Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Retrotopia: The Cloud that Hides the Future

This is the twenty-fifth and last installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator spends his last few hours in the Lakeland Republic, finds an answer to a question that has been bothering him, and boards the train back to Pittsburgh and the unknowns that wait there...

There wasn’t much more to be said after that, and so we all mouthed the usual things and I headed back to my hotel. The rain had settled in good and hard by then, so I didn’t dawdle. Back in the room, I got my coat and hat hung up to dry a little, and then turned the radio on to the jazz station, settled into the chair, and read the morning news. I had one more appointment at noon, and a train to catch at 2:26 that afternoon, and not a thing to do until then; I knew that I was going to be up to my eyeballs in meetings, briefings, and two weeks of unanswered textmails the minute I got back home; and just at the moment, the thought of taking some time at the Lakeland Republic’s less frantic pace and trying to make a little more sense of the world had a definite appeal.

I’d already read the headlines, so there weren’t too many surprises in store, though a United Nations panel had issued another warning about the zinc shortage, and meteorologists were predicting that the monsoons would fail in south Asia for the third year in a row. Two more satellites had been taken out by debris; a second jokulhlaup down in Antarctica had chucked another thousand square miles or so of ice sheet into the Indian Ocean; stock markets everywhere outside the Lakeland Republic had had another really bad day; the ceasefire negotiations in the California civil war had gotten off to a rocky start, and more details had gotten through about the opening rounds of the Texas-Confederate war—both sides’ offshore oil fields had taken even more of a hit than the original reports suggested.

That was only about half of the first section, though, and it was the other half, and the rest of the paper, that held my attention. That was the stuff that wasn’t about shortages and crises. It was about what people do when they’re not being held hostage by shortages and crises. There were birth announcements, marriage announcements, obituaries; a new streetcar line out to one of Toledo’s eastern neighborhoods was in the planning stages, with public meetings scheduled to sort out the route over the winter and tracklaying planned to start next May; a high school student was honored for volunteering more than a thousand hours reading the daily newspaper over one of the Toledo radio stations, for blind people and shut-ins; the big local shipyard had just bought another piece of property and would be hiring another three hundred people to meet the demand for shipping.

Then there were the help-wanted ads, pages and pages of them, looking for shipwrights, file clerks, millworkers, secretaries, mechanics, all the jobs that got automated or offshored out of existence back home and were keeping people busy and self-supporting here. There were two full pages of apprenticeship ads—if I’d wanted to become a carpenter, a pharmacist, a plumber, a doctor, an electrician, a millwright, a teacher, or a lawyer, just for starters, I would have had no trouble in the world figuring out where to apply.

All the while, though, the thoughts that had circled through my head on the trip back from Janice Mikkelson’s mansion hung in the air around me, and not even Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos on the radio could chase them away. People knew long before I was born that the things we were doing were going to end really, really badly, and yet everyone just kept on marching ahead, making the same dumb decisions over and over again, convinced that if they just did the same thing one more time it would undo the bad results they’d gotten every other time they’d done it. If you discover that you’re in a hole, the saying is, the first thing to do is stop digging—but that’s exactly what nobody was willing to do, because they’d convinced themselves that digging the hole deeper was the only way to get out of it.

That was the thing that twisted like a knife. The climate mess that was dumping icebergs off Antarctica and had already turned half of Manhattan into a rusting ruin that flooded deeper with every high tide, the Kessler syndrome that was busy putting an end to the space age, the cascading shortages that were taking a bigger bite out of the world’s economies every single year: none of those had happened by accident. They weren’t the result of fate, or destiny, or any of that claptrap. We’d progressed straight into each of them.

Of course progress also churned out plenty of good things back in the day—that’s why the jobs in the help-wanted ads weren’t limited to “peasant.” Somehow, though, most people outside the Lakeland Republic never got around to noticing when the costs of progress started to outweigh the benefits. Everybody kept talking about how progress was supposed to make people’s lives easier and better even when it started making people’s lives harder and worse, and when some part of that became too hard to ignore, everybody insisted that the only option was to go in for yet another round of progress.

And somehow, I thought, I’m going to have to explain all this to the people back home.

So I was in a pretty sour mood, all things considered, by the time the radio stopped playing jazz and the eleven o’clock news came on instead. I turned it off, got my coat and hat back on, grabbed my suitcase, and headed down to the lobby to check out.  After two weeks in the Lakeland Republic, I wasn’t too surprised when the clerk wrote something with a pen in a notebook full of sheets of paper, took my key, and wished me a good trip home in less time than it would have taken a hotel clerk elsewhere to get the computer to do whatever it is hotel computers do. Then I was out on the sidewalk under the canopy in front of the hotel door. The rain was still pelting down, but I flagged down a cab to go the train station.

Not quite half an hour later I got out in front of the station, paid my fare, got my suitcase, and headed in. The big vaulted space with benches on one side and ticket counters on the other was pretty well stocked with people going about their lives. I headed over to a window to one side of the ticket counters, stashed my suitcase with the clerk there—I’d asked Melanie about that and so knew what to do—and then headed for one of the restaurants on the side closest to the street. The place was starting to fill up with the lunch trade, but a glance back at the big clock on the wall above the platform doors showed me that I was still early. I went in anyway, asked the greeter for a table for two, got seated at a little table over by the windows looking at the street, shed my coat and hat, and ordered a chicory coffee to kill the time.

I’m not sure how much time passed, and how many cabs stopped to disgorge their passengers on the curb out front, before one of them finally let out the person I was waiting for. It was Melanie, of course, bundled up in a raincoat and broad-brimmed hat the way she’d been when we’d first met. She got most of the way to the station entrance before she spotted me there in the window; she waved, so did I, and then she hurried inside out of the rain and came around to the restaurant entrance. A few moments later she was settling into the chair across the table from me.

The waitress came over pretty much the moment Melanie sat down, so we got menus and talked about little things that don’t matter for a bit, until the waitress came back and took the menus and our order. I waited until she was gone, and then said, “I admit I’m really curious about Meeker’s reaction.”

“I bet,” she said, with a sly smile.

That was what I expected her to say, and she knew that I expected it, so I smiled too. Everybody in my line of work makes jokes about horizontal diplomacy; of course it’s discouraged, and of course it happens, and if you’re in politics and get into that kind of situation you know exactly where the lines are, and edge up to them now and then just to firm up the boundaries. When you get a relationship between two people in politics, you make extra sure that both know where the boundaries are so they don’t get in the way of the relationship, and one of the things that I liked about Melanie was that she was as professional about it all as I was.

“I’ll say this much,” she said after a moment. “You took him by surprise, which isn’t easy to do—but it was a pleasant surprise. If there’s any help you need from our side to help push things along, let us know and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Please thank him for me,” I said. “I don’t have much more of a clue about how to push this thing than I did this morning, though.”

She nodded. “May I offer a suggestion?”

“Of course.”

“Focus on cutting subsidies. It costs a lot to prop up the illusion of progress, and if you actually make every technology cover all its own costs, things sort themselves out really quickly.”

“Granted,” I said, “but you know as well as I do that the tech sector and some of the other resource hogs are going to scream the moment anybody tries to push them away from the feed trough.”

“True. The one advantage of this wretched war is that Ellen Montrose may have a little less trouble making that happen.”

I nodded, conceding. “The war and the economy,” I said. “Our stock market had another ghastly day yesterday, and I’m pretty sure the impact of losing the Gulf oil fields hasn’t really hit yet.”

The waitress came back with lunch, made a little conversation, and headed off to the next table. “One thing that might help,” I said then, “is if more people from our side of the border come here and see what you’ve done on this side. I know I was completely clueless about what was going on here, even after reading a pretty fair stack of briefing documents.  I’d like to see more people see for themselves, if that can be done without putting too much of a burden on you.”

“We can handle it,” said Melanie.

“I also meant you personally,” I said with a smile.

“I survived the Honorable Velma Streiber,” she said, with a smile of her own. “After that I think I can handle just about anything.”

I laughed, and so did she. We busied ourselves with our respective plates for a few minutes.

“I wonder,” she said then. “If you really want people from your side of the border to see what we’re doing on ours, President Montrose might want to make an official visit. We’d be happy to host something like that.”

I considered her. “That’s a real possibility.” Then: “Have you had any other heads of state visit?”

“A few.” She gestured with her fork, dismissing the idea. “Once diplomatic relations got reestablished after the Treaty of Richmond, we let it be known that we’d be happy to welcome any head of state that wanted to pay a visit, and reciprocate. The President of Chicago’s been here, of course—show me a country in North America he hasn’t visited—and we’ve exchanged state visits with Quebec and Missouri, but everyone else has backed away uneasily from the suggestion.” The fork jabbed down into her chef’s salad. “We’re still North America’s pariah nation, you know.”

“Even though your way of doing things works,” I said.

“No.” She glanced up at me. “Because our way of doing things works.”

We ate in silence for another few minutes. Of course her words made me think yet again of the same frustrating question I’d been brooding over earlier. It must have showed in my face, because she said,
“Penny for your thoughts.”

“Just wondering why it is that everyone else keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, trying to fix their problems by doing more of what made the problem in the first place.”



“I have a suggestion.” When I gestured for her to go on: “I think it’s because all your talented people get put to work building new gadgets, instead of coming up with solutions for the problems that gadgets can’t fix. That means you have too many gadgets and a serious shortage of solutions.”

I stared at her for a moment. “And since your talented people aren’t working on gadgets—”

“We’ve found some solutions. Yes.” Then:  “There was nothing wrong with seeing how far progress could go and still get useful results. The problem was simply that people forgot to stop once they passed that point. We’ve got all the gadgets we need; you’ve got more than you need—and maybe it’s time to stop putting all our talents and our efforts into more gadgets and get to work on some of the other things that go into being human.”

I nodded after another, longer moment, but I knew already that I had my answer.

We talked about other things after that, mostly personal; I promised to write—the Atlantic Republic still has a postal system, though it’s nothing like as good as the one the Lakeland Republic has—and so did she; I paid the bill, we kissed, and then she went back to the Capitol and I got my suitcase from the baggage room and headed for the doors to the platforms. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, Train Twenty-two to Pittsburgh via Sandusky, Canton, and Steubenville,” someone called out. “Now boarding at Platform Six. Train Twenty-two.”

I showed my ticket, and a couple of minutes later I was on Platform Six. A conductor took another look at my ticket and sent me three cars up, to a car that was going all the way to the end of the line. I climbed aboard, got my suitcase stowed, and settled into a window seat on the right hand side.

What was going to happen when I got back home, I knew, was a complete crapshoot. Among Ellen’s top advisers, I’d been the most outspoken critic of her planned reworking of government policies, and so it was pretty much a given that once I threw my support to the plan, it would go ahead. Just how far the legislature would be willing to cut government subsidies for technology and stop penalizing employers for hiring workers was another question, and just how much of the broader Lakeland Republic program would be adopted was an even bigger one. The more clear it became that what they were doing worked, and what we were doing didn’t, the easier it would be to push that ahead, but there would be plenty of resistance among those who still thought that it made some kind of sense to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.

Maybe I could make it work, and maybe I couldn’t. Maybe my term as ambassador to the Lakeland Republic would be successful, and maybe I’d flop. Maybe the other North American nations could get Texas and the Confederacy to agree to a ceasefire before they ran both nations into the ground, and maybe we’d all end up with failed states on our southern borders and a world-class refugee problem.  For that matter, though I had high hopes for the relationship Melanie and I had gotten going, there was no way to know in advance if that would work out in the long run or turn out to be a flash in the pan. The future hides in a cloud, and you just don’t know what’s going to pop out of it.

