Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Time for Retrovation

It's been a little more than a year now since I started the narrative that wrapped up last week. The two weeks that Peter Carr spent in the Lakeland Republic in late November of 2065 ended up covering a little more ground than I’d originally intended, and of course the vagaries of politics and culture in the twilight years of the American century got their share of attention on this blog. Now that the story’s told and the manuscript is getting its final revisions before heading off to the publisher, I want to talk a bit about exactly what I was trying to do by taking an imaginary person to an imaginary place where things work better than they do here and now.

Part of it, of course, was an attempt to sketch out in detail the practical implications of a point I’ve been exploring on this blog for a good while now. Most people in today’s industrial society believe, or think they believe, in progress: they believe, that is, that human history has a built-in bias that infallibly moves it from worse things to better things over time. These days, that belief in progress most often attaches itself to the increasing complexification of technology, and you get the touching faith in the imminence of a Star Trek future that allows so many people these days to keep slogging through the wretchedly unsatisfactory and steadily worsening conditions of the present.

Faith does not depend on evidence. If that statement needs any further proof, you can get it by watching the way people respond to technological failure. Most of us these days know perfectly well that every software “upgrade” these days has more bugs and fewer useful features than what it replaced, and every round of “new and improved” products hawked by the media and shoveled onto store shelves is more shoddily made, more loaded with unwanted side effects, and less satisfactory than the last round. Somehow, though, a good many of the people who witness this reality, day in and day out, still manage to insist that the future is, or at least ought to be, a paradise propped up by perfectly functioning machines. That the rising tide of technological failure might be something other than an accidental roadbump on the way to utopia—that it might be trying to tell us something that, by and large we don’t want to hear—has not yet entered our society’s darkest dream.

It so happens that in very many cases, older, simpler, sturdier technologies work better, producing more satisfactory outcomes and fewer negative side effects, than their modern high-tech equivalents. After most of two years taking apart the modern mythology of progress in a series of posts that became my book After Progress: Reason and Religion at the End of the Industrial Age, and most of another year doing the more pragmatic posts that are being turned into a forthcoming book tentatively titled The Retro Future, I decided that the best way to pursue the exploration further was to imagine a society very much like ours that had actually noticed the declining quality of technology, and adjusted public policies accordingly. That was the genesis of Retrotopia: the attempt to show, by means of the toolkit of narrative fiction, that deliberate technological regression as public policy didn’t amount to a return to the caves—quite the contrary, it meant a return to things that actually work.

The form that this exploration took, though, was shaped in important ways by an earlier venture of the same kind, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. I don’t know how many of my readers realize just how dramatic a change in utopian literature was marked by Callenbach’s solidly written tale. From the days of Thomas More’s novel Utopia, which gave the genre its name, utopian literature worked with the contrast between the world as it is and an ideal world as imagined by the author, without any connection between the two outside of the gimmick, however worked, that got a viewpoint character from one to the other. More’s Utopia was a critique of the England of Henry VIII, but there was never any suggestion on More’s part that England might be expected to turn into Utopia one of these days, and nearly all the utopian tales that followed his embraced the same approach.

With William Morris, things began to shift. Morris was a socialist, and thus believed devoutly that the world could in fact turn into something much better than it was; during the years that his commitment to socialism was at its height, he penned a utopian tale, News from Nowhere, which was set in a future England long after Victorian capitalism had gone gurgling down history’s sewer pipe. (Later on, in the pages of his tremendous fantasy novel The Well at the World’s End, he wove a subtle but pervasive critique of the socialist views he’d championed—socialism appears there in the stark and terrible symbolic form of the Dry Tree—but that’s a subject for a different post entirely.)

News From Nowhere was quite the controversial book in its day, not least because the socialist future Morris imagined was green, agrarian, and entirely free of the mechanized regimentation of humanity that played such a huge role in the Marxist imagination then as now.  Still, the historical thread that linked Morris’ utopia to the present was very thin.  The story was set far off in the future, and Morris skimmed lightly over the process that led from the dark Satanic mills of Victorian England to the green and pleasant land of his imagined socialist England.

That was where Callenbach took hold of the utopian narrative, and hammered it into a completely new shape. Ecotopia was set barely a quarter century in Callenbach’s own future. In his vision, the states of Washington, Oregon, and the northern two-thirds of California had broken away from the United States in 1980, and the usual visitor—journalist William Weston, from what’s left of the United States—came to pay the usual visit in 1999. Over the nineteen years between independence and Weston’s visit, the new nation of Ecotopia had entirely reshaped itself in the image of the Whole Earth Catalog, adopting the technologies, customs, and worldview that San Francisco-area eco-radicals of the 1970s dreamed of establishing, and here and there actually adopted in their own lives.

It really is a tour de force. One measure of its impact is that to this day, when you ask people on the leftward end of things to imagine an ideal future that isn’t just a lightly scrubbed version of the present, dollars will get you organic free range doughnuts that what you’ll hear is some version or other of the Ecotopian future: wind turbines and solar panels, organic farms everywhere, and everyone voluntarily embracing the social customs and attitudes of the San Francisco-area avant-garde circa 1975 in perfect lockstep. While I was writing Retrotopia, until some of my readers got the hang of the fact that I don’t crowdsource my fiction, I fielded any number of comments and emails insisting that I really ought to incorporate this or that or the other aspect of the Ecotopian future into my narrative. I didn’t take offense at that; it was pretty clear to me that for a lot of people nowadays, Ecotopia is literally the only alternative to the status quo that they can imagine.

We’ll get to the broader implications of that last point in a moment. Just now, I want to talk about why I didn’t write a mildly retro version of Ecotopia. I could have; it would have been easy and, frankly, quite entertaining to do that. I’ve imagined more than once writing a tale about somebody from our world who, via some bit of science-fictionish handwaving, is transported to an alternate America in which Ronald Reagan lost the 1980 election, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant underwent a full-scale Fukushima Daiichi meltdown with tens of thousands of casualties, and the United States had accordingly gone careening ahead toward the sustainable future we almost adopted. I may still write that story someday, but that wasn’t what I chose to do this time around.

Partly, of course, that was because Ernest Callenbach was there already forty years ago. Partly, though, it’s because not all the assumptions that undergirded Ecotopia have worn well in the decades since he wrote. It’s become painfully clear that renewable energy sources, valuable and necessary though they are, can’t simply be dropped into place as a replacement for fossil fuels; huge changes in energy use, embracing issues of energy concentration and accessibility as well as sheer quantity, will have to be made as fossil fuels run out and we have to make do with the enduring power sources of sun, wind, water, and muscle. It’s also become clear, painfully or amusingly as the case may be, that the notions that Sausalito intellectuals thought would save the world back in the 1970s—communal living, casual pansexuality, and the like—had downsides and drawbacks that nobody had gotten around to noticing yet, and weren’t necessarily as liberating and transformative as they seemed at the time.

Ecotopia also fell headlong into both of the standard pitfalls of the contemporary liberal imagination. The first of these is the belief that a perfect society can be attained if we can just abolish diversity of ideas and opinions, and get everyone to believe what the affluent liberal intelligentsia think they ought to believe. That’s why I put ongoing controversies between conservative and restorationist blocs into the story.  It’s also, on another level, why I put in repeated references to religious diversity—thus there are people running for public office in the Lakeland Republic who end an oath of office with “So help me Jesus my Lord and Savior,” just as there are military officers there who spend every Sunday at the Greek Orthodox cathedral in Toledo, and politicians who attend the Atheist Assembly.

The second pitfall, which follows from the first, is the belief that since you can’t get “those people” to have the ideas and opinions you think they ought to have, the proper response is to hole up in a self-referential echo chamber from which all unacceptable views are excluded. Ecotopia assumes implicitly that the United States, and by inference the rest of the world’s nations as well, are utterly irredeemable; the nation of Ecotopia thus barricades itself inside its borders and goes its green and merry way, and the climax of the story comes when William Weston decides to stay in Ecotopia and become one of the good people. (He had a significant other back home in the USA, by the way; what she thought of his decision to dump her for a San Francisco hippie chick is nowhere mentioned.)

We’ll be discussing both those pitfalls at length in future posts, not least because they bid fair to exert a massive influence on contemporary politics, especially but not only in the United States. The point I’d like to make here, though, is just how deep the latter habit runs through the liberal end of our collective imagination. I’m thinking here of another powerful and morally problematic work of fiction to come out of the same era, Ursula K. LeGuin’s haunting story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The core of the story is that there’s a splendid city, Omelas; its splendor depends on the infliction of suffering on one helpless person; now and again, people get upset by this, and leave the city. It’s stunningly well written but evades a crucial question: does walking away do anything to change the situation, or does it just let the ones who walk away from Omelas feel morally superior?

That was one of the reasons why the conclusion of Retrotopia didn’t feature Peter Carr chucking his Atlantic Republic passport and moving in with Melanie Berger. Instead, he caught the train back home, having committed himself to the challenge of trying to move his own country in the direction that the Lakeland Republic has already taken, in the full knowledge that he might not succeed. I had the entire last scene in mind from the beginning of the project, partly as a deliberate challenge to that aspect of Ecotopia, partly because that sort of leap into uncertainty seems much more relevant to our present predicament. We don’t know, any more than Carr did, what lies behind the clouds that hide the future.

Of course the primary difference between Ecotopia and Retrotopia was that my narrative was meant to explore a very different approach from Callenbach’s. He was trying to propose a new, avant-garde, cutting-edge future—it’s often forgotten that the kind of thing Callenbach was talking about really was seen as the next great wave of progress in the 1970s, before the current fad for schizoid withdrawal into a cybernetic Neverland took that title away from it in the 1980s. I’m trying to explore the possibility that going back to what worked is a better idea than plunging forward along a trajectory that leads to no place any sane human being would want to go. He was talking about innovation, while I’m talking about retrovation: the strategy of using the past as a resource for problem-solving in the present.

Retrovation used to be utterly unthinkable in modern industrial societies. At the moment, it’s making the transition from utterly unthinkable to unspeakably heretical—thus another term for it I introduced in a post a while back, the heresy of technological choice—but a lot of people still can’t get their minds around it at all. When I’ve proposed steampunk technology as one model for the future, I’ve inevitably fielded a flurry of comments insisting that you can’t possibly have Victorian technology without child labor and oppressive gender politics—and of course while I was writing Retrotopia, quite a few readers assumed as a matter of course that the tier system in the Lakeland Republic governed every detail of daily life, so that you weren’t allowed to have anything belonging to a post-1830 technological suite if you lived in a tier one county.

Not so. The word I’ve coined for the strategy under discussion, retrovation, is obviously backformed from “retro” + “innovation,” but it’s also “re-trove-ation,” re-finding, rediscovery: an active process of searching through the many options the past provides, not a passive acceptance of some bygone time as a package deal. That’s the strategy the Lakeland Republic puts to use in my narrative, and those of my readers who know their way around the backwaters and odd corners of history may find it entertaining to figure out the sources from which I lifted this or that detail of Retrotopian daily life. The rhetoric of progress, by contrast, rejects that possibility, relies on a very dubious logic that lumps “the past” together as a single thing, and insists that wanting any of it amounts to wanting all of it, with the worst features inevitably highlighted.

I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that rejecting the latest new, shiny, and dysfunctional technology, in favor of an older technology that works, is tantamount to cheerleading for infant mortality, or slavery, or living in caves, or what have you. I’ve sometimes thought that it might be entertaining to turn that around—“if you won’t use a cell phone, you must be in favor of bringing back a balanced global climate!”—or simply taking it in directions a little more absurd than it’s gone already—“if you prefer rail travel to air travel, why, you might as well just restart the Punic Wars!”  In either case, the point that might be made is the silliness of the progress-worshippers’ insistence that the past, or the present, or for that matter the future, is an all-or-nothing deal.

That’s also why, to return to my narrative for a moment, I made a point of showing that the sexual mores of people in the Lakeland Republic didn’t correspond to how people behaved at some point in the past—or, more to the point, the mythical notion of how people behaved in the past that’s been circulated by certain pseudoconservatives in recent decades. Thus industrial magnate Janice Mikkelson is a lesbian with a lovely wife, Peter Carr happens to see two young men who’ve just gotten married on their way to their honeymoon, and when Peter and Melanie go out for dinner and an opera, the evening ends in her bedroom. I know that was uncomfortable for the social and religious conservatives among my readers, but it had to be there, for two reasons. 

On the one hand, as a moderate Burkean conservative, I see absolutely no justification for imposing legal restraints on what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, or for that matter in that dimension of the public sphere that pertains to marriage licenses—and, after all, this is my utopia and I’ll permit what I want to.  On the other hand, just as I put devoutly religious people into the story to discomfit the sort of doctrinaire liberals who believe that nobody should follow traditional religious teachings, I put married gay and lesbian people into the story to discomfit the sort of doctrinaire conservatives who believe that nobody should follow contemporary sexual mores. In both cases, the point I hoped to make is that the Lakeland Republic, with its policy of retrovation and its relative comfort with a diversity of ideas and lifestyles, hasn’t gone “backward,” or for that matter “forward,” but off in a direction all its own—a direction that can’t be defined in terms of the monomaniacally linear fixations of the worshippers of progress.

And of course that’s the crucial point, the most important thing that I hope my readers got out of the narrative. At the heart of most of the modern world’s insoluble problems is the faith-based claim that human history is a straight line with no branches or meanders, leading onward and upward from the caves to the stars, and that  every software upgrade, every new and improved product on the shelves, every lurch “forward”—however that conveniently floppy word happens to be defined from day to day by marketing flacks and politicians—therefore must lead toward that imaginary destination.

That blind and increasingly untenable faith, I’ve come to think, is the central reason why the only future different from the present that most people can imagine these days, if it’s not Ecotopia, is either a rehash of the past in every detail or some kind of nightmare dystopia. These days, as often as not, that even extends to science fiction, once our society’s most effervescent cauldron of novel futures. While writing an essay on the genre for a new magazine of science fiction and fantasy, Mythic, it occurred to me—and not for the first time—how few recent works of science fiction seem to be able to portray a future society that isn’t either a straight-line extrapolation from the present, complete with all its most parochial features, a carbon-copy rehash of some specific society of the past, or a smoking wasteland.

Not all that many decades ago, SF authors routinely spun future societies as radically different from ours as ours is from, say, the ancient Maya, but such visions are rare now. I don’t think that’s accidental.  To borrow a metaphor from Retrotopia, when you’ve driven down a blind alley and are sitting there with your bumper pressed against a brick wall, the only way forward starts by backing up—but if you’ve been convinced by your society’s core ideological commitments that “backing up” can only mean returning whole hog to the imaginary, awful past from which the ersatz messiah of progress is supposed to save us, you’re stuck. There you sit, pushing uselessly on the pedal, hearing the engine labor and rattle, and watching the gas gauge move steadily toward that unwelcome letter E; it’s no surprise that after a while, the idea of a street leading somewhere else starts to seem distinctly unreal.

Other futures are possible. Retrotopia isn’t the only option, though I have to say it strikes me as a much more pleasant choice than what we’ve got now, and retrovation isn’t the only tool we need to get us out of that blind alley, though I suspect it’s more useful than a good many of the more popular items in our contemporary toolkit. Still, time will tell—and if my narrative irritates some of my readers enough to get them working on their own, radically different visions of a future that breaks free of the blind alley of linear progress, all the better.


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Marcu said...

The next meeting of the Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne will be held ​this Saturday. All interested parties are invited to attend.
For those who are unsure about the nature of our meetings, imagine a long descent support group with some intentional living discussion mixed in.

If you are interested to join us, meet us on Saturday the 24th of September 2016 at 13:00. The venue is, Vapiano, 347 Flinders Lane, Melbourne Victoria, Australia.

Due to an increase in numbers, please let me know if you plan on coming along. We might need to find a bigger venue soon!

Send queries and comments to limitstogrowth1972[at]

Just look for the green wizard's hat.

P.S. I have created a webpage where I will post the details of the next meeting and any further details for those who don't frequent the comments here. The webpage can be found at

patriciaormsby said...

Announcing the second gathering of the Kanto Green Wizards, to be held on Sunday, October 2, starting at 11:00 a.m. concurrently with the monthly Kompira picnic of like-minded folks at the Asakawa Kompira Shrine in western Tokyo. It is potluck, so please bring something to share.

I am assuming the weather will behave, and not be nasty like it is now. In the case of bad weather, this will be cancelled due to too few others coming. OTOH, our priestess, Ikeda-sanm, with the key, says she will come, and if so, we can at least get out of the rain. So if I am aware of enough interest, I'll come out anyway unless it is a typhoon or similar downpour.

To get there, go to Takao Station on the JR or Keio line and exit through the south exit (which apparently means going through the Keio part of the station). The small mountain that Asakawa Kompira Shrine crowns is directly west of the station (in fact, the train tunnels under it). For a map, see the Green Wizards site, "Meet-Ups" page. I am told that the Google map is practically invisible on small, hand-held screens, so it would be best to confirm the location before coming out. But nearly everyone in town knows where Kompira Shrine is, so if you get lost ask. (It's not the prominent golden UFO thing --that's to the south of the station.)
If you lack confidence in directions, RSVP here or at the Green Wizards site, and I'll arrange to meet you at the station.

@JMG, I've been too busy to reply, but I love your suggestion of "Gyoja" for "Wizard" and will consider it.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

You mentioned that whenever we get a new software upgrade it makes the computer work worse. That's an example that I think raises an important point. There's a cartoon that I have seen that shows three people looking at a notice of an operating system upgrade. The Windows person is afraid that it will ruin his computer. The Apple person is concerned whether or not he can afford it. And the Linux person says "great!" (This is because Linux upgrades usually really do make your computer work better, not worse.)

I suppose this is the point you are making, namely that "progress" is how you define it. There is a saying that "history is written by the winners", but the truth is that it is written by the people who can afford pricey public relations people. And the same thing goes for the definition of "progress".

Lorenzo - said...

Christ on a bike, I most absolutely love The Archdruid Report!
I just want to take a moment to thank you profusely, John, for what you do here every week. If this isn't, as they say, 'preaching', then I don't know what is. Though you don't seem to need much encouraging at all, I give you my whole-hearted support to keep doing what you love doing.


Jay Moses said...

It would be wonderful if deeply religious people could accept same gender marriage, unmarried sex they do in your retrotopia. Unfortunately I can think of no historical examples where such was the case in the western experience. The Abrahamic religions in virtually all their manifestations are relentlessly oppressive in their views of sexuality. It's easy to imagine a secular jew or a liberal Christian accepting such relationships, but it's inconceivable that such a person could swear an oath to Jesus as her lord and savior. I fully understand that adopting older technologies does not imply that the adopters must accept child labor, slavery or the 16 hour work day, but that old time religion precludes the tolerance of non hetero normative relationships and I suspect it always will.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Callenbach does put a cetrain amount of disagreement into Ecotopia, such as people having different opinions about building out of their versin of bio-plastic, but there seemed to be a pretty narrow scope of things that it was acceptable to disagree about in that world. While reading Ecotopia I kept thinking about how condescending many of the ecotopians would be to people who didn't fit in right to their society, I'm sure I'd get a decent amount of that there even though I share a decent percentage of their values, i just don't share that personality type.

I can't fault Callenbach for being too unrealistic about the potential for renewable energy, as it was still early on in the game for those technologies in the 70s, but I was struck by his over-idealized view of human nature. I guess that's pretty common in utopias, Callenbach doesn't do it as extreme as some (such B.F. Skinner's Walden Two), but I still kept thinking of ways that his systems wouldn't work as advertised as i was reading. Then there's the matter of how the Ecotopian culture evolved to the point that it did in just 25 years. I can't imagine the culture of a whole country (even a new one) changing that fast, I mean maybee some of the subcultures within it, but not the whole society to the extent that it had in Ecotopia. On those measures, I'd say Retrotopia does a much better job, its the most realistic utopian scenario that I've ever heard of.

marxmarv said...


You'll be pleased to know that what really irritated me about this tale is that some outsider got a job in Ann Arbor. I'm extrapolating from the present, much as you've been, that A2 is an economically significant college town like Palo Alto, or Berkeley, or Cambridge (Mass.), or possibly the Haight straight out of Callenbach; that Washtenaw County pushes the limits of Tier 5 as much to get a rise out of the Restos as to enjoy the benefits, and reliably votes (analogous to San Francisco) 80% Conservative, with 15% or so to some rump liberal-progressive third party with a weak and ineffective international. But someone's gotta do SIGINT, I suppose.

So, that said, and with the understanding that you don't crowdsource fiction, and aware that my query is equally suited to have been asked last week... how "did" they get over their innovative selves? What place for the bourgeoisie -- who build things in order to tear them down -- in a non-bourgeois society, and would they have it?

Joel Caris said...


