most people credit them to be and they'll be around long after we're all only a distant memory.

Hey, I spotted this article and thought that you may be interested in the situation Down Under: Our $2664-a-month debt addiction. Scary, very scary and also very, very lacking in resiliency... It is like a house of cards just waiting for the wind to blow it over.



Scott Gilbertson said...

It's a bit out of date, but Paul Shepard's Nature and Madness covers some of this ground as well.

Bill Pulliam said...

Have spent too much time lately on the constantly recurring tedium of trying to get our electronic devices to communicate with each other. The usual whack-a-mole nonsense... machine A is now sharing the printer with machine B but that seems to have stopped it from receiving internet shared from machine C, etc. I commented to my wife, apropos this ADR installment, "If this is the world that human intelligence has constructed for itself, then human intelligence is masochistic and self-hating."

Dwig said...

Another bit of synchronicity: I've been reading some of Wendell Berry's stories about the small (fictional, but typical) Kentucky town of Port William, and the area it's located in, mostly taking place during the early to middle 1900s. The area wasn't "natural" in the strict sense, but was nowhere near being a city. Berry writes of the "Port William membership", including people, of course, but also the entire web of life, as well as the landscape. (To Berry, "community" necessarily includes all these things, and the way they shape each other.)

Here's some description of the community of Sycamore, described in a story of a young minister and his wife coming there. For me, it illuminates something of the structure and dynamics of such communities.

"There was little enough of money at large in Sycamore at that time, but it was rich in produce of its fields and woods and the river."

"Small as it was, the town seemed to them to be inundated with self-knowledge. This knowledge moved over it in an unrelenting current, some of it in stories told openly that eddied with variations from teller to teller and place to place, some of it more darkly and quietly in an undertow of caution, sometimes fraught with the unacknowledged pleasure of malice, sometimes bearing a burden merely of anxiety or concern. It was to this subsurface current of gossip that Williams Milby [the minister] learned to listen with greatest care, for it told him where needs were."

"Sycamore had suffered the depressed agricultural economy of the 1920s. It had been hit hard by the Depression of the 1930s, by the severe drouths of 1930 and 1936, and the great flood of January 1937. But it was a community of farm people and of people related to farmers and dependent on farming. They had never expected to live independently of the weather or to be free of hardship and struggle. They suffered as they had to suffer and did as they had to do. They also knew of one another's struggles, and as they could they helped."

"Also, by their own modest standards and by their skills and thrift, they throve. Because none of them had ever been overly prosperous, their losses were never great. It says much for the hardiness of the place that its population increased during the Depression, as young Sycamoreans who had gone to the cities to prosper returned home to survive."

And writing of a main character in many of the stories, Burley Coulter:

"Always when he was outdoors, where he had been in most of his waking hours all his life, and especially when he was in the woods, he was aware that he was more seen than seeing. In the woods he kept company with the original life of the place, a life intricately knowing of itself, even of him, but never to be fully known by him. ... He was a man of two worlds: the world that produced crops and animals by his work, and the world that by his knowledge merely, and his pleasure, gave him pelts, wild meat, fish, wild fruits and nuts, and good places to be."

I get the impression that, if industrial civilization hadn't impinged on these communities, they could have continued largely unchanged over centuries (impacted mostly by ecological changes). Some of the stories, though, describe the effects of what Berry calls The Economy and The War, two huge intertwined, impersonal forces that inexorably changed the nature of the membership, and mostly not for the better.

steve pearson said...

@ JMG & Phil Harris, Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End" are a good fictional read about the cathedral building in England, 12th & 14th centuries.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and everyone,

Just to let you know that my story for the soon to be closed Spacebats competition has progressed another chapter which can be found here: Shaman Part 3

There's only one more future chapter in it which I haven't quite figured out the meat and potatoes of it all, only the ending which explains a thing or two about the story and characters in it which sort of ties the lot together with a level of higher spiritual experience. It is a big call, but one must occasionally reach for the stars (Note to JMG: I meant that in a metaphorical and not the literal sense. ;-)!).

Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the story should you choose to read it, and feel free to drop a comment. Please remember fiction writing is not my thing, but I'm trying!



Patricia Mathews said...

Student ignorance - I was going to say it's nothing new, until I did the math and traced this anecdote to 1985, when the Reagan Unraveling was going full blast. But anyway, from today's Albuquerque Journal, about my own alma mater:

In summary, the students in a college history class had no idea there had ever been a Civil War. The mind boggles. I believe I learned that at a very early age.

How long has this been going on?

FiftyNiner said...