The conductor came through, calling out his “All aboard!” as a last handful of passengers got on. Doors clattered shut. No, I thought, there’s no way to tell in advance what’s behind the cloud that hides the future, but maybe—just maybe—I can make a difference.

The car jolted once, and then began to move.

In other fiction-related news, Founders House Publishing—the publishers of Star’s Reach and the After Oil anthologies—has just released the second volume of Ralph Meima’s Inter States series, Emergent Disorder. It’s a harrowing and uncomfortably plausible vision of the United States in terminal crisis, and readers of my novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming may want to check it out. It can be ordered here.


Tom Hopkins said...

I remember several years ago you saying that an empire is almost over when it can no longer control its neighbors...enter President Duerte of the Phillipines! Also, on a military note...the Navy has scrapped its modularly outfitted littoral combat ship and the f-35 won't be ready for combat until at least 2020. For all those counting at home...those two projects will cost over 1 trillion(with a t) over the next 10 years. I guess Senator Inhoffe was mistaken about the f-35, it's not to modern to fail.

Jonathan Meijer said...

Reminder: to any in the Ottawa/Gatineau area, we have created a local green wizards group. Anyone interested is welcome to join us. Our first meeting is Thursday Sept 15 at 6:00 pm, at King Shawarma, 205 Bank St, Ottawa. Look for the man with the top hat.

Marcu said...

The next meeting of the Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne will be held on the last Saturday of September (the 24th). 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

Sawbuck said...

Just bravo, sir. What a wonderful ride this has been. I will be referring others here, and thinking about the possibilities and responsibilities often going forward. Simply - THANK YOU most sincerely for the best kind of education. It was both painless and it will stick a good while. I will miss those most interesting characters.

Urban Harvester said...

Bravo, JMG! Wonderfully done! You know, this really is an inspiring and moving piece of work. Many thanks!

sgage said...


a great wrapping-up as far as I am concerned! I will certainly not be the only one among your readers who will be spinning out possible sequelae in their heads in the days ahead. So much hope, but all so fragile. Thank you once again for this story - the 'toolbox of narrative fiction' sometimes gets the job done better than anything else...

James M. Jensen II said...

Beautiful. It's been a wonderful trip through such a strange land. I'll be looking forward to the return trip when the paper version is in my hands.

As to the content of this final post, I'm personally well-acquainted with the habit of doubling-down on a failing idea, increasing your total losses before I finally let it go. It's very tempting in such situations to see myself as the tragic hero, out to show everybody that my way just has to work, it just has to! I'll show them!

...I wish I had some insight for how to overcome that problem, but I don't. When I've been in one of those "moods" I doubt anybody could have talked me out of it, either. Sometimes you just have to beat your head against the wall until your black and blue to make you realize you don't need to keep doing that.

Kfish said...

Odd coincidence, but I caught myself saying something similar to my husband a few days ago. He'd been listening to TED talks and telling me about how this technology and that technology were going to change the world. After too much of this, I told him that technology wasn't going to save the world, that most of our problems were social and political, and half our problem was that our "brightest minds" were obsessed with creating electronic toys since fixing social and political issues was just too hard.

patriciaormsby said...

I love "How the future hides in a cloud." But, where was the surprise ending you hinted at a few weeks ago? This is the ending I expected barring a surprise.

Out of curiosity, in 2065, do you think there will still be many people still insisting that "climate change is bogus and just wait, it will turn cold again, because no one knows why the glaciers have melted away" with the same insistence that they expect "progress" to deliver them from harm?

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160915T014227Z

Dear JMG,

Maybe my term as ambassador to the Lakeland Republic would be successful, and maybe I’d flop. Maybe the other North American nations could get Texas and the Confederacy to agree to a ceasefire before they ran both nations into the ground, and maybe we’d all end up with failed states on our southern borders and a world-class refugee problem. For that matter, though I had high hopes for the relationship Melanie and I had gotten going, there was no way to know in advance if that would work out in the long run or turn out to be a flash in the pan.

Well, one does value this: it leaves open all the questions that ought to be left open, including the question whether Carr and Melanie will suffer consequences for their various indiscretions. I had been worrying all week on how to end the narrative in some non-facile, non-vulgar way, and yet had not thought of leaving questions open.

From this we learn a lesson regarding narrative technique.

It is perhaps unlike classical Greek drama, as far as my dim recollections from some 1970s classics-in-translation exposure goes: on the JMG model we take care NOT to sort everything out into tidy categories, with tidy anastrophe and tidy catastrophe, and with the chorus tidily wailing "O poli, poli" at the tidy if unpleasant instant of nemesis.

Rather cheerfully,


PS: I add in amplification (some readers may find a clarification helpful) that on the Greek model of storytelling, first you have subtle moral failings generating a mess, in the so-called "anastrophe", with the Euripidean chorus sort of dancing "Ka-choonk-ka-choonk-ka-choonk-ka-choonk-ka-CHONK." Then a bleeding corpse, I think normally of some high political authority such as King Oedipus or King Agamemnon, gets rolled out on a trolley or gurney. The chorus at this point throw up their hands, wailing "O poli, poli", i.e. "O City! City!" - therein starting a "catastrophe". In the "catastrophe", the chorus as I imagine it now dances away from the puddle of gore around the trolley or gurney, in a sort of "Ka thonk ka thonk ka thonk ka thonk ka THONK," all its questions answered.

"Ana" is of course "up to", and "kata" is "down from" (and "strophe" is probably, a little boringly, the same as "strophe" in ordinary Anglosaxonia, i.e., "verse in poetry").

I additionally gather that Aristotle had a theory about all this - you are supposed to have the bracing experience of "katharsis" upon witnessing the "kata" part, a bit like eating lots and lots of prunes.

Anyway, now I see from this literary production a different way of telling stories. This is fun.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, I hadn't heard that the littoral combat ship has been scrapped -- if so, that's good news. As for the F-35, it will never be ready for combat. Both are excellent examples of technologies where the designers were so busy making them cutting-edge they forgot to make them work.

Sawbuck and Harvester, you're welcome and thank you.

Sgage, glad to hear it. Yes, narrative is powerful stuff -- I'm mulling over what might be done with that tool next...

James, oh, I know. Been there, done that, dealt with the headache.

Kfish, obviously great minds think alike! ;-)

Patricia, the surprise was last week. This is simply the denouement. No, nobody in 2065 thinks that climate change is bogus; the party line at that point is "Yes, but we have to balance the effects of climate change against the benefits of fossil fuel use for the economy," blah blah blah.

Toomas, I love Greek drama, but it does suffer from a certain terminal neatness, and Aristotle's unities can become dull with too much repetition. I find an open-ended story far more interesting, which is why each of my novels so far have ended with the main character on the verge of something completely new, to which the reader is not necessarily invited. You don't wrap birthday presents back up at the end of the party, so why wrap up a story? ;-)

(Though I have to admit your visual portrayal of the ending of Greek tragedy is splendid, and begs for enactment...)

Ben Johnson said...

JMG - Great ending.

patriciaormsby said...

For everyone in Japan, the second meeting of the Kanto Green Wizards will 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. It is potluck, so please bring something to share.

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.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

To reach back a bit to the post on the failure of global warming activism, I think part of the problem is that we have been immersed in consumer culture since the late 70s, early 80s when the back to the land, appropriate technology movement was swept aside by feeling good about getting my share before you other losers grabbed it.

Consumerism is about consumption. From there it is not a stretch to conspicuous consumption, more for the sake of more, getting as much for me as possible and screw the rest of you. So, along comes a predicament that says 'We are all in this together' and bingo, the failure of the commons due to 40 years of indoctrination.

Not to say the that JMG's comments are incorrect, but it is a heavy lift to flip consumer culture on it's back and get people whose whole existence has been about sucking up as many resources as possible, being comfortable, and entertained to voluntarily save a planet for a bunch of people they really don't care about.

If you have $450 for cheap seat to see a Vikings game (really, a Vikings game) in their new $1,000,000,000 stadium, do you suppose they care at all about the size of their carbon footprint ? It is expected something like 60,000 people to be at the game. Most of them will drive to the stadium in an SUV. A zilion more wish they could be there...

While I'm glad that the Retrotopia serial is free, could you get busy and put out new installment twice a week ?


Dylan said...

When will Retrotopia be appearing in print?

I may well be ordering more than one copy.

Mark Hines said...

Great insightful fictional narrative on intentional technological regression. I am looking forward to the printed version to give copies to my friends and family. Hope it comes out soon.

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.

Dennis Mitchell said...

It's been a refreshing tale. One of those stories that will always be a part of me. Much like Ecotopia was. I'll have to order extra copies so I will always have one to keep and one to share!

ChaosAdventurer said...

A wonderful finish, Thank you for another great and educational story.
As an example, you've added jökulhlaup to my awareness, now to see if it sticks or flows away.

The Retrotopia1 section of my JMG Blogged fiction page us all updated, until you treat us with more and I remember to update it.

Eric Backos said...

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

Thijs Goverde said...

It's been a good read - a worthy commemoration of Utopia's 500th birthday!

Mister Roboto said...

You frequently end your regular (nonfiction) posts with a hint about what's coming up next week. Would you care to grace your readers with what theme or themes you will be pursuing in the next few posts now that "Retrotopia" is wrapped up?

Joel Caris said...

This is a really wonderful final installment, JMG. Thank you for this last bit of reflection and meditation--I think it makes for a much better finish to the story than last week's plot resolutions in the way it works to bring us back to the core ideas and commentary on our current ways of living.

As someone who discovered the joy of physical labor through a multi-year foray into farming, I particularly enjoyed the paragraph in which Carr is reading the help wanted ads and sees the many apprenticeships available to those looking to learn a useful craft. I admit it made me ache a little. I would love little more than to have those sort of opportunities available to me and others today. I can't help but think of how many people who I've met farming who really loved it--and how they had to work for little or no money to do it, with very little prospect to start their own small, diversified farm unless they had a significant source of funds available some other way. I imagine in the Lakeland Republic, it's fairly easy to spend a few years apprenticing on small farms and then lease or purchase land on your own at a reasonable price that provides for payments that one can pay through farming alone.

We don't have to keep choosing to organize our society in these failing ways. I love the way that theme kept coming through in Retrotopia. I find it inspiring and am looking to explore the idea a fair amount over the next few months on my blog. I hope you'll be doing more of that here, too. It sounds like you may have some posts up your sleeve.

Anyway, thank you one last time for this story, and especially for this really wonderful ending. I know I've already said it, but I can't wait to have this in book form, and to see what new elements and surprises you've added along the way.

Joel Caris
Litterfall --

Bill Pulliam said...

Along the lines of your comment to Toomas, I still think that the end of the previous chapter is a better closing point. But editors (which of course you did not actually ever ask me to be!) are generally prone to suggesting cuts...

Genevieve Hawkins said...

Excellent ending. I love the line about being a pariah nation because they solve problems I think there is something to that. It's something in human nature that charities, governments, organizations of all sorts tend to get bloated and self serving the longer they are in existence, to the point that they explicitly don't want to solve the problems that they were created to solve. I like the killing of subsidies but I think it's deeper than that. Perhaps it just hasn't arrived yet on this timeline!

Perl Hacker said...

An excellent work, Mr. Greer. Thanks for sharing the contents of your head these many months. It's been thoroughly enjoyable. --Mike

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks very much for writing this story.