I really like the retrovation term. I will say that I have definitely run into the idea a few times now that if you prefer some aspect of the past--a technology, specific ways of living, what have you--it must mean that you prefer all things about that past. Of course, the person making this claim doesn't actually mean all things (as you illustrate with your imagined absurd responses) but generally a few bad things plucked out of that era. It actually makes sense, of course; if the only way you think about the past is as a contrast of bad against the good of the present or future, the main things you're going to allow yourself to notice about the past are whatever aspects of it were bad, and you're generally going to focus on the examples that are used to contrast the bad of the past against the equivalent good of the future.

I wonder if this is also part of the trouble with imagining different futures? We're not really taught about the past as its own unique time. What little information we receive about the past is generally provided as a contrast against the future. The focus is about how things were worse than now, or different than now, or about some element of the past that fits into a narrative that progresses to some element of our present. It's kind of like how kids tend to view their teachers not as separate human beings with all their own wants, desires, inner and outer lives and so on, but simply as their teacher. They only conceive of their teach within the context of them. We only conceive of the past within the context of now. Anything that can't be fit into that context gets ignored or dismissed, which means that probably the vast majority of the past gets ignored or dismissed.


P.S. A new Litterfall post went up on Monday, within which I consider the time and monetary debts we create for ourselves when trying to live a standard American lifestyle, and why ditching that lifestyle leads to better living. For those who might be interested.

patriciaormsby said...

For the assignment to read something reprehensible a couple months ago, I took another reader's advice and had a look at the book "Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts" by Leigh Phillips. I was surprised at how little space she actually devoted to "harmful" rogues like you and me, who have mistakenly bought into the fallacy, as she sees it, that technology could be harming us, when we need to get on board otherwise we won't be able to move through this awkward phase into the brilliant future.
Instead, she blamed the neocons for the fact that we still do not have flying cars. I suppose the good news is that the Progressists see us as dupes more to be pitied than blamed over standing in their way, and that the real immovable wall they see before them (fantastic allegory of yours, BTW) has a signpost on it different from "technophobe," who is just the drunken derelict lying on the ground in front of it. The left wing is every bit as capable as the right of exploding into violent rage. I'll just be tending my fields.

Chris Smith said...

Thank you for an excellent story, JMG. I will certainly buy the book. I was also pleased to see Mr. Carr return to the Atlantic Republic with the goal of reforming his country. It's too easy to chuck your passport in the garbage and stay where you are. It takes courage to go back and fight for a better vision in your own nation, win or lose.

It's funny that you say the average liberal view of utopia is "Ecotopia." When I'm honest with myself, my ideal society is essentially Mayberry but more inclusive. (Floyd the barber gets to come out of the closet, black characters with names, that sort of thing.) Go figure.

brian lloyd said...

I am down all the way with your critique of utopian writers who think that the good society requires unity of belief and behavior. Have you read Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time? Her utopian society is filled with disagreement and controversy, and as a result she works very hard putting in place rituals for handling, not stifling, internal conflict. It came out in 1976, but it is very much a sixties/counterculture kind of utopia. I don't know why it is rarely part of these discussions - probably the best piece of imaginative fiction to come out of that period. Totally laissez faire on the question of sexuality, very interesting take on gender issues and personal freedom generally. Much livelier and more engaging read, if you'll forgive me, than Retrotopia. You might check it out.


Dan said...

Interesting enough in the Stark Trek universe the future does not proceed neatly on a linear path of progress. In First Contact, we see a Third World War and near breakdown of society until the Vulcans come along and offer an alternative vision.

fudoshindotcom said...


It's not difficult for any reasonable person to find mountains of evidence that technological progress has, as a whole, slid into the realm of diminishing returns. So why do these same people cling to the concept of perpetual progress with religious conviction?
I believe the short answer is fear. Their culturally encouraged lack of imagination leaves them with the inability to visualize those side roads you mention. For them the only choice is between a cave and a club or a ticket to the newly established Martian colony. It doesn't help that this narrow view is championed by the Privileged as a tool for maintaining the status quo which they profit from.
The idea of a life spent squatting in the mud picking ticks off of your skin while you try to figure out how to get something to eat is utterly terrifying to the majority of people in industrial societies for the simple reason that they know damn well their life expectancy would shrink drastically. They are manipulated to think this way at nearly every turn.
They are consistently discouraged from noticing that, for instance, my Grandmother's hand-crank Universal #2 food chopper lives peacefully right next to an electric toaster on my kitchen counter.

beetleswamp said...

Retrotopia helped me cut way back on Facebook. Now when I check in every once in a while it seems like a playpen for insane adult children, and I'm kind of ashamed how much of my life it sucked up. Also the way you ended it with the fog of the future was very helpful. We don't know how exactly how it's all going to go down, so we just roll the dice and do our best.

John Michael Greer said...

Owl, Linux by all accounts hasn't yet reached the point of diminishing returns on innovation. Microsoft went past that point a long time ago -- the fact that they couldn't get people to go for Windows 10 when they gave it away for free was just a little indicative; Apple, in my experience, has reached diminishing returns but not negative ones; and Linux is still actually upgrading. Give it a while; my guess is that, since it doesn't really have the incentive to keep pushing dysfunctional software the way Microsoft does, is that it will mature to a nice stable system that'll remain in use with minor tinkerings as long as current computer technology is around.

Lorenzo, thank you. I do my best to have fun.

Jay, it's always amusing to me to watch people outside the Abrahamic religions accept those religions' inaccurate claim to be unchanging. Fifty years ago it was unthinkable to most devout Protestant Christians that divorce would ever be acceptable; now it's accepted as a matter of course in most denominations. Give same sex relationships another fifty years and most denominations will have come to terms with them the same way they came to terms with divorce, and interracial marriage, and a very, very long list of other things that used to be hot buttons and are now no big deal. Meanwhile other things that weren't seen as moral issues at all have become major concerns. That's natural and healthy -- if a religion is the framework through which a group of people relate to one or more deities, as I'd define it, it's going to adapt over time -- and it's entertaining to watch some believers in the Abrahamic religions, and some enemies of those religions, trying valiantly to insist that this doesn't take place at all.

Ozark, no argument there. The notion that people will behave like angels if only they can be made to hold the right opinions runs very deep, though I think many of us are finally outgrowing it.

Marxmarv, Ann Arbor probably has a university again, but the universities had to be rebuilt basically from scratch after the Second Civil War, and they're much smaller than they used to be -- this is covered in the revised version of the story. In 2065 Ann Arbor is a very pleasant example of something that used to exist quite commonly in the US, the combination farm town and university town; it's in a tier four county, because the taxes that would be needed to become tier five are higher than most people are willing to pay; and the Second Civil War and the years that led up to it did a very good job of bankrupting the bourgeoisie. The son of your Ann Arbor college sophisticate is working for the railroad, and glad to have the job, while the granddaughter is apprenticing with a veterinarian who mostly treats farm animals and is considered to have done very well for herself.

Joel, exactly! "The past" as taught to Americans these days isn't the past, it's "the unpresent." (Imagine that said by the guy who used to do those 7-up commercials saying "the Un-cola" and you'll be hearing what plays in my head when I think those words.) "The unpresent" has no identity of its own, it's just a bogeyperson (ahem) to scare children with.

John Michael Greer said...

Patricia, if Phillips had devoted any significant amount of space to you and me, she'd have had to discuss our ideas, and that would have been counterproductive -- the whole thrust of her kind of propaganda is to insist that people like you and me don't actually have ideas that are worth discussing, no, no, we're just reacting emotionally to blah blah blah. The neocons are a much better straw man to beat on.

Chris, you're not an average liberal. A Mayberry with less screwed-up ethnic and gender relationships would not be a bad place to be.

Brian, I read it a very long time ago, back in 1981, and barely remember it -- it didn't make much of an impression on me, to be frank. I may give it another try.

Dan, one of the many fun ironies in the way Star Trek has turned into an icon of the religion of progress is the way that such details get finessed. Weren't the Eugenics Wars in there somewhere, too?

Fudoshin, I ain't arguing. That's one of the reasons why retrovation is such a powerful tool.

Beetleswamp, I'm delighted to hear it.

Marissa said...

"Walking Away from Omelas" needs to be read along with "The Day After the Revolution" and "The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia." In "The Dispossessed," one of the members of a society founded by Those Who Walked Away, crossing the wall that keeps the universe out accompanied by Their sticks and stones...

So, not unlike some of the creators and many fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I suspect LeGuin and many of her readers would be on board with Retrotopia!

Synthase said...

re Linux: Actually I'd suggest that Linux is an example of the transition from innovation to performance done right, and that it met the era of performance 20 years ago at least, if not longer. The basics of it is a comfortable, stable unix style environment of a kind that will indeed be around until the last computer chip returns to sand. Most linux upgrades are of the nature of getting it to work with a new piece of hardware, fixing a security flaw, or letting you run the latest cutting edge software.

re Retrotopia: I've acquired a KL-1 rotary slide rule from the old USSR, and have taken to learning how to use it. It's a neat trick, but it challenges my suspension of disbelief that anyone in engineering or the sciences would be willing to abandon computers, even if they had to spend 5 years doing wire wrap to build one.

jessi thompson said...

I fully agree on all points!!! Especially the unreality of the utopia and the tone of condescension. I am a huge greenie and I could not take it seriously at all.

jessi thompson said...

Excellent post, thank you for the clarification. I like the idea of trying to push everyone just a little bit outside their comfort zones, because it's important to remember there's no such thing as a blissful, perfect future. No matter what, for as long as humans live, humans will still laugh, cry, argue, and dream. We can make some things better, others may get worse anyway, and no matter what, somepeople are going to be unhappy.

Angus Wallace said...


Enjoyed your Retrotopia series, and am grateful for what you're doing here.

A while back you were asking for science/engineer types to send in sustainable tech ideas (I can't remember the details), I've done a bit of theoretical work recently on a heater-battery and plan on building one before the next Australian winter. I've published some details here

Cheers, Angus

Mike said...

I think the published version should include an Afterword, which could be similar to this week's post.

ed boyle said...

It's nice to have your own commentary on what you really meant, leaving speculation no room. I find in my life when things don't work linearly odd ideas, techniques, what have you can get me going again. An original idea of what ought to be gets stuck spinning its wheels and fresh blood is often needed to get the wagon moving again in any area of private life, all the more in societal totality.

aaa said...

A great postscript to a great series. I enjoyed reading it very much, many thanks for writing and sharing it!

Re: Linux, GNU, and other Unix offspring, don't forget it's companion "technology", Richard Stallman's GPL, a central landmark of today's software world.

Mr O. said...

In the late Seventies I used to play a SF roleplaying game called 'Traveller'. Part of the fun of this was it had a very simple yet highly randomised method of creating planets for the Travellers to visit. To be honest I probably spent more time trying to figure out rationales for things like "why are 6 billion people living on a small planetoid with a very thin atmosphere and no water'" than actually playing the game. However one of the numbers used to describe the planet represented technological level. As I recall the present day was Tech Level 7 while the SF future went all the way up to 15 (or F as the game used a curious hexadecimal notation). More interesting to me though were the Technological levels below 7 as I was very much of the Spacemen get stuck in the Middle Ages frame of mind.
One of the difficulties was coming up with low tech planets that didn't match cultures to technology. It was always a temptation to have everyone on a Tech 3 planet having buckles on their hats and a cavalier or puritan outlook, while Tech 4 was ever in danger of becoming a Victorian melodrama. Don't get me started on Tech 2 and loathly ladies and gallant knights.
It seems there is something very hard wired into the Western psyche that equates technologies and cultures. Even you had period hat styles in Retrotopia. Given the bizarre variety of hat styles created throughout the ages I wouldn't be surprised if the Lakelanders hadn't come up with something unique ;)

NS said...

At least in developed nations, half the children born don't die before adulthood like they did prior to the 20th century. But until there are no more people sitting in wheelchairs, or walking down the street with canes tapping in front of them, or just babbling incoherently, I won't be convinced that we've made "enough progress". Unfortunately there is simply no a priori way to separate "useful" from "useless" technology and knowledge. "Too many gadgets" (to quote one of your characters) is a price we are paying for saving those children, and for someday (maybe) being able to help the paralyzed to walk and the blind to see. And if it all turns out to be unsustainable (entirely possible) then it will be a tragedy.

Synthase said...

On another note, my copy of Lean Logic arrived today, thank you for the recommendation. What an extraordinary book.

Brigyn said...

Dear Mr Greer,

First off, thank you. I much enjoyed your Retrotopia series. I find the bouts of fiction on your blog tackle the issues you bring to light in refreshingly different ways. They offer a framework in which to hang the more technical posts, making them easier to remember - which shouldn't surprise me, human beings being the storytelling mammal and all that.

Secondly, Have you head of SENS by any chance? They are at the head of an initiative to repair "the damage done by ageing to human beings". The main focus seems to be the preventing of some diseases that become far more prevalent in old age (such as Alzheimer, hearing loss, age-related macular degeneration and so on). The side effect would be that clearing the damage that causes these dysfunctions would 'set back the clock' on the age of the body as a whole, so to say.

So I've been trying to find the catch. I've managed to do so in most 'transhumanist' technologies; nuclear fusion and the like. There's always groups of people making money, or making sure they keep their jobs, or -something- along those lines. Also some logical fault; 99% of the time relating to where the energy to do something would come from (molecular nano-assembly comes to mind).

What fascinates me is that there are some other seemingly non-senescent large vertebrates out there, such as crocodiles. There is precedent in nature, be it in cold-blooded animals... and many plants.

Warm-blooded animals tend to age more rapidly, but the speed can vary wildly between species - naked mole-rats versus mice, for example. Or humans and apes. But even within our own species, some people look a lot better at 80 than others... My personal theory is that the rate of ageing is determined by the thoroughness of the cell's repair mechanisms. People who have variants that repair the cells more fully will 'age' more slowly, as will people who damage their cells less - lifestyle choices, no smoking, less stress and the like.

The SENS group doesn't seem to require any gimmick either, since the technologies they claim they need are already all in place. Part of the research has, amazingly, already been successfully completed (some complex stuff involving mitochondrial DNA), the organization is a non-profit, and the guy who started it all has invested millions of his own inheritance into it. He even says he finds the term 'transhumanism' both distasteful and illogical, but he'll take support wherever he can get it. I can't find the catch in this one, I'm wondering if maybe you can.

Now it's not that it would matter much in the long run, since disease, starvation or injury would still take someone like that out. It won't solve the energy crisis, or the environmental once, and in a declining society I doubt any non-ageing individual could manage to live much longer than 100 years.

So my apologies if you don't have time for this, or simply do not find it to be interesting. But since it's a topic that has fascinated mankind since the myth of Gilgamesh, I can't help but be intrigued... Perhaps biotechnology has some (hopefully not too nasty) surprises in store for us before the infrastructure it requires collapses, and it peters out...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

The New Urbanism, which has been around for at least fifteen years, looks to me like an attempt at retrovation. Not an entirely successful attempt, but some of its ideas have been adopted by urban planners and some of its superficial features are used as sales gimmicks. That shows that a considerable number of people are receptive to bringing back some of what worked in the past.

Omelas is a very memorable story. I interpreted Le Guin's intention to be destroying The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number as an ethical choice. The Dispossessed depicts a utopia that is better than what it replaced but not perfect. A high degree of social cohesion held the society together when people were literally starving, but in the present of the story, a creative and talented man can't do his work because he's unable to persuade the society to allocate him modest resources, so he has to go into exile.

donalfagan said...

Here are two related links. The first is a 50 minute video with Joe Romm assuring us that climate change is bad, but the Clean Tech revolution is the answer:

The second is formerly prolific blogger and Oakeshott conservative Andrew Sullivan describing his detox from the internet:

Spanish fly said...

"Ecotopia also fell headlong into both of the standard pitfalls of the contemporary liberal imagination. The first of these is the belief that a perfect society can be attained if we can just abolish diversity of ideas and opinions, and get everyone to believe what the affluent liberal intelligentsia think they ought to believe"

It's part of tradition in totalitarian left (even nominally "antiauthoritarian") the idea that going beyond bourgueois parlamentarism is...suppressing thinking and beliefs diversity. I usually say a cynical commentary when I see that totalitarian tendence in leftist circles: "Don't be brainwashed by churches dogmas, because we lefties can't wash your brain well".
However, I think that Walden 2 is a lot more totalitarian than Ecotopia...
Writing about beliefs and churches, christianism tends to cheer heterosexual behavoir, but I've read in some History books that in medieval Balkans, Orthodox priests "married" two men, it was to make friends like brothers...hummm,it seems more like a "brokeback mountain" between these ancient slavic men... I'm thinking mischievously?
Homosexual behaviour was common in greek and roman cultures, but passive sodomy was despicable for Romans...and used in form of men violation over slaves and wars losers. "Pedicabo et irrumabo ego..."
"it wasn't the gay Paradise that LBGT activist tells nowadays.
, that the notions that Sausalito intellectuals thought would save the world back in the 1970s—communal living, casual pansexuality, and the like—had downsides and drawbacks that nobody had gotten around to noticing yet, and weren’t necessarily as liberating and transformative as they seemed at the time"

Oh, free love-promiscuity-pan sexualisty" or whatever name you prefer to unlimited human fracking perforation as freedom Holy Grail (ahem...)was demythologized in the same 70s, years before AIDS epidemic...
I'm thinking about that disgusting and horrific Italian "erotic" movie:,_or_the_120_Days_of_Sodom
Passolini is overrated by hipsters but he was smarter than American hippies and European marxist comrades...

Spanish fly said...

If you excuse my off topic:
I'm a bit scared by latest bombings perpetrated by USAF and RUSAF over Syrian Army men and (supposedly) humanitarian convoy in Syria.
I suspect international scenaries are heading into "Last Twilight Gleaming" scenario...Even if USA election is not "faked" so Trump wins. He is not the Messiah White Knight. From my European ivory tower, I think that even if Trump it's not the crazy clown that seems at media, he could be bribed, neutralized or even worst scenarios by militar-industrial complex.
So militar chicken game between U. States and Russia maybe will be going on and worsening. Or maybe is my autumn depression...

gregorach said...

Some people are already practising retrovation quite successfully... For example, there's a chap called Daniel Harris making a decent living weaving traditional woollen and rope-dyed indigo cotton cloths, in London, on restored shuttle looms from the 1870s. His business is called "The London Cloth Company" if you're interested in reading more about it. His cloth is very much in demand.

latefall said...

The term I had in mind was "renovisionists".
Perhaps some of the meetups want to look into backcasting if they found the series stimulating. That may generate more soil for short story narratives to submit to the great Dezentralunkomittee at some point.

@Joel thanks for the comment! It validates much how I perceive this relationship. Perhaps one can make a little cartoon to illustrate this? I thought the xkcd climate comic illustrated the concept of magnitude of change nicely (and avoided a lot of air travel). Something similar should be possible to do for the appalling selective hindsight simplifications that are behind many representations of progress on a line. The term "Sonderweg" comes to mind:
"[...] the structure of society, and institutional developments followed a different course in comparison with the other nations of the West, which had a _normal_ development of their histories."

Cortes said...

Richard Rudgeley's fascinating "Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age" cites several examples from across the globe of groups which opted to revert to simpler versions of technology for reasons still being speculated about. During WWII there are the contrasting tales of the state of the art Panzer and Tiger tanks of the Wehrmacht with their design by sponsor failures of tiny production runs and engaging the constant attention of the most talented designers and engineers versus the simplicity of design and mass production of the Soviets' T34 and later the Kalashnikov.
On a personal level, it has been interesting to observe my sister and her family's reaction to her husband's "picking up the tools again" (in an earlier period he was a very skilled blacksmith) to remodel part of their house over the course of this year. This has been done to accommodate a solid fuel stove and involved a substantial amount of work exciting many grumbles. Now that the stove is working it is entertaining seeing the enjoyment to be had in simple things like splitting firewood!

Bakerpete said...

I've been meaning to respond for a while and only now have the time. Thanks for all your writing; the quality of your prose is what keeps me coming back. As a person, who fortunately found a wife of similar bent, who took the basic precepts of the '70's to heart and live by them, I've greatly enjoyed the ideas that you've espoused. Of course there is one thing that is currently troubling me, I don't think you've identified the difference between progress and innovation. Most everybody uses those two words interchangeably and believe they mean the same thing. You do touch on this a bit by identifying the meaningless complexity of modern technology but I would suggest that it would be very helpful if you could expand on that notion. We've become trapped in a baroque illusion of innovative new devices and ideas and haven't made any progress in decades at the least, really centuries depending on the technology. Computer chips still depend on lithography, and they are still binary; both techniques are centuries old. Internal combustion engines have not changed in the least fundamentally and if you account for embodied energy are grossly more inefficient now.
Love your stuff :-)

Somewhatstunned said...

I generally avoid pimping my own blog, but seeing as JMG mentioned Steampunk and we've been talking about how mere passage of time doesn't guarantee true improvement in any sphere ... I can't resist saying that I've just posted something about the Steampunk Diet.

Nastarana said...

Dear Patricia Ormsby, in the USA the far left, self-styled "progressives", has been exploding in (mostly verbal) rage this past year. The root cause, IMO, is that their precious multiculturalism and diversity didn't quite turn out the way they thought it would, and, but naturally, everyone but themselves is to blame.

mr_geronimo said...

