John Michael Greer

As Night Closes In

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666
Friend us on Facebook

Published on The Archdruid Report on February 4, 2015

Overshoot

Discuss this article at the Overshoot Table inside the Diner

http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/images/9780252009884.jpgI was saddened to learn a few days ago, via a phone call from a fellow author, that William R. Catton Jr. died early last month, just short of his 89th birthday. Some of my readers will have no idea who he was; others may dimly recall that I’ve mentioned him and his most important book, Overshoot, repeatedly in these essays. Those who’ve taken the time to read the book just named may be wondering why none of the sites in the peak oil blogosphere has put up an obituary, or even noted the man’s passing. I don’t happen to know the answer to that last question, though I have my suspicions.

I encountered Overshoot for the first time in a college bookstore in Bellingham, Washington in 1983. Red letters on a stark yellow spine spelled out the title, a word I already knew from my classes in ecology and systems theory; I pulled it off the shelf, and found the future staring me in the face. This is what’s on the front cover below the title:

carrying capacity: maximum permanently supportable load.

cornucopian myth: euphoric belief in limitless resources.

drawdown: stealing resources from the future.

cargoism: delusion that technology will always save us from

overshoot: growth beyond an area’s carrying capacity, leading to

crash: die-off.

If you want to know where I got the core ideas I’ve been exploring in these essays for the last eight-going-on-nine years, in other words, now you know. I still have that copy of Overshoot; it’s sitting on the desk in front of me right now, reminding me yet again just how many chances we had to turn away from the bleak future that’s closing in around us now, like the night at the end of a long day.

Plenty of books in the 1970s and early 1980s applied the lessons of ecology to the future of industrial civilization and picked up at least part of the bad news that results. Overshoot was arguably the best of the lot, but it was pretty much guaranteed to land even deeper in the memory hole than the others. The difficulty was that Catton’s book didn’t pander to the standard mythologies that still beset any attempt to make sense of the predicament we’ve made for ourselves; it provided no encouragement to what he called cargoism, the claim that technological progress will inevitably allow us to have our planet and eat it too, without falling off the other side of the balance into the sort of apocalyptic daydreams that Hollywood loves to make into bad movies. Instead, in calm, crisp, thoughtful prose, he explained how industrial civilization was cutting its own throat, how far past the point of no return we’d already gone, and what had to be done in order to salvage anything from the approaching wreck.

As I noted in a post here in 2011, I had the chance to meet Catton at an ASPO conference, and tried to give him some idea of how much his book had meant to me. I did my best not to act like a fourteen-year-old fan meeting a rock star, but I’m by no means sure that I succeeded. We talked for fifteen minutes over dinner; he was very gracious; then things moved on, each of us left the conference to carry on with our lives, and now he’s gone. As the old song says, that’s the way it goes.

There’s much more that could be said about William Catton, but that task should probably be left for someone who knew the man as a teacher, a scholar, and a human being. I didn’t; except for that one fifteen-minute conversation, I knew him solely as the mind behind one of the books that helped me make sense of the world, and then kept me going on the long desert journey through the Reagan era, when most of those who claimed to be environmentalists over the previous decade cashed in their ideals and waved around the cornucopian myth as their excuse for that act. Thus I’m simply going to urge all of my readers who haven’t yet read Overshoot to do so as soon as possible, even if they have to crawl on their bare hands and knees over abandoned fracking equipment to get a copy. Having said that, I’d like to go on to the sort of tribute I think he would have appreciated most: an attempt to take certain of his ideas a little further than he did.

The core of Overshoot, which is also the core of the entire world of appropriate technology and green alternatives that got shot through the head and shoved into an unmarked grave in the Reagan years, is the recognition that the principles of ecology apply to industrial society just as much as they do to other communities of living things. It’s odd, all things considered, that this is such a controversial proposal. Most of us have no trouble grasping the fact that the law of gravity affects human beings the same way it affects rocks; most of us understand that other laws of nature really do apply to us; but quite a few of us seem to be incapable of extending that same sensible reasoning to one particular set of laws, the ones that govern how communities of living things relate to their environments.

If people treated gravity the way they treat ecology, you could visit a news website any day of the week and read someone insisting with a straight face that while it’s true that rocks fall down when dropped, human beings don’t—no, no, they fall straight up into the sky, and anyone who thinks otherwise is so obviously wrong that there’s no point even discussing the matter. That degree of absurdity appears every single day in the American media, and in ordinary conversations as well, whenever ecological issues come up. Suggest that a finite planet must by definition contain a finite amount of fossil fuels, that dumping billions of tons of gaseous trash into the air every single year for centuries might change the way that the atmosphere retains heat, or that the law of diminishing returns might apply to technology the way it applies to everything else, and you can pretty much count on being shouted down by those who, for all practical purposes, might as well believe that the world is flat.

Still, as part of the ongoing voyage into the unspeakable in which this blog is currently engaged, I’d like to propose that, in fact, human societies are as subject to the laws of ecology as they are to every other dimension of natural law. That act of intellectual heresy implies certain conclusions that are acutely unwelcome in most circles just now; still, as my regular readers will have noticed long since, that’s just one of the services this blog offers.

Let’s start with the basics. Every ecosystem, in thermodynamic terms, is a process by which relatively concentrated energy is dispersed into diffuse background heat. Here on Earth, at least, the concentrated energy mostly comes from the Sun, in the form of solar radiation—there are a few ecosystems, in deep oceans and underground, that get their energy from chemical reactions driven by the Earth’s internal heat instead. Ilya Prigogine showed some decades back that the flow of energy through a system of this sort tends to increase the complexity of the system; Jeremy England, a MIT physicist, has recently shown that the same process accounts neatly for the origin of life itself. The steady flow of energy from source to sink is the foundation on which everything else rests.

The complexity of the system, in turn, is limited by the rate at which energy flows through the system, and this in turn depends on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters the system, on the one hand, and the background into which waste heat diffuses when it leaves the system, on the other. That shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp. Not only is it basic thermodynamics, it’s basic physics—it’s precisely equivalent, in fact, to pointing out that the rate at which water flows through any section of a stream depends on the difference in height between the place where the water flows into that section and the place where it flows out.

Simple as it is, it’s a point that an astonishing number of people—including some who are scientifically literate—routinely miss. A while back on this blog, for example, I noted that one of the core reasons you can’t power a modern industrial civilization on solar energy is that sunlight is relatively diffuse as an energy source, compared to the extremely concentrated energy we get from fossil fuels. I still field rants from people insisting that this is utter hogwash, since photons have exactly the same amount of energy they did when they left the Sun, and so the energy they carry is just as concentrated as it was when it left the Sun. You’ll notice, though, that if this was the only variable that mattered, Neptune would be just as warm as Mercury, since each of the photons hitting the one planet pack on average the same energetic punch as those that hit the other.

It’s hard to think of a better example of the blindness to whole systems that’s pandemic in today’s geek culture. Obviously, the difference between the temperatures of Neptune and Mercury isn’t a function of the energy of individual photons hitting the two worlds; it’s a function of differing concentrations of photons—the number of them, let’s say, hitting a square meter of each planet’s surface. This is also one of the two figures that matter when we’re talking about solar energy here on Earth. The other? That’s the background heat into which waste energy disperses when the system, eco- or solar, is done with it. On the broadest scale, that’s deep space, but ecosystems don’t funnel their waste heat straight into orbit, you know. Rather, they diffuse it into the ambient temperature at whatever height above or below sea level, and whatever latitude closer or further from the equator, they happen to be—and since that’s heated by the Sun, too, the difference between input and output concentrations isn’t very substantial.

Nature has done astonishing things with that very modest difference in concentration. People who insist that photosynthesis is horribly inefficient, and of course we can improve its efficiency, are missing a crucial point: something like half the energy that reaches the leaves of a green plant from the Sun is put to work lifting water up from the roots by an ingenious form of evaporative pumping, in which water sucked out through the leaf pores as vapor draws up more water through a network of tiny tubes in the plant’s stems. Another few per cent goes into the manufacture of sugars by photosynthesis, and a variety of minor processes, such as the chemical reactions that ripen fruit, also depend to some extent on light or heat from the Sun; all told, a green plant is probably about as efficient in its total use of solar energy as the laws of thermodynamics will permit.

What’s more, the Earth’s ecosystems take the energy that flows through the green engines of plant life and put it to work in an extraordinary diversity of ways. The water pumped into the sky by what botanists call evapotranspiration—that’s the evaporative pumping I mentioned a moment ago—plays critical roles in local, regional, and global water cycles. The production of sugars to store solar energy in chemical form kicks off an even more intricate set of changes, as the plant’s cells are eaten by something, which is eaten by something, and so on through the lively but precise dance of the food web. Eventually all the energy the original plant scooped up from the Sun turns into diffuse waste heat and permeates slowly up through the atmosphere to its ultimate destiny warming some corner of deep space a bit above absolute zero, but by the time it gets there, it’s usually had quite a ride.

That said, there are hard upper limits to the complexity of the ecosystem that these intricate processes can support. You can see that clearly enough by comparing a tropical rain forest to a polar tundra. The two environments may have approximately equal amounts of precipitation over the course of a year; they may have an equally rich or poor supply of nutrients in the soil; even so, the tropical rain forest can easily support fifteen or twenty thousand species of plants and animals, and the tundra will be lucky to support a few hundred. Why? The same reason Mercury is warmer than Neptune: the rate at which photons from the sun arrive in each place per square meter of surface.

Near the equator, the sun’s rays fall almost vertically. Close to the poles, since the Earth is round, the Sun’s rays come in at a sharp angle, and thus are spread out over more surface area. The ambient temperature’s quite a bit warmer in the rain forest than it is on the tundra, but because the vast heat engine we call the atmosphere pumps heat from the equator to the poles, the difference in ambient temperature is not as great as the difference in solar input per cubic meter. Thus ecosystems near the equator have a greater difference in energy concentration between input and output than those near the poles, and the complexity of the two systems varies accordingly.

All this should be common knowledge. Of course it isn’t, because the industrial world’s notions of education consistently ignore what William Catton called “the processes that matter”—that is, the fundamental laws of ecology that frame our existence on this planet—and approach a great many of those subjects that do make it into the curriculum in ways that encourage the most embarrassing sort of ignorance about the natural processes that keep us all alive. Down the road a bit, we’ll be discussing that in much more detail. For now, though, I want to take the points just made and apply them systematically, in much the way Catton did, to the predicament of industrial civilization.

A human society is an ecosystem. Like any other ecosystem, it depends for its existence on flows of energy, and as with any other ecosystem, the upper limit on its complexity depends ultimately on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters it and the background into which its waste heat disperses. (This last point is a corollary of White’s Law, one of the fundamental principles of human ecology, which holds that a society’s economic development is directly proportional to its consumption of energy per capita.) Until the beginning of the industrial revolution, that upper limit was not much higher than the upper limit of complexity in other ecosystems, since human ecosystems drew most of their energy from the same source as nonhuman ones: sunlight falling on green plants. As human societies figured out how to tap other flows of solar energy—windpower to drive windmills and send ships coursing over the seas, water power to turn mills, and so on—that upper limit crept higher, but not dramatically so.

The discoveries that made it possible to turn fossil fuels into mechanical energy transformed that equation completely. The geological processes that stockpiled half a billion years of sunlight into coal, oil, and natural gas boosted the concentration of the energy inputs available to industrial societies by an almost unimaginable factor, without warming the ambient temperature of the planet more than a few degrees, and the huge differentials in energy concentration that resulted drove an equally unimaginable increase in complexity. Choose any measure of complexity you wish—number of discrete occupational categories, average number of human beings involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of any given good or service, or what have you—and in the wake of the industrial revolution, it soared right off the charts. Thermodynamically, that’s exactly what you’d expect.

The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

That belief only seemed to work, though, as long as the concentration differential between energy inputs and the background remained very high. Once easily accessible fossil fuels started to become scarce, and more and more energy and other resources had to be invested in the extraction of what remained, problems started to crop up. Tar sands and oil shales in their natural form are not as concentrated an energy source as light sweet crude—once they’re refined, sure, the differences are minimal, but a whole system analysis of energy concentration has to start at the moment each energy source enters the system. Take a cubic yard of tar sand fresh from the pit mine, with the sand still in it, or a cubic yard of oil shale with the oil still trapped in the rock, and you’ve simply got less energy per unit volume than you do if you’ve got a cubic yard of light sweet crude fresh from the well, or even a cubic yard of good permeable sandstone with light sweet crude oozing out of every pore.

It’s an article of faith in contemporary culture that such differences don’t matter, but that’s just another aspect of our cornucopian myth. The energy needed to get the sand out of the tar sands or the oil out of the shale oil has to come from somewhere, and that energy, in turn, is not available for other uses. The result, however you slice it conceptually, is that the upper limit of complexity begins moving down. That sounds abstract, but it adds up to a great deal of very concrete misery, because as already noted, the complexity of a society determines such things as the number of different occupational specialties it can support, the number of employees who are involved in the production and distribution of a given good or service, and so on. There’s a useful phrase for a sustained contraction in the usual measures of complexity in a human ecosystem: “economic depression.”

The economic troubles that are shaking the industrial world more and more often these days, in other words, are symptoms of a disastrous mismatch between the level of complexity that our remaining concentration differential can support, and the level of complexity that our preferred ideologies insist we ought to have. As those two things collide, there’s no question which of them is going to win. Adding to our total stock of knowledge won’t change that result, since knowledge is a necessary condition for economic expansion but not a sufficient one: if the upper limit of complexity set by the laws of thermodynamics drops below the level that your knowledge base would otherwise support, further additions to the knowledge base simply mean that there will be a growing number of things that people know how to do in theory, but that nobody has the resources to do in practice.

Knowledge, in other words, is not a magic wand, a surrogate messiah, or a source of miracles. It can open the way to exploiting energy more efficiently than otherwise, and it can figure out how to use energy resources that were not previously being used at all, but it can’t conjure energy out of thin air. Even if the energy resources are there, for that matter, if other factors prevent them from being used, the knowledge of how they might be used offers no consolation—quite the contrary.

That latter point, I think, sums up the tragedy of William Catton’s career. He knew, and could explain with great clarity, why industrialism would bring about its own downfall, and what could be done to salvage something from its wreck. That knowledge, however, was not enough to make things happen; only a few people ever listened, most of them promptly plugged their ears and started chanting “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” once Reagan made that fashionable, and the actions that might have spared all of us a vast amount of misery never happened. When I spoke to him in 2011, he was perfectly aware that his life’s work had done essentially nothing to turn industrial society aside from its rush toward the abyss. That’s got to be a bitter thing to contemplate in your final hours, and I hope his thoughts were on something else last month as the night closed in at last.