Ha! Zinc. Glad to be of service. :-)!

I feel that you were writing about yourself in there too? That was a nice touch.

I finished Innsmouth this morning and rather enjoyed it. I feel that Shelby received quite the surprise at the unexpected turn of events at the end, although I have no idea what actually happened in that scene, apart from the fact that it can't have been good for her continuing health and if I may be cheeky enough to suggest - neither would it have been good for her continuing rationality! ;-)!

The rain is continuing here today and the weather has been rather feral over the past week. Looking out the window into the valley below there are huge pools of water in paddocks and the local river has clearly flooded. Fortunately, there hasn't been any major damage, the bridge deck is still higher than the floodwater and livestock appears to have been moved to higher ground well in advance. I have noticed that a couple of unexpected springs are producing crystal clear water in odd spots about the farm and I have taken note of those spots. One of the unexpected springs flooded my firewood storage, so it was a prudent investment of my time to build and fill a second firewood shed. I’m slowing down on the consumption of firewood as things warm up anyway.

The other interesting thing is that once I completed your book - you can tell that it is a slack day for me today - that I began reading Michael Lewis's older book: Liar's poker. Michael also wrote The Big Short. The book Liar's Poker is set in the early 1980's when he began as a graduate trainee in Salomon Brothers bond trading business on Wall St. The story is based as far as I am aware on his experience and actual people and events. A fascinating read, but what actually stands out to me is that the deficit and monetary expansionary policies of that time - and ever since, by the way - fuelled some rather unusual behaviour and market instruments. One of the things that I personally find interesting is that the characters in the story - bar a few notable exceptions - seem to not be able to understand the macro implications of those policies. There were one or two notable naysayers in the story, but really they appear to be background characters. The macro viewpoint just seems to be completely lost on the characters and they appear to believe that the windfalls are their due. Dunno, but it is weird and I'm sure there is more to it...



Bill Pulliam said...

Oh and speaking of open endings... are you familiar with the short stories of Karen Russell ("St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves")? Her spooky, creepy, and surreal tales tend to end right at the moment of most intense creepiness, just leaving you staring right through that open door just as the form of what is on the other side suddenly takes shape... then you are shoved through on your own and it slams behind you, end of story.

Of course it did not probably help that I read them at night while camped out by myself in the swamps miles from the nearest other living corporeal human...

Alexandra said...

Toomas, I too love Greek drama, and I would pay good money to see a performance where the chorus actually sings "Ka-choonk-ka-choonk-ka-choonk-ka-choonk-ka-CHONK." It would certainly be better than the cruel butchering of Antigone that was the last play I went to; and the accompanying dance that I can't help visualizing, sort of an interpretive clogging, is delightful.

Archdruid Emeritus JMG, I have really enjoyed Retrotopia and the serialized format of its delivery. The open ending was a realistic touch and I think a good way to get the reader to use their imagination. I do hope dear Carr doesn't find himself a lonely Cassandra when he gets back to the Atlantic Republic--at least he will have Montrose on his side. Back here in 2016, the doubling-down on stupidity and cupidity in the name of "progress" (with a hefty dose of reactionary aggression) is abundant everywhere I look. It's pretty depressing. Recently I saw someone dismissively refer to peace and love as "warm and fuzzy" (apparently those qualities are good in sweaters, bad in people?), but if you ask me, in times like these that is a far more difficult and courageous path than the alternatives.

If nothing else, this presidential campaign season has finally convinced me of the need to energetically divest from murderous abstractions like the "nation" and trans-national institutions/governments. Instead I will be applying my energy where it can actually do some good, on the local and person-to-person level (including non-human persons). I'm not quite sure how that will manifest in terms of specific actions, but I'm pretty sure it's the only way to stay sane. And also more effective than voting for someone else to be the change I want to see in the world.

John Michael Greer said...

Ben, thank you.

Greg, consumer culture is a fad. I suspect that in the long run it'll have roughly the same sort of run as the hula hoop and goldfish swallowing, if on a longer time line, and people afterward will wonder what they were thinking. As for installments twice a week, er, I also have to earn a living, you know!

Dylan, I've already got the contract signed and the publisher is working on cover art. I expect to have final edits finished within a week, and then it'll be going to editing. Our plan is to have it available for the holiday season. I'll keep the list posted!

Mark, thank you.

Dennis, thank you.

ChaosAdventurer, thank you also. It may be a bit before I do another round of Archdruid Report fiction, but we'll see.

Thijs, thank you -- I'd missed the anniversary!

Mister R., a lot depends on the vagaries of inspiration, but I plan on discussing utopian narratives next week, doing a bit of a Retrotopian retrospective, and talking about a certain pervasive flaw in certain earlier examples; and then the discussion of politics and activism needs to continue, with various nods in other directions. We'll see.

Joel, thank you. One of the things I hope to do with this narrative is to point out, to as many people as possible, that we don't have to settle for a choice between the miserably unsatisfactory situation we're in now and something even worse, which is what current politics offers us. There are other options, and envisioning them is the first step toward creating them.

Bill, ah, yes, editors. Don't get me started.

Genevieve, thank you! Of course it's deeper than that, but if you start by forcing a level playing field, it becomes much harder to insist that a money- and resource-wasting technology is "more efficient" et al.

Hacker, thank you.

Cherokee, glad you enjoyed Innsmouth. I don't actually know what happened to Shelby either -- you'd probably have to take it up with Yog-Sothoth himself, which could very well end with you either babbling random fragments of incantations in the Aklo language for the rest of eternity, or suddenly finding yourself on the world of Vhoorl in the twenty-third nebula. As for zinc, many thanks -- I needed one more shortage to add to the list, and that did very nicely.

Bill, nope -- though I'll put that on the get-to list once I finish the current series of Lovecraftian epic fantasy novels. Until that's done, I'm reading exclusively the old Weird Tales-era stuff to get the tone right.

John Michael Greer said...

Alexandra, thank you! I think electoral politics can have a role in bringing constructive change, but only when the change has already taken root in the lives of individuals and spread from there to shape organizations and communities. As for the person who thought peace and love were "warm and fuzzy," I hope that they experience only cold slimy textures for the rest of time...

Allexis Weetman said...

Thankyou for this wonderful series, I'll be sure to buy a copy of the book!

Stuart Jeffery said...

Hi JMG, Thank you that was excellent and the entwined love story gave it a real magical twist that really enhanced the narrative.

Nancy Sutton said...

Yes... thanks again, John, for the absolutely critical 'picture'... without which the light will never dawn. As marketers well know... with the $$ to find the most efficient way to push our buttons, they always go for a story... a 30 sec tv ad is a drama! Unfortunately, lying is their aim, and they are very good at it. How wonderful to have such thrilling, and, hopefully, subversive ;) truth presented so engagingly. Can't wait for the book.

Cú Meala mac Morrígna said...

"The car jolted once, and then began to move."

May I say, this final line may be the most poetic in the entire story. Unpacked and reworded, "Carr, once jolted [out of the myth he'd bought into all his life], then began to move [in a direction that made quite a bit more sense]."

Just lovely. :)

Scotlyn said...

The end. Sigh. I've always hated getting to that moment in a book, always... BUT, Bravo. A wonderful story. And a lovely ending - the newspaper's second half with a slice of all sorts of sense vs its first worrying half - brilliant! And the musing on where to get talented people focussed (obviously not obviously) is subtle and well made.

Thanks for this. I'll be doing my bit to spread the book around...

Brian Kaller said...


I've enjoyed this immensely, and will look forward to the book. You said you were expanding it somewhat and looking for ideas, and I have a few.

I know you wanted to keep it to Lakeland, but through the series I found myself wondering more about the Atlantic states and their lives, beyond the "like us but more so."

For example, I'd be interested in learning more about what the Atlantic inhabitants think of Lakelanders. Do the media there portray it as some bizarre and reclusive, North Korea-type place? Are there small subcultures in the Atlantic Republic who idolize Lakeland as traditional or eco-friendly, the way some factions in the USA might idolize Native Americans, or Scandanavian-style government, or the Amish, without knowing much about it?

Do even the Lakeland supporters have a misguided and rose-coloured idea about what Lakeland is like? Do they form online "rallies" to support Lakeland, without changing anything tangible in their lives? I can think of many contemporary equivalents.

I'd also like to hear something about what it's like for our protagonist as he finds himself no longer being tracked in life; that is, that the piece of paper at the hotel was the only thing saying he was there, and can only be "accessed" from that spot. No one can hack into anything in Lakeland, no NSA can track people's movements or predict their next move. It might feel unnerving, then liberating.


Shane W said...

Well, I'm confident that the Confederacy will get on board with the Retro thing. Any good Southerner knows his history, knows that the South was a non-industrial, agrarian society, and that the New South was a late 20th century aberration...

David, by the lake said...


Excellent job and an excellent ending. In my mind, I have an epilogue where the return journey has Carr seeing the landscape he surveyed coming in from the vantage point of his new perspective (perhaps that is too much, though) and disembarking in his LR attire to find Ellen waiting (improbable for a president-elect). She smirks when she sees his clothes and he smiles in return with a wordless shrug. Your ending is elegant and more effective.

To echo Tom Hopkins's point, I was listening yesterday to a story on NPR re Theresa May's big decision coming up re the Chinese nuclear power plant. One of the points made was whether to risk "upsetting" the Americans by allowing the Chinese in the door. When your chief vassal starts looking at a more open relationship, your empire is in trouble.

Kim Arntsen said...

It's definitely been an interesting ride, and seeing the story end was more poignant than I'd expected. Thank you once again for your hard work.

Putting together a positive, coherent vision for a non-consumerist society that lives within its ecological means seems like one of the biggest challenges for the "alternative" environmental movement, or whatever you'd prefer to call it. Retrotopia is among the best attempts I've seen, and the use of fiction makes it a good complement to the more academic and dry treatments.

At least in this corner of the world, the screaming starts pretty quickly once someone dares to point out that our precious "standard of living" might not be sustainable, or even desirable in the long term. Any alternative to Progress as Usual tends to be seen as a call to return to the Stone Age. Maybe fiction is one of the tools we need to break the spell...

. said...

Great story thank you!

I've been going back to your posts about how to revive democracy and I was wondering what would be a good resource to learn dialectic from? Most of the books I can find are about Hegel and Marx. I ordered Plotinus 'On Dialectic' but I suspect that's going to be hard going!

Also, what happens with housing in Retrotopia? Over here both rents and house prices have become totally insane. I know people who are emigrating because of it, others are moving down the country, single parents with children are trying to house share with others in a similar boat etc. At the bottom of the ladder of course homelessness has exploded.

People treat it as if it must be caused by national level factors but that makes no sense to me as it's clearly a global issue. Is it caused by all the QE/money printing since 2008?

I know in the UK the volume of recent migration from eastern Europe is part of the cause and I suspect it's also an unmentionable part of it here but it can't be the whole cause.

Thank you,


Matt said...

JMG, Retrotopia has been a marvellous journey. Thanks, Matt.

Raymond R said...

Great story - full of good subversive ideas that deserve wide distribution

M said...

"After two weeks in the Lakeland Republic, I wasn’t too surprised when the clerk wrote something with a pen in a notebook full of sheets of paper, took my key, and wished me a good trip home in less time than it would have taken a hotel clerk elsewhere to get the computer to do whatever it is hotel computers do.