Good morning, citzens, and mr. Greer

I had two issues with the future presented in Retrotopa, and both were the reason why you wrote the story: religion and sex.

Our sexual habits derive from an industrial society that provides the tools needed for their existence. Without cheap preservatives, antibiotics and contraceptives it's impossible to sustain the modern sexual behaviour. Sex is dangerous. The ancients had
their reasons when they imposed their taboos and those taboos are valid retrovations
when the penalties for progressive sexual behaviour are aids and siphylis. Maybe Lakelanders know how to craft preservatives even with unreliable rubber supplies, and with scarce oil rubber will be unreliable as you will be forced to rely upon brazillan, congolese and malayan trees. Antibiotics probably are useless in the sixties and contraceptives, with all their health risks, may be despised by a society born from a rebellion against Better Living Thru Chemistry.

The second issue is religion. Toynbee demonstrates that all societies are born around a religious revelation and grow around that cult, like the western civilization growing around the Catholic Church or the ancient civilizations growing around their mystery cults. Lakeland deals well with the material issues of retrovation, and also with the cultural ones, but it lacks the religious cultists from which the revelation of the new way of life, the method of dealing with reality that actually works, would come. And that, in my opinion, is needed because one can't fight and defeat a religion like the idolatry of progress without another religion and that religion should be stronger than the religion being defeated, it should have more actual religious experiences (that's easy considering how far from the spirits the idolatry of progress is). Lakeland lacked that, and it seemed to me to be lower elements of reality influencing higher elements of reality (economy and resources controlling culture). Where is the religious cult in the heart of the new society? Is there an inner club, like a freemasonry, where the true religion of Lakeland is taught? Or is Lakeland a very temporary arrangement, doomed to fail soon, because it lacks a spirit animating it? Or is it too early and as time passes and the lakelanders learn more and more things that worked they will rediscover things like sainthood, astrology, alchemy and evocation? Of course, the need for religious cultists does not imply
the need for christian puritanic fire-and-brimstone churches or bomb-throwing muslim jihadists. The religions revelations might as well be something like the Santa Muerte or something based on the teachings of Budda. But whatever the cult is it will bring taboos and will try to enforce for the glory of God and the ordering of society based
on the divine structure of the universe as perceived by the cultists.

Sorry for the bad english.

NZ said...

The whole contemporary notion of progress is tied to the efforts to demonize human labor. Work is a necessary and rewarding condition of life. By exploiting this very fact in various sinister ways, those committed to a capitalist worldview distort the meaning and goal of work. Instead of using technology to assist in creating and maintaining a healthy society, technology is turned into an aimless goal in itself. A perpetual motion machine if you will.

Working to provide the necessities of life with ones fellows, in my experience, is the ultimate goal of life. Working with well made tools to achieve these ends is the measure of progress. The question that needs to be asked is does the tool need to be "improved" to complete the task at hand.

I much simpler life awaits us all.

Eric said...

I loved, loved, loved Retrotopia! I agree that we have forsaken many things that worked with no idea if the things that replace them will work in the long term. The one question I had is why bicycles were not more of a part of your imagined future? From the 1880s on bicycles were the original transportation revolution and if they had gotten 50 more years to become the entrenched mode of transportation the adoption of automobiles probably would have been less universal. So I just have to ask why they didn't even really make an appearance in the Lakeland Republic? On decent roads, even gravel ones, a person in decent shape can out pace a horse on a bicycle and with specialized cargo bikes they can haul as much as a single horse, although not as much as a cart. Also the upkeep and maintenance is much less and the time to be ready for a journey is almost nil. As someone who has had both horses and bikes I know which one I would choose in a future without cars.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

A great summary of what you were trying to achieve with the writing of Retrotopia. A version of this week's post would make a great author's epilogue/postlude to the novel, to extend the educational factor just a step further and make the goals more blunt to the reader after they have read the story. Maybe when the novel has caught on and goes to a later anniversary reissue.

Matthias Gralle said...

From today's Nature, an ironic phrase that wouldn't be out of place on the ADR:
"The good news is that science is keeping up with modern trends. The bad news is that trend seems to be towards wider inequality, fewer opportunities for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and a subsequent smaller pool of people and talent for research to draw on. From the United Kingdom and Japan to the United States and India, the story is alarmingly consistent. In many places, careers in science tend to go to the children of families who belong to the higher socio-economic groups."

John Roth said...

@Chris Smith

Something about the idea that Carr’s task would be reforming his country struck me as a bit strange. It finally dawned on me that being the ambassador to Lakeland is one of the worst places to accomplish that. He’s way too far out of the loop. Lakeland is a good place to get ideas, but a lot of change happens at informal gatherings - dinners, parties, other events, and if you aren’t there, you don’t have the leverage. Carr will be a day’s travel away from where things get decided in the Atlantic Republic, and unless they put in something useful, like a fiber optic cable between Pittsburgh (or wherever the capital is) and Toledo, he’s not going to have the high-bandwidth communications that would be needed to be effective at that distance.

@brian floyd

That “unity of belief” thing doesn’t strike me as strange at all. It’s characteristic of a group-oriented culture, at least in the early stages. Think the traditional village culture, where you will simply not fit in unless you share the basic world-view of everyone else in the village.

The Michael Teaching, which I’ve mentioned a few times, points out that it’s characteristic of the next major cultural phase, once we grow out of our current cultural obsession with individuality and individual achievement. It’s not something I’m particularly happy with, and thankful that I will probably die before it really settles in.

Now the “everyone will be happy and get along fine” thing that’s supposed to come from that? Snort! Imagine relationship drama and angst cranked way up. To 11 to use the current hackneyed phrase.

ganv said...

Thanks for your intriguing new ideas and independent thinking. It is really wonderful to read your viewpoint on retrotopia.
There is deep insight into human nature in the sentence: "At the moment, it’s making the transition from utterly unthinkable to unspeakably heretical". The way our minds are shaped to allow groups to unify around myths and to maintain social stability by defending the myths is a fascinating subject. First we can't comprehend ideas that challenge the accepted myth. Then when we understand them, we are instinctively opposed. And then... usually some people adopt the new ideas fragmenting the old social order and leaving intellectual feuds that take generations to be forgotten. Or the new ideas are suppressed and morph into a new form to emerge to challenge the current myth from a new angle.

Dan Jachym said...


Thanks for another great post. The phrase "current fad for schizoid withdrawal into a cybernetic Neverland" is really sticking with me.

Do you see the current tech bubble bursting at some point in the near future and causing some people to wake up from this Neverland dream? Or will resources and propaganda be so aggressively used to prop up this dream that cybernetic "progress" may continue unchecked for a while still?


kayr said...

Nice follow up. When reading the story, I wondered if there were any homeless people in Lakeland, or what the prisons were like or the mental institutions and what was done for those addicted to one or another substance (alcohol for instance). Then it occurred to me that if most if not all people in Lakeland had meaningful work and a warm, secure place to live that there would probably be very few homeless people and that prisons would be rather small institutions and that mental hospitals and substance abuse clinics might also be small if necessary places.

However, the problems posed by the mental illness, criminal behavior, or substance abuse might not be eliminated by full employment and could not be ignored by Lakelanders. With the notion of "retrovation" in mind it makes me wonder what the best practices from the past were employed to deal with these problems.

Looking forward to reading the published book.


Iuval Clejan said...

I thank you for the inspiration to engage in conversation with those who see the world quite differently than me, but who utlimately have common interests (not all though) with me, which might be the beginning of politics. However, I need some advice on how to do this.
I see three different obstacles or three different trains of thought/belief in the Religion of Progress that any aspiring Carr has to deal with (first within himself):
1. Those like Pinker and Rossling who claim that Progress is right on schedule, violence is declining, population is stabilizing, wealth inequality is declining, literacy is on the rise, people are getting out of poverty, having more opportunities and a longer, healthier lifespan, and all the rich need to do is fly less airplanes to stabilize climate change. Pinker's book is not as quick to read as this video to watch by Rossling, which I hope you can comment on and help me debunk: He did not mention peak oil, or any of the problems of the first world with unemployment, loss of community, loss of connection with the divine, loss of artistic autonomy at work, etc. This view is mostly held by salaried and investment class people, but also seemingly the rural and sometimes urban poor in the third world.
2. The view promulgated by the producers of the film Thrive, and people like Catherine Austin-Fitts, who claim that everything is not fine, but would be fine if only the Cabal that controls the world would be exposed, peak oil and climate change are part of their nefarious conspiracy to enforce scarcity on everyone else, and we need to stop the govt from their covert spending of over ten trillion dollars on a covert space program, give it over to private firms, and do a "debt for equity swap". Can you explain this "debt for equity swap"? And can you help me quickly debunk it and the covert space program conspiracy? This view is also mostly held by investment class, but also by some working class, like the local butcher here in rural Missouri.
3. The view of much of the working class in the developed countries that everything would be fine if we went back to the fifties or whatever era retrotopia. This is just a less sophisticated view than the one you are promoting, namely that the past is a resource to pick and choose from, as opposed to copied wholesale. My Amish neighbor, who welded an oil press for me, espouses this view. It is somewhat myopic in that it fully embraces industrialization, but does not look at its dark side (unlike the people of Omelas, who are well aware of it) because it happens mostly somewhere else, and the connections to what happens at home are not seen (the Amish do have some safeguards for this though, with the prohibition of using power tools and electricity at home, and not owning cars, but they use them at work and employ people to drive them).

I sometimes feel like this is a hopeless task, to convince enough people to try de-industrialization (or limited scale industrialization) on a national or even bio-regional scale. Which makes me want to walk away from Omelas, not to feel morally superior, but to have a chance to try a new approach with less interference from the mainstream culture. This approach has much evolutionary theory and history to recommend it. See my article:

RandomQuestionGuy said...

I'd still like to know how the Retrotopian ideals fit with truly earth-shattering discoveries that more or less force countries into certain ways of acting--like nuclear weapon technology. It is not at all mentioned in the story, and their presence in the Confederacy and Texas would have probably prevented the hot war we see at the climax of the story.

Peter VE said...

Thanks again for the wonderful tale.
I've kept all my fathers old tools, so I use my "cordless" saw, "cordless" drill, and (my favorite) "cordless" screwdriver (Yankee Screwdriver). Keep the saw and drillbits sharp, and the screwdriver and drill well oiled, and they are better for most jobs around the home than the power tools, corded or cordless. I shave with a straight razor, and most kitchen tools are manual.
I've still got my Post 4 1/2" Midget circular slide rule from high school, when only the most spoiled kid could get a $75 +-*/= calculator.

thymia10 said...

Much preferred Retrotopia to the book some gardening friends pushed last year (Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing, example of 1970's San Francisco utopia/dystopia). There is also an element of class or economic prejudice with the latest technologies - as a late adopter of cell phone (last year) and husband George never owned a cell nor watched TV except for films on DVD, find myself being pitied as not able to afford latest tech.

For those of us who prefer train travel to planes (who are not in an Amtrak corridor) - some real world version of Lakeland Republic (even Euro-style) would be a refreshing change!

peacegarden said...

As for “re-trove-ation”…it calls to mind “treasure trove” as a handy way to think about ways that worked well before and could work well now and into the future.

Thank you for giving us the credit for being able to parse out and imagine something other than the P word. Bravo!



Clay Dennis said...

Though with our societies fascination with cell phones and the internet it would first seem that we are further from accepting retrotopia than ever. But around here (Portland) and am seeing more signs that people ( millenials at least) are ready to accept that older technologies or ways of doing things are better. A friend of mine just embarked on a project to recreate vintage style 2-man crosscut saws for use on trail work. Apparently the old ones are rusted out or have been turned in to art in casual dining restaurants, and the new ones availible are simulcrums of the real working saws of old. Across from me is a shop that rebuilds old motorcycles from the 1950's ( not a technology I would choose to bring back) as an alternative to plasticy new ones. Young people are making cast iron pans, axes and forgotten garden tools. I think that there is a growing awareness that many old ways of doing things are better or more satisfying. But, it still all runs aground when it comes ot cell phones and internet connectivity. Perhaps it will take the first major long term outage to make that one sink in.

Picador said...

"It’s stunningly well written but evades a crucial question: does walking away do anything to change the situation, or does it just let the ones who walk away from Omelas feel morally superior?"

A bit of a tangential point, but an important one: abandoning your membership in an unjust society isn't about "feeling" morally superior; it's about BEING morally superior. Which is kind of the whole point.

If one were to grow up in the antebellum South, I suppose one could go full John Brown and become a martyr to the abolitionist cause. Or one could pack up and depart for a land unpoisoned by the sin of chattel slavery. The former option might be admirable, but the latter option is still morally preferable to staying and propping up the system of slavery by your participation in the system.

Nobody owes their life to the society they were born into. If that society is irreparably broken, it is the right of an individual to abandon it to its fate and seek happiness elsewhere. Unless you're going to upbraid as cowards everyone who fled Germany in the 1930s?

Alexander Carpenter said...

F-35. 'Nuff said...

Yucca Glauca said...

I don't personally know any Linux users who thought Unity (the "innovative" new user interface in Ubuntu, one of the most popular distributions) was anything other than terrible. There are definitely some things with negative returns that get developed in Linux. The thing is that technological choice isn't considered a heresy in Linux, so everyone who doesn't like something that gets developed just doesn't use it, and there's lots of official support to make choosing something "older" easy.

The other thing is that the vast majority of important parts commonly used in Linux systems actually got to a point where further "development" wasn't helpful, and the developers were smart enough to stop changing things, so they're basically the same as they were ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. New updates still come out for these things, but mostly that's just a matter of writing in support for new technologies, which usually means finding ways around the latest round of hardware "innovation" so that the old software still works (I'm looking at you, UEFI).

Most Linux users are just as much believers in Progress as anyone else, so it's interesting to speculate on why Linux avoids the usual pitfalls. I think one reason is that the culture of Linux sees using older systems for fun as a badge of pride, so even younger Linux users--me, for example--have experience with how older systems work and don't see them in boogey man terms. Another reason is that the GNU approach to software has a built-in focus on encouraging dissensus and active choice, so anything new has to contend with older alternatives in a Darwinian environment, rather than being accepted as better automatically.

Seaweed Shark said...

I would understand if you decide not to post this.

I enjoyed Retrotopia, and I admire you for carrying off a challenging project -- a deliberately old-fashioned form of fiction -- with efficiency and grace. I doubt you're in much of a mind to change anything during the fixup for publication as a book, but I'd like to suggest something anyway, with respect.

Throughout this book I was bothered by the question of who Peter Carr is writing to. He's writing this as a first person narrative, and he's writing at some point after the events he describes. But who is the narrative addressed to, and when is he writing it? I came to the conclusion that he ought to be addressing it to the new government of the Atlantic Republic. He's writing it on the train; the narrative ends as he settles into his seat and presumably opens whatever writing device he uses, to begin the task of bringing up his notes and framing his memorandum. This report is, in itself, the first step in his newly adopted project to serve and assist his own nation by helping to bring it to its senses. Clearly there are some things in here that wouldn't be in a formal report to a government: but this is the private version for Ellen Montrose, with whom Peter has a close relationship and who would, perhaps, need to know what her deputy had been up to in Lakeland.

This would require some revision to those parts of the narrative that explain, for the reader's benefit, the recent history of the eastern half of North America, but I don't think the changes would be all that difficult to manage, as most of it could be re-phrased as Peter's reflections on his new experiences. I feel this would add a layer of richness to the story by indicating, throughout, the relationship he has with the woman who employs him, as well as to the several women he interacts with in Lakeland. Such a frame would not detract much from the immediacy of a compelling potboiler narrative -- simply because your narrative is not designed as a compelling potboiler. So, I've said my piece. Congratulations and best wishes.

Donald Hargraves said...

Actually, your critique of Callenback for having his character choose to stay in Ecotopia actually echoes a trope that had developed in the Utopian narrative: The Outsider Who Chooses to Stay. Walden Two has the outsider WALK back to Walden Two, implying leaving the old world behind by leaving the car behind, and while Bellamy's Looking Backward Utopia having a time machine would be a bit problematic the Victorian "Visitor" character there voluntarily does a long, total and humiliating (to him) apology to the woman whom he has fallen in love with as a replacement for actually choosing to walk away from his life.

In Atlas Shrugged the trope is subverted (in the Galt's Gulch section of the book) by having Dagney loving her railroad more than the Ideal Society she barged into (and, as it turned out, by Galt loving Dagney more than the society he built up), and in The Island the choice is made moot by a neighboring junta invading for oil (at the exact time where the Outsider would have normally made his choice for the Utopia, as it turns out). Your subversion is in having him being an honorable man – and in him taking a bet and sticking with it.

I find it interesting that, in this case the trope subversions seem to be more true-to-life than the trope being played straight. It's as if the Utopias seem to wish to be so overwhelming that they overcome the Outsider's past lives and sense of responsibility.

(and, as a side thought, what is Carr's Marital Status? I don't remember seeing any reference to it, but just assumed he was unattached.)

Clay Dennis said...

An stark example of the superiority of old technology is the upcoming closure of the "L" train in NYC. This line was built in 1924 and serves the Brooklyn Neighborhoods of Willamsburg, Greenpoint and beyond. It will be closed for 1.5 years to fix damage done to the tunnel under the east river by hurricane Sandy. This old school subway line carries 400,000 people per day under the river to manhatten. At present the MTA and other authorities have no answer to how all these people will cross the river everyday. No modern transportation technology has near the capacity given the time frame and location. A three lane bridge with single occupant cars can only carry 5000 people an hour, and the existing bridges are at capacity. Even buses don't help much given the space needed to load and unload at each end. All of the "modern" improvements we think we have made to transportation over the years from cars to helicopters won't help with this problem. Logically the only thing that could carry the same number of people as the old subway would be to take all of the cars off one of the bridges and completley turn it over to even older technologies, ( walking and bikes). Or perhaps this is a lesson in the unsuitability of large crowded cities when the mid tier technoloy of subways begins to fail.

Interesting side note, the landlords in Williamsburg are trying to trick and intimidate tennents in Williamsburg to sign very long leases so they can't move away when the L train is shut down.

Susan Roberts, MDiv, OTR/L said...

I look foreward to this blog each week. Suzy McKee Charlas wrote a couple of sci-Fi books in the 80s, Walk to the End of the Earth and Mother lines that took misogyny and ecodisaster to an ultimate horrorshow and also maintained conflicts present in the women's movement in her narratives. To add to this list.

Ol' Bab said...

JMG: I went to the Dark Mountain site, read the Manifesto. OMG. Wow. Strongly recommend to all your readers. Puts it all in perspective. (JMG has contributed to their work).
Ol' Bab

Phil Harris said...

"Look back for workable solutions and for a source of hope - and for progress with a small ‘p’", if I get it right.
I take the liberty above of a brief paraphrase of your story, but in short it rings a bell with me.

I have accepted climate change as a dead cert reality for three decades now, but back in 2005 when I first took very seriously the imminence of peak oil – and the rest – my first reaction was to cast my mind back to childhood in Britain in the 1940s. Yes, I could happily go there; rationing of food and clothes, no car, no TV and a lot else. It didn’t seem so bad.

Then I realised a couple of things. Foremost, was the fact that our per capita energy use from fossil fuel was enormous even then, Britain ran on coal and on imported essential food. Petroleum in my young days was still a minor albeit already essential part of our economy. The petroleum age has since from the 1950s meant a much larger reliance on fossil fuel, although it has certainly not doubled it. In per capita numbers we each use only about 50% more energy in total than was used here even as far back as 1900.

This first thought brought another one to mind in its wake. Our family did quite well, though it seemed, to mum and dad at least, meagre enough at times. For others though it was a much harder time despite the country supposedly adopting a wartime ‘fair share’ philosophy.

What then can I imagine these days? Your writing latterly has helped my thinking even though you write from a differently placed country. William Morris? Yes I remember him and could go there. There are some writers like Morris that I read in my childhood and young adult life who help. LTC Rolt, an engineer who in the 50s and 60s helped save the by then redundant British canal system from total dereliction, also wrote movingly of how ‘we’ might have done better for the previous agrarian population at the beginning of the 19thC (‘High Horse Riderless’). Although increased agricultural production was done on the back of pauperising the rural population, by mid 19th Century about a fifth of our population fed the then total of 17 millions in England. This was before British agriculture had even begun to be mechanised using petroleum and essentially before modern fertilisers.

Reading your words and looking back makes me wonder if we might have done better with what we had in the past given what we know now. My grandparents and even my parents would have been immensely reassured with a very modest sufficiency, however pitiful it might look by today’s reckoning. Such could have seemed like Utopia in their eyes. Smile. This country, however, with its large urban population and relatively small cultivated area is still going to have to trade for its essentials, of course, for the foreseeable future for our grandchildren.

Phil H

Eric Backos said...