JMG, cont'd
Growing up I had a much loved and admired first cousin who was almost a year older than I, but he and I were almost polar opposites. His dad grew up on a farm and his major recreation was hunting and fishing which he passed on to his sons. My cousin would bring in almost any game you can imagine that ended up on their family table. One of my most vivid early memories was of visiting their house on a cold Thanksgiving before my cousin and I started school. His job that morning was to catch the old red rooster on the yard so that my aunt could serve him up in an awesome pot of chicken and dumplings. I accompanied my cousin on the chase of this rooster who was having none of it. The rooster went under the house which was built high off the ground as so many of the older houses were. We followed him and I was awestruck by my cousin's bravery at tackling the creature who was chest high to the both of us. In the melee my cousin got a puncture wound on his head from an exposed flooring nail and there was much blood. My aunt bandaged his wound and laughed at "our" accomplishment. My only contribution had been moral support! I still remember that pot of dumplings after almost sixty years!
The point of all this is that both our families lived off the land, the only difference being that there was no tradition of hunting in my family. We had huge gardens, pigs and chickens, milk cows, and not much from the store.
Fast forward to now. Within the past couple of weeks I had a conversation with my aunt who is now 82 years old and as good a cook as she ever was. She told me that all of her grown children
will not now eat her homemade banana pudding! They want instant pudding, with no bananas added to it! My cousin is now retired from a vigorous outdoor occupation as an electric utility lineman and lives in splendid air conditioned isolation, with all of his food coming from the store. I, OTOH, am trying to move in the other direction completely. Big bed of turnips and collards this fall! New chickens in the Spring if all goes well!

Patricia Mathews said...

Student ignorance: answered my own question, "How long has this been going on?"

I'd say, ever since the specific holidays of Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday were all mushed into a generic President's Day. Because on most public holidays, the media offer at least a few token reminders of why we celebrate it - i.e. what Washington did and what Lincoln did.

Patricia Mathews said...

One last comment: sometime in my adult years - I can't remember whether it was in the late 70s or the 80s - the meanings of "right" and "privilege" were suddenly reversed in the media. Pro-voting PSAs proclaimed "Vote! It's your privilege!" Meanwhile, commercial ads were urging "Fight for your right to party!" Or telling us it was our *right* to shop at their store on a national holiday.

I have no idea whether this was deliberate, or simply due to a new generation coming up with a strange (to me) set of values, but it's very hard not to see something very Orwellian in it.

latheChuck said...

A couple more general comments on "feedback". Feedback can be applied promptly, or after some delay. By "promptly", I mean "before the phenomenon has had much time to change".

Delayed negative feedback can lead to oscillation. Imagine the drunk driver who drifts to the right, turns to the left, drifts all the way across the lane before realizing that he needs to turn back to the right, drifts back across the lane before realizing that he needs to turn back to the left, and so on. You can see the same thing in economics: a surge in demand for housing cannot be accommodated immediately, so by the time new apartments are build for the surge, there may be too many apartments built. Then developers lose money, lenders become cautious, no new projects are started, and new construction isn't even planned until there's another surge in demand. Expensive oil, after a few years, results in more producing wells, which forces the price down; cheap oil, after a few years, results in fewer producing wells, etc.

Positive feedback creates exponential growth in whatever the modeled variable is. Whenever the rate of change in "x" is proportional to the quantity of "x", "x" will grow at an increasing rate. A little yeast in a big vat becomes a lot of yeast. One popular restaurant becomes a world-wide franchise. People in a world of plenty produce more children. In a time when cheap energy facilitated low costs for oil drilling and transport, energy production could grow exponentially. Exponential growth is very popular just now. A pension fund promising 8% growth of assets under management is taking exponential growth as granted. (The "exponent" does not need to be large to qualify. "1.08 per year" is still exponential.)

But eventually, a system driven by positive feedback evolves to the point where the original model is simply no longer valid. All of the sugar in the vat is consumed by the yeast. The limits to growth appear.

MIckGspot said...

heather said...Don't despair too soon.

Great advice, thank you Heather, I will hold to patience with the boy. Through further discovery I've come to understand the boy (4 yrs old) spends 8 to 12 hours per day watching television or playing video games and has done so for most of his life.

On reflection I must remember how much my own children suffered as they had to start school. I would read stories to them from the time they were new born, we played lots of games (cribbage, poker, checkers, chess, monopoly) games with string, sticks and tape measures in the back yard like make a circle, determine the area of a triangle. Consequently they were developmentally disabled by the time their mandatory state education started as they could already read, do higher level geometry and math but had to spend years of early life regressing to the level of peers. Though not an expert, I believe most children have great ability to learn. I'm sure the boy Blake gets great scores on the video games he plays all day long, unfortunately he cannot tell a 1 from a 7 yet, nor know there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes an hour, nor the sun rises in the East and sets in the West and why it is so.