I got a real kick out of that line, so true. Enjoyed the rest of the story as well. I also took note of the high school student who read to the blind and shut-ins over the radio. As someone with very poor eyesight and teeth that appear to be heading south rapidly, I wonder how I will keep my health if I am unable to afford dental and eye care in the coming years. I know it is not a good idea to project, but I suspect we are heading into an era where good genetics will be...good to have. Regardless of "prepper" stuff, I'd rather be a hobo with good eyes and teeth than one that must lug around a pair of glasses and dentures. Oh well. One day at a time!

. said...

Oh also, how does Retrotopia relate to Burkean conservatism and being a reactionary? Anyone proposing that society should reinstate older systems will be accused of being a reactionary - a capital offence in many people's eyes!


Unknown said...

Thank you JMG for a very thoughtful ending, that includes a subtle call to arms for individuals.

I may be part of your target group for paradigm change in policy-making, as I am an elected member in local government, ie a Councillor. In Australia, our municipalities in the major cities do not cover the entire metro area (with the exception on Brisbane); instead, each major city has many many municipalities, which in turn means that it is quite possible for grass roots people who are not professional politicians, to be candidates and to get elected. Once elected, it is possible to have some influence on policies that can have far reaching consequences. I love it. I love the vision you have painted, and the political framework that makes it possible. I have plenty of seeds of ideas (due in no small part to the last 10 years of your writing) for policies that will give me, my son and my community and country a better chance of riding down this century without messily self-destructing or slowly becoming more miserable... But your story has shown me a concrete example for achieving... Well, something anyway!

I'll be ordering a few hard copies :-)

Kind regards,

Jamie Mason said...

The Littoral Combat Ship has not been scrapped. They have just decided to arm it better and call it a Frigate. They are scrapping the mission modules to make room for the permanent weapon systems. They have their issues like any new class of ship, but overall the navy is pleased with them--at least when considering their budget limitations. They know the Ohio Replacement Program (new ballistic missile submarine) will suck up most of the ship acquisition money in the coming years, so they are favoring more "affordable" solutions for surface ship acquisition.

RPC said...

Bravo! I would have liked to have seen the classic parting on the train platform, with the impatient conductor ostentatiously checking his pocket watch, but I guess you're making the point that Peter and Melanie know where to draw the line. So...back to reality, though it seems more like reality TV...

James Fauxnom said...

From what I read, the american navy was scrapping the modular capabilities of the littoral combat ship. I assume that is what Tom meant to say. The plan had been to remove/install these mission based modules (along with part of the crew that used and maintained them) as necessary. But the futuristic modular design didn't come off quite as intended (long retrofit times), so they scrapped that part of the program. One also wonders how effective the crew would have been with the old plan, working together with new comrades and sections of the ship. As far as I know they still intend to produce a few dozen of the vessels, much to the benefit and security of the american taxpayer no doubt.

Peter VE said...

JMG, Thank you for a wonderful tale.
Yesterday, I read an article in the sad remnant of the local newspaper. It was about automation replacing jobs for people with less than a college education, with the unstated implication that it was inevitable. There was no reference to the possibility that automation is a choice. Several years ago, I wouldn't have even noticed the absence of the choice Reading you has made me a far more critical thinker, and I thank you.

Mark said...

Thanks and nicely done. Looking forward to buying the book and giving a couple of copies to my kids. They enjoyed both Stars Reach and Twilight's Last Gleaming - fiction is a great way to get through to them. One's an Oyster Farmer and another's at Sustainable Ag. school, so something must have clicked.

One point I keep coming back to (that I think is not appropriate for the book but is relevant to the topic more broadly), is the role that our underlying emotions play in keeping us stuck in the progress trance. Personally, I've known about our problems for many years and am well down the path to downsizing my life and material expectations. But I still find myself fearful of giving up certain aspects of progress - not just reluctant, but really fearful. I've had to do a lot of inner work to get to grips with these various fears and obsessions. I've been quite surprised with what I've found - various worries about scarcity and lack that go quite deep. Without tackling the inner stuff, I think it's hard for people to deal with the outer proactively. Of course, it helps if circumstances give you no choice...

Thanks again.

blackwingsblackheart said...

Greg Reynolds--I had the extreme displeasure of watching that monstrosity being built, since the light rail line to downtown goes right past it. We call it "The Birdkiller," because they refused to add 1% to the construction costs for bird-safe glass, which would have ruined the architect's vision (the building is sited within a migration path along the Mississippi River, and apparently drifts of dead finches and warblers are part of his vision). They've decided to "study the issue" for three years, instead, for a tab of about $300,000.

Howard Skillington said...

A satisfying and thought-provoking story.

I very much like the idea of political leaders who are capable of seeing that what others are doing works better, and then following that example, but I am not sanguine that we have such leaders. Ours have built the proverbial Procrustean bed, and are determined to hammer the rest of the world until it fits into it.

Trump is no Theseus, but he appears to be the only one at hand who might have a shot at dismantling the bed.

Gavin Harris said...

Hi JMJ, great ending to a great tale and illuminating tale. I love the fact that like life, not all questions are answered but people have hope. Also thank you for all your writings over the last few years, they were one of the primary drivers for me to start my own preparations for the coming decline. In my case that taking on of an allotment at the beginning of the year - for those who are non-UK based we have a delightfully antiquated law that requires local councils to set aside land for people to grow vegetables on if they want. It has been a year with a lot of hard work and learning - 5 courgette/zucchini plants are too many for a small family, 4 bean plants are too few :).
It all culminated last weekend with my taking my young son for a walk in the woods doing something that I hadn't done since I was a teenager, picking wild blackberries. Of course, as any experienced blackberry picker knows, the best berries are away from the path where few people go. Still stout boots, thick jeans and a willingness to dare brambles and rampant spiders (lots of those this time of year) will see you well rewarded. That walk with my son got me thinking of your many posts and how somebody with a little preparation and the willingness to move off the path more commonly travelled can thrive among the thorns of the coming decline. So thank you for starting us on the journey away from the path and out among the berries and spiders :)

weedananda said...

Thanks for the satisfying denouement. What a superb last line!

Yucca Glauca said...

I think we're all giving this a standing ovation, behind our respective keyboards.

Grim said...

Great story, thank you. Very enlightening.

I was never able to visualize a world outside our current "progress" based system other than the dystopias that doomer porn describes.

Damaris Zehner said...

When I was ten (and honestly, for many years afterward), I used to long to get into Narnia or the Shire and would even train myself in what I thought of as useful skills should I succeed (archery, woodcraft, interspecies communication . . .). Now, many decades later, I'm homesick for Retrotopia. I will do what I can to live in a Lakeland Republic way, but as happened when I was a child, I will eventually realize that what I want is not just to live that way myself but to have that world around me. Oh, well. I can at least take Vaclav Havel's advice and live as if it were true now. Thank you so much for the glimpse.

GHung said...

There's a Wikipedia page on the Kessler syndrome with a subheading "In fiction":

Perhaps it's time to add Retrotopia to that list.

John said...

JMG, I simply want to add my own voice of appreciation to the comments here. Fantastic story. I have read this blog on a regular basis for a few years now, but I have not (yet!) purchased any of your other fiction books. After coming along for this year and a half long Retrotopia ride with you, I will happily be purchasing your other works of fiction, as well as non fiction. I am a grateful reader. -John in Montana

Unknown said...

Regarding the LCS discussion, perhaps Tom is discussing this latest decision:

Basically the new plan is to convert the four existing ships to TRAINING ships after they've all had mechanical issues. "The new deployment plan for the LCS fleet isn't a response to the breakdown issues, Navy spokesman Lt. Kara Yingling told CNN."

Right... Anyway, let's hope that the other ones we're already on the hook for actually work.


PatriciaT said...

Thank you. Nice wrap-up! The entire Retrotopia series has been quite enjoyable - you painted a wonderful picture what is possible & doable. I'm looking forward to the book.

O. Hinds said...

Speaking of retro technology, have you encountered the website "The Museum of Retro Technology"?
Many of the things on it just weren't very good ideas, but off the top of my head I can think of a few others that the people of Lakeland might want to mine. Even the things that don't work can be interesting, and of course they could help to prevent reinventing the (square and/or made of explosives) wheel.

Ed-M said...


“We’re still North America’s pariah nation, you know.” ... “Because our way of doing things works.” And that's probably the way it will be in real life. You could even say it is in real life, because of what's Russia's doing...

Wow. Great story, JMG. It seems to have been a nice vacation for me, every two weeks. Very well written, and a nice open ending, heralded by the "future is a cloud" line. I couldn't have written it any better, and probably, if I attempted it, would do a lot worse! ;^)

Thomas Daulton said...

Awhile back I noted an article where Thomas Frank adopted your position (without apparently reading you) that middle-class liberal lifestyles were putting them at loggerheads with the lower classes, despite dogma to the contrary. Now here are two reporters on Bill Moyers' site, adopting your position that the left engages in vicious stereotyping of the lower classes. Bill Moyers

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Are you planning on putting in any appendices at the end of the book form of Retrotopia? I'm thinking of things like the Lakeland constitution or other things that may give the readers more insight into how Lakeland works than the novel alone provides.

SamuraiArtGuy said...

I rather appreciated this wrap-up, with both resolution and uncertainty. With more than a wink to the central conundrum. It must be obvious to even the wealthy and powerful that the fossil-fuel driven infinite growth party here in the Big Petri Dish, simply can't go on forever.

But no one with the stones seems to be able to change the course of global society to endlessly double down on the "Progress" solution. Push the impending crash into the next administration, the next financial report, the next generation. Tick Tick.

I am well aware as a Graphic and Web Designer, I sit professionally on the pointy peak of a rather high pyramid (scheme?) of high technology and dependent on 'Net access. Sometimes that sharp peak feels shoved up my hemorrhoids - but hey. Even when we moved to WV, away from Urban concentrations, I told the realtor – "A roof, that doesn't leak, electricity, and a broadband 'Net connection."

But we are trying to condense our lifestyle, collaspe gracefully, reduce our dependence on high technologies, minimize gizmos. The Comcast dude was flabbergasted that we didn't want Cable TV (their big profit center) and just Phone and Internet.

But yeah, I do have a drafting table down in the basement, and we're hoarding books. Real ones, on paper. Go figure.

SamuraiArtGuy said...

JMG As for the F-35, it will never be ready for combat. Both are excellent examples of technologies where the designers were so busy making them cutting-edge they forgot to make them work.

The F-35 is an epic boondoggle, and a fiscal catastrophe worse that it's fitness as an aircraft. Just the endless list of problems and complexities, while Russia and China get no-nonsense, and lethal modern fighters in the air. And apparently you could down an F-35 with a well tossed ROCK.

Patricia, the surprise was last week. This is simply the denouement. No, nobody in 2065 thinks that climate change is bogus; the party line at that point is "Yes, but we have to balance the effects of climate change against the benefits of fossil fuel use for the economy," blah blah blah.

Sometimes it seems to me that more than half the people around me - including nominally intelligent folk - seem to have utterly skipped Middle School Earth Science on the subject of Climate Change. Tho' many have been conditioned to be skeptical, as in this Nation, our corporate media covers Climate Change as a political issue instead of a scientific or Public Safety one. So the "liberal hoax" narrative gains traction. Not to mention the hubris of the scientific community has undermined the public's faith in scientists, along with their ill-use by corporations.

What I fully expect, even as the effects of Climate Change are more than apparent, is that due to civilizations hunger for energy, and the near-impossibility of replacing many modes of transportation and classes of products without petroleum - despite expectation of high tech solutions. I don't see the industrial scale needed - or the economy - in anything yet announced, despite the associated hype.