Greetings to the assembled Wizardren!
We in Northeast Ohio are following Melbourne’s example by holding well-advertised monthly meetings.
The monthly joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 will be held at 11:30 AM on Saturday, September 24, 2016. Our location is Ruko’s Family Restaurant, 9385 Mentor Avenue, Mentor, Ohio 44060, (440) 974-1914. Shining the Green Light! Public Welcome! Tables for Failed Scholars. Look for the table topper with the Green Wizard Hat.
Many thanks to John for the posting space on his blog.

Eric Backos said...

The Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 congratulate the Kanto Green Wizards upon the occasion of your inaugural meeting and continued success, and extend full recognition and reciprocity to your Tower and Guild. May your Tower Light ever shine!

Bruce Turton said...

Why this comes to mind needs some work, but here it is anyway: My Grandfather, who worked for the Department of Highways in Alberta, Canada, used to go from Edmonton to the Rocky Mountain House area (gravel roads at the time) to confer with a Native Elder about the forecast for the coming winter. The Elder was invariably correct, and Grandpa kept going until the Elder died.
The sad part is that no one was taught what this man knew!! Can we imagine someone else learning what this Elder knew, even, or especially, with climate disruption proceeding apace with gusto? It took several people lifetimes to come up with what was known by this Elder, passed along without texts or tweets or twits.
So much has been lost in our rush to keep our commitment to BAU, even with the advent of solar and wind and geothermal and nuclear and other things someone is sure to come up with in the 'near future' to keep us 'on track'.
Losing more of the wisdom of the past to the 'knowledge' of the present. Hard to learn wisdom when the kids need to learn about the latest apps before learning how to talk with one another!

Eric S. said...

One of the things that I recall really capturing my imagination with your "Steampunk Future" post, and that was briefly hinted at Retrotopia, as well as featuring in this essay, is the idea of progress along different lines. That stepping off from the point of retrovation, it's possible to take a suite of technologies whose potential still hasn't been explored to its full, and exploring a completely different line of growth. I've occasionally tried to imagine what modern technologies might have looked like, for instance, had the fuel sources and scientific principals that paved the way for the innovations leading to automation and electronics in our society been invented by the ancient Romans, with their technology built around pressurized hydraulics, rather than early modern Europeans centered on clockwork and gears... or any other point of divergence where progress could have taken one path, but took another instead. The difference between human technology, and biological evolution, though, is that technically have the option of doing a little more than just wondering in a train of whimsy how things might have been different had our earliest ancestors had bellybones instead of backbones… There are thousands of rejected points of divergent along the road of progress from which society could have progressed in other directions, you pointed out in this essay the way that in the ‘70s, the ecotopia vision was in fact a path of progress forward… one of the things that’s suggested here, then, is that the problem isn’t even the idea of progress on its own, but the myth that progress has to take the form of a linear progression from the wheel to the warp drive, or from Hammurabi’s Code to the Federation of Planets. It seems related then, to the popular misunderstanding of evolution as a ladder, when it’s more properly viewed as a tree… or to the mentality behind the popular fallacy people who don’t understand evolution commit when they ask the question “if humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” In addition to the idea that progress must mean “getting better” what also seems necessary is an understanding that progress (in the moving forward along a path) sense, has a shape much more similar to biological evolution, with one major difference… you can actually move around on the tree, go back to a point of divergence and tease it along a different path, and find new things by doing that. Even if you were someone who completely denied that resource restraints featured at all as a limiting factor in just how far human progress could go… The degree to which the linear approach to progress diminishes its potentials should be obvious, and yet it isn’t.

One silly example, but I think a telling one, is our reaction to older visions of the future… such as the ‘50s science fiction films that involve techno-utopian star trek visions of the future, but still include analog computers. We usually laugh at the old computers, but it could be seen as much more telling that a half century ago, their failure to incorporate the “information age” into their technological fantasies reveals not a mere lack of foresight, but a society that didn’t see advances in information technology interesting or desirable enough to feature them into their future visions (unless you were writing a dystopian narrative about the media like Ray Bradbury, in which case modern information technology was predicted to the last detail… which also says something…).

That’s territory we’ve touched on briefly. But there’s more there I think… that idea that once you embrace retrovation, it also allows unexplored potential of technologies, ideas, etc. from a different age to be handled by different minds, employed in new ways, and carried along its own trajectory separate from what the original cultures used it for or thought of using it for… If retrovation is what we call going back and turning around, I’m not sure what you’d call going back, turning around, finding the nearest intersection and taking a different road entirely.

Cathy McGuire said...

I think it's really hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea of a society without "progress" but also without "regress". I'm working on a short story about that now, and it's really hard to depict without unconsciously adding in "progress attitudes". It's been a good exercise for myself to see how and where I make those assumptions. I really appreciate all your depictions, and continued visioning of such a world. After a few years of looking at the world that way, this culture now really seems nutso to me. :-) And as for the new manufactured items versus older ones - don't get me started!! My old, manual truck (no computer screens, no power door gizmos) has 204,000 miles and is still going strong... if/when it fails, I want a total manual vehicle for a replacement (wish I could bike, but disability prohibits)- it'll be a challenge.
Happy Equinox!

donalfagan said...

Pretty sure the Uncola voice was the tall, multi-talented, Geoffrey Holder.

gwizard43 said...

Thanks JMG! A helpful explanatory, errr, retrospective (so to speak ;-) on the tale of Retrotopia. I'd already begun figuring out how to apply this lovely notion of retrovation to my own life - takes some navigation, but getting better as I go, umm, 'forward' (sideways? off-kilter? catawampus?). Wow, so many of our figures of speech take their meanings from the 'progress' narrative don't they?

And hmmm....perhaps that something that could find it's way into stories like Retrotopia - as the cultural narratives change, so does the vernacular. It would be quite fun to hold a contest to generate NEW figures of speech whose meaning derives from a culture where retrovation was the rule! Could be downright hilarious, in fact...

Regarding this:

"It’s stunningly well written but evades a crucial question: does walking away do anything to change the situation, or does it just let the ones who walk away from Omelas feel morally superior?"

I want to echo Picador's thinking here, with which I agree:

...or does it matter what they do after they've walked away? I would argue that if one becomes convinced that a deeply pernicious system is past saving, past reforming, leading to a desire and intention to 'do it better' elsewhere, this is not only sensible but ethical. Perhaps that's why, as Le Guin puts it "they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Applied to our current situation, it seems to me that walking away from Aciremasu, if the goal is to establish oneself as a part of a culture that still believes in and practices both community and (hat tip Fleming) carnival, with the intention to help *that* community to prosper to whatever extent they can - perhaps by bringing the appropriate tech toolkit along and looking seriously for applications a la Gaviotas - would be an entirely ethical and indeed arguably a more practical response.

Art Myatt said...


One area of retro vs. modern you may not have noticed occurs in the choices made for self-defense handguns. Obviously, the main fork is between revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. The semi-automatic is used by practically every military and police unit for "duty guns," so many people are trained in their use and prefer them as a default. Duty guns are generally high-capacity; 15 to 17 rounds in a magazine is common, and of course they are easier to reload with minimal practice.

The disadvantages are that semiautomatics are not nearly as reliable as revolvers, and can be disabled just by pushing on the muzzle if the combatants are in grappling range. Whenever you see a drama with someone pressing a semiautomatic pistol into contact with their foe, that's just faking or incompetence on the part of the technical adviser to the production. When the slide on a semiautomatic is pushed back just a fraction of an inch, the pistol is "out of battery" and will not fire.

A revolver does not have this problem at all. A person in close contact *might* be able to get a revolver not to fire by gripping the cylinder strongly or, if there is a hammer, by by getting a finger between the hammer and the body of the gun. Just pushing on the muzzle absolutely will not work.

For a semiauto, shooters are regularly advised to run several hundred rounds of the specific ammunition they plan to carry through their pistol, just to be sure it will work reliably. The shape of the nose of a particular bullet may create a tendency to hang up on the barrel's feed ramp, causing a misfeed. The case of a particular brand of ammunition may have a tendency to get stuck in the chamber, causing a failure to extract; i.e., a failure to load the next round.

The primers in a given brand may not go off reliably with a particular firing pin / set of internal springs. With a double-action pistol, the shooter can get a second strike at a reluctant primer, and that may or may not be successful. With a pistol lacking this sort of double action - most of the striker-fired sort - the round has to be manually exected and the next round manually fed into the chamber before another shot is possible. Of course, if you really need that next shot right now, you may be dead before you finish this manual procedure.

With a revolver, once a round is put into the cylinder when the gun is being loaded, there's no such thing as a failure to feed. If a round fits in the cylinder, there's no further concern about the shape of the bullet's nose. If the primer is bad on a particular round, simply pulling the trigger brings up the next round; no jamming, no special procedure for fixing it.

This does not mean that revolvers are 100% reliable, of course. It just maens that revlovers will not fail for for many of the common reasons a semiautomatic pistol will fail. And when it comes to "pocket guns" (concealable weapons), the smaller size required means that many popular semiautomatics in thes category have little or no advantage in terms of the number of rounds they can hold.

Consequently, revolvers, which were the technology of choice for the 19th Century, are still useful for many purposes in the 21st. Also as a consequence, we can find the "religion of progress" type of arguments for semiautomatics on YouTube gun channels, shooting magazines, gun nut internet forums, etc. You might want to work some examples of this into future writing when the plot involves pistols in some way.

Glenn said...

Mr O. said...

"Even you had period hat styles in Retrotopia. Given the bizarre variety of hat styles created throughout the ages I wouldn't be surprised if the Lakelanders hadn't come up with something unique ;)"

There's a wonderful 15th century Flemish painting of a group of men, wearing a wide variety of hats; many of which are still being worn today. One of them is wearing what looks very much like a cowboy hat, and his face strongly resembles the late President Lyndon B. Johnson.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Rita said...

The main thing I remember about Ecotopia, which I read when it first came out, was the incredibly offensive racial politics. I am about as white bread (and bred) as possible (although I do have biracial cousins) but the idea of Oakland as a sort of reservation in which Black Ecotopians would be allowed to continue parts of their culture otherwise not allowed in Ecotopia struck me as so elitist and clueless. Not to mention unlikely. That is really all I retain of the novel, other than a vague idea of windmills, organic farms, etc.

David, by the lake said...

Those who've started organizational chapters (and John, of course)--

I've made one previous attempt to do so (it fizzled), but very much would like to organize a Green (Wizard) (Party) chapter/lodge in my area. For better or worse, I'm in a smaller town (2nd largest city in the county, but only ~12k), which presents any number of challenges. My questions would be -- 1) how did you go about getting your local organization up and running, and 2) what kinds of issues or projects do you focus on? What I'd like to see my locality develop would be an organization that would have political elements (perhaps associated with the state Green party, or perhaps not, but definitely involved at the city/county level) as well as ecological or retrovational :) elements. I'd appreciate any thoughts, suggestions, guidance, or experiences that any would care to share. I'm hoping to make another run for city council with the next spring election and even if that doesn't work out, I have another year and half left on my final term on the city Plan Commission -- and I'd like to put that time to good use. Thanks in advance!

Glenn said...

Eric said...
"The one question I had is why bicycles were not more of a part of your imagined future? From the 1880s on bicycles were the original transportation revolution and if they had gotten 50 more years to become the entrenched mode of transportation the adoption of automobiles probably would have been less universal. So I just have to ask why they didn't even really make an appearance in the Lakeland Republic? On decent roads, even gravel ones, a person in decent shape can out pace a horse on a bicycle and with specialized cargo bikes they can haul as much as a single horse, although not as much as a cart. Also the upkeep and maintenance is much less and the time to be ready for a journey is almost nil. As someone who has had both horses and bikes I know which one I would choose in a future without cars."

Our host has addressed this elsewhere. The short answer is that he has no personal interest in bicycles. He has also mentioned a limit on steel, but given that he has trains, trams, _some_ trucks, tractors and a _very few_ cars; and that a bicycle requires two orders of magnitude less material (30 v.s. 3000 lbs) than a small car, the steel shortage is not a good reason to me. The in story reason is that most cities were destroyed in the Second Civil War, and rebuilt as practical, compact, walkable cities. Being a regular cyclist myself, I'd still rather live in a walkable city than one which requires a bike.

To address your points, in the late 19th century the safety bicycle (what we think of as normal) was described as "the poor man's steed" for the reasons you stated. The biggest was that it required no land for pasturage, and was useful to the landless! But I don't know if anyone's done the math to see how much the bicycle depended on a coal driven industrial system. Mind you, a frame can go a century or more, I replace my bearings about once a decade, pedals every five years and rubber every year or two.

In story, I see bicycles as most useful to rural people; even to your cargo hauling scenario; but primarily as a transition technology until the variety and numbers of horses and other draft breeds can be re-established. Spending his visit primarily in Toledo, Mr. Carr would not have seen this. The other two obvious uses are bicycle dragoons in the army, and city messengers for parcels, light freight and take out deliveries.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

nuku said...

@Yucca Glauca, As a Mac user who has refused to progress beyond OSX 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard) and is thinking about moving to Linux, could you perhaps give me the URL of a website where I can download a free stable version of Linux that you think would run on my desktop 2008 iMac, and whose interface would approximate that of Snow Leopard?

@JMG, in my humble opinion, Apple has reached negative returns territory with the latest operating systems for its desktop machines.

Urban Harvester said...

JMG, as others have noted, there are those among the millenials who are engaging in retrovation. I'm not quite a millenial, but I have certainly been living in the same zeitgeist which you have now so aptly christened. I want to thank you for these biweekly posts over this last year- the gift that I think you are giving to us retrovators is to see how what people like us yearn to do can be justified in terms of history, economics, and cultural change, wrapped up into a mythic narrative. This is incredibly helpful when there is an onslaught of pressure to conform, to sacrifice your calling to the fickle gods of progress. So thanks!

But I will still pester you for a recommendation for utopian kitsch and warhol. Your post has settled the canonical for me - Morris.

Bob said...

I have to confess a peculiar sense of relief. While Retrotopia was obviously not intended as a mindless escape from the realities of today's intersecting (and mounting) crises, it had - to some extent - become that for me. Fro while the people of the Lakeland Republic no doubt work hard to make a living, they are on the far side of the immensely grueling and painful work the next half century will entail. The relief comes because every Wednesday evening for the past year, I was usually disappointed when the posts took a break from fiction and forced me to dump my head in the cold water of 2016 Collapse Reality. Obviously, one of the major themes of this blog is the necessity of direct and honest confrontation with the truth, and the terrifying consequences of head-in-the-sand or head-in-the-clouds denial. But, I still took comfort in the possibility that a sane, sustainable, livable world might still be possible in my children's lifetime, however divorced from the facts that belief actually is. Since I knew the story had ended, I anticipated this blog discussing the U.S. election, Venezuela, Syria, or some other massively depressing topic; so, thanks JMG, for easing us back into reality gently! Bonus irony: I usually read this blog on an aging laptop sold by a very large company based in Cupertino, but was forced to use a backup computer, as that device was spending the better part of 8 hours "upgrading" itself to be shinier, more confusing, less reliable, and so forth. I have never longed for Toledo so much in my entire life...

John Michael Greer said...

Marissa, to my mind, The Dispossessed is LeGuin's greatest work, one of the few really first-rate works of political science fiction out there, and one of the things that gives it that status is precisely her willingness to grapple with the moral ambiguities and inevitable failures of any utopian project. (It's also the one tolerably realistic portrayal of how anarchosyndicalism would work in practice, warts and all, that I've ever seen.) That said, I'd suggest that every story has to stand on its own merits, and the problematic ethics of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" don't go away because LeGuin wrote something much better a little later on.

Synthase, I wonder if you'd feel the same way a year into those five years of wire wrap...

Jessi, exactly. The besetting sin of utopian dreams is the notion that people will stop acting like human beings if you just impose the right rules on them.

Angus, delighted to hear it. Keep at it -- the world needs more green mad scientists!

Mike, I'll consider that.

Ed, that's the plan.

Aaa, you're welcome and thank you. I'd have a hard time remembering GPL, though, as I have no idea what it is and don't think I've heard of it before!

Mr. O, I also played Traveller! No question, the equation of tech levels with cultures is pervasive -- and have you noticed that they're always European cultures? Tech level 2 is never, say, modeled on feudal Japan or medieval west Africa. As for Retrotopian hats, well, remember that this was only thirty years after the beginning of the Lakeland Republic, and mining the past is still a major intellectual industry. Give it another fifty years and there'll be new styles, I'm quite sure.

NS, okay, let's take a look at what you've just said. There are problems that haven't been solved yet, therefore we have to keep on with progress so that we can solve them. In other words, you've ignored the entire theme of this post, which is that at this point, progress causes more problems than it solves. If solving one problem creates two more, is that a net gain? That's exactly the issue that I'm raising here, and the fact that you simply evaded it is par for the course among those who have blind faith in the great god Progress.

Shane W said...

Okay, I'm confused, is The Retro Future the book name for Retrotopia, or is it the name for a book based on another series of posts you've done? It wasn't clear in your post...

John Michael Greer said...

Synthase, you're most welcome.

Brigyn, some such project has been announced, and loudly ballyhooed, at least once per decade since I was born. If this one produces some useful results, that would be nice, but let's just say I'm not going to hold my breath.

Unknown Deborah, the New Urbanism is a first baby step in a useful direction, and yes, it shows that a lot of people would rather have homes and neighborhoods of an old-fashioned style that works rather than a bright shiny new version that doesn't.

Donalfagan, thanks for both links.

Spanish Fly, there are plenty of utopias more totalitarian than Ecotopia -- I wouldn't even use that word for Callenbach's book. As for the current state of US-Russian conflict, well, yes -- things could heat up very fast.

Gregorach, exactly. It's a viable strategy here and now.

Latefall, I'd rather see people come up with their own utopias, frankly.

Cortes, that's an interesting point. It might be worth coming up with a broader survey of people who gave up advanced technologies for simpler ones throughout human history -- it's happened tolerably often, and might be worth studying.

Bakerpete, well, what exactly do you mean by "progress"? That's a surprisingly evasive word when you actually buckle down and try to define it.

Somewhatstunned, I'm fine with people referencing their own blogs as long as they regularly make nontrivial comments here, so thanks for the link!

Mr. G, we actually discussed the sexuality issue in detail in response to an earlier post. Condoms were being made from sheep's gut in the seventeenth century, and latex condom manufacture is well within the capacity of a society that can manufacture streetcars; there are also effective non-antibiotic treatments for many STDs, which will be coming back into fashion as antibiotics sunset out. As for religion, I take it you missed this post.

NZ, that's an interesting perspective and, I think, a very useful one. Hmm! I'll want to brood over it and integrate it into my analysis.

Eric, I hear from bike fans all the time, and that question has been asked many, many times. A large part of the answer is that bicycles play so large a role in the generic green future that I wanted to do something a little different. Another part of the reason is that bicycles don't produce fertilizer and methane feedstock!

NS said...

Fine. I'll happily leave it to you to explain to somebody in a wheelchair that we aren't going to try to help him walk again because it might cause problems for people who don't exist yet. In your view, his actual suffering now is less important than the hypothetical suffering of somebody in the future. That is the issue that YOU are evading.

MCB said...

JMG, you referred to not being aware of the GPL earlier. I think it's one of the most important pieces of legal history in how it has used proprietary law to create and protect a commons.

I would very much recommend reading one or two of the essays by Eben Moglen, the lawyer who first drafted it. It is this philosophy and especially the genius of its implementation that arouses the passion for Linux and Open Source in general, although the principles are much more widely applicable.

I suspect you will enjoy the essays:

Freeing the Mind : Free Software and the Death of Proprietary Culture

Eben Moglen's Harvard Speech


Varun Bhaskar said...


The story ended fantastically, I really hope more of your readers take up the torch and come up with their own versions on retro for their corners of the world.

You know I find it funny that cult of progress types base their beliefs on cherry picked data, but deny us the right to cherry pick ideas from the past. Guess they don't want to buy the cherry tree, but we must.



Fec said...

I just want to take a moment to thank you for what you do.

I became a Trump apologist shortly after he began his run last June. I limped along, gathering dogma where I could at Zero Hedge and Naked Capitalism.

Your discussion of the destruction of the wage class by the salary class in April gave me the ammo I desperately needed to explain what was happening.

Your Retrotopia series was a tonic when the future seemed dim, indeed and hope was in short supply.

As Clinton wanes and Trump waxes, I'm still using your concepts to appeal to the cognitively dissonant supporters of the status quo who have been abandoned with the Clinton's shift to the right.

If we are able to hold this world together in the coming transition to national socialism, it will be in large part due to your ideas, in my considered opinion.

Armata said...

Remember how Mitt Romney sank what was left of his campaign against Obama when his infamous comment about the "47 percent" came to light?

Well, Hillary Clinton seems to be channeling Romney, yelling at the camera "Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?". We have talked in the past of how Mrs. Clinton has ran a remarkably clueless and inept campaign, but to me this looks an awful lot like a train wreck in the making.

Shane W said...

don't you mean "imploding", not "exploding". The circular firing squad you speak of seems more like an implosion to me...

RPC said...