On the Far Side of Progress

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on The Archdruid Report on July 31, 2013

Summer_Solstice_Sunrise_over_Stonehenge_2005

Discuss this article at the Spirituality & Mysticism Table inside the Diner

The pointless debates over evolution discussed in last week’s Archdruid Report post have any number of equivalents all through contemporary industrial culture.  Pick a topic, any topic, and it’s a pretty safe bet that  the collective imagination defines it these days as an irreconcilable divide between two and only two points of view, one of which is portrayed as realistic, reasonable, progressive, and triumphant, while the other is portrayed as sentimental, nostalgic, inaccurate, and certain to lose—that is to say, as a microcosm of the mythology of progress.
According to that mythology, after all, every step of the heroic onward march of progress came about because some bold intellectual visionary or other, laboring against the fierce opposition of a majority of thinkers bound by emotional ties to outworn dogmas, learned to see the world clearly for the first time, and in the process deprived humanity of some sentimental claim to a special status in the universe. That’s the way you’ll find the emergence of the theory of evolution described in textbooks and popular nonfiction to this day.  Darwin’s got plenty of company, too:  all the major figures of the history of science from Copernicus through Albert Einstein get the same treatment in popular culture. It’s a remarkably pervasive bit of narrative, which makes it all the more remarkable that, as far as history goes, it’s essentially a work of fiction.
I’d encourage those of my readers who doubt that last point to read Stephen Jay Gould’s fascinating book Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. Gould’s subject is the transformation in geology that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when theories of geological change that centered on Noah’s flood gave way to the uniformitarian approach that’s dominated geology ever since.  Pick up a popular book on the history of earth sciences, and you’ll get the narrative I’ve just outlined:  the role of nostalgic defender of an outworn dogma is assigned to religious thinkers such as Thomas Burnet, while that of heroic pioneer of reason and truth is conferred on geologists such as James Hutton.
What Gould demonstrates in precise and brutal detail is that the narrative can be imposed on the facts only by sacrificing any claim to intellectual honesty.  It’s simply not true, for example, that Burnet dismissed the evidence of geology when it contradicted his Christian beliefs, or that Hutton reached his famous uniformitarian conclusions in a sudden flash of insight while studying actual rock strata—two claims that have been endlessly repeated in textbooks and popular literature. More broadly, the entire popular history of uniformitarian geology amounts to a “self-serving mythology”—those are Gould’s words, not mine—that’s flatly contradicted by every bit of the historical evidence.
Another example? Consider the claim, endlessly regurgitated in textbooks and popular literature about the history of astronomy, that the geocentric theory—the medieval view of things that put the Earth at the center of the solar system—assigned humanity a privileged place in the cosmos. I don’t think I’ve ever read a popular work on the subject that didn’t include that factoid. It seems plausible enough, too, unless you happen to know the first thing about medieval cosmological thought.
The book to read here is The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis—yes, that C.S. Lewis; the author of the Narnia books was also one of the most brilliant medievalists of his day, and the author of magisterial books on medieval and Renaissance thought. What Lewis shows, with a wealth of examples from the relevant literature, is that nobody in the Middle Ages thought of the Earth’s position as any mark of privilege, or for that matter as centrally placed in the universe. To the medieval mind, the Earth was one notch above the rock bottom of the cosmos, a kind of grubby suburban slum built on the refuse dump outside the walls of the City of Heaven. Everything that mattered went on above the sphere of the Moon; everything that really mattered went on out beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, where God and the angels dwelt.
The one scrap of pride left to fallen humanity was that, even though it was left to grub for a living on the dungheap of the cosmos, it hadn’t quite dropped all the way to the very bottom. The very bottom was Hell, with Satan trapped at its very center; the Earth was a shell of solid matter that surrounded Hell, the same way that the sphere of the Moon surrounded that of Earth, the sphere of Mercury that of the Moon, and so on outwards to Heaven.  Physically speaking, in other words, the medieval cosmos was diabolocentric, not geocentric—again, the Earth was merely one of the nested spheres between the center and the circumference of the cosmos—and the physical cosmos itself was simply an inverted reflection of the spiritual cosmos, which had God at the center, Satan pinned immovably against the outermost walls of being, and the Earth not quite as far as you could get from Heaven.
Thus the Copernican revolution didn’t deprive anybody of a sense of humanity’s special place in the cosmos; quite the contrary, eminent thinkers at the time wondered if it wasn’t arrogant to suggest that humanity might be privileged enough to dwell in what, in the language of the older cosmology, was the fourth sphere up from the bottom! It takes only a little leafing through medieval writings to learn that, but the fiction that the medieval cosmos assigned humanity a special place until Copernicus cast him out of it remains glued in place in the conventional wisdom of our time. When the facts don’t correspond to the mythology of progress, in other words, too bad for the facts.
Other examples could be multiplied endlessly, starting with the wholly fictitious flat-earth beliefs that modern writers insist on attributing to the people who doubted Columbus, but these will do for the moment, not least because one of the authors I’ve cited was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful evolutionary biologists and the other was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful Christians. The point I want to make is that the conventional modern view of the history of human thought is a fiction, a morality play that has nothing to do with the facts of the past and everything to do with justifying the distribution of influence, wealth, and intellectual authority in today’s industrial world.  That’s relevant here because the divide sketched out at the beginning of this essay—the supposedly irreconcilable struggles between a way of knowing the world that’s realistic, progressive and true, and a received wisdom that’s sentimental, nostalgic, and false—is modeled on the narrative we’ve just been examining, and has no more to do with the facts on the ground than the narrative does.
The great difference between the two is that neither medieval cosmographers nor late 18th century geologists had the least notion that they were supposed to act out a morality play for the benefit of viewers in the early 21st century. Here in the early 21st century, by contrast, a culture that’s made the morality play in question the center of its collective identity for more than three hundred years is very good at encouraging people to act out their assigned roles in the play, even when doing so flies in the face of their own interests.  Christian churches gain nothing, as I pointed out in last week’s post, by accepting the loser’s role in the ongoing squabble over evolution, and the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that have gone into the creationist crusade could have been applied to something relevant to to the historic creeds and commitments of the Christian religion, rather than serving to advance the agenda of their enemies. That this never seems to occur to them is a measure of the power of the myth.
Those of my readers who have an emotional investment in the environmental movement might not want to get too smug about the creationists, mind you, because their own movement has been drawn into filling exactly the same role, with equally disastrous consequences.  It’s not just that the media consistently likes to portray environmentalism as a sentimental, nostalgic movement with its eyes fixed on an idealized prehuman or pretechnological past, though of course that’s true. A great many of the public spokespersons for environmental causes also speak in the same terms, either raging against the implacable advance of progress or pleading for one or another compromise in which a few scraps are tossed nature’s way as the engines of progress go rumbling on.
According to the myth of progress, those are the sort of speeches that are assigned to the people on  history’s losing side, and environmentalists in recent decades have done a really impressive job of conforming to the requirements of their assigned role.  When was the last time, for example, that you heard an environmentalist offer a vision of the future that wasn’t either business as usual with a coat of green spraypaint, a return to an earlier and allegedly greener time, or utter catastrophe?  As recently as the 1970s, it was quite common for people in the green end of things to propose enticing visions of a creative, sustainable, radically different future in harmony with nature, but that habit got lost in the next decade, about the time the big environmental lobbies sold out to corporate America.
Now of course once a movement redefines its mission as begging for scraps from the tables of the wealthy and influential, as mainstream environmentalism has done, it’s not going to do it any good to dream big dreams. Still, there’s a deeper pattern at work here.  The myth of progress assigns the job of coming up with bold new visions of the future to the winning side—which means in practice the side that wins the political struggle to get its agenda defined as the next step of progress—and assigns to the losing side instead the job of idealizing the past and warning about the dreadful catastrophes that are sure to happen unless the winners relent in their onward march. Raise people to believe implicitly in a social narrative, and far more often than not they’ll fill their assigned roles in that narrative, even at great cost to themselves, since the alternative is a shattering revaluation of all values in which the unthinking certainties that frame most human thought have to be dragged up to the surface and judged on their own potentially dubious merits.
Such a revaluation, though, is going to happen anyway in the not too distant future, because the onward march of progress is failing to live up to the prophecies that have been made in its name.  As noted in an earlier post in this sequence, civil religions are vulnerable to sudden collapse because their kingdom is wholly of this world; believers in a theist religion can console themselves in the face of continual failure with the belief that their sufferings will be amply repaid in heaven, but the secular worldview common to civil religions slams the door in the face of that hope.
The civil religion of Communism thus imploded when it became impossible for people on either side of the Iron Curtain to ignore the gap between prophecy and reality, and I’ve argued in an earlier series of posts that there’s good reason to think that the civil religion of Americanism may go the same way in the decades ahead of us.  The civil religion of progress, though, is at least as vulnerable to that species of sudden collapse. So far, the suggestion that progress might be over for good is something you’ll encounter mostly in edgy humor magazines and the writings of intellectual heretics far enough out on the cultural fringes to be invisible to the arbiters of fashion; so far, “they’ll think of something” remains the soothing mantra du jour of the true believers in the great god Progress.
Nonetheless, history points up the reliability with which one era’s unquestioned truths become the next era’s embarrassing memories.  To return to a point raised earlier in this sequence, the concept of progress has no content of its own, and so it’s been possible so far for believers in progress to pretend to ignore all the things in American life that are blatantly retrogressing, and to keep scrabbling around for something, anything, that will still prop up the myth. In today’s America, living standards for most people have been falling for decades, along with literacy rates and most measures of public health; the nation’s infrastructure has been ravaged by decades of malign neglect, its schools are by most measures the worst in the industrial world, and even the most basic public services are being cut to Third World standards or below; the lunar landers scattered across the face of the Moon stare back blindly at a nation that no longer has a manned space program at all and, despite fitful outbursts of rhetoric from politicians and the idle rich, almost certainly will never have one again. None of that matters—yet.
Another of the lessons repeatedly taught by history, though, is that sooner or later these things will matter.  Sooner or later, some combination of events will push cognitive dissonance to the breaking point, and the civil religion of progress will collapse under the burden of its own failed prophecies. That’s almost unthinkable for most people in the industrial world these days, but it’s crucial to recognize that the mere fact that something is unthinkable is no guarantee that it won’t happen.
Thus it’s important for those of us who want to be prepared for the future to try to think about the unthinkable—to come to terms with the possibility that the future will see a widespread rejection of the myth of progress and everything connected to it. That wasn’t a likely option in an age when economic expansion and rapid technological development were everyday facts of life, but we no longer live in such an age, and the fading memories of the last decades when those things happened will not retain their power indefinitely. Imagine a future America where the available resources don’t even suffice to maintain existing technological systems, only the elderly remember sustained economic growth, and the new technological devices that still come onto the market now and then are restricted to the very few who are wealthy enough to afford them. At what point along that curve do the promises of progress become so self-evidently absurd that the power of the civil religion of progress to shape thought and motivate behavior breaks down completely?
It’s ironic but entirely true that actual technological progress could continue, at least for a time, after the civil religion of progress is busy pushing up metaphorical daisies in the cemetery of dead faiths. What gives the religion of progress its power over so many minds and hearts is not progress itself, but the extraordinary burden of values and meanings that progress is expected to carry in our society.  It’s not the mere fact that new technologies show up in the stores every so often that matters, but the way that this grubby commercial process serves to bolster a collective sense of entitlement and a galaxy of wild utopian dreams about the human future. If the sense of entitlement gives way to a sense of failure or, worse, of betrayal, and the dreamers wake up and recognize that the dreams were never anything more than pipe dreams in the first place, the backlash could be one for the record books.
One way or another, the flow of new products will eventually sputter to a halt, though at least some of today’s technologies will stay in use for as long as they can be kept functioning in the harsh conditions of an age of resource scarcity and ecological payback. A surprisingly broad range of technologies can be built and maintained by people who have little or no grasp of the underlying science, and thus it has happened more than once—as with the Roman aqueducts that brought water to medieval cities—that a relatively advanced technology can be kept running for centuries by people who have no clue how it was built. Over the short and middle term, in a world after progress, we can probably expect many current technologies to remain in place for a while, though it’s an open question how many people in America and elsewhere will still be able to afford to use them for how much longer.
Ultimately, that last factor may be the Achilles’ heel of most modern technologies.  In the not too distant future, any number of projects that might be possible in some abstract sense will never happen, because all the energy, raw materials, labor, and money that are still available are already committed twice over to absolute necessities, and nothing can be spared for anything else. In any age of resource scarcity and economic contraction, that’s a fairly common phenomenon, and it’s no compliment to contemporary thinking about the future that so many of the grand plans being circulated in the sustainability scene ignore the economics of contraction so completely.
Still, that’s a theme for a different post. The point I want to raise here has to do with the consequences of a collective loss of faith in the civil religion of progress—consequences that aren’t limited to the realm of technology, but spill over into economics, politics, and nearly every other dimension of contemporary life. The stereotyped debates introduced at the beginning of this post and discussed in more detail toward the middle will be abandoned, and their content will have to be reframed in completely different terms, once the myth of progress, which provides them with their basic script, loses its hold on the collective imagination. The historical fictions also discussed earlier will be up for the same treatment. It’s hard to think of any aspect of modern thought that hasn’t been permeated by the myth of progress, and when that myth shatters and has to be replaced by other narratives, an extraordinary range of today’s unquestioned certainties will be up for grabs.

That has implications I plan on exploring in a number of future posts. Some of the most crucial of those implications, though, bear directly on one of the core institutions of contemporary industrial culture, an institution that has derived much of its self-image and a galaxy of benefits from the historical fictions and stereotyped debates discussed earlier in this post. Next week, therefore, we’ll talk about what science might look like in a world on the far side of progress.