For example, the reverse osmosis process to desalinate seawater certainly WORKS. But it is tremendously costly, both energy and resource intensive. Other advanced tech to solve our problems has similar issues, you've gone on about the subsidy issues of Green energy other than hydroelectric.

So my expectation in the face of this, is that despite pressures, we will still scrabble after every drop of oil, every crumb of coal, every wisp of gas, till we CAN'T any more. Costs suggest that in the face of a conflict like Texas vs the Confederacy, legacy oil rigs won't be replaced. But the pressure for energy will probably inevitably, if not lead to more wars, economic dislocation, and stress fractures of all kinds - will certainly see the utter dismantling of nearly every environmental protection currently in place and the plundering of public lands, national parks and monuments as the squeeze for accessible resources grows acute. Our current political and corporate leadership will undoubtedly place their own continuance and comfort before future generation's prosperity.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for the explanation! My gut feel is that if an entity is a Gatekeeper, then it probably has that role because it is tough enough to handle the duties of that particular role whilst also maintaining the demeanour to undertake the job. And not to mention that the testing process would have been most thorough. :-)!

The rain has ceased today so I'm going to get outside and do some stuff.



artinnature said...

I think Retrotopia is your most important work so far JMG. Not only is it a great story (which, as we know, keeps the people reading along, allowing all the good, subversive stuff to soak into their brains) but it shows those people not in "the choir" *what* could be done, *how* it could be done, *why* it should be done, and what is likely to happen if it is not done.

Regarding Melanie and Peters "illicit" romance, I don't think the explanation/justification in this last episode is needed. They're simply doing what humans do, rational thought doesn't really play a part. And sometimes, the more rules you break, the better the sex is. Oh, and the steaminess will help prevent those that you most want to reach from throwing the book out the window. Perhaps just a brief, giddy, private conversation shared between the two of them: "do you know what would happen to us if they found out what we just did?!"

Anyway, great work, I will definitely buy this one...and if anyone ever wonders out loud why on Earth I would ever live my life the way that I do, I will suggest they read Retrotopia, and it may just sink in.

Cheers from Cascadia

Jeff said...

Saved up the last three installments to read at once. I hope that if our real "unelectable" candidate is elected president that he'll have a similar surprise in store, somehow I doubt it. Anyway, I found your exploration of a possible way out of our current mess informative, entertaining and even a little hopeful. I'd live in Lakeland, though I'd have to pass on the porkpie hat. I look much better in a flat cap :)

Thanks for the ride!

John Michael Greer said...

Before I go on to specific comments, since "(Name), thank you!" doesn't greatly add to the conversation, I'd like to thank everyone who expressed their enjoyment of this episode and the story as a whole. I'll be spending the next week in final edits, and then the manuscript will be off to the publisher -- I'll be sure to make an announcement here when it's ready for ordering. Many thanks, again, for all your enthusiasm and interest in this project!

Nancy, the one advantage our side has against the marketers is that products are boring, and a world that works isn't.

Brian, those are in the to-consider list.

Shane, if they can back away from the war with Texas, I think it's quite possible.

David, I know. US influence in the world is slipping very fast. I'm pretty sure the only people who don't realize that live inside the DC Beltway.

Kim, to my mind one of the things that's kept the green movement spinning its wheels for thirty years is its failure to come up with anything to offer besides a continuation of the status quo with different electricity sources. It's not just that "save the world so I can keep my privileged lifestyle!" isn't that effective of a rallying cry; it's that for the vast majority of people, life in today's America sucks. There's no gentler way to say it; everyone outside the circles of the affluent knows it; and so campaigning to keep things the way they are does not attract a following. I'm quite convinced that the reason so many people want to believe in imminent apocalypse is that they think that mass death and devastation would be less wretched than day after day in the mess we've made of things!

.Mallow, I'll put housing on the list; a heavy tax on speculative income would help, but I'll see what else I come up with. As for dialectic, hmm! Hard question. Ordinary informal logic is a good start, and there are plenty of good books on that.

M, Toomas passed on a suggestion from a blind correspondent of his that I put in something that shows that Retrotopia addresses the needs of the vision-impaired as it does those of the mobility-impaired, so I put that in where the opportunity presented itself. Glad you liked it!

.Mallow, confront it head on. That's what I'm trying to do here -- charge straight at the insistence that there's something wrong with "going back," by confronting the notion that "the past" (like "the present") is a single thing that you have to take or leave, rather than a resource from which useful things can be extracted. I plan on having much more fun with that as things proceed.

Unknown Sophia, delighted to hear it! Nothing would make me happier than to see some of these ideas discussed and, where appropriate, put into place.

ganv said...

Thanks for the great story. Hopefully people catch the meta-reference of using a utopian novel, a popular 19th century literary form, to describe the benefits of reversing some of the changes since the 19th century. Any utopian novels that you found to influence your work?

Fitting for the literary form, it is too clean. I suspect cultures and economies will actually evolve to have little resemblance of any specific earlier era. In an energy constrained future, solar panels and robotic surgery will coexist with trolly lines and horse drawn taxis. This was hinted at in the trip to the countryside, but the reality will be much more complicated, with a lot of modern technology evolving toward robustness that creates systems that are simpler but would be unrecognizable in the 19th or 20th centuries.

But the main story to me is the future of the cult of progress. The movies imagine all kinds of societal disasters, often techno dystopias, but they can not imagine that we will continue to pursue progress while it makes our lives steadily worse. I read Archdruid Report because it reliably gives that kind of new angle on things. The penchant for self-deception is very strong in humans, and I find it quite believable that people will continue to demand allegiance to this cult long after its returns have become negative. How much is the dream of a better life a modern cult, and how much is it inextricable from being human? There is a certain hope that is necessary for all humans. But its object will be much less on scientific innovations than on the possibility of better social and psychological ideas for managing the complexity of human society.

Carl Dolphin said...

Dear JMG,
I'm a forth grade teacher and we've been studying what engineers do before we start building some squirrel proof bird feeders for around campus (good luck I know).
In our discussion I showed them a frig that takes a picture of what's in it and sends it to your phone. We discussed why in the world you'd need that and how engineers make things more complicated than they need to be. They got it.
We also looked at some pics of self driving Uber cars and talked about all the drivers that will be losing their jobs. At their young age they're already aware that there's no jobs in their future. I'm trying to get them to question these trends as they're parents won't.

Candace said...

I thought this news fit in well with the discussion of ambassador appointments

I wonder how much the U.S. Doesn't learn because of the power of our machine politics

I think you would describe the response I felt to this story as "wry amusement"

I'm looking forward to giving the book to friends for Christmas!

John Michael Greer said...

Jamie, that is to say, the nifty high-tech systems didn't work, so they're replacing them with ordinary bolted-to-the-deck armament and calling it good. Not a bad idea, if the other systems function.

RPC, I considered that, but it was a bit too much of a cliche -- and in Lakeland the trains leave on time, even if they're sometimes a few minutes early or late on arrival.

James, it'll be interesting to see if any more get built at all.

Peter, you're welcome and thank you! Exactly; automation is a choice, not an inevitability, and the tax codes and other perverse incentives that encourage it can be changed.

Mark, delighted to hear it. The media and popular culture generally have put a lot of effort into producing that terror, and making "the Past" into a hell from which the bogus messiah of Progress is always saving us, so yes, it takes some rethinking.

Howard, I hope so.

Gavin, excellent! I'm delighted to hear it.

Damaris, I get that. I had the same experience in childhood, and in my twenties I very badly wanted to move to Ecotopia. Each longing helped guide me; I'm hoping that this vision helps others as well.

Ghung, when the book comes out, I'd encourage readers to submit an edit that includes the details.

Unknown Joel, okay, that makes even more sense. If they turn out to be too clunky to serve as training ships, they might make decent garbage scows, too!

O. Hinds, many thanks for the link! I'll check it out.

Thomas, fascinating. I wouldn't have expected that kind of common sense on Moyers' site, but I'm pleased to see it.

Ozark, nope. It would take weeks of research and hard work to work out the constitution and debug it. I'll leave that to the constitutional convention of 2031! ;-)

Samurai, oh, I don't doubt at all that people will keep on extracting fossil fuels just as long as they possibly can, no matter what the cost, and come up with the most egregious excuses for doing so. Fortunately, the amount that can be extracted economically is much smaller than the amount that can be extracted physically, and even that's much smaller than the amount that would be necessary for the IPCC's worst case scenarios.

Cherokee, Yog-Sothoth, the Gate and the Guardian of the Gate, is according to the Lovecraftian canon Cthulhu's granddad, so can certainly take care of pretty much anything!

Artinnature, I think they're both too much political professionals to really cross any hard and fast boundaries, thus Carr's thoughts.

Jeff, by all means wear the flat cap! My guess is those are pretty common, too, just not the sort of thing a political professional would wear.

John Michael Greer said...

Ganv, of course it's too clean, but as you say, that's the genre. As for the dream of a better life, plenty of human societies have accepted the idea that the world is what it is and it's never going to be different, so I think that's just the influence of the modern cult of progress.

Carl, that's wonderful to hear. Keep at it.

Candace, certainly I felt wry amusement while reading it!

Justin said...

Regarding zinc shortages, well, the Simpsons apparently did it already:

Cathy McGuire said...

I like the ending - not false hope but honest intent. Lots of good ideas played out in the story and there's lots of food for thought. It really has potential for introducing newbies to the ideas. Having had several technical "emergencies" this week, I'm even more fed up with "progress". :-) Congrats on wrapping it up, and thanks for sharing it.

Ondra said...


I am just curious, how do Lakelanders deal with the question of curable and incurable diseases. I mean, today physicians are expected to prolong the life as much as possible, sometimes dumping lots of money and resources on people, who are incurably ill. It is clear that this habit was abandoned in LR, but still, it is not that easy to draw the line between medical intervention and letting somebody go, and if you have money, you can push this line quite a bit.
Is some sort of basic care provided again on basis of tiers?


Kyle Schuant said...

Today while making dinner I made the observation: the more expensive the can-opener, the more trouble you have making it work properly.

Then I thought of JMG's comments about progress and decided that this rule possibly may be applied to many other machines and systems.

RPC said...

Regarding the parting on the platform, yes, I think you made the right choice. The subtler point it would have illumined is the lack of "security theater" - I'm sure you remember, as do I, partings and meetings on train platforms and at airport jetway doors. Though, come to think of it, the working-class family at the start of the story were met on the platform, weren't they?

David, by the lake said...


It is difficult, troubling, yet morbidly fascinating to watch us tumble forward along the well-trod path of decline, particularly the tragi-comedy of a declining empire. Perhaps Carr has some advantage in that by his time there has already been at least one round of catharsis (the civil war and fragmentation), which might make it comparatively easier to convince people that change is necessary than it seems to be today, where we are still in the thrall of the old narrative (not only of progress, but also of our dominance). I understand the momentum, the psychology, and sociological reasons behind what we are witnessing and our seeming inability to collectively alter our trajectory, but that comprehension doesn't make it any easier to swallow. I guess I need to return to that vision I mentioned previously of the fourth-century Romans worrying over the Western imperial succession and just hold that image in my mind. And then go to my garden and harvest my potatoes.

donalfagan said...

Overall I enjoyed the tale. The final three chapters, however, seemed to rely more on long passages of speech for exposition.

Read this and thought it was a great summation of our economy:

Bloomberg (again) claims Peak Oil is Dead.