One of the things I think is illustrated by the Omelas story is the limits of moral relativism. If there are people who are comfortable with the situation and if all moral systems are held to be equally valid, you can either try to convince them they should adopt your moral system...or you can walk away.

Shane W said...

actually, your take is off. Western industrial society was at its most homophobic, most sexist, most sexually repressed during its peak, the Victorian age, and this sexual repression did not start to wear off until the 70s, when we started bumping up against peak oil and limits to growth, and industrialism began its decline. There are plenty of examples of "primitive" cultures with very open sexuality. Indeed, one of Western society's prejudices against "primitive" cultures was their lack of Western sexual repression.

siliconguy said...

"In 2065 Ann Arbor is a very pleasant example of something that used to exist quite commonly in the US, the combination farm town and university town;"

Moscow, Id, home of the University of Idaho, still fits that bill. Yes, I went there :-)

In somewhat more discouraging news, Frontier decided it's not fixing the local landlines any more, so I've been forced into a tracfone.

In even more discouraging news, we are shutting down half the plant at work due to lack of customers. Since we make silicon for solar cells, this implies the rest of the manufacturing chain is grinding to a halt. No one has the money to install renewable energy systems when you can pick over the carcass of Sunedison for pennies on the dollar. And natural gas is practically free, and the turbines run 7/24.

If you do have the money for a PV system you will get a heck of a deal for the next few months.

Dylan said...

Suetonius has this to say about a Roman Emperor's attitude toward mechanization and employment. From his "Life of Vespasian", Chapter 18 (sourced here:*.html):

"To a mechanical engineer, who promised to transport some heavy columns to the Capitol at small expense, he gave no mean reward for his invention, but refused to make use of it, saying: 'You must let me feed my poor commons.'"

I thought that was a gem.

RPC said...

There's a saying in industry: "Never confuse motion with progress," usually spoken bemusedly while watching a management team running around like a flock of headless chickens. So progress implies a goal, and this need not be the Jetsons future that frequently plays that role today. So, for instance, Mr. Carr leaves for the Atlantic Republic at the end of Retrotopia with the goal of making the AR more like the Lakeland Republic; he has a goal and he can measure his progress toward it. The problem, then, is not so much progress as the choice of an appropriate goal.

Shane W said...

hopefully, Lakeland doesn't shovel funds into the ineffective 12-step based subsidy dumpster like the present day US. The US is alone in the world in relying upon 12-step based treatment for its substance abuse treatment. Most other nations will not subsidize it at all. Maybe Lakeland goes back to the tradition of treating addicts and alcoholics as untreatable "walking dead".

Shane W said...

Speaking of disease and death, I saw where Zuckerberg & his wife are devoting a considerable chunk of their fortune to "curing every disease by the end of the century". Talk about myth of progress. This one left me completely baffled. How in the world are we supposed to die and return to the earth without disease? How can we cycle through birth, growth, decline, and death without disease? I don't get the point, not to mention just how unfeasible and impossible the goal is in a world hitting hard limits...

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, if that ever happens, I'll certainly keep that possibility in mind!

Matthias, good heavens, that got into Nature? Glad to hear it.

Ganv, thank you. I've been around long enough to watch this process happen many times.

Dan, my guess is that the internet, and internet culture, will die the death of a thousand cuts. Costs will rise, functionality will decrease, internet crime will become more and more pervasive, the poorer regions of the country will begin to lose access, until fifty years from now the internet is a rich person's toy, while the rest of us have gone onto something more useful.

Kayr, of course those are still issues in the Lakeland Republic. A hundred years ago in the US, the standard approach was for each county to have one or more large farms where the mentally ill and developmentally disabled (who were not well differentiated from one another in those days) got a clean bed, three square meals a day, and the other requirements and basic comforts of life. Those who could help with the farm work, housework, etc. were encouraged to do so, to the extent of their ability; of course there were problems, and county farms varied in how well they were run, but the system as a whole seemed to work well. Substance abuse was by and large treated as a medical and moral issue rather than a legal one, and that also worked much better than our current system. I'm exploring ways to weave this into the story, for what it's worth.

Iuval, you can't convince them. It's exactly like trying to convince a devout fundamentalist that the world wasn't created in 4004 BC; if your arguments conflict with their beliefs, they'll simply find counterarguments, because they believe the object of their faith is true in a sense that transcends argument. Instead of trying to convince them, get out there and live a more interesting life.

RandomQuestionGuy, I'm glad you brought this up earlier in the comment thread, while I still have time to respond. Nuclear weapons are very effective defensive weapons -- if you have them, nobody's going to push you too far -- but they're hugely expensive to build and maintain, and their uses in offensive war are very limited. In the future I've sketched out, none of the North American republics kept them -- they were all turned into nuclear fuel and sold to countries with nuclear reactors as a source of hard cash -- and that, as you've observed, is why a hot war between Texas and the Confederacy is an option. Really, if you're not either trying to maintain a global military hegemony or oppose some other country's hegemony, they're not worth the cost.

Could one of the few remaining nuclear powers in 2065 threaten the Lakeland Republic with nukes? Sure, but think about the consequences. Every other nation that thought the nuclear power might threaten them would immediately rush out and build some nukes in self-defense, making the entire world much less safe for the nuclear power. It's much less self-defeating for the nuclear power to keep its nukes purely for deterring the other nuclear powers, and to project force in conventional ways.

Peter VE, excellent. Do you know how to use the slide rule?

Thymia10, personally, I loathed "The Fifth Sacred Thing." It was such an over-the-top display of San Francisco's patented holier-than-thou arrogance! As for a Lakeland-style railroad system, or even one of European quality, I'd love to see that here in the US. That would be such a major step forward!

Joel Caris said...

Hi Latefall,

Hmm, a cartoon to visualize the idea would be great! I will certainly not be the one doing it, as I am not an artist and the best way I communicate ideas is through words--usually written. I may write at greater length about my musings in a future blog post, though. We'll see. I'm considering the idea.

I loved that xkcd comic about climate change. Very effective. It would be interesting to try to think of a way to put the way we flatten the past into visual form . . .

genepaul said...

While our mass culture wallows in the mental swampland created by the 'myth of progess', counter culturalists often seem to be swayed by the 'myth of wisdom'. In what possible scenario does "homo callidus" achieve the consciousness shift absolutely necessary for a shift towards a wiser and improved society? Declining polities double down on failed strategies rather than invent new ones. Decline is not a time of enlightened action, it is a time of desperation.

Shane W said...

the racial issues of Ecotopia don't surprise me. People outside the South really have no use for black culture and treat it as an unwanted, "foreign" influence. It's part and parcel why segregation has been so much more effective and resilient outside the South than inside it.

John Michael Greer said...

Peacegarden, exactly! "Treasure trove" is one of the things the word is meant to evoke, of course.

Clay, all in good time. My guess is that as cell phone and internet coverage start to become wobbly, citizens band radios will be the entry drug that gets people intrigued by less overwhelmingly centralized modes of communication. Ham radio is already starting to get a foothold at Maker faires, so the foundation's being laid.

Picador, okay, let's take the antebellum South as an example. From where I'm sitting right now I can see the spire of Emmanuel Episcopalian Church, which was built well before the Civil War. In those days, that spire was a major landmark on the Underground Railroad, the secret network that smuggled escaped slaves to freedom. Maryland was a slave state in those days, but up here in the mountains, abolitionist sentiment ran high. The sexton of the church, a free African-American man, was an important figure on the Railroad; he'd welcome escaped slaves and their conductors when they crossed the river from Virginia (these days, West Virginia), hide them in the crypt of the church, make sure they had food, water, and anything else they needed, and then smuggle them on board hay wagons and the like for the last leg of the journey to Pennsylvania and freedom. He did this with the enthusiastic support of the rector and the congregation, by the way -- and his great-granddaughter is a member of the congregation today.

So tell me this: who was morally superior -- the people in the slave states who stayed put and participated in the Underground Railroad, or the people who moved to Boston and talked about how horrible slavery was, all the while wearing clothes made from cotton that was grown by slaves?

Alexander, for the heretic who doubts progress, the F-35 Lardbucket is the gift that just keeps on giving!

Yucca, the fact that the developers recognized that it was time to stop changing things is a very good thing to hear. I may yet try Linux one of these days.

Shark, first person narrative fiction is a literary form; sometimes it's done as though the narrator is actually addressing someone else in the fictive world, and sometimes that's not done. I chose the latter, simply because it fit the story better and allowed Carr to talk about things that would be interesting to today's readers but common knowledge in 2065. It's a worthwhile question to raise, though.

Donald, you're right, of course -- and that's an even better reason to overturn the convention.

Clay, that's a good one. Thank you.

Susan, I saw those but never read them. I can handle misandry in science fiction -- I enjoy Sheri Tepper's novels, even though so many of them circle around the idea that testosterone is the Original Sin -- but the Charnas novels seemed kind of over the top.

Ol' Bab, Dark Mountain is seriously cool and I'm glad to have had some essays of mine accepted by them.

HalFiore said...

Angus, I've had the thought that lime could be used as a store of solar heat energy. It takes a lot of heat to convert limestone, CaCO3, into caustic lime, CaO, such as you'd need concentrated solar or something similar. But then it can be stored indefinitely, though it is quite reactive and would need to be kept sealed from the elements. When you want to release heat, you add water. I understand this rxn can be done forward and reverse by just adding heat or water at the appropriate times.

JMG, I second Mike's suggestion for an Afterword. Think about it: you felt a, justified, I'm quite sure, need to clarify for this audience of all audiences that is most primed to hear your message. How much more would it be useful for others!

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, that kind of thinking back is a crucial resource just now. Britain's going to be in a world of hurt no matter what happens -- too many people on a very small island -- but the strategies that helped during both World Wars might be a good way to minimize the suffering.

Bruce, I hear stories like that all the time. I also hear stories about people who go out of their way to make sure that some bit of knowledge from the past doesn't get lost -- so there's a way to make a difference.

Eric, good. Of course that's also an issue, and it's something that I'll be exploring in much more detail as we proceed.

Cathy, I've been wrestling with this same issue regarding a science fiction story I'm working on. It deals with an intelligent species that's millions of years older than ours, passed through their age of scientific and technological discovery about two million years back, learned everything that can be learned by scientific methods and figured out every technology that was available to them given the resources on their planet, and then ran out of experiments to run and technologies to discover. Imagining a postscientific culture like that, in which all the answers to questions about nature have been known since practically forever, has been a real education in the extent to which fantasies of progress color all our assumptions.

Donalfagan, you may well be right.

Gwizard, but in that case you're not just walking away, you're walking toward something. As I suggested implicitly to Picador earlier, you might also want to make sure that the place you're walking toward doesn't depend on the thing you're walking away from, the way that so many allegedly "green" alternatives depend on continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

Art, fascinating. You're right, I don't know a lot about handguns, and I didn't know that about automatics. Thank you.

Rita, yeah, Oakland as an Ecotopian Bantustan was a little much.

David, I'll leave that for those who have done it. Organization is not my strong suit, by a long shot.

Harvester, for kitsch stopia, you can't go wrong with Thea Alexander's 2150 A.D., an astonishingly tacky New Age utopia from the 1970s. Warhol is a tougher question -- I don't happen to recall anything that would qualify. Do any readers have suggestions?

Bob, you're welcome. As the current election season lurches toward its conclusion, I'll try to be sure to include some lighter fare as circumstances permit!

Shane, nope. Retrotopia will be titled Retrotopia. The Retro Future is a nonfiction book I've just got a contract from New Society to write, and it'll be out sometime next year.

NS, au contraire, I'll leave it for you to explain by the people who are being plunged into lifelong poverty by technological unemployment right now, and the people who right now are losing their homes to sea level rise caused by climate change caused by increased fossil fuel use caused by progress, why they have to put up with having their lives destroyed so that someday, somebody might get around to getting people out of wheelchairs. The downsides of progress are right here, right now, not off in some nebulous future, the way that worshippers of progress like to think. (I have a family member who's been in a wheelchair for decades, by the way, and if I showed him your comments I'm pretty sure he'd describe them as "pity porn;" that's certainly the term that disabled people I know generally use when others try to use their condition to score points in an argument. Just saying...)

Iuval Clejan said...

JMG, I'm not trying to convince fanatics, but people who can be collaborators on some projects, but who are swayed by Rossling and Pinker. Kind of like Carr trying to convince some of his coworkers who might already be mostly there, but then they watch some progress propaganda. It's not obvious to me even what is wrong with some of Rossling's claims. Can you help? The video is under 1 hour long.

Shane W said...

Regarding when to stay or when to flee, JMG's already said that in event of a civil war, he is leaving, and that he doesn't expect to be able to have any constructive effect on things during a civil war. Considering Charlotte, we may be getting closer to that point...

Shane W said...

Who knows, maybe the person in the wheelchair is totally in acceptance that they can't walk, has moved on to other things, like paralympic basketball, or actually climbs the stairs by his hands in an inaccessible building (I actually saw that in a two story bar once)

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, as in your answer to @Cathy, I've been doing the same imagining experiment for years now, only to find out that the most important questions of life will remain unanswered, specially at the individual level. Also, and this is crucially important, it may well be the case that finding out the maximum of what we can learn about the universe may not be an inch of what is actually there to be discovered - we may have intrinsic intellectual limitations as a species. Finally, even if we didn't, it may also be the case that learning all about everything may not be enough to take us out of our current predicament - for example, what if the only way to have cheap and virtually limitless energy such as fusion is having a mass core the size of a star? Scientific knowledge may end up telling us that there's no source of infinite energy nor a way to make humans immortal nor a way to travel back in time, after all...

John Michael Greer said...

MCB, many thanks for this. Contrary to popular rumor, I never claimed to be omniscient! ;-)

Varun, if I were allowed to cherrypick data the way true believers in progress do, I promise you I could make any corner of the past you care to name look like Paradise. There's another dimension of cherrypicking going on, though -- they cherrypick imaginary technologies from the future to dream about, we pick actual technologies of the past to use. I'll let you guess which of these strategies is more practical.

Fec, er, "the coming transition to national socialism"??? I certainly hope not.

Armata, I really do wonder what she was thinking. Sheesh.

RPC, oh, it's by no means a bad story -- as I noted, it's stunningly well written and makes some important points. It's just the implied remedy that I question.

Siliconguy, my parents did summer school at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, WA, and Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA respectively, both of which are cow towns with colleges, and I have friends who attended Washington State University in Pullman, WA, which is the apotheosis of the cow town with attached college -- there's a reason they call WSU "Moo U." So I know the species! As for the plant shutting down, I get the distinct impression that the whole US economy is grinding to a halt behind a facade of rigged statistics; I'll be doing a heads-up post on that fairly soon. I hope you and yours will be okay!

Dylan, thank you! I'll have to cite Vespasian in an upcoming post.

RPC, the problem creeps in when people confound that kind of small-p progress, movement toward a defined goal, with capital-P Progress, the assumed bias of history toward bigger and better. It may be necessary to abandon the p-word altogether for a while until we all get over the delusions attached to it.

Shane, are you by any chance familiar with the fine old Greek word "hubris"? If you look it up in a dictionary, I'm pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg's face will be somewhere on that page... ;-)

Genepaul, I don't believe in collective shifts of consciousness, any more than I believe in the tooth fairy or the Great Pumpkin. I also don't believe that we can expect a wiser and better society. We might be able to create a society that isn't quite so stupid about quite so many things, as such things have existed in the past, and that seems a valid goal to strive toward.

John Michael Greer said...

HalFiore, as noted, I'll be considering it. This week's post is actually meant to transition into certain themes in the upcoming posts on politics and the coming of the postliberal era, for what it's worth.

Iuval, I really don't know what to say, as in my experience it's not just fanatics who are impervious to reason on the subject of progress. One thing I've learned over the years is that most people don't believe things because of the reasons they cite; they decide what they believe on the basis of emotion, and find reasons to support what they feel. (That's actually a smart move in many cases, as a gut-check is more likely to be accurate than a reasoned decision based on the kind of flawed, biased, and deliberately distorted information that pervades today's society.) If you want someone to believe something, in other words, you've got to start by making him or her want to believe it; that was one of the motivations behind Retrotopia, of course.

Shane, and if I flee from a civil war, I won't feel morally superior for doing so. I'll be doing it out of a desire to keep my wife and myself safe -- a country in a state of civil war is no place for an aging couple, one of whom has chronic health problems and special dietary needs, and the other of whom is not as spry as he once was! If I may mix literary metaphors, there's an important difference between walking away from Omelas and walking away from the City of Destruction...

Bruno, exactly! First, not all questions can be answered by scientific methods; second, not all questions that could be answered by scientific methods in theory can be so answered in practice (i.e., if your experiment requires conditions that can't be provided, for practical or economic reasons, it's never going to be done); third, not all scientific discoveries produce useful technologies, and many of the results of scientific research amount to "you can't do that." So a species old enough to have passed through its era of scientific and technological progress won't be omnipotent; their technology might even be simpler than ours, as they'll have learned that certain technologies are too destructive to use; and since they don't labor under the burden of blind faith in progress, their technologies will be a (to us) bizarre mix of simple and sophisticated, high-tech, middle-tech, and low-tech, depending partly on fashion but primarily on what works best.

Crow Hill said...

JMG: I enjoyed Retrotopia in particular the concept of the tiers citizens can choose from to live in. Thank you.

There is one theme I would like to ask you about – or did I miss an episode : is there any change in the way people view nature in Lakeland from today’s mainstream attitudes and treaments of it, i.e. as a backdrop to human life, a source for raw materials and a waste dump?

Retrovation: it also suggests the French “retrouver”, “retrouvailles” (meet again, reunion) with a more “down-to-earth” world.

Dorda Giovex said...

My view of the future (seen from Italy) is darker. I see coming a new fall into the turmoil of a collapsed empire. I see street gangs becoming ever more common big and organized. Eventually winning the support of the local people vs a state serving only the elites, ever weaker smaller and more vicius in its attempts to maintain an order. I see commerce and trade breaking down.. ensuing hunger diseases and fights while communities try to get organized at an ever smaller level. State fails .. then cities which depend on the regular arrival of supplies. Eventually only villages start to become viable.. the ones near corporation centers which have the resources to hire a small army to defend the intallations and the employees. Money ceases to circulate as food is the only thing of importance.
Like during the fall of the Roman Empire: Rome went from millions to 10000 inhabitants. Trouble everywhere with roaming bands of people pillaging all the "preppers" and the "transition towns" of that time. The only islands: fortified corporation headquarters (the patritian "villas" of that time and monasteries). It won't be pretty.

Brigyn said...

Agreed. I'd be nice if some good came from it. I think it almost has to, merely because there's so much money and effort being poured into the industry - statistically *something* has got to come out of it that's worth saving... But I'm young and optimistic.

Also, it might interesting to mention that much of Retrotopia is actually currently daily life for me!

I live in the Netherlands, and we're probably the most technologically resilient country in Northwest Europe - our water purification mainly uses natural systems such as dunes, our waterways are all intact, we still produce wooden sailing ships and horse-drawn tugboats, all mayor cities are connected by rail, which is backwards-compatible with a reserve fleet of old-timey steam-powered locomotives. Even the old steam-powered pumping stations are kept functional, and have been used a few years back during a particularly viscous storm. In major cities public transport is pretty much the only way to go, via subways, tramlines and buses. Everyone I know owns at least one bicycle, and most use it daily. It's somewhat common to not own a car, and not unheard of to not even have a driver's license. We're also one of very few Western countries that could theoretically feed its own current population (though probably not without fertilizers).

We deal with adversity through humour - sarcastic humour is pretty much the national form of theatre. Gardening is a common hobby, every town has patches of land around it called 'people's garden' which can be rented for little to no money. The Dutch are frugal (or just cheap). Repairing items instead of buying new is tolerably common (but becoming less so).

So life feels quite retrotopian, because the Dutch never really did do away with things that worked. It's rather common to hang laundry outside to dry, hand tools are commonly used instead of power tools, and passed down, and so on. Frugal and practical.

The Netherlands, as it is now, might offer some Retrotopian inspiration!

I'm not sure how long it will all last, though. Being mostly below sea-level is admittedly a mayor drawback, although our current system of dikes and levees should be able to take another 4 meters of sea level rise before needing massive revision.
Of course, we have the same ineffectual government that most of the West seems to be stuck with, and we're slowly becoming more like the United States, with increasing wealth inequality, ever more cuts in our welfare system, less support for students, (their financing having been turned into a loan - which of course only deters new students from low income homes, which is tying education level to parental income level, and causing yet more inequality in the coming generation). Then there's the rapidly rising tide of intolerance and racism in society, and all the stuff that's been happening in France and Germany...

Gah, I had hoped to end this post on a bright note.

Err... I have neither a car nor a drivers licence, and it has never hindered me in the slightest. Growing your own food is both easy and not hindered by the government. There. Bright note.

latefall said...