I appreciate your input and will take care with the boy not to over amp his abilities to early.
Michael from MInnesota

Myriad said...

Not directly related to this week's topic in particular, but here's another recent highlight from the world of media marketing thaumaturgy. It's car commercial that extolls the benefits of, believe it or not, shortsightedness. The video is of a car driving at night, briefly illuminating various things in the headlights (the winding road, a passing farm cart loaded with bales of hay, some people swimming in a pond, a bear) along the way to a city. The voice-over says:

"Wherever it is you want to go, all you need to see is the next two hundred feet. That's how life unfolds. A leap of faith. Even if you can't see it, your destination's out there. So just keep going. You'll get there. Two hundred feet at a time."

It's not hard to see why a business depending on consumer financing would promote not worrying about tomorrow. But more general commentary on our collective situation does seem to bubble up in such efforts. Barreling along in the dark, only able (or willing) to see two hundred feet ahead, and having faith that we know the destination, or will like it when we get there... that's a good thing, isn't it?

August Johnson said...

Talk about Blindness! Things are getting bad when we use the SPR as a piggy-bank to fund highways and other on-going needs!

Congress Eyes Sales From Nation’s Oil Stockpile for Highway Funding

The Senate is considering legislation that would partly replenish the U.S. highway trust fund with $9 billion worth of sales from the reserve, which at 695.1 million barrels of oil is close to its 713.5-million-barrel capacity.

This month, the House passed a bill to sell 80 million barrels from the reserve to raise $7 billion to help pay for legislation to boost government drug approvals and research funding.
“It is unlikely that we are going to need the significant amount of SPR supply we have any time soon, and with the current oil boom, I am confident we can easily replenish the 101 million barrels that would be sold to pay for our roads and bridges,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R., Okla.), one of the lead sponsors of the highway bill.

Ahavah said...

@Patricia Matthews

It has been going on for a while now... Some years back I was in a local shop that sold varuous varieties of bulk coffee beans which you could grind if you chose to do so. I dispensed a pint or so of beans, ground them, and took them to the counter just as the power went out. I had to work hard to convince the two college girls behind the counter to actually let me buy the coffee. You see, they normally just put the bag on the electronic scale and selected which variety of beans were chosen. They literally had no idea how to calculate the cost of the coffee. I had to explain to them how to weigh the bag on the old manual scale back on a shelf and multiply the result by the price per pound of the coffee. I didn't even mention the tare weight of the bag; it was hard enough to get them to let me leave with my coffee as it was. They were baffled by how the electronic scale and cash register actually worked, and didn't know how to figure out the price without the machine. I was amazed - not one but two college girls who could not do primary school math!

Cherokee Organics said...


On reflection, the new chicken fortress is merely a beginning effort to tackle the rats and I'll simply observe those rats over the next few months and years to see what new and interesting strategies they come up with. There is no end point to this, but anyway, I do like circles! ;-)!

Incidentally it snowed here yesterday whilst I was outside building the chicken fortress. Fortunately, I had the camera to hand. We can't let a little bit of snow get in the way of constructing the enclosure, can we? I do feel the pressure of passing time as the number of problems escalates all about us. Most people are blithely unaware and appear to be mostly unconcerned - even those with massive mortgages – how they sleep at night is well beyond my understanding.

In the video, you can even see the chickens in their all-weather run milling about doing their chicken like thing despite the freezing conditions. In the previous chicken enclosure which was completely enclosed by welded mesh – which I recycled onto the new enclosure- but open to the sky, they would have all been huddling for warmth in their hen house.



sgage said...

@ August Johnson:

"“It is unlikely that we are going to need the significant amount of SPR supply we have any time soon,"

I read this far and thought 'gotta be Inhofe'...

"and with the current oil boom, I am confident we can easily replenish the 101 million barrels that would be sold to pay for our roads and bridges,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R., Okla.), one of the lead sponsors of the highway bill."

The man is a moron, and/or deeply in thrall to petroleum interests. Let's sell off the SPR while prices are low, and we'll refill it from the 'glut' at higer prices later. Why the indirection? Let's just pay for the needed infrastructure now.

The man is an outstanding imbecile in a sea of imbecility. The voters of OK should feel embarrassed and ashamed at what they've foisted upon the Senate and the Nation.


heather said...