@Ondra, I've read that some doctors - diagnosed with some cancers - opt out of chemotherapy, settle their affairs and pass away quietly rather than spending a fortune on something they know is painful and unlikely to help. OTOH I have a sister-in-law that survived chemo and is doing OK now.

John Brink said...

Bravo Maestro. I often think of your writings while feeding our chickens and cleaning out their coops at dawns early light. We also have chores that we do everyday at twilights last gleaming. Looking forward to many more interesting reads.

Kim Arntsen said...

(I know this might be little off-topic for Retrotopia, but I just wanted to do a quick follow-up to your response.)

It's both sad and fascinating to hear how bleak things have gotten on "the ground" in America. I think that's probably one of the major differences between Norway and the US: around here, campaigning to keep things just the way they are attracts quite a following every election, with both the Labor Party in particular but also the center-right mostly fighting the War Against Change (to borrow another fine term from your writings) with everything they've got.

We love to tell ourselves we're "the best country in the world to live in", and while there's obviously exceptions, my feeling is that people feel they have much more to lose than to gain from any substantive change to the status quo. Or to put it another way, most of the country is inside the "circle of the affluent" in global terms.

Which would explain why the religion of progress has such a firm hold on the imagination around here, especially considering how late we became an affluent consumer society compared to the US. In other words, to many people it probably feels like the gains of progress have been recent and still ongoing, while they stalled quite a while ago in the US.

Joe McInerney said...

Regarding Ed-M comment about the novel The Mandibles from last week. Lionel Shriver is definitely writing within this genera and makes some interesting points beyond mere ideology. However she completely misses the problem of the abuse of common pool resources and environmental degradation. Obsession with "freedom" very often means, I want the right to pollute, without the responsibility to clean it up. Government regulation is the only reasonable check on this behavior. In the words of Garret Hardin's 1968 Science article "The Tragedy of the Commons", absolute freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

JMG's solutions to this problem of externalizing costs is much more sophisticated than Shriver's.

Nastarana said...

Dear Mr. Greer, may offer congratulations on a very satisfying ending. Interesting that the reaching out by the Atlantic Republic comes at a time when (what I suppose are) the two leading powers in North America are at war, and likely to stay that way for a while.

About your comment to "Nancy" that their products are boring: this has always been the hidden advantage of the organic farming movement and its' supporters and customers. In addition to the obvious benefits to your health, the environment and local economies, the organic folks have better stories. Seeds patiently saved and selected by generations of Moravian farmers and them brought to the USA and generously shared by a 90 year old neighbor vs. our brand new variety developed scientifically in our million$ laboratory made available exclusively through our specially licensed outlets. (BTW, don't you dare save the seeds or we will sue you and put you out of business permanently).

josh fuhrman said...

It's quite the achievement, this retrotopia and it's a good story. My only quibble with the LR is that the citizens you have featured are all portrayed as incredibly smug! All that wink-wink, nudge-nudge towards Carr, I don't see whay it's necessary for everyone (except for the service workers like the hotel concierge) to be so rude to an outsider who, after all, is unfamiliar with their ways. Is basic polite humility in social exchanges just another thing the Lakelanders have decided to do away with? Or is this a way of showing that they have undergone great hardship and adversity and are just very pleased to have come out the other side intact, stable and sustainable? Maybe it's just an American thing. As a Canadian, I've been conditioned to a greater degree of polite modesty. The LR has no shortage of admirable qualities but with the people being so insufferable in their self-regard, It seems to kind of sour the benefits.

Ed-M said...

Hello again JMG!

Samurai Art Guy said, "The F-35 is an epic boondoggle, and a fiscal catastrophe worse that it's fitness as an aircraft. Just the endless list of problems and complexities, while Russia and China get no-nonsense, and lethal modern fighters in the air. And apparently you could down an F-35 with a well tossed ROCK."

John, perhaps you could include in your book, in the skeet shoot scene, someone recounting what went on during the Second Civil War and includes an incident where a local brought down a USA F-35 with a thrown inanimate object, heheheheh.

Ed-M said...


I included your deluge report in a blogpost on the Victoria floods here.

Apparently the floods it spawned were the worst in a hundred years.

PatriciaT said...

Just wonder - in the Lakeland Republic how are political campaigns funded, how long do they last, who fund the campaigns, etc. I'm sure there would be some contrast to how things are done in the Atlantic Republic, and to how things were done back before the 2nd Civil War.

W. B. Jorgenson said...

Catabolic collapse in action?

Basically, my home province has decided to remove tax on electricity to maintain costs low enough to be affordable for people. The side effect is drastically reduced government revenue, which is needed to, among other things, pay for infrastructure...

pygmycory said...

Actually, I think with can openers the ones that work best aren't the cheapest. They work badly and are painful to use if you have hand/wrist issues. I've tried to use some like that. Nor the most expensive. The electrical ones don't work well, and are of questionable worth even if you have hand and wrist problems. You want one that is non-electric, but reasonably well made, and of an ergonomic-enough design that it doesn't feel like the handles or the part you twist are cutting into your hands when you try to to use it.

Johnny said...


I'll join the chorus of people thanking you for this novel. I think it does exactly what I imagine you had hoped, which is it shows something we could actually really want or hope for that can exist honestly in the future we are have lined up for us.

I wondered about the tiers. I don't remember you addressing this directly although perhaps I missed it. Is their any sort of cultural value with how people view the occupants of different tiers? Before I thought it was just personal, people headed to what suited their needs/wants best, but since the lower tiers are actually "the cutting edge" in the sense that they are further into the future of decline, and the higher tiers will depend on their "denovations"(?), are they seen that way? Is there any cultural pressure or encouragement towards taking that path?

Unknown said...

Excellent story. Well done.

SamuraiArtGuy said...

JMG– "Fortunately, the amount that can be extracted economically is much smaller than the amount that can be extracted physically, and even that's much smaller than the amount that would be necessary for the IPCC's worst case scenarios."

Quite so.

In the 1920' you could wander into any random piece of stinking desert in west Texas, and chunk a straw into the ground and half the time oil would come up. The EROI was pretty sweet, and so was the oil.

Compared to the present practice of tearing up a hundred acres of Canadian tundra, blowing a billion gallons of steam through it to extract a barrel of nasty black sludge that only has a passing resemblance to Texas #2 Sweet. This is only profitable, and the same can be said of the costly fracking process, if crude prices are very, even artificially, high. However, Market Destruction and over-production has precipitously tightened the numbers, creating cascading episodes of bankruptcy in the energy industries.

But I doubt these sober assessments will stop companies and policy makers from going after every drop.

temporaryreality said...

I'm reading After Progress and while I've been working to be aware of my own progress-oriented indoctrination for a while, I noticed in sections talking about historical examples of religious change in the face of decline (pgs 94-98 or so) that I would be hard pressed to come up with examples myself -- BECAUSE of my indoctrination into progress-think, whereby things occurred historically due to inherent progress, inevitable "forward motion" and "innovation" on the parts of the people enacting them. To consider, instead, that there's a repertoire of responses people have in facing decline is... well, reassuring in a way if not simply revelatory for how it's possible to approach history, to be welcomed back into the fold, so to speak.

I know we mouth the platitude that "there's nothing new under the sun" and we opine about those who are "doomed to repeat history," but in reality, we don't believe that. We think we're on a completely new trajectory, that we're doing something unique just by being here and flailing about with our economic, social, governmental and other systems. History is for all those idiots who didn't get it right and become us.

On a personal level, I've gotten to a point where I'm not interested in gadgetry or markers of social status ... and yet I admit, I harbor to some degree (and family members to a much stronger degree) the notion that although things are tight now, maybe my husband will find better employment, maybe I can squeeze the household economy a little more skillfully or find a little extra income on the side to supplement my family care-giving -- and that things will improve. I mean, I'm trying to cushion decline somewhat, but I do, it turns out, secretly hope to stave off hunger and deprivation by "doing something better." I don't think aiming for greater resilience is falling into the trap of progress, is it?

pygmycory said...

Retrotopia was enjoyable and interesting, but I am looking forward to seeing what you do with the freed-up writing time. Events in the world have been quite interesting this year. Lots of undercurrents have been rising to the surface and throwing up things like Brexit that leave the media staring at them and making confused noises. Interesting times, indeed.

Rita said...

In Sacramento the local State University sponsors an older adult learning program called the Renaissance Society. For $100 for two semesters you can take a number of peer led symposia.

I enrolled in one on the 10 greatest problem of the US.
Today we watched a film on homelessness set in Portland, Oregon. One of the things that struck me is that there was zero acknowledgement of a declining economy. There was one venture capitalist bemoaning the short-sighted greed of his compatriots, but no suggestion that the jobs aren't coming back, that the government money for programs will dry up regardless of good intentions, etc.

One of the families featured was a single mom and her kids. The woman said several times that she had done everything she had been told to do. Studied hard, got good grades. Went to college, trained in a practical field (medical assisting and phlebotomy), but lost her job and can't find another. Her children and some of the other children of the families being documented expressed concern about being able to afford college--and one of the experts cited the need to retrain people. No recognition that some people have spent their working lives on a qualifications treadmill, always one more degree or certificate that is going to help them get and keep a job and then end up "overqualified" for the few actual positions.

onething said...


How do tax codes encourage automation?

Shane W said...

my guess is that Norway's quality of life is conditioned upon its being in the inner circle of Western client states of the US, and that once the US officially implodes and the US$ is not the reserve currency anymore, Norway, along with all the other client states, will be set free, and maintaining its quality of life will be contingent upon lining up another of the up-and-coming world powers. For Western Europe, the most logical choice is Russia, and we're already seeing Turkey and other nations conciliating Russia. My guess is that the various right-wing movements will conciliate and cozy up to Russia to maintain quality of life.
I'm more familiar w/Canada, which sounds very much like Norway in maintaining a much higher standard of living than the US, and politically favoring the status quo. They seem to be conciliating the Chinese, time will tell if they make overtures to the Indians as well, which is my preference--I have a much more favorable opinion of India and their politics than the Chinese. They may conciliate the Russians, b/c of the Arctic, although I don't think Canada has as many ties w/Russia as India or China.

Kevin Warner said...

Always sad to come to the end of a good story, especially of the stranger-in-a-strange land variety. It must be personal prejudice but when I picture the story scenes in my mind, I see the people dressed in a 1930s style clothing. Must be all those old movies that I saw growing up. I understand that one of the points of the narrative was about how progress is not always really progress but a thought occurred to me.
When we talk about progress it is always along material lines with technology being a special subset of this. What if instead that we had a society that was still obsessed with progress but along emotional and spiritual lines instead? People forget that the way people are today with its I-got-mine-stuff-the next-generation may be common now but that this was not always so. Not by a long shot. Just developing those two aspects of human life would help us decide on how we should go about material and technological progress. Something to ponder.
I was also thinking about JMG's idea how technology gets developed to the point of being far less efficient than its predecessors when I came across the following story but beware! If you follow this link, just remember that some things that the eyes see cannot be unseen again! The story is at if you want to check it out.

pygmycory said...

I wonder if you could down an F-35 using rocks from a catapult or a trebuchet? That really would be a ridiculous win for primitive technology!

Art Myatt said...

Zinc shortage? Since 1982, pennies have been 97.5% zinc. Substantial salvage operations are possible as soon as pennies are more valuable than the face value.

Ed-M said...

@Joe McInerney said...

"Lionel Shriver is definitely writing within this genera and makes some interesting points beyond mere ideology. However she completely misses the problem of the abuse of common pool resources and environmental degradation."