@joel Re xkcd earth temperature timeline
If you liked it and are interested in a closer look, see the 6000 comments on it here:

Re time visualization:
What I usually see is spiral that people use to illustrate deep time. I was thinking on could perhaps let the spiral follow a smooth exponential path from the caves to the stars in one panel. That way you could arrange a bunch of important "milestones of progress" in a sort of "confidence interval" that the spiral faithfully walks along.
In another panel you show all kinds of achievements (which we like to omit when taking the previous view) - many of which will be well outside of the path.
And perhaps in the next panel one would show how many civilization spawn and collapse (asymmetrically) in a much more bizarre and knotted manner (but perhaps a barely recognizable double helix?), and that one just knocked it out of the park once it started burning through fossil fuels. But even this one starts to shown the same pattern you see in so many other civilizations that eventually dropped back towards the stable and simple "center" of a much greater erratic path which is performed by coevolution of species.

By the way another nice representation of time can be done using your arm:
Earth begins at your shoulder, single celled life is there before you even get to the arm, photosynthesis starts well before the elbow, only a good bit behind your elbow you get multicellular (eukaryote) life, the Cambrian explosion of life happens roughly at the knuckle (also about 7°C above CE), dinosaurs are roughly the second half of your middle finger (up to the fingernail), and humans are a hair's breadth at the tip of the fingernail. Written history is about a bacterium deep.
If you spread your fingers of the other hand and touch the thumb to the fingernail, the distance to the end of the pinky should be roughly the time that earth remains a tolerably nice place for life like us. After that life will have to leave the surface, and by the time you get back to the shoulder of the other arm the sun will have bloated significantly and slowly start to cool.
(Arm's length of life from here

Brian Kaller said...


It’s been a long time since I read part of Ecotopia, but am I right in thinking that people there could litter freely, as everything was made of some rapidly bio-degrading substance? In other words, didn’t he have to invent his own Hand-Wavium technology to make it work?

Also, I seem to recall that organised sports had been banned in his future hippie-topia; like most writers of utopias, he assumed that all subcultures and hobbies he didn’t personally like would disappear. Tell me if I’m mis-remembering.

What amazes me about the myth of progress is that almost no one believes in it completely anymore; almost everyone has abandoned it in certain areas of life, but cling to it in others. Religious conservatives feebly protest progress in social and sexual culture, saying that the culture has gone too far down a blind alley, hating the natural order of life and letting humans play God, a course that will lead to our eventual downfall. Yet in economic and technological process those same people accept it unthinkingly as “the next step,” both inevitable and superior to anything that came before.

Likewise, I know many social liberals who renounce progress in technological arenas – say, feebly protesting the latest GMO crop or highway – and who say that we have destroyed Nature and allowed humans to play God, a course that will lead to our eventual downfall. Change the subject to the latest cultural trend, however, and they accept it unthinkingly as “the next step,” both inevitable and superior to anything that came before.

One last thing: when talking about science fiction trends past and present, do you feel that people have somewhat abandoned science fiction for fantasy? It seems like the popularity of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones signifies an increasing attempt to imagine, if not exactly a future, a world without electricity or fossil fuels, with the potential to be great or terrible.

Sylvia Rissell said...

JMG and esteemed posters,

I'm not in the habit of citing Bible verses, but didn't Lot take his family away from Sodom? (with specific angelic instructions not to look back)

Synthase said...

Flatly, yes. I would. For computing, nothing but a computer will do. Not everyone is Johnny von Neumann, and even he felt the need to invent the modern computer.

As for what the GPL is - it is the GNU General Public License, a piece of social/legal technology that is the basis for the existence of free software.

It guarantees the four freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1).
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).

It also requires that any software that benefits from the use of GPL code be released under the same terms, thus preventing companies from taking these freedoms away from users. Linux is the top example of GPL code.

Synthase said...

Oh, I see you've been linked to an excellent essay about it. Worth the read, and carry on!

mmorgue said...

Interesting link concerning Retrovation:

Greetings from a just starting little homestead in Eastern Germany,

Patricia Mathews said...

As a southwesterner with a close friend in Klamath Falls, OR, I deeply resent the way every piece of ecotopian/green future science fiction/fantasy that has ever come out of the PNW has turned us desert dwellers into the villains. Fifth Sacred Thing, of course, goes over the top with that, but Norman Spinrad's Songs from the Stars* makes us the demons and Diana Paxson's Westria novels turns the countryside past the Sierra Nevada into a cesspool of gambling, vice, the Roman arena, and slave trading. Though the capital of said desert state is Reno, so it's a logical development.

*I earmarked Spinrad's novel because he is unexpectedly honest about the secret which is propping up the hippie-dippie paradise powered by wind, water, sun, and muscles. Though he does drag in Salvation By Space Brothers, alas.

Just as David Brin's Earth, which shows a post-Crisis culture of scarcity industrialism in very clear detail, or why it's still a keeper - and still has to pull a techno-rabbit out of his hat to save it from "Doomed, I tell you, DOOMED!" And it's a culture in which everybody has done everything right. According To Brin. (a common fallacy/fantasy of the ultra-bright and opinionated.)

Yes, Vespasian is one of my favorite Roman emperors. Such a down to earth man! Another savior out of the backwoods, which is needed at times. Though quite the miser. And of course, quite the person to haul Rome out of the Julio-Claudian snake pit it had become. You can't make up some of that stuff from the final days of that dynasty! Though HBO tried.

Nastarana said...

ShaneW, I meant exploded. If it makes you feel any better, I think it is pretty clear by now that the whole pack of high urbanite disdainful lefties, excuse me, progressives, is in the process of having their heads handed to them this year.

Some writers have mourned over the loss of pottery in Britain after the Romans left, but I can't help thinking that wood and metal bowls must have been much more practical than pottery in a cool, damp climate--light weight, easier to transport, not easily broken

Lizzy said...

Thanks for this, Mr Greer. I would really like to move to the Lakeland Republic, or for the Lakeland Republic to move here.
Best wishes,

Scott Davis said...

John, Here is a interesting article on how (manhattan-based) elites are reacting ("freaking out") about the possibility of a Trump win:

tokyo damage said...

Mr. Greer!

Not sure where to post this, so I'll leave it here.

Is this what you meant by Clinton yelling & kicking the vending machine because it won't deliver the merchandise she paid for?

I know we're not supposed to post election stuff here, but you nailed it & I wanted to make sure you got properly recognized for that.

gwizard43 said...

@ MCB thanks very much for the links!

234567 said...

I do like the whole "retrovation" concept. It is one we practice at the farm, and have since we started. As an engineer, we apply a sort of "Occams Razor" to things at the farm - all things being equal, the simplest solution is likely to be the best.

For us, large family numbers and a single septic tank would be problematic. The volume of wastewater would require additional field lines to spread the black water through the topsoil. Instead, we put in a gray water system, and routed all save the actual sewage to that. The result is less work, fewer problems, reduced solids to fill the septic and free water to irrigate a small patch of garden.

Solar water heating is just not enough to thoroughly clean dishes in the winter. Instead, we use the solar as a pre-heater and then run it thru natural gas heater for hot water. The result here is that we only need a 75 gallon propane tank filled each year instead of the 150 gallon we used to have in the early years. Boiling water to sanitize it has to be one of the most labor and time intensive tasks required to maintain cleanliness and reduce sickness.

Moving water is expensive, but required for most growing operations. Instead of firing up a gas engine, hooking the PTO on the tractor up to a pump, or (as strongly recommended by a huge number of people) installing a bunch of solar panels and batteries to drive an AC driven pump, well,... we went another way. We use a pair of 12V batteries with a solar charger to drive four 12VDC bilge pumps and move water daily in small increments. This is what the plants actually require, rather than periodic deluge then nothing. 12VDC batteries are ubiquitous, cheap and the solar charger was $30.

We do have satellite internet - in order to have phone service (cheaper than landline charges thru AT&T these days) and an internet business presence. But no streaming TV as it is quite expensive, we don't have time and prefer other things (Skyrim and such are more fun to relax in than TV Land, and playing guitars is quite relaxing after a long day and a shower!)

The only reason many of these things are not common place is that there is a concerted sales push for everyone to use packaged solutions, and that most people are just too afraid of being wrong or making a mistake to experiment. I'm not sure when making mistakes and being wrong became socially criminal, but people sure look askance at us when we tell them we are trying something new. And funny thing, their recommendations are all the same - pre-packaged and pushed via the internet or other media as being "the only way" or the "most technically savvy" solution or simply being the "green solution".

I'll eventually put in a windmill, but the best use for one is still to fill a cistern rather than generate power - because batteries are hugely expensive and don't last for much more than a few years.

I applaud you for pushing the retrovation thing and coining the concept - but to be fair, it is nothing new. One trip to Haiti, Dominican Republic or other truly poor places and one can see it in action all around. When things are scarce, people adapt and re-purpose to reduce labor, complexity and costs - which is exactly what you are advocating here, albeit extended into governance and other areas. I hope you expand on this in future posts, as it is part and parcel of collapsing now to avoid the rush.

Violet Cabra said...

Dear JMG,

Thank you so much, as always for your analysis and imagination! Today Retrovation seems so ripe in my little corner of experience! I'm hosting Shabbat dinner at my house later this evening and I've been impressed and heartened by how many people have said they are coming over, and the enthusiasm. Retrovation of course doesn't just examine and utilize technology, but also the treasures of cultural legacies. As I practice the prayers that were sung by so many generations of my ancestors it becomes obvious that an unintended consequence of the cult of Progress is the loss of tradition and culture, which, I have found and I am finding, are enormously important for me to feel fully embodied. I guess if I aspired to live as a robot in outer space embodiment would be an impediment, but since I like to garden, make ritual and drink wine with my friends in candlelight having a body is very helpful.

There is such an exciting world that opens when progress is recognized as a myth with destructive tendencies and that we have a plethora of established technologies, and cultural legacies that work better. As someone who likes to find things on the street, forage food, and dumpster dive it seems obvious that a strategy of salvage is much more practical than a strategy of innovation in a world with tightly constrained energy availability. By finding clothes in free piles I've spent less than $100 on garments in the past 3 years and my wardrobe is cute and practical. I've also found many books, stainless steel and enamel cooking pots, many with lids, cutting boards, mason jars etc. This salvage based logic is easily extrapolated onto the older technological forms that have been used with success in the west - they are for all intents and purposes in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk left open to the rain. Treasures right there waiting to be put back into use before the elements render them unworkable and they get tossed in history's dumpster and then, a little later, history's landfill.

I applaud you JMG, for finding such a balanced and nuanced alternative with Retrotopia which seems, as much as possible, to offer the best practical options of several worlds! With the reading of Retrotopia (I too want to buy the book so I can focus more fully than I can with screens) a little Retrotopia was made in my own imagination, a space where I can imagine something, in rich detail, beyond business as usual, progress, apocalypse, dystopia or ecotopia. What a precious gift! Again, many thanks.

Ben Johnson said...

@ Art and JMG - I would second what Art said. There are some older model semi-autos that are rugged and reliable, but if one wants to avoid issues with rounds not feeding, jamming, or stovepiping, go for a revolver. I would say this even extends to rifles and shotguns. Even a semi-auto as rugged as an AK will jam if you feed it poor quality ammo on a hot day. OTOH, I've never had a pump action shotgun jam or mis-feed.
On an amusing side note, I did have a friend break one of my shotguns, but it was a cheap, off brand gun my dad bought in the early 70s. She (my friend) proved the axiom that you get what you pay for. (As if that axiom needed more proof)

234567 said...

Oh - as grist for your mill, a conversation with a Mexican friend, an Egyptian friend and a Canadian friend (yes, I get around) produced a uniform agreement that each of our nations have "too much stuff" and that the "cheap Chinese stuff" is just not up to most of their intended purposes. All of our young people are "phone trapped" and their reality is very skewed from actual reality; all those trapped in "FoneLand" believe that tech is the answer to everything.

I have two of my four children in that category...

Enlightening for me that we all (aged 49 to 58) were in agreement on these points.

234567 said...

@ Art Myatt

Thank you for taking several paragraphs out of my mouth. I can drop my .45 revolver in a mud puddle when riding my 4-wheeler and then pick it up and it works. My sons Glock? Well, it depends on the quality of the mud.....

I believe a lot of the current weapon choices people feel are 'awesome' are actually found wanting in the robustness category. I have a Henry lever action - which always fires no matter how dirty. I have a Remington semi-auto rifle that will lock up with a little grit - in spite of much over 1000 rounds being run through it.

Some of this is simply metallurgical - softer metals wear faster and produce smoother action and foul less easily. Harder metals allow for less construction weight and higher power rounds. But how much power do you really need in a single round anyway?

I prefer simple solutions - they seem to be advantageous even if people think your choice anachronistic.

Mister Roboto said...

Off-topic, but I have a prediction I would like to field: If this professor is right about a likely Trump victory this November, Hillary Clinton's supporters will have an epic, ugly, months-long temper-tantrum that will make those who voted for Trump and those who voted for neither major-party candidate highly ultimately satisfied with their decision.

Troy Jones said...

NS's comments about "more gadgets" being the price we pay for (someday) saving people from wheelchairs reminds me of an old-time faith-healer. Just believe hard when the preacher lays on hands and you will rise up from your wheelchair. Except instead of Jesus, it's Steve Jobs and Elizabeth Holmes we have to believe in harder so the lame can walk and the blind can see. And if it fails it's because some people didn't believe hard enough.

I don't mean this as a personal attack against him or her (though I will understand if this comment is not put through), and it's obvious that NS is very passionate about their belief in the (cue mid-20th century newsreel voice) "March of Progress", but it's a perfect illustration that referring to such beliefs as a religion is no hyperbolic figure of speech but an accurate assessment of today's cultural reality. If Progress weren't a deeply held religious belief, then people wouldn't feel so threatened when its core tenets are questioned.

Put another way: why is it that my voluntarily forgoing a TV and a smartphone is a step towards bringing back infant mortality? Why does that seem to offend people so deeply? There is no literal or logical connection between gadgets and infant mortality. The development of the Germ Theory of Disease had nothing to do with the development of the iPhone-- that is self-evidently true-- and we (both as individuals and collectively) have the power to pick and choose what technologies we use and retain. Yet we are told if we don't stand in line at the Apple store with the other supplicants awaiting the latest whizbang gewgaw from on high, that we are the reason children get sick and die. Such beliefs don't make sense on a logical level. They are religious beliefs.

Jon from Virginia said...

This series of posts reminded me of Ebenezer Scrooge's second promise. Everyone remembers his first promise, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.", but the second is forgotten-"I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.”

Christopher Kinyon said...

In regard to religion and sexuality, I imagine there will still be plenty of people in the Lakeland Republic who are opposed to gay marriage, unmarried sex, and the like. However, that would not prevent them from serving in government, befriending and working with those who believe and live differently, and respecting (if not always endorsing) the laws of the land. If Bob the traditionalist Catholic and Joe the atheist homosexual are both Burkean conservatives, to reference an earlier post, they might get along rather well.

Yucca Glauca said...


I'm afraid I have very little experience on macs or with mac hardware. A quick search suggests that in installation is pretty standard, with a possible wifi fix needed. If you know any Linux users in real life, then it'll take a couple hours and then you'll be good to go. If not, things are a little more complicated. The issue is that you will have to read a little documentation and learn how to do some more advanced computer things--I'd expect to spend a few hours to a few days, depending on your degree of computer ability now. If you're comfortable with that, then it'll be an adventure and not really too hard. Basically, you'll need to make a dvd or a usb stick that you can boot into. Once you do that, you can actually try Linux without committing to install it by booting that. If you do decide to install, the installers on most popular distributions are pretty simple, and things should work good, with the possibility of needing to run a command or two to get wifi working correctly.

As far as which type, Ubuntu and Linux Mint are the most popular and usually recommended for new Linux users. I don't know the snow leopard interface, other than what screenshots I see online. The Unity interface I mentioned is standard on Ubuntu and was supposed to be designed to "compete with Apple," so maybe you'll find it more congenial than most Linux users do. I'd recommend Gnome Ubuntu more, as Gnome was the interface people said was more "mac-like" back in 2008. Linux Mint is what I personally put on new users' computers, but it's default set-up looks more like the classic versions of Windows. It can easily be reconfigured to look however you want, though. Linux Mint is a child of Ubuntu, so the Ubuntu commands I liked for in the wifi should work for either.

P.S.: If you're a computer expert and were just curious about my personal preferences, then I apologize for the step-by-step, and I personally run Slackware, the most retro of major distributions. And if you have html tags turned off, I apologize for all the links.

dltrammel said...

Art Myatt said:
"One area of retro vs. modern you may not have noticed occurs in the choices made for self-defense handguns. Obviously, the main fork is between revolvers and semi-automatic pistols."

I would add, as someone who just recently helped both my mother and sister purchase guns for self defense, that revolvers offer another big advantage, they are simple to learn and remember how to use. A very important feature when it comes to something that you won't use that often.

I suspect that feature is something most retrovational technology would have. Simplicity shouldn't be unrated.


I have a perfect example of a retrovational technology..."hay boxes" for the kitchen. Something you introduced us to here on the ADR. It's a simple tech that would fit right in, even in a higher tech kitchen.

In the design of my retirement home, I've included space for a hay box in the countertop right next to the stove. I figure a recessed unit, that the top opens to allow hot pots to be placed inside of them, then the lid closed and serves as counter top.

The energy savings alone make it a must have for future kitchens.

dltrammel said...

To David by the lake:

Advice on starting a local GW chapter seems to be a great topic for a thread over on the GW Forum, since people will be interested in that not just this week but in coming months and years. So I started one here:

"Starting your own local GW Chapter"

I would ask the people involved with the various chapters/towers to please stop by and give us your advice, suggestions and observations.

(BTW if you are not register on the forum and want to be, send me an email: dtrammel at greenwizards dot info
I'll get you set up as quickly as possible.)

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ JMG - The Great Pumpkin isn't real? OH, NOOOOOOOOOO!!!! :-). Lew

peakfuture said...

Speaking of fleeing, I'm curious what you will have to say on that issue - the whens, ifs and hows. What does it take to uproot yourself when things get dicey? There (unfortunately) are plenty of examples.

Fleeing to another location or country, fleeing and being mobile, or staying put (although it seems like an oxymoron, is it possible to 'flee in place'?) are all things that people have done in the past (and are doing now).

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Nulu - I hope someone responds to your query. Like you, I'm still running OSX 10.6.8. Which is getting more and more problematic. But I have discovered (warnings aside) that using Chrome as my browser solves a lot of problems. Sites that don't work with Safari, anymore, work fine with Chrome and are a lot more .... "stable." But Chrome keeps warning me that my whole kit and kaboodle is outdated and may not work much longer.

On the other hand, my old desk top .... the hardware ... may be on it's last leg. So, I'll probably take the path of least resistance (and not much of a learning curve.) Get an Apple laptop, loaded with whatever software they're churning out, these days. Lew

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Shane W. - So. Just out of curiosity, where do you get the idea that 12 Step Programs are subsidy dumps? The groups I've been involved in, for the past 27 years, are self supporting. A voluntary "buck in the basket" seems to keep the whole thing rolling along. Lew

Cathy McGuire said...

I've been wrestling with this same issue regarding a science fiction story I'm working on. It deals with an intelligent species that's millions of years older than ours, passed through their age of scientific and technological discovery about two million years back,...

That sure sounds like an interesting story!!! I hope you succeed!

Thomas Daulton said...

Good Lord, some of the ideas from ADR -- even Retrotopia -- are starting to peep their little noses into the infamous TED-Talks site. They're not really there yet, but the kernels are sprouting. One Thing At A Time

James M. Jensen II said...


I'll be in the same situation as you and your wife if there's a civil war. What I worry about is that my particular health problem - type 1 diabetes - will make it difficult to find anywhere willing to take me. I'm working to get better control to reduce my insulin needs but any insulin dependence at all will place a burden on the health care system of any country that might otherwise take me.

But, I can't pity myself too much. I'm still in a better position than many, many people - especially my father - should things come to that.

Greg Burton said...

The real fun will start once the Atlantic Republic has to start considering these things - that's where the conflict will be. I know you don't particularly want to write about life in the AR... so don't. ;) But there's definitely a story there.

@Glenn - bicycles can be made from bamboo - the actual need for steel and other metals is relatively small compared to the conventional bikeframe design. The real issue is rubber or synthetics (usually made from petrochemicals).

Oh - and Carthage must be destroyed. You're welcome.

pygmycory said...

It looks like the war in syria is starting to act as a hotbed for extremely antibiotic resistant infections. Not surprising really, but still a very bad thing.

Daniel Cowan said...

Really looking forward to reading the Retropia novel - I read the first few installments, and liked it so much that I wanted to read it in print than off a screen, I definitely enjoy novels more in the printed form.

If on-topic plugs are allowed in the comments, a member of my local transition group (Transition Winnipeg) just released a eco-utopian novel, Euterra Rising. It's set in a similar time period to Star's Reach (though he wasn't aware of that novel and hasn't read it as of yet), and I'm enjoying comparing the two different visions of the far future society.

For anyone interested, the link is:

Ethan La Coursiere said...