You might be glad to know that there is educational research, in addition to the anecdotes we all have heard (or experienced), that shows that one consistent, caring adult in his sphere of acquaintance can be all it takes to allow a child to rise above significant disadvantage and lead a successful life. (I don't have the citations at hand- hope you all can trust me on this one.) Your long walks and talks may very well make such a difference to Blake. I agree that kids have a terrific potential for learning, far beyond the opportunities they are typically afforded. Sounds like both your own kids and your young friend are lucky to have you around.
--Heather in CA

steve pearson said...

Patricia Matthews, I remember reading a few years ago of an American high school class, who when questioned about the American civil war, the majority thought it was between the Americans and the Germans.

liveyourgenius said...

@JMG If Toynbee is a big influence on you, have you read Ortega y Gasset's 'An Interpretation of Universal History'? It is a fascinating critique of Toynbee.

wiseman said...

I grew up in those islands. Other tribes in the region have fallen prey to the disease of 'modernity', some including the Jarawas now routinely stop buses passing through the jungle and beg for money to buy food from locals (previously they used to shoot arrows at them). It has to be seen how long they are able to fend it off. To the credit of Indian Govt the govt has largely left them and other tribes alone, ordinary folks can't even go to those places, and it's not because of the violence, as you can imagine bows and arrows are hardly deterrents against modern weapons.

You need a permit to even venture close to those islands.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

All I have to do to see an entire family of Marin County yard deer any time is to walk one mile away from City Hall in a generally uphill direction. As an article in Bay Nature pointed out about a year ago, the population density of deer is much higher in Marin County suburbia than in the wilder woods of the federal, state and county parks. The reason is a concentrated food supply. The deer don't have a lot of young green foliage to browse in the less populated areas on account of fire suppression. The town deer graze people's lawns, vegetable gardens and rose bushes. Maybe not so much deer food when people have to cut back on the watering.

I used to live on the very border of the wild part of Twin Peaks, which is located in the geographical center of San Francisco, surrounded by street lights, houses and apartment buildings. Raccoon, skunk and possum sightings were common at dawn and dusk, and my cat brought home juvenile rabbits twice. Other than the skunks, those are game animals. Coyote and deer are known to cross the Golden Gate Bridge from time to time (probably in the pedestrian/bicycle path late at night).

On the other side of the bay, Lake Merritt in Oakland is a major migratory bird sanctuary. Some years ago, the Canada geese quit migrating back to Canada, settled down by the lake and have become a major nuisance. Plenty of bugs in the grass or whatever the heck they eat, mild weather and no major predators. People aren't allowed to hunt them in town; for some reason the authorities think poisoning them, paying employees to addle their eggs or give them contraceptives (I'm not making this up) are better ways of controlling the goose population.

The remnant tule elk herd on Point Reyes is crowded into a tule elk concentration camp, fenced in from their dwindling water supplies, because they compete with the neighboring herds of dairy cows. For sure there are too many of us humans around here to all get our animal protein from wild birds and mammals; crickets and grubs are more plentiful. But since the local grizzlies and wolves have been extirpated, and the cougars get chased off when they come into town, human beings have become the apex predator. Some predation is fine with me as long as we don't waste the meat.

earthworm said...

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise
- We cling to our belief that barbarism will never outlast the power of the righteous

earthworm said...

JMG said:
"The models used by the human intellect to make sense of the universe are usually less simple than the one that guides a thermostat..."

Spitnagel and Taleb on models used for risk analysis:

"Before the crisis that started in 2007, both of us believed that the financial system was fragile and unsustainable, contrary to the near ubiquitous analyses at the time.

Now, there is something vastly riskier facing us, with risks that entail the survival of the global ecosystem — not the financial system. This time, the fight is against the current promotion of genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s.

Our critics held that the financial system was improved thanks to the unwavering progress of science and technology, which had blessed finance with more sophisticated economic insight. But the “tail risks,” or the effect from rare but monstrously consequential events, we held, had been increasing, owing to increasing complexity and globalization....

...Second, we faced the argument that “more technology is invariably better,” a corruption of the notion of progress. In fact, only a small minority of technologies end up sticking; most fail because of some flaw identified over time.

Isaac Hill said...

In regards to Bob Marley and Babylon, I have always found "Babylon System" to be one of his most powerful songs.

"Babylon system is the vampire, sucking the children day by day
Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire, sucking the blood of the sufferers"

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Phil Harris, I would like to read "The Cat Preserves the City," if you think it is appropriate to post.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I'd like to suggest one more reason why the lifespan of civilizations seems to be shorter than that of non-urbanized societies: speed of social and technological change. Cultures without cities generally have less surplus wealth and fewer spare people than do civilizations. That means that those societies cannot indulge in much risk taking. What's encouraged and rewarded is sticking to what has worked in the past.

Absent interference from neighboring societies or orders from above, rural people are slower to adopt new technology and social customs than city people are. Perhaps uncivilized societies also have internal flaws that will eventually bring them down, but the process takes longer because they don't change very quickly.

Melissa M. said...

Possibly off topic, but I saw the new Windows 10 ad today. The first three-quarters of the ad shows toddlers from all over the world frolicking in traditional dress, (in nature, or doing a wholesome, traditional activity with an adult) and only in the last fifteen seconds do they even show a computer screen. There's something very interesting about that, that I can't quite phrase.

Helen Wagner said...

My first time comment on here - I have been reading here with much enjoyment for a few years now and I thank JMG for enriching the way I think and live my life, as well as all the knowledgeable commenters.

I just had to chime in when I saw Caryn's observation about her need to reconnect with nature upon becoming a parent. I too experienced this, and when my 2 children were small moved from Sydney, Australia back to Tasmania, where I grew up. I wondered if Caryn also grew up in a non-urban place? Because for me, it was the feeling that I should not give my children a lesser life than I had enjoyed. It would be interesting if Caryn and the other parents she describes as also hearing the "clarion call" to leave the city had not actually had that non-urban experience as children themselves - because if so, that gives us hope that these connections with nature do not just disappear through lack of use after one generation. This thought is one that worries me when I see the amount of time many of our young people spend on their devices.

Cherokee Organics said...


I forgot to ask you the most important question of all: Did you enjoy the Conan tales?

Yesterday, I received my hardback copy of the complete chronicles of Conan and it is an absolute pleasure to heft a quality bound book. And the thing is a weighty tome at about 1.5kg (3 pounds) - you could kill someone with it. Do you think Conan would be pleased by that use of the book? ;-)!

My original copy was not nearly so extensive and all encompassing, so it is a true pleasure to read - and also very hard to put down.

I enjoyed reading about Grom the canny Pictish king. Incidentally, I hoped that you noticed the heavy use of mercenaries by the Aquilonian’s as a serious weakness. Just sayin, that Howard had a good grasp of military strategy from a generals (and a historians) perspective. I'm inclined to add some battle darkness to my Spacebats story as it is a bit too much sweetness and light, and a bit of darkness may round off the main character a little.

Incidentally, I was pondering our earlier discussion about rituals as they are performed in the present society as a reinforcing agent, and it occurs to me that people who can't partake of that ritual are excluded and blamed for their lack. Does that not strike you as being an insecure culture? Also I feel the scrabbling around of ideas in my mind relating to the lack of social cohesion and that is somehow related to the dominance of that culture, but I'm having trouble putting the ideas into words. It is almost as if, the breakdown in social cohesion is an outcome of the dominance of the mainstream culture for we are all more easily managed that way. Dunno, but I am thinking about it, but it is really hard to get an exact fix on that issue in my mind and it feels as if the insight is hiding just around the corner.



donalfagan said...

A paper (currently in peer review) by Hansen and a large group, suggests that sea level may rise much more rapidly than previously calculated:

Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2◦C global warming is highly dangerous

"Humanity is rapidly extracting and burning fossil fuels without full understanding of the consequences. Current assessments place emphasis on practical effects such as increasing extremes of heat waves, droughts, heavy rainfall, floods, and encroaching seas (IPCC, 2014; USNCA, 2014). These assessments and our recent study (Hansen et al., 2013a) conclude that there is an urgency to slow carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, because the longevity of the carbon in the climate system (Archer, 2005) and persistence of the induced warming (Solomon et al., 2010) may lock in unavoidable highly undesirable consequences. Despite these warnings, global CO2 emissions continue to increase as fossil fuels remain the primary energy source. The argument is made that it is economically and morally responsible to continue fossil fuel use for the sake of raising living standards, with expectation that humanity can adapt to climate change and find ways to minimize effects via advanced technologies."

"We suggest that this viewpoint fails to appreciate the nature of the threat posed by ice sheet instability and sea level rise. If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters. The economic and social cost of losing functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable. We suggest that a strategic approach relying on adaptation to such consequences is unacceptable to most of humanity, so it is important to understand this threat as soon as possible."

Denys said...

A study supporting one of your assertions JMG

«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 211   Newer› Newest»