Yes, I noticed. Continued industrial activity, with continued technological progress and elimination of all wildernesses worldwide, no less. And she seems to think that there won't be any more global warming and spreading pollution???

"Obsession with "freedom" very often means, I want the right to pollute, without the responsibility to clean it up."

I might add to that, Obsession with the Pursuit of Happiness, meaning endless hustling to get ahead, in order to get more and better... stuff, in the form of consumer goods. This included Real Estate! Someone wanting the right to pollute means, of course, that the people who buy goods from him want his marketed products to not be so expensive!

"JMG's solutions to this problem of externalizing costs is much more sophisticated than Shriver's."

Agreed. :^)

Patricia Mathews said...

Performance time - a classic work done perfectly, on the local classical music radio station. A choral rendition of "Jerusalem," done in such a way as to hit my solar plexus with its sheer beauty. This may have been an outtake from the movie Chariots of Fire, since that also had the same effect on me at the time.

Though how Blake's scathing criticism of industrializing England entered the Anglican hymnal as (all too often) a masterpiece of Victorian triumphalism, I will never know. But his words certainly deserve the music they were put to, when done right.

sgage said...

@ Shane W

"my guess is that Norway's quality of life is conditioned upon its being in the inner circle of Western client states of the US,"

Norway's quality of life is conditioned upon its fairly massive petroleum resources.

Kim Arntsen said...

@Shane W.
You're probably right, but I'd also add a few more factors: all the natural resources we happened to find within our territory, mostly oil and abundant hydro power, a small, socially cohesive population and (to a lesser extent) some prudent political choices. Ironically, all this combined with our rugged terrain and lack of debt would probably make Norway an ideal candidate for a European Lakeland Republic (well, Kingdom) if the political will was there to try.

I tend to view the post-war Nordic model/social democratic experiment as a noble idea, and worth the try as one of the better ways to manage a society under abundance industrialism. It's certainly contributed to our higher levels of social capital and much less flagrant inequality than, say, the US or the UK, even if consumerism has taken its toll since the 70s. Still, the Nordic model and its lavish welfare state ultimately depends on Progress and continual growth, at least in the way it's current understood and promoted here.

As for cozying up to Russia...maybe things will change if/when we're up with our backs against the wall, but it definitely looks unlikely now. Our former Prime Minister is Secretary General of NATO, and politicians tend to act "tough" on Russia. There's also a long-standing rivalry in the Arctic, and cultural differences such as the Russians' extreme hostility to anything LGBT-related while we're one of the more liberal countries there.

Joe McInerney said...

Well put Ed. Its a worthwhile read. The environmental conditions depicted in New York and Nevada are not likely. Her near term economics could be prescient though. She would do well to read this blog and less Ayn Rand.

YCS said...

A bit off topic, but if the Russians stop exercising the type of restraint they have constantly shown, we're heading for your Twilight's Last Gleaming scenario:

Contrary to what US propaganda insists is Russian behaviour, they actually went through the legal institutional means of solving the problem.


donalfagan said...

Just got back from watching Snowden. Very dramatic. Ironically, the Charles Theatre was also showing The Conversation, a 1974 film about eavesdropping and loss of privacy that seemed paranoid at the time.

siliconguy said...

An interesting article about the state of the power industry right now.

Declining demand and cheap natural gas are shutting down both coal and nuclear plants. There are even some biomass plants going down for economic reasons. All three of those fuels are uneconomic without subsidies.

And your favorite lard buckets are grounded due to the fuel tank liners coming off of the inside of the tanks.

The only good thing I've heard about the F-35 is the the stealth package does work. It really is hard to see on radar. That's what, one design goal out of ten?

trippticket said...

Art Myatt said:

"Zinc shortage? Since 1982, pennies have been 97.5% zinc. Substantial salvage operations are possible as soon as pennies are more valuable than the face value."

That's interesting information. How many trillions of pennies do you suppose have been brought into existence since 1982? Does anyone feel like pennies still serve any purpose in our monetary system? I know they already cost more to make than they're worth. Excepting perhaps their worth as an unusually convenient zinc cache!

One of my friends makes the suggestion that we not worry about recycling plastic and glass, but instead have a mother lode of both stashed to mine later from landfills when we need it! We'll see I guess.

dltrammel said...

About can openers, on both my key chains I keep copies of the old US Military "P38".

P38 Can Opener

I was introduced to it while in the Army in my late teens in the 70s, and have carried one since. Once you learn how to use it, its very fast and easy, though not sure about someone with wrist problems. I've amazed many a person, while they fumble with the latest in high tech can openers, I whip out my key chain and quickly open a can.

I'm reminded of an old "Tom and Jerry" cartoon, where Tom's owner goes out of town. She leaves Tom a can opener, which Jerry promptly steals, leaving him with no way to open food.

Fred said...

JMG - completely enjoyed the story and thank you for sharing 29 episodes of it here for us to enjoy. My favorite parts were the drone shoot and the barber shop conversations.

Fred said...

For those commenting on Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles, I listened to an interview with her on my local NPR station a couple of weeks back. It was two days after I had finished reading the book and was quite excited to hear her thoughts.

She was attempting to makes a few points in her novel as I understand her:
1) The governments' right to know all of our earned income no matter what the source and to tax it for whatever use they want. She used the extreme technology and digital currency to demonstrate this absurdity (people's income, spending and taxes in real time, not once a year filings) . She uses the example of 70% tax rate to support the aging boomers healthcare as another demonstration.
2) The way the family survives and pulls together, not because they like each other and agree with each other, but because they are all each other has. They are a typical American family spread out across the country, keeping in touch through courteous phone calls, showing the emotional scale from disdain to jealously for each other. When some of the family escape to the Country of Nevada they come across the remains of people who fled to a bunker and didn't make it, and she wanted to show that we can't isolate ourselves from one another.
3) The ridiculous nature of the gold standard. Putting the US on the gold standard is held out often as a utopian ideal that will save us. When it is shown in Nevada, the reader can see the limits.
4) The egotistical nature of America's leaders and that we will always be a world power. The Presidents makes decisions from this hubris and it quickly unfurls the ruin in the book. Of course in retrospect it was going to happen anyway given Keynesian economics.
5) When the crisis starts, each character in the story reacts differently to the events unfolding. Most of the characters don't recognize what's happening - one flat out says nothing bad is happening and throw more money in the stock market immediately, and most assume things will get better soon. The characters adapt each in their own way to events and in ways they never would have expected to adapt when things first started going poorly. It takes over a year for most to come to terms with events. They wake up each day and sort of fumble through it. There's no planning except on the part of two characters.

It looks like in the library The Mandibles is categorized as a "humorous story". I don't know where the library gets that direction on how to categorize it. Regardless, from what I heard from the author, It's intention isn't to tell a tale of what the author expects to happen in the future, as much as a commentary on US government leadership and family dynamics in times of struggle.

Shane W said...

Canada has already gotten rid of the penny. I spent my last Canadian pennies when I was there last summer. Don't know what they did/are doing w/them, though. (Maybe a Canadian reader will let us know.)

James M. Jensen II said...

I recently picked up an old 1999 iBook for not too much. Did it out of sheer nostalgia. And today I stumble across this article:

Apparently people are still using the old MacOS version 9! There's even a still-maintained web browser based on Firefox, called Classilla, for it.

Why? Because it works better for certain things. Turns out the dozens of processes (minimum) that are constantly running on a modern computer are really bad for audio engineers, as they introduce latency in signal processing, while MacOS 9 prioritizes media processing. Then there's the fact that the user interface is arguably the most user-friendly ever produced.

Even in software, "progress" is not always a good thing.

David, by the lake said...

I realize that it is not directly relevant to the point of the narrative, but I must admit that I would enjoy the opportunity to explore more of the details of the Retrotopian universe. Two things that came to mind would be 1) a historical account of the civil war (like an academic review of the lead-up, analysis of underlying causes, and a moderately detailed account of the actual conflict) and 2) a copy of the third gospel mentioned in the chapter "A Gift to be Simple." Regardless, I'm looking forward to the expanded novel version :)

And I must admit that I am still a bit weirded out by the grumbling I see on Democratic platforms regardng media bias and flawed polling. Talk about through the looking-glass...

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, fair enough.

Cathy, thank you! Here's to less progress and more things that actually work.

Ondra, no, health care isn't infrastructure, so it's not governed by the tier system. The Lakeland health care system prioritizes the sort of routine health care provided by general practitioners, though there are specialists in the usual fields and hospitals to carry out surgery and other complex procedures. Today's health care in the US is designed to extract as much money out of patients as possible, and that's one of the reasons why so many terminally ill people are kept alive in misery for a few extra months -- that's money in the bank for the industry; in the Lakeland Republic, if a condition's terminal, you go to palliative care, and if the only way to keep someone alive is to pour extravagant amounts of resources into one temporary expedient after another, that's considered a terminal condition. The flipside of that, as we've seen, is that every effort goes into making things functional for those with health-related disabilities.

Kyle, the law of diminishing returns applies to every form of progress, across the board, no exceptions. Up to a certain point, you get improvement; then the improvement diminishes while the costs increase; then the costs keep rising while, shall we say, "negative improvement" sets in, and you get lousy can openers, Windows 10, etc.

RPC, indeed they were!

David, time in the garden is a good way to deal with it, yes.

Donalfagan, go back through the thing and you'll find that there's a lot of exposition everywhere. That's standard in the utopian genre. As for the death of peak oil, heh heh heh...

John, thank you! I'll have to title something "Dawn's Early Light" one of these days...

Kim, yes, for a variety of reasons -- especially large petroleum reserves -- Norway's in very good shape just now. I hope you can keep things that way.

Joe, it's a source of fascinated horror to me that so many Americans just don't (or won't) get that. I suspect we'll have to learn it the hard way.

Nastarana, thank you! As for the better stories of the organic movement, that's very true; it also doesn't hurt that the food usually tastes much better.

Josh, it's an American thing. As I'm sure you've noticed, the Canadian habit of self-effacement doesn't have much traction down this side of the border; if I'd set the story in East Canada, say, the behavior of the people would of course have been different.

Ed-M, you know, I might just do that.

John Michael Greer said...

PatriciaT, good question. I'll put that on the to-consider list.

WB, absolutely. Let's make people happy today by guaranteeing that they're going to have to choose between high tax bills and failing infrastructure tomorrow!

Johnny, I don't see there being any particular cultural pressure to go down-tier, but there's a very definite financial pressure, since taxes are much lower!

Unknown, thank you.

Samurai, exactly. They'll go after every drop so long as they can make some kind of profit by doing so -- but as we're seeing right now in the fracking field, making a profit is starting to become very problematic.

Temporaryreality, no, not at all -- aiming for increased resilience is something that people do in every society, whatever their beliefs about the future. Even in cultures that believe the future will be worse than the past, there's always the hope that there'll be a good harvest sooner or later that'll allow a little extra to be set by, or people piling on the hard work to build an extra cistern so there'll be more rain water stored for the dry season. What makes faith in progress toxic is the notion that the future is automatically going to be better than the present and the past.

Pygmycory, stay tuned!

Rita, nobody in the US is willing to admit that our economy is contracting. That's the brontosaur in the living room -- but until that's dealt with, of course, nothing constructive is going to be done.

Onething, under US tax law, if you hire someone, you don't just pay that person's wages -- the employer has to pay social security, workmen's compensation, and a flurry of other taxes, for which he receives no benefits in return. This penalizes employers for hiring employees. Meanwhile, if an employer buys machinery, he can write that off on his taxes as a capital purchase, and depreciate it for twenty years for more writeoffs. That rewards automation. In the Lakeland Republic, that's done the other way around: you're taxed for automating and rewarded for hiring people.