Yet another fantastic post, Mr. Greer. I didn't care too terribly much for the Retrotopia series, but you do have a talent for writing, and your regular posts are as good as they come. I need to ask, though; what do you predict for the future of American politics? If and when Trump gets in, will the public like his ideas?

Doctor Westchester said...


One more congratulations on finishing this piece of fiction. I think (hope) it will be very useful in helping to open people’s eyes to new possibilities.

If you are still editing the manuscript, here is one possible consistency issue: In “A Change of Habit” Peter Carr talks of buying a button-up cotton shirt for his Lakeland outfit. In “The Only Way Forward” he talks of dressing in hempcloth. I recognize that the hempcloth might refer to his raincoat, not his shirt, so this might not be an issue.

Nachtgurke said...

I can't remember where I found this quote from a native Indian who visited Europe, I think it was during the 19th century... nor I can remember the name of this guy - anyhow, during his visit or after returning from it, he said something like "I don't think white people are more evil than our people are, yet white peoples social system will lead their society towards destruction" - to make it very short.

I have no idea on how different the social system of the native americans was to ours before the european invasion and whether it was constructed in a way that was not doomed to fail, anyhow I believe the part about europeans to be very true. And starting from this, I wonder if Lakeland Republic is doomed to fail in the long term as well. Of course, they have made some probably wise decisions - yet, have they changed their social system in a way that it can last?

Take a societies stance on warfare as an example. Europeans (and I believe even many Americans) were under a strong impression from the sufferings during WWII. If you listen to the political speeches and discussions of this time, especially in Europe, you can clearly notice this. For Europeans, war had become kind of a taboo for quite a while. At the end of the 90s, the socialist and green party won the elections in Germany and for a very short time, the replacement of NATO by a european structure with participation of russia was cleary on the table as well as the retreat of US nuclear missiles from Germany. Those days are long gone, though.

To make a long story short: People forgot the suffering and pains of war. And shortly before the last living memories of this period will die, war is becoming a more and more realistic option. The lessons learned have not been transformed to societies long term memories (however this might happen) - so they are almost lost. If in Lakeland Republic the last living memories of secession, civil war and especially the time before die - what is going to happen?

Many words... hope you could somehow get my point anyhow. :-)


David, by the lake said...


Many thanks!

Re simplification discussions

When I mention our average monthly power usage (~225 kWh) I get asked questions like, do you have lights at your house?

OT and election news, but I decided to take advantage of our early voting window which is just now opening. So now I can get on with my life and harvest the rest of my squash.

Shane W said...

correct, 12-step programs are self-supporting through the voluntary contributions of their members (though "rents" for meeting space are notoriously low). You'll notice that I didn't mention 12-step programs, but 12-step BASED recovery programs (rehab, etc), which pony up to the subsidy feed trough, and have their lobbyists and ardent supporters among politicians. These are not 12-step programs, but 12-step based paid rehabs that are staffed almost exclusively by 12-step members, relying on the 12-step model, and referring/mandating their clients attend 12-step meetings. The US is alone in having a recovery industry that leans so heavily on the 12-step model, no other nations will fund 12-step based recovery b/c the evidence supporting that method is not there.

DAERGI said...

It's interesting that some people equate going back to older technology means accepting, say, child labor or slavery both of which are on the rise in our modern times. Note the recent story on shrimp sold in the US being caught and processed by slave labor. Young women in the US trading sex for necessities such as food has seen a dramatic rise as well. As to your point, clearly the level of technology and human rights violations are not linked. If anything, technology has increased peoples' ability to manipulate and oppress others.

donalfagan said...

I had a thought while biking home today: A fanfic version of Retrotopia called Retrotopoeia, where everyone and everything's name is a sound.

I now use Linux Mint Cinnamon, after a few years of using Ubuntu. Mint's iso downloads were hacked back in February, so it must be getting fairly popular to actually be a target.

Kevin Warner said...

JMG, your description of Ecotopia's blatant intolerance of differing ideas and opinions sounds like it would be a frightening place to live in and this seems to spill over in their treatment of blacks as well going by one post. Life there sounds like it would be a sort of lifestyle Wahhabism. The only reply that comes to mind are the words of the immortal Eric Cartman: "It's all a bunch of tree-hugging hippy crap!"

Apple computers has been mentioned a few times so I would recommend people read the article at as a must-read in how good design can be corrupted by the marketing droids. Though not a Mac user, I can sympathize with them.

Re: genepaul said...
"While our mass culture wallows in the mental swampland created by the 'myth of progess', counter culturalists often seem to be swayed by the 'myth of wisdom'. In what possible scenario does "homo callidus" achieve the consciousness shift absolutely necessary for a shift towards a wiser and improved society? Declining polities double down on failed strategies rather than invent new ones. Decline is not a time of enlightened action, it is a time of desperation."
I think that you have already answered your own question here. Times of desperation are precisely when consciousness shifts will occur and the historical record bears this out. Greer's Lakeland Republic, for example, only came about because all the old political, economical, social and military structures had been swept from the board in a vicious civil war allowing new attitudinal changes to take place. If you want a historical example, Athenian democracy only came about in response to a fight against a local tyrant who brought in foreign troops to bulk up his rule.

As to the question brought up by Ursula K. LeGuin’s story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" about whether walking away does anything to change the situation, or does it just let the ones who walk away from Omelas feel morally superior, there is a third possibility. After understanding that city's dark city, how could you live with people like that that are prepared to let that vileness continue. How would that change the way that you think about your friends and neighbours? How could you marry someone from there that has it in their heart to go along with it all? The strain of living there after that would be intolerable and you would have to bail for your own peace of mind.

Angus Wallace said...


Thanks for the heads-up about lime. It sounds like 3 kg of quicklime will release nearly 1 kWh of heat when combined with water. Wow!
However, limestone needs to be heated above 800 Celsius to convert to quicklime. That would be hard to do in winter, even with a solar concentrator, which implies seasonal storage of quicklime. I wouldn't like the thought of hundreds of kg of such a reactive substance sitting in my shed! ;-)

Cheers, Angus

onething said...

Mr. Geronimo,

"Lakeland deals well with the material issues of retrovation, and also with the cultural ones, but it lacks the religious cultists from which the revelation of the new way of life, the method of dealing with reality that actually works, would come. And that, in my opinion, is needed because one can't fight and defeat a religion like the idolatry of progress without another religion and that religion should be stronger than the religion being defeated,"

Perhaps climate change could fill that role.

Glenn said...

Greg Burton said...

"@Glenn - bicycles can be made from bamboo - the actual need for steel and other metals is relatively small compared to the conventional bikeframe design. The real issue is rubber or synthetics (usually made from petrochemicals)"

Yes, I've seen bamboo frames, and every now and then at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival I've seen frames made of other wood. My point was, even a regular bike doesn't take much steel. I'm a carpenter. There is three times as much steel in my hand tools alone as there is in my bicycle. Which is to say, I have over 90 pounds of steel tools. And frames don't really wear out. Sometimes they break; but can usually be repaired by welding or brazing. After a century or so, you might wish to recycle the frame if it has too many welds mid-tube.

Agreed about the rubber, but the Victorians managed it with their level of technology, which admittedly used profligate amounts of coal, and natural latex. I think a post oil industrial system could do the same, with a different heat source. Low-Tech magazine (on line) did a nice article about industrial processes that utilize low levels of heat.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

nuku said...

@Yucca Glauca,
Re your suggestions for Linux on my Mac: Thank you very much! I'm an experienced computer user so the actual installation will be no problem, and I don't use wifi and that makes it even easier to configure. I've got several old hard drives around to use for trial purposes. What will be interesting is finding out how many of my everyday programs will run on whatever version of Linux I decide to use.

pygmycory said...

Have you ever noticed that when you google a subject, you get ads trying to sell it to you that are obviously not written by humans? Seriously, you get things like this:

Antibiotic Resistance - Find Our Lowest Possible Price‎‎▼

People generally don't want to buy antibiotic-resistance, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria!

John Michael Greer said...

Crow Hill, I didn't stress that, but the episode where Carr visits the school in Hicksville mentions that natural science is one of the three basics of the curriculum (the "three Cs" -- literacy, numeracy, naturacy). Those are going to get a nonfiction post of their own in due time. As for "retrouver" et al., yes, I was thinking of that too, and of the "trouveres" or "finders" who launched the era of the troubadors.

Dorda, of course, and that's an uncomfortably likely future. Still, why not try to imagine alternatives and work for those, instead of just accepting a worst case scenario?

Brigyn, I've said for a long time that if Europe can get its act together, it stands to get through the approaching mess in much better shape than the US, precisely because so much of the built environment is still shaped by a pre-auto era, good train systems are still in place, etc. Rising sea levels won't help, especially in low-lying countries like yours, but then we're going to lose southern Florida in a few decades, too!

Brian, I haven't read Ecotopia in a long time; I don't remember the biodegradable handwavium, but it wouldn't surprise me. The fragmentation of the myth of progress -- yes, I see that a lot, and one of the reasons I took the time to deconstruct progress as a religious myth (in the most controversial series of posts this blog has hosted yet, btw) was precisely to point to the underlying pattern and try to help my readers to see it, not just bits of it. As for fantasy and science fiction, heck of a good question -- I'm not well tuned into pop culture these days. I know that in terms of book publication, both genres are in the doldrums, with a tiny fraction of the number of books per year being published as compared to the 1970s and 1980s; a lot of that is because both genres have been in deep ruts for a couple of decades (the interstellar-travel rut in SF, the Tolkien-clone rut in fantasy), but doubtless there are other factors as well.

Sylvia, wasn't that just a matter of getting somebody out of a city that was about to be destroyed?

Synthase, fair enough.

Mmorgue, hmm! I wonder if they'll get back into international news broadcasts -- there used to be a lot of those on the shortwave band, and not just Russian. That would be a technology worth reviving, as a way to get around the monoculture of the mainstream media.

Patricia, as someone who grew up in Seattle and married a woman from Spokane, I can tell you that wetside/dryside rivalries are entrenched all down the Pacific coast! What you need are some good writers in the desert states who are willing to return the favor, and turn San Francisco, Portland and Seattle into festering dens of slick, self-important technofascists, whose evil machinations have to be quashed by the straight-talking, straight-shooting desert folk. I for one look forward to reading the results!

Lizzy, you're welcome and thank you. I'd move there myself in a heartbeat.

Scott, funny. Thank you.

Tokyo Damage, why, yes, that's exactly what I was talking about!

234567, of course it's nothing new. I simply figured that giving it a new moniker might remind people that yes, it's a possibility.

John Michael Greer said...

Violet, exactly -- retrovation doesn't just apply to technology, and there are a vast number of other things that can be pulled out of the contemporary world's dumpster, given a good cleaning, and put back to use. I'm glad you find the concept, and the story, useful.

Ben, so noted. What shooting I've done has been with pump-action shotguns and lever-action .22s, and I never had a jam or misfeed, so I'm inclined to agree!

234567, that's really good to hear. If enough people really begin to notice that "progress" these days means that things get worse, a range of productive possibilities come within reach.

Mister R., no question, I think we're in for a world-class pout.

Troy, exactly. You'll notice that NS's comments also had nothing to do with the theme of this post, and flatly refused to address the central point of the post, which is that technological progress is a source of problems as well as solutions, and at this point it's producing more of the former than the latter. That's par for the course with progress worshippers. I noted in a previous post that defenders of progress have a script that they follow, as rigidly defined as a Christian passion play; they have their stereotyped arguments for progress, and they expect you to respond with an equally stereotyped set of arguments against progress, which they then overcome so that the blessings of the great god Progress will shine on us all. If you bring out an argument that's not part of the script -- for example, that technological progress has reached the point of negative returns, and harms more than it helps -- they don't respond to it; they give you a blank look, and return to their scripted lines, and if you keep on saying something that's not in the script they start yelling insults at you. How dare you deviate from the ritual drama!

That's what happened with NS. The argument s/he brought up is one of the standard ritual utterances of progress worshippers, and irrelevant to the point made by this week's post; when I tried to bring the conversation back to the subject of the post, NS simply reiterated the line, a little louder, with some pity porn added for the sake of the drama; when I once again attempted to return the discussion to the subject of the post, I got a tantrum, and s/he got banned. It's happened repeatedly here, and let's just say it hasn't given me a particularly high impression of the intellectual abilities of believers in progress.

Jon, hmm! I hadn't remembered that either. A very good point.

Christopher, exactly! I'm quite sure that the woman we saw whose oath of office ended "So help me Jesus my Lord and Savior" doesn't approve of same sex marriage, and the minister of the church where she spends Sunday mornings will not perform ceremonies for same sex couples -- but that's like other moral issues, something that sets believers in a given creed apart from "the world." A lot of Christians used to understand that, and I'm glad to say I know some who still do.

John Michael Greer said...

Dltrammel, I ain't arguing. We've got three of them.

Lew, ahem. ;-)

Peakfuture, I know. To me, it's a last resort, and it would take something like the outbreak of civil war or the rise of a genuine fascist movement to make me do it.

Cathy, it's an interesting project. I recently had the pleasure of running across a website on the Old Solar System -- basically, the solar system as science fiction imagined it, before space probes spoiled it all: canals on Mars, jungles on Venus, and so on -- arguing that since we're talking about imaginative literature anyway, why not write stories set in that alluring context? That's both attractive and eccentric enough to catch my interest, and I'm sketching out a series of short stories set on Mars the way it ought to have been: a gorgeous, arid, ancient world, inhabited by an intelligent species that's been civilized since long before your ancestors and mine came down out of the trees. As well as being great fun, it's an intriguing chance to think about what technology looks like when progress is a couple of million years in the past. I'll post something here when the stories start appearing. The working title for the first story, for what it's worth, is "Out of the Chattering Planet."

Thomas, you just rocked my world. If the TED Talks are starting to do something other than spouting flying-car technofantasy -- well in the immortal words of Ghan-buri-Ghan, "Wind is changing!"

James, understood. That's also something my wife has to take into account, though the health condition is different.

Greg, of course -- and the fact that so many people immediately start thinking about how the Atlantic Republic will change over is exactly what I'd hoped, because that also means they're starting to think about how they and their society can do the same thing...

Pygmycory, yikes. That's not surprising, but it's really bad news.

Daniel, most interesting. He might want to see if Into the Ruins might be interested in doing a book review.

Ethan, thank you. We'll be getting to that in upcoming posts.

Doctor W., good catch. I caught that about a week ago, as it happens, and substituted hempcloth for cotton throughout.

Nachtgurke, of course the future of the Lakeland Republic could go haywire. That was one of the points of the final episode -- we don't know what the future is going to bring, all we can do is try our best to make things work here and now.

Daergi, that's an excellent point, and one that belongs in the discussion. Thank you.

Donalfagan, funny.

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, well, I don't find San Francisco congenial, either, and from everything I've heard it's gotten much worse with the latest tech bubble. People are much less arrogant in the Rust Belt!

Pygmycory, that's really funny; thank you. "Antibiotic resistance! Get your fresh hot antibiotic resistance! Marked down today!" Heh.

John Michael Greer said...

NS (offlist), let's see. Trying to divert the discussion from the subject of this post to a canned talking point of your choice? Check. Misrepresenting what I've said in this post and my comments? Check. Responding to criticism of your position by simply repeating your argument? Check. Stooping to schoolyard insults? Check. Congratulations; you just filled in a line on my latest Troll Bingo card. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Candace said...

@ Sylvia

But God also Sent Jonah to Nineveh. He couldn't get out of it, they heeded his warning and repented and the city was saved, yes?

Dorda Giovex said...

But.. but I see what I described as far from being a worst case. Much like locking a drug crazed addict in a room .. a harsh horrible dangerous and terribly painful cure for its addiction but he will probably survive. In the same way, hunger disease war are an horrible cure for a bad case of fossile fuel addiction of humanity. It will be long (1000-10000 years) and painful ( loss of 6 billion people) but humanity will probably survive while the ecosystem recovers.
On the other hand there is what i consider the worst case: somehow humanity keeps burning fossile fuels like a crazed addict overdosing.. it rocks the ecosystem boat until it topples over with gigantic methane hydrate eruptions in the arctic which burn the oxien in the atmosphere reducing oxygen content by 90%. Meanwhile the entire ocean become anoxic and it releases huge clouds of deadly hydrogen sulphide. The ozone layer gets depleted and unshielded hard radiation strikes the surface. Meanwhile unprecedented storms pop up everywhere with unseen fury. I see this as the worst case: Earth turning into a dead rock like it almost happened during the Permian Extinction. But this time it can be faster and even harsher.

Shane W said...

JMG, I never exactly understood the line about "Troll Bingo cards", thanks for finally enlightening us on how it is played! :D

Shane W said...

Sometimes, I wonder if I've ever contributed a troll or two--I know I've referred people here who probably couldn't grasp the concepts, but I'm not sure if they ever went on to become a full-fledged troll or not...

Jason Heppenstall said...

Apropos of your character's line about there being "Too many gadgets", I heard a joke the other day:

Q: How do you milk a herd of sheep?

A: Release a new iPhone

Boom boom. Seriously though, do you remember when people used to line up all night (or for days on end) to get the latest model? Apparently this has not happened with their latest 'release'. Perhaps even Apple aficionados are getting the message that the marginal benefit of owning the latest iGizmo is zilch. I lifted the following for an article in the UK media - I think it speaks for itself:

"In Birmingham, around 10 people were seen queuing at Birmingham's bull ring shopping centre when the store opened at 8am. This made a stark contrast to the release of the iPhone 6s in 2015, when people were queuing down the aisle of the shopping centre. And at the Oracle Apple Store in Reading, only one person was seen in the queue, despite a large area being cordoned off to accommodate Apple fans."

Apple responded by saying it had 'discouraged' people from queuing - a strategy that is clearly working.

Robert Beckett said...

Re Angus Wallace & PCM heat storage

Excellent investigation. I looked into PCM storage a few years back while designing a "passive" solar off-grid house at 44 N latitude. My researches led me to conclude that calcium chloride hexahydrate (94.45%) with potassium chloride (4.75%) and sodium chloride (0.5%) stabilizers and barium chloride dihydrate (0.5%) nucleator (percentages by weight) was a strong candidate as a low cost, stable PCM mixture with melting point apx. 27.5 C. The melting point can be adjusted somewhat with NaCl being the critical component.

I expected to contain the PCM in an array of re-used polycarbonate soda or pop bottles and store and retrieve heat and cooling with fans.

The plan was to use apx. 3000 kg to triple the performance of an passive, insulated masonry house, to the point where it was self heating at winter design temperature.
Cooling was less of a concern.

You might want to look up expired US patent 4613444 (Dow Chemical) for information on this reversible phase change material.

I concur with our host, keep up the good work!

Robert Beckett, aka Source Dweller

Clay Dennis said...

I have found that a great lismus test for techno progress desease is one's beleif in the future of self-driving cars. Unlike the internet, cell phones, or regular cars you can actualy discuss this with most people because their attachment to it is not emotional. Anyone with experience in automation or just plain common sense realizes this is a technology frought with unrealized costs, complications and dramatic pitfalls but many see it as inevitable and beneficial. I find the support for autonomous motor cars the most startlying among those who have fully realized the huge downside of regular cars. People within the urban bike activist community have gained a fairly broad understanding of the many ways that private motor cars cost society, the earth, and the future much more than their benefits. But instead of this leading them to the understanding found in your Retrotopia series, it leads many of them to view the solution as electric self driving cars. But at least its an area people can still discuss rationaly.

pygmycory said...

the WHO just put out a fact sheet on resistance to antimicrobials. You might want to take a look at it because it discusses resistance to antivirals as well as antibiotics.

I had not realized that resistance to anti-HIV drugs was this high. Interestingly, unlike the antibiotic resistance that tends to be worst in developing countries, according to this the resistance to anti-HIV drugs is worst in developed. In 2010, 10-20% of people starting antiretroviral therapy in developed nations had drug-resistant HIV. For those restarting a lapsed program, the figure is 40%.

Artemisin and multidrug resistance of malaria is also becoming an increasing problem. Along the Cambodia-Thailand border it has become resistant to almost all available drugs.

Houston, not only do we have a problem, we have a problem that is spinning rapidly out of control.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Oops - clearly I meant a flock of sheep, not a herd :-)

S├ębastien Louchart said...

Hello JMG,

Oddly enough, it's a strange feeling to read one of your regular non-fictional posts after Retrotopia. But this one deserves a lot because of that new word you've forged. "Retrovation" and its clique of adjectives, adverbs, and so on have already been adopted by me :)

Thank you as well for the idea of Antibiotic Resistance which I heard of for sure lately. Could make a nice addition to the project I'm working on.


wa1kij said...

I must remember to re-read The Well at the World's End in anticipation of your promised commentary on the Dry Tree.

M Smith said...


I too want to run Linux instead of Windows, so I rushed right out and ordered a copy of Linux Mint's latest version (18-something), only to learn it's not compatible with my mobile broadband device (or at least, not without some tinkering on my part).