The Quest for a Common Language

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on the Archdruid Report on July 24, 2013

logopodcast

Discuss this article at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

It was probably inevitable that my comment last week about the pseudoconservative crusade against Darwinian evolution in today’s America would attract more attention, and generate more heat, than anything else in the post. Some of my readers abroad expressed their surprise that the subject was even worth mentioning any more, and it’s true that most religious people elsewhere on the planet, even those who revere the same Bible our American creationists insist on treating as a geology textbook, got over the misunderstandings that drive the creationist crusade a long time ago.
While it’s primarily an American issue, though, I’d like to ask the indulgence of my readers elsewhere in the world, and  also of American readers who habitually duck under the nearest couch whenever creationists and evolutionists start shouting past each other.  As a major hot-button issue in the tangled relationship between science and religion, the quarrel over evolution highlights the way that this relationship has gotten messed up, and thus will have to be sorted out as the civil religion of progress comes unraveled and its believers have to find some new basis for their lives.
Mind you, I also have a personal stake in it. It so happens that I’m a religious person who accepts the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s not despite my religion—quite the contrary, it’s part of my religion—and so I’m going to break one of my own rules and talk a little bit about Druidry here.
The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:
“Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?”
“A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.”
“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?”
“A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.”
Like most 18th-century rituals, this one goes on for a good long while, but the passage just cited is enough to give the flavor and some of the core ideas. Abred is the realm of incarnate existence, and includes “every form capable of a body and life,” from what used to be called “infusoria” (single-celled organisms, nowadays) all the way up the scale of biological complexity and diversity, through every kind of plant and animal, including you and me. What the dialogue is saying is that we all, every one of us, embody all these experiences in ourselves. When Taliesin in his great song of triumph said “I have been all things previously,” this is what we believe he was talking about.
There are at least two ways in which all this can be taken. It might be referring to the long biological process that gave rise to each of us, and left our bodies and minds full of traces of our kinship with all other living things. It might also be referring to the transmigration of souls, which was a teaching of the ancient Druids and is fairly common in the modern tradition as well: the belief that there is a center of consciousness that survives the death of one body to be reborn in another, and that each such center of consciousness, by the time it first inhabits a human body, has been through all these other forms, slowly developing the complexity that will make it capable of reflective thought and wisdom. You’ll find plenty of Druids on either side of this divide; what you won’t find—at least I’ve yet to encounter one—are Druids who insist that the existence of a soul is somehow contradicted by the evolution of the body.
Yet you can’t bring up the idea of evolution in today’s America without being beseiged by claims that Darwinian evolution is inherently atheistic. Creationists insist on this notion just as loudly as atheists do, which is really rather odd, considering that it’s nonsense. By this I don’t simply mean that an eccentric minority faith such as Druidry manages to combine belief in evolution with belief in gods; I mean that the supposed incompatibility between evolution and the existence of one or more gods rests on the failure of religious people to take the first principles of their own faiths seriously.
Let’s cover some basics first. First of all, Darwin’s theory of natural selection may be a theory, but evolution is a fact. Living things change over time to adapt to changing environments; we’ve got a billion years of fossil evidence to show that, and the thing is happening right now—in the emergence of the Eastern coyote, the explosive radiation of cichlid fishes in East Africa, and many other examples. The theory attempts to explain why this observed reality happens. A great deal of creationist rhetoric garbles this distinction, and tries to insist that uncertainties in the explanation are proof that the thing being explained doesn’t exist, which is bad logic. The theory, furthermore, has proven itself solidly in practice—it does a solid job of explaining things for which competing theories have to resort to ad hoc handwaving—and it forms the beating heart of today’s life sciences, very much including ecology.
Second, the narratives of the Book of Genesis, if taken literally, fail to match known facts about the origins and history of the Earth and the living things on it. Creationists have argued that the narratives are true anyway, but their attempts to prove this convince only themselves.  It’s been shown beyond reasonable doubt, for example, that the Earth came into being long before 4004 BCE, that animals and plants didn’t evolve in the order given in the first chapter of Genesis, that no flood large enough to put an ark on Mount Ararat happened during the chronological window the Bible allows for the Noah story, and so on.  It was worth suggesting back in the day that the narratives of the Book of Genesis might be  literally true, but that hypothesis failed to fit the data, and insisting that the facts must be wrong if they contradict a cherished theory is not a useful habit.
Third, the value of the Bible—or of any other scripture—does not depend on whether it makes a good geology textbook, any more than the value of a geology textbook depends on whether it addresses the salvation of the soul. I don’t know of any religion in which faith and practice center on notions of how the Earth came into existence and got its current stock of living things. Certainly the historic creeds of Christianity don’t even consider the issue worth mentioning. The belief that God created the world does not require believing any particular claim about how that happened; nor does it say in the Bible that the Bible has to be taken literally, or that it deals with questions of geology or paleontology at all.
What’s happened here, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, is that a great many devout Christians in America have been suckered into playing a mug’s game. They’ve put an immense amount of energy into something that does their religion no good, and plays straight into the hands of their opponents.
It’s a mug’s game, to begin with, because the central strategy that creationists have been using since well before Darwin’s time guarantees that they will always lose. It’s what historians of science call the “God of the gaps” strategy—the attempt to find breaks in the evolutionary process that scientists haven’t yet filled with an explanation, and then to insist that only God can fill them. Back in Darwin’s own time, the usual argument was that there weren’t any transitional forms between one species and another; in response to the resulting talk about “missing links,” paleontologists spent the next century and a half digging up transitional forms, so that nowadays there are plenty of evolutionary lineages—horses, whales, and human beings among them—where every species is an obvious transition between the one before it and the one after. As those gaps got filled in, critics of evolution retreated to another set, and another, and another; these days, they’ve retreated all the way to fine details of protein structure, and when that gap gets filled in, it’ll be on to the next defeat. The process is reliable enough that I’ve come to suspect that biologists keep an eye on the latest creationist claims when deciding what corner of evolutionary theory gets intensively researched next.
Still, there’s a much deeper sense in which it’s a mug’s game, and explaining that deeper sense is going to require attention to some of the basic presuppositions of religious thought. To keep things in suitably general terms, we’ll talk here about what philosophers call classical theism, defined as the belief that the universe was created out of nothing by a unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being. (There’s more to classical theism than that—you can find the details in any good survey of philosophy of religion—but these are the details that matter for our present purposes.) I’ve argued elsewhere that classical theism isn’t the best explanation of human religious experience, but we’ll let that go for now; it corresponds closely to the beliefs of most American creationists, and it so happens that arguments that apply to classical theism here can be applied equally well to nearly all other theist beliefs.
Of the terms in the definition just given, the one that gets misused most often these days is “eternal.” That word doesn’t mean “lasting for a very long time,” as when we say that a bad movie lasts for an eternity; it doesn’t even mean “lasting for all of time.” What it means instead is “existing outside of time.” (Connoisseurs of exact diction will want to know that something that lasts for a very long time is diuturnal, and something that lasts for all of time is sempiternal.) Eternal beings, if such there be, would experience any two moments in time the way you and I experience two points on a tabletop—distinct but simultaneously present. It’s only beings who exist in time who have to encounter those two moments sequentially, or as we like to say, “one at a time.”
That’s why, for example, the endless arguments about whether divine providence contradicts human free will are barking up the wrong stump. Eternal beings wouldn’t have to foresee the future—they would simply see it, because to them, it’s not in the future.  An omniscient eternal being can know exactly what you’ll do in 2025, not because you lack free will, but because there you are, doing it right out in plain sight, as well as being born, dying, and doing everything else in between. An eternal being could also see what you’re doing in 2025 and respond to it in 2013, or at any other point in time from the Big Bang to whatever final destiny might be waiting for the universe billions of years from now. All this used to be a commonplace of philosophy through the end of the Middle Ages, and it’s no compliment to modern thought that a concept every undergraduate knew inside and out in 1200 has been forgotten even by people who think they believe in eternal beings.
Now of course believers in classical theism and its equivalents don’t just believe in eternal beings in general.  They believe in one, unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe and everything in it out of nothing. Set aside for the moment whether you are or aren’t one of those believers, and think through the consequences of the belief.  If it’s true, then everything in the universe without exception is there either because that being deliberately put it there, or because he created beings with free will in the full knowledge that they would put it there. Everything that wasn’t done by one of those created beings, in turn, is a direct manifestation of the divine will.  Gravity and genetics,  photosynthesis and continental drift, the origin of life from complex carbon compounds and the long evolutionary journey since then: grant the presuppositions of classical theism, and these are, and can only be, how beings in time perceive the workings of the eternally creative will of God.
Thus it’s a waste of time to go scrambling around the machinery of the cosmos, looking for scratches left by a divine monkeywrench on the gears and shafts. That’s what the “God of the gaps” strategy does in practice; without ever quite noticing it, it accepts the purely mechanistic vision of the universe that’s promoted by atheists, and then tries to prove that God tinkers with the machinery from time to time. Accept the principles of classical theism and you’ve given up any imaginable excuse for doing that, since a perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent deity leaves no scratches and doesn’t need to tinker. It’s not even a matter of winding up the gears of the cosmos and letting them run from there, in the fashion of the “clockmaker God” of the 18th century Deists; to an eternal divine being, all of time is present simultaneously, every atom is doing exactly and only what it was put there to do, and what looks like machinery to the atheist can only be, to the believer in classical theism or its equivalents, the action of the divine will in eternity acting upon the world in time.
Such a universe, please note, doesn’t differ from the universe of modern science in any objectively testable way, and this is as it should be. The universe of matter and energy is what it is, and modern science is the best toolkit our species has yet discovered for figuring out how it works. The purpose of theology isn’t to bicker with science over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern—of value, meaning and purpose—which science can’t and shouldn’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion. To return to a point I tried to raise in one of last month’s posts, not everything that matters to human beings can be settled by an objective assessment of fact; there are times, many of them, that you have to decide on some other basis which of several different narratives you choose to trust.
Step beyond questions of fact, that is, and you’re in the territory of faith—a label that properly includes the atheist’s belief in a purely material cosmos just as much as it does the classical theist’s belief in a created cosmos made by an infinite and eternal god, the traditional polytheist’s belief in a living cosmos shaped by many divine powers, and so on, since none of these basic presuppositions about the cosmos can be proven or disproven.  How do people decide between these competing visions, then?  As noted in the post just mentioned, when that choice is made honestly, it’s made on the basis of values. Values are always individual, and always relative to a particular person in a particular context.  They are not a function of the intellect, but of the heart and will—or to use a old and highly unfashionable word, of character. Different sets of presuppositions about the cosmos speak to different senses of what values matter; which is to say that they speak to different people, in different situations.
This, of course, is what a great many religions have been saying all along. In most of the religions of the west, and many of those from other parts of the world, faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms. To accept any such vision of the nature of existence is to define one’s identity and relationship to the whole cosmos; to refuse to accept any such vision is also to define these things, in a different way; and in a certain sense, you don’t make that choice—you are that choice.  Rephrase what I’ve just said in the language of salvation and grace, and you’ve got one of the core concepts of Christianity; phrase it in other terms, and you’ve got an important element of many other religions, Druidry among them.
It’s important not to ignore the sweeping differences among these different visions of the nature of existence—these different faiths, to use a far from meaningless idiom. Still, there’s a common theme shared by many of them, which is the insight that human beings are born and come to awareness in a cosmos with its own distinctive order, an order that we didn’t make or choose, and one that imposes firm limits on what we can and should do with our lives.  Different faiths understand that experience of universal order in radically different ways—call it dharma or the Tao, the will of God or the laws of Great Nature, or what have you—but the choice is the same in every case:  you can apprehend the order of the cosmos in love and awe, and accept your place in it, even when that conflicts with the cravings of your ego, or you can put your ego and its cravings at the center of your world and insist that the order of the cosmos doesn’t matter if it gets in the way of what you think you want.  It’s a very old choice: which will you have, the love of power or the power of love?
What makes this particularly important just now is that we’re all facing that choice today with unusual intensity, in relation to part of the order of the cosmos that not all religions have studied as carefully as they might. Yes, that’s the order of the biosphere, the fabric of natural laws and cycles that keep all of us alive. It’s a teaching of Druidry that this manifestation of the order of things is of the highest importance to humanity, and not just because human beings have messed with that order in remarkably brainless ways over the last three hundred years or so. Your individual actions toward the biosphere are an expression of the divide just sketched out. Do you recognize that the living Earth has its own order, that this order imposes certain hard constraints on what human beings can or should try to do, and do you embrace that order and accept those constraints in your own life for the greater good of the living Earth and all that lives upon her? Or do you shrug it off, or go through the motions of fashionable eco-piety, and hop into your SUV lifestyle and slam the pedal to the metal?
Science can’t answer that question, because science isn’t about values. (When people start claiming otherwise, what’s normally happened is that they’ve smuggled in a set of values from some religion or other—most commonly the civil religion of progress.)  Science can tell us how fast we’re depleting the world’s finite oil supplies, and how quickly the signs of unwelcome ecological change are showing up around us; it can predict how soon this or that or the other resource is going to run short, and how rapidly the global climate will start to cost us in blood; it can even tell us what actions might help make the future less miserable than it will otherwise be, and which ones will add to the misery—but it can’t motivate people to choose the better of these, to decide to change their lives for the benefit of the living Earth rather than saying with a shrug, “I’m sure they’ll think of something” or “I’ll be dead before it happens” or “We’re all going to be extinct soon, so it doesn’t matter,” and walking away.
That’s why I’ve been talking at such length about the end of the civil religion of progress here, and why I’ll be going into more detail about the religious landscape of the deindustrial world as we proceed.  Religion is the dimension of human culture that deals most directly with values, and values are the ultimate source of all human motivation. It’s for this reason that I feel it’s crucial to find a common language that will bridge the gap between religions and the environmental sciences, to get science and religion both to settle down on their own sides of the border that should properly separate them—and to show that there’s a path beyond the misguided struggle between them. We’ll talk more about that path next week.

Held Hostage by Progress

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on The Archdruid Report on July 17, 2013

Stonehenge_Solstice

Discuss this article at the Favorite Dishes Smorgasbord inside the Diner

The continual recycling of repeatedly failed predictions in the peak oil community, the theme of last week’s post here, is anything but unique these days. Open a copy of today’s newspaper (or the online equivalent), and it’s a safe bet that you’ll find at least one op-ed piece calling enthusiastically for the adoption of some political, military, or economic policy that’s failed every single time it’s been tried. It’s hard, in fact, to think of any broadly accepted policy in any dimension of public life today that can’t be accurately described in those terms.
Arnold Toynbee, whose sprawling study of historical cycles is among the constellations by which this blog navigates, pointed out quite some time ago that this process of self-inflicted failure is one of the standard ways that civilizations write their own obituaries. In his formulation, societies thrive so long as the creative minority that leads them can keep on coming up with new responses to the challenges the world throws their way—a process that normally requires the regular replacement of the society’s leadership from below, so that new leaders with new ideas can rise to the top.
When that process of replacement breaks down, and the few people who still rise into the ruling class from lower down the pyramid are selected for their willingness to go along with the status quo rather than for their commitment to new ideas that work, what was once a creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority, which rules by coercion because it can no longer inspire by example. You can tell that this has happened to your society when every crisis gets met with the same stereotyped set of responses, even when those responses clearly don’t work. That happens because dominant minorities identify themselves with certain policies, and with the social roles and narratives that go with those policies, and it takes much more than mere failure to shake those obsessions loose.
The resulting one-track thinking can go very far indeed.  The ideology of the Roman Empire, for example, copied the theological vision of Roman Pagan religion and projected it onto the world of politics. Roman Pagans saw the universe as a place of chaotic powers that had to be subjected to the benevolent rule of a cosmic paterfamilias by way of Jove’s thunderbolts. Roman social thought understood history in the same way, as a process by which an original state of chaos was bashed into obedience by Rome’s legions and subjected to the benevolent rule of the emperor.  For much of Rome’s imperial history, that model even made a certain amount of sense, as substantial parts of the Mediterranean world that had been repeatedly ravaged by wars beforehand experienced an age of relative peace and prosperity under Roman rule.
The problem was simply that this way of dealing with problems had little relevance to the pressures that gutted the Roman Empire in its final years, and trying to apply it anyway very quickly turned into a massive source of problems in its own right. The endless expansion of the Roman military required by increasingly drastic attempts to hammer the world into obedience imposed crippling tax burdens across Roman society, driving whole economic sectors into bankruptcy, and the government responded to this by passing laws requiring every man to practice the same profession as his father, whether he could afford to do so or not. Across the dying empire, whenever one extension of centralized imperial authority turned into a costly flop, some even more drastic act of centralization was the only thinkable option, until finally the whole system fell to pieces.
Modern industrial civilization, especially but not only in its American expression, is well on its way to this same destination by a slightly different road. Across the board, in politics, in economics, in energy policy, in any other field you care to name, the enthusiastic pursuit of repeatedly failed policies has become one of the leitmotifs of contemporary life.  I’d like to focus on one of those briefly, partly because it’s a classic example of the kind, partly because it shows with rare clarity the thinking that underlies the whole phenomenon. The example I have in mind is the ongoing quest for fusion power.
Scientists in the US and something like a dozen other countries have been busy at that quest since the 1950s. In the process, they’ve discovered something well worth knowing about fusion power:  if it can be done at all, on any scale smaller than a star—and the jury’s still out on that one—it can’t be done at a price that any nation on Earth can possibly afford.  The dream of limitless cheap fusion power that filled the pages of gosh-wow newspaper articles and science fiction stories in the 1950s and 1960s is thus as dead as a sack full of doornails. Has this stopped the continuing flow of trillions of dollars of grant money into round after futile round of gargantuan fusion-power projects? Surely you jest.
Thus fusion researchers are stuck in the same self-defeating loop as those peak oil mavens who repeat the same failed prediction for the umpteenth time in a row, in the serene conviction that this time it’ll come true.  They’re approaching the situation in a way that prevents them from learning from their mistakes, no matter how many times the baseball bat of failure whacks them upside the head. In the case of the fusion scientists, what drives that loop is evident enough:  the civil religion of progress and, in particular, the historical mythology at the core of that religion.
Fusion researchers by and large see themselves as figures standing at the cutting edge of one important branch of techological progress. Given their training, their history, and the cultural pressures that surround them and define their work, it’s all but impossible for them to do anything else. That’s what has them boxed into a dead end with no easy exits, because the way progress is conceptualized in contemporary culture is fatally out of step with the facts on the ground.
Progress, as the word literally means, is continued forward motion in one direction. To believers in the civil religion of progress, that’s the shape of history:  whatever it is that matters—moral improvement, technological prowess, economic expansion, or what have you—marches invincibly onward over time, and any setbacks in the present will inevitably be overcome in the future, just as equivalent setbacks in the past were overcome by later generations.  To join the marching legions of progress, according to the myth, is to enlist on the side of history’s winners and to help the inevitable victory come about just that little bit sooner, just as to oppose progress is to fight valiantly in a misguided cause and lose.
That’s the myth that guides contemporary industrial society, just as the myth of Jupiter clobbering the Titans and imposing the rule of law on a fractious cosmos was the myth that guided Roman society. In the broadest sense, whether any given change is “progressive” or “regressive” has to be settled by good old-fashioned politics, since changes don’t arrive with these labels branded on their backsides. Once a group of people have committed themselves to the claim that a change they’re trying to bring about is progressive, though, they’re trapped; no matter what happens, the only action the myth allows them to consider is that of slogging gamely onwards under the conviction that the obstacles will inevitably give way if they just keep at it. Thus the fusion research community is stuck perpetually pushing on a door marked PULL and wondering why it won’t open.
Of course fusion researchers also have deeply pragmatic reasons for their refusal to learn the lessons of repeated failure. Careers, reputations, and multimillion-dollar grants depend on keeping up the pretense that further investment in fusion research has any chance of producing something more than a collection of vastly overpriced laboratory curiosities, and the field of physics is so specialized these days that shutting down fusion research programs would leave most fusion researchers with few marketable job skills relevant to anything this side of flipping burgers. Thus the charade goes on, funded by granting agencies just as committed to that particular corner of the myth of progress as the researchers whose salaries they pay, and continuing to swallow vast amounts of money, resources, and intellectual talent that might accomplish quite a bit if they could be applied to some less futile task.
The fusion research community, in effect, is being held hostage by the myth of progress. I’ve come to think that a great deal of contemporary science is caught in the same bind.  By and large, the research programs that get funding and prestige are those that carry forward existing agendas, and the law of diminishing returns—which applies to scientific research as it does to all other human activities—means that the longer an existing agenda has been pursued, the fewer useful discoveries are likely to be made by pursuing it further.  Yet the myth of progress has no place for the law of diminishing returns; in terms of the myth, every step along the forward march of progress must lead to another step, and that to another still.  This is why, to glance briefly at another example, efforts to craft a unified field theory out of Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics still get ample funding today, despite a century of total failure, while scores of research projects that might actually yield results go unfunded.
It does no good to science, in other words, to be imprisoned within the myth of endless linear progress. I’ve wondered more than once what modern science would look like if some philosophical equivalent of a SWAT team were to kick down the doors of the temple of Progress and liberate the hostages held inside. My best guess is that, freed from the myth, science would look like a tree, rather than a road leading into infinite distance:  rooted in mathematics and logic, supported by the strong trunk of the scientific method, extending branches, twigs and leaves in all directions, some of which would thrive while others would inevitably fail. Its leaves would spread out to catch as many of the rays of the light of truth as the finite nature of the tree allowed, but if one branch—the one called “fusion research,” let’s say—strayed into a lightless zone, the tree of science would direct its resources elsewhere and let that branch turn into a dry stick.
Eventually, the whole tree would reach its maximum growth, and after a lifespan of some centuries or millennia more, it would weaken, fail, and die, leaving its remains as a nurse log to nurture a new generation of intellectual saplings. That’s the way that Greek logic unfolded over time, and modern science started out its existence as one of the saplings nurtured on classical logic’s vast fallen trunk. More generally, that’s history’s way with human intellectual, cultural, and artistic systems of all kinds, and only the blinders imposed by the myth of progress make it impossible for most people in today’s industrial world to see science in the same terms.
That same logic is not restricted to science, either.  If some force of philosophers packing high-caliber syllogisms and fallacy-piercing ammunition ever does go charging through the door of the temple of Progress, quite a few people may be startled by the identity of some of the hostages who are led out blinking into light and freedom. It’s not just the sciences that are tied up and blindfolded there; nearly all the Western world’s religions share the same fate.
It’s important here to recognize that the myth of progress provides two potential roles for those who buy into its preconceptions. As noted earlier in this post, they can join the winning side and enlist in the marching legions of progress, or they can join the losing side, struggle against progress, and heroically fail. Both those roles are necessary for the enactment of the myth, and the raw power of popular culture can be measured in the ease with which nearly every religious tradition in the Western world, including those whose traditions are radically opposed to either one, have been pushed into one role or the other. The major division is of course that between liberal and conservative denominations; the former have by and large been reduced to the role of cheerleaders for progress, while the latter have by and large been assigned the corresponding role as cannon fodder for the side that’s destined to lose.
The interplay between the two sides of the religious spectrum has been made rather more complex by the spectacularly self-defeating behavior of most North American denominations following the Second World War. In those years, a series of wildly popular books—John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, Pierre Berton’s The Comfortable Pew, and others of the same kind—argued in effect that, in order to be properly progressive, Christian churches ought to surrender their historic beliefs, practices, and commitments, and accept whatever diminished role they might be permitted by the mainstream of liberal secular society.  Some of these books, such as Robinson’s, were written by churchmen; others, such as Berton’s, were not, but all of them were eagerly received by liberal churches across the English-speaking world.
The case of The Comfortable Pew is particularly intriguing, as the Anglican Church of Canada hired a well-known Canadian atheist to write a book about what was wrong with their church and what they should do about it, and then gamely took his advice.  Other denominations were not quite so forthright in expressing a death wish, but the results were broadly similar.  Across the board, liberal churches reworked seminary programs to imitate secular liberal arts degrees, abandoned instruction in religious practice, took up the most radical forms of scriptural criticism, and redefined their clergy as amateur social service providers and progressive activists with a sideline in rites of passage. Since most people who go to churches or synagogues are there to practice their religion, not to provide their clergy with an admiring audience for political monologues and lessons in fashionable agnosticism, this shift was promptly followed a steep plunge in the number of people who attended services in all the liberal denominations. Here again, the logic of progress made it all but impossible for church leaders to learn the lesson taught by failure, and most liberal denominations have remained in a death spiral ever since.
Meanwhile, conservative denominations were busy demonstrating that the opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea. Panicked by the global expansion of Communism—you rarely heard that latter word in American public discourse in the 1950s and 1960s without the adjective “godless” tacked on its front end—and the sweeping social changes triggered by postwar prosperity, the leaders of the conservative denominations moved as eagerly as their liberal counterparts to embrace the role that the myth of progress offered them. Along with William F. Buckley and the other architects of postwar American pseudoconservatism, they redefined themselves in opposition to the progressive agenda of their time, and never seemed to notice that they were so busy standing against this, that, and the other that most of them forgot to stand for anything at all.
The social pressure to conform to stereotypes and resist progress in every sense drove the weirdest dimension of late 20th century American Christian pseudoconservatism, the holy war against Darwinian evolution. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the luminous poetry of the first chapter of Genesis must be treated as a geology textbook, nor is a literal reading of Genesis mandated by any of the historic creeds of the Christian churches. Nonetheless “Thou shalt not evolve” got turned into an ersatz Eleventh Commandment, and devout Christians exercised their ingenuity to the utmost to find ways to ignore the immense and steadily expanding body of evidence from geology, molecular biology, paleontology, and genetics that backed Darwin’s great synthesis. That and such sideshows as the effort to insist on the historical reality of the Noah’s ark story, despite conclusive geological evidence disproving it, crippled the efforts of conservative Christians to reach outside their existing audience.
The conservative denominations never quite managed to discard their historic beliefs, practices and commitments with the same enthusiasm shown by their liberal counterparts, preferring to maintain them in mummified form while political activism took center stage; still, the result was much the same.  Today, the spokespersons for conservative religious denominations in America speak and act as though reinstating the mores and politics that America had in the late 1940s has become the be-all and end-all of their religion. In response, a growing number of former parishioners of conservative denominations have withdrawn into the rapidly growing Home Church movement, in which families meet in living rooms with their neighbors to pray and study the Bible together. If that trend accelerates, as it appears to be doing, today’s conservative megachurches may soon turn into cavernous spaces visited once a week by a handful of retirees, just like the once-bustling liberal churches across the road.

The hijacking of religious institutions by the competing civil religion of progress has thus turned out to be a disaster on both sides of the political divide.  The distortions imposed on religion, once it was taken hostage by the myth of progress, thus correspond closely to the distortions imposed on science during its own imprisonment by the same myth. As the civil religion of progress begins to lose its grip on the collective imagination of our time, in turn, both science and religion thus will have to undergo a difficult process of reappraisal, in which many of the mistaken commitments of recent decades will need to be renegotiated or simply abandoned. Harrowing as that process may be, it may just have an unexpected benefit—a negotiated truce in the pointless struggle between science and religion, or even a creative rapprochement between these two distinct and complementary ways of relating to the universe. I’ll discuss these possibilities in next week’s post.

Asking the Hard Questions

Published on the Archdruid Report on July 10, 2013

Stonehenge_Solstice

Discuss this article at the Favorite Dishes Smorgasbord inside the Diner

Diner Podcast with John Michael Greer Coming Soon to a Laptop Near You!

There are nights, now and then, when I sit up late with a glass of bourbon and look back over the long strange trip that’s unfolded over the last thirty years or so. When a substantial majority of Americans straight across the political landscape convinced themselves in the early 1980s that mouthing feel-good slogans and clinging to extravagant lifestyles over the short term made more sense than facing up to the hard choices that might have given our grandchildren a livable future, that choice kickstarted a flight into fantasy that continues to this day.

Over the seven years that I’ve been writing and posting essays here on The Archdruid Report, in turn, a tolerably good sample of the resulting fantasies have been dumped on my electronic doorstep by readers who were incensed by my lack of interest in playing along. There’s a certain amusement value in reviewing that sample, but a retrospective glance that way has another advantage: the common threads that unite the fantasies in question form a pattern of central importance to the theme that this sequence of posts is trying to explore.

Back in 2006, when I made my first posts suggesting that the future waiting for us on the far side of Hubbert’s peak was a long, ragged descent punctuated by crises, there were three common ways of dismissing that prediction. The first insisted that once the price of petroleum got near $100 a barrel, the sheer cost of fueling the industrial economy would trigger the economic crisis to end all economic crises and bring civilization crashing down at once. The second insisted that once that same price threshold was met, any number of exciting new renewable energy technologies would finally become profitable, resulting in a green-energy boom and a shiny future. The third insisted that once that price threshold was met, the law of supply and demand would flood the market with petroleum, force prices back down, and allow the march of economic growth to continue merrily on its way.

A case could be made that those were reasonable hypotheses at the time. Still, the price of oil went soaring past $100 a barrel over the next few years, and none of those predictions panned out. We did have a whopping economic crisis in 2008, but emergency actions on the part of central banks kept the global economy from unraveling; a variety of renewable energy technologies got launched onto the market, but it took massive government subsidies to make any of them profitable, and all of them together provide only a very small fraction of our total energy use; and, of course, as prices rose, a certain amount previously uneconomical oil did find its way to market, but production remains locked into a plateau and the price remains stubbornly high.

That is to say, the perfect storms weren’t, the game-changing events didn’t, and a great many prophets ended up taking a total loss on their predictive investments. It’s the aftermath, though, that matters. By and large, the people who were making these claims didn’t stop, look around, and say, “Hmm, clearly I got something wrong. Is there another way of thinking about the implications of peak oil that makes more sense of the data?” Instead, they found other arguments to back the same claims, or simply kept repeating them at higher volume. For a while there, you could go visit certain peak oil bloggers every January and read the same predictions of imminent economic doom that appeared there the year before, and then go to another set of peak oil bloggers and read equally recycled predictions that this would be the breakthrough year for some green energy source or other, and in neither case was there any sign that any of them had learned a thing from all the times those same predictions had failed before.

Nor were they alone—far from it. When I think about the number of arguments that have been posted here over the last seven years, in an effort to defend the claim that the Long Descent can’t possibly happen, it’s enough to make my head spin, even without benefit of bourbon. I’ve fielded patronizing lectures from believers in UFOs, New Age channelers, and the fake-Mayan 2012 prophecy, airily insisting that once the space brothers land, the New Age dawns, or what have you, we’ll all discover that ecological limits and the laws of thermodynamics are illusions created by lower states of consciousness. Likewise, I’ve received any number of feverish pronouncements that asteroids, solar flares, methane burps from the sea floor or, really, just about anything you can imagine short of titanic space walruses with photon flippers, are going to wipe out humanity in the next few years or decades and make the whole issue moot.

It’s been a wild ride, really. I’ve been labeled dogmatic and intolerant for pointing out to proponents of zero point energy, abiotic oil, and similar exercises in wishful thinking that insisting that a completely unproven theory will inevitably save us may not be the most sensible strategy in a time of crisis. I’ve been dismissed as closed-minded by believers in artificial intelligence, fusion power, and an assortment of other technological will-o’-the-wisps for asking why promises of imminent sucess that have been repeated word for word every few years since the 1950s still ought to be considered credible today I’ve been accused of being a stooge for the powers of evil for questioning claims that Bush—er, make that Clinton—uh, well, let’s try Dubya—um, okay, then, Obama, is going to suspend the constitution, impose a totalitarian police state and start herding us all into camps, and let’s not even talk about the number of people who’ve gotten irate with me when I failed to be impressed by their insistence that the Rapture will happen before we run out of oil.

Not one of these claims is new, any more than the claims of imminent economic collapse, green-energy breakthroughs, or oceans of petroleum just waiting to be drilled. Most of them have been recycled over and over again, some for over a century—the New Age, for example, was originally slated to arrive in 1879, and in fact the most popular alternative spirituality magazine in 1890s Britain was titled The New Age—and the few that have only been through a few seasons’ worth of reruns follow familiar patterns and thus fail in equally familiar ways. If the point of making predictions in the first place has anything to do with anticipating the future we’re actually likely to get, these claims have flopped resoundingly, and yet they remain wildly popular.

Now of course there are good reasons why they should be popular. All the claims about the future I’ve listed are, in practical terms, incentives to inaction and evasions of responsibility. If rising oil prices are guaranteed to bring on a rush of new green energy options, then we don’t have to change our lifestyles, because pretty soon we’ll be able to power them on sun or wind or what have you; if rising oil prices are guaranteed to bring on a rush of new petroleum sources, well, then we don’t need to change our lifestyles, either, and we can make an extra donation to the Sierra Club or something to assuage any lingering ecological guilt we might have. The same goes for any of the other new technologies that are supposedly going to provide us with, ahem, limitless energy sometime very soon—and you’ll notice that in every case, supplying us with all that energy is someone else’s job.

On the other hand, if the global economy is sure to go down in flames in the next few years, or runaway climate change is going to kill us all, or some future president is finally going to man up, impose a police state and march us off to death camps, it’s not our fault, and there’s nothing we can do that matters anyway, so we might as well just keep on living our comfortable lifestyles while they’re still here, right? It may be impolite to say this, but it needs to be said: any belief about the future that encourages people to sit on their backsides and do nothing but consume scarce resources, when there’s a huge amount that could be done to make the future a better place and a grave shortage of people doing it, is a luxury this age of the world can’t afford.

Still, I’d like to cycle back to the way that failed predictions are recycled, because it leads straight to the heart of an unrecognized dimension of the predicament of our time. Since the future can’t be known in advance, attempts to predict it have to rely on secondhand evidence. One proven way to collect useful evidence concerning the validity of a prediction is to ask what happened in the past when somebody else made that same prediction. Another way is to look for situations in the past that are comparable to the one the prediction discusses, in order to see what happened then. A prediction that fails either one of these tests usually needs to be put out to pasture; one that fails both—that has been made repeatedly in the past and failed every time, and that doesn’t account for the way that comparable situations have turned out—ought to be sent to the glue factory instead.

It’s in this light that the arguments used to defend repeatedly failed predictions can be understood. I’ve discussed these arguments at some length in recent posts: the endlessly repeated claim that it’s different this time, the refusal to think about the implications of well-documented sources of negative feedback, the insistence that a prediction must be true if no one’s proved that it’s impossible, and so on. All of them are rhetorical gimmicks meant to stonewall the kind of assessment I’ve just outlined. Put another way, they’re attempts to shield repeatedly failed predictions from the normal and healthy consequences of failure.

Think about that for a bit. From the time that our distant ancestors ventured out onto the East African savannas and started to push the boundaries of their nervous systems in ways for which millions of years of treetop living did little to prepare them, their survival and success have been a function of their ability to come up with mental models of the world that more or less correspond to reality where it counts. If there were ever australopithecines that couldn’t do the sort of basic reality testing that allows food to be distinguished from inedible objects, and predators from harmless animals, they didn’t leave any descendants. Since then, as hominids and then humans developed more and more elaborate mental models of the world, the hard-won ability to test those models against the plain facts of experience with more and more precision has been central to our achievement.

In the modern West, we’ve inherited two of the great intellectual revolutions our species has managed—the creation of logic and formal mathematics in ancient Greece, and the creation of experimental science in early modern Europe—and both of those revolutions are all about reality testing. Logic is a system for making sure that mental models make sense on their own terms, and don’t stray into fallacy or contradiction; experimental science is a system for checking some mental models, those that deal with the quantifiable behavior of matter and energy, against the facts on the ground. Neither system is foolproof, but then neither is anything else human, and if both of them survive the decline and fall of our present civilization, there’s every reason to hope that future civilizations will come up with ways to fill in some of their blind spots, and add those to the slowly accumulating body of effective technique that provides one of the very few long-term dynamics to history.

It remains true, though, that all the many methods of reality testing we’ve evolved down through the millennia, from the most basic integration of sense inputs hardwired into the human brain right on up to the subtleties of propositional logic and the experimental method, share one central flaw. None of them will work if their messages are ignored—and that’s what’s going on right now, as a vast majority of people across the modern industrial world scramble to find reasons to cling to a range of popular but failed predictions about the future, and do their level best to ignore the evidence that a rather more unpopular set of predictions about the future is coming true around them.

Look around, dear reader, and you’ll see a civilization in decline, struggling ineffectually with the ecological overshoot, the social disintegration, the institutional paralysis, and the accelerating decay of infrastructure that are part and parcel of the normal process by which civilizations die. This is what the decline and fall of a civilization looks like in its early-to-middle stages—and it’s also what I’ve been talking about, very often in so many words, since not long after this blog got under way seven years ago. Back then, as I’ve already mentioned, it was reasonable to propose that something else might happen, that we’d get the fast crash or the green-energy breakthrough or all the new petroleum that the law of supply and demand was supposed to provide us, but none of those things happened. (Of course, neither did the mass landing of UFOs or any of the other more colorful fantasies, but then that was never really in question.) It’s time to recognize that the repetition of emotionally appealing but failed predictions is not a helpful response to the crisis of our time, and in fact has done a great deal to back us into the corner we’re now in. What was Ronald Reagan’s airy twaddle about “morning in America,” after all, but another emotionally appealing failed prophecy of the kind I’ve just been discussing?

Thus I’d like to suggest that from now on, any claim about the future needs to be confronted up front by the two hard questions proposed above. What happened at other times when people made the same prediction, or one that’s closely akin to it? What happened in other situations that are comparable to the one the prediction attempts to address? Any prediction that claims to be about a future we might actually encounter should be able to face these two questions without resorting to the kind of rhetorical evasions noted above. Any prediction that has to hide behind those evasions, in turn, needs to be recognized as being irrelevant to any future we might actually encounter. My own predictions, by the way, stand or fall by the same rule, and I encourage my readers to ask those questions of each prediction I make, and answer them through their own research.

Yes, I’m aware that those two questions pack an explosive punch that makes dynamite look weak. It’s embarrassingly common in contemporary life for theories to be embraced because of their emotional appeal, and then defended with every rhetorical trick in the book against any inconvenient contact with unsympathetic facts. As suggested in last week’s post, that’s a common feature of civilizations toward the end of their rationalist period, when abstract reason gets pushed to the point of absurdity and then well beyond it. Fantasies about the shape of the future aren’t uncommon at such times, but I don’t know of another civilization in all of recorded history that has put as much energy as ours into creating and defending abstract theories about the shape of the future. With any luck, the civilizations that come after ours will learn from our mistakes, and direct their last and most overblown abstractions in directions that will do less harm.

In the meantime, those of us who are interested in talking about the kinds of future we might actually encounter might find it useful to give up the standard modern habit of choosing a vision of the future because it’s emotionally appealing, demanding that the world fulfill whatever dream we happen to have, and filling our minds with defensive gimmicks to keep from hearing when the world says “no.” That requires a willingness to ask the questions I mentioned above, and to accept the answers, even when they aren’t what we’d like them to be. More generally, it requires a willingness to approach the universe of our experience from a standpoint that’s as stunningly unfashionable these days as it is necessary—a standpoint of humility.

What would it mean if, instead of trying to impose an emotionally appealing narrative on the future, and shouting down any data that conflicts with it, we were to approach the universe of our experience with enough humility to listen to the narratives the universe itself offers us? That’s basically what I’ve been trying to suggest here all along, after all. That’s the point to my repeated references to history, because history is our species’ accumulated body of knowledge of the way human affairs unfold over time, and approaching that body of knowledge with humility and a willingness to listen to the stories it tells is a proven way to catch hints about the shape of the future as it unfolds.

That’s also the point to my equally frequent references to ecology, because history is simply one subset of the behavior of living things over time—the subset that deals with human organisms—and also because ecological factors have played a huge and all too often unrecognized role in the rise and fall of human societies. Whether humans are smarter than yeast is less important than the fact, and of course it is a fact, that humans, yeast, and all other living things are subject to the same ecological laws and thus inevitably experience similar processes over time. Attentive listening to the stories that history tells, and the even richer body of stories that nature tells, is the one reliable way we’ve got to figure out what those processes are before they clobber us over the head.

That act of humility, finally, may be the best ticket out of the confusion that the collective imagination of our time has created around itself, the proliferation of abstractions divorced from reality that makes it so hard to see the future looming up ahead of us. By turning our attention to what actually happens in the world around us, and asking the hard but necessary questions about our preferred notions concerning that world and its future, we might just be able to extract ourselves far enough from that confusion to begin to grapple with the challenges of our time. In the process, we’ll have to confront once again the issues with which this series of posts started out—the religious dimension of peak oil and the end of the industrial age. We’ll proceed with that discussion next week.

 

 

[amazon asin=0865716730,B00BGJ1AZS,0865716099,157863489X,0865716390,B00A323CPU,B005OCJBOK,0956720382&text=www.amazon.com&template=carousel]

The Rock by Lake Silvaplana

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on the Archdruid Report on May 29, 2013

hahnensee_silvaplana_sils

Discuss this article at the Favorite Dishes Smorgasbord inside the Diner

One of the most important and least popular lessons taught by the history of ideas is that every attempt to answer the big questions—where did we come from, why are we here, where are we going, and so forth—gets whatever support it has from two distinct sources. The first of these is the factual evidence, if any, that backs it; the second is the emotional appeal, if any, that it offers to those who embrace it. Habits of thinking hardwired into contemporary culture treat the first of those as though it’s the only thing that matters, and react to any mention of the second with the same sort of embarrassed silence that might greet a resounding fart at a formal garden party. Since human beings aren’t passionless bubbles of intellect, though, the second source of support is fairly often the more important and the more revealing of the two.

The flurry of apocalyptic predictions that surrounded December 21, 2012 makes as good an example as any. The factual evidence supporting the idea that anything unusual would happen on that date was—well, to call it dubious is by no means a minor understatement: the entire furore was based on misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar that wouldn’t have survived fifteen minutes of unbiased research, but which were accepted as gospel and padded out by industrious true believers into a magpie’s nest of arbitrary speculations, misquoted or invented prophecies, and scientific hypotheses yanked out of context and hammered into shape to support the preexisting 2012 narrative. Those of my readers who tried, as I did, to question that narrative will recall the reaction from believers: talk about the facts and you could expect an endlessly shifting assortment of justifications for belief; talk about the narrative, its parallels in previous apocalyptic fads, and the tangled emotional drives that all too clearly lay behind it, and you could expect a furious insistence that bringing up such matters is irrelevant and unfair.

Questioning the modern faith in progress, on those rare occasions when such questioning happens at all, is a good way to observe a similar species of handwaving in its native habitat. As mentioned in last week’s post, the concept of progress has no content of its own, no single measurement by which it stands and falls. Thus no matter how many things are pretty clearly regressing—and these days, the list of things that are regressing is getting quite long—believers can always find something or other that appears to be progressing, and use that to defend the narrative. When that fails in turn, as it generally does, there’s always something else, even if that turns out to be no more than the pious hope that the regress will turn out to be a temporary hurdle over which, as the myth of progress demands, humanity will sooner or later leap. Move the discussion to the narrative of progress, its parallels among other triumphalist narratives, and the emotional drives that lie behind it, though, and you’ll get the same sort of angry denunciation that came from believers in the 2012 narrative.

It’s going to be necessary to risk that reaction, and a variety of other unhelpful responses, in order to glimpse a shape of time better suited to the realities of our present situation than the dead straight Joachimist line of progress or the Augustinian U-shape of apocalypse that runs from Eden to the fallen world to the cataclysmic arrival of the New Jerusalem, however renamed. The route past those overly familiar alternatives requires attention to the emotional dimensions of the shapes we give to the inkblot patterns of time, and in particular, to a distinctive emotional payoff that the narratives of progress and apocalypse share in common.

Therapists call it provisional living: the belief that life will become what it’s supposed to be once x happens. What x might be varies as wildly from case to case as the diversity of human psyches will permit. Among individuals, it might be losing twenty pounds, being promoted to that supervisor’s position you’ve always wanted, getting a divorce, or what have you, but it always has two distinctive features. The first is that x serves as an anchor for a flurry of unrealistic fantasies about the future that will supposedly arrive once x happens; the second is that x never happens, and is more or less chosen—subconsciously or otherwise—with that outcome in mind.

It’s precisely the fact that x never happens that makes provisional living so tempting. Most of us are aware on one level or another that the choices we prefer to make do not reflect the values and beliefs we claim to hold, and are not going to bring us the lives we think we ought to have. Confront that reality head on, and the message that the statue of Apollo said to Rainier Maria Rilke—”you must change your life”—becomes hard to ignore. The avoidance of that reality is therefore the cornerstone on which most dysfunctional lives are built.

Provisional living is among the most popular ways to engineer that avoidance. The pounds you can’t lose, the promotion you won’t get, the divorce papers you never quite get around to filing, or some other x factor becomes the villain you can blame for the failure of your choices to reflect your ideals and bring you the life you think you should have. Meanwhile the dreams that pile up on the other side of the change that never happens can get as gaudy as you like, since they never have to face the cold gray morning light of reality. Not all those dreams are happy ones; people are almost as likely to put fantasies about suffering and death on the far side of x as they are to stock the same imaginary space with wealth, power, and plenty of hot sex. It all depends on the personal factor.

Progress and apocalypse, in turn, offer the same payoff on a collective level. The imagined world of the future, whether it’s the product of business as usual or of the cataclysmic repudiation of business as usual, becomes a dumping ground for every kind of fantasy, and those fantasies never have to stand up to the test of reality because the x event that’s supposed to make them real never quite gets around to happening. This allows believers in progress and apocalypse, like other practitioners of provisional living, to put a wholly imaginary world at the center of their emotional lives. This makes it relatively easy for them to ignore the depressingly ordinary world in which they actually live and, more to the point, the role of their own choices in making that world exactly what it is.

The imaginary future worlds conjured up by the mythologies of progress and apocalypse, in turn, are pallid reflections of an older and more robust conception, the belief in a heaven of immortal bliss to which the souls of true believers ascend after death. That conception is so thoroughly hardwired into Western culture that it can take quite a bit of research to grasp how much chopping and stretching had to be done to older ideas of postmortem existence in order to make them fit a heaven-centered narrative. It’s indicative that when the concept of reincarnation came back into circulation in alternative circles in the Western world in the 19th century, it was at first denounced in incandescent terms. What made it “disgusting” and “repulsive,” to note only two of the heated labels applied to reincarnation in that long-forgotten debate, was precisely the suggestion that human souls after death would cycle right back to the same world they had just left and live with the consequences of their own choices.

It’s at this point that we return to Nietzsche, for one of the central themes of his philosophy was an edgy analysis of the creation of imaginary “real worlds” by the human mind as a way of devaluing the world we actually inhabit. That was an even bigger issue in his time than it is in ours, with approved versions of 19th century Christian piety claiming that the proper response to every injustice was to wait patiently for payback in heaven, and a philosophical milieu in the universities in which airily abstract speculations about the Absolute had all but replaced meaningful attention to the realities of human existence. The phrase “provisional living” hadn’t been invented yet, but the practice was central to the social morality of the Victorian era, and it formed one of the central targets of Nietzsche’s grand project for a revaluation of all values that would take life itself as its touchstone.

That project had for its core theme the affirmation of existence as it actually is—in Nietzsche’s own phrase, a yes-saying to life that would counter more than two thousand years of naysaying morality, philosophy and spirituality. As he developed his critique of the conventional wisdom of his time, his insistence on saying yes to life as it is became increasingly forceful. That journey reached its final destination in August of 1881 on a walk around Lake Silvaplana in the Alps, at a roughly pyramidal mass of stone that still stands beside the lake: “six thousand feet beyond man and time,” as Nietzsche wrote excitedly on a scrap of paper at the time.

If, as Nietzsche thought, the only ideas that matter are those conceived while walking, it may be useful to spend a few moments strolling along the path that led up to his formula of affirmation, not least because its early course seems to have escaped the notice of contemporary scholarship on Nietzsche. A classical philologist by training, he applied a specialist’s familiarity with ancient Greek thought to the more immediate problems of philosophy and Western culture that concerned him in his major works. Most of his core conceptions can thus be traced back at least in part to one particular school of Greek and Roman philosophers, the one such school that affirmed life as it is with as much verve as Nietzsche himself: the old Stoics.

Mention the word “Stoic” to most people these days and you might, if you’re lucky, get some sort of vague sense of gritted teeth and unwillingness to crumple under the impact of pain. Off past that dim misunderstanding lies one of the most challenging adventures in human thought, a sustained effort to sort out human life on the basis of what we actually know about the world. The Stoic school of philosophy was founded around 300 BCE by Zeno of Citium, and became one of the major systems of classical thought, retaining a lively presence across the Mediterranean world until the long night of the Dark Ages closed in. Its core insight was that human beings can control only two things—their own choice of actions and their own assessments of the things they experience—and that sanity consists of recognizing this fact and refusing to make any emotional investment in those things that aren’t subject to the individual will.

In any situation, said the Stoics, the job assigned to human beings is to recognize the good and act accordingly. Nothing else matters, and the point of Stoic spiritual practice is to get to the point where, in fact, nothing else matters. The radical affirmation of the world as it is was one standard element of the Stoic training: from the Stoic perspective, the world is what it is, and though the Stoic may freely choose to fling himself into a struggle to change some part of it for the better, and unhesitatingly lay down his life in that struggle, no power in heaven or earth can make him whine about it.

The Stoics took that formula of radical acceptance to an extreme that few later thinkers have ever been willing to contemplate. Most philosophers in the classical world accepted the theory that the motions of the planets and stars shaped events on Earth, and speculated that after an immense length of time, the heavens will repeat the same patterns of movement and bring about a corresponding repetition below. Stoic philosophers embraced that theory, and built up a worldview in which the whole universe moved through endlessly repeated cycles from one ekpyrosis—”Big Bang” would not be an inaccurate translation of this bit of technical Greek—to the next, with every single event duplicated down to the last detail in each repetition. It’s one thing to accept the present moment, and another to accept the whole of your life; it’s quite another to imagine that same life repeated endlessly through infinite time, and accept that as a whole, without wishing a single thing to be different. That’s the state to which the most extreme Stoics aspired.

That was the vision that came crashing into Nietzsche’s mind as he stood beside the rock by Lake Silvaplana. Suppose, he said, we engage in a thought experiment. Scientists tell us that there is a fixed quantity of matter and energy in the cosmos, and no sign that the universe has a beginning or an end. (This was all accepted scientific opinion in the late 19th century; the Big Bang theory was still far in the future.) Given a finite amount of matter and energy and a fixed set of natural laws working over infinite time, every event any of us experiences here and now must have happened an infinite number of times before, and will happen an infinite number of times again, in an eternal recurrence that admits of no variation. As you consider your life, past, present and to come, can you face the prospect of infinite repetitions of that same life? Can you joyously affirm that prospect—can you will it?

It’s hard to imagine a more all-out assault on provisional living, or a more forceful challenge to live up to one’s ideals. As he passed through his few remaining years of sanity, though, Nietzsche seems to have convinced himself that his thought experiment was in fact a reality, that every moment of his life had in fact happened countless times before and would be repeated countless times again. I sometimes wonder if that’s what finally pushed him over the edge into madness. Like most thinkers whose work makes a fetish of ruthlessness, Nietzsche was obsessively kind and gentle in his personal life. As he stood there on the Piazza Carlo Alberti, hearing the thump of the teamster’s stick and the terrified cries of the horse, growing more agitated by the moment, it’s all too easy to imagine the voice whispering in his mind: can you joyously affirm this, over and over again, from eternity to eternity?

A moment later he was sprinting across the piazza, flinging himself between the drover and the horse. It was a classically Stoic thing to do, and I suspect that if he’d known that what was left of his sanity wouldn’t survive the moment, he’d have done it anyway. Fiat justicia, ruat caelum, said the old Stoics: let justice be done, though it brings the sky crashing down. That it was his own mental sky that came crashing down was, as the Stoics also liked to say, a matter of indifference.

It was Nietzsche’s great misfortune, and a central flaw of his philosophy, that he never quite managed to grasp that the opposite of a bad thing can also be a bad thing. To challenge oneself with the vision of eternal recurrence as a thought experiment is one thing, and I recommend it to my readers as a useful exercise. If that vision were in fact the literal truth, could you give the rest of your life a shape and a purpose that would give sufficient meaning and value to everything you have already been and done and suffered, so that when you add it all up, you can joyously affirm the whole pattern—and what would the rest of your life need to become in order for you to do so?

To pass beyond that, though, and to try to inhabit a cosmos in which everything is fixed by fate, in which everything revolves through the same series of events endlessly from eternity to eternity, and in which the only freedom open to the will is to affirm that sequence joyously or vainly reject it, is to court Nietzsche’s fate for no good reason. Insisting on a cosmos in which everything is fated to remain exactly as it has always been is as useless, in practical terms, as insisting that one fine day in the not too distant future, the march of progress or the arrival of apocalypse will transform the cosmos into whatever you think it ought to be.

Both these extremes, Nietzsche’s just as much as the one he so forcefully rejected, impose a shape on time that can’t be justified on the basis of our own immediate experience of time. The rigid lockstep of the eternal recurrence is just as hard to find in the course of our lives and the course of history as are the invincible upward march of progress or the satisfyingly sudden full stop of apocalypse. It would take a later thinker, drawing on Nietzsche’s insights but avoiding his habit of countering one extreme by going to the other, to trace out a shape of time that reflects the world of human experience—or, more specifically, the world experienced by human beings who happen to be living at the peak of modern industrial civilization and have begun to glimpse the long road down on the peak’s far side. We’ll discuss that vision in the next post in this sequence.

The Pleasures of Extinction

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on the Archdruid Report on May 15, 2013

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Q06dwcy1VnA/UXweFarRNuI/AAAAAAAACU0/fOfFC0X14Vs/s1600/6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e54f2504708834-800wi.jpg

Discuss this article at the Favorite Dishes Table inside the Diner

One of the wry pleasures that’s repeatedly come my way since the beginning of this blog seven years ago is that of watching a good many of my predictions come true in short order. Now it’s true that I’ve also made a certain number of failed predictions over that time.  Back in 2007 and 2008, for instance, I insisted that the US government wouldn’t be dumb enough to try to cover its ballooning budget deficits by spinning the printing presses; some idiocies, I thought, were too extreme even for the inmates of the current American political class.  As th Fed proceeds merrily through yet another round of quantitative easing, that assumption has proved to be rather too naive.
Even so, my batting average so far has been pretty respectable. In the early days of this blog, for example, Daniel Yergin was insisting at the top of his lungs that the price of oil would settle down shortly to a long-term plateau of $38 a barrel, while fans of a dozen different alternative technologies were claiming just as stridently that if the price of oil ever got to the unthinkable level of $60 a barrel, the technology they favored would be profitable enough to sweep all before it. There were very few of us back then who predicted that oil would go quite a bit past $60 a barrel and stay there, and even fewer who pointed out that abundant cheap fossil fuel energy made alternatives look much more viable than they were. These days, with oil wobbling around $100 a barrel and most of the alternatives still wholly dependent on government subsidies, that turned out to be tolerably prescient.
Over the last few weeks, another of my predictions has turned out spot on the money. A little less than six months ago, as New Age bookstores around the world were quietly emptying entire bookshelves dedicated to December 21, 2012 and putting 50%-off stickers on the contents, I noted in a blog post here that it wouldn’t be long before people who were looking for an excuse to put off doing anything about the crisis of industrial society would have a replacement for 2012.
Well, it’s here. The latest apocalyptic fad is near-term human extinction, or NTE for short: the claim that humanity, along with most other life on Earth, will inevitably be extinct by 2030 at the latest.
It’s probably necessary to say up front that humanity will certainly go extinct eventually—no species lasts forever—and there’s always the chance that it could happen in short order; a stray asteroid with enough mass, or a few rearranged codons in some virus nobody’s heard about yet, could do the job quite readily. Still, there’s a great difference between claiming that human extinction is possible and insisting that it’s certainly going to happen in the next seventeen years, especially when the arguments used to defend that claim amount to nothing more than an insistence that worst-case scenarios are the only possible outcome.
There’s a tolerably long history to such claims. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were people on the far end of the environmental movement who insisted that humanity would certainly be extinct before the year 2000, and the same prediction has been repeated with different dates and justifications ever since. Those of my readers who remember the Solar Temple mass suicides of 1994 and 1995 may recall that the collective suicide note left behind by the members of that ill-fated order made exactly that claim:  Earth would be uninhabitable by the year 2000, Solar Temple founder Luc Jouret insisted, and so the initiates of the Solar Temple were getting out while the getting was good.
In the early days of the peak oil movement, similarly, the same insistence on imminent extinction popped up tolerably often. I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced today, that this was largely a product of an odd and very American habit I’ve termed “apocalypse machismo.”  One consequence of America’s pervasive anti-intellectualism, with its frankly weird equation of manhood with chest-thumping brainlessness, is that many male American intellectuals end up burdened by doubts about their own masculinity, and some of them respond by trying to talk as tough as possible; intellectual women in this male-dominated culture find they often have to copy that same habit, sometimes to even greater extremes, in order to get taken seriously at all.  This has been a major factor all through America’s recent history; the neoconservative movement, packed as it was with academic intellectuals whose obsession with proving their own virility on a global stage drove them into one foreign policy fiasco after another, makes as good a poster child as any.
In the same way, we had a lot of apocalypse machismo in the early peak oil movement.  In the first few years of this blog, for that matter, I could count on fielding (and deleting) a comment every month or two from somebody who wanted to talk about the new scenario for imminent human extinction he’d just worked up. The Deepwater Horizon blowout and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown fielded a bumper crop of the same thing; those of my readers who doubt this are invited to go digging back through the archives of any unmoderated peak oil forum, where they’ll find, in the days and weeks immediately following each of these disasters, colorful if implausible scenarios predicting the imminent demise of all life on earth presented as sober fact.
No doubt there’s at least some of that at work in the sudden surge of interest in near-term human extinction, but I question whether it’s the main driving force this time around. There are at least two other factors that are likely to be involved, and one of them unfolds directly from the points made in the last few posts in the current sequence.
The shape of time sketched out by Augustine of Hippo in the pages of The City of God, and adopted thereafter by most of the western world until the rise of the later mythology of perpetual progress, allows a range of variations. Even within the mainstream of western Christianity, the options extend over a much broader landscape than most of my readers may realize, and the versions of the Augustinian mythos found outside the Christian mainstream are even more diverse.  In his useful 1998 book Millennium Rage, sociologist Philip Lamy argued that most beliefs about the future in today’s America are “fractured apocalypses,” in which the events foretold in the Book of Revelation are pulled out of context and rearranged in response to contemporary social trends.
His insight can be applied a good deal more generally: the whole Augustinian story has been subjected to similar treatment. Eden, the Fall, the vale of tears, the righteous remnant, the redeeming revelation, the rising struggle between good and evil, the final catastrophe and the return to paradise thereafter—you’ll find these, or most of these, in a great many current belief systems, but the order and relative importance of each element may vary, and it’s far from uncommon for one or two of the classic themes of the story to be stretched nearly out of recognition, or deleted entirely.
One detail that often comes in for serious reworking in modern social movements is the final step, the one in which the elect are welcomed back into paradise while everyone else is herded into the lake of fire to be punished for all eternity.  The habit of morphological thinking discussed earlier in this sequence of posts is of crucial importance here: take a close look at the development over time of social movements that embrace the Augustinian narrative, and the historical shifts in that last part of the story have a fascinating message to communicate.
The wave of Christian fundamentalism that’s currently breaking and flowing back out to sea makes a good case in point. Back in the days of the Jesus People and the Good News Bible, when that wave first began building, its rhetoric was triumphant: the whole nation was turning to Christ, the rest of the world would surely follow, and the imminent Second Coming would see everyone but a few stubborn sinners rushing forward joyfully to embrace God’s infinite love. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the proportion between the saved and the damned shifted significantly closer to the sort of thing you’d hear in an old-fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, but the saved were still utterly convinced of their own salvation:  those were the days when “In Case Of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unoccupied” bumper stickers sprouted on the rear ends of cars all over America.
You won’t see too many of those bumper stickers these days. Just as the optimistic faith that a new generation could win the world for Christ gave way gradually to the far more pessimistic vision of a world mired in wickedness from which the elect would shortly be teleported to safety—beamed up by St. Scotty, as the joke had it, to the bridge of the USS Enterchrist—so the serene confidence on the part of believers that they would be numbered among the elect has been replaced, in these latter days of the movement, by an increasingly pervasive sense of sin and unworthiness. Too many dates for the Rapture have come and gone, too many once-respected preachers have been caught with their pants around their ankles in one sense or another, and the well-founded suspicion that the Republican party is using the evangelical churches every bit as cynically and shamelessly as the Democratic party is using the environmental movement has got to weigh on a lot of once-hopeful minds.
Christian theology places hard limits on just how far the exclusion from future blessedness can extend, as there has to be “a great multitude, which no man could number” (Revelations 7:9) of the saved gathered around the throne of God when the boom comes down. Outside Christianity, the same process routinely goes much further. A good example is the New Age movement, which emerged out of a variety of older fringe spiritualities right around the same time that the current round of Christian fundamentalism got going in America. The early days of the New Age movement were pervaded by the same optimistic sense that a new and more enlightened epoch was about to dawn, and everyone—even, or especially, those who made fun of the movement’s pretensions—would soon fall in line.
As the movement matured and the New Age stubbornly refused to arrive, in turn, the same mood shift that affected fundamentalism had a comparable impact; New Age teachers began to talk more about the ascension of enlightened individuals into higher planes of being, the activities of evil powers who were maintaining the illusion of a world of limits, and the imminence of a world-cleansing cataclysm that would finally get around to ushering in the New Age. By the time the hoopla began building over 2012, finally, the prophecies trotted out in advance of that much-ballyhooed nonevent ranged all over the map; there were still optimists of the old school, who insisted that a great shift in consciousness would make everyone get around to agreeing with them; there were many more who expected mass death to leave the world purified for the usual minority of the elect; and there were no small number who were retailing scenarios in which the entire human race would be exterminated.
This is a familiar rhythm in the history of American popular spirituality.  At regular intervals, some movement that’s existed out on the fringes for decades suddenly gets a mass following, turns into a pop culture phenomenon, and has thirty to forty years of popularity before it returns to the fringes. Some traditions repeat the process; Christian fundamentalism has had two periods of pop stardom—once between the Roaring Nineties and the Great Depression, and then again from the late 1970s to the present—and a strong case could be made that the New Age movement is a rehash of the vogue for occultism that was so huge a part of American pop culture between 1890 and 1929. Other movements fill the void when the ones just named head for the fringes; from the 1930s to the 1970s, liberal Christian churches were a dominant force in American religion, and there’s some reason to think that the pendulum is headed the same way again as fundamentalism sunsets out a second time.
If human beings were rational actors, as economists like to imagine, they wouldn’t respond to the disconfirmation of their beliefs by postulating world-wrecking catastrophes. Here as elsewhere, though, the fond fantasies of economists stand up poorly as models for predicting events in the real world. If you haven’t had the experience of devoting decades of your life to a failed belief system, dear reader, try to put yourself into such a person’s shoes.  It would take a degree of equanimity rare even among saints to look back on such an experience without harvesting a bumper crop of resentment, grief and guilt—and if fantasies of apocalyptic destruction play any role at all in your belief system, one way to deal with those difficult emotions in their first and rawest forms is to pour them into a belief in some cataclysm big enough to punish the world and everyone in it for their failure to live up to your hopes.
The environmental movement is not a religion, but its course in America in recent decades followed the pattern I’ve just outlined. Like fundamentalism and the New Age movement, it came in from the fringe in the 1970s with the same sense of imminent triumph that guided the other movements I’ve named. Its transformation from a charismatic movement of outsiders to a set of bureaucratic institutions closely intertwined with the existing order of society followed the same trajectory as fundamentalist churches, and its sense of triumphant expectancy faded out at roughly the same pace, replaced by the same struggle against evil that brought fundamentalist Christians into their devil’s pact with the GOP and inspired New Age believers to embrace conspiracy theories and the paranoid fantasies of David Icke.
At this point, roughly in parallel with fundamentalism and the New Age, the environmental movement is having to come face to face with the total failure of its hopes. Back in the heady days of its early successes, the vision that guided it saw environmental protection as the next step forward in the same trajectory of social progress that included the civil rights movement and second wave feminism; it was in this spirit, for example, that environmental lawyers proposed that trees be given legal standing. The hope all along was that industrial civilization could achieve a permanent peace with the world of nature and continue up the infinite road of progress without leaving a scorched and looted planet in its wake.
That hope is dead. If there was ever a chance to achieve it, it went whistling down the wind decades ago, and at this point the jaws of resource depletion and environmental degradation are tightening around the collective throat of the world’s industrial societies, in exactly the fashion predicted in detail forty years ago in the pages of The Limits to Growth. Even if the green technologies promoted by an increasingly frantic minority of environmentalists could support something like today’s rates of energy use, which they can’t, we can no longer afford the sort of massive buildout of those technologies that would be necessary to supplant even a significant part of our current fossil fuel consumption. If what’s left of the environmental movement managed to overcome its own internal dysfunctions and the formidable opposition of its foes, and became a mass movement again, the most it could accomplish at this point would be the protection of some of the most vulnerable ecosystems as industrial society stumbles down the first bitter steps of the long descent into the deindustrial future.
That’s still a goal worth achieving, but it’s not the goal to which the environmental mainstream committed itself when it embraced a role among the socially acceptable institutions of American public life, with the perks and salaries that this status involves.  This explains, I suggest, the way that certain mainstream environmentalists have turned to proselytizing for nuclear power and other frankly ecocidal technologies, under the curious delusion that “possibly a little better than the worst” somehow amounts to “good.”  The desperation in such rhetoric is palpable, and signals the end of the road—an end that, in this case as in the others I’ve cited, involves a good many fantasies of total destruction.
Still, there’s another factor here, and it unfolds from one of the least creditable aspects of the way that the environmental movement has evolved over time. It has become increasingly clear that the perks, the salaries, and the comfortable middle class lifestyles embraced so enthusiastically by so many people in the movement are themselves part of the problem. I was intrigued to read earlier this month a thoughtful essay by leading British climate scientist Kevin Anderson arguing, in terms that will sound very familiar to regular readers of The Archdruid Report, that the failure of climate change activism to make any headway in changing people’s behavior may have more than a little to do with the fact that the people who are urging such changes aren’t making them themselves.
I have no reason to think that Anderson reads my blog or, for that matter, knows me from Hu Gadarn’s off ox, but then you don’t need to wear an archdruid’s funny hat to notice that people these days are acutely sensitive to signs of hypocrisy, or to grasp that even the most vital changes aren’t going to happen if even the people who are most aware of their importance aren’t willing to start making them in their own lives.  For reasons a post last year discussed at some length, those who have built their lives on the fantasy that it’s possible to have their planet and eat it too are not going to find such reflections welcome, or even bearable.

Fantasies of imminent human extinction are one comforting if futile response to this ugly predicament. If you want a justification for living as though there’s no tomorrow, insisting that in fact, there’s no tomorrow is certainly one option. If I’m right, the pleasures of believing in near-term human extinction are likely to appeal to a very large and well-heeled audience in the years immediately ahead, and those of my readers interested in cashing in on the next 2012-style bonanza should probably take note.

The Song Remains the Same

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on the Archdruid Report on May 8, 2013

Discuss this article at the Favorite Dishes Smorgasbord inside the Diner

If you always do what you’ve always done, a popular saying nowadays has it, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. Most people accept that readily enough in the abstract. It’s when they attempt to apply this logic to their own lives and thinking that they get tripped up, because self-defeating patterns very often arise from a mismatch between basic presuppositions about the world and the world as it’s actually experienced, and confronting that mismatch is not an easy thing. It’s usually much simpler to insist that it’s different this time, and repeat the same failed strategy yet again.

The logic of speculative bubbles is a case in point. The next time you read some online pundit insisting that a new era has dawned, that the old rules of economics have been stood on their head, and that some asset class or other that’s been rising steadily for a while now is certain to keep on zooming upwards for the foreseeable future, he’s wrong. It really is that simple. Any of my readers who haven’t been hiding under a rock for the last fifteen years or so saw that same rhetoric deployed to promote the tech stock bubble, the housing bubble, and an assortment of commodity bubbles, not least the recent and now rapidly deflating bubble in gold; those who know their way around economic history can find the same rhetoric being waved around every bubble since the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century.

If human beings were in fact rational actors, as one of the more popular schools of economics these days likes to insist, investors would react to the next appearance of that well-worn rhetoric by pulling out every dollar they can’t afford to lose. In the real world, of course, things don’t work that way. When the Federal Reserve’s current orgy of quantitative easing finally does what it’s supposed to do and kicks off a gargantuan speculative bubble—yes, that’s what it’s supposed to do; Greenspan’s easy-money policy a decade ago succeeded in blowing a bubble big enough to cushion the downside of the tech-stock crash, and Bernanke’s pretty clearly working off the same playbook—it’s a safe bet that investors will stampede into the bubble, “it’s different this time” will once again become the mantra du jour, and the same cycle of boom and bust will repeat itself with mathematical precision.

Grasp the hidden logic behind bubble economics and you can see the mistaken presuppositions that drive that cycle. It’s an article of faith in today’s industrial economies, buoyed by three centuries of economic growth driven by fossil fuels, that money ought to make money, and that having a certain amount of money invested ought therefore to guarantee a stable income. It so happens that this isn’t always true. In 1929, for example, overinvestment and overproduction during the boom years of the 1920s left very few sectors in the US economy able to pay accustomed rates of return on investment, but investors weren’t willing to come to terms with this unwelcome reality. The result was a huge pool of funds seeking any investment that would promise a return heftier than the economy would support; modest increases in stock values started pulling that pool into the stock market, kicking off a feedback loop that ended with Black Friday and the Great Depression.

That same pattern on a vaster scale is what’s driving the latest round of bubbles. In the United States and most of the other established industrial nations, the returns on investing in the production of goods and services are too small to support investors in the style to which past decades accustomed them; the result is a pool of funds almost immeasurably larger than the one that created the 1929 boom and bust, sloshing through the global economy in search of any investment that will yield a bigger than average return. Because the real economy of goods and services is dependent on such awkward necessities as energy and raw materials, which are in turn subject to accelerating depletion curves, the problem’s only going to get worse, but those who hope to make a living or a fortune from their investments aren’t exactly eager to learn this. Thus the increasingly frantic efforts to inflate the global economy by means of speculative excess; the alternative is to accept the fact that an entire way of life based on money making money has passed its pull date.

That’s the kind of awkwardness that tends to pop up when the world shifts, and a pattern of behavior that used to be adaptive stops working. To get past the misguided but seductive insistence that “it’s different this time,” in turn, the habit of morphological thinking discussed in an earlier post is essential. 1920s-era investment trusts are not the same thing as tech-stock mutual funds, mortgage-backed securities, or whatever boondoggle will be at the center of the next big speculative bubble, any more than a porpoise is the same thing as a bat; put them side by side, though, and the common features will teach you things that you can’t learn any other way.

All this is by way of introduction to another bit of comparative morphology, one that many of my readers may find even more upsetting than the ones I’ve covered already. I’m sorry to say that can’t be helped. Last week we talked about the shape of time, the various abstract notions of history’s direction that every human culture uses to make sense of the world its members experience; such notions are exactly the sort of basic presupposition about the world that I discussed earlier in this post, and when the course of events begins to move in directions that a culture’s notion of the shape of time can’t explain, the result is quite commonly the sort of self-defeating cycle discussed earlier. That’s the situation we’re in here and now, and what makes it worse is that the shapes of time that define history for most people nowadays have very different origins and functions than most of us think.

To unravel the resulting tangle, in turn, it’s necessary to glance back to two thinkers whose relevance to modern thought is rarely recognized. To meet the first of them, we’ll need to go back exactly sixteen centuries to the year 413 CE. The place is the city of Hippo, in what was then the province of Numidia and is now the nation of Algeria; more precisely, it’s the residence of the Bishop of Hippo, a man named Augustine, who was just then in the process of giving the Western world what would be, for the next millennium or so, its definitive shape of time.

Here as elsewhere, historical context matters. By Augustine’s time, the Roman Empire’s control of the Mediterranean world had been established for so long that most of its citizens assumed that it would be around forever. Troubles at the periphery were common enough, but the thought that something could disrupt the whole imperial system was all but unthinkable. The distinctive shape of time accepted by nearly everyone in the late Roman world contributed mightily to that habit of thought. To most of the people of the Empire in that age, history was the process by which an original state of chaos was reduced to stable order under the rule of a benevolent despot. What Jupiter had done to the Titans or, in terms of the new Christian faith, God had done to Satan and his minions, Rome had done to the nations, and peripheral troubles were no more a threat to Rome than to her divine equivalents.

The problem with this confident civil faith was that history stopped cooperating. In 410, after a long series of increasingly desperate struggles against Germanic invaders, the legions crumpled, and the Visigoth king Alaric and his army swept into Italy and sacked Rome. Only Alaric’s willingness to be bought off kept the city from remaining in his hands for the long haul. The psychological and cultural impact of the defeat was immense, but of equal if not greater concern to the Bishop of Hippo was the uncomfortable fact that the empire’s remaining Pagans were pointing out that the beginning of Rome’s troubles coincided, with an awkward degree of exactness, with the prohibition of the old Pagan cults. Since Rome had abandoned the gods, they suggested, the gods were returning the favor.

Augustine’s response is contained in The City of God, one of the masterpieces of late Latin prose and the book that more than any other defined the shape of medieval European thought. The notion that divine power guarantees the success or survival of earthly kingdoms, Augustine argued, is a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between humanity and God. The inscrutable providence of God brings disasters down on the good as well as the wicked, and neither cities nor empires are exempt from the same incomprehensible law. Ordinary history thus has no moral order or meaning.

The place of moral order and meaning in time is found instead in sacred history, which has a distinctive linear shape of its own. That shape begins in perfection, in the Garden of Eden; disaster intervenes, in the form of original sin, and humanity tumbles down into the fallen world. From that point on, there are two histories of the world, one sacred and one secular. The secular history is the long and pointless tale of stupidity, violence and suffering that fills the history books; the sacred history is the story of God’s dealings with a small minority of human beings—the patriarchs, the Jewish people, the apostles, the Christian church—who are assigned certain roles in a preexisting narrative. Eventually the fallen world will be obliterated, most of its inhabitants will be condemned to a divine boot in the face forever, and those few who happen to be on the right side will be restored to Eden’s perfection, at which point the story ends.

Those of my readers who are familiar with the main currents of European and American Christianity already know that story, of course. 1600 years after Augustine’s time, his vision of time remains official in most Christian churches. What’s more, it can be found in a great many places that would angrily reject any claim of intellectual influence from Christianity. Goodness at the beginning; a catastrophic fall brought about by a misguided human choice; a plunge into the history we know, which has no redeeming features whatsoever; a righteous remnant set apart from history who serve as an example of the blessed alternative; a redeeming doctrine that brings the promise of future joy to those few who embrace it; and sometime soon, the final cataclysm that will sweep away the fallen world and all its evils, so that the redeemed few can be restored to the goodness of the beginning: where else have we heard this story?

Pick up any neoprimitivist book by Daniel Quinn, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, or their peers, to cite one example out of many, and you’ll find that the names have been changed but the story hasn’t. Eden is called the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the Fall is the invention of agriculture, the righteous remnant consists of surviving hunter-gatherer peoples, the redeeming doctrine is set forth in the book you’re reading, and Armageddon is the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, after which humanity will be restored to the hunter-gatherer paradise forever: it’s the same narrative, point for point. Look elsewhere in contemporary popular culture and you’ll find scores if not hundreds of ideologies that follow the same pattern; from radical feminists whose Eden consists of Goddess-worshipping Neolithic matriarchies straight through to Tea Party supporters whose Eden consists of pre-1960s America seen through intensely rose-colored glasses, the song remains the same.

This is where morphological thinking becomes as necessary as it is difficult. Most people can quickly learn to spot the standard elements of Augustine’s narrative in any belief system they themselves don’t accept; add a six-pack or two of good beer and it can turn into a lively party game, in which characters, situations, and events out of The City of God can be spotted hiding in a dizzying assortment of contemporary ideologies. The fun stops abruptly, though, when one or more of the players realize that his or her own beliefs follow the same script. One of the things that sets the Augustinian shape of time apart from most other shapes of time is that it assumes its own uniqueness; while it might be possible to imagine a version in which there are several different Edens, Falls, righteous remnants, sacred histories, redeeming revelations, final cataclysms, and New Jerusalems descending from the skies, in practice this never seems to happen. Each such narrative presents itself, and is accepted by its believers, as uniquely true and unrelated to any other version of the same narrative.

Still, this is only half the story. Those of my readers who know their way around the history of ideas, or have tried the aforementioned party game themselves, will have noticed that a significant number of popular ideas about history don’t fit the narrative of fall and redemption Augustine set out. This is where the second of our two thinkers comes into the tale. His name was Joachim of Flores, and he was an Italian mystic of the twelfth century CE. Like Augustine of Hippo, he was a writer, though his prose was as murky as Augustine’s was brilliant, and nobody other than historians of medieval thought reads his books nowadays. Even so, he had an impact on the future as significant as Augustine’s: he’s the person who kicked down the barrier between sacred and secular history that Augustine put so much effort into building, and created the shape of time that the cultural mainstream occupies to this day.

To Joachim, sacred history was not limited to a paradise before time, a paradise after it, and the thread of the righteous remnant and the redeeming doctrine linking the two. He saw sacred history unfolding all around him in the events of his own time. His vision divided all of history into three great ages, governed by the three persons of the Christian trinity: the Age of Law governed by the Father, which ran from the Fall to the crucifixion of Jesus; the Age of Love governed by the Son, which ran from the crucifixion to the year 1260; and the Age of Liberty governed by the Holy Spirit, which would run from 1260 to the end of the world.

What made Joachim’s vision different from any of the visionary histories that came before it—and there were plenty of those in the Middle Ages—was that it was a story of progress. The Age of Love, as Joachim envisioned it, was a great improvement on the Age of Law, and the approaching Age of Liberty would be an improvement on the Age of Love; in the third age, he taught, the Church would wither away, and people would live together in perfect peace and harmony, with no need for political or religious institutions. To the church authorities of Joachim’s time, steeped in the Augustinian vision, all this was heresy; to the radicals of the age, it was manna from heaven, and nearly every revolutionary ideology in Europe from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries drew heavily on Joachimist ideas.

That guaranteed that Joachim’s narrative would percolate out just as enthusiastically as Augustine’s did, influencing at least as many apparently secular ideologies. Pick up a copy of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, for example, a hugely influential work in 19th-century European thought; if you can get past the man’s famously unreadable prose, you’ll find a version of history that copies Joachim’s plot exactly but changes the names of all the characters. Hegel’s version of history begins in Asia and ends in Germany; there are three ages, Oriental, Classical, and German, and the improvement that plops a One Way sign on history is the increase of freedom, which is the way that the absolute Spirit reveals its essential Idea in history. “The East knew and to the present day knows only that one is free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German world knows that all are free,” Hegel wrote. “The first political form therefore which we observe in history, is despotism; the second democracy and aristocracy, the third monarchy.” (If this last point seems a bit odd to my readers, this may be because they aren’t ambitious professors angling for patronage from the royal house of Prussia.)

More generally, look at all the sets of three more or less ascending ages to be found in modern thinking about time. The division of prehistory into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age is as much a reflection of this habit as the division of history into Ancient, Medieval, and Modern periods. No matter how many scholars point out the complete irrelevance of these schemes, they remain stuck in place in popular culture and education, because they bolster the contemporary belief that our own time is the culmination of all previous history, the point from which the future will leap forward along its predestined track toward the future we like to think we deserve.

Put two compelling visions of the shape of time in a culture, and you can count on any number of fusions and confusions between them. Marxism, interestingly enough, is among the best examples of this. Karl Marx himself was a thoughtful student of Hegel’s philosophy, and the theory he presents in his own writings is correspondingly Joachimist: history is a progressive series of ages—feudal, mercantile, capitalist, socialist, communist—in which each age represents an improvement on the ones before it, while falling painfully short of the ones still to come. Friedrich Engels, who finished the second and third volumes of Capital after Marx’s death, was heavily influenced by his Lutheran childhood and brought in the standard hardware of the Augustinian vision, with primitive Communism as Eden and so forth. The result is a rich ambiguity that allows committed Marxists to find adaptive responses to most of the curveballs history might throw their way.

For the great difference between the Augustinian and Joachimist visions is precisely the kind of historical events to which they tend to be adaptive. Augustine’s vision was crafted in a civilization in decline, and it turned out to be extremely well suited to that context: from within Augustine’s shape of time, the messy disintegration of the Roman world was just another meaningless blip on the screen of secular history, of no real importance to those who knew that the history that mattered was the struggle between Christ and Satan for each human soul. That way of thinking about time made it possible for believers to keep going through times of unrelenting bleakness and horror.

Joachim of Flores, by contrast, lived during the zenith of the Middle Ages, before the onset of the 14th-century subsistence crisis that reached its culmination with the arrival of the Black Death. His was an age that could look back on several centuries of successful expansion, and thought it could expect more of the same in the years immediately ahead. His way of thinking about time was thus as well suited to ages of relative improvement as Augustine’s was to ages of relative decline.

Improvement and decline, though, are value judgments, and what counts as improvement to one observer may look like decline to another. That’s the key to understanding the roles that Augustinian and Joachimist visions of time play in contemporary industrial society—with implications that we’ll explore in detail next week.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

https://image.freepik.com/free-icon/musical-notes-symbols_318-29778.jpg

Support the Diner

Search the Diner

Surveys & Podcasts

NEW SURVEY

Renewable Energy

VISIT AND FOLLOW US ON DINER SOUNDCLOUD

" As a daily reader of all of the doomsday blogs, e.g. the Diner, Nature Bats Last, Zerohedge, Scribbler, etc… I must say that I most look forward to your “off the microphone” rants. Your analysis, insights, and conclusions are always logical, well supported, and clearly articulated – a trifecta not frequently achieved."- Joe D

Archives

Global Diners

View Full Diner Stats

Global Population Stats

Enter a Country Name for full Population & Demographic Statistics

Lake Mead Watch

http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/NA-BX686_LakeMe_G_20130816175615.jpg

loading

Inside the Diner

Quote from: Eddie on Today at 10:15:59 AM Nobody knew we'd end up here. Antibiotics were invented a few years before we were born. Lots of good.. Lots of unintended consequences.File under "Who cooda node?"Wel...

Pierre LescaudronSott.netSun, 01 Dec 2019In two previous articles, I proposed explanations for the events that triggered the Younger Dryas.In the article titled Did Earth Steal Martian Waters, I described how, ca.12,500 BP, an electric discharge m...

Eric ZuesseDecember 1, 2019On November 11th, the very disturbing but clearly true “Lessons To Learn From The Coup In Bolivia” was posted to the Web. That anonymous author (a German intelligence analyst) documented the evilness of the overthrow of Ev...

Addiction in Our 3D World: The Role of the ShadowDecember 6th, 2019By Sarah ElkhaldyGuest Writer for Wake Up WorldIn Part 1 of practicing shadow work we went over what the Shadow is and laid some foundation with common defense mechanisms that keep...

Thanks Eddie.... My mind was on the blood clog type of seizure when asking that question.Over dosing kids would be scary. I won't perform hypno-therapy sessions on minors. The worst thing that can happen with my clients is I don't get allthe trash ...

Recent Facebook Posts

No recent Facebook posts to show

Diner Twitter feed

Diner Newz Feeds

  • Surly
  • Agelbert
  • Knarf
  • Golden Oxen
  • Frostbite Falls

Doomstead Diner Daily December 7The Diner Daily is [...]

[img width=600]https://scontent.forf1-2.fna.fbcdn. [...]

Quote from: azozeo on December 05, 2019, 12:18:35 [...]

Doomstead Diner Daily December 6The Diner Daily is [...]

Quote from: UnhingedBecauseLucid on March 18, 2019 [...]

CleanTechnicaSupport CleanTechnica’s work via dona [...]

QuoteThe FACT that the current incredibly STUPID e [...]

Scientists have unlocked the power of gold atoms b [...]

Quote from: azozeo on August 14, 2019, 10:41:33 AM [...]

Wisconsin Bill Would Remove Barrier to Using Gold, [...]

Under extreme conditions, gold rearranges its atom [...]

The cost of gold futures on the Comex exchange inc [...]

OK, I gave it to myself.    Guaranteed FREE Shippi [...]

The remission is OVAH!  The Cancer is BACK!  I got [...]

1 week, even 2 here in Alaska is total BULLSHIT! Y [...]

Now UP on GEI!  REposted on 01 December 2019A Worl [...]

Alternate Perspectives

  • Two Ice Floes
  • Jumping Jack Flash
  • From Filmers to Farmers

Missing In Action By Cognitive Dissonance     As a very young pup, whenever I was overdue and not ho [...]

Politicians’ Privilege By Cognitive Dissonance     Imagine for a moment you work for a small or medi [...]

Shaking the August Stick By Cognitive Dissonance     Sometime towards the end of the third or fourth [...]

Empire in Decline - Propaganda and the American Myth By Cognitive Dissonance     “Oh, what a tangled [...]

Meanderings By Cognitive Dissonance     Tis the Season Silly season is upon us. And I, for one, welc [...]

Event Update For 2019-12-05http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

Event Update For 2019-12-04http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

Event Update For 2019-12-03http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

Event Update For 2019-12-02http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

Event Update For 2019-12-01http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

With fusion energy perpetually 20 years away we now also perpetually have [fill in the blank] years [...]

My mea culpa for having inadvertently neglected FF2F for so long, and an update on the upcoming post [...]

NYC plans to undertake the swindle of the civilisation by suing the companies that have enabled it t [...]

MbS, the personification of the age-old pre-revolutionary scenario in which an expiring regime attem [...]

Daily Doom Photo

man-watching-tv

Sustainability

  • Peak Surfer
  • SUN
  • Transition Voice

"The drift towards near-term human extinction must be averted at all costs."I confess. I a [...]

"Since 2005, winters in Mexico have been my Hemingway Machine."  As winter descends upon m [...]

Waterboarding Flounder"Serious oxygen loss between 100 and 600-meter depths is expected to cover 59–80% of the ocean [...]

Of Warnings and their Ripple Effects"We need wooden ships, char-crete buildings, bamboo bicycles, moringa furniture, and hemp cloth [...]

"Restoring normal whale activity to the oceans would capture the CO2 equivalent of 2 billion tr [...]

The folks at Windward have been doing great work at living sustainably for many years now.  Part of [...]

 The Daily SUN☼ Building a Better Tomorrow by Sustaining Universal Needs April 3, 2017 Powering Down [...]

Off the keyboard of Bob Montgomery Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666 Friend us on Facebook Publishe [...]

Visit SUN on Facebook Here [...]

What extinction crisis? Believe it or not, there are still climate science deniers out there. And th [...]

My new book, Abolish Oil Now, will talk about why the climate movement has failed and what we can do [...]

A new climate protest movement out of the UK has taken Europe by storm and made governments sit down [...]

The success of Apollo 11 flipped the American public from skeptics to fans. The climate movement nee [...]

Today's movement to abolish fossil fuels can learn from two different paths that the British an [...]

Top Commentariats

  • Our Finite World
  • Economic Undertow

My new post is pretty much done, but I wanted to wait until the end of the weekend to put it up. [...]

I wonder whether this has been fully thought through. If something goes wrong, clearly the whole thi [...]

One of the big questions is, "Do you count all of these things with virtually no value as part [...]

There was no Iranian missile attack. That claim is pure Israeli propaganda, designed to further thei [...]

How DARE THEY! World’s Biggest Oil-Refining Tower Completes 11,000-Mile Voyage Anthony Osae-Brown, T [...]

That was a good piece - not sure that was exactly what Steve was saying about Marx and industrializa [...]

Steve wrote a couple of articles last year, Marx & Debtonomics: https://www.economic-undertow.co [...]

Wait - when did Steve say that about Marx? I must have missed an interesting discussion along the wa [...]

@Ellen, I concur with Steve that Marx understood the problems with capitalism but failed to place th [...]

Well said. I would only argue that we, in effect, have MMT already. It hasn't failed yet. [...]

RE Economics

Going Cashless

Off the keyboard of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

Simplifying the Final Countdown

Off the keyboard of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

Bond Market Collapse and the Banning of Cash

Off the microphone of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

Do Central Bankers Recognize there is NO GROWTH?

Discuss this article @ the ECONOMICS TABLE inside the...

Singularity of the Dollar

Off the Keyboard of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

Kurrency Kollapse: To Print or Not To Print?

Off the microphone of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

SWISSIE CAPITULATION!

Off the microphone of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

Of Heat Sinks & Debt Sinks: A Thermodynamic View of Money

Off the keyboard of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

Merry Doomy Christmas

Off the keyboard of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

Peak Customers: The Final Liquidation Sale

Off the keyboard of RE Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666...

Collapse Fiction

Useful Links

Technical Journals

Deterministic–stochastic empirical mode decomposition (EMD) is used to obtain low-frequency (n [...]

At the sub-national level, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) proposes [...]

The recent droughts in the American Southwest have led to increasing risks of wildfires, which pose [...]

The effect of urbanization on microclimatic conditions is known as “urban heat islands”. [...]