Kevin, one of the fascinating things about the modern faith in progress is that it used to apply much more broadly than it does now. I did a post a while back on the ambiguities of progress. The reason most people have settled for technological progress is that the other kinds didn't work out so well -- but I don't doubt that it could be tried again.

As for tea in a squirt can -- gah. Yes, that's a good example of progress way past the point of negative returns.

Art, my understanding is that pennies are already worth slightly more than their face value. Fast forward to 2065, though, and how many of those pennies have already been converted into industrial zinc?

August Johnson said...

About pennies... I still remember my father, in the mid-1970's, coming back from the hardware store after buying some washers for $0.02 each. He said he told them "Why don't I just drill holes in pennies!" They didn't like that!

Shane W said...

under certain circumstances, you don't find Southerners to be self-effacing? We always thought out manners and hospitality were more self-deprecating and self-effacing than the Yankees. I've always thought we were closer to the Canadian norm traditionally, and further from the crass, crude Yankee norm. I always thought that Canadians seemed like a liberal version of the South, and that the South seemed like a conservative version of Canada, etiquette-wise. The South traditionally was the most Anglophilic region, and Canada, of course, has the Queen and the Westminster system...

Carol said...

Long-time reader, first time poster that I know of. I just found this article here from Flagstaff, Arizona, giving a great example of some Lean Logic and Lakeland Republic thinking.
The president of the Navajo Nation has issued a gardening challenge for Dine families to move toward food sovereignty.
“The first year of the gardening challenge is for Navajo families to plant a garden. The second year will be for Navajo communities to revitalize dormant farming areas. The third year will be a challenge to the entire Navajo Nation to farm.
Nez said the all-encompassing nature of farming needs to be reintroduced to the Navajo people, especially the aspects of working together and independence.
“It’s all there: physical exercise, bringing young and old together for intergenerational teaching, revitalizing speaking Dine’ bizaad and the traditional teachings behind farming,” Nez said. “Farming and gardening is about self-reliance and doing for ourselves, which is true sovereignty at its core. We must take the next step and incorporate food sovereignty into this initiative, by creating laws that require businesses on the Navajo Nation to allow Navajo farmers to sell their produce and meats for consumption.””
If anyone has experienced gardening in the Southwest, it is challenging, but not impossible. I spent most of my adult life doing “Don Quixote” gardening at 7000 feet. We will see how climate change affects methods of feeding people. The Hopi have some amazing plants they have selected for, including corn that will germinate beneath eighteen inches! of soil (sometimes mulched with volcanic cinders). Many of the foods we enjoy were selected for by the observant peoples in the ‘New World’. The following list is from here. New World Foods: corn, potato, tomato, bell pepper, chili pepper, vanilla, tobacco, beans, pumpkin, cassava root, avocado, peanut, pecan , cashew, pineapple, blueberry, sunflower, petunia, black-eyed susan, dahlia, marigold, quinine, wild rice, cacao (chocolate), gourds, and squash.
Thank you JMG for creating this place of sanity and thoughtfulness. I have spent many, many hours reading this blog and enjoying the comments from those who have brought their diverse views and experiences to this forum. And WAY too many hours following the links that I can stay awake enough to digest.

latefall said...

Thanks for letting us ride along this story. I like the ending title as it reminds me of the "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog", however I agree with Bill Pulliam, and would not mind the cloud to start between this and the previous episode. I don't know, perhaps one could let it trail off in a form of ever smaller and wider spaced vignettes of his future.

On another note I have found that there seems to be some related thinking on the World Bank blogs regarding subsidies. I mentioned a while ago when oil was really down, that this is perhaps the last opportunity for a somewhat graceful exit from fossil fuel subsidies. Seems like Iran had a nice idea how to pull that off - perhaps Lakeland had a similar transition:

"A stark example is the Iranian case, where they transferred the money into people's bank accounts before reforming subsidies. People could see the transfer, but couldn't spend it until the subsidies were removed. This created a lobby to reform subsidies. While the reform in Iran has had many problems since, I think this particular idea could be replicated elsewhere." from

Shane W said...

Hasn't Norway already hit peak oil in the North Sea? I thought that oil production there was in decline? Of course, as we all know, oil fields decline over time, not all at once, but I did think that Norway was one of the post-peak countries...

Iuval Clejan said...

Not totally on topic, but can you recommend a simple way to debunk Catherine Ausin-Fitts' (of Thrive fame) conspiracy theories about over 10 trillion dollars of US government money going into a covert space program? Or her "debt for equity" swap? Or can you explain the latter?

Phil Harris said...

Nail it to the mast.
"... or people piling on the hard work to build an extra cistern so there'll be more rain water stored for the dry season. What makes faith in progress toxic is the notion that the future is automatically going to be better than the present and the past."

Phil H

Phil Harris said...

JMF & Nastaran & organics all
Back in the days of the earlier British nuclear industry they always used to put their advertisements in the press with a photo of our major nuclear site - the somewhat toxic Sellafield nee Winscale - showing a foreground of clearly idyllic organic agriculture.

Phil H

Dan said...

An interesting story, and I enjoyed that it addressed some of the major questions that I had in reading your earlier posts since the beginning of this year: what would an alternative look like?

But I do find it interesting that the story was told from the point of view of an influential figure in this universe. Yes, as a dignitary Carr does have a bird's eye view of the political situation, but what would the world look like for an ordinary Lakelandian/Atlantian?

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Off topic for this post, but relevant to some of your earlier predictions. Have you seen this article?

North Dakota and Texas shale oil production have been declining rapidly. Not only that, but the statistics in the article support your view that the whole shale oil business has been a bubble from the start, and wasn't profitable even when oil prices were higher.

I was surprised to find a link to this page on Yahoo's front page. I sometimes scan their headlines after logging out of my email, they're normally pretty much a tabloid so I was pretty surprised to see this article listed on their main page.

Leo Santilli said...

Congratulation on finishing a story.

Interesting to see economists looking at the differing effects of free trade on classes
"But its consumption benefits flowed far more to the middle and upper-middle classes." The next step would be to look at the effects of trade in a shrinking or static economy.

David, by the lake said...


I think I wrote "third gospel" in my last comment. I meant "third covenant," of course.

Johnny said...


Thanks for the response. It's interesting to think about how this shifting of tiers would play out. For us, I think signs of hard times have a stigma to them people usually want to avoid, even going very far into debt to cover up. I feel like the Lakeland Republic have changed their approach to technology and progress to find a better equilibrium with their economy, but I'm curious how their perspective matches the "collapse now" approach. Do they still see harder times ahead? Are they preparing for continual shifts always or is this just a smart approach to make the best of their situation and hopefully they'll be smart enough to shift again when they need to?

Unknown said...

(Off this week's topic, but)
Interesting shift in the narrative. The quotes in this article speak a theme familiar around here, but now it's a CNN series. Ex:
"When we wake up the morning after an election, our roads are going to be getting worse, our sewer, our water... They want us to keep paying more and we keep getting less, so there's my take on where we're at the day after the election."

Ed-M said...

JMG said,

"Ed-M, you know, I might just do that."

;^) and :^D <-- (grin)

Yinyura Mima said...

David, you wanted to say "third testament" :)

Kim Arntsen said...

@Shane W.
I have to admit I haven't looked into it in any detail, but Norway being post-peak sounds reasonable enough. On the other hand, like you mention, there's quite a bit left. For instance, the government is in the process of handing out more licenses to drill right now, and whether or not to allow drilling in the Lofoten area (important for tourism and fisheries) has been a major political hot potato for years now.

Winding down the oil industry over the next 20 years is one of the signature policies of the Green Party here. Pretty much everyone else sees this as wildly irresponsible and reckless, and envisions a thriving petroleum industry for 50+ more years. I'm not going to say how realistic that is, but like elsewhere the industry has been having quite a bit of trouble with the low prices lately.

temporaryreality said...

"Temporaryreality, no, not at all -- aiming for increased resilience is something that people do in every society, whatever their beliefs about the future. Even in cultures that believe the future will be worse than the past, there's always the hope that there'll be a good harvest sooner or later that'll allow a little extra to be set by, or people piling on the hard work to build an extra cistern so there'll be more rain water stored for the dry season. What makes faith in progress toxic is the notion that the future is automatically going to be better than the present and the past."

Then I suspect I've been pretty well disabused of the notion (though remainders of progress-education were revealed while contemplating how I was taught history).

I'm deep-down pretty sure things are only going to get worse (in general, yes, but also for us as a family), though the religious-sentiment-du-jour has me secretly shamed that I've 'jinxed' our luck by admitting that. This must be the pervasive milieu, then, that states "of course you'll be better off than every generation before and if you're not, it's your own dumb fault; you probably didn't want it badly enough and you thought bad thoughts... 'cuz wanting something guarantees it and Positivity runs the universe, etc. etc blah blah barf."

Meanwhile, I'm planning the upcoming ripping out of lawn,and the planting of olives and assorted food/medicine perennials. I'm having terrible luck keeping mealworms alive (shouldn't be so hard), which doesn't bode well for the upcoming quail project. But, hey, at least I'm learning on mealworms...

Sébastien Louchart said...

Hello JMG,

Thank you for this last piece, can't wait for the book to come.
I've compiled all installements in a single file that's still under edition process. It's a staggering 150+ pages.

I'd have a favour to ask to the other readers, commenters and contributors. I've seen some fan works from some of you regarding Retrotopia, maps and flags for instance, I'd like to know if you can contact me and accept to share these resources for a project. I do not intent to borrow your work, basically I just need existing and sound sources as inputs to my own design process. Thank you in advance.

David, by the lake said...

Quite right!

Patricia Mathews said...

Ridiculously diminishing returns: (1) Nike is about to debut its first self-tying sneakers. (2) Luann in the comics today: her friend Gunther's assignment in engineering class is to take a common household object and find a way to improve it.

Oh, yes, indeed, I see the connection. As I tighten the elastic cord on my own sneakers.

Hetty Awen said...

You've been nominated for The Versatile Blogger Award! Thank you!

Edward said...

JMG, This article ran in the San Francisco Chronicle today and I couldn't help thinking of Mikkelson's streetcar manufacturing business and the types of jobs it generates.

Ed Drury

RPC said...

One last observation. "Then I was out on the sidewalk under the canopy in front of the hotel door. The rain was still pelting down, but I flagged down a cab to go the train station." At a major hotel one would expect either a row of cabs to be waiting or for the doorman to do the hailing for his guests.

Hubertus Hauger said...

Now we are there again, at the begin of what still is to come. And we don´t know it yet ...!?

Just as with our daily life. Hello future ... hello ... !?

David Webster said...

This evening my darling wife plunked herself on my lap as I sat in my big recliner reading and asked:
"Am I disturbing you."
"Not at all my love", I replied (this isn't my first rodeo).
" What are you reading"
"Dark Age America"
"What's it about, not the whole thing, just the outline"
"It's about what the future will look like as our industrial civilization declines."
"Should you be reading that and getting yourself all worked up?"
"No, honey, it's not like the zombie apocalypse stuff I was watching last year. It's more interesting and not frightening. These declines gave happened before."
"You mean like Rome?"
"Yes, like Rome."
"Are there any Romans left?"
"Well no, I dont thinks so."
"Maybe you should worry."
And off she went back to whatever it is she does when she's not amusing me.