What I should have done, and you might consider if you haven't already, is to find some Linux user forums and probe around a bit, if you have concerns about a particular device or program. That's how I learned the compatible version for my device is 12-something, not 18-something. I also picked up a couple of 2-line scripts that I still have to try, that might make version 18 work with it after all.

I realize you're an experienced user, and so am I, yet I never thought to check with the people who use this OS every day and have devised solutions.

genepaul said...

@Kevin Warner

Since reading your comment I've also encountered a similar if somewhat 'darker' view held by George Mobus. He states in his latest blog post that (and I paraphrase for brevity) If the small number of humans who survive the coming evolutionary bottleneck survive they will only do so by undergoing a consciousness so radical as to fashion a novel species of the genus Homo. Without a hint of snide suggestion I think his vision confirms both our mindsets. Mine, that the way forward gets as ugly as sin and Homo sapiens will soon be extinct. Yours that humanity will prevail through responding to crisis transformatively.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Shane W. Thanks for clarifying the difference between 12 Step Programs and 12 Step based paid rehabs. Appreciated. Lew

anioush said...

Glenn/Greg, I hear from my boyfriend who's in the business that so far bike frames from sustainable materials suffer from a bad case of needing toxic high-tech glue to keep together - thus metal's still the best option...

Nachtgurke said...

"... of course the future of the Lakeland Republic could go haywire. That was one of the points of the final episode -- we don't know what the future is going to bring, all we can do is try our best to make things work here and now. "

Obviously - anyhow, this clouded-future-vision sparked my interest in whether there could be any mechanism that allows a society to establish a kind of resitance against self-destruction. For an individual there is the possibility for deep, lasting changes, we know that. But is this also possible for a society and if so, how could this possibly be achieved (how does a society "store" emotions / how can it maintain a living memory?) Is it possible, for example, for a society traumatized by war to change in a way that makes future wars highly unlikely and to make this change "permanent", that is the change and attitude surviving those who brought it?

To put it in a different, more technical way: Could a society reach a steady state that is different from being dead and if so, how?

Jill said...

Speaking of using older technologies, I abandoned computer/phone aided systems several years ago to return to pen and paper. I saw an almost identical system recently at I use an appointment book ( works perfectly for me,plus I was able to purchase it at my with-in walking distance,locally owned stationary store.
Berkeley, CA

Justin said...

Very interesting news... it seems the USA bombed a Syrian convoy, blamed the Russians, and the Russians aren't having much of it. Video of the actual explosions demonstrate that the warheads were American-made (the equivalent Russian weapon produces a distinctly different looking explosion), and it's known there was a Predator drone in the area.

It's occurred to me that the logical sequel to Twilight's Last Gleaming would be a story about American nuclear technicians working under Chinese supervision to safely recover the nuclear reactors from the beached American carrier.

donalfagan said...

From what I've read, the best firearm for home defense is a tactical shotgun. I agree that revolvers are better for self-defense than semiautos for most folk. But most folk aren't buying guns for self-defense - they're buying guns because they like shooting at stuff, aka plinking. Semiautos let you shoot and shoot and shoot some more, and reloading is fast.

That's progress.

Donald Hargraves said...

Re: Biodegradeable Plastics in Ecotopia:

Before the explosion of petroleum plastics, a lot of plastics were made from organic sources. Tree waste especially. Here's a "map" of plastics, circa 1940, and notice the left side of things – "Resins," "Lignin," "Rubber" and "Cellulose;" all from plants.

Synthetica, a New Continent of Plastics

And on the anecdotal side: An older friend of mine talked about having a doll that eventually fell apart and rotted. When it started falling apart, she would act like it got cut and put a band-aid over the cracks. She also intimated that the doll was a hand-me-down from the 1930s, and thus it likely was made out of cheap, wood-based plastics.

So Ecotopia's throwaway plastics – hardly inconceivable (although handwavium was invoked by using special "keys" inputted into the plastic – how they'd make sure that these special "keys" would only land on the outside surface, and only activate after the contents within were used up, is a curious question at best that PROBABLY involved lots of technology). More interesting to me, however, was that Callenback went on to depict that there was a movement to do away with plastics altogether – and that the movement looked to be succeeding.

Sort of like the movement in Retrotopia to move from level 5 to level 1 in the level of services maintained (and, thus, taxes charged) by the local governments.

DeVaul said...

Maybe someone already mentioned this, but did you ever think of reminding the "we cannot go back to the past" fanatics that it was, in fact, the "past" that saved Europe from the Dark Ages and made the Renaissance possible?

All those ancient Greek and Roman books on mathematics, architecture, philosophy, oratory, writing, logic, art, and reason stored in Arabic libraries and isolated monasteries were all "rediscovered" and led to a reawakening of something other than religious fanaticism and feudal decay. The Black Death also helped out too, but it did not teach anyone how to make a stone arch or an aqueduct.

I can actually see a possibility of a modern day "rediscovery" of ancient (i.e. obsolete) computer equipment made in the early 90's by Apple Computer, in which all components were made by the same company and came with a lifetime warranty because they were so well built that they just kept working and working and working. I still use them to do my genealogy work, and they last longer than modern gadgets do.

They may not give us an "internet", but who needs that? Their main function was to help make the process of writing, designing, and higher math more efficient by not wasting materials on physical models when they could be simulated by cheap electrons. And they used very little power compared to today's gadgets. My laptop uses a 33 MHz processor and does just fine for most work I need done.

I also see a definite "reawakening" of the importance of horse drawn wagons, farm equipment, and other transportation provided by "horse power". There is a reason why car engines are still rated by their horse power: the horse was and always has been the standard for mobile power -- at least among humans.

History shows that when an empire collapses, tons of information and knowledge are lost, but basic knowledge is retained or relearned until a society is ready for the advanced knowledge of the previous empire -- assuming, of course, that they feel they actually need it. It not, it remains just a curiosity from the past.

nuku said...

@M Smith,
Re Linux: Thanks for the heads up. I’ve looked at various forums and found the info I need to use a version of Linux on my desktop machine which is cable connected to the internet and is the only “device” I use other than a cheap lobotomized non-connected “smart” fone (used only for tx and voice because I like the virtual keyboard).

One modern “device” I do use quite a bit is an electronic hearing aid. I could of course get along without it or maybe try a steampunk Victorian ear trumpet...

Re “any mechanism that allows a society to establish a kind of resistance against self-destruction“:
Interesting question and interesting way you put it using the word “mechanism”. Changes which last across generations are possible in relatively slow changing societies, but I doubt these changes can be permanent. Although societies are made up of individual people, I believe using people‘s psychology as a pattern to investigate society may be a flawed tool.
In the end, some people, those who die of old age, do in fact self-destruct anyway.

dragonfly said...

I'm sure it has a lot to do with reading your work, JMG, that for the past couple of years I have increasingly found myself in the habit of wondering, "What would I do without X ?", where X is some gadget, tool, or material. This mental exercise, often leading to actual retrovation, has really taken the edge off my occasional bouts of "collapse anxiety". Thank you for helping to spur that process !

Also - thank you very much for the treat that is Retrotopia. It has been thoroughly - and thoughtfully - enjoyable.

Finally, having been a Linux user for some 20-odd years now, I'm not quite sanguine about its ability to avoid the trap of diminishing returns. I think it could go either way. While it seems that most ongoing development of the operating system is in the form of supporting newer hardware and protocols, there are also obvious signs that some of the developers have never heard of the old saw, "If it isn't broken, don't fix it !".

p.s. Regarding the viability of built-from-scratch computers in an age of decline, here's a recent build using only discrete transistors, the Megaprocessor"

patriciaormsby said...

NS is outta here, bless him/her/it. But there is an endless supply of trolls like that, so here is a new site with evidence of harm from modern technology,
The list of these victims from all walks of life keeps growing, and no matter how many prominent people are added, general knowledge of this can be effectively suppressed by the various parties, military and corporate for a start, with a vested interest in the status quo.

Meanwhile, the victims are faced every day with a choice between debility and hermithood.

Russell Cook said...

Hi everyone,

I was hoping to get some advice on my personal projects related to the winding down of industrial society.

I've become an active member of my local community garden and have learned a lot, and am helping a friend to set up a veggie garden at his home. I've learned to make a serviceable pair of Viking era turnshoes, and will try using a salvaged tyre to make soles for the next pair (cheaper and much longer lasting than thick leather). I've also been learning how to spin linen, and have made plyed string, with a view to making thread for leather sewing in the future. I'm also learning some Krav Maga as it seems likely that some techniques for dealing with personal violence will be worth having.

I am interested in the idea of low tech radio, but was not sure exactly what JMG has in mind. Is the idea to join a amateur radio club and ask around about making/salvaging a vacuum tube radio, to keep this technology alive? Can they be made at home? And is this project one with utility during the next crisis period, or one with the aim more of passing on a gift to future generations?

Any thoughts or tips would be great :-)

Donald Hargraves said...

@Clay Dennis:
My guess is that a lot of people figure that, once you lease a self-driving car instead of own one (and that's always the rub – everyone who dreams of self-driving cars dreams of everyone leasing their use instead of owning their own for daily use) you'll figure that you don't REALLY need one. Eventually walk-able neighborhoods develop where people rent car usage for shopping, medical visits, weekly church attendance (in case their denomination doesn't have a congregation right where they live), and visits to the hospital; with everything else that can be done being done locally through walking or through mass transit. Eventually even the cars disappear as the trips become organizable through mass transit.

In short, self-driving cars have the potential for helping people step down to a world where cars don't exist outside of necessity.

Jay Cummings said...

Your analogy of sitting in a car revving the engine against a brick wall is an apt one, and helps me understand how I feel about where things are at. Because, if you're in the car, ironically, things seem to slow down. You're comfy, the heat is on keeping the blizzard outside at bay, your standard music channel is playing familiar songs. The sound of the engine and the rumble in your seat tell you that time is passing in a familiar way. There might be some in the car who notice (as you have) that the tank is running empty, but for most of us, everything feels copacetic. Never mind that the car isn't really going anywhere. (For example, How long will it take for the S&P to double again? It seems outrageous, yet back when the car was on the road, we could celebrate the S&P doubling every decade or so.) People call this the "New Normal." But your analogy is so much better. It's different even than a "Calm before the storm." It's something else. A kind of cozy purgatory. Putting solar panels on the roof feels bit like looking through the glove box for some fast food napkins to stuff in the thin sweatshirt we're all wearing as insulation against the cold that will come when the engine dies from lack of fuel. But that's a bit off still, or maybe the catch in the engine is audible. Even so, when the engine cuts out entirely, the car will still be warm for a little while, and at least out of the wind. These seats are comfy, and the radio is playing my tune.

S├ębastien Louchart said...


I agree with you on the sturdiness and performances of early 90 computers.

Sure we could reconstruct a Apple computer (or a Commodore Amiga or an Atari ST) from this era, the blueprints are still around I guess (think of the latin and greek sources held in scriptoriums) and the main core is a Motorola 68000 we can salvage from any CNC milling machine from the early 1990, from any Airbus A320 or from lab equipement. It would a great deal of work to have a functional motherboard but not impossible.

When I was in engineering school in France, we turned that piece of crap which is a Minitel (a teletext terminal connected to land line) into a functional TTY terminal to access the school mainframe using a CNC machine motherboard. The assembly code was still painful to write, though ;) said...

Great post Greer.

I really like the idea of picking and choosing different technologies from different eras to the best advantage of society.

I have just ordered some additional books you have written about the future of America which I will start reading as soon as I have time!

I have finished my blog post on the global implications of a Trump presidency. I would be interested in your thoughts.



Cherokee Organics said...


A bit late to the party this week as I'm working long hours trying to get my new berry bed in (which has almost doubled in size of late!). A happy belated equinox to you too!

I’m tired…

I read your essay tonight whilst sitting out in the orchard supervising the chickens as the sun went down, the sky became grey and the marsupial bats buzzed around like Crazy Ivan chasing insects in the failing light.

You know what? I'm totally comfortable with the tier system. It's a good idea. I provide most, if not all of my infrastructure here and I love that feeling of freedom. I also like being able to test whatever technology proves to be viable in such a tier one location. I still didn't get why people would not understand the tier system, but I do feel the pressure to normalise in our society and it really annoys me.

Ha! And the cost of insurance is sky rocketing, not to mention property taxes…

On a completely different note, well maybe, I know you like news from other corners of the globe, so I thought that I’d mention that I went to visit the manufacturer of my solar battery charge controllers the other day in order to get a new spare battery charge controller re-calibrated. I keep spares of some important stuff. You would have loved this place, and I ended up speaking with them for about an hour and a half. At one point they told me that they deliberately chose to avoid capacitors in the original design because they knew that in the hot conditions the controllers would be exposed to, the capacitors would dry out and possibly fail. Such long term thought is rare nowadays and I was really pleased to have met the engineers and tech people there. Plus they showed me a prototype design for how I can channel the excess electrical energy I have here which is currently being wasted for most of the year, into heating hot water for the house. And they used stainless steel in the device too which sang to my heart! Such great people.

And then because no good deed goes unpunished, a new neighbour more or less implied to me that I'm a bad person for using local firewood from the forest here to heat the house. I do thank the trees you know in a formal ceremony before felling them. The guy then went on to explain that he was flying out to another country soon. It was about that point that I realised that we are really fighting a rear guard action here...

My sensibilities are turning more hillbilly with each passing year. I'll try and post a poem for you (with a slight modification) on that very topic over the next day or so here...



Nastarana said...

Dear DeVaul, if I may add to your excellent post:

The Renaissance intellectuals and artists who revived classical arts, mathematics, and literature did not revive nor attempt to revive classical society and institutions.

I would like to point out that stone arches can be found on churches and bridges built throughout the Middle Ages. The Lombard kings recognized and protected what seems to have been a guild, the magistri comancici, of master builders who still maintained some of the building skills of the Romans.

Horse teams were used for cleanup in New England after a hurricane a few years ago. It seems that the horses could get into places inaccessible to motorized equipment.

Aqueducts require upkeep and cleaning, think gigantic storm drains, and would likely not have been needed by the small populations of the well watered areas north of the Alps and Pyrenees. OTOH, the rulers of Seville found it expedient to expend the manpower needed to keep their aqueduct clear.

David, by the lake said...

Just finished _The Mandibles_. Her treatment of the scenario was quite interesting, in particular those last two sentences. (A reminder that there is no steady-state solution? A comment on the human condition? A suggestion of cyclical patterns? All of the above?)

What also interested me was the comment on gold-backed currency as being useful, not due to any inherent value of gold, but simply b/c it was finite. I still wrestle with there being no grand solution ;) but I'd guess that the form of exchange best suited to a given economy will vary considerably. If we self-supply and/or barter for most of our needs, then money as a medium of exchange is only required for a small percentage of transactions. Is this "better"? Or is the proper question "does this work, given the circumstances we are in?" I suspect the latter, meaning I need to alter my frame of reference.

beneaththesurface said...

Re: "Does walking away do anything to change the situation, or does it just let the ones who walk away from Omelas feel superior?"

JMG, your response to Picador's comment regarding the above question spurred some reflection... and I'd be curious how you might respond.

In your writing, you have expressed support for homeschooling and think it is a viable alternative to public schooling. You think our educational system is dysfunctional and that there are limits to what one can do to reform it at this point. Similarly, you have expressed your disgust with the recent library trends, and have suggested it might be wise for librarians who care about about their profession to set up alternatives such as subscription libraries that value a large and diverse collection of books. Now, I too (more or less) agree with you, but I'm curious, do you see these efforts as "walking away" instead of changing the situation for the large majority still stuck in or dependent on public schools and libraries?

In many facets of my own life I have often struggled with this dilemma: to what the extent do I engage (as subversively as I can) within mainstream dysfunctional systems versus try to "walk away" and work on alternatives outside the system? Granted, the answer is not always as simplistic as that. I find it may not be an either/or choice; sometimes it makes sense to simultaneously work both within and outside of mainstream systems.

Perhaps I'm interpreting your question in a different way than you were implying. "Walking away" may have different meanings. There is a difference between "walking away" that involves completely abandoning your location (i.e. someone against slavery leaving the South to move to the North to absolve one's guilt, or Carr, if he were to permanently leave the Atlantic Republic) versus staying within one's environment but still metaphorically "walking away" from dysfunctional systems and working on alternatives within the same environment...

Glenn said...

donalfagan said...
"From what I've read, the best firearm for home defense is a tactical shotgun. I agree that revolvers are better for self-defense than semiautos for most folk. But most folk aren't buying guns for self-defense - they're buying guns because they like shooting at stuff, aka plinking. Semiautos let you shoot and shoot and shoot some more, and reloading is fast."

The devil is in the details. A shotgun has more oomph than most pistols. A pistol leaves one hand free to bar the door, dial 911 or draw the pepper spray. One advantage of a revolver is whoever it is pointed at can see the bullets in four of the chambers; this can have a deterring effect. I prefer autos, but having been trained in the service, it's a matter of what I'm used to. I have a very large friend with a preference for bulldog snubbies, and far more gun experience than me. In discussions he says, "any service caliber is adequate if you're in practice; and use the gun you're most comfortable with".

In the revolver v.s. auto debate, service grade pistols such as the Colt 1911 or Beretta M92 are both quite reliable. Very expensive autos, made to tight tolerances and designed to be quite accurate at longer range do indeed require breaking in, and tend to have feeding difficulties. I never had a failure in the service, but we were using full metal jacket, which feeds well. It is primarily hollowpoints that have problems; as they are popular self defense rounds, I wouldn't combine them with a high end auto!

Captain Nemo said "steel is surer than lead." None the less, guns have superseded swords, and autos have superseded revolvers; both for military and police uses. For an individual, who is more likely to be in a short confrontation, that probably just involves intimidation, or at most a few rounds, revolvers make sense. My take is that you use what's most comfortable to you. And practice; a lot, regardless of type of weapon or no weapons, there is no substitute for planning and practice.

in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

pygmycory said...

Self-driving cars have the potential to put a lot of people out of work, assuming the self-driving cars can be made to self-drive themselves without being hackable or ridiculously dangerous. The people put out of work then won't be able to afford a car. Ergo, fewer cars on the road, either individually owned or leased when needed.

Of course, the people making these kinds of calculations usually assume they won't be the ones out of a job and money, and that there won't be a revolution by those who are!

PatriciaT said...

I don't know if I saw the actual 'word' or if it's simply the undue influence of reading this blog and comments that one sprang to mind: RETRO-BATE.

I recently used this word to unapologetically describe myself when telling people that I don't have a smartphone, look at Facebook, or avail myself of the latest whizz-bang techno-crap. Heaven knows, there's enough out there that I do use (which once upon a time was more helpful, more efficient & less time consuming).

Aron Blue said...

Excellent post as always. I found an old paperback in my collection - Ivan Illich's Tools for Conviviality. There's some interesting parallels in his thinking and the ideas of this blog / comment section, though I'm only about 50 pages in. Has anyone else around here read it?

John Roth said...

@Donald Hargraves, pygmycory

The auto companies are expecting that self-driving cars will go to lease firms, not to individual owners. Uber expects the same thing. There are lots of changes in the way things work in the wind; it's easy enough to not notice them if you keep looking in the same places you've always been looking.

The people who would be out of work are taxi drivers, Uber drivers and commercial truck drivers; most automobiles are driven by ordinary people who need them to get from point A to point B. The guy who drives a delivery truck isn't going to be out of work because someone needs to be there to, you know, make deliveries and collect the signature.

It's quite possible to make these things harder to hack; it's just very expensive and, up until now, the auto industry hasn't regarded it as a problem. A few very expensive court cases and some federal regulations could change that in a hurry. There are reasons why nuclear reactors don't usually fail in normal operation and airplanes don't fall out of the sky on a regular basis. Regulations on the software require that there are provably less than one defect per million lines of code. A well-tested commercial application is doing well to have less than one defect per 50,000 lines of code.

latheChuck said...

On the idea that we can pick and choose which technologies and social systems with which to retrovate... We can't really know the complexities of life that these peoples of the past confronted. We assume, with the wisdom of hindsight, that we can avoid the barbarities that they practiced. But let's show a little humility, and imagine that maybe they were just doing the best they could.

We are horrified by China's "one child" policy, as it led to abortion, infanticide and forced sterilization. But would we be any less horrified by starvation and warfare due to growing population if the one-child policy had not been applied?

To be even more extreme, we are horrified by German Nazi efforts to purge their society of undesirable elements including, but not limited to, Jews. But if their best scientists had come to the conclusion that their population had exceeded the carrying capacity of their ecosystem (and I am NOT SAYING that they did believe this; it's hypothetical, because I haven't been able to find historical documentation one way or the other), and that many people would die, sooner or later, is it any wonder that the powerful turned against the weak to die sooner? (I want to state as plainly as possible that my effort to understand their thinking is akin to my desire to understand a computer program that has failed. It is not to "rationalize" the behavior, but to prevent its recurrence.)

I still struggle to comprehend the great famines created by Stalin and Mao.

To say " was done by the evil and the ignorant, and we are neither of those, so terrible acts will not occur again" is naive